January 22, 2019

I’m a Teenager Who Craves Conversation

Photo from Pinterest

Before Americans became divided, people turned to advice columns or blog posts for conversation starters. These days, people seem to be looking for conversation stoppers. Expressions such as “bias” and “offense” infiltrate our conversations as vague statements that serve to dissuade discourse.

At a summer program on international relations, I asked a Lebanese participant about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was caught off guard when he told me that my argument was shaped by “media bias.”

The conversation shifted away from what was going on in the region and into an argument about whether Western media favors Israel. He used millennials’ hyperawareness of “media bias” to evade uncomfortable dialogue.

He continued arguing that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinians and others, including “his people.” He also called the conflict a “tragedy of white supremacy.” 

White supremacy? That’s a real conversation stopper. King Leopold of Belgium was seen as an example of white supremacy during the “Scramble for Africa.” He monopolized the Congo and ordered his men to tie natives to trees and slash them so that they bled to death in front of their children. Recently, violent white nationalists protesting in Charlottesville, Va., displayed a horrid modern-day example of white supremacy. 

But a democracy trying to survive in a region surrounded by oppressive governments? I don’t think so. 

Nuance hardly seems to matter anymore. Instead, it is OK to trivialize terms with profound significance if it means halting uncomfortable dialogue. 

One example is the misuse of words such as “misogynist” and “sexist.” Sexism describes discrimination based on gender. Misogyny is contempt for women, and the attempt to prevent them from succeeding in roles traditionally attributed to men. 

Journal columnist Karen Lehrman Bloch addressed this issue in her Aug. 17 column, “Dear Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.” In response to Ben Shapiro’s request for a debate, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.”

Bloch wrote, “You and your millennial cohort were never taught real feminism. … You were taught to see anything you don’t like as sexist.”

I see no similarity between a man calling after my friends and me and a political pundit seeking to hear ideas from all parts of the political spectrum. Shapiro complimented her as the “future of the Democratic Party.” A man giving credit to a female minority candidate and suggesting a debate is not the same thing as a man hollering objectifying catcalls at women. 

Clearly, Ocasio-Cortez has ideological disagreements with Shapiro. But rather than expressing those disagreements, she halted the conversation by accusing him of sexist catcalling.

As a feminist, I am humiliated on behalf of the feminist movement. We were given the opportunity to engage and be heard by those with different views. Our response? The distorted use of the word “sexist” that exploits its validity. 

Here’s a potential conversation stopper: If a man says something to me such as, “Don’t wear that, you’ll distract boys,” I could raise my voice and call him sexist. If I want him to understand why I should be able to dress how I want without comment, I would formulate sentences in a calm manner and express my views. 

I adore my generation. Some of the most passionate people I’ve met are teens fighting for causes they believe in. I hope our interest in global politics emboldens us to seek a deeper understanding of what we argue. I hope we avoid using ambiguous terms as arguments. If we want to articulate our opinions, I hope we will learn to justify the narratives we use and modify our approach to create productive discourse.

Our beliefs and views should be used as conversation starters, not conversation stoppers.

Charlotte Kramon was a Jewish Journal intern this past summer.

On Politics and Conversation

As we end 2017 and head into 2018, I thought I’d share some personal reflections on our modern political conversation, and how I see the Jewish Journal playing a role.

First, I may love politics and current events, but they do not own me. I like to follow the news, see what’s happening locally and around the world, study the threats to humanity’s future. Politics gets me pumped up. It builds up my outrage, makes me feel alive, as if I’m dealing with stuff that really matters.

So, why does the political conversation so often get on my nerves? Because I see what it does to people. It makes them hysterical. It breaks up relationships. It ignites anger and bitterness. At best, it keeps us in our silos and echo chambers, protected from views we cannot fathom.

My wish for 2018? To manage politics so that it doesn’t fray our communal bonds and bring out the worse in us.

Second, I know that politicians will never make me happy. My friends will make me happy. My family will make me happy. A great film will make me happy. Politicians will make themselves happy — with the perks and privileges that come with power — but they can never make me happy. Usually, they just disappoint me.

It’s true that politics plays a role in Judaism. Our tradition calls on us to make the world a better place. Since politics revolves around power, it follows that if we’re serious about repairing the world, we must engage with power. That’s why you see many rabbis address political issues from the pulpit. They see it as an expression of the Jewish imperative to pursue justice.

But that is not the whole story. We can do plenty of repair work on our own, without asking anything of politicians. This is called community engagement. The Jewish Federation system is an example of Jews taking control and responsibility for their communities. There are thousands of smaller examples of individual initiatives that aim to make the world a better place, politics or no politics.

Much of our community coverage at the Journal honors those efforts.

Third, the news doesn’t help us make sense of the news. Following the news, which comes at us fast and furious through our Twitter feeds, has become an addiction. At a gala dinner the other night, I couldn’t help looking at my phone when I received a piece of breaking news. The item was so juicy I had to share it with the person sitting next to me. This is not healthy.

I’m sure if we injected more news and current events in the Journal, we’d be more “juicy” and look more topical.

I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

But when you have a publication that comes out once a week, it’s silly to try to compete with the daily news you get every minute. This is not a problem—it’s an opportunity. It means we can focus on deeper stuff, on commentaries and analyses that help you make sense of the news, not to mention the world we live in.

Fourth, there’s so much more to life than current events. It’s a common technique among columnists to quote current events in the opening paragraph to grab your attention. I do it often. It’s a way of showing immediate relevance by dealing with “what’s happening in the world.”

Of course, the Journal will never stop running columns that deal with topical events. But here’s a confession: Very often, my favorite columns are precisely those that do not deal with the latest news. These are the columns that convey timeless ideas that are relevant on any day or week… or century.

Politics today colors so much of our culture we can easily lose sight of how beautiful and pure culture can be. I love art, poetry, literature, music, film and human stories that have nothing to do with the state of the world. Their innate beauty is what makes them relevant.

Fifth, yes, crisis sells, which is one reason Judaism is always in a state of crisis. Everyone knows it’s a lot easier to raise money when you convey a state of crisis. At a time when it’s more and more difficult to get people’s attention, there’s nothing like a good crisis to shake people up.

In media, crises help attract more readers. It’s a known fact that you can boost your online views just by putting up words like “anti-Semitism” in your headlines. This is human nature. We are attracted to conflict. All good entertainment revolves around drama and conflict.

I can’t help being aware of this when I make editorial decisions. If there’s a story, for instance, about a swastika sprayed on a synagogue, it’s deadly serious and there is no hesitation to publish it. But there’s also that little voice inside me that whispers: “The readers will eat this one up.”

One of our biggest challenges at the Journal is to earn your attention without the easy tricks of crises, conflicts and disasters. How do we get you hooked on an idea that elevates the spirit, on a poem that makes you dream, on a biblical story that takes you back 3,000 years?

How does an abstract poem compete with the drama of a terror attack? Or a neighborhood story with the prospect of a presidential impeachment? Or an inspiring view of Hanukkah with the latest sex scandal?

They don’t. They can’t. The drama of conflict will always win out. Yes, it’s human nature.

But at its best and deepest, Judaism helps us transcend human nature. We go beyond our immediate appetites. We read the Hanukkah fable, or the dreamy poem, or the neighborhood story, even though they’re not as sexy as the latest political scandal. This content nourishes our minds, but also our souls: We enjoy beauty for beauty’s sake, story for story’s sake, knowledge for knowledge’s sake, wisdom for wisdom’s sake.

In a sense, I am conveying a militant message. I want us to fight back against the insidious and sensationalistic “breaking news” cycle that corrodes our conversations. I want us to put politics in its proper place, to protect our friendships, to wallow in beauty, to find poetry in life, to have curiosity for the unfamiliar, to repair not just the world but ourselves.

Those are my wishes for our community, but they are also my wishes for the paper you are reading.

See you in 2018.

Amid complicity debate, Polish clergy to attend 70th anniversary of post-Holocaust pogrom

Polish clergy and researchers will hold a seminar in Kielce about a historically significant pogrom in which locals killed Holocaust survivors in that city 70 years ago.

Occurring amid an acrimonious debate in Poland on local complicity in the Holocaust and the attention it merits, the conference planned for July in Kielce, 110 miles south of Warsaw, aims to promote “the spiritual concept of forgiveness” in relation to the 1946 murder of 42 Jews, Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, told JTA on Wednesday.

Titled “Memory, Dialogue, Reconciliation,” the seminar is being organized on the pogrom’s anniversary by Bogdan Bialek, a writer and political activist who is also president of the Jan Karski Society — an anti-racism group named after an officer of the Polish underground who risked his life to provide the Allies with evidence of the Nazi genocide.

Taking place shortly after the genocide in Poland, the pogrom spurred a wave of emigration by survivors of the Holocaust who felt unsafe even after it ended, Schudrich said. Far from an isolated incident, it is the most famous pogrom in a series of attacks that left 1,500 to 2,000 Jews dead after the Holocaust had ended.

Kielce, Schudrich added, “remains a sensitive and painful subject in Poland.”

In recent months, Poland’s center-right government has faced international criticism for statements and actions by officials that are seen as unfavorable to open discussions about the complicity of some Poles in the killing of Jews. At the same time, officials have pushed through commemorations of Poles who saved Jews from the Holocaust in a manner deemed by some critics as excessive.

Jan Gross, a Polish-American professor from Princeton University, was recently questioned by prosecutors on suspicion of violating Poland’s law against “insulting the Polish nation” because he said that more Jews than Germans died at the hands of Poles during World War II. The probe followed public petitions demanding action against Gross.

In February, the office of the president of Poland ordered an examination of the possibility of withdrawing a state honor given to Gross, who wrote a landmark book on another pogrom by Poles against Jews in Jedwabne in 1941.

Among the participants expected at the Kielce seminar is former Prime Minister Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz and Ewa Junczyk-Ziomecka, a former state secretary who also served as the Polish consul general in New York.

Schudrich said he hoped the event would “encourage those who need to seek forgiveness for their actions to do so” but added that, for him, “the event in Kielce is not about identifying the guilty but grieving together for the dead.”

The event is necessary to bridge gaps in how Jews and non-Jews relate to the Kielce pogrom, Schudrich said.

“The Jewish view is of indignation over the murder of Holocaust victims. But the discussion in Polish society is more about who actually perpetrated the killings: communists, anti-communists, etc.,” he added. “I can understand that, but now is a time to look at the victims.”

Time to expand dialogue and partnership with Israel

This week, I traveled from Israel to engage in discussions with Jewish community leaders and activists in Southern California. As a proud Israeli Zionist, I work to promote the flourishing ties between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. I came here as an Israeli who celebrates the link between our proud history and a present filled with unmatched innovation and growth, the Israel of the City of David, King Solomon’s Mines and the “Start-Up Nation.” A state of pioneers and the warriors.

But I also came recognizing that there are aspects of Israel that require correction. We must encourage a pluralistic society in Israel that guarantees religious freedom and equality for all. This goal must be part of our partnership with world Jewry, in the same way that we combine our strengths to advance other national priorities, such as the absorption of immigrants, building an infrastructure for cutting-edge technology, and supporting Israel as it defends its right for survival and security.

Repeated polls indicate an overwhelming majority of Israeli Jews share the same values as the majority of Jews in Los Angeles and the rest of the United States with regard to religious pluralism, freedom of choice and equality. Most Israelis reject the Orthodox monopoly on marriages currently mandated by law. Rather, they support free choice in marriage and conversion, including equal recognition of Reform, Conservative and civil alternatives. Most Israelis support public transportation on Shabbat and strongly oppose segregation of women on buses and in public places in the name of religion.

Our fight is not only about civil freedoms and pluralism, it is about the very survival of the State of Israel as a free and thriving democracy. In recent years, senior economists and military chiefs have pointed to the untenable and unsustainable consequences of the current demographic and political realities, stemming from the corrupt mix of religion and state in Israel. Only last week, the state controller published a scathing report on these very topics, focusing primarily on the economy, employment, education and the military. In fact, the debate recently reached a boiling point when the Supreme Court held unconstitutional the “Tal Bill” (sanctioning the mass exemption of Charedi youth from military service).  

Indeed, before last week’s dramatic move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli elections were about to be pushed forward by more than a year for these very reasons. However, Netanyahu, whose coalition government depended on the support of the Charedi parties, recognized that his coalition might collapse before a compromise could be reached. He knew he could no longer maintain the scandalous and immoral arrangement whereby the number of yeshiva students eligible for automatic exemption from army service for Charedi grew from 400 in 1948 to more than 63,000 today. So, last week, Netanyahu dramatically eliminated the need for early elections and expanded his coalition base to include Kadima, thereby creating a base of 94 members of Knesset (out of 120). Kadima’s move was explained as necessary to effect a change in the law and to ensure equal shouldering of the civil and security burdens among all Israeli citizens, as well as an electoral reform to limit the extortionist power of small parties. This is the first glimmer in years of the possibility and viability of a much-supported civil coalition.

Stanley Gold, the Los Angeles philanthropist and businessman, and I co-founded Hiddush to create an Israel-Diaspora partnership dedicated to changing this broken reality. Israel’s future is too dear to us to leave it subject to the cynical political horse-trading we have witnessed so often. The unity of the Jewish people is too important for us to sit back and watch an absurd and unacceptable situation, where Israel poses such a significant threat to Jewish Peoplehood. Israelis resent this state of affairs, and while most members of the Diaspora Jewish community are not aware of it, those who are prefer to look the other way so as not to have to address it.

Now is the time for American Jewry to realize that change can happen. You can contribute by demonstrating your desire for an Israel that lives up to a vision of religious freedom and equality and stops the delegation to second-class status not only of women, but also Reform and Conservative Jews, and many Jews by Choice. Now is the time to offer support to the organizations and movements working to realize this vision, to raise a clear and unequivocal voice in communicating to Netanyahu: It is high time for religious freedom and equality for Jews in Israel.

Rabbi Uri Regev is the president of Hiddush — Freedom of Religion for Israel (hiddush.org).

Roger Cohen’s Dialogue with the Iran Jewish Community

For video footage of the dialogue, click here.

There was no clean knockout when New York Times columnist Roger Cohen faced off against some 400 members of the local Iranian Jewish and Bahai communities last week, but spectators were treated to some vigorous rhetorical sparring and nimble footwork.

Last month, Cohen, a British-born Jewish journalist, returned from a reportorial visit to Iran and wrote a column for the Times headlined “What Iran’s Jews Say.”

In the city of Esfahan, in central Iran, Cohen talked to a handful of Jews, who are among the 25,000 remaining in Iran out of a one-time community of 100,000. Cohen reported that the Jews were “living, working and worshipping in relative tranquility.”

Despite the Holocaust denials and rants by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about wiping Israel off the map, “as a Jew, I have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran,” Cohen wrote.

To some 30,000 Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles who had uprooted themselves from their ancient homeland, Cohen’s evaluation was dangerously naïve at best and a mockery of their own experiences at worst.

They inundated Cohen and the New York Times with letters and e-mails, and the columnist agreed to fly to Los Angeles to address his critics at Sinai Temple, which has a large proportion of Iranian congregants.

What could have been a highly emotional face-off went well, thanks largely to the audience’s restraint during Cohen’s lengthy presentation and Rabbi David Wolpe’s insistence on decorum during the more emotional question-and-answer period.

Cohen started by expanding on the main points of his earlier column:

* Labeling Iran a totalitarian regime ready to destroy Israel and then the West’s infidels is a “grotesque caricature.”
* Iranians are a proud people, but pay little attention to the regime’s propaganda and incitements. To compare the situation in Iran to an impending holocaust “dishonors the memory of six million victims.”
* Iran’s leadership is mainly pragmatic and primarily concerned with assuring its own survival.
* Iran is the most democratic state in the Middle East, outside Israel, and is against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
* An attack on Iran by Israel or the United States would be a global disaster. “Force is the unthinkable option,” Cohen said, and mutually respectful negotiations are the only answer.
* Although he counts himself as “a strong supporter of Israel,” Cohen believes that Israel “overplayed its hand in Lebanon and Gaza” and that Hamas and Hizbollah are “established political forces,” that cannot be eliminated by military means.

The audience politely applauded Cohen at the end of the talk, but when Wolpe opened the dialogue, some sparks – leavened by humor – were ignited.

Wolpe to Cohen: “You draw a distinction between the Iranian people and their rulers, but Iran has a long history of anti-Semitism…the Iranian government has republished the notorious anti-Semitic forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ and your New York Times column ran in the Teheran Post.

Cohen: “Then they stole my column.”

Wolpe: “That shows that it was worth stealing.”

Finally, it was the audience’s turn to confront Cohen directly, and the questions ranged from thoughtful to bitter.

“Were you paid by the Iranian government for your trip?” asked one audience member. “No,” said Cohen, though he paid an Iranian “agency” $150 a day for the services of a translator, who acknowledged that he would have to file a report on Cohen’s doings with the authorities.

Wolpe interjected that Cohen had paid for his own trip to speak at Sinai Temple.

Several questioners wondered how Cohen could take the answers of fearful Iranian Jews at face value, especially with a government translator at his side.

Cohen responded that he recognized the possibility of self-censorship by those he talked to, “but that doesn’t mean that nothing they said is of any value.”

Some of the sharpest questions came from the Bahai community, seven of whose leaders in Iran were recently imprisoned as alleged Israeli spies.

Cohen said he had not spoken to the Bahais, but was aware of their plight.

Despite his stout defense, it became obvious that Cohen was affected by the direct or implied criticism of his views by a knowledgeable audience.

“I feel your anger, indignation and pain,” he said. “I think that at some level you retain a love of country [Iran]. But I hope you will give some thought to what I have said.”

A sampling of audience reactions after the talk revealed little indication that Cohen’s request was acceptable.

“He didn’t understand the geopolitical situation, and he doesn’t know what he is talking about,” commented Jasmin Niku, a 22-year old law student.

Two veteran community leaders, who rarely see eye-to-eye but have excellent contacts inside Iran, also expressed strong reservations.

“In Iran, Jews are pawns of the regime, which will go to great lengths to persuade outsiders, like Cohen, who know little about the history of the Jewish community, that everything is just fine,” said George Haroonian.

Sam Kermanian was particularly disappointed, after spending two hours one-on-one with Cohen earlier in the day, trying to explain the real situation in Iran.

Kermanian, who is active in the Center for the Promotion of Democracy, based in Iran, said that the Teheran government is adamantly anti-American, whatever the sentiments of its people.

“If Cohen has come to a different conclusion, after talking to four or five Jews through an interpreter,” added Kermanian, “then he has been deceived.”

Related Stories:
Video from the Dialogue
Roger and Me
Roger Cohen speaks with Iranian Jews at Sinai Temple
Roger Cohen’s Reaction

Calendar Girls picks and kicks for March 1 – 7


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You don’t have to leave Southern California to gamble tonight. Women of Reform Judaism and the Brotherhood of Temple Beth Torah are sponsoring a wild Vegas-style soiree to rival parties on The Strip. Temple Beth Torah Casino Night is a good reason to lose money for a good cause: Anything the house wins through roulette, blackjack and craps goes to support the activities of the synagogue. If you’re feeling extra generous, they’re soliciting the help of volunteers to run the tables, deal cards, bartend and decorate the venue. The bonus is everybody wins when you buy a ticket. 6:30 p.m. $36. Temple Beth Torah, 7620 Foothill Road, Ventura. (805) 647-4181. ” target=”_top”>http://www.jewliciousfestival.com.

Rock out with Persian Jewish Singles, dancing the night away with vivacious disc jockey Ariel Rashti serving up the hottest club hits. Take advantage of the decadent wine and martini bar and nibble on kosher hors d’oeuvres while mingling with Jewish professionals ages 20 to 40. Who knows what new face might grab your attention or what familiar face will suddenly hold romantic appeal! 8 p.m.- 1 a.m. Free. Samueli Jewish Campus, 1 Federation Way, Irvine. (949) 435-3484. ” border = 0 vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Matthew Boger, Tim Zaal”>
” target=”_top”>http://museumoftolerance.com

Why let the holidays melt away when you can bring them back to life with joyous songs in “Around the Year in Song and Story: A Musical Tour of the Jewish Calendar.” Join Benny Friedman in concert, sponsored by the Chabad of Conejo, as he revives the musical wonder of holidays like Rosh Hashanah, Chanukah and Passover. Rabbi Moshe D. Bryski will narrate the classical tunes while recounting sacred holiday stories and insights. 7-10 p.m. $18-$25 (general), $180 (concert sponsor, includes recognition in concert program and VIP seating). JCC at Milken, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 991-0991. ” target=”_top”>http://www.bnaihayim.org.

In his film “House of the Generals,” Dan Spigel traces the plight of one family and their struggle to survive against a historical backdrop that claimed the lives of 10 million Jewish Ukrainians. Through revolution, love and war, Spigel’s film bridges the dictatorships of Stalin and Hitler from the Russian Revolution to World War II and the Holocaust, illuminating the tremendous loss of life that permeated the first half of the 20th century. Following the screening, audience members are invited to stay for a special Q-and-A with the filmmaker. 7 p.m. $5. The Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 552-2007. ” vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Doron Kornbluth”>
” target=”_top”>http://www.jewishacademy.com


Redheaded Andrea Sabesin never quite fit in. Growing up, she was the only Jewish student at an Episcopal school, the only non-Orthodox student at a Hebrew day school and one of the only white students at a mostly black school. Exploring this theme of identity, the actress/writer is back in “Girl, Your Hair’s On Fire! Season 2,” a follow-up to her previous well-received one-woman show. Sharing personal anecdotes and insights, Sabesin uses wit and physical comedy (sans the clich�(c)d kvetchy tone) to cover topics such as her Southern Jewish family, being single, and her many stints as a wedding singer. 8 p.m. Through March 11. $15. Acme Comedy Theatre, 135 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 822-1146.

The message

Thank you.

That’s the profound message of this column: Thank you. The instigators, organizers and volunteers who brought Limmud to Los Angeles last weekend deserve our gratitude for challenging one of the long-held orthodoxies of the L.A. Jewish community: There is no Jewish community.

It’s something I hear myself saying to people who ask me to describe L.A. Jewry. It’s something the leaders of our putative community bemoan when trying to explain their lack of success in galvanizing widespread support or funding for their causes: We are divided; we are spread out; we are the Balkans. Tosh, as Limmud’s British founder, Clive Lawton, would say.

The idea of LimmudLA, which came to the Costa Mesa Hilton last weekend, was to bring L.A. Jews together to study and learn. Man, did it work.

“I get tears, really, just walking the hallways,” said Moshe Shapoff, an outreach coordinator for the Karlin-Stoliner Chasidic sect who flew in from Jerusalem for the conclave. I met Moshe just after dinner Saturday night. He was still wearing his traditional Shabbat outfit: black ankle-length satin frock and a shtreimel.

I told him how unusual it is for Jews anywhere to mix it up like this, for the secular feminists to learn beside the Chasidim, beside the Conservative academics and the unaffiliated and undeclared. For someone like me to be spending a weekend with someone like him.

But that’s the essence of Limmud — not just Jews learning from other Jews but experiencing the breadth and depth of tradition, culture and spirituality in one place, in a weekend. One Limmudnik looked over some 700 people, mostly Angelenos, in the dining room Saturday night: “This is going to save me returning a lot of calls,” he said.

That evening, Moshe and other Karlin-Stoliners led a post-Shabbat course in traditional niggunim, or songs. I couldn’t make it, but I heard a schnapps bottle made rounds between tunes, and the 12 or so Jews who showed up — mostly non-Orthodox — got pretty joyous.

I was in another session, hearing four stand-up comedians, including a Chasid, a Palestinian and Aaron Freeman, a black convert to Judaism, joke about all the hilarious stuff that happens in the Mideast. That was after a full day spent dipping into one class on the teachings of Rabbi Joseph Solovetchik, another on the meaning behind the Hebrew calendar and innumerable hallway and, yes, barstool discussions and debates with everybody from the Russian scholars to Hollywood players to major philanthropists to street-level activists to post-denominational observant Israeli American rock musicians (they were in the hot tub with me, along with a brilliant Reform aerospace engineer from Manhattan Beach — go figure).

The vast majority of Jewish conferences set a bar that excludes the vast majority of Jews: The Wexner Program skews toward upscale leaders-in-the-making; the various movement gatherings stick to their movements; gatherings of Jewlicious and Reboot skew young; too many other Jewish conclaves skew old.

But Limmud succeeded in breaking down those barriers for a long weekend. Much credit goes to volunteer conference organizers Shep Rosenman and Linda Fife, who tapped their personal networks to ensure diversity from the start; Executive Director Ruth Rotenberg, who got what will surely become an annual event off to a smooth start; and the Jewish Community Foundation, which gets kudos for kicking in $250,000 (to be paid out over three years) to help it all happen.

Sure, everybody had suggestions for improvements: better outreach to the Reconstructionist, Reform and secular communities; more involvement of the many superb Jewish academics and rabbis in town (Where were Stephen S. Wise, Wilshire Boulevard and Sinai Temple?); more outreach to Los Angeles’ Persian and Israeli Jewish communities; more teen activities; a venue that offers some outdoor opportunities.

Do all this, and the consensus was next year’s Limmud will double in size. But last weekend no one was complaining (let me rephrase: I heard a near-miraculous lack of complaining, considering the sheer mass of people with a, um, propensity for critical analysis).

Instead, people were urging Limmud on, hoping next year would be bigger and the year after that bigger still. For the individual Jew, it’s a chance to learn about the widest variety of Jewish topics from a wide variety of teachers. For the community, it offers, among other benefits, a prophylactic against the kind of communal divisions that come when you simply haven’t met, learned with or shared a Shabbat meal with, your neighbor.

Limmud won’t make us all agree or stand united, but it will help us all learn more about the people with whom we disagree, and it will enable us to treat them with the kind of familiarity that breeds respect.

At the Middle East comedy night, I heard Freeman tell a joke that, in its twisted humor, perfectly explained Limmud.

“When I converted,” Freeman said, “they said, ‘You have to look into your heart and ask, “Do I love Jews?” If the answer is yes — you are not a Jew.'”

Or perhaps you are — a Limmud Jew.

LimmudLA: Chance encounters, many choices

LimmudLA – By the Numbers

Participants:* 634
Sponsors: 14
Presenters 133
Sessions: 262
Films: 21
Artists: 23
On-site volunteers: 227
Steering committee: 14
Chairs: 2
Executive director: 1
*Participants for the entire conference. An additional 16 joined for Sunday only and an additional 32 participated as vendors in the Shuk on Sunday.

Cost of LimmudLA: Still being calculated. The fee of $450 per adult covered only part of the actual cost, while Limmud subsidized the rest. Significant scholarships were awarded. The Jewish Community Foundation provided the largest grant at $250,000, paid out over three years.

Breakdown by denomination:
Conservadox 56
Conservative 144
Chasidic 11
Humanist 4
Just Jewish 32
Modern Orthodox 150
Orthodox 30
Post-Denominational 27
Reconstructionist 5
Reform 68
Renewal 4
Secular 9
Traditional 14
Unaffiliated 14
Prefer not to answer 21

Breakdown by age (range, 0-87):
0-2 28
3-12 68
13-17 9
18-34 163
35-50 163
51-64 135
65+ 25

Breakdown by geography:
Within CA

Conejo Valley 5
Los Angeles Area 412
San Gabriel Valley Area 14
San Fernando Valley 79
Ventura County 7
Northern California 8
Orange County 20
Long Beach 7
South Bay 6
San Diego 8
Santa Barbara 1

Other states:
Colorado 1
Florida 3
Georgia 1
Illinois 3
Massachusetts 4
North Carolina 1
New Jersey 4
New York 22
Ohio 1
Pennsylvania 4
Texas 1
Virginia 1
Washington 1

Other countries:
Canada 6
Israel 7
United Kingdom 9

Friday 4:51 p.m.

We have 27 minutes until Shabbat, and we need to check in to the Costa Mesa Hilton, register at the LimmudLA desk, unpack and get three children and two adults showered and into our Friday finest before candle lighting. All this while my husband, Alex, and I are still shaking off the tension of three hours — three hours — on the 405. The hotel lobby is chaotic, but it’s an excited kind of mania, because no one here really knows what to expect from LimmudLA. Yet we’re all aware that we’re about to become part of something momentous: Southern California’s initiation into this potentially transformative Jewish festival/Shabbaton/retreat.

More than 100 volunteers and one paid professional worked insanely long hours over the past two years to bring together more than 600 Jews from every denomination, age group and area of Southern California for 262 study sessions, 21 films, two concerts, a comedy show, an off-Broadway play and countless hours of connecting.

Over the past few years, Limmud has spread from its original location in England, where it began 27 years ago, to 30 communities around the world — Istanbul, Johannesburg, Basel, Berlin, Sydney, New York — brought to life by an organically grown volunteer army in each location.

So two years after conference co-chairs, attorney Shep Rosenman and chronic community activist Linda Fife, dreamed of bringing Limmud to Los Angeles, here we are, arriving, chaos and all, for day one.

5:25 p.m.

I make the candle-lighting window, but the 405 hasn’t yet worn off, and the schedule is 93 pages long, so I’m feeling overwhelmed. I try to figure out which services to go to. Liberal Egalitarian with Debbie Friedman, Jewish folk singer extraordinaire? Traditional Chasidic? Traditional Egalitarian? I end up bopping around between them and don’t get much out of any of them.

Dinner is raucous, and when Rosenman stands on a chair to welcome everyone to the first annual LimmudLA, the ballroom erupts into cheers.

He offers advice that would have served me well for services: Limmud is about choices. Own your choices.

But I still haven’t learned my lesson as, after dinner, I slip out of “Feminophobia in Religion” after just a few minutes and sneak into a back row of “Guerilla Girls of the Talmud,” which sounded like it would have been really great if I had heard the whole thing.

There are more sessions scheduled, but Alex and I head into LimmudLA Cafe, stocked with snacks and drinks. In one corner, three tables are pushed together, and people are singing Shabbat songs, telling stories, sharing some schnapps. Most of us are schmoozing. As I head off to bed around midnight — while the place is still going strong — I think about choices. Tomorrow, no more sampling, I decide. Tomorrow I commit.

Saturday, 9 a.m.

While I usually go to an Orthodox shul on Shabbat morning, today I’m going secular. Limmud, after all, is about stepping out of your comfort zone.

I head into a session about secular spirituality — Judaism without a supernatural God — headed by Mitchell Silver, a philosophy professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston and head of the Boston Workmen’s Circle, a Yiddish secularist society.

Not the venue where I would expect to have my most spiritual moment in a long time.

We just disagree

It’s never fun to wake up and find yourself on the wrong side of CAMERA. That’s the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting, a Boston-based media watchdog group that monitors the print and electronic press for anti-Israel bias. When the group finds what it considers anti-Israel opinion or reporting, it sinks its teeth into the offender, Boston terrier-like, and shakes until an apology spills out.

For the past couple of weeks, CAMERA and other like-minded readers have come after me for chastising the organization’s attempts to block the appearance here Friday and Saturday (Feb. 15-16) of the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian who espouses nonviolence but employs harsh and destructive rhetoric. Lots of letters, angry phone calls, and a threat from CAMERA that if I didn’t meet their minimum standards of contrition they would send out an e-mail blast summoning their supporters to deluge the Journal with demands for an apology.

But I can’t do it.

As I wrote here three weeks ago, I am a supporter of CAMERA and its mission. They do good work. But I believe they were taking the wrong tact in trying to tell a local church with a long history of support for Israel and Jewish causes whom it should and shouldn’t listen to.

CAMERA and I disagree on only one thing: tactics.

As I said quite clearly in my Jan. 25 editorial, the Sabeel Center is not a friend of Israel. In fact, I used the word “enemy.”

My point is not that the group, or its leader, isn’t so bad; it’s that CAMERA’s prescription of how the Jewish community of Los Angeles should respond to Ateek’s appearance at a local church is wrong. In other words, these people are dangerous, but our reaction must not make things worse. I think CAMERA, which in so many cases I find useful and correct, is in this case making things worse.

All Saints Church in Pasadena is a massive, mainstream Christian church with longstanding ties to the Jewish community. It is not some small group of liberation theology radicals hosting a vegan potluck in a rented community room. The Sabeel conference also has the backing of Bishop Jon Bruno, who has done as much or more for the Jewish and Israeli cause in this town as any Christian leader.

These men lead an educated, sophisticated flock that does not want to be told who it can or can’t invite. They are not looking to CAMERA or any other Jews to kasher their lectures. In fact, attempting to do so can only build up resentment. It turns the Arab Israeli conflict into a free-speech issue, and when that happens, when Jews are perceived as being on the wrong side of free speech, we lose.

So what is the answer?


The pro-Israel center and left need to also focus their energies on these liberal Christan groups. They need to dissect the arguments of Sabeel and present the Israeli case in a much more persuasive and winning way.

I’m thrilled that this kind of dialogue already has begun. This past Monday evening, All Saints Church’s the Rev. Ed Bacon met with 100 members of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center at the center’s sanctuary and heard their concerns. He expressed his support for Israel, his opposition to divestment and to using rhetoric like “apartheid” when speaking of Israel; but he held firm to his decision to host his friend Ateek. He also committed, according to Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, to organizing a conference at which progressive, Zionist Jewish voices could make their case to his congregants.

“People came skeptical that the church was open to dialogue,” Grater told me, “I think their minds were changed.”

In a series of e-mail exchanges last week, Rabbi Ken Chasen at Leo Baeck Temple and Daniel Sokatch of Progressive Jewish Alliance said they would welcome such a conference.

And that is the correct reaction to the activities that have become a regular occurrence in our communities and on college campuses. This week California State University Northridge hosted Norman Finkelstein, the controversial Israel critic and author of “The Holocaust Industry,” despite the concerns of Jewish groups. Within the central organizing bodies of the Presbyterian and Methodist churches, there is renewed call for divestment from companies doing business with Israel. It took enormous good will and intense lobbying to beat back these divestment resolutions the first time around; there is no reason to think this second round will be the last.

The model that has worked for the Jewish community for decades is building relationships with different communities, working with them on issues of shared concern, supporting them in their time of need and asking for their support in our time of need. Progressive Jewish groups and leaders, speaking much the same language as these churches and academic institutions, are in a better position to counter the anti-Israel rhetoric than more hard-line Jewish groups who do not share the same depth of relationship or wider political perspective. All Saints Church inviting Sabeel, Grater said, “might be a mistake, but when you’re in a relationship, people make mistakes and you work on that and improve your partnership.”

As our writers discovered in reporting this week’s cover story, left-leaning Zionist groups receive less communal dollars than their more center-right counterparts. That’s also a mistake. These groups are the best defense all of us have in the ongoing struggle to counter destructive voices and policies among mainstream Christians and in academia. Their communal support is in Israel’s best interest.

Volunteers drive eclectic learning at LimmudLA

You can feel the ruach in this Limmud UK video

At the Limmud conference in England three years ago, Angeleno Judy Aronson attended a session on the Jews and the Beatles, where she sat next to the former neighbor of Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein. She tried to keep up with Romanians teaching Israeli folk dance, she learned a new way to understand the “Shema” and she discussed Chasidic stories with secular Israelis. After participating in a session on Hebrew poetry, the retired Jewish educator was inspired enough to use her academic Hebrew to write a poem of her own — for the very first time.

Now, Aronson is one of more than 80 volunteers who have jumped at the chance to bring Limmud to Los Angeles this February, giving Southern Californians their first taste of the independent, non-denominational, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that has swept the Jewish world.

“I never saw people so excited about learning anywhere in my life, and I think that was because everyone felt personally addressed by this conference,” said Aronson, who has chaired major Jewish conferences in the past and will run family and children’s programming for LimmudLA. “It was a very diverse group of attendees, and I felt this tremendous energy for learning and for playing together.”

Limmud was founded 25 years ago in England, where each December more than 2,000 people gather for a five-day conference. In the last six or seven years, the Limmud model has spread around the world, with conferences in Russia, France, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Australia and New York.

The goal of LimmudLA, slated for Febrary during President’s Day Weekend at the Costa Mesa Hilton, is to bring together the broad spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry to experience the richness of Judaism through intense days packed with the arts, shared meals and conversations, and a quirky and diverse offering of text studies, lectures and workshops. At Limmud, all the teachers are participants, and many of the participants are teachers, so everyone learns from each other.

“It has no objective — not to make you leaders, not to make you more religious, not to make you act politically, not to make you give — other than for you to grow and learn as a Jew,” Holocaust scholar and self-described Limmud addict Deborah Lipstadt told The Jewish Journal.

Organizers are hoping that the non-hierarchical, unifying model will leave a lasting imprint on a community that is geographically and ideologically diffuse.

“I think this is going to be an amazing thing for L.A.,” said LimmudLA co-chair Linda Fife, an educator turned full-time volunteer. “What excites me most is that I don’t think there is any place else where we are coming together in cross-communal conversation.”

The conference, including hotel and all meals, will cost $500 per person (lower for kids), a price tag that covers about two-thirds of the actual costs of hotel, food and programming. Scholarships are available, because organizers don’t want cost to deter people. Attendance is capped at 600, to keep things manageable in the inaugural year.

Organizers are hoping the energy of the conference will counteract the leave-in-the-eighth-inning culture that often plagues Los Angeles events.

Programming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with about 10 sessions offered simultaneously, might include a jam session led by Jewish singing icon Debbie Friedman; a cholent cook-off; yoga; a class in theology with a Reform lay person and another in Jewish history with an Orthodox woman; nature walks; text studies of everything from Genesis to the Talmud to kabbalah; and workshops in bibliodrama, Jewish songwriting or Judaism and astrology. Babysitting, kids programming and teen programming will give parents freedom to attend the sessions, and family programming will offer time with the kids.

But much of the program won’t be set for a while, since most of the presenters, artists and teachers come from the ranks of the conference goers. Online registration, which opens this week at www.LimmudLA.org, will ask for attendees to present sessions in their area of expertise — and that will determine most of the programming.

Some more well-known presenters — many of them fans who attend Limmuds all over the world — have already signed on: Rabbi Danny Landes of the Pardes Institute in Israel; Bible and law teacher Arna Fisher; Chabad philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt; David Solomon, who has made his name by teaching things like “The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour”; and Jewish World Watch founder Janice Kaminer-Reznick.

But even professionals on the Jewish scholar circuit will not get paid, and will in fact have to pay their own way for the conference. Only a select few — a list that remains secret and is never the same two years in a row — get their travel and conference fee comped.

Many point to this militant egalitarianism, along with souped-up volunteerism, as the key to the sense of ownership that gives Limmud its aura.

“It’s fluid in a very real way,” Fife said. “The definition of what we are about is developed by the people sitting around the table, and they represent a whole conglomeration of the different segments of the community.”

Everything, from fundraising to catering to programming, is handled by volunteers, about 20 of whom are putting in second-job type hours. Only one paid professional, executive director Ruth Rotenberg, pulls the pieces together.

Despite the challenges volunteerism brings — conflicting visions, flakiness, lack of time — organizers say the sense of ownership and diversity of input is what makes Limmud work.

“One of the most meaningful conversations we had was about Shabbat and what Shabbat would look like,” Fife said. “You’re sitting around a table with people for whom the definition of Shabbat is very different from your own. We tend to stay within our own silo communities and throw around vocabulary and terminology and we think everyone understands it the same way we do — and that’s not true. This is wonderful opportunity to really understand others.”

After hours of discussion, the steering committee decided traditional halacha, Jewish law, would be observed in conference-wide venues, such as the communal Friday night dinner, but that smaller venues would have more freedom. Sessions or services with activities that might offend some but are key elements of celebrating Shabbat for others — such as the use of musical instruments or microphones — will be clearly identified, so people could opt out of those.

The Upgrade Generation

I often think about the kind of life my grandfather led.In his small Jewish neighborhood of Marrakesh, the days resembled each other — you worked, you prayed, you learned, you spent time with family and neighbors. The days and weeks followed the same Jewish pattern, year in and year out.

The environment also followed a predictable pattern: You were born without a phone, and you died without a phone. The same things that were there at the beginning of your life were there at the end. If anything caused agony or disrupted the rhythm, it was an unforeseen event, like an illness, accident or personal setback.

Rarely did Jews agonize over their Judaism. They were more likely to agonize over which tomato looked more ripe at the local souk.

Well, like they say, if my grandfather could see me now.

In particular, if he could have seen me last week while I attended a three-day conference in Atlanta called “The Conversation,” sponsored by The Jewish Week, which brought together Jews from across the country to engage each other on the big Jewish questions of the day.

There we were, at least 50 of us, agonizing, debating, challenging, questioning, brainstorming and schmoozing during every waking minute on subjects as weighty as the future of Judaism in America, and what it means to be Jewish in today’s world.

I can just see my grandfather, wherever he is, looking down and saying, in Arabic: “Daouid, my boy, are you feeling OK? Why don’t you lay down a bit?”

We are living in interesting times.

What I found most remarkable about my experience in Atlanta was how familiar it all felt. It reminded me of these business retreats with clients, where we spend days trying to reinvent and upgrade everything about a company. In those retreats, the big question is always: How can we better understand our consumers so we can better cater to them?

To answer this, we put everything on the table: Reinvent the product, eliminate failing programs, test new approaches, upgrade the technology, change the advertising, challenge all assumptions — in short, be open to anything that will make your brand more relevant to the consumer.

We did pretty much the same thing in Atlanta, but with Jews and Judaism.

Here’s a sampling of what we debated in break-out groups: Can personal Judaism be reconciled with communal Judaism? What’s the difference between Americanism and Judaism? How do we leverage tech trends to build community? Is compromising selling out? Is Birthright Israel useful or a waste? What are rabbis for? What’s the next big idea? Is there a distinction between Jewish values and human values? What do we teach our kids if we don’t believe what we were taught as kids? Do Jewish artists have any special obligations? Why can’t we talk about Israel without feeling like we’re being censored? And so on.

Believe me, I’m glad I brought my Tylenol.

For three days, we dissected Judaism like a group of Apple engineers trying to upgrade the iMac or create an iPod. We had Jewish “engineers” from all walks of life — professors, activists, spiritual leaders, musicians, community leaders, historians, a stand-up comic, a gay Orthodox rabbi, a poet, a Chabadnik, a New York Times reporter, a filmmaker, web geniuses and, yes, even a Sephardic Jew (me).

Now, you’re probably thinking: Did anything come out of this “conversation,” besides lots of e-mail addresses and a hangover from a great selection of kosher wines? The answer, of course, is that it depends on what each person took away.

I took away two things: One, I love my people more than ever. I can’t tell you what it feels like to spend three days with Jews who absolutely, undeniably and positively care about their Judaism. Sure, I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but like a client once said to me: “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

These Jews cared.

The second thing I took away is that Judaism in America is going through a whirlwind like we’ve never seen before. A generation of Jews has been raised on a culture of continual upgrades — with an ever-changing technology keeping this generation constantly wired, stimulated and connected.

Like the technology that fuels them, they want their Judaism “upgraded” so it can help them navigate their speedy lives. This means everything is open for debate and up for grabs — peoplehood, the synagogue, Zionism, community, prayer, rituals, philanthropy and denominations. In a 100 million blog world that glorifies personal expression, this group is not defined by their Judaism. Rather, they define their own Judaism, and only as one of many facets of their lives.

And these are the Jews that have not turned their back on their faith.

A lot of what we talked about in Atlanta was trying to understand this restless “upgrade generation,” and how — or whether — Judaism needs to adapt to become more relevant to them. We are at the beginning of this debate. Since we can only assume that the frenetic, wired world we have entered will only get more frenetic, the Jewish world should buckle up for a wild ride.

Luckily, Judaism can hold its own in this wild ride — because it already has a very big “buffet” that can appeal to a wide range of different tastes. We get in trouble when we focus on only one part of this buffet as if it’s the whole thing. That smells like dogma. If we can display all the spiritual, cultural, mystical, intellectual, historical, ritual, artistic and communal courses of the great Jewish feast — and invite Jews to partake in its many delights — maybe the new generation will stop dismissing or trying to “upgrade” Judaism, and, instead, will explore what’s being offered until they find something that turns them on.

And when they do, who knows, they might even marry Jewish, move to a Jewish neighborhood, make Jewish babies and become as predictable as my grandfather was.

Now that would be a serious upgrade.

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

New Conservative seminary leader outlines goals

Long before he emerged as a leading scholar of American Jewry, and decades before he would be looked to as the potential savior of the Conservative movement, Arnold Eisen was gunning for a journalism internship at the Washington Post.

As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Eisen was in the running for editor of the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian — the position brought with it an automatic summer job at the Post.

Eisen lost the election in what he says was then the greatest disappointment of his life.

That election diverted Eisen’s career path from journalism to academia and initiated a journey that culminated Wednesday when he was inaugurated as the seventh chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS), the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism.

But even as he settles into his new post as head of the movement’s chief academic institution, it is the values of the profession he did not pursue more than those of the academy that are figuring prominently in his plans.

In describing his vision for the coming year, Eisen speaks of dialogue rather than direction. He intends to spark conversations within the movement, facilitated by JTS, in place of “canned lectures.” And he believes being a Conservative Jew is largely about what journalists — and Jews — love most: talking.

“To be a Conservative Jew is in large part to want to be part of a certain conversation in word and in deed,” Eisen said recently in a wide-ranging discussion in his JTS office.

As workers made final preparations for the inauguration seminary in the courtyard below, Eisen described Conservative Judaism not as an ironclad ethos or series of principles, but as “a constellation of attitudes and behaviors and commitments that are coherent and that distinguish this movement from others.”

Eisen takes the JTS helm at a time when the Conservative movement is being seen by many as floundering, its numbers in decline and its ideological clarity muddled.

His predecessor, Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, in his parting message said the movement suffered from a “grievous failure of nerve.”

Once the largest synagogue denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has fallen into second place behind the Reform, and it has become routine to speak of the movement’s lack of direction and coherence.

All those challenges were awaiting Eisen when he arrived at his new office on Broadway and 122nd Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. But what concerns the incoming chancellor most is not the supposed apathy within the movement — a notion he says is “nothing less than absurd” — or even the decline in its numbers.

“Numbers don’t keep me up at night; Israel keeps me up at night,” Eisen said. “I’m worried about the security of Israel, and I’m worried about the apparent decline in attachment on the part of American Jews to Israel. This literally, from time to time, keeps me up at night.”

In the coming year, Eisen plans to focus his efforts on building stronger ties between American Jews and the State of Israel. It is part of a commitment by JTS to the Jewish people, one of three constituencies — along with the Conservative movement and the broader North American society — that Eisen wants the seminary to serve.

He also plans to promote dialogue between Jews and Muslims similar to the Jewish-Christian dialogue begun by Louis Finkelstein, the seminary’s legendary leader from 1940 to 1972.

It is the third constituency, the Conservative movement, where expectations for Eisen’s tenure are the greatest. In addition to declining numbers, the movement has been through a bruising year in which a controversial decision to ordain gay clergy polarized the rabbinic leadership and sparked fears that the denomination in the center of the ideological spectrum could not hold.

Eisen has said that the movement’s historic commitment to religious pluralism — the notion that competing views of halacha (Jewish law) can peacefully coexist — is not enough to hold Conservative Judaism together.

Instead, he wants Conservative Jews to think more deeply about the notion of mitzvah — a term normally described as a “good deed” or “commandment,” but which Eisen says is really a much richer idea. He has urged rabbis to talk about the concept in their High Holy Days sermons, and he intends to pilot a mitzvah project in 10 congregations to get Jews talking about what they feel obligates them.

It is a task, Eisen says, that is urgent for a movement that has struggled to straddle the gap between fidelity to traditional Jewish law and principled adaptation to modernity.

“To bring Jews closer to mitzvah, one has to enrich the conception they’re walking around with,” Eisen said. “And that’s part of the task.”

Eisen’s emphasis on the concept of mitzvah could end up further muddying the theological line between Reform and Conservative Judaism.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the president of the Union of Reform Judaism, has been firm in insisting that his movement is best understood as mitzvah-oriented, not halachic-oriented — a distinction aimed at explaining that even as the Reform movement increases its embrace of ancient practices and rituals, it rejects the traditional Orthodox and Conservative notion of Jews being bound by an overarching system of religious law.

Eisen shows no indication of wanting to follow Yoffie’s lead in affirmatively severing the direct relationship between mitzvah and halacha. Yet he clearly sees the Conservative predicament in sociological terms, as a conflict between the traditional sense of commandedness and the modern ideology of the “sovereign self,” the notion that each person is lord and ruler of their own lives and practice.

In other words, Eisen’s opening of a discussion on mitzvah could be understood as an attempt to address the challenge of how to inculcate a sense of obligation among followers without their feeling from the start that they are being told what they must do.

Since being tapped for the chancellorship, Eisen has traveled the country on a “listening tour,” and what he found has made him optimistic. Conservative Jews want greater JTS involvement in their lives, he said. They want a clear message about what their movement stands for. They want improved quality and greater cooperation across the various arms of the movement. And on the eve of his inauguration, Eisen says he is poised to give it all to them.

‘Reboot’-ing Gen Y

A lot of aging lefty Jews long for the good old days when, as they recall, Jews and blacks marched together for civil rights and liberal rabbis thundered about
brotherhood and sisterhood from their pulpits.

But those memories are selective. Not all Jews and African Americans got along, and only a minority of blacks and Jews powered the fabled black-Jewish alliance. But they were an articulate and forceful minority.

Their ranks included such leaders as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who, after returning from the Selma civil rights march in 1965, wrote: “For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Nor did the Zionist movement have wide support at first. Its founder, Theodor Herzl, a secular journalist (characteristics with which I identify), was angered by European anti-Semitism. As Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper Neve Freie Presse in 1894, he covered the trial of the Jewish Capt. Alfred Dreyfus, who had been wrongly accused of treason. Observing the anti-Semitic Parisian mobs, Herzl wrote a small book titled “The Jewish State.” Jewish leaders ignored him. Only a few Jews supported him at first. But like Heschel, Herzl had the gift of language, plus remarkable organizational skills. Half a century after his book was published, Israel was born.

The latest incarnation of an articulate Jewish minority can be found among young adults who are blending their own culture and style in an effort to create a Jewish life relevant to the famously cynical, ironic Generation Y– those born sometime after 1980 and who graduated from high school or college around 2000. This generation will be to the future what the boomers were to the ’60s.

I am interested in anything that would shake the Jewish community out of its insularity — its reluctance to reach beyond its boundaries to tackle problems that affect both Jews and non-Jews, such as the abysmal state of public education.

So, on the advice of my friend Robin Kramer, chief of staff to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, I contacted an organization called Reboot, a name that refers to what you do to get your balky or slow-moving computer working again. I talked to Rachel Levin, one of the founders. Levin, 38, is assistant director of Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation. “Every generation has the responsibility to examine what it means to be Jewish for itself,” Levin told me.

But that’s not so easy for this group. In a survey, Reboot found that “for American Jews in Generation Y, being Jewish is not their sole identity …. Today’s young Jews have multiple identities shaped by many factors, including intermarriage in their families, diverse social networks and dynamic boundaries around geography and other identity characteristics such as gender and sexual orientation. Being Jewish is part of a larger identity mosaic for today’s Jews.”

Or as Levin put it, “we live in a world where identity is not compartmentalized.”

How do you get them together? Not in the temple sisterhood or at federation fund-raisers.

The model is sort of like MoveOn.org, or other online organizations that bring people together for political fund-raising, action or talk. Reboot’s magazine, Guilt and Pleasure, runs interesting pieces that might make good conversation. In Reboot salons, young men and women discuss their own experiences, articles from Guilt and Pleasure or life around them. They have talked about what Jewish food says about Jewish life; living in Los Angeles; being the “chosen people”; and, of course, life’s guilt and pleasures, always a good topic for Jews.

Levin enjoys the salons. The daughter of a rabbi, she graduated from Fairfax High School and the University Pennsylvania. She is the mother of two children, ages 7 and 3.

After college, she became a Coro fellow, a program that puts the best and brightest young people into internships in government and other places.

One of Levin’s internships was with the Los Angeles Sentinel, an African American newspaper, where she worked with the late Dennis Schatzman, a tough and perceptive black reporter whom I got to know during the O.J. Simpson trial.

Schatzman, she said, seized on the opportunity to teach this white, Jewish young woman about South Central Los Angeles. It was a time of great tension, just before the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King. Schatzman took her around the community. Tension was everywhere in those days, especially after an African American teenager, Latasha Harkins, was shot to death by a store owner who mistakenly thought the girl was shop-lifting. Levin attended a press conference on the case and, observing the anger, she learned a lot.

My interview with Levin became difficult when I asked her to translate her experiences into specific goals. Levin, I thought, was a bit too general. I told her that if I had interviewed Heschel, he would have been specific, talking about marching in the south. If I had interviewed Herzl, my notebook would have been filled with his plans for a Jewish state. Couldn’t she be more specific?

Being Jewish, she answered my question with a question of her own.

What would have happened, she asked, if you had interviewed Herzl when he first encountered anti-Semitism? He would have been furious about the bigotry, she said, but probably vague about what to do about it. His proposal for a Jewish state came later.

“Maybe when you interview me in 10 years, I’ll be able to be more specific,” Levin said.

She was absolutely right. Movements don’t start with specifics or 10-point plans. They start with people meeting up and talking. Ideas are generated, plans are made and one day, action is taken. It’s a slow process.

This is where Reboot is now. Perhaps from this generation — prompted by leaders like Levin — an articulate minority will emerge and point the Jewish community in a fresh direction, just as Heschel and Herzl did many years ago.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Breaking new ground: Jewish, Muslim groups’ program encourages leaders to see the ‘other’ as friend

Is it possible for Los Angeles Jews and Muslims to talk to one another, to share peacefully at the table?

This is the question that some leaders of both groups locally are asking themselves.

These are the ones who are willing to keep trying, despite the enmity in the Middle East and despite a history of conflict among some leaders in the Jewish and Muslim communities here. Early next month, a new effort jointly organized by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA) and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) will be unveiled.

It will not be the first attempt.

Little more than a decade ago, in the warm afterglow of the Oslo accords, a group of Jewish and Muslim leaders in Los Angeles regularly met and talked together in formal and informal groups. Known as the Muslim-Jewish Dialogue, this group of leaders from several organizations hoped to forge a new understanding between the two communities and model the kind of peace moderates on both sides were hoping for in the Middle East.

But despite early optimism, world events got in the way, and the conversation was repeatedly interrupted by news of terror attacks, Israeli settlements and mistrust borne from the faltering Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

In the aftermath of that day, with the Western world’s frightened eyes turned on the Muslim community, Los Angeles, too, saw relations between Jewish and Muslim leaders descend into a cross-fire of accusations and distrust. As a result, the official dialogue petered out, becoming largely moribund by 2002.

Local Jewish-Muslim relations, seen for a brief moment as a paragon of interfaith cooperation, continued to deteriorate to such an extent that a few months ago,much of the organized Jewish community united to protest the honoring of MPAC founder, Dr. Maher Hathout, with a prestigious award from the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission.

Symbolically, Hathout’s supporters — not all of them Muslims — sat one on side of the room during hearings over his suitability for the honor, while his mostly Jewish detractors sat on the other side. Hathout got to keep the award.

Daniel Sokatch, who began participating in the dialogue in 2000 after joining the PJA, a social activist group, thought there had to be a better way. As PJA executive director, he was frustrated to see local Jewish-Muslim relationships constantly held hostage by events taking place thousands of miles away.

Sokatch focused on how much Jews and Muslims here have in common, including traditions that emphasize the need to build a better world.

Recently, Sokatch has been working with Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of MPAC, the Los Angeles-based policy advocacy organization, and in early February, PJA and MPAC will unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

The program aims to encourage a new cadre of Jewish and Muslim leaders to see the “other” as a friend, said Aziza Hasan, MPAC interfaith program coordinator.

The plan for NewGround is to bring together as many as 30 Jews and Muslims who are in their 20s and 30s for a period of 10 months. Initially, participants will meet with only their own colleagues to confront their prejudices.

When the two groups join together, they will discuss issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration to homelessness.

Working with trained mediators, they will also learn how to communicate honestly. Finally, participants will join forces on a yet-to-be-determined civic improvement project, such as homelessness or poverty, said Malka Fenyvesi, PJA interfaith program coordinator.

“I’m delighted, impressed and grateful that such visionary leaders are doing this,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector at All Saints Church in Pasadena and a self-described friend of both Sokatch and Al-Marayati. “I think this offers great promise for Jews and Muslims to come together.”

Rabbi Steven Jacobs, founder of the new Rabbi Jacobs Progressive Faith Foundation and rabbi emeritus at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, called the PJA-MPAC initiative “groundbreaking.”

He added: “There’s too much demonization going on, and this program will help break down the fear that exists in both communities.”

Not everyone shares that enthusiasm. Some Jewish leaders question the wisdom of working with MPAC, which they see as unremittingly hostile to Israel and “disingenuous, pretending to be something they’re not,” in the words of Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group.

The roots of the distrust hark back to just hours after the Sept. 11 attacks, when Al-Marayati went on a radio talk show and suggested that Israel might be behind the attacks, because, he said, “I think this diverts attention from what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, so that they can go on with their aggression and occupation and apartheid policies.”

Although Al-Marayati has said he later apologized to some Jewish leaders for his remarks, many in the Jewish community continue to distrust both Al-Marayati and MPAC and will have nothing to do with them.

Terrorism expert Steven Emerson, author of “American Jihad: The Terrorists Living Among Us” and a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, said he believes MPAC is a “front group, a public relations group for radical Islam.”

PJA, Emerson believes, is being used by MPAC to confer legitimacy on an organization that, he said, hopes to spread Islam and undermine American support for Israel.

Al-Marayati, for his part, said many Muslims regard Emerson as a cynical “profiteer,” who fans fears about Islam for personal gain. Emerson’s characterization of MPAC as radical, Al-Marayati said, ignores the group’s goal of integrating Muslims into mainstream American society, its condemnation of terrorism and support of the two-state solution.

Still, many Jews pay close attention to Emerson’s pronouncements. Following the announcement in July of the county’s award to MPAC founder Hathout, Emerson wrote a harshly critical article for New Republic Online, depicting Hathout, former chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California, as an apologist for terror groups and strident critic of Israel, who once publicly characterized the Jewish state as “a racist, apartheid state.”

In response, Jewish groups, ranging from The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to the Zionist Organization of America to the American Jewish Committee to StandWithUs, joined forces against Hathout.

Progressive values propel Daniel Sokatch’s rising star

When Daniel Sokatch enrolled in rabbinical school in Israel in 1994, he had visions of becoming a religious leader dedicated to social justice, much in the vein of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But Sokatch, now 38, quickly realized that the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem was committed to training rabbis and not activists. So after eight months, he decided to quit.

Sokatch met with the school’s dean at the time to break the news, telling him that he planned to get a law degree, study international relations and work in the Jewish community, pursuing social justice in some capacity. The dean looked at Sokatch, paused, and shocked him by promising to forgive the thousands of dollars in loans Sokatch had racked up for school tuition.

“I believe you’ll do everything you say you’re going to do,” he said.
And so he has. Sokatch is the founding executive director of Los Angeles-based Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), a nondenominational group dedicated, in his words, to “connecting Jews to the critical social justice issues facing our city, such as criminal and economic justice and interfaith dialogue. ”

Under Sokatch’s seven-year tenure, PJA’s membership has reached 4,000. In May 2005, the nonprofit opened a second office in San Francisco.

The Forward has twice named Sokatch to the “Forward 50,” a listing of the most influential Jews in America.

“He has kept a steady focus on labor and immigrant issues, leading efforts for Muslim-Jewish dialogue and helping patch up labor disputes,” the newspaper said.

PJA has played an important role in the enactment of anti-sweatshop legislation in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley, reflecting Sokatch’s belief that “kosher should be about more than the way food’s prepared; it should be about the way people are treated who work with us.” PJA has also successfully lobbied on behalf of Los Angeles hotel workers to increase their wages. In 2002, PJA created a mediation program for nonviolent juvenile offenders that offers an alternative to incarceration. The program has a recidivism rate of less than 20 percent.

“I think Daniel is a rising star in the Jewish professional constellation of this city,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “He’s smart, charismatic and effective.”

PJA has also taken controversial steps to keep alive communication between local Muslims and Jews. Early next month, the PJA and the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) are expected to unveil NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change, a program designed to foster greater interfaith dialogue and cooperation. (See related story on page 14.)

Sokatch, as he promised the HUC-JIR dean all those years ago, did become a lawyer. But it is his Jewish values that most define him. He steeps PJA’s efforts in Jewish tradition and in tikkun olam (heal the world), giving political and social action a religious basis. His single-minded commitment often drives him to put in 70-hour work weeks and push until some measure of justice is done.

“If you are Jewish, whether secular or religious, whether ethnically or culturally, atheist or Orthodox, there is a central animating principle to being Jewish, which is repair the world,” Sokatch said. “That is the prophetic mission and the rabbinic imperative.”

Sokatch and his younger brother, Andrew, now an expert in educational reform and child welfare, grew up in Cheshire, Conn., in a “good, Jewish liberal home.” His father, Sy, worked as the director of human resources at Yale University. His mother, Ann, studied counseling psychology at Southern Connecticut State College. From his parents, he said he learned “the importance of the warmth and love of family and the need to work hard.”

But it was a trio of older relatives in New York City, he said, who shaped his views on civic engagement. His aunt, Lottie Gold, served as New York state’s first female deputy secretary of state in the 1950s. Sydney Gold, his uncle, and Irving Stillerman, his maternal grandfather, were New York City judges.

“What I got from these people was a deep, deep sense of patriotism and a love of country,” Sokatch said. “They taught me that service to the community at large was something we just did, both as Jews and as Americans.”

Judaism was another major influence. Raised Reform, Sokatch attended Jewish summer camps and went to Hebrew school throughout high school.

“I loved all aspects of Judaism, the traditions, the holidays, the story of Israel,” he said. “It always felt natural to me. It felt like breathing.”
At 11, his family moved from liberal New England to conservative Cincinnati, where Sokatch spent nearly a decade. It was there, Sokatch said, where he learned that “there is no us or them, blue states or red states; we’re all Americans who share the same goals of a better world.”

Sokatch spent his junior year of college in Ireland, studying the Irish conflict. He later earned a master’s degree in international affairs at the prestigious Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University near Boston, further deepening his empathy for and appreciation of different cultures.

“He’s a 21st-century prophet,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, rector of All Saints Church in Pasadena, who calls himself a “soul” friend of Sokatch. “By that, I mean Daniel knows that God is for all people and cares about the happiness and healing of everyone.”

Sokatch’s even-keeled temperament and unfailing graciousness have won him plaudits from many in the Jewish community who do not always share his political views. Gary Ratner, executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Western Region, said he considers Sokatch an “excellent, excellent, fine young man” with a deep commitment to making the world better, this despite the fact, Ratner said, that “we certainly have many disagreements about what those problems are and how to fix them.”

However, Ratner and other Jewish leaders are troubled by Sokatch’s willingness to work with MPAC, which they consider a radical, anti-Israel organization.

B’nai Brith’s new chief visits L.A.; ‘Messenger’ unites local readers

New B’nai B’rith Head Launches Term in Southland

The new president of B’nai B’rith International will make Los Angeles his first official stop of his presidency when he speaks at Sinai Temple on the evening of Dec. 7.Moishe Smith, a B’nai B’rith veteran with more than 30 years experience at the organization, said he is coming to the Southland to show his respect for and introduce himself to the community. At Sinai, Smith will discuss Israel and the Middle East, reflecting his interest in international relations. During his three decades with B’nai B’rith, Smith has held a variety of positions, including chair of the International Council, senior international vice president, and, most recently, chair of the executive.

Smith, a Canadian and the first non-American to lead 163-year-old B’nai B’rith, replaces Joel Kaplan. He will serve a three-year term.

Smith told The Journal that “making sure Israel is supported from every corner of the world” is a top priority. With the Jewish state under siege from Hezbollah, Hamas, Iran and other enemies, Smith said B’nai B’rith and other Jewish organizations have an obligation to “speak out for Israel.”

Under his leadership, Smith said the organization will continue pressuring the United Nations to reform itself and shed its anti-Israel bias. Toward that end, Smith said organization leaders will “dialogue” with the democratic U.N. members and others.

B’nai B’rith has 100,000 members and donors in the United States and 150,000 worldwide. The organization calls itself a national and global leader in the area of U.N. reform, international affairs and Jewish identity, among other issues.

The event begins at 7 p.m. and is open to the public. For more information, contact Lyndia Lowy of B’nai B’rith at (310) 871-0847, or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

— Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

‘Messenger’ Unites L.A. Readers

“One People One Book” usually refers to the Jews and the Torah, but the in Board of Rabbis of Southern California’s communitywide program it refers to a piece of literature participating synagogue members will read for the next six months.

On Dec. 13, “One People One Book: A Citywide Year of Learning,” will launch its second annual program, this time studying Eli Wiesel’s 1976 “The Messenger of God,” where Wiesel reinterprets biblical figures. Some 21 synagogues will participate.

Last year’s “One People One Book” program, which had 300 people attend the opening, which focused on “As a Driven Leaf” by Milton Steinberg, the novelization of the Talmud’s only heretic, Elisha Ben Abuya.

Why one book for six months?

“The notion is that we pick a book that lends itself to a year of learning,” says Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis. He said that last year’s book dealt with powerful themes such as secular vs. sacred, messianism, faith and practice.

For each book, the Board of Rabbis prepares a curriculum for readers to discuss, but there is no particular format to the “One People One Book,” program. Some people will meet in groups like a book club, others will discuss it with their rabbi in synagogue and some will learn with a partner. There will be an opening event on Dec. 13 and closing event on May 9.At the opening session, professor Menhaz M. Afridi and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky will discuss Moses in “The Passion of Prophet: Moses in the Torah and the Qu’ran.”

The opening session will take place at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, Dec. 13, 7-9 p.m. 15600 Mulholland Drive. For more information, call (323) 761-8600.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students Weigh in on Education Improvements

Students shared ideas for improving education with a panel of public officials at the Museum of Tolerance on Nov. 30. Jasmin Ramirez, 17, took the stage first to present a proposal on behalf of about 100 students involved in the California Association of Student Councils, a student-led organization dedicated to cultivating leaders.

“There’s poor quality of food in our schools and a lack of variety,” said Ramirez, who recommended conducting a widespread survey asking students about the quality of food at school and testing their knowledge of nutritional health.

Listening and taking notes were state Senate majority leader Gloria Romero; Democratic state Assemblymembers Mike Feuer, Paul Krekorian and Kevin de Leon; local district Superintendent James Morris; and Los Angeles Deputy Mayor for Education Ramon C. Cortines.

The officials advised students to think about the costs associated with the proposed survey and consider what would be done with the results. They also commended Ramirez and her peers for thinking creatively about how to solve a real problem.

“What you and the students have done today is absolutely brilliant,” de Leon said.Next, Chris Delgado, 16, suggested that teacher quality could be improved if students were involved in the teacher evaluation process.

“Be careful that your approach is not taken as an attack on teachers,” de Leon cautioned.Cortines added: “I don’t think you realize how powerful you are. I think it’s time that you mobilize yourself and visit with teachers unions.”

After the two proposals were presented and discussed, legislators and students mingled. Feuer congratulated his son, Aaron, who orchestrated the event.

“It was a success,” said Aaron Feuer, 15.

— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer

Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders tell all

“Where are we as a people?”

On Monday, the three heads of the leading Jewish seminaries tackled this question, as well as the challenges of teaching a new generation of Jews in an hourlong plenary session that stepped outside the overriding focus on Israel at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (YU); professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) spoke about training the next generation, led by moderator Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president, policy development, of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Campus for Jewish Life, is three years into his job at the Orthodox YU, and Eisen, chair of the department of religious studies at Stanford, is the newly elected chancellor of the Conservative JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.

Although it was not a “Kumbaya” session, where the three leaders of the universities “waved candles and sat together,” as Joel said in a post-meeting discussion with the three leaders and The Journal, that was not his ultimate goal. Instead, they focused on their common challenges and goals, while still delineating their differences.

They share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, “The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life.” They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.

“There’s no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us,” Eisen told the thousands of people at the morning plenary. “There’s a lot that’s not working, a lot that’s not worth joining and there’s a lot that’s not directed at them. We can’t really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.”

Joel said he was having “deja vus all over again,” because in 1969, at a similar meeting, the younger generation disrupted the meeting, saying the elders didn’t understand them, and they wanted their voices heard. They said, “If only they would be allowed to join the conversation, it would be different!” Joel said, “They were allowed in, and it is different.”

But also, in many ways, he said, it’s not different.

“Young people are young people,” he said. “They would like to matter in the world.” The challenge, he said, is not understanding them but “feeding them” by educating them.

This next generation, said HUC-JIR’s Cohen, is “searching for answers. If we can provide communities of meaning that can draw them in, that will enable them to struggle with the enduring question of life that we all have; they will ultimately be drawn in.” Cohen discussed the synagogue as the way to engage the younger generation.

Overall, the three expressed hope and optimism that there are ways to engage the next generation, although during their public discussion, they were light on specifics. JTS’s Eisen brought up Birthright, the fully sponsored free trips to Israel offered to people 26 and under. He called it the most successful program for the Jewish continuity “since the bar mitzvah” and suggested that the community do something similar for older people.

After the plenary, the three discussed ways that they are implementing change within their seminaries. “The training at the colleges is radically different today” than it was 20 years ago, Cohen said.

For example, he said, instead of simply taking classes, students are mentored, and they work in the community.

Eisen said that from his perspective at Stanford, he sees the JTS students as living in a cocoon “surrounded by people committed to Jewish professional careers,” and he wants to get them into the real world. “I think that all of us have a problem that a huge portion of the rabbi’s job is something they’re not prepared for,” he said, referring to everyday problems, such as dealing with synagogue boards. Joel added that YU has now begun tracking its rabbinic students to find out which ones plan to go onto pulpits, into education or other professions, so they can tailor their education accordingly.

Cohen of the Reform seminary said one of the biggest challenges is to create collaboration between the denominations.

“We are tremendously fragmented,” he said. “How do we begin to see each other as partners?”

During the plenary, Cohen encouraged the federation system to be the mediator and unifier in bringing synagogues and institutions of different movements together.

“Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision,” Cohen said.

But Joel was quick to point out both publicly and privately that their vision is not exactly unified.

“Let’s acknowledge some clouds,” he said. “We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can’t bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries.”

The Reform and Conservative movement share challenges that are different from the Orthodox, such as intermarriage, assimilation and engaging the next generation. The Orthodox are grappling with how to apply the Torah and moral learnings to the secular world and how to engage their Jewishly educated children in the world, while the Reform and Conservative are looking at how to apply the lessons of the outside world to educating their children Jewishly.

For example, Reform and Conservative congregants and students focus on social action programs, such as helping people in Darfur, to which they apply accompanying texts from the Torah and rabbinical teachings. YU students, on the other hand, might have studied at yeshiva in Israel and learned the “Ethics of the Fathers” but don’t know how to apply it in their own communities or other communities.

Cover Story

From: "Joel Bellman" Date: Thursday, July 20, 20068:39 AM Subject: An Open Letter to Ramona RipstonFriends:I thought you might be interested in seeing the followingletter, which I sent today.Joel Bellman*****************************************Ramona Ripston, Executive Director ACLU of SouthernCalifornia 1616 Beverly Blvd. Los Angeles, CA 90026

Dear Ramona:I write with a heavy heart, as a long-time ACLU member ofmore than 30 years' standing, to express my most profounddisappointment and strenuous disagreement with the ACLU ofSouthern California's decision to honor Salam Al-Marayatiwith a "Religious Freedom" Award at this year's upcomingGarden Party on September 10http://www.aclu-sc.org/Events/101851/. I'm not sure when heand MPAC would legitimately deserve such recognition, but itmost certainly is not a time when MPAC is falsely blamingIsrael for defending herself in a two-front war launchedwithout provocation by Islamic terror organizations with thesupport and sponsorship of two rejectionist Islamic nations.As a consequence, this will be the first ever Garden Partythat I intend to boycott, and I will urge all of my friendsto do the same.I've known Salam personally for nearly 20 years. Underordinary circumstances, I can tolerate his posturing onMPAC's behalf as the voice of "moderate" Islam, although hisactual political positions are scarcely distinguishable(except in tone) from those of most of the anti-IsraeliMuslim world. Today, Israel finds herself under fiercemilitary attack across two internationally recognizedborders by guerrillas from Hamas in Gaza, and from Hezbollahin Southern Lebanon. In both cases, Israel had unilaterallyrelinquished territory (even dismantling settlements andevicting Israeli citizens), and watched while free anddemocratic elections welcomed violent extremists into thepolitical fold, and in Gaza even put them in charge. Andthen, rather than moderating their behavior and assuming theresponsibilities of civilized governance, these groupsinstead took the opportunity to mobilize and mount armedassaults that killed and captured Israeli militarypersonnel.The inevitable and entirely predictable military responsehas called down terrible death and destruction throughoutthe Hezbollah strongholds in southern Lebanon, bringing ruinto large portions of a nation that sought no war withIsrael, but which has been effectively hijacked byextremists supported and controlled from Syria and Iran.The blood is entirely on their hands, yet when even Arabnations like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were able, atleast initially, to recognize and condemn Hezbollah'saggression, MPAC has once again laid the blame squarely atIsrael's doorstep. In a July 16 communiquehttp://www.mpac.org/article.php?id=378 MPAC willfullydistracts us from the real issue by asserting, "Regardlessto the role of Iran and Syria in this conflict it isillegitimate for pro-Israeli sympathizers to skirt fromIsrael's responsibility for escalating the level of fightingwithin the region," and then for good measure makes apositively Orwellian bid for spin control by adding that"MPAC also calls upon all those who are engaging in ananalysis of the current situation to cease the use ofIslamic terminology to explain this very clearly politicalnarrative."In a July 19 communiquehttp://www.mpac.org/article.php?id=380 MPAC calls on "allpeople of conscience" to oppose a congressional resolutionin support of Israel and instead "to demand an immediate andunconditional ceasefire and condemn the continued Israeliaggression against the Palestinian and Lebanese people." Init Salam is quoted as saying, "We must make our voices heardin order to do all that we can to bring an end to thismerciless round of violence, and to restore the sanctity ofall civilian life."Not a word, of course, about the culpability of Hamas andHezbollah, not to mention Iran and Syria, in fomenting andexacerbating this crisis. Last Friday, Hezbollah leaderSheik Hassan Nasrallah blustered, "You Zionists, you wantedan open war and you will have it." Today, Hezbollah'sapologists are pleading for relief and rescue from thecalamity it brought down upon itself, but it is universallyrecognized that any ceasefire leaving Hezbollah's weaponsand warmaking capacity intact would be merely setting thestage for a future attacks and ongoing suffering andcivilian casualties on both sides.Salam's statements are perfectly consistent with MPAC's,CAIR's (Council on American-Islamic Relations) and otherMuslim propagandists' post-9/11 efforts to recast the globalstruggle against radical Islamic terrorists as somehowhaving little or nothing to do with Islam per se, when intruth it has everything to do with Islam in its mostvirulent and dangerous form. We are meant to believe this issimply one more post-colonial liberation struggle, like somany others long sentimentalized by the Left -one in whichIslam plays at best an incidental part - rather thanproperly recognizing it as the epicenter and flash-point ofradical Islam's war on the West, war on modernity, and evena nihilistic war against itself.It is particularly repellent to me that not only Salam, butRabbi Beerman and Rev. Regas are similarly to be honoredwith this award - when all three recently participatedtogether in the farce of MPAC's " Interfaith Vigil to Endthe Occupation" following the initial attacks on Israel. Toreiterate: Israel no longer occupied Gaza or SouthernLebanon. Free elections had been held, after which Israelwas attacked first from those territories withoutprovocation. And amid all the crocodile tears shed by MPACover civilian casualties, it is Hamas and Hezbollah whosecrete their weapons and mount their rocket and missileattacks from within civilian neighborhoods, using thePalestinian and Lebanese populations as both willing andunwilling "human shields," and who target civilian, notmilitary, areas inside Israel.Hezbollah and its sponsors have put civilians on both sidesof this conflict squarely in harm's way - and yourprospective honorees have turned the situation on its headto cast the principal victims as the aggressors. At thiscritical juncture, these three are those whom the ACLU ofSouthern California has seen fit to honor in the name ofreligious freedom? For shame, Ramona. For shame.In frustration and sorrow,Joel BellmanSubject: RE: No Honor for MPAC's Al-Marayati Date: Thu, 20Jul 2006 12:38:30 -0700 From: "Bellman, Joel" To:Elizabeth -I will look forward to that. I've been getting anunbelievably enthusiastic response from everyone to whom Ihave sent it (virtually all on the Left).Back in 1978, she kindly took the time to write me a verythorough two-page personal letter attempting to defend theACLU's position on the Nazi Skokie march, which as you knowcost the ACLU many members (including me for a couple ofyears, as I think you and I once discussed). That said, Iwas disappointed that she focused relentlessly on the issueof whether Nazis should have free speech rights, not on thespecifics of how they should be allowed to exercise them inthis unique situation - thus entirely missing the point,because I agreed with her that they should have thoserights. But for me, it was instead a time/place/mannerissue, and that didn't include a residential street whereHolocaust survivors would be forced to see uniformed Nazismarching past their front windows. I know the courtseventually agreed with the ACLU position (anyone can bewrong), but I objected to the way she mischaracterized theobjections that many of us had to the ACLU position.I mention all this because I will be very unhappy, again, ifRamona responds with boilerplate about the right to dissent,the need to maintain open dialogue, etc. etc. - and does notsubstantively address my objection to singling out forspecial honors this particular trio - and most especiallySalam and MPAC which he represents, when they are engagingin such an outrageous and disingenuous media blitz in themiddle of a terrible and entirely unnecessary shooting warwhere his constituency are clearly the aggressors.Of course they all have their rights to speak, which Icontinue to defend. I am explicitly objecting to the ACLU ofSo Cal decision to pay them special tribute in the midst ofthis deplorable propaganda campaign.Cheers,Joel

Treasury Mainstreams Dramatic Plights

Published plays — especially those in anthologies — tend to be dismissed by the casual browser as specialty items, of interest only to students of theater history or to actors in search of audition material. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick clearly had something else in mind when they compiled their lively new collection, “Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays.” Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life.

Schiff and Posnick have chosen well, covering territory as diverse as the Argentine white slave trade, the plight of the Refuseniks in the Soviet Union, and the longstanding friendship between Marc Chagall and Yiddish theater legend Solomon Mikhoels. While all the pieces are well-crafted and insightful, some are so heavily dependent on choreography and stage effects that they fall a bit flat on the page. Other entries read like short stories, as absorbing in book form as they likely are in performance. Without critiquing all nine of the pieces, suffice to say that the more verbal and less visually driven pieces tend to be the most readable.

Not surprisingly, two of the standouts are by Jeffrey Sweet and Donald Margulies, who are familiar to American audiences from their Broadway and off-Broadway successes. Sweet’s “The Action Against Sol Schumann” examines one of the perpetually nagging questions of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

The time is 1985, and outspoken Aaron Schumann flies to Bitburg, Germany, to protest Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery full of German soldiers. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, Aaron cannot countenance the president’s portrayal of Germans as victims. Aaron’s moral absolutes are tested, however, when another survivor identifies his father, Sol, as a former kapo. Desperate to put together a defense, Aaron and his brother, Michael, search far and wide. If they can find an eyewitness, they may be able to substantiate their claim that their papa had little choice and even used his position to help other Jews. Finally the two brothers locate an elderly survivor who remembers Sol, but not in the way they’d hoped. Sweet’s dialogue brilliantly mingles the universal and the painfully personal, and the plot moves along with the brisk pace of a good mystery. Unfortunately, the ending feels far too convenient: Aaron, an inner-city schoolteacher, is killed when he tries to break up a knife fight. Thus Sweet lets his protagonist, and the audience, off the hook too easily. A more fitting resolution would have shown Aaron struggling to maintain his sanity as he reconciles the cherished memory of a loving father with the terrifying image of a willing collaborator in his own people’s destruction.

A different kind of conundrum animates Margulies’s “God of Vengeance.” Although the play is adapted from a work by Sholem Asch, Margulies’s clash of dialects vibrates with the influences of Elmer Rice and Clifford Odets. In the tenements of New York City’ s Lower East Side, the 1920s roar with a decidedly Yiddish inflection. Jack Chapman, aka Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, runs a prosperous bordello. One flight up, he tries to maintain a kosher home and to keep his beloved daughter, Rivkele, pure and innocent. When he buys a Torah scroll for Rivkele’s dowry, he finds himself confronting a God whose dictates he has ignored all these years. Alternately frightening and hilarious, his ferocious outbursts are balanced by lyrical scenes of same-sex intimacy. At 17, Rivkele can no longer be tied down. Defying her father’s admonitions, she sneaks downstairs to the brothel. Here, Manke, a prostitute suffering from a different kind of loneliness, offers Rivkele the full embrace she cannot find anywhere else.

Lesser known but equally talented, Marilyn Clayton Felt brings a Shavian intensity to her penetrating study of the Middle East peace struggle. Inspired by true events, “Asher’s Command” concerns a friendship between Arab car mechanic Samir and young Israeli draftee Asher. When Asher’s car breaks down in the territories, Samir is happy to help and shows no animosity toward the young soldier. The problem turns out to be a potato jammed into the tailpipe; hardly an act of ruthless terrorism, but certainly an omen of what’s to come. The friendship continues through the years, but is put to the test in the 1980s when Asher becomes commander of occupation forces. Although he truly believes he can make a difference from within, he receives little support from either side. Arabs suspect trickery behind the peaceful overtures, and Jewish hardliners see him as a traitor to his nation. Tensions erupt when a group of Israeli youths enjoy an outing in Nablus in defiance of regulations. Stones are thrown, shots are fired and Samir’s auto shop becomes an unintended battleground. As Asher is called on to enforce the law, he ends up on the opposite side of his longtime friend. Although a melodramatic subplot proves somewhat distracting, Felt’s well-crafted allegory provides a mature and unflinching portrayal of Israel’s continuing internal and external conflicts.

As for the more experimental pieces, the most affecting is Corey Fischer’s “See Under: Love,” a play within a play within a play adapted from a Hebrew novel by David Grossman. In America, young Neuman neglects his wife and son while speaking to the ghost of his grandfather, Herr Wasserman. Once a popular Polish author, Wasserman is now interned in a concentration camp. Here he’s commanded to be S.S. officer Kurt Neigel’s personal Sheherazade. Each night he invents a new chapter of a surreal adventure story, which Neigel transcribes into letters to his wife. The Nazi is having trouble at home, as Frau Neigel no longer wishes to be touched by hands that stink of death. As the story deepens, Neigel’s conscience slowly awakens. When he truly encounters the horror of his actions he can no longer function, and takes his own life. Fischer skates on thin ice here, dangerously close to a relativistic worldview in which we’re all victims. But by the end of “See Under: Love,” Neigel’s crisis becomes less a moral acquittal than an existential song of lament. Evil, Fischer seems to say, consumes everything in its path, including what little claim to humanity its perpetrators may hope to make.

Unfortunately, only one of the nine plays — Jennifer Maisel’s touching “The Last Seder” — can really be called “contemporary.” Re-examining the past is a worthy task for any dramatist, but the inclusion of a few works that take place in today’s world (“Brooklyn Boy,” “Modern Orthodox,” “Jewtopia”) would have made this collection feel less like a history book and more like the up-to-date dispatch its name suggests.

Article courtesy of The Forward.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and theater critic living in New York.


When Faiths Jam

At the Southern California Islamic Center last Saturday night, only Shawn Landres dared utter a four-letter word. That word was, “kumbaya.”

Yes, the evening brought together about 150 Jews, Muslims and Christians for a night of prayer and music at the center, which had never before hosted such a gathering.

And yes, it began with a drum circle.

But if the faithful had one thing in common, underneath their kippahs and collars and hijabs, it was that not one of them wanted this night confused with those circa-1970-“Free to Be You and Me” warm and cuddly attempts at interfaith dialogue. No, this was Faith Jam 2006.

And the biggest difference between those previous attempts at ethno-religious harmony and this one? This one seemed to work.

Musician and community organizer Craig Taubman had wanted such an event to be part of the weeklong “Let My People Sing” celebration. The Passover-themed musical happenings took place in synagogues and community centers throughout L.A. An interfaith component, he told me, fit the theme: “Passover is about liberation, and we’re enslaved by our hatreds.”

Organizing took finesse. Taubman tapped Landres, director of research at Synagogue 3000, to use his ample interfaith Rolodex. He brought on 16 Jewish, Christian and Muslim groups as co-sponsors, including Abraham’s Vision, IKAR, Muslim Public Affairs Council, the Omar Ibn Al Khattab Foundation, and the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

The Islamic Center came on board enthusiastically, according to its religious director, Jihad Turk. But there were conditions: grape juice, not wine, for Havdalah; no dancing; appropriate dress; and no overt mention from the Christians of Jesus as God or the messiah. The center vetted the gospel choir’s songs, and in the program its name, The Christ Our Redeemer A.M.E. Church Choir, became COR A.M.E.

Another concern was overloading the event with Jews, a drawback of interfaith dialogues past. Landres compiled three R.S.V.P. lists and cut off the Jewish respondents in order to ensure equivalent amounts of Muslims and Christians. By 8 p.m. the place was full, the drumming had stopped, and Turk quieted the crowd with the traditional, piercing Muslim call to prayer.

The evening had three acts. First came ritual. Taubman and Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva, another co-sponsor, lit the traditional Havdalah candle, woven together from three wicks.

“This night and nights like this are so long overdue,” Rabbi Levy said. “Tonight we pray to come together to celebrate our differences and treasure our oneness.” (The rabbi also happens to be my wife, but no person of any faith seemed to hold that against her.)

The Rev. Wilma Jakobsen of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena gave a brief sermon, urging the audience members to work within their faith traditions to help the poor and oppressed.

Then Turk invited everyone to shed their shoes and join the center’s men and women for the traditional evening prayers, or isha, men shoulder to shoulder in front, women behind them. “We hope to get a better understanding of who the Other is,” Turk said.

Several Jews migrated over to the prayer room and lined up as the prayer leader led the worship. It was the full-on experience — standing, kneeling, bowing — just what you see on the evening news but with, yes, some Jews and Christians sprinkled in. I mentioned to a woman standing nearby that the young man leading the prayers, Abdelwahab Ben Youcef, was almost unnaturally handsome.

“Oh, he’s an actor,” she said. “He played one of the Palestinian terrorists in ‘Munich.'”

After the ritual came the main program: the music. The Christ Our Redeemer gospel choir lit up the room, followed by Ani Zonneveld, a Muslim recording artist and head of the co-sponsoring Progressive Muslim Union. Then came the Yuval Ron Ensemble, whose Middle Eastern music, with its organic blending of Muslim and Jewish roots, enthralled the crowd (their CD table did brisk sales) and MC Rai, a Tunisian-born Muslim hip-hop artist. Two comedians, the Jewish Beth Lapidus and the Muslim Maz Jobrani provided comedy breaks.

And afterward came the mingling.

Why was this night different from all other attempts at interfaith dialogue?

First, the crowd skewed young. Because the agenda was largely musical, the night brought out young Jews and Muslims, the demographic that wanted a fun night out, not a lecture.

Second, the ritual wasn’t dumbed down. People who knew their stuff conducted Havdalah and the Muslim evening prayer, without abridgment or reinterpretation. I asked Landres why that was — and that’s when he said the word.

“We’re not doing ‘Kumbaya’ where we all get together and hug,” he said. “This is the way a new generation does dialogue.”

What Landres seemed to mean was: There was no dialogue. We didn’t have to sit in a circle and look into the Other’s eyes and tell him how we feel. No one led a pointless discussion about Mideast peace — as if we have any say in it.

“It’s just breaking the ice,” Turk told me, “and music goes beyond words.”

Actually, I noticed only a modest amount of real mixing. Most people hung with their own, enjoying the music, baklava, mint tea and enhanced bottled water beverage. The reviews were positive.

Islamic Center members Nadim and Gita Itani — he’s Lebanese, she’s Iranian — pronounced it good.

“It’s unprecedented,” said Nadim, a 30-something architect. “And it’s about time.”

The apparent success of the enterprise gave him hope.

“It’s foundational,” he said. “Singing beside a Jew as we close the Sabbath, that’s when you get goose bumps.”

A young Palestinian American who only wanted to give his name as Muhammed — “I work in the entertainment industry,” he explained — said the Havdalah ritual he witnessed touched him, too.

“We have to all get together,” he said. “People who are opposed to this kind of night, they shouldn’t even be in this country.”

Now that kind of intolerance? It’s a beautiful thing.


Hamas Rises as Kadima Declines

After a visit to Moscow, Hamas leaders claim “the wall” of diplomatic isolation Israel is trying to build around the newly empowered organization is collapsing.

But Israeli government officials say they are still confident that the international community will cut off funds to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and back Israeli moves for a second unilateral pullback from Palestinian territory.

In its essence, the Moscow trip perfectly served Hamas’ strategy: to gain as much international recognition as possible without making concessions to Israel.

Following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared that the organization did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and that the internationally accepted “road map” peace plan was no longer relevant.

If the Russians had hoped to score diplomatic points by persuading Hamas to accept the West’s conditions for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and repudiation of violence — they failed utterly.

Hamas, however, succeeded in getting a Russian promise to urge the West not to withhold funds earmarked for the Palestinians.

Hamas has had other diplomatic successes. Its leaders have held talks in Turkey, and have been invited to South Africa and Venezuela. They also claim some European countries are maintaining contact with them.

More importantly, European funding for the Palestinians has not yet dried up. The European Union is releasing $143 million in emergency aid to the Palestinians, on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of economic collapse, and that Hamas has not yet formally taken the reins of power.

With an eye to retaining Western aid, without which it couldn’t function, Hamas has been putting out mixed messages. On the one hand it says it won’t recognize Israel; on the other, that it’s ready for a long truce.

In a rare interview with Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Alistair Crooke, a former EU adviser on security who knows the Palestinian scene well, put a positive gloss on Hamas’ position. Crooke argued that a real process of change is under way in the organization, and that it would be ready to end the conflict if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 boundaries, known as the Green Line.

He says Hamas wants a mutually agreed, long-term cease-fire so that it can concentrate on Palestinian institution-building in preparation for full statehood alongside Israel.

Crooke, who now runs the London-based Forum for Conflict Resolution, recently met with top Hamas people and clearly was getting a message across for them. But it’s not clear whether Hamas is genuinely ready for some sort of accommodation with Israel, or whether Crooke is merely being used as a pawn by Hamas in a game aimed at impressing European and other Western donors.

For now, the Israeli government does not believe in the sincerity of what’s behind these indirect overtures. While the Hamas leaders were in Moscow, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Europe trying to preempt an erosion in the European Union’s hard line on Hamas.

In talks in Vienna, Paris and London, Livni argued that it’s essential that Europe keep up its diplomatic and economic pressure on Hamas. She also maintained that it would be a mistake to try to circumvent Hamas and negotiate with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, from the somewhat more moderate Fatah Party, because he’s in no position to deliver.

Indeed, Israeli policy is based on pressuring Hamas to moderate its positions and, if that fails, convincing the international community that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side and that, therefore, Israel has no option but to set its borders unilaterally.

Thus, the main goal of Livni’s European trip seemed to be to set the stage for a second unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory, if her party, Kadima, wins the March 28 general election.

In line with that strategy, on Sunday, Kadima announced its plans for a second disengagement. Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, outlined the details: Israel will dismantle isolated West Bank settlements, relocating the settlers in large settlement blocs close to the Green Line, or in Israel proper.

The Israel Defense Forces, however, will remain inside the evacuated territory, just as was done in the northern West Bank following the evacuation of four settlements there last summer. Dichter calls it “a civilian, but not a military disengagement.”

Dichter explained that since there is no Palestinian peace partner, Israel, too, sees the road map as a dead letter, and that it would negotiate the new boundary lines with the international community, especially the United States, rather than with the Hamas-led Palestinians.

Hanan Krystal, a political analyst for Israel Radio, commented that by officially announcing its disengagement plan, Kadima has set the March 28 election agenda.

“The election will now be a referendum on a second disengagement,” he declared.

The timing of Kadima’s announcement may have been intended to boost the party’s electoral prospects. Over the past few weeks, polls have shown Kadima’s share of the vote steadily declining.

Pollsters, who initially paid little heed to the loss of a seat or two, now are talking about a trend. Weekend polls show Kadima getting some 37 seats, well below the 43 it had three weeks ago. Most of the gains have been made by the right — which may not be surprising, given Hamas’ accession to power, which has allowed the right- wing parties to paint a picture of an Iranian-backed, Al Qaeda-supported radical state on Israel’s doorstep.

The Kadima plan is intended to show that the centrist party has a realistic answer to the threat, and one more likely to bring about stability and calm than anything the right or left can offer.

Still, for the first time, there is talk of Kadima not forming the next government. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud is openly pressing for a Labor-Likud coalition with a rotating premiership: first Labor’s Amir Peretz, then the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peretz dismisses the idea out of hand, but Shalom argues that if the swing away from Kadima continues, things could change dramatically. With an election looming later this month, the public response to Kadima’s disengagement plan could be crucial.


Director Pays Price in Making ‘Capote’

Truman Capote, the legendary writer and subject of the eponymous Sony Pictures Classics release that has been nominated for five Academy Awards, spent six years writing “In Cold Blood,” the book that would cement his literary legacy while also leading to his spiritual downfall.

If the writing of “In Cold Blood” proved a Faustian bargain for Capote, the making of “Capote” has not left its principals unscathed. Bennett Miller, 39, who has received an Oscar nomination for best director, speaks over the phone with the world weariness of a much older man, one who has weathered many crises.

“I can’t imagine anything that’s going to prove as difficult,” he said about directing “Capote.” “It took everything out of me, and it took everything out of Phil [actor Philip Seymour Hoffman], as well.”

Caroline Baron, the film’s producer who worked with Hoffman on “Flawless” and has known screenwriter Dan Futterman and Miller for a number of years, said that all films present challenges, but that from the outset, she had “100 percent confidence in Bennett as a director and Phil as an actor.”

Hoffman’s presence in the project helped her convince investors to pony up $7.5 million for a movie to be directed by a first-time feature filmmaker.

Where Capote never forgave himself for betraying, or at least manipulating, Perry Smith, the murderer with whom he had bonded in writing “In Cold Blood,” Miller said that collaborating on “Capote” brought him, Futterman and Hoffman, who have known each other since they were teenagers, “even closer. Something like this challenges you.

“In the natural course of a friendship,” he continued, “it doesn’t always happen that one’s wants are up against another’s. Not just any wants. Deeply felt wants.”

Miller, who like Futterman is Jewish, met the latter in junior high in Westchester County, N.Y. He spent much time at Futterman’s house, even occasionally celebrating Passover together. If Miller is not very religious, he has been obsessed with filmmaking since he got his first camera, a Super-8, when he was 11.

He got some strong reviews but little recognition for “The Cruise,” a 1998 documentary that follows the quirky life of a homeless Manhattan tour guide who rattles off statistics about the Big Apple while riding a double-decker bus. “Capote” marks his entree into the A-list, just as “In Cold Blood” made Capote an international literary phenomenon.

Capote was already a darling of cafe society, renowned since the late 1940s for his short stories and later novels like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” when he saw the potential for creating a nonfiction narrative using techniques traditionally associated with fiction writing — interior monologue, differing points of view and voice. He wanted to get the reader so deeply into the heads of two murderers that the reader would not only be chilled but also feel a modicum of empathy for Dick Hickock and particularly Smith.

Miller, Futterman and Hoffman have honored the man some view as the greatest postwar writer by making a film that, like the best of Capote’s prose, has both a spareness and beauty. One of the frequent images in the film is a shot of barren trees in the early Kansas morning; they stand alone like sentinels that have failed to protect the Clutter family from violence.

Without a word of dialogue, these shots tell us what we have to know about Kansas, that it is a lonely part of the country with a lot of open space, and that there is something austere, even a little sinister, that could be lurking in this land.

If Capote disarmed people with his self-deprecating wit, his effeminate mannerisms and above all his bizarre voice, he also disarmed them with his surprising toughness, the kind that allowed him to brave a foray into Middle America, where few had encountered an eccentric like him before.

Still, it took its toll on him, just as it has on Miller, who relates a story from kindergarten. All the kids were asked to take those colorful, big blocks, known to all kindergarteners, and to construct “a kind of needle, a pyramid.” Miller hid underneath a desk and watched as the other kids assembled their structures.

“Finally, I ventured out to do it. I did it deliberately upside down.” With characteristic fatigue in his voice, he said, “That is how this movie feels to me.”


Parental Values Do Influence Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Harmony on the Table at Interfaith Events

At the Islamic Center of Southern California, each table had a word. There was “family,” “social action,” “prayer,” “rituals” and “holidays.” Participants were asked to move to the table that reflected how they viewed their faith.

The exercise was part of the second annual Jewish/Muslim Dialogue organized by the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Ethics. About 120 people participated in the program, which included a screening of three clips from a new documentary that emphasizes ongoing cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians.

Last month’s event was one of several recent interfaith programs across the city, including one through the Sholem Foundation, where progressive Jews and progressive Muslims met to commemorate the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. There also was an interfaith Shabbat service last week at Temple Kol Tikvah.

“The majority of Jews I have met in Los Angeles over the past eight years … have been extremely open and receptive about understanding Islam,” said Mehnaz Afridi, who helped organize the event with the Wallenberg Institute.

She added that, by contrast, Muslims were not as willing initially to participate in interfaith exchanges. Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

“The only positive fringe benefit I can see out of Sept. 11 is that the Muslim community suddenly realized that they had to become open and visible and transparent,” said Ruth Broyde-Sharone, a Jewish producer and director who has been active in interfaith work for 20 years. She stressed the importance of people learning not to fear “that every mosque in the city was a breeding group for terrorists.”

While the people who took part expressed disagreements over Israel and Middle East policy, the prevailing sentiment was a desire for peaceful co-existence.

About the Middle East conflict, Bangladeshi Muslim Omar Huda said, “In my prayers, I keep saying, ‘God, please make it go away,’ because it covers the whole screen [of interfaith relations].”

Huda, who has known Broyde-Sharone for more than two years, said that although they have had disagreements when they talk about politics, there also is trust between them that solidifies their friendship.

“We have something established now that no political discussion could rent asunder, because we have created something as human beings,” she said.

These interfaith dialogues remain works in progress. Huda said he does not feel comfortable, for example, talking about theology in the course of an online interfaith discussion with people he doesn’t know. And at gatherings, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb said that many dialogues suffer from “speaker syndrome,” bringing in speakers and not letting communities actually talk to one another.

Despite the differences, however, “we have a common heart,” said Abdul-Wahab Omeira, a Muslim chaplain for the L.A. County Department of Corrections. “We have a common goal. Help us further our cause, for it is your cause.”

Both Muslims and Jews understand what it is like to be the outsider, said Muslim minister Tasnim Hermila Fernandez: “We have all had the concept of being ‘the other.’ We have worn the other shoe.”


Spectator – Movie for ‘Rent’

More people can afford “Rent” this month, thanks to Revolution Studios. The production company brings a film version of the Jonathan Larson rock opera to movie theaters this week, directed by Chris Columbus and starring most of the original Broadway cast.

Set against the backdrop of New York’s East Village in the late 1980s, and based on Puccini’s opera, “La Boheme,” “Rent” tells the story of bohemian artist friends struggling with poverty, heartbreak, drug addiction and AIDS.

Perhaps because of its gritty, real themes and characters, the show has been credited with generating interest among younger generations in musical theater. “Rent” is currently the eighth longest-running show in Broadway history, with a fan base affectionately called “Rentheads.”

Notably absent from the film creation is show creator Larson, who died of an aortic aneurysm on the eve of the play’s first preview. Larson’s sister, Julie, is the film’s co-producer, which should ease fans’ minds about the filmmakers’ desire to do justice to a show that has won both Pulitzer and Tony awards.

Indeed, the sound and feel of Broadway’s “Rent” are intact, even while the music assumes a slightly edgier rock core, and some dialogue is spoken rather than sung.

Jewish Rentheads can also rest easy, as the little nods and throwaway lines Larson wrote for Jewish character Mark Cohen are still there, too. Mark still mentions his bar mitzvah, and talks about learning to tango with Nanette Himmelfarb, the rabbi’s daughter at the Scarsdale Jewish Community Center.

The filmmakers also kept the part where Mark’s mom calls him on Christmas to wish him a happy holiday. That may sound strange, but actor Anthony Rapp, who reprises the role from Broadway, explained that Mark’s character was drawn from Larson’s own experience.

“I know that Jonathan did celebrate Christmas in their house, but I think they also had a menorah,” Rapp said.

This loyalty to Larson’s vision is a hallmark of the film.

“We’re here to serve Jonathan and the play,” said Tracie Thoms, who plays Joanne in the film. “And we’re here to serve all the fans who were touched and moved and saved by the play.”

“Rent” opens in theaters Nov. 23.


Clash of Ideas Should Be Addressed

The age of terror, it seems, has sprouted an era of dialogue. A host of conferences designed to bring together East and West are cropping up everywhere.

Never before, perhaps, have so many talked so optimistically about so serious a problem. But behind all the words is one unspoken disagreement that may imperil any chance for progress.

My direct encounter with this optimism took place at a high-profile get-together, the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, in mid-April. Organized by the Qatar government and the Brookings Institution, the conference was packed with more than 150 scholars and leaders from all sides who diligently discussed both the needs and the means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. Strikingly, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not tie the implementation of such reforms to progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

From the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahla to Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon, almost every speaker ended his or her speech with a reminder that American credibility hinges critically on progress toward resolving the Palestinian problem.

This critical connection also livened up discussions at the World Economic Forum in Jordan in mid-May. According to The Economist, Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, “barked: Palestine!” every time Liz Cheney, an assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, mentioned the vision of an “Arab democratic spring.”

“There will be no spring or autumn or winter or summer without solving the problem,” he thundered.

But the distinctive and refreshing feature of the Doha conference was the civility with which this issue was discussed. The word “occupation” was hardly mentioned, and the usual accusatory terms “brutal,” “colonial,” “racist,” “apartheid,” etc., were pleasantly absent from the main discourse; all claims and grievances were neatly encapsulated into a modest call for “progress toward a solution.”

This stood in sharp contrast to another East-West conference earlier in April in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in which the Malaysian prime minister reportedly stated that Israel should cease to be “an exclusively Jewish racist state,” and where the overwhelming majority of participants, representing 34 countries, demanded that Israel be dismantled.

Enticed by the aura of civility in Doha, and as a representative of an organization committed to East-West dialogue, I was curious to find out what speakers had in mind when they pressed for “progress on the Palestine issue” — progress toward what?

Deep in my heart, I had hoped that the elite delegates in Doha would be more accommodating than those in Putrajaya, and that, safe in the protection of private discussions, I would find progressive Muslims who are genuinely behind the so called “two-state solution” and the “road map” leading to it. If this were not the case, I thought, then we are in big trouble again — Muslims might be nourishing a utopian dream that the West cannot accept, and sooner or later, the whole dialogue process, and all the good will and reforms that depend on it, would blow up in the same conflagration that consumed the Oslo process.

I was not the only American concerned with such gloomy scenarios. Richard Holbrook, America’s former ambassador to the United Nations, urged the Arab world to contribute its fair share toward meaningful movement of the peace process. He reminded the audience that by now, two and a half generations of Arabs have been brought up on textbooks that do not show Israel on any map, and that such continued denial, on a grass-roots level, is a major hindrance to any peaceful settlement.

I had a friendly conversation on this issue with one of Dahlan’s aides, who confessed that “we, Palestinians, do not believe in a two-state solution, for we do not agree to the notion of ‘Jewish state.’ Judaism is a religion,” he added “and religions should not have states.”

When I pointed out that Israeli society is 70 percent secular, bonded by history, not religion, and that by “Jewish state,” Israelis mean “national Jewish state,” he replied: “Still, the area of Palestine is too small for two states.”

This I found somewhat disappointing, given the official Palestinian Authority endorsement of the road map plan.

“Road map to what?” I thought, “to a Middle East without Israel?” Arafat’s death has presumably put an end to such fantasies.

I discussed my disappointment with an Egyptian scholar renowned as “a champion of liberalism.” His answer was even more blunt:

“The Jews should build themselves a Vatican, a spiritual center somewhere near Jerusalem. But there is no place for a Jewish state in Palestine, not even a national Jewish state. The Jews were driven out of Palestine 2,000 years ago, and that should be final, similar to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain 500 years ago.”

These views brought to mind my friends in the Israeli peace camp who place all their hopes on the two-state dream, and for whom the terms “one-state solution” and “Jewish Vatican” are synonymous to genocidal death threats. My puzzled thoughts also went to all the Europeans and Americans who believe to have found an inkling of flexibility on Israel’s legitimacy in the progressive Muslim camp.

But if my experience in Doha was merely a glimpse at how Muslim elites conceptualize the Middle East “solution,” it was soon topped by a May visit to the University of California at Irvine, where the Muslim Student Union organized a meeting titled, “A World Without Israel” — cut and dry.

And if that was not enough, there came a colorful radio confession by the editor of the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Arabi (May 29, 2005), Abd Al-Halim Qandil:

“Those who signed the Camp David agreement … can simply piss on it and drink their own urine, because the Egyptian people will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli entity.”

Putting aside troubling reports about Arab textbooks, television programs and mosque sermons, Qandil’s bold statement drove home a very sobering realization: In 2005, I still cannot name a single Muslim leader (or journalist or intellectual) who has publicly acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two legitimate national movements.

One side dreams of a world without Israel; the other sees Israel as a major player in the democratization and economic development of the region — will this clash of expectations burst into another round of bloodshed?”

But, looking ahead at the plentiful attempts to build bridges to the Muslim world, one wonders whether this outpouring of energy and good will should not first be channeled toward hammering out basic common goals, followed by educational programs and media campaigns that promote them, rather than glossing over a fundamental disagreement of such importance. Failure to address uncomfortable differences has a terrible way of extracting higher costs later on.

Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter brutally murdered in Pakistan in 2002.


Blasts Bring Fear of Anti-Semitism Rise

Jewish leaders have vowed they will work to combat any rise in racial tensions following the London bombings, amid fears that the attacks may lead to increased anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

“Certainly when there have been attacks in the past, we’ve seen a spike in anti-Semitism and vandalism,” said Mike Whine of Community Security Trust, the body that monitors threats to British Jewry. “We’ve already seen some extremist Web sites blaming Jews for the bombing, and we would be foolish to ignore it.”

There are similar concerns over dangers to the United Kingdom’s Muslim community, with arson attacks at several mosques around the country over the weekend and Muslim organizations reporting quantities of hate mail. Imam Abduljalil Sajid, a prominent British interfaith activist, said he had seen Muslims being spat at in the street, hours after the bombings. Community leaders have advised Muslims “to keep a low-profile,” he added.

The seriousness with which the British government regards the threat of racial violence could be judged by its rapid reaction. The morning after the July 7 bombings, which claimed more than 50 the lives and injured approximately 700, Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Orthodox chief rabbi, was among religious leaders called to the Home Office, the government body responsible for domestic security policy. The Home Office emergency meeting was held to discuss a joint response.

On Monday, Sacks joined Sheikh Zaki Badawi and church representatives to pledge they would “strengthen those things we hold in common and to resist all that seeks to drive us apart.” (See opinion page 8.)

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies, the representative body of U.K. Jewry, said that it recognized the concerns and would take up the challenge to “develop tighter bonds and increase dialogue.”

Ironically, the terror attacks came only days after a new report released by Alif-Aleph, a Jewish-Muslim dialogue group, highlighted positive contacts between the two communities throughout the United Kingdom. The study, which was welcomed by Prime Minister Tony Blair, revealed that both religious groups increasingly understand the benefits of addressing Islamophobia and anti-Semitism together, with informal, grass-roots exchanges leading to significant and lasting relations, based on mutual trust.

Jewish leaders fear the London bombings may also spur a wider anti-Israel backlash that could affect British government policy.

In a BBC Radio interview Saturday, Blair announced that it was vital to address what he called the deep-seated causes of terrorism, pointing to the situation in the Middle East as the key to understanding the roots of the violence. Though Blair didn’t mention the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by name, many concluded that was his intended focus. His comments were welcomed by pro-Arab lobbyists.

“Once things calm down, there has to be a debate about how British policies relate to the rest of the world,” said Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, a London-based lobby. “I agree that resolving this conflict will help.”

Israeli officials, while expressing sympathy and solidarity, have been at pains to distance themselves diplomatically from the London attacks. That has been a wise decision, analysts say.

“It’s time for Israel to sit quietly,” said Yossi Mekelberg, an associate fellow in the Middle East program at the London-based Royal Institute of International Affairs, a think tank also known as Chatham House. “If Israel connects Palestinian terror to global terror, they fall into the argument that one of the ways to eradicate the root causes of terror is to solve the Israel-Palestine issue.”

That idea has already gained wide currency in Great Britain, mostly due to the efforts of campaigners against the Iraq War who adopted “Freedom for Palestine” as one of their rallying cries, deriding Blair as President Bush’s “poodle” in the war on terror.

The situation in the Middle East was soon being cited by newspaper pundits as the reason that terror hit London.

“The real solution lies in immediately ending the occupation of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine,” claimed commentator Tariq Ali in the left-wing Guardian, insisting that “the principal cause of this violence is the violence being inflicted on the people of the Muslim world. And unless this is recognized, the horrors will continue.”

This phenomenon is something that the Jewish community, which has a long experience of anti-Israel sentiment blending into anti-Semitism, fears will impact it in coming months.

“People blame the Jews, whatever the circumstances,” Whine said.


Presbyterians Won’t Budge on Divesting


You have to hand it to those Presbyterians. Their leaders know what they want, and they won’t be deflected by things like logic, fairness or the well-being of people in the Middle East.

Church leaders in Louisville, Ky., appear determined to single out Israel for corporate “divestment,” and apparently no amount of internal revolt or outside input will dissuade them.

That’s a big problem for mainstream Jewish groups that have always operated on the principle that dialogue is the first step in dealing with intergroup conflict. The plain fact is that the Presbyterian leaders just aren’t listening.

Groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, while reporting useful discussions with local Presbyterian groups, are fed up with the national church leadership. For months after the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin a process of “selective divestment” against companies that do business in Israel, the Jewish groups continued to believe that a policy of hard-headed dialogue would help church leaders understand the glaring imbalance of their efforts.

Eventually, they believed, logic would prevail, and the Presbyterians would realize that at the very least, the timing of their action — at the precise moment when the region seemed to be moving toward a new peace process — was perverse.

They didn’t expect a sudden burst of love for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, but they thought that the Presbyterians would eventually accept what even ardent Jewish peace groups accept — that Sharon’s Gaza disengagement plan represents the best current hope for renewal of a genuine peace process, and that anything that might get in the way should be avoided.

Jewish leaders set up meetings, wrote papers, visited local churches and planned a joint trip to the Middle East with Protestant leaders. Despite those efforts — and despite a strong internal revolt by Presbyterians who were embarrassed by their church’s unhelpful actions — church leaders just didn’t get the message.

Instead of listening, Presbyterian leaders arranged rigged “dialogue” sessions featuring only Jews representing the miniscule minority that doesn’t think the divestment policy is one-sided and destructive to the peace process. When mainstream Jewish leaders complained, the Presbyterian leaders responded petulantly: How dare the Jews meddle.

The Louisville leadership held a training session on divestment and rejected a position paper expressing the mainstream Jewish view, a paper other churches willingly distributed.

Most Jewish leaders involved in the divestment fight now believe the Presbyterian effort at dialogue was just for show, and that church leaders were unalterably committed to the controversial policy.

The Presbyterian position is particularly glaring, because dialogue has shown at least the potential for progress with groups such as the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ. These churches didn’t abandon their criticism of Israel, but they listened to Jewish concerns and made an effort to find a balance between their support for the Palestinians and the call to be fair to the Jewish state.

Jewish leaders are loathe to assess the Presbyterians’ motives, but it’s getting harder to argue that they don’t include outright hostility to Israel and maybe even anti-Semitism.

How else to explain actions that imply that Israel is alone to blame for the conflict, that it is among the worst human rights abusers in the world and that its current peace efforts count for nothing? What other nations are being targeted for sanctions? How else to explain actions that give legitimacy to groups that blame Israel for everything from its separation fence to tsunamis, and drive pro-Israel forces more into the willing embrace of Christian right extremists?

Too often, Jewish groups have conveyed the impression that criticism of Israel is tantamount to anti-Semitism. It isn’t; it’s perfectly possible to detest the occupation and condemn the policies of Sharon without being anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. Israelis and American Jews do it all the time.

But to be as one-sided and as oblivious to both Israeli suffering and the progress that is taking place as the Presbyterian leaders are today suggests motives that have nothing to do with a genuine desire for peace.

Jewish groups are beginning to accept the obvious conclusion: The time for dialogue with the hostile, irrational Presbyterian leadership has passed and a more confrontational approach is in order, including publicly challenging their motives and their commitment to a fair peace in the region. At the same time, dialogue with other groups that have proven more sensitive and with local Presbyterian groups needs to be increased.

The point should be emphasized over and over again: It’s not just the knee-jerk defenders of Israel and Likudniks who think divestment is a terrible idea, but Jewish groups from across the ideological spectrum.

Jewish leaders worked hard to get through to the Presbyterians, but church leaders weren’t listening; they have demonstrated beyond any reasonable doubt that dialogue is not their goal, a fair peace not their real interest, and they should be dealt with accordingly.


Our Future Lies Rooted in Ourselves

The last time my name appeared in The Jewish Journal, I had just been dubbed the “Milken Idol” for winning a public-speaking contest with what

The Journal termed a “stirring pro-Israel speech” that called for “Zionist solidarity.”

In that speech, I said that “there are no more excuses for apathy, complacency or passivity” and spoke of how we must empower Israel to stop a “sick, repulsive enemy.” Looking back more than half a year later, I do not know if I truly understood how significant and imperative my message was.

Since making that speech, I have traveled to Poland with March of the Living and visited Israel three times. I now understand.

This past weekend Duke allowed the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) to hold its annual conference on campus. When it became clear to me that the president of the university thought hosting a group that would not condemn terrorism affirmed the value of free speech and “dialogue,” I struggled with how I would react.

I found an apologetic attitude toward terrorism on campus. The editorial in our school paper supported the PSM’s decision to not condemn terrorism by ludicrously explaining that “if the PSM were to take a stance on the legitimacy of suicide bombings and other militant acts as a means for a solution, it might alienate a segment of its members.”

I stayed in contact with members of the American Jewish Congress and StandWithUs, joined Duke Friends of Israel, became active with the Freeman Center for Jewish Life, helped the Joint Israel Initiative with ads for the school paper and joined the Duke Conservative Union, the only non-Jewish student group that condemned and protested the school’s decision to host the conference.

I engaged anyone and everyone in debate and tried to contend with the widespread mentality that believes supporting the underdog is an “educated” point of view. I was invigorated in my outrage when I walked by signs telling me that by virtue of being a Zionist I supported ethnic cleansing.

In the week before the conference, faced with a campus rife with ignorance and no strong collective Jewish voice, I still did not know exactly how I wanted to respond.

I decided to attend a PSM workshop, spend some time at the Freeman Center and then join the protest against the hatefest on its final day.

At the conference, I found the group’s messages abhorrent and reprehensible. It was also painful it was to see some PSM organizers wearing Magen Davids and sporting anti-Israel T-shirts and passing out materials with anti-Semitic slogans. When a Jewish PSM organizer with a chai around her neck walked into the room and stood next to me, I was so repulsed that I had to leave the conference.

I’m a product of Los Angeles Jewish schooling, yet by some divine error I ended up at a campus that was not only devoid of any Jewish identity, but also hosting a divestment campaign.

Yet I keep thinking back to the girl with the chai as a lucid reason of why I ended up here. The image makes clear to me that my role as a Jew in a world that is growing more and more anti-Semitic is not to try and eradicate hatred of Jews from the earth.

My role is to help my Jewish peers be proud and knowledgeable members of this community, so that I never again have to attend an anti-Semitic campaign organized by Jews.

Our survival boils down to one thing: our peoplehood. It is the intangible quality of Judaism that made two Australian girls invite me to Shabbat dinner on the first day of school, even though nothing I was wearing would have identified me as Jewish.

That quality is the thing that allows for Sinai Temple to have a successful program helping our fellow Jews in Argentina and for Milken to have an exchange program with Jewish Mexicans. It is the thing that empties out dozens of El Al jets so that under the cover of night, persecuted Ethiopian Jews can become Israelis. It is the raid on Entebbe. And it is the indescribably beautiful thing that makes Israel an open country to any and every Jew.

The PSM has reinforced the sense of urgency I expressed seven months ago. Anti-Semitism is not the stuff of the 1930s we read about in our history textbooks. It is the story of my past weekend, it is in this morning’s newspaper, it is the truth of many world leaders, and it is not going away.

The PSM showed me once again why the future of the Jewish people does not rest with converting uneducated hypocrites into reasonable human beings.

Our future rests with ourselves — a future rooted in the Jewish people, a future where we continue to be the people God chose and blessed from all others, a future where every Jew recognizes Israel as the physical manifestation of their religion, and a future in which we continue to disappoint every person who dreams of our end by continuing to be the most educated, charitable, successful and cohesive group of people in the world.

Duke Hillel Fights Pro-Palestinian Forum

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is intensifying the fall-semester buzz at Duke University this year.

In advance of the fourth annual Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement, chatter on the limits of free speech and the contours of the Israel-Palestinian conflict have filled the pages of the campus newspaper.

Divisions over the Oct. 15-17 conference represent the latest battle between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian campus activists to take place during the four years of the Palestinian intifada.

The conference, sponsored by the local pro-Palestinian group at the North Carolina-based university, also has some Jewish students and alumni wondering if Duke will lose the momentum it has gained in recent years as a hospitable place for Jewish students.

Conference organizers are calling on universities to drop their investments in Israeli companies, work to “end the Israeli occupation” and accelerate the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees.

As it has in previous years, the conference has prompted outrage — an online petition asking Duke’s president to ban the event has garnered more than 66,000 signatures — and less-confrontational responses from mainstream Jewish groups.

Like other universities that have hosted the conference, which in the past has drawn some 150 activists across North America, Duke is permitting the event on the grounds of free speech, but reiterating its policy against divesting from Israel.

“We believe the best antidote to speech that others find disagreeable is more speech, not less,” stated Duke’s senior vice president, John Burness. “We are encouraged, therefore, that the Freeman Center for Jewish Life at Duke is proposing to provide opportunities for others to express differing viewpoints on the Israeli-Palestinian question.”

Indeed, Duke’s Hillel affiliate, the Freeman Center, hasn’t tried to prevent the conference; instead, Jewish students have crafted a response centered on what they believe is a broad-based consensus: condemning terrorism.

From Shabbat teach-ins and lectures to a major rally/rock concert benefiting terror victims, the effort to counter the conference marks a jumping-off point for increased dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that is anchored in opposing terrorism.

“We may not know all the issues, and we may have complex political ideas or not, but we understand terrorism is not good,” said Jonathan Gerstl, executive director of the Freeman Center. “I think we’re really looking at this as a uniting” campaign for the campus.

Indeed, in an open letter published in the campus newspaper last month, the Joint Israel Initiative, a coalition of student groups formed to combat the conference, asked the conference organizers to condemn the murder of innocent civilians, support a two-state solution and engage in respectful dialogue.

But the Palestine Solidarity Movement and Hiwar, the campus pro-Palestinian group hosting the conference, refused to do so.

Rann Bar-on, a local spokesman for the solidarity movement and a Duke graduate student, said the group only supports non-violent action, but “would not sign the statement because it violates the philosophy of the organization, which will not condemn any Palestinian action,” Duke’s campus newspaper, The Chronicle, reported.

“The Jewish people have the right to exist in some state,” but the movement cannot dictate its borders or creation, Bar-on told the Duke newspaper.

Bar-on did not reply to an e-mail seeking comment about the group’s agenda.

The group’s Web site, however, indicates there will be workshops on building a Palestinian presence on campus, promoting divestment and discussing the “anatomy of the organized Zionist community in the United States.”

Meanwhile, the anti-terrorism card pushed by pro-Israel students has won the support of key groups on campus.

Duke’s council of residential halls, the student government and the student union have agreed to sponsor the Oct. 14 “Students Against Terror” concert, featuring the band Sister Hazel, with donations aiding terror victims in the United States, Israel, Sudan and Russia, said Mollie Lurey, who heads the Joint Israel Initiative.

On behalf of one of its prominent shareholders, Mitchell Rubenstein, Hollywood.com will co-sponsor a telecast of the concert on its Web site and on the Hillel Web site, Gerstl said.

Rubenstein is the chairman of the Freeman Center’s advisory board.

The anti-conference effort, which includes the weekend teach-in, featuring former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg, along with yearlong educational programming, will cost up to $125,000, he said.

Funding has come from Duke alumni and student groups along with local federations and foundations. To date, Hillel has raised $65,000 for the program, with the biggest donation — a $10,000 check — coming from Hadassah: The Women’s Zionist Organization of America.

According to Lurey, of the Joint Israel Initiative, previously unaffiliated Jews have now become involved in supporting Israel.

Still, she says Jewish students are feeling anxious about potential rhetoric at the upcoming conference.

Meanwhile, some worry whether Duke’s hosting of the pro-Palestinian conference will tarnish the university’s reputation in Jewish eyes.

Already, an Atlanta Jewish day school cut ties with Duke’s program for middle school students in response to the conference, North Carolina’s News-Observer reported.

“Jewish Duke alumni are very, very, very concerned that all the advances that have been made at Duke in the past couple of decades will end up being for naught,” said Duke alumnus Steven Goodman, a Washington-based educational consultant for prospective college students.

In recent years, Duke has stepped up efforts to recruit Jewish students, who make up anywhere between 15 percent and 25 percent of the student body, Goodman said. But the school’s relationship with the Jewish community is “much more precarious” than schools like Tufts or the University of Pennsylvania, whose deep, generational ties to the Jewish community could withstand a blip on their record.

Duke could be perceived as “indifferent or hostile to the Jewish community,” which could drive away prospective Jewish students, said Goodman, who penned editorials in Jewish newspapers urging Duke not to host the conference.

Gerstl disagrees: “I think the university has worked very well with the Jewish students [by meeting with students and local Jewish federation leaders].”

“The university knows it makes decisions that aren’t always popular,” he said.