July 18, 2019

Yom Kippur 2018

There is something about high holidays services, especially Kol Nidre, that brings me peace. I am a woman of faith and could listen to my Rabbi give a sermon all day long, but I feel like I am in the presence of God on this particular day. Perhaps it is because I am surrounded by a group of people and we’re all praying together, or maybe it is because my heart is open on this day. Open to all my emotions. Kol Nidre feeds my soul in important ways.


I like the cleansing that comes with Yom Kippur. I may not always be able to forgive those who hurt me, but I’m able to forgive myself for hanging onto the hurt, which then allows me to let go. If I have hurt anyone, I ask for your forgiveness and offer you a sincere apology. This day is not only about seeking forgiveness from others, but offering forgiveness to yourself. I go into Kol Nidre with an open mind. A mind that tells me I am starving and the fast hasn’t even started yet, but  know it is coming!


Yom Kippur is the one day of the year I feel completely free. Free of my demons, of which there are many, and free of the chaos that has been known to dance in my mind. I am able to tune out the noise, permit myself to have honest self-reflection, and simply be quiet with God. I will think about the past year, thank God for standing by me as I went through it, and pray for the strength to be brave, even when I don’t think am. It is a very important day to me.


I am not the type of person who looks for guarantees. Things happen, both good and bad, so I’m a roll with the punches kind of girl, but tonight there will be guarantees. Tonight I will search for forgiveness and it will come. I will pray for clarity and it will come. I will count my blessings, hold my son’s hand, pray out loud, and allow my faith to embrace me. May all of our names be inscribed in the book of life, may we have health and happiness, and may God guide and bless us. Thank you for being here and keeping the faith.



Promises Worth Breaking – A poem for Kol Nidre by Rick Lupert

All vows –
This legal document
written in unholy language

a prenuptial agreement
for our inevitable failing.
This relationship with

the year itself
a contract awaiting
the biggest signature.

Please, cancel my subscription
but charge my card anyway.
I don’t deserve the content.

Every promise I make
a guaranteed broken one
between today and

a year’s worth of
Jewish days from now.
The next time the shofar

is dusted off,
we’ll have this conversation again.
Forgive me this year

and last year and next.
Forgive everyone who ever
stood at the mountain.

Forgive our promises
our oaths, our vows, all vows
You made the whole world

and on this day and every day
You knew this would happen.
Pardon me. Please.

God Wrestler: a poem for every Torah Portion by Rick LupertLos Angeles poet Rick Lupert created the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 21 collections of poetry, including “God Wrestler: A Poem for Every Torah Portion“, “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

Kol Nidre LIVE 2018

Worshippers will come together September 18 at 6:30 p.m. for a Yom Kippur service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva.

The service will be broadcast worldwide and later archived at kolnidrelive.com. Viewers will be able to follow the service in a downloadable prayer book, and connect via commenting with fellow “congregants” around the world.

Kol Nidre is the evening service of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement, the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, will fast and/or will attend services on this day.

Sign up for Kol Nidre LIVE updates!


[Support this program by donating to Nashuva]

Levy, a rabbi and best-selling author, whose latest book is Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul, was ordained in the first class of women at Jewish Theological Seminary. She founded and leads Nashuva, Hebrew for, “We Will Return.” Nashuva is a post-denominational, non-membership community open to all that meshes spirituality with social action.

You can also preorder the new CD: Heaven on Earth – Songs of the Soul

Tribe Media Corp. is dedicated to improving the world through media. Our brands include Jewish Journal, jewishjournal.com, and the Daily Roundtable.

Check back on this page for updates!



Why Kol Nidre keeps calling

Although you are not sure why, you don’t want to be late for Kol Nidre. As the sun is going down, there you are in the car, even running a yellow light or two, hurrying toward the shul, temple, rented room or wherever it is you go to begin Yom Kippur.

It’s not as if you’re that religious, but somewhere in your head, where yontif memories are filtered into expectations, and doubt rubs up against belief, the majestic music and solemn words — of which you know only a few — are calling: Kol Nidre, ve-esarei, va-haramei, v’konamei.

As you look for parking, you wonder where these feelings are coming from. Is it that Kol Nidre is a powerful prayer or blessing? It’s neither. Kol Nidre, which means “all vows,” is a legal formula for the annulment of “vows, renunciations, bans, oaths, formulas of obligation, pledges and promises,” made not to another, but to yourself and God.

The murky origins of Kol Nidre do not provide much of an explanation for why it has had such a lasting grip on us. Although in Spain it might have relieved some Marrano Jews of guilt from the vows they took upon being forced to convert, many researchers believe the legal formula already was in existence long before that, sometime in the eighth or ninth centuries. The tradition of saying Kol Nidre also is supported by a Talmudic statement that calls for a similar practice to nullify every vow.

Whatever its origins, according to “A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice” by Isaac Klein, the purpose of Kol Nidre has been “to provide release from vows in matters relating to ritual, custom and personal conduct, from inadvertent vows; and from vows one might have made to himself and then forgotten. It does not refer to vows and promises to other people.”

Yet, throughout the formula’s history, that has not been the universal understanding. During the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, some Christian courts and monarchs held that it meant a Jew could annul any promise. Some mid-19th century Reform rabbis, recognizing the confusion it could cause, even tried to do away with the legal formula.

Written in Aramaic, the language in which most Jews were conversant at that time, the idea was that everybody should understand it. Connecting us over the centuries to that age is the Jewish perspective that words are important, and that at times a promise made to ourselves or God was not made thoughtfully, realistically, with enough knowledge or the right intent, and we need a way to start anew. Kol Nidre presents that rare opportunity to reset, and perhaps it is this opportunity that draws us to hear it year after year.

Adding to its place in our lives, during the Ten Days of Repentance, the period of time from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, there is an opportunity to resolve issues between you and other people, but during Kol Nidre, there is an opening to resolve issues of the self and your relationship with God.

Helping to add drama to the recitation of this legal formula is the setting. Standing before the heavenly court of life and death brought to mind by the Yom Kippur liturgy, the recitation of Kol Nidre is the time to deliberate on our vows. The tradition is to repeat the formula three times, and thank heaven for that because even if we are late arriving, we still can hear the words: May they all be undone, repealed, canceled, voided, annulled.

Traditionally, the first time, one says the words softly, as one who hesitates to enter the ruler’s palace to make a request; the second, a little louder; and the third even louder, as one who is used to being in the ruler’s court.

Embellishing the courtly setting is the Torah pageantry. Before Kol Nidre is said, all of the congregation’s Torah scrolls are taken from the ark, and as an honor, presented to individuals to hold. In an unambiguous display, the staging lets us know under whose authority the court has been convened, and for good reason.

The Torah contains several verses concerning vows, and teaches that “you must fulfill what has crossed your lips and perform what you have voluntarily vowed to the Lord your God”(Deuteronomy 23:24). In so doing, it helps to explain the need and urgency for a legal formula that covers instances when we have messed up.

But for what year? Originally, the text read that the period the formula covered was from the “past Yom Kippur until this Yom Kippur.” However, according to “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Prayer,” Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), the grandson of the famous French Torah commentator Rashi, argued “’of what value is the cancellation of all vows to him who takes them and immediately declares them null and void?’”

He revised Kol Nidre to read “from this Yom Kippur to the next,” the text that most machzorim use today, although some Ashkenazi and Sephardic congregations use both, covering past and future. Others feel the revised text sufficient since it is ambiguous enough to cover the past and coming years.

For many Jews, the rush to hear Kol Nidre is not so much about the words as it is the music. Setting the table for a spiritual experience, and answering our emotional needs, if ever there were a song to begin a fast by, this would be it. Several variations are in use today, but most are derived from what is called a “Mi-Sinai” (from Sinai) melody — that is, according to Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, a tune “treated as if they came from Moses himself” — that emerged in Rhineland communities of Germany and France sometime between the 11th and 15th centuries.

Even if your singing voice is not one with the angels, or you can’t carry a tune in a bucket, you still can remember how some of Kol Nidre goes. Especially where it drops down low, then rises majestically, the music seems to imbue us with a sense of identity and a way to acknowledge our frailties.

The rush to shul has been worth it. Standing in the presence of Torah scrolls, family and friends, dressed in your best, maybe even in white, with the words and music washing over, we have arrived at that rare point in time when we can feel regret, and nullify some of our poor judgment.

Whether the formula gives us cover for the coming year or a chance to disavow past vows, we stand at a rare and powerful moment. Kol Nidre can lift us over missteps of the past year and help us to think, not twice but three times, before stepping into the new.

Man, G-d and the Great Conundrum

On Wednesday evening, Sept 20th, Jews ushered in the Jewish New Year. The first day of the Semi-lunar Calendar month of Tishrei commemorates 5,778 years since the Biblical story of the creation of Mankind as recorded in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis. As part of New Year celebrations many attend a local synagogue and read the liturgy of prayers, hymns, supplications and confessions. For others, the holiday is simply a reunion of family and friends over dinner festivities. Bread and apples dipped in honey will be eaten, accompanied by reciprocal wishes for a sweet New Year. The agnostics, atheists, and believers will convey good wishes.  

Merubim Tzarchei Amcha. Plenty are the needs of your Nation we proclaim. Indeed!

Oh Lord the Omnipotent:

May the heart surgeons have much success, may the elderly have healthy hearts. May the litigators find work, may the businessmen have no conflicts. May the unemployed find jobs, may the employers have a leaner staff. May the veterans be honored, may all war cease.  May the academics attain tenure, may the universities have a more innovative workforce.  May the plumbers keep busy, may there be no leaks. May the retailers thrive, may the consumer save online. May the teachers attain wealth, may private education be affordable. May the dentist have patients, may our children have no cavities.  I envy you not, My dear G-d.

Oh Lord the Omniscient:

May our leaders speak truth even just once, long live our political leaders. May the markets rise, may the short sellers see another day. May our pensions grow, may our posterity cease to fund them. May those mourning find solace, may mortality strengthen us. May the pharmaceutical companies make discoveries, may humans experience eternal well-being. May humanity achieve a solar powered world, may the oil drillers find work. May the auditors pore over our books, may the regulators resign. May our taxes be reduced, may the roads be paved. I covet you not, my dear Father.

Oh Lord the Omnipresent:

May the incarcerated be redeemed, may crime disappear. May the winds blow on the high seas, may the islands survive their wrath. May the coal miner have their sustenance, may we breathe cleaner air. May the mail carriers relax, may the packages arrive on the weekend. May the ski resorts have an abundance of snow, may there be no blizzards. May the flight attendants find empty seats, may the airline shareholders receive large dividends.  May the hotels be full, may all Airbnb listings be oversubscribed.  May the policemen protect us, may there be no arrests. May the rich share graciously, may there be no poor.

To the Undertakers we say, “Go out of business, but not quite today.” For to whom would we turn when our lives expire?

I lose no trust in you, my dear Master.

For the atheists there are no answers, for the agnostics but a few, for those of us who still consider ourselves believers, there are meant to be no questions. But mortality and the human condition have overtaken us. Can we truly resolve with absolute conviction that you will work this all out?

I seek optimism in those around me. I lean over and glimpse at the diversity of our people.  I hear the believer expressing a heartfelt cry. I notice the agnostic shrugging with a mix of anticipation and despair. But then a flicker of hope emanates from the soul and pierces the heavens. I hear the atheist softly praying, not for himself of course, but for the rest of us that line the pew.

Shmully Hecht is the Co-founder of Shabtai; the Jewish Society at Yale University.

New Year, New Everything

As I start writing this I am on a plane, flying from London to Los Angeles. After a sunny morning on the drive to Heathrow from Beckham Palace in Chigwell, clouds have rolled in and it would appear I am taking the sun back to California with me. I land in LA at 4:00 pm, home by 5:30, out the door for Rosh Hashana services by 6:00. I’m already tired so I will be exhausted by the time I get to shul, but I am looking forward to beginning a new year.

It has been a busy time with a lot of things going on personally and professionally. I am being forced to reevaluate things, and while I certainly feel pressure about a lot of things, I have decided to embrace it all and rather than stress out, enjoy a mid-life crisis and go a little crazy. If I can’t throw caution to the wind at age 51 and roll with it, when can I? I am diving into the new year with an almost desperate desire to be brave and bold.

When my son was born I began to worry about dying. I was terrified something would happen to me, so I became painfully cautious. So much so that in retrospect I think I limited how I lived. Of course one could attribute it to simply being a Jewish mom who worries too much, but the bigger truth is once you become a mother you live your life for someone else, and that causes fear to creep in. You want to be there for your child, so you live in fear.

When I was told I had cancer my fear became consuming. I was so scared of what it could possibly mean to have cancer, I didn’t pay attention to what it was doing to me emotionally. I was unsure what I was supposed to do and was paralyzed with fear because my father died of cancer. I wrote my own story and focused on things that didn’t matter and weren’t even necessarily true.  I was lost and stayed that way for a long time. I have finally cleared the fog.

A few weeks ago a transformation began and I can say with real conviction that my mid-life crisis is proving to be a great thing. After being at my day job for over 9 years and countless trips back and forth to London, I up and quit. I bought a new car, colored my hair, ended a relationship with a man I was certain I would love one day, but also certain I would never respect. I pre-ordered Hilary Clinton’s book, and found myself a new job. It is time to start living again.

This new year matters to me. It will be the year I listen to my own advice. I always say we need to be brave, not only follow our hearts, but not settle for the things we get because we believe they are what we deserve. Instead I am going into the year knowing I deserve it all. I am going to kick ass at my new job, and find a man I want more than I need. A man who gets how fantastic I am and is strong enough to let me be me and be himself.

I am now safely at home, reunited with my remarkable son, and ready to live out loud in ways I never have before. The new year has begun and I am hopeful, certain things will be great. I am also wise enough to know there will be bumps in the road, but I am a great driver so it will all be fine. I have a date this weekend and start my new job next week. I also have what appears to be the beginnings of a cold and jet lag, but I welcome all of it.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year. I hope your challenges are few, but when you hit a bump, and you will, know I am there cheering you on. Be brave. This is your life and only you can live it. Do what makes sense to you and what feels good to you. Have some fun. Have more sex. Have really good sex. Laugh out loud. Resist. Make a difference. Inspire change. Speak out. Go out. Everything is possible if you believe, so keep the faith.



How Houston’s synagogues are handling the High Holy Days after Harvey

Piles of ruined books from United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston. The congregation lost many of its prayer books and replenished them through donations. Photo courtesy of United Orthodox Synagogues

A few weeks ago, Holly Davies was getting ready to homeschool her kids and preparing the family for the High Holy Days. When Hurricane Harvey hit, she helped evacuate 150 people from her neighborhood by airboat and shelter nearly 100 people in a local church.

Then came the hard part.

For the past three weeks, Davies has been leading a force of up to 300 volunteers who have mobilized to repair homes and synagogues in and around the heavily Jewish housing development of Willow Meadows. Davies has spent September  coordinating teams who are clearing Sheetrock, stripping floors, preventing mold and distributing aid.

Her volunteer operation is headquartered in Beit Rambam, a Sephardic synagogue that was spared flooding, and has helped rehabilitate the homes of about 100 families. But Davies is also helping lead the effort to make sure those families have a place to pray when Rosh Hashanah begins Wednesday.

“It’s very important for the community to have their central worship place, to not feel fragmented, not only in their homes but in their community,” she said. “A lot of people are staying with friends or other people in the community.”

As the entire Houston area recovers from Harvey, synagogues face the added difficulty of drying out their buildings days before the holiest and busiest days of the year. Three large synagogues sustained substantial damage from the flood, forcing them to improvise, relocate or make do with whatever floors, books and ritual objects remained intact.

“There was not any part of the synagogue that was immune to the flooding,” said Rabbi Brian Strauss of Beth Yeshurun, a Conservative congregation. “There was water covering the first seven rows of the sanctuary. You couldn’t even see the seats.”

Strauss said his synagogue sustained about $3 million worth of damage. Along with cutting out floors, cabinets and Sheetrock, and disinfecting the building — the basics of flood recovery — the synagogue will have to bury nearly 1,000 holy books that were ruined in the flood. The synagogue will set up a Harvey memorial at the burial space.

United Orthodox Synagogues, another Houston congregation, had up to six feet of flooding in some places and also lost most of its prayer books. Congregation Beth Israel had damage in its sanctuary, mechanical room and offices. No Torah scrolls were damaged at any of the congregations, as they were in high places when the flooding began.

United Orthodox isn’t sure if the building can ever be completely repaired, while Strauss is shooting for his building to be back to normal for the High Holy Days — in 2018. In the meantime, the synagogues have found makeshift solutions. United Orthodox’s 300-some families have been praying, meeting and eating in a large social hall that avoided the worst of the water. The synagogue has also had hundreds of new prayer books donated from publishing companies and synagogues outside Houston, including 400 machzors, or High Holy Days prayer books.

A room in United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston, stripped of its furniture and floors. (Courtesy of United Orthodox Synagogues)

Beth Yeshurun has been holding bar and bat mitzvah services in a nearby high school auditorium, and otherwise has joined with Brith Shalom, a nearby Conservative synagogue that was not flooded. For the High Holy Days, Beth Yeshurun will be meeting at Lakewood Church, a Houston megachurch that’s donating its space and support staff. To give the building a Jewish feel, Beth Yeshurun will be projecting photos of its artwork on the church’s walls.

“Everyone is being incredibly cooperative and patient,” said Rabbi Barry Gelman of United Orthodox Synagogues. “This is an incredibly responsive community. Despite this, we’re really looking forward to a beautiful Rosh Hashanah.”

The rabbis have handled their synagogues’ recovery while also dealing with personal crises. Both Gelman and Strauss had flooding in their houses. Gelman, along with a few dozen Jewish families, has moved to an apartment complex near the synagogue that he now calls a “kibbutz.” Other religious families are hosting displaced neighbors who want to stay within walking distance of their synagogues.

“There’s a lot of expenses, there’s the physical upheaval, the emotional upheaval,” Gelman said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty, stress. The human cost of this is really unimaginable and ongoing.”

Houston’s Jewish community has also been buoyed by outside donations. Aside from approximately $9 million raised by the local federation, Israel pledged $1 million in aid, and the Orthodox Union and Chabad also sent money and volunteers.

A kosher barbecue food truck from Dallas drove down and has been making up to 1,000 meals a day, and three kosher caterers from Dallas also sent meals to Houston’s Jews. Seasons, a kosher supermarket chain, and Chasdei Lev, a charitable organization in New York, sent trucks of kosher perishable items and dry goods, including clothes. Two Israeli wineries, Golan Heights and Galil Mountain, donated 100 crates of wine to Houston Jewish institutions.

“Food is getting semi-back to normal,” said Tzivia Weiss, executive director of the Houston Kashruth Association.

Weiss said that while donations are plentiful, people are hesitant to take them because they “want to feel like people that can go to stores and buy their own clothes.”

The flood has also affected what’s usually troubling rabbis the most ahead of High Holy Days — their sermons. Strauss, who was going to talk about pressures affecting teens and young adults, will instead be discussing his family’s personal experience during Harvey and how to avoid fixating on material possessions. Gelman will talk about the connection between homelessness and repentance, as well as how to respond to the flood while thinking of the future.

“I’ll talk about long-term thinking, and not relying on short-term answers to life’s difficulties,” Gelman said, describing his Rosh Hashanah sermon on the second day. “Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the birthday of the world. We see this as an opportunity for our own rebirth.”

Oh baby, baby: Five options for dealing with babies on the High Holy Days

Photo by Deposit Photos.

New parents have a lot to figure out: how to get their baby to sleep through the night; when to introduce food; how to binge-watch Netflix while being sleep deprived. The High Holy Days present one more thing for new parents to figure out: how to atone for your sins while taking care of your baby.    

While most synagogues offer a plethora of childcare options for children who can walk and talk, most new parents are trying to decide what the best option may be for their babies. Here are just a few helpful suggestions for new parents to consider.

Find services made for young families

Many synagogues offer High Holy Days services specifically designed for young families during which crying, nursing and screaming not only are tolerated, but expected. These services are often under an hour and free. For instance, Temple Judea in Tarzana offers a “Tot High Holiday” service where clergy appear in costume and put on “a fun and wild show,” according to Ellen Franklin, Judea’s executive director. “It’s entertaining but with some traditional prayers.”

At Sinai Temple, there is a 45-minute volunteer-organized “Shofar Blast” service that is “by kids, for kids,” according to Rabbi Nicole Guzik. The service features a “highlight reel” of prayers including Avinu Malkeinu and the mourner’s Kaddish and leads into the synagogue’s “Torah-in-the-Round” family-friendly service for those who choose to stay for a fuller High Holy Day experience.

During Shofar Blast, “you’ll get a message from the rabbi and a puppet show,” said Guzik, who noted that the service is not designed for parents to chitchat but really to connect to their kids and to the spirit of the holiday.

Be there but be flexible: Go to adult services

For many parents with babies, attending regular adult services is still an option. While some synagogues explicitly discourage babies from adult-only High Holy Days programming, others are fine with infants so long as parents follow the implicit rules of High Holy Days decorum.

When Betsy Uhrman’s children were babies, she would transport them in a carrier and follow her synagogue’s  “unspoken etiquette” of sitting in the back or near an exit.  If her baby started making noise, Uhrman simply stepped out, which happened often. “I was happy to have them there but I wasn’t actively present in services,” she said.

This year IKAR, the spiritual community located in Mid-City, is setting up a “Pray-ground” with toys for children younger than 4 in the balcony overlooking the space where their main services are being held. There will be a closed-circuit feed for parents to hear the full service, including the sermon. 

“We are trying to create space that makes parents feel part of the service even if they are not in the room,” IKAR Executive Director Melissa Balaban told the Journal.

It takes a village: Attend services with family and friends

Childcare doesn’t need to be a one- or two-person task during the High Holy Days. Many new parents choose to attend services with their support networks to divide the childcare responsibilities.

Last year, Tova Leibovic Douglas, a rabbinic student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, wanted to spend some of her time in services actually praying — not just watching over her 18-month-old daughter, Eve.

For the High Holy Days, Tova and her husband, Austin, split their time between their home shul and the synagogue where Tova’s extended family was attending services.

“It made it easier for us,” she said. “Instead of Austin or me being the ones to have to watch Evie, we got to split the responsibility among ourselves, my parents and my sisters.” Austin added that in addition to being helpful, “going to services with my in-laws was a good opportunity for them to spend time with Evie,” adding that “it made services more enjoyable for everyone.”

Stephanie Steingold Bressler’s village of support wasn’t family members but other congregants at her synagogue. “When my kids were too young to go to official child care, I let rebellious teens, who were already in the lobby, take turns hanging with my kids,” she said.

Parents’ night out: Get a baby sitter

For some parents, the important work of accounting of the soul is more easily done when the kids are not around at all, so they choose to hire a baby sitter. 

Betsy Uhrman, who does attend most services with her children, always hires a baby sitter on Kol Nidre. “It is really rare that my husband and I carve out time for our own spiritual reckoning,” Uhrman told the Journal, “so on Kol Nidre, it’s important that we are both present.”

Uhrman chose Kol Nidre as the time for a baby sitter because of how “powerful” the service tends to be as well as for the importance of maintaining bedtime for her kids.

Synagogues on occasion make accommodations for baby-sitting young children. Wilshire Boulevard Temple offers baby-sitting to member families that preregister for children at least 3 months old, and at Sinai Temple families can request caregiver passes — which enables nannies to enter the building to watch over children without having to purchase tickets.

Bowing out: Staying home

For some new parents, the right answer for their High Holy Days experience is to stay home with their children and observe the holidays in other ways.

For Jenny Platt, taking her 16-month-old son, Sawyer, to services last year was going to be too big of an ordeal.

“I read Rosh Hashanah books with him and he watched a video of shofar blowing on the computer,” she said. An unconventional solution, but Platt said she was grateful that she could still celebrate the holiday with her son.

For some parents with young kids, staying home feels like the only option. “When you have an infant and a 2-year-old that wants to run around and there is no programming for them, you stay home,” according to Tamar Raucher, whose husband, Noam, is the head Rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. When her kids were too young for formal programming, she said, “the day became about celebrating with friends afterward at Rosh Hashanah lunch.”

Trump to hold annual High Holy Days call with rabbis

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office on Jan. 28. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

President Donald Trump will hold a pre-High Holy Days, conference call on Friday with Synagogue Rabbis despite a boycott from rabbis who belong to the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“In commemoration of the Jewish High Holy Days, President Donald J. Trump would like to invite you to a conference call where he will send well wishes for the upcoming holidays and discuss his administration’s progress on issues of interest to the Jewish community,” the email invitation, obtained by Jewish Insider, reads. “We hope that you will accept our invitation to join this exciting call as the Jewish people welcome 5778 and reflect on the past year.”

The tradition started during the 2008 presidential campaign. It became an annual practice, with the participation of several hundred rabbis and Jewish leaders, during Barack Obama’s presidency. While the call was billed as a non-partisan briefing, President Obama often used the call to pitch and seek support for his administration’s domestic and foreign policy decisions, such as ObamacareMiddle East peace, and the Iran nuclear deal. In George W. Bush’s administration, similar conference calls took place but usually with a broad range of Jewish leaders and senior administration officials, according to an official who helped organize the briefings.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, Trump’s inauguration rabbi who criticized the President over his response to the Charlottesville protests, confirmed to Jewish Insider that he was invited to participate on the call. Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan who oversaw Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism, did not receive an invite. “But if I were, I would dial in, out of respect for the President of the US,” Lookstein told Jewish Insider in an email.

Graham Roth, Communications Director for the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said the initial boycott decided upon following Trump’s remarks on the Charlottesville protest still stands. “Our position has not changed. Reform rabbis, along with Reconstructionist and Conservative rabbis, decided to forgo hosting the annualHigh Holy Day call with the President this year,” he said. “This was not a decision made lightly, but the President’s lack of moral leadership in the wake of Charlottesville made it necessary.”

What the Eclipse Taught Me About the High Holy Days

Photo courtesy of USAF/ Museum of Aviation.

Every year my family and I go on a summer road trip. This year we chose to travel to Casper, Wyoming to experience the Totality of the Great American Solar Eclipse, 2 minutes and 26 seconds when the moon totally covers the sun. The temperature drops, the birds go silent, night falls, the stars come out and you have a 360 degree panorama of sunset. It is nothing less than a physical encounter with God.

We viewed the eclipse with a gathering of both veteran and amateur astronomers. These astronomers taught my family more about the universe’s planetary system in three hours than we could have otherwise learned in a lifetime.

The tension was mounting as we counted down the seconds to experience the unimaginable. With 80 percent of the sun being covered by the moon, we could feel the temperatures dropping and the wind picking up. At 90 percent we could sense the sunlight growing weaker like a winter day in the late afternoon. With a minute to go until Totality we noticed the western horizon darkening as a giant shadow raced towards us. It was impossible to see the leading edge of the 1720 mile-an-hour moon shadow as it engulfed us.

And then all at once the crowd roared “ooh” and “aah” as the moon completely covered the sun in the most spectacular sight I have ever seen in my life.

The moon, physically invisible up until now, was perfectly positioned over the sun as white wispy streams of light poured out of the entire 360° circumference of the sun beyond the edges of the darkened moon. It seemed as if it took up the whole sky.

The stars came out, along with Venus and Saturn. We were living Totality! It was the fastest and most spectacular 2 minutes and 26 seconds of my life.

We didn’t want it to end. Like the shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur Day at the Neilah service when you just want to forever hold onto your breakthrough to God and His loving embrace.

It was a paranormal experience. Despite all my preparation for this instant, it was totally surreal. Everyone around us was in an altered state. Stunned. Euphoric. Holding onto the moment. Even the veteran eclipse chasers were overcome with awe. I felt like I was getting a glimpse of God revealing His presence on Earth.

The astronomers told us that before you go into Totality you have to have a plan. How would you make the most of the 146 seconds? What are you going to see, record, and think? Everybody had to know how to budget their time. Do we do that in life every 146 seconds? Shouldn’t we? Most of the time we don’t use our time this planned out, assuming for sure we will get another 146 seconds, hours, days or months.

I wish I could always be in this state of mind of total reality. No one was daydreaming. Smart phones were out of view.

I also made it a point of saying the Shema. I wanted to lock in this moment forever and anchor it to my relationship with God. I looked at my children and wife, Rochel. They were in their own world trying to process this.

We wanted to grab this for eternity. I will never let this moment go and will always thank God for it. But in truth God gives us Totality every second with all the blessings that fill our lives if we would just stop and consider.

Today God gave us a rare gift from on high. I hope to take it with me to Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, into my Sukkah, and for the rest of my life!

I want every day to be Totality with my Creator. I want to be aware. I never want to daydream, rather to be excited by life always. I want to be striving for things that are so important and meaningful that pettiness and disappointment have no space in my mind.

The eclipse taught me that you can have the sun, moon and earth on different orbits and in a rare synchronistic moment, they create a phenomenon that seems beyond probability.

So too in our lives when we are challenged and trying to solve so many dilemmas. After much effort the moving pieces all come together in a harmonious solution that is beyond our imagination. In fact, sometimes we look back on our lives and come to realize that certain situations have resolved themselves, eclipsing the issue we were so worried about.

Isn’t that the ultimate message of the Days of Awe? At-one-moment – atonement! May you too reach Totality in your life.


Rabbi Aryeh Markman is Co-Director, The Western Wall Experience and Executive Director, Aish LA. Reprinted with permission from aish.com.


Words Matter…Dammit!

The violence in Charlottesville was scary, upsetting, vile and – unfortunately not surprising. 

The United States has become a country deeply divided by wealth, education, color, religion, opportunity and politics. It should not be surprising that people feel threatened by the stranger they do not know. The more separate we are from each other, the more fearful and suspicious we have become of the other.

It doesn’t help when our President spends so much time defining what is real and what is fake news, rather than condemning obvious hatred. He is better than this and this is a distraction we can ill afford. The stakes are too high for us to make a mockery of justice and the freedoms that our constitution guarantees us.

The book of Genesis teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price.

Our Jewish legacy is that we are a people of the book, a book that reminds us that words matter. The beginning of the book (i.e. Genesis) teaches us to be like Abraham and embrace the stranger – whatever the price. Today is the day to break down the boundaries between us and them.

When we started the Pico Union Project four years ago, I sensed it was time to bring multiple faiths and cultures together under one roof. I had no idea how critical it would be to create a space for people to get to know each other, without judgement or fear. This is what I’ve learned:

  • We can do better
  • Anything is possible.
  • We can say yay when everyone else is saying nay
  • It’s better to focus on service than ‘serve us’
  • Upward mobility is not just a dream, it’s achievable.
  • We are honored when we honor all of creation.

The American way – the Pico Union Project way, begins with YOU and includes all of US.  If you have yet to check us out, The PUP doors are always open -and our eternal light is always on!

Craig Taubman

The Pico Union Project is a multi-faith, multi-cultural center committed to living the principle to “love your neighbor as you want to be loved.” We recognize that in order to love, you must first get to know your neighbor.  We use spirituality, arts, and a deep commitment to community activism as tools to draw individuals together, deepen a sense of self-awareness, and open eyes, minds, and souls to the value and potential of our community.


Three Jewish movements opt out of High Holy Days call with Trump, citing ‘xenophobia’

President Donald Trump speaking on the phone in the Oval Office of the White House on June 27. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Three streams of American Judaism will not participate in the traditional annual pre-High Holy Days call with the president, saying Donald Trump has “given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”

“We have concluded that President Trump’s statements during and after the tragic events in Charlottesville are so lacking in moral leadership and empathy for the victims of racial and religious hatred that we cannot organize such a call this year,” said a statement Wednesday by leaders of the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, which went on to the “succor” comment.

The reference was to Trump’s equivocation following the clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters on Aug. 12 in Charlottesville, Virginia. An alleged white supremacist later rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

Trump at first said there was violence on “both sides” and for two days did not single out the white supremacists for censure. A day after he did so, the president said there were “very fine people” among the far-right protesters and the counterprotesters.

“Responsibility for the violence that occurred in Charlottesville, including the death of Heather Heyer, does not lie with many sides but with one side: the Nazis, alt-right and white supremacists who brought their hate to a peaceful community,” the statement said. “Our tradition teaches us that humanity is fallible yet also capable of change. We pray that President Trump will recognize and remedy the grave error he has made in abetting the voices of hatred.”

It’s not clear whether there would be a separate call for Orthodox rabbis, who have participated in the annual calls, which were routine with President Barack Obama. Officials at Orthodox rabbinical groups said no separate call was in the works.

“We respect the office of the presidency and believe it is more effective to address questions and concerns directly with the White House,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, the executive vice president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America.

Similar briefings occurred with Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, but not necessarily formalized as a pre-High Holy Days call. With Bush, for instance, there often was an in-person meeting on the day of the White House Hanukkah party, a tradition launched by Bush.

Dying we live [1995]

When last I spoke to my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, he asked if he could borrow my kittel. He was not at home in New York but here in California and it was before the High Holidays. “You know,” he explained “the kittel is part of the tachrichim — the shrouds in which the dead are clothed for the funeral. You know on Yom Kippur I face my mortality.” When, more than on Yom Kippur, must we face our mortality?

One must be alive to one's death. Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish theologian, would tell the story of an absent minded scholar so abstracted from his own life that he half knew that he existed, until one fine morning he awakened to find himself dead. We dare not be so abstract.

You, I, and ours are living older now and equally important we have it in our hands to prolong longevity. We have the powers to extend our lives and the lives of those we love.

In the Garden of Eden the serpent seduced the human being and whispered “On the day that you eat this fruit your eyes shall be opened and you shall be as gods.” We have eaten of the Tree of Knowledge. We have become as gods. And it is revolutionizing our lives. Listen to the radical changes.

The Lord gives, the Lord takes away. But we can give and we can take life. During the services of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we heard the lament of Hannah the woman angry at her husband, Elkanah, because of her childlessness and embittered toward God because of her barrenness was heard. “I am a woman of sorrowful spirit. I pour out my soul before the Lord. Lord, look upon my plight.”

That was Hanna's cry yesterday. Today, doctors and geneticists have become active partners in the creation of human life. Through artificial insemination, sex pre-selection, host mothers, test tube babies, recombinant DNA technology, Hannah need not despair. Cry no more, Hannah! You are given a child. The first successful laboratory fertilization of a human egg by a human sperm — in vitro fertilization was reported as recently as 1969.

Science has radicalized our idea of ourselves and our prayers. The meaning of liturgy has changed. “How many shall pass away and how many shall be born? Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted?” Yesterday, the prayer was bothersome to some because it smacked of fatalism. We resented God's decrees. But God has shared His powers with us. More than ever in history we are God's partners.

Who shall live and who shall die is in our hands.

“Who by injection and who by withdrawal of medication? Who by morphine and who by hydration? Who by renal dialysis and who by halting alimentation? Who by omission and who by tubulation?”

We have new power. With power comes choice. That is the mark of modernity: the radical change from Fate to Choice. Yesterday we might say it is all in God's hands. Yesterday we said “es iz bashert” which means “it is sheared”. Today the scissors are handed into our hands. We hold in our hands what existentialism calls a dreadful freedom, a dizzying freedom.

The Greek word for choice is “harein” which means heresy. Yesterday's heresies are today's liberation. Yesterday people quoted the sages: “By dint of force are you born and by dint of force do you die”. Today, we can choose whether to be born, when to be born and when to die. The verses in Deuteronomy reverberate with a different meaning. “I have given you life and death, the blessing and the curse, choose life that you may live, you and your seed.” Choose life. That sounds easy. Life is holy. God is life, the life of the world. Listen to the insistent prayers of these Days of Awe. “Remember us to life. King who loves life and write us in the Book of Life, for Thy sake O God of life.”

So holy is life in our tradition that we are told that if our life in endangered we are mandated to violate any ritual law. To endanger one's life is a graver violation than to transgress a ritual obligation.

Judaism is life intoxicated. It is not just the toast with which we cry out to each other “l'chayim — to life,” but Jewish law goes so far as to prohibit us from testifying against ourselves in a criminal case that may result in corporal or capital punishment because life is not ours to give away. My life is God's and it belongs to God.

Choose life! Did our sages not declare in The Ethics of the Fathers, 4:22,  “One hour in this world is better than the entire world to come.” One hour of repentance and good words is superior to the world to come.

Choose life, even for “chaye shaah” — one hour of life. We read from the Codes of Hilchoth Avelim: “A dying man or woman is like a flickering candle when touched by humans it is snuffed out. Therefore the eyes of the dying are not to be closed. They may not be stirred lest it hastens their death.”

Choose life! So obvious! Yet, in the hospital corridors where sons and daughters, husbands and wives, siblings, congregate: Choosing life is far from self-evident. The doctors have grimly announced that life expectancy is short, treatment is hopeless and aggressive measures will simply prolong a painful and degrading dying process. Before them lies a moribund person in a fetal position, who has gone through endless tests and tortuous treatments. This once beautiful soul, now listless, has lost her language. She has forgotten even the names of things. Her poet, Zelda, writes “How hard to part from the names of things as from the things themselves. Her ears are deaf, her mouth mute, and her face floating on the surface of the silence.” She lives like a bird that cannot fly.

The television set has long been shut off. There is nothing outside that interests her. She stares at the naked four walls without a flicker of recognition. She has become Lot's wife, a silent pillar of salt.

She is locked in an island in which there is not even one dream. Dreamless, she repeats her plea: “I get no pleasure from anything. I give no pleasure to anything. What is there here for you to love?” Her eyes beg, “Do you love me so little that you would force me to live?”

The poet, Rachel spoke her heart:
“My strength gives less and less
Be good to me, be good to me
Be my narrow bridge across a sad abyss, across the sadness of my days
Be good to me, be good to me…be a small light, be a sudden joy, be my daily bread”

I would be good to her. But what is goodness? Fed by a tube through the nose to her stomach, her bladder emptied by a catheter, sometimes vomiting from reflex movements in her throat, half alive, half dead, I can keep her going.

In the United States alone, ten thousand people are kept alive in machines. But this one is no cipher, no statistic. This gnarled, jaundiced body is my own mother. This is the woman who heard my first heartbeat, and her last heartbeat will be in my hand. “God is invisible –but my mother is God's presence.” (Heschel)

The doctors have spoken not once those fateful words “We have done everything we possibly can for her. There is nothing more to be done.” There are no prospects beyond a vegetative state.”

Choose life! I still hear the cries of her suffering organs. Shall I allow the doctor to put another feeding tube into my mother? she who is unable to swallow on her own as a result of the stroke? Now that it is inserted and she is not recovering, dare I have it removed? When is it right to remove a respirator? When is it right to forego renal dialysis or bypass surgery? I am dizzy with semantics: voluntary active euthanasia, passive euthanasia, the right to die, the right to live, heroic measures and the quality of life. What are “heroic measures”? Having contracted bronchial pneumonia, shall I deny her antibiotics? deny her what physicians call the great friend of the terminal patient? When do I ask that the DNR – “DO NOT RESUSCITATE” sign be placed over her door?

Choose life. Dare I, her son, determine what is quality life for her and what is not? Do I exercise over-zealous medicine, practice technological brinkmanship, draw out the process of dying by unduly extended medical intervention?

And to what end? Is it for my satisfaction or hers? That she die a week or a month later — tear off another page in the calendar, but die despondent, deformed, cursing her life?

Choose life. I wonder about the old man, zayde. Would he hesitate? or would he show me the Bible? Deuteronomy 32:39 “See I, even I am He. There is no God but Me. I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal and there is no one who can deliver out of My hand.”

There are times when I would trade positions with zayde. Take away my dreadful freedom. Free me from my terrible choices. God, you decide — who shall live and who shall die.

The hour is too late. I live at the beginning of the 21st century, at the height of the bio-medical revolution. I have struck a Faustian bargain. I am as god. I am armed with marvelous physicians, with an arsenal of medical weapons, vaccines, insulin, laser beams, and ultra sound scans, radiation and organ transplantation, pace makers and heart-lung machines. I must choose. Not choosing is also a choice.

I can choose to prolong mother's life. Then I remember Karen Ann Quinlan, in a persistent vegetative state. Karen, who lost the cognitive part of her brain, was kept alive by a combination of intravenous feeding, respiration, renal dialysis and artificial heart. Fed through a tube, kept alive throughout the comatose period from April 1975 until her death ten years later. Who shall live and who shall die?

I would surrender my freedom and let God or the doctor or the rabbi choose. But I now see that there are no vicarious agents. This is my own blood and flesh and I myself must make the ultimate decision.

I look long at her in the hopeless twilight, she who has been pronounced terminal she contorted, unresponsive, kept alive only by the scientific genius of awesome machinery. And as I look at her, I see more than her: I see the reflection of my own self. She is the mirror of my soul. In dying, my confidence is shaken, I admit to deep fears and doubts and loneliness. I turn to the comforts of philosophy.

Philosophy is fine in cooler moments — speaking of the soul or eternity. The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig was outraged at the vacuous smile of philosophy when it promised immortality of spirit and denied the dying body. He cried out, “What does philosophy with its chatter about the immortality of the soul know about me, me, me,: the body that wants to remain? The body's judgment is as good as the mind's and the body shrinks from annihilation.”

I turn to the men of faith who, legend has it, are fearless before the Shadow of Death. J.B. Soloveitchik, the man of faith, confesses his irrational fears. “At times I am given over to panic; I am afraid of death. At other times, I am horrified by the thought of becoming, God forbid, incapacitated during my life time. I don't know what to fear, what not to fear: I am utterly confused and ignorant.”

I turn to my mother. Now as I look at my mother, I know that the deep decision refers not only to her life but to my own. What do I want for myself, I who cherish life, I who so ardently believe in the sanctity of life, I who believe in the divine obligation of the doctor to intervene, to cure and to heal? What do I want for my own self?

What do I fear? Is it death I fear, or is it a pitied life? Is it death I fear or a protracted illness? Is it death I fear or that I become a secret object of loathing, a burden on my wife and on my children? In her bed what do I pray for?

What do I want? Do I want to prolong my life by placing machines, impediments upon my dying process? Of course I believe in the “sanctity of life” — What happens to the sanctity of life when it is desecrated by meaningless suffering, embarrassment, humiliation and dehumanizing aspects created by helplessness? It is a mitzvah to prolong life, but is it a mitzvah to prolong dying?

I wonder were others before me not anguished as myself? Did they ever pray for death? their own or others? Am I alone in this conflict between the passion for life and the compassion for the dying?

I read from the 13th century Sefer Hasidim, the Book of the Pious, “One may not prolong the act of dying. If, for example, someone is dying, and nearby a woodcutter insists on chopping wood, therefore disturbing the dying person so that he cannot die, we remove the woodcutter from the vicinity of the dying person. Also, one may not place salt in the mouth of a dying person in order to prevent death from overtaking him.” (Book of Pious, ed. Wistinetzki, p. 100) “We must not cry out at the time when the soul is departing in order to cause the soul to return and bear more pain.” So it appears that one may be silent and not always pray for life.

I recall the wisdom of Ben Sira, in the 3rd century B.C.E., which I sometimes read at funerals “Death is better than a bitter life and eternal rest than a continual sickness.”

Can a believing Jew pray for his own death or for the death of another? I find in the Talmud Ketuboth 104a, a passage in which Judah the Prince is dying. His disciples have decreed a public fast and offered a public prayer to prolong his life. His trusted maid, known for her sagacity and piety, recognizes that Rabbi Judah was approaching his death and that he was in great pain. She runs to the roof and throws a jar from the roof to distract the disciples from praying. This, the Talmud relates approvingly enabled Rabbi Judah's soul to depart in peace.

There are times writes Rabbi Nissim of Gerondi (13th century) that it is commendable to pray for the death of the patient.

I read from the Codes Shulchun Aruch (Yoreh Deah 339): “It is permissible to stop the clattering noises or the pounding of the wood near the patient because the noise delays the soul's departure. It is permitted to remove an impediment to death.”

I look for further guidance in the rabbinic responsa. They are as varied as my own. But what can I reasonably expect of Rabbis who lived long before the bio-medical revolution, before MRI's, EEG's, before catheters and chemotherapies and intubations, who measured death by placing a feather against the nostril? The human condition today is so different from that of older times. Other Rabbis wiser than I that I consult offer so many different interpretations. Once again I recognize that in the end it is I who must choose, even to choose which rabbi to listen to. Even not choosing is to make a choice. It is a monumental truth an existential truth. No one can live for me. No one can die for me. No one can suffer for me. No one can choose for me. I am forced to freedom.

Moral responsibility cannot be placed at the doorstep of God. Ultimately, it is I, not the physician, the attorney or the rabbi who decides. They should be consulted but the ultimate decision — when and what kind of measure to use, whether to make her life longer or to prolong her death, whether to hold on or to let go, all these things depend on me and my family.

People come to my study with life and death questions. I feel for those who come to me, hoping that I can open the book, and find the unequivocal answer. They want authoritarian, unambiguous answers. I cannot give it.

There are no surrogates for me and none for you. No one can tell you even whether to speak the unvarnished truth to the loved one who asks “Tell me do I have cancer?”

Even here the rabbinic responsa are divided. For some, telling the truth is imperative. Does the patient not have the right to know and to act on that knowledge? But for others, the truth should be withheld lest it cause the patient a mental or physical set-back, it must be withheld. I must conjure the disposition of the person, whether the truth will crush her hope in recovery. The world of simple absolutes crumbles. Sometimes a lie is no transgression. We read in the Book of Kings that when the messenger of the King Ben Haddad consulted the prophet, Elisha, the prophet told him: “Tell the King he will surely live.” Then he added “although I know that he will surely die.” There is no universal categorical imperative that one must act lovingly, wisely, personally. For this one must know the patient's heart. One must know the depth of one's own heart.

People come to me in the eleventh hour. There is little time for deliberation. Decisions must be made. They are forced options. The wisdom of the Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah 8:8 puts it wryly “None can say to the Angel of Death 'wait till I make up my accounts'.” To you who are in good health, to you who enjoy lucidity: I would plead in the ???? of the ????, “Hayom, hayom, hayom,” not tomorrow. The decisions should not come at the last moment. The decision must be made now while we are alive and clear-headed. Now is the time that the family must open up to each other. Now is no time for squeamish avoidance of the unpleasant. No time for the denial of silence. Now is the time for honest conversation, for real dialogue. Do not procrastinate. Now is the time to draw close to the family!

The family is not simply an economic unit. This is mishpochah, the intimate sacred center of life and death. Now is the time for anticipatory wisdom to learn the heart of the stranger in each other and the stranger in me.

Now is the time for the family to join together and reach agreement.

Do we understand each other, do we understand our wishes and wills? The decision, the forethought must take place now, while our minds are in order, while we have time to weigh consequences. Do not postpone the meeting.

I have witnessed far too many family accusations, recriminations and guilt trail our lives because they do not know the will of the dying. Tragically perverse quarrels swirl around the sibling claims as to who loves papa most, whether the one would “turn off the switch” is callous son or the one who refuses to act is the compassionate daughter. However, the act is done, the scars of guilt remain forever. That is clearly furthest from the will of the dying and assuredly not in the interest of the family.

Now is the time to rehearse for that which is inevitable. More than medicine is involved here, more than technical and technological decisions. We are more than machines. We are fragile human beings. We must not be ignored. The dying fear to be abandoned, fear to be ignored, the dying fear helplessness. They deserve the attention of our love. Now is the time to pay them attention. Listen carefully to the whispers of my philosophy. What is valuable to them? what do they find worth while in living? what do they mean by the sanctity of life, or the quality of life? Listening is a mark of respect. Death belongs to the dying and to those who love them. My death belongs to me. Open my heart to its secret murmurings.

Blessed is scientific research. I praise the miraculous instruments, the sophisticated medical machinery. But machinery must not control us. Because it can breathe for us, make our hearts beat, empty our bladder, keep us technically alive, robotize us, does not mean the invention should be used. If we allow technology to decide for us, we make of machinery an idol, the work of men's hands. It is as the Psalmist wrote and we recite in the Hallel:

“They have mouths, but they speak not
Eyes have they, but they see not
They have ears, but they hear not
Noses have they, but they inhale not
They have hands but they touch not
Feet have they, but they walk not
Neither can they make sounds with their throats
Whoever makes them shall become like them

“Can” does not mean “ought”. Because technology “Can” does not mean that we “Ought”. We must think beyond the machine. We must think in terms of divinely human purpose.

The decision is profoundly personal. It cannot be generalized. Not for everyone living till the last possible breath. There are no absolutes here. Not for everyone life over everything. For some, pain may justify choosing death. For others, Nietzsche's insight reveals: He who has a “why” to live for can suffer any “what” may apply. Some may prefer pain to death, even as in Aeschylus' Agamemnon: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

Rabbi Menachem Ha-Meiri would choose to extend life in suffering even for one hour because in that hour he may find time to repent. Franz Rosenzweig, the philosopher, lived eight years with paralysis, and managed to write books.

But they are not us. Facing death, philosophy, theology, values take on existential urgency.

For my own sake and for those I love, I owe it to them to make my desires known. Would I leave my family alone in the dark corridors to speculate about how I would die? If I would not want heroic measures, if I do not want to linger on with paralysis, without speech, or to breathe artificially for years, I must make my decision clear to others. I must have the courage to anticipate because once I am hooked up to life support, no document can readily unhook me. I cannot anticipate every event.

But I must decide in the midst of uncertainty. But uncertain we must choose wisely. Robert Frost summed it up: “True wisdom is the ability to act when it is necessary on the basis of incomplete information.” We cannot demand of the physician or ourselves omniscience. We do not and cannot know the outcome. Still we must choose with the best information at hand and without guilt.

Give me your hand with wisdom. I need from you the art of holding on and letting each other go. Especially letting go. “For holding on comes easily. We do not need to learn it.” (Rilke)

When the shadow of the Angel of Death appears, and like my ancestor, I will wrestle him to the ground, squeeze out of him a new name: Israel “For you have struggled with God and with man and you have prevailed.” But when the messenger of Death cannot be denied, I am prepared to accept the message. I am prepared to accept it not as a defeat but as a summation, not as a punishment but as a conclusion.

I have raised these matters not to disturb your peace but to urge you to take your life into your hands. For facing death, will give us a deeper grasp on life. Once we have settled the future, we can life more freely in the present. There are multiple questions that we have –legal, halachic, moral, medical — and for this reason I have called together a panel of experienced, thoughtful persons to answer your questions and mine, to help you and me make wise and moral decisions. On Sunday, October 15, at 10:00 AM, we will together examine steps that are legally and morally important to execute: a variety of living wills, durable medical power of attorneys, Jewish wills. I want you to be there.

The Talmud talks about a good death and a bad death. There is a healthy way to live and there is a healthy way to deal with death, to see death as part of life and as a friend. In one of the most arresting statements on this subject, the Jewish philosopher, Franz Rosenzweig wrote “Health experiences even death at the right time. It is good friends with him and knows that when he comes he will remove the rigid mask and take the flickering torch from the hands of the frightened, weary, disappointed brother Life. He'll dash it on the ground and extinguish it, and then under skies that flame up for the first time, he'll enfold the swooning one in his arms and only then when life has closed its eloquent lips, he'll open his eternally silent mouth and say 'Do you recognize me? I am your brother.'”

The sage said: “Would you not die? Then die, that you shall live.” We need not die a thousand deaths of ignorance. We need to die and to live with the dignity of courage and wisdom. Living we die. Dying we live. It is given by God into our hands to choose.

Every day and night throughout the High Holydays the tradition singles out one Psalm, Psalm 27. “The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid? Even if my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will take me under His care…I have faith that I shall yet see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Hope in the Lord: Be strong and let your heart take courage. Hope in the Lord.”


Time to build a Sukkah

After you break the fast, it’s time to break out the tools. One of the most authentic ways to celebrate this ancient harvest festival is to build a sukkah (booth) of your own. 

Today, the celebration of Sukkot is a way to connect with our Jewish past — to commemorate the 40 years our ancestors wandered the desert. The sukkah represents both the temporary huts they used as dwellings and the protection and care offered by God during that time.

The commandment to “live in booths” during Sukkot is interpreted in modern times to mean enjoying meals and entertaining family and friends in your own sukkah. Some people even sleep in their sukkah during the holiday. All of these actions constitute mitzvot.

“The holiday of Sukkot is a wonderful time to reconnect with nature, sleep out under the stars,” Rabbi Alyson Solomon said. 

She describes the sukkah as a house that is open and vulnerable to the world. 

“Judaism is, at heart, a home-based religion. To build a sukkah outside of your own home is to remember our roots as wanderers, farmers, harvesters. It’s also a great time to share your spiritual practices with your neighbors, invite friends over for dinner, and welcome into your sukkah holy ushpizim, holy guests, to offer blessings and share cheer,” Solomon said. 

Before you begin, there’s one important question to ask yourself: Do you want to build your own sukkah from scratch or buy a kit? 

By definition, a sukkah is a temporary shelter, with at least 2 1/2 walls. The roof must not be solid — it must provide shade during the day, but allow stars to be visible at night. Because you’re not supposed to make a sukkah that will withstand hurricane-force winds, you probably don’t need to worry too much about your handyman skills. 

You also can find loads of ready-to-build, prefabricated sukkah kits online or through large local Judaica sellers.

Yossi Cohen, owner of Mitzvahland in Encino, said he sells sukkah kits each year to customers across Southern California. 

“Building a sukkah is an easy way to perform a mitzvah,” Cohen says. “Each year, I see more and more people wanting to observe the mitzvah of building a sukkah.”

Cohen says sukkah kits can be as inexpensive as $175, and there are kits to fit just about any budget. 

What if you want a sukkah, but don’t want to do the work? Not a problem. Like most things, you can hire someone to build your sukkah. In addition to designing and building custom sukkahs for clients, Cohen says he also provides large-scale sukkahs for community centers and synagogues.

Michelle Starkman, a West Hills mother of two, builds a sukkah from scratch with her family. 

“We use 2-by-4s that are bolted together to form the frame. We line the walls with outdoor fabric and then the top with sechach [raw vegetable materials] or palm fronds. We also leave one side open,” she says. 

Like many local families, the Starkmans began building a sukkah at home when their oldest son was in Jewish preschool. 

“The kids are now old enough to help with the entire process — they help build the sukkah, and they especially love helping to decorate it,” Starkman says.

When it comes to decorating your sukkah, the sky’s the limit. Many families have their children cut out designs from construction paper. Others use fruits, vegetables and plants as décor. Some Orthodox groups do not add decorations to their sukkahs; they believe the structure itself is beautiful and needs no embellishment. 

The most important thing when building a sukkah is finding your family’s personal meaning behind the custom. 

“We find it important to build a sukkah at our home because in addition to it being a fun family activity, it reinforces the history of our people, reinforces what our children learn in school and helps us feel connected to our community,” Starkman says. 

Solomon agrees. She says that the beauty of the holiday is found in the simple things: “I’ve even seen a family that had no yard, balcony or roof access build a sukkah in their living room with houseplants and tapestries. To top it off, their kids drew stars on the ceiling — it was beautiful!” 

Rosh Hashana: Embracing our elders

We are spiritually ambitious at this time of year. We reflect, we repent, we make resolutions. We study our faults and mistakes of the past year and commit to being better people in the coming year. We ask for forgiveness and forgive in return. We listen to brilliant sermons that only accentuate our spiritual work.

For the average Jew, this is a busy time of year. But what about for the elders of our community?

What’s going through the minds of people who are, say, 90 years old? When they look back on the past year, are they thinking about their mistakes or about their ailments? When they look to the coming year, are they thinking about spiritual refinements or are they simply hoping to make it through another year?

How can you beat making it through another year?

When it comes to life itself, Judaism is of two minds. On the one hand, the highest Jewish value is life itself. Saving one life is like saving an entire world. A surgeon fights to save the life of a criminal just as passionately as he fights to save the life of a righteous person.

On the other hand, Judaism is very much about what we do with our lives. It’s not enough to live. We have to strive to make a difference, to refine our characters, to add goodness to the world.

When we arrive at the High Holy Days, the more ambitious value clearly takes precedence. For our community’s elders, though, I’m guessing they’ll be thinking more about the gift of being alive. They’ll be spending their Holy Days counting not their sins or mistakes — but their blessings. They’ll be too busy thanking God for the blessing of life to ask for much else.

Asking for forgiveness? I really hope they don’t. I hope my mother never calls me to say, “If I did anything to hurt you, my son, please forgive me.”

Forgive my mother? There’s nothing my mother could do to hurt me, even if she tried. All I have to do is recall the image of her taking four buses each way during the Canadian winters to make $50 a week as a dressmaker while raising and feeding five kids in a tiny apartment. She has a lifetime forgiveness package with me.

And she’s not alone. All elders deserve special treatment. I don’t want to see my mother try to “improve.” As far as I’m concerned, she’s perfect exactly as she is, and so is every elderly person that I know. 

As much as I love Jewish rituals, they don’t apply equally to every Jew. For those who have reached the last chapter of their lives, the focus of their High Holy Days shouldn’t be on self-improvement. Sure, everyone can always improve, but our elders can improve and enrich everyone around them with their lifetime of wisdom and stories.

I don’t know about you, but I have a weakness for old stories. I love to hear how Edna Weiss dealt with anti-Semitism in Angeleno Heights in the 1920s; or how Lou Kestenbaum stumbled onto plastics and became a mogul; or how the late Eva Brown found a way to celebrate Chanukah in a concentration camp; or how Monty Hall’s life was changed by a generous playboy in Winnipeg over 75 years ago; or how Jerry Bubis used to hang out with Abraham Joshua Heschel; or how, more than 65 years ago, Sol Teichman convinced a landlord to let him use a New York basement as a social club to bring the Jews of a neighborhood together.

Whether or not they are wealthy, our elders are filled with thousands of delicious stories. It’s not enough to honor our elderly donors with plaques at fundraising galas — we need their stories as much as we need their money.

For the elderly who are just getting by, the same thought applies. It’s not enough to just take care of them. We can nourish their souls and alleviate their loneliness by listening to their stories and seeking their wisdom.

As people enter their final years, they have an even greater need to feel needed. The elders of our community are a blessing, not a burden. During these High Holy Days, let’s be spiritually ambitious and ask them to bless us with their stories.

Shanah tovah.

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

The deep wellspring of the Shofar

Venerated Chassidic master Rabbi Hillel of Paritch (in his magnum opus Pelach haRimon) likens the Shofar’s simple but powerful “cry” to a mighty wellspring bursting forth from the depths of the earth. Such a wellspring, explains Reb Hillel, replenishes even a parched river, i.e. one whose flow has all but ceased. While the analogy is admittedly beautiful the question of relevance remains, for how are we Jews of the modern age meant to connect to Reb Hillel’s magnificent teaching? Let us analyze the master’s words a little further. To begin with, Reb Hillel clearly associates the use of Shofar with the unleashing of deep wellsprings, or, sources of flow that are normally concealed from our conscious experience. As is known in the material sciences, nature’s water cycle (hydrologic cycle) exists in two primary expressions: 1) Revealed waters and 2) Concealed waters. “Revealed” waters are simply defined as states of flow that are directly tangible/experiential to us, e.g. Precipitation (rain descending from the clouds above). In contrast, “Concealed waters” can be defined as states of flow that are utterly hidden, e.g.Percolation (water penetrating deep into the earth below). By stating the Shofar unleashes deep waters (waters issuing from the depths of the earth), Reb Hillel suggests that even the waters that are normally concealed (hidden below) come as a result of Shofar bursting forth. This is beautifully intimated in the word Shofar itself, wherein the numerical value of its letters (Shin = 300, Vav = 6, Pey = 80, and Reish = 200) equals exactly the Hebrew word for “wellsprings” (“Ma’ayanot” – Mem = 40, Ayin = 70, Yud = 10, Yud = 10, Nun = 50, Vav = 6, and Tav = 400) 

This phenomenon teaches us that there is an intrinsic relationship between the revealing of “wellsprings,” i.e. sources of hidden water, and Shofar. To help clarify the idea, there is a story told of my ancestor Rav Zev Volf Kitzitz (one of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s closest disciples). As is known from Chassidic tradition, the Ba’al Shem Tov assigned Reb Wolf the awesome task of sounding Shofar every Rosh HaShannah. One year in particular, the Ba’al Shem Tov spent considerable time instructing Reb Wolf as to the appropriate Kabbalistic meditations to be used on Rosh HaShannah (in the hour of sounding the Shofar.) Diligently, Reb Wolf recorded every one of his master’s insights, careful not to omit even a single letter. A week passed, and on the morning of Rosh HaShanah, Rev Wolf confidently proceeded to the synagogue with both his Shofar and the paper containing the Ba’al Shem Tov’s sacred instructions. All of a sudden, a strong gust of wind dislodged the paper from Rev Wolf’s fingers and blew it away, never to be seen again. Trembling and disheartened, Reb Wolf entered the synagogue refusing to gaze upward lest he encounter the haunting eyes of his master. Ascending to the podium, Reb Wolf took hold of the Shofar and with tear filled eyes and a broken heart performed the Tekiot (blasts) as prescribed. The entire assembly trembled at the sounds emanating from the Shofar, for never before had they felt such explosive and penetrating emotion. Upon the conclusion of Rosh HaShannah, the Ba’al Shem Tov approached Rev Wolf and with a smile said, “I am aware of what transpired before Rosh Hashanah (with the loss of the paper), and you should know that with your simple broken heart you  managed to open in the heavens above more gates then my meditations ever could!”                 

From the above narrative we can better appreciate Reb Hillel’s timeless lesson, namely, when we learn to serve G-D like a Shofar, i.e. from a place of deep heartfelt emotion, we manage to reveal a “wellspring” of Divine “flow”, a powerful current of spiritual revelation that breaks through all created barriers and replenishes the “river” of our Jewish consciousness. Once such hidden depths become manifest, even the driest of rivers (the soul most distant/detached from Divine consciousness), erupts with life. This then becomes a powerful and useful meditation for the New Year (Rosh Hashannah) in general, and the sounding of the Shofar in particular, namely, in the hour of the Tekiot (Shofar blasts), to contemplate the hidden depths of your own heart (the hidden spiritual potential deep within you) bursting forth. Visualize, in particular, the light of the Divine flooding forth (like a river), flowing from the heavens above through your head, neck, chest, stomach, back, and extremities. As the Tekiotconclude, ask Hashem to aid you in your quest to reveal more of your Divine potential and strive daily to bring about your new awakening in thought (Prayer), word (Torah study) and deed (acts of kindness).

Rabbi Brandon Gaines is a Kabbalist, acupuncturist, herbalist, and martial arts master in Los Angeles.

Free High Holy Days services

Erev Rosh Hashanah: Sept. 24

Rosh Hashanah, first day: Sept. 25

Rosh Hashanah, second day: Sept. 26

Kol Nidre: Oct. 3 

Yom Kippur: Oct. 4


Los Angeles-area Chabads offering free services to the public during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur include Chabad of Beverlywood: (310) 836-6770; Chabad of Century City: (310) 505-2168; Chabad of Miracle Mile: (323) 852-6907; Chabad of Simcha Monica: (310) 829-5620; Chabad of Woodland Hills: (818) 348-5898; Chabad of Studio City: (818) 508-6633; and Chabad of Greater Los Feliz: (323) 660-5177. For more venues, visit chabad.org.



A Conservative congregation in Valley Village, Adat Ari El holds a free Young Family Service (for preschoolers to second-graders and their parents) as well as a free Tekiah Family Service (for elementary school age children and their parents). Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:45 a.m.-9:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m.-10:30 a.m. (Young Family Service), 11 a.m.-noon (Tekiah Family Service); Yom Kippur: 8:45-9:30 a.m., 9:45-10:30 a.m. (Young Family Service), 11 a.m.-noon (Tekiah Family Service). Reservations required. David Familian Chapel, Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. (818) 766-9426. adatariel.org.


For families with third- to seventh-graders, these free services feature a full band, interactive stories, high-energy music and inclusive participation. Led by Rabbi Erez Sherman. Babysitting available for children ages 2 to 5. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. Reservations required. Pomelo Elementary School, 7633 March Ave., West Hills. (818) 346-0811. stsonline.org.


For parents who want to attend services with their young children (preschoolers to second-graders; older siblings permitted), these free 30-minute Reform services are for you. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 4:15 p.m. Yom Kippur: 3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Geared toward families with young children (8 and under), these free, hour-long services offer opportunities for children and adults alike to join in both traditional and contemporary song and prayer while sharing in stories and special Torah readings reflecting the mood of the season. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 6 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Ahavat Shalom, 18200 Rinaldi Place, Northridge. (818) 360-2258. tasnorthridge.org.


College students and military personnel are welcome to attend these Conservative services for free. Please contact the synagogue for a list of service times and tickets. Student or military ID required. 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland  Hills. (818) 346-3545. templealiyah.org.


The Reform community opens its doors to children and their families for Tot High Holy Days services on both Rosh Hashanah, first day, and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 4 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 3:30 p.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Judea, 5429 Lindley Ave., Tarzana. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com.


The Reform community holds free family services on Rosh Hashanah, first day, and on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 2:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2:30 p.m. Temple Kol Tikvah, 20400 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills. (818) 348-0670. koltikvah.org.


For seniors. An array of High Holy Days programs for Jewish seniors include a Rosh Hashanah luncheon on Sept. 29 at 2:30 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day, shofar blowing ceremony: noon; Yom Kippur service: noon. Free. RSVP. Services: Wyndham Garden Ventura Pierpont Inn, 550 San Jon Road, Ventura; Luncheon: The Chabad Jewish Center, 5040 Telegraph Road, Ventura. (805) 658-7441. chabadventura.com.



These free services for the unaffiliated feature music, poetry, reflection, memorial candle-lighting services and more. Please bring canned food to donate. Led by Cantor Estherleon Schwartz. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 7:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 7:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m. No reservations necessary (limited seating). Matrix Theatre, 7657 Melrose Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-7420. estherleon.com.


The LGBT congregation welcomes the general public on Rosh Hashanah, second day only. 10 a.m. No reservations necessary. Congregation Kol Ami, 1200 N. La Brea Ave., West Hollywood. (323) 606-0996. kol-ami.org.


The education center holds an abridged, beginners Rosh Hashanah service, open to everyone. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 5 p.m. Reservations required. Jewish Learning Exchange, 512 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 857-0923. jlela.com.


The venerable Sunset Strip comedy club holds services on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. Everyone welcome. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11 a.m., refreshments follow; Kol Nidre: 5:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 11 a.m., a break-the-fast follows. Reservations recommended. Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 656-1336. laughfactory.com.


Rabbi Naomi Levy and the Nashuva Band’s spiritual community is back at its larger location, the historic Founder’s Church of Religious Science in Koreatown, for this year’s services, and everyone’s invited. A Rosh Hashanah second-day hike and service will be held in Temescal Park. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:30 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day: 9:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m. (hike), 10 a.m. (service); Kol Nidre: 6:45 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 9:30 a.m. Reservations required (suggested donation $350 per person). Childcare program available with reservation. Founder’s Church of Religious Science, 3281 W. Sixth  St., Los Angeles. Temescal Park, 15601 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades. nashuva.com.


The historic Reform congregation holds free family services (toddlers through second-graders) on Rosh Hashanah, first day and Yom Kippur, and opens its doors to the general public on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 8:30 a.m. No reservations necessary. Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.



Rabbi Heather Miller leads the LGBT congregation’s free family services on both the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur in Temple Isaiah’s Social Hall (Temple Isaiah is moving to UCLA’s Royce Hall). These services are for families with children ages 1-12. Rabbi Lisa Edwards and Cantor Juval Porat lead a free service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at BCC’s Pico Boulevard synagogue. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 10:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 10:30 a.m. Temple Isaiah, 10345 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. Beth Chayim Chadashim, 6090 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


The progressive Reform synagogue in Santa Monica holds free afternoon children’s services for families with children up to age 7. Led by Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and Cantor Diane Rose. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 1:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Santa Monica High School, Barnum Hall, 601 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.


These free services are in English, with meaning, melody and humor by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz (aka Schwartzie). All ages welcome. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; Kol Nidre: 6:15-8:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 3-5:30 p.m. (“Stump the Rabbi” program). No reservations necessary. Writers Guild Theater, 135 S. Doheny Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 391-7995. chaicenter.org.


Free to all students with a valid school ID. There are a variety of services: traditional, liberal egalitarian and Orthodox. No reservations necessary. Hillel at UCLA, 574 Hilgard Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-3081. ucla.hillel.org.


Pray for free with the progressive egalitarian community on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Erev Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur from Yizkor through Neilah. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 8:30 a.m. Pre-registration and ID required. Westside Jewish Community Center, 5870 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


These free and lively family services feature music and storytelling for children (ages 7 and under) and their parents and grandparents. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 2 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. Reservations required. Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org.


The independent community’s free services feature eclectic music performances reflecting on themes of the human condition and commentary by Rabbi Mordecai Finley. Second day Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur only. Rosh Hashanah, second day: 10 a.m.; Yom Kippur: 2 p.m. No reservations necessary. Rosh Hashanah service: Ohr HaTorah, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. Yom Kippur: Wilshire Ebell Theatre, 4401 W. Eighth St., Los Angeles. (310) 915-5200. ohrhatorah.org.


The secular humanistic community holds a free family picnic and celebration with readings and songs on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, and a discussion about ethics in our daily lives on Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11 a.m.- 1 p.m., Yom Kippur: 11 a.m.-1 p.m. No reservations necessary. Rancho Park-Cheviot Hills picnic area No. 1, 2551 Motor Ave., Los Angeles. (818) 760-6625. sholem.org.


The traditional, egalitarian, lay-led minyan welcomes the general public to services. Erev Rosh Hashanah: 6:35 p.m.; Rosh Hashanah, first day: 8:30 a.m.; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 8:30 a.m.; Kol Nidre: 6:10 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 8 a.m. RSVP requested (donations encouraged). Workmen’s Circle, 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 916-9820. shtibl.com.


Rabbi David Wolpe leads Rosh Hashanah Live, a free musical celebration combined with a service on Erev Rosh Hashanah. There is also a more traditional service offered. On Yom Kippur, the Yizkor service is open to the public. Erev Rosh Hashanah, Rosh Hashanah Live: 8 p.m., Ziegler Sanctuary; Erev Rosh Hashanah, traditional service: 8 p.m., Barad Hall; Yom Kippur, Yizkor service: 3 p.m. No reservations necessary (space is limited, arrive early). Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. sinaitemple.org


On the first day of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur, the Reform congregation offers free half-hour services for toddlers and preschoolers and their families, including lots of singing, dancing, stories and activities. A combination of Hebrew and English readings, a sermon from one of Emanuel’s rabbis, and a mix of classic High Holy Days choral music balanced with traditional and contemporary melodies highlight the congregation’s free service on the second day of Rosh Hashanah. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 11:30 a.m.-noon; Rosh Hashanah, second day: 9 a.m.-noon; Yom Kippur: 11:30 a.m.-noon. No reservations necessary. Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, Bess P. Maltz Center, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 274-6388. tebh.org.


Music- and story-filled, these free, one-hour family services are a kid-friendly introduction to the High Holy Days. Rosh Hashanah, first day: 1:30 p.m.; Yom Kippur: 1:30 p.m. Reservations required. University Synagogue, 11960 Sunset Blvd, Los Angeles. (310) 472-1255. unisyn.org.




Temple Adat Elohim. Sept. 26. 5 p.m. Zuma Beach, 30050 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org.


Temple Judea. Sept. 26. Approximately 11:30 a.m. Lake Balboa, 6300 Balboa Blvd., Van Nuys. (818) 758-3800. templejudea.com.


Temple Aliyah. Sept. 28. 12:30 p.m. Meet at the Park Sienna grass area entrance of Calabasas Lake, Calabasas. templealiyah.org.


Temple Ahavat Shalom. Sept. 27. 11 a.m.  Hansen Dam Aquatic Center (picnic bench area). Bring a picnic lunch. 11770 Foothill Blvd., Lake View Terrace. tasnorthridge.org.


Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Sept. 28. 6:30 p.m. 23000 Pacific Coast Hwy., Malibu. (818) 346-0811.shomreitorahsynagogue.org.



East Side Jews. Down to the river we go. Be a part of the High Holy Days transformative experience. Sept. 27. $40 (includes ritual, food and drink). 6:30-9:30 p.m. Marsh Park in Elysian Valley, 2960 Marsh St., Los Angeles. (323) 663-2255.eastsidejews.com.



Beth Shir Shalom. Sept. 25. 3 p.m. Beach at the end of Pico Boulevard. (310) 453-3361. bethshirshalom.org.

Temple Isaiah. Sept. 25. 4 p.m. Bring a picnic dinner. 2030 Ocean Park Ave., parking at Lot 4 South. (310) 277-2772. templeisaiah.com.

Temple Israel of Hollywood. Sept. 25. 4 p.m. Meet at lifeguard station 12 (parking at Lot 3 North). (323) 876-8330. tioh.org.

IKAR. Sept. 28. 4:30 p.m. Bring a picnic dinner and meet at lifeguard station 26 (where Ocean Park Boulevard meets the beach). (323) 634-1870. ikar-la.org.


Nashuva. Please dress casually in white and consider a sweater. Bring a percussion instrument and bread for throwing. Sept. 25. 5:15 p.m. Venice Beach (where Venice Boulevard meets the sand; approximate address: 1 N. Venice Blvd., Venice). nashuva.com.

Beth Chayim Chadashim. Sept. 26. 5 p.m. 2856 Ocean Front Walk (Santa Monica/ Venice border). (323) 931-7023. bcc-la.org.


Leo Baeck Temple. Sept. 25. 5 p.m. Will Rogers State Beach (intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Temescal Canyon Road). Between lifeguard towers 5 and 6. (310) 476-2861. leobaecktemple.org

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Sept. 25. 5 p.m. Will Rogers State Beach (intersection of Pacific Coast Highway and Temescal Canyon Road) Lifeguard tower 8. (310) 276-9776. tebh.org


Temple Akiba. Bike ride to Culver beach. Sept. 28. 1 p.m.  Meet at Temple Akiba: 5249 S. Sepulveda Blvd., Culver City. (310) 398-5783. templeakiba.net.



All are welcome — especially Jewish war veterans. Please bring a canned food item (peanut butter, tuna, meats, stews, soups, dried beans), nonperishable food, personal hygiene item or children’s book to be donated to Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ SOVA Community Food and Resource Program. 10 a.m. Free. Eden Memorial Park, 11500 Sepulveda Blvd., Mission Hills. (818) 361-7161. eden-memorialpark.com.  


Service led by Rabbi John Rosove and Chazzan Danny Maseng of Temple Israel of Hollywood. They are joined by Rabbi Avivah Erlick (Jewish Burial Society of SoCal), Rabbi Sheldon Pennes (Temple B’nai Emet), Cantor Linda Kates (Leo Baeck Temple), and Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot (Temple Judea). Complimentary yahrzeit candles will be available. There will be a shomer to assist with Kaddish. 10 a.m. Free. Hillside Memorial Park and Mortuary, 6001 W.Centinela Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 641-0707. hillsidememorial.org.


Led by Rabbi Robert Elias. 11 a.m. Home of Peace, Chapel, 4334 Whittier Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 261-6135. homeofpeacememorialpark.com.  


Services will be led at two sites. There will be interpreters for the hearing impaired at both services. Donations to SOVA Food Pantry will be gratefully accepted. 10 a.m. Free. Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles; 1 p.m. Free. Mount Sinai Simi Valley, 6150 Mount Sinai Drive, Simi Valley. (866) 717-4624. mountsinaiparks.org.


Led by Rabbi Alan Kalinsky and Cantor Jance Weberman. Refreshments served at 9 a.m. 10 a.m. (service). 13017 Lopez Canyon Road, Sylmar. (310) 659-3055. sholomchapels.com

Temple Run — High Holy Days edition

Ever felt like running out of Temple on Rosh Hashana or Yom Kippur? If you did, would your Rabbis chase you down? This is one man's story of Temple fear. 

No kabbalah (yet) for Mila Kunis

Although it has yet to become official, Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher are dating. The two have been seen all over the world and acting as a legit couple. In fact, the two have been so serious, that Kutcher even took Kunis to some kabbalah ceremonies during the High Holidays. Kutcher has been an avid follower of Jewish mysticism since his days as Demi Moore's husband.

However, there's so indication that Kunis has taken up the practice. A source close to the two told Bang Showbiz that Kunis was only there to show support for her boyfriend.

The source also said Kutcher is very serious about keeping kosher, adding ”so far Mila hasn’t followed suit and has never made any dietary requests like Ashton.” An eyewitness to the ceremony added, ”The men and women were separated (during the service), but Ashton always smiled at her. They were clapping and praying. She was taking it all in.”

Cuban Jewish leaders visit Alan Gross

Two Cuban Jewish leaders visited jailed American contractor Alan Gross and said they found him in “good spirits.”

Adela Dworin, head of Cuba’s Jewish community, and David Prinstein, president of the Patronato Synagogue and Jewish community vice president, spent two hours with Gross on Sept. 27 in the military hospital where he is imprisoned, according to reports.

The visit was to mark the High Holy Days. Gross reportedly told his visitors that he fasted on Yom Kippur, and that he lifts weights and walks daily on the hospital grounds.

Dworin told Reuters that while Gross had been very depressed when she met with him four months ago, he seemed to have a more positive outlook about his future. Dworin and Prinstein have had regular meetings with Gross in advance of Jewish holidays.

During the meeting, the Jewish leaders reportedly spoke about topics ranging from Gross’ health to the U.S. elections, and of his love for Cuba, Dworin told Reuters.

Gross, 63, of Potomac, Md., was sentenced last year to 15 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was arrested in 2009 for allegedly bringing satellite phones and computer equipment to members of Cuba’s Jewish community while working as a contractor for the U.S. Agency on International Development. 

Earlier this month, a Cuban Foreign Ministry official rejected claims by Gross’ wife, Judy, that Gross was in ill health and said Cuba was willing to negotiate his release with U.S. officials, reportedly in exchange for five Cuban spies, four of whom remain in jail in the U.S.

Gross reportedly has lost more than 100 pounds since his arrest, and his family says he is suffering from degenerative arthritis. His mother is dying and one of his daughters has cancer. 

Bibi’s popularity on upswing

As Israelis began the observance of Sukkot, a weeklong religious holiday celebrating the end of the harvest, talk on the streets was of travel plans and family visits. Many Israelis build a sukkah, an outdoor hut open to the stars, as commanded in the Bible, where they eat their meals — and where some even sleep — for the week. Hundreds of thousands use the off-time to visit national parks, with radio ads exhorting Israelis to clean up their garbage when they finish hiking and picnicking.

Just before the holiday, the Hadar mall in Jerusalem was jammed with last-minute shoppers. At the Aroma Café, an elderly couple took a coffee break and reflected on their prime minister, just back from New York, and his presentation to the opening session of the United Nations General Assembly.

“He’s a nice boy who knows how to give a speech,” Frieda Green said. “I only hope he will do what he says.”

Netanyahu seems to share Green’s assessment of his performance at Turtle Bay, saying that the trip’s “two objectives — driving home the message on Iran and strengthening coordination with the Obama administration — have been met.” He also said his speech, in which he drew a red line on a cartoonlike drawing of a bomb, “reached hundreds of millions of people.”

Green said she’s mildly concerned by Iran’s growing nuclear program, but more caught up in worrying about her children and grandchildren. “That’s why we have a government — let them worry about it,” she said.

Her husband, Ezra, 79, said he has faith in Netanyahu.


“He’s the one in Israel who is best to be prime minister,” he said. “His speech to the U.N. was very successful. He spoke like a teacher to his students so that everyone could understand.”

Like all Israelis, they also have some criticism of their prime minister. “I think he exaggerated a little in his demands of President Obama,” Frieda said. “It’s not appropriate, and he should tone it down.”

“Especially when it now looks like Obama will continue for another four years,” Ezra added.

At another table, a group of middle-aged men said they’re more concerned by economic issues than with Iran.

“Netanyahu is strangling us with his taxes and the price increases in gas,” Chaim Vaknin, a taxi driver said. “At the same time, there’s nobody to replace him. I’m really disappointed in all of the politicians — they don’t seem to be doing anything to help us.”

Vaknin’s friend Avi Biton disagreed, saying, “Netanyahu is doing a great job and should be prime minister for another term.

The way it looks now, that seems increasingly likely. Israelis are set to go to the polls about a year from now, but if the Knesset doesn’t manage to pass the budget by Dec. 31 as required by law, those elections could be moved much earlier. But polls published this week show the government would not change much if elections were held today.

According to a poll commissioned by the daily newspaper Haaretz and executed by the Dialog polling organization, Netanyahu’s Likud Party seems set to win 28 seats, one more than in the July 2009 election and three more than the last poll, taken in July, indicated. Israelis vote for parties, not people. The proportion of seats each party receives in the 120-seat parliament is determined by the percentage of votes it garners. According to the Haaretz/Dialog poll, the center-left Labor Party would improve its representation from the 13 seats it earned in the last election to 20 today. The big loser would be the Kadima Party, which won 28 seats in 2009 but is predicted to win no more than eight in the next election.

The new polling supports the common belief that the Likud-right-ultra-Orthodox bloc is most strongly positioned to piece together a majority coalition of 66 seats and retain control of the government while the center-left parties are seen as not being able to amass more than 54 seats.   

When it comes to Netanyahu personally, his approval rating has risen from 31 percent in the last poll, to 38 percent, with 53 percent saying they remain dissatisfied.

“If a U.S. president drops below 50 percent approval rating, he gets very concerned,” Yehuda Ben Meir, a public opinion expert at the INSS think tank, said. “Netanyahu’s rating has gone up, but he’s far from being popular.”

By comparison, current approval ratings for Barack Obama hover around 50 percent.

When asked in the Haaretz poll, “Who is more suited to be prime minister?” 35 percent said Netanyahu — more than Labor leader Shelly Yacimovich, Yisrael Beiteinu chairman and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Kadima Party head Shaul Mofaz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who heads a breakaway party, combined.

“Public opinion in Israel is very static and conservative — you need an earthquake to change it,” Ben Meir said. “Netanyahu remains popular with the right-wing and the religious community, and unpopular with the left.”

It also depends on whether the primary issues in the election are Iran or the economy. Israelis tend to support Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran, and polls show that a majority of Israelis believe that a nuclear Iran could represent an existential danger to the country. 

At the same time, many middle-class Israelis resent the high tax rate, and prices continue to rise. In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets demanding lower prices. If those demonstrations start up again, Netanyahu could be blamed for the higher prices and could suffer at the polls. 

Politics, poverty and prosperity

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute laws for the indigent, and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will ever doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”

So Charles Darwin opined in his “The Descent of Man.” Thomas Malthus in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” disapproved of relief for the poor on the grounds that war, disease and poverty are natural antidotes to the rapid explosion of the population. Adam Smith projected an ideal laissez-faire state that would not interfere with society, leading many to oppose government assistance to the poor. 

There is a considerable history of contempt for the poor. Its echoes sound even louder these days. “There must be something wrong with people who can’t or won’t take care of themselves, who live off charity, depend upon the public dole.” I never heard anything like this in my home. Poverty, if it was a disgrace, reflected poorly upon God, not upon the hungry. It raised questions not about the character of poor men and women, but about the powerful and good God who — as we are reminded by the grace after meals — nourishes the whole world with food and sees to it that we never lack for food. “Blessed are You, Lord, who feeds everyone.” The Birkat ha-Mazon (grace) concludes with the bold assertion: “Once I was young and now I am old, yet in all my days I never saw a just person abandoned and his children begging for bread. The Lord will give His people strength. The Lord will bless His people with peace.”

Poverty is no virtue. As Mendele Mocher Sefarim put it, “It is no disgrace, but neither can you be proud of it.” Incorporated in the grace after the meal is the poignant prayer that we “not be in need of gifts from flesh and blood nor of their loans.” However benevolent the donor, it is no joy to receive alms. “Make us dependent only upon You, whose hand is open, ample, full, so that we may not be embarrassed or ashamed.” 

In my home, not poverty but wealth was something of an embarrassment, and the tradition, for all its this-worldliness, kept us at arm’s length from opulence. 

A Torah written in gold is pasul, invalid, and legend reports that when Alexander of Macedonia ordered such a Torah written, it was discovered by the rabbis and summarily buried. God’s name in gold?

A shofar covered with gold may not be used, and its sound is invalid. The sound of the broken notes from a sobbing heart out of a shofar of gold would make it lose its voice. 

The high priest on Yom Kippur must shed his vestments of gold and silver before entering the Holy of Holies. Who could appear to ask forgiveness in gold and silver apparel?

On Shavuot, the bikkurim (first fruits) could be brought into the outer court in gold baskets, but into the inner court only in baskets of straw. 

On Shabbat, money is to be neither touched nor seen. Before the Sabbath, the mitzvah is to search one’s clothes, to break off relations with “the pocket.”

At home I was taught that if a piece of bread fell from the table, it should quickly be picked up and kissed. Bread was God’s gift. I heard wondrous stories about the sacredness of a shtikel broit — “a little piece of bread.” Once, around the third meal of the Sabbath, the disciples of the Rebbe persisted in asking him to tell them where God is. He remained silent, but at last recited the Motzi and pointed to the loaf of bread on the table. God in a piece of bread? There is theology in a piece of bread. And it is important, particularly for children of entitlement living in the Garden of Gucci, to understand Ben-Zoma’s observation: “What labors did Adam have to carry out before he obtained bread to eat? He plowed, he sowed, he reaped, he bound the sheaves, he threshed and winnowed and selected the ears, he ground, then sifted the flour, kneaded and baked, and then, finally, he ate. And I get up and find all things done for me” (Berachot 58a). 

Hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz — that which brings bread out of the earth is godly. Consider the process, the givenness of earth and water and seed, as well as the human energy and ingenuity to turn sheaf into edible cake. “Which is greater, the works of man or of God?” the pagan Tinneius Rufus asked. Rabbi Akiva replied that the works of man are greater than those of God, and illustrated his contention by presenting Tinneius Rufus with sheaves of wheat and loaves of cake. The cakes are greater, not that the works of God are less worthy, but that the full measure of divinity is expressed through the interaction between God’s nature and the crown of His creation. The Motzi is not recited over sheaves of wheat and the Kiddush is not recited over clusters of grapes. The Motzi is recited over the bread, which is made through human effort, and the Kiddush is recited over the fruit of the vine, which human ingenuity cultivates. Both benedictions exemplify the power and goodness of God expressed through the works of human beings. 

Our sages knew that “a blessing does not prevail except through the work of human hands.” And it is in our hands to give bread to the hungry and to do so without ulterior motives, even for the sake of piety. Consider the Chasid who boasted to his rebbe that he had made a fellow Jew pray. A poor man had come asking for a meal, but the Chasid sought to save his soul. “First we must pray,” the Chasid insisted. They both prayed Mincha, then Ma’ ariv, and before the Chasid gave him the bread, he had him wash his hands and recite al netilat yadayim. Hearing his story, the rebbe grew sad. “You meant well, but you have not acted well. There are times when you must act as if there were no God in this world.” “No God in the world?” the Chasid wondered about this blasphemy. “Yes, no God. When a person comes to you in need, you must act as if there is no one, no God, no man, in the world except you yourself and that needy person.” “And what of his soul, his neshamah?” “Take care of your soul and his body,” the rebbe answered. 

Poverty is no blessing, but abstemiousness is no virtue. If you are blessed with wealth, you are bound to live accordingly. Once, some disciples overheard the rabbi chastising the village gevir, the wealthiest man in town, not because he was profligate with his money, but because he was stingy with himself. He would eat only black bread and drink water. The rabbi reminded him that he was a man of means and ordered him to eat fine meats and drink good wine. “Why such strange counsel?” they asked the rabbi. “Because if such a wealthy man is content to eat bread and drink water, he will be more likely to tell a poor man who comes to him, ‘If I, a man of affluence, can make do with food and drink, it is enough for you to eat rocks and sand.’ ” This wisdom the rabbi likely learned from the genius found in the book of Deuteronomy, where those who go up to Jerusalem with the second tithe are told to bestow the money “for whatsoever the soul desireth, for oxen or for wine or for strong drink, or for whatever thy soul asketh of thee.” But in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical year, instead of consuming the second tithe, let the tithe be given for the “Levite, because he has no portion nor inheritance with thee, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 14:22 f.). He who experiences the joy of food and drink may more likely feel the anguish of those who hunger. “Ye shall eat and be sated and bless the Lord thy God” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The chronology is suggestive. On an empty stomach, blessings grumble in resentment. 

And whom are we to feed? For whom is the Passover Ha Lachma cry, “Let those who are in need come and eat; let those who are in need come and celebrate the Passover”? Why the redundancy? Rabbi Jacob Emden, the Ya’avetz, a distinguished talmudist of the 18th century, offered this explanation in his commentary on the haggadah. The first call to “all who hunger” refers to non-Jews who are ra’ ev la-lechem ve-lo ledvar ha-Shem, those who are hungry for bread and not for the word of God. The second call is for Jews who require the ritual celebration of the Passover, for whom matzah, not bread, is needed. Our obligation, Rabbi Emden declared, is toward both Jews and non-Jews. Here he cites the Talmud Gittin 61: “Our rabbis have taught: We support the poor of the heathen along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the heathen along with the sick of Israel, console the bereaved of the heathen together with the bereaved of Israel, and bury the dead of the heathen together with the dead of Israel.” We do this for the sake of peace, for the sake of God. 

We begin the meal with bread, among other reasons, to remind us that we are men of flesh and blood, not angels. So it is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter that he would recite Shalom Aleichem, the hymn which greets the angels who visit us on Shabbat, after the Motzi, and not, as others practice, before the breaking of the bread. For angels do not eat or drink, but we and our family and the guests around the table are not angels. We have bodies and hungers. Eat first, and greet the angels later. 

There is much instruction in a piece of bread. 

More stories for Sukkot: 

Without shelter on Pico Boulevard

It’s a Wednesday in September. Brad Baker stands in front of Elat Market on Pico Boulevard, holding out his baseball cap. People exit the supermarket, pushing shopping carts and carrying bags with groceries. Some look at Baker. Some don’t. For Baker, this is just another day. 

One of the many homeless in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, Baker has been living in the area for four years. I met him while trying to find out how many homeless people can be found in the neighborhood on a typical weekday. Through a series of interviews with rabbis, I’d learned there are many destitute people who come to the community to ask for help. I wanted to see for myself. 

Perhaps no holiday highlights the plight of the Pico-Robertson homeless like Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Sept. 30. Sukkot recalls a time when the Jewish nation wandered in the desert — a homeless people. The fragility of our temporary shelters on this holiday reminds us of those who find little or no shelter all year long.

I’d heard about Frank, homeless, in his 50s and well-known in Pico-Robertson, from Rav Yosef Kanefsky, leader of Congregation B’nai David-Judea. Frank is Catholic, Italian and originally from Boston. He is, Kanefsky said, “a very religious person.” 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Judaic Studies teacher and Rav Beit Sefer at Pressman Academy, also knows Frank well. Tureff and Frank often run into one another at B’nai David, where Tureff davens in the mornings. “He’ll ask me to drive him on my way to work” — to the Kabbalah center or Beth Jacob [Congregation], where he hopes to collect money, Tureff said.

Frank shares “quite generously … and he loves Jews — absolutely loves Jews. … He says it all the time, [how] he loves the Jewish people, [how] Jewish people help him, are nice to him, support him. Just loves the Jewish people. Thinks we’re very generous,” Kanefsky said.

But Frank is “the product of a broken home and a violent father,” Kanefsky said, and the rabbi has urged Frank to obtain government assistance — to no avail. 

Joel — whose Hebrew name is “Yoel” — has been in the community for more than nine years.  

“Joel will sleep anywhere, [spending] many, many nights in a little entryway — a side entryway to the shul,” Kanefsky said. 

But he has not been around lately, Tureff said. “The police moved him, and he’s been out of the neighborhood for a number of months.” 

Kanefsky tries to help Joel. “When [Joel] was around, I tried as best I could to make sure he had money for food … [but he’s] severely, severely schizophrenic … tragically, deeply paranoid … [so there are] very few foods he eats because of the paranoia.”

Despite their best efforts, Kanefsky and Tureff failed to convince Joel to enter the government’s mental health system, which people have to enter voluntarily unless they are deemed an immediate danger to themselves. “Which he has never been deemed,” Kanefsky said. 

Like Frank, Joel is likable, Kanefsky said. He is “very smart” and has a “tremendously good grasp on events and history.” 

There are also stories of people whose names I was asked not to use. One woman, middle-aged and with a history of more than 20 years in Pico-Robertson, can be seen walking up and down Pico Boulevard every day, and she has found there a community that cares for her, according to a rabbi of an Orthodox shul in Pico-Robertson who also asked that he and his shul be kept anonymous.

In fact, a fund made up of contributions from “Orthodox synagogues in this neighborhood” pays for her rent for her apartment, the rabbi said. A restaurant owner in Pico-Robertson — who also asked to remain anonymous — said she keeps an open account for her at the restaurant.

She didn’t always rely on this type of assistance. She was a single woman, a “functioning member of society” and “active member in the community,” the rabbi said. About 15 years ago, she disappeared. When she returned several years later, she did not “function like she used to.”

Yehuda is another person who comes up during discussions about the homeless in Pico-Robertson. He’s a younger man, in his 30s, who tries to help others, Tureff said, adding, “He would always ask for money to try to get hotel rooms to help out people in the community.”

Like Baker, all of these people are both part of the tight-knit Pico-Robertson community and apart from the community; they are both visible and invisible. 

Baker was happy to share his story. He has been in the community for 35 years, he said. Before he was homeless, he lived in apartments on Saturn Street, and then later on Wooster Street. He’s had several jobs, including as first-call driver for a mortuary and as a plumber. He also has suffered multiple injuries while working, once injuring his hand and later shattering his spine. He became addicted to pain medication.

When his mother got sick with cancer, about four years ago, Baker suffered what he called a “breakdown.” He began drinking, sometimes mixing alcohol with pain pills. After police caught him with Vicodin, he served three years in prison. 

Kanefsky gives Baker $15 each month for medication. Baker also receives $5 weekly from B’nai David, Kanefsky’s shul.

Baker sleeps in Pico-Robertson, often in the parking lot behind Kollel Rashbi Ari on Pico. Mikhail Maimon, chairman of the kollel, said Baker often drops by for meals on Shabbat — when the kollel offers free meals — and he uses the shower in the center’s bathroom and washes his clothes in the building’s washer and dryer. 

Less known but equally visible in the community are two elderly Persian men who walk up and down Pico every day selling costume jewelry, prayer books, children’s toys, socks and Judaica trinkets. They speak Farsi  and minimal English, and through translators I attempted to interview one of them, twice, but he declined and would not allow his picture to be taken. They push shopping carts filled with merchandise, which they try to sell to pedestrians and people eating on patios at restaurants. They sometimes bother the customers, knocking on the windows of the restaurants to get customers’ attention. This is an everyday occurrence at Pat’s Restaurant on Pico, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s. Fine said he has mixed feelings about it. “It’s our patrons that sometimes get a little annoyed about it … [but] I think everybody is understanding.”

When I finished speaking with Baker, it was approximately 7 p.m. and getting dark outside. I walked some more, beginning at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Beverly Drive and continuing to the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards — a distance of more than 15 blocks — and along the way I saw six more people who appeared homeless.

These people walk around the neighborhood during the day, but neither community rabbis nor area homelessness agencies know how many actually sleep in the district. 

A census conducted in 2011 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — an independent agency that coordinates and manages federal, state, county and city funds for programs providing shelter, housing and services to the homeless — revealed that 51,340 people in Los Angles County either live in a place not meant for human habitation — such as cars, parks and sidewalks — or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. In Los Angeles County supervisorial District 3 — a large geographical area that includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 8,048 homeless people. In the Los Angeles City Council District 5 — which also includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 689 homeless people.

“There’s certainly a homeless population” in Pico-Robertson, said Jeremy Sidell, a spokesperson for the social services agency People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). Run by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS-LA) SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Pico-Robertson-area food pantry served 102 individual homeless clients this year, according to Nancy Volpert, director of public policy at JFS-LA. But SOVA does not keep track of where these clients sleep.

On Sept. 5, at one of B’nai David-Judea’s programs that takes place approximately every six weeks, more than 100 elderly and middle-aged men and women came to the synagogue for a free lunch and to receive $15 Ralphs gift cards. On this day, Kanefsky handed out approximately 120 Ralphs cards. Afterward, the synagogue served cholent, pasta, salad, challah, vegetables and desserts. 

Other shuls in Pico-Robertson see as many as a dozen people each day who come to their doors to ask for charity.  

Pico-Robertson’s Lubavitch Bais Bezalel has an “open-door policy” for people in need, said the shul’s leader, Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon. “A whole, full array of people, an eclectic group — locals, people from out of town and everybody in between” — visit the synagogue between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., coming in and asking for tzedakah during services and between services, Lisbon said.

“They make the rounds,” often making “eye contact” with congregants to gauge whether it is a good time to ask for tzedakah. Many congregants “have money sitting on the table, either coins or bills,” Lisbon said. Doing this means, “Don’t disturb my prayer, [but] take one and have a happy day,” Lisbon said.

Lisbon is happy to help. “If the good Lord is sending us people that are indeed needy and we’re in a position to [help] … [we try] to help as much as we can,” he said. 

Anshe Emes, another Orthodox shul in the neighborhood, has a similar situation: “There are people who come in and ask for tzedakah, every week in my synagogue — quote-unquote regulars,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Summers. He collects tzedakah money from his congregants and distributes that money to the visitors, before or after morning prayers, or before or after evening prayers.

Summers downplays the help he provides. “I don’t think I’m any different than any other rabbi — just the opposite — my synagogue is smaller, so maybe I do less. I’m sure these other rabbis do a lot, and the community does a lot, and it would be nice if we could do more,” he said.

At B’nai David, each person may come to request money only once a week — but the system is informal, with volunteers handing out the funds collected from congregants. 

It is not only through the synagogues that the needy can find help; neighborhood restaurants also step up. Jeff Rohatiner, owner of Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory, allows visitors to come into his restaurant to eat one free meal per week and to use the rest rooms. The goal is to help somebody who is homeless feel like a “normal person,” Rohatiner said.

Pico-Robertson-based social service agencies offer assistance, as well. SOVA’s
Pico-Robertson storefront provides groceries; the organization Tomchei Shabbos on Pico provides packages of Shabbat food to the homes of needy families (they require an address, and the food needs to be cooked). The family-run Global Kindness also distributes clothes, food, money for rent and other forms of help.

Young Israel of Century City, on Pico, maintains a different policy than some of the other congregations in dealings with tzedakah collectors. The synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, said that a few years ago, the synagogue became overwhelmed by people “who go from shul to shul [and] who’ve made this into a racket. They were disrupting the davening. It was becoming impossible,” Muskin said.

Up to 20 people were coming “daily, weekly,” in groups, to the synagogue. Congregants were being “hounded by these guys. They weren’t being left alone. … You couldn’t just walk into the shul and daven. They were there in the hallway and wouldn’t let you go,” Muskin said.

“That’s when it got out of hand. We just told them that they can’t come into the building,” Muskin said.

The synagogue now makes donations to people who have letters saying they’ve been certified by the West Coast Va Ad Hachesed, an agency that interviews a person seeking tzedakah and determines if that person truly needs assistance. Additionally, if a rabbi in the community, or a colleague, vouches for someone, Young Israel will help that person — even if he or she is uncertified, Muskin said. 

“We take care of those who are honestly in need with tremendous generosity,” Muskin said.

The challenge for rabbis and community members is how to seek a balance between giving and declining to give. Kanefsky said imposing rules — such as not allowing people to sleep inside the synagogue and requiring people to pre-register in order to become eligible for a Ralphs gift card — helps achieve that balance. 

“Things aren’t perfect, but things are far more predictable and organized both for us and the recipients,” Kanefsky said.

The rabbi said he also gets to know who he is helping, and said he doesn’t give to someone he doesn’t know anything about. “I don’t help anyone without knowing their name, knowing a little bit of their story. … It humanizes and dignifies the process,” he said.

PATH recommends this type of “one-to-one interaction.” It is, Sidell said, “very unusual, very rare for someone who is experiencing homelessness.” 

There was complete agreement among all the rabbis that Judaism obligates Jews to give tzedakah to the less fortunate. Lisbon highlighted the notion, taught by the ancient sages, that the world stands on three legs: Torah, service and acts of kindness. The notion that God makes everyone in His image also motivates Kanefsky, he said.

“I know that sounds trite, to see the image of God in everybody, [but] that is the key to everything,” he said, “to talk with people, to interact with people, to have patience with people for the image of God that they are.”

More stories for Sukkot: 

Rosh Hashanah, Israeli-style

It’s Sunday night, Erev Rosh Hashanah, and Hebrew chatter fills the air of a Masonic center on Westwood Boulevard. 

Approximately a dozen round tables covered in white cloths fill the large room. 

To the side of the space, platters of chicken, fish, salads, potatoes and rice steam on a long rectangular table. 

Israeli men and women of all ages sit together at the round tables, feasting on the entrees, a mix of Israeli, Yemenite, Libyan and Iraqi cuisine. They drink wine and sparkling apple cider. A volunteer walks around the tables, refilling the glasses.

This festive celebration for the local Israeli-American community drew approximately 60 at $10 a head, potluck. The Israeli Leadership Council (ILC) sponsored the event.

Not the typical Rosh Hashanah service, but, characteristic of the kind of gathering one might find in Israel among secular Jews, there was no sermonizing or Torah reading, or even a dress code. Following a brief presentation on the symbolism of traditional holiday foods by Rabbi Avi Stewart of Westwood Kehilla, everyone made their way over to the buffet area to load their plates and, after dinner, they all participated in a sing-along and Israeli folk dancing. 

It was exactly the kind of nonreligious and community-oriented Rosh Hashanah event that its co-organizer, Dikla Soffer, intended it to be.

“My kids, like I do, don’t want to go to any temple, but they’re raised in a home where we do traditional things. …We want to celebrate in our own way,” said Soffer, an ILC volunteer and former leader of the Israeli Scouts in Los Angeles.

Working toward building an engaged Israeli-American community, the nonprofit ILC holds community events throughout the year.

The Erev Rosh Hashanah celebration was the first of several events that Soffer and Noam Aviv, a 20-something Israeli emissary working with the ILC and Israeli Scouts for the next several weeks, are planning to hold for the community. Upcoming events include a Kabbalat Shabbat celebration and a Sukkot camping trip.  

Guy Husani, a Northridge resident and retired emergency medical technician who attended the Erev Rosh Hashanah event with his wife and three young children, said many Los Angeles-area Israelis are less interested in participating in a formal, lengthy and religious service and prefer, instead, to spend the holiday at a casual get-together.

“I want to come in and say hello, shake some hands, do a couple of prayers for the holidays, eat some dinner and go home,” Husani said.

Jews asked to pray for end to Iranian nuclear threat

Jews are being urged to pray during Yom Kippur services for an end to the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America are asking their congregations to dedicate time during their High Holy Days services despite the fact that “Yom Kippur is not a day for politics.”

“The threat is dire and demands our attention on our holiest day,” the two groups affiliated with the Orthodox movement noted in a statement sent to member congregations.

“Yom Kippur 5773 is different. On this Yom Kippur — the world faces an evil regime whose leaders have publicly committed themselves to destroying the State of Israel and to harming Jews worldwide; in addition, the Iranians are a threat to the global community.”

On this High Holy Day, “God determines which nations shall face war and which shall enjoy peace,” the statement reads, and therefore Jews should “contemplate with anxiety the fate of the State of Israel and her people, of Jews throughout the world and, indeed, of civilization as a whole.”

Sukkah splendor

The sukkah in the backyard of Leat Silvera’s home in the Beverlywood neighborhood of Los Angeles is up a little early this year. It’s not because she’s trying to get a jump on the holidays; it’s because she needs a place to look at her work — three large sukkah wall hangings that she designed herself. She’s just gotten the samples of her mass-produced versions on waterproof canvas back from China, and something about the color in one of them isn’t right. While it would likely be overlooked by anyone but Silvera, she’s not going to let it slide, so there’s more tweaking to do.

Silvera traces her aesthetic sense to growing up with her family in Los Angeles, particularly her father. For them, Sukkot was a special holiday, a time of joy and celebration, and it was in their tradition that Silvera got her start. She grew up in a traditional home, but when she was 12, her brother was tragically killed by a drunk driver, and her parents started going to Chabad. It was through Chabad that Silvera and her family drew closer to Judaism. “My father, who’s a contractor, liked to build these beautiful, elaborate wooden sukkahs in his backyard. And he would take the time to pleat these beautiful white sheets all the way around; it would take him days and days. One year, he ran out of the amount of sheets, and he just made a few walls flat, and I looked at them and I said, ‘Can I draw a picture on them?’ ”

Silvera’s father gave her permission to experiment. “A few sharpies later, I had a couple of designs on there, and they loved it,” said Silvera. Her family and their friends liked the designs so much that, according to Silvera, “the next year all the sukkah walls became flat, and I had to paint all the walls in the Sukkah.”

When Silvera went off to college at UCLA to study fine art, she left her sukkah-decorating days behind for a while. Her work at school — oil paintings focusing on realism — was completely different from the work she produces now. “These are whimsical,” she says, showing off the three sukkah wall hangings she’s made, “they’re much more bright and colorful.”

Silvera’s wall hangings are indeed colorful, and quite large, measuring 8 feet by 5 feet, and they are meant to transport the viewer to a peaceful, joyous place. One depicts a scene of rabbis dancing in the street with Torahs, another, a scenic view from a window ringed by pomegranates, and the third, a playful Jerusalem landscape.

“I had a lot of requests for doing the ushpizin,” said Silvera of the traditional welcoming of the seven exalted guests to the Sukkah, “and I did a lot of sketch work for it, and I worked it through and everything, but what ended up happening is that you didn’t capture a moment, you captured a lot of different moments, and to me that’s very distracting and almost disturbing as an artist, so I dropped it.” 

“What I like to do in general with art is just capture a moment in time, a moment of emotion that can pull you in,” said Silvera. To do this, she goes through numerous sketches before settling on moments that speak to her.

The process is a welcome one for Silvera, now in her 30s and the mother of four boys whom she home-schools. Silvera used to hide most of her paintings once they were completed, but now she sells them, and having them hanging in sukkahs around Los Angeles is a huge step for her. “Whatever anyone gets from that, even just a little bit of happiness, a little bit of joy, a little bit of that transportive feeling, that’s an incredible amount of fulfillment for me as an artist.”

Silvera started making her wall hangings for a wider audience last year. She’d painted the one of the rabbis dancing with the Torahs, and “decided I’d make about 50 copies and see what happens. The problem was, they came the morning before Sukkot.”

Undeterred by the late hour, Silvera pushed ahead with her plans to sell her pieces. “The morning of Sukkot I went to some close neighbor friends and said ‘I have them, what do you think?’ Not only did they buy them, but they called their mother-in-law, their best friend, and long story short, I sold maybe, that morning, 25 pieces.” Silvera was extremely pleased with the results. “I thought, OK, this is nice, this is something people want to have in their sukkahs. So I’ve created two more for this year; we’re selling all three of them this year, and hopefully people will enjoy them.” In addition to the dancing rabbis, there are lyrical images of Jerusalem, painted in soft washes of color.

Silvera currently sells her pieces at her Web site, leatsilvera.com, each priced $225, and she has also been trying other ways to get them noticed. “I’m trying to distribute them through shuls, through schools, Facebook, Pinterest, using whatever mediums I can through the Internet, but mostly I think it’s going to be word-of-mouth, because you can’t really tell what these look like until you see them in person.”

More than anything, Silvera feels lucky to be able to use her artistic talent to brighten one of her favorite holidays for others. “To me, it [Sukkot] is the apex of it all [the Holy Days season] and brings everybody together in such a wonderful way,” Silvera said. She sees how many of her friends want to make their sukkahs beautiful, but maybe don’t have the time or skill to pull it off.

“Maybe I can help. It’s almost like me coming into their sukkahs and helping paint a little mural to make it feel more beautiful for them.”

And since all three of her murals strongly evoke Israel, where she’s visited many times and to which she feels a strong connection, she feels like she’s bringing people closer to the Holy Land as well. “Sukkot is my favorite time in Israel. … I love seeing the apartment buildings where every balcony has a sukkah, and every staircase has a sukkah, and they’re just everywhere, and when you walk down the streets, you hear singing from outside, everyone has kind of removed themselves from that incubation or that secluded area of inside, and now everybody’s open and out and together.”

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words


by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?

The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!

Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!

Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return 

by Rabbi Zoë Klein


Confessing our sins

Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

5 theories you meet in heaven

What is the singular essence of Rosh Hashanah?

The core meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the sovereignty of the divine. By sovereignty of the divine, I don’t mean any particular level of Jewish practice. Jewish pietistic literature is well aware that anyone can go through the motions of outward observance. By sovereignty of the divine, I mean finding a way to find a standard for the duties and habits of the inner life.

Our inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination, drives, impulses, sensations, perceptions, judgments and intuitions can all be askew and can push us in various ways in life, often contradictory ways. We need some standard, some criterion by which to assess ourselves.
Saying that “God is sovereign” is just not enough. If the divine will in its moral concern is expressed through the conscience, and if the concerns of the conscience can be expressed in language, then we should be able to come up with the values that ought to guide our lives — for example, love, justice, truth and beauty.

Words such as “love, justice, truth and beauty” remain only lofty concepts until we allow them to actually shape the inner life. When I think of words that name ultimate values shaping our lives, I keep in mind the Hebrew phrase “ohl malkhut shamayim,” the “yoke of the sovereignty of the divine.” The word “yoke,” which comes from the same Sanskrit root as “yoga,” has the sense of joining together, harnessing or directing, whether it is breathing, posture or consciousness. It seems a stretch, but actually it is not much of a stretch to think of Rosh Hashanah in particular, and the Days of Awe in general, as focusing on the yoga of divine consciousness.

How does one, then, take these divine values (I call them the Garments of the Mind of God) and have them, in a practical way, shape the inner life? My most recent articulation of a response to this question has to do with my adaption of the thought of a very fine book by Thomas Sowell, “Knowledge and Decisions.” Sowell demonstrates that one can assess the world of ideas through their relationship to the process of authentication. A vision, for example, cannot be authenticated. A vision for oneself, for society, can be inspiring or foolish (or both), but cannot be rationally assessed, because visions are not arrived at through any systematic process. A vision can be assessed only when it reaches the realm of “theory,” which means at some level it can and must be authenticated by reason.

When people ask me what I mean by the “yoga of divine consciousness,” from a practical perspective,  I respond:  “Do you have theories about what will shape you into the person you want to be, for the way you want your life to be?” Here is what I have discovered. Most people do, indeed, have lofty values, usually having to do with some facet of love, justice, truth and beauty. They might even have a practical theory or two. These values and theories, however, often are pushed aside in moments of moral stress.

For example, when I ask a person what their vision is for their family, they may say “love, safety, respect, nurturing” and so forth. Their values are good. When there is conflict or stress, however, the behaviors don’t seem to coincide with the vision. In the language of Jewish spiritual psychology, we say that the “yetzer harah” (a shaping toward destructiveness) has taken over, and provided the inner life with bad theories.

Here is a tool:  Whenever you are contemplating or assessing some mode of thought, feeling, speech or behavior, ask yourself: “What’s the theory?” and “How does this relate to the values that I hold?” Rationally speaking, does the real theory guiding my behavior line up with my values?

The problem we find is that many of the theories that rule our lives hide in the shadow of the self. Sometimes when I counsel a person, and ask them to give me a theory that accounts for their behavior, they are blank. They can’t come up with the theory. We dig deeper. Theories that often pop out of the shadows are, “If I yell at my kid/spouse enough, they will change,” “If I avoid confrontation, I will get my way,” and “If I had been more loving, it would have worked out.” And so forth.  The theories don’t stand up to rational inquiry, meaning that they don’t match the facts or lead to the realization of the values we hold.

If one starts with a reasonable set of values or axioms, as they apply to given situations, and is willing to work things through rationally, we can begin to distinguish between theories that lead to misfortune and those that lead to blessing.

In years of my work and counseling others, I think that there are several theories that nearly always guide us toward restraining destructive behavior, ridding us of bad theories and helping live lives aligned with our highest values. I’ve tried to boil them down to a few essential guides, metaphorically, “The Five Theories You Meet in Heaven.” Here is one version:

Obligations have to be subjected to rational inquiry. Some people exhaust themselves serving others. Not only clergy, therapists and physicians burn out; in nearly every family there is someone fatigued by meeting the needs of others. A demanding aged parent. A struggling child. An unhappy spouse. When I counsel a person run ragged by the demands of other people, I have them assess those demands by a simple rational calculus. What exactly is the obligation? How did that precise obligation come upon you in particular? Can it actually be done (this is especially important regarding the person who says, “You must make me happy.”)? Are you the only one who can do it? Might it get done in some other way? What is the cost to you, compared to the benefit to the other? Will the other person really be better off if you do this, and for how long?  What I find is that needy people often have a peculiar talent for working guilt-prone people. A good theory can help.

Love is a discipline, not an emotion. I often hear in counseling, “If he/she loved me, I would feel better.” I just turn the tables. “And how is your love for him/ her making them feel?” For some people, when they fall in love with someone, their theory is, usually unconsciously, that love will heal their deepest wounds, make them feel safe and treasured and will be a guarantor for happiness, and if this does not happen, then the other person is doing something wrong.
I offer a different theory, paraphrasing Charles Bukowski: “Love unleashes the dogs of hell.” Love fills us with often wild and unspoken needs and demands. How do we restrain the dogs from hell? See love as discipline of service, whatever the emotions may be. If I love someone, my love should bless them. My love should make their life better.

If you are hurt, this does not mean you have been wronged. It is entirely natural to experience hurt as being wronged. Any hurt or great disappointment looks for a cause, usually outside the self. If we see that another person is the proximate cause of the hurt, we blame them for having wronged us.

Not so fast. To know if we have been wronged, first we have to detail, as dispassionately as possible, what actually happened and it what order. People who like to stay hurt and believe they have been wronged typically never want to examine what actually happened. Their feelings are primary.

Those who want to live within the “yoke of divine consciousness” care about the truth; at a simple level, as much as possible, determine what transpired. I call this in counseling “the police report” — “just the facts, ma’am.”

After one has adequately determined what happened (which often means reconstructing the record with the person who you think wronged you), ask: What moral rule was broken here? For example, if I am not invited to a gathering where I thought I would have been a guest, I may feel very hurt, but I have not been wronged, unless a clear moral rule was broken. When our needs, expectations, entitlements and demands are not met, we feel hurt. It is a great leap from there to say we have been wronged. “Being wronged” has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

If I want to be a just person, I will care primarily about the truth and moral code, not about my bruised feelings.

It is very tough to get to the truth and work out the moral issues, which is why some people prefer just to stay angry. Anger fills you with arrogance. Truth and justice can humble you.

There are better and worse states of the inner life. We are obligated to create inner lives of beauty. I often hear from the angry, the resentful, from those who hate, that they are entitled to their feelings and emotions. “It’s a free country,” I am informed.

The Jewish tradition holds, however, that we should not “hate our kinsman in our hearts” and that we should not “bear a grudge.” The tradition of Jewish moral psychology (Mussar) has long lists of inner states against which the tradition warns us.  Unruly feelings are inevitable; cultivating them and expressing them is quite another thing. Anger and hatred especially make us feel self-righteous, closed off to hearing the truth, from acting justly and lovingly, and from creating harmony and goodness in our lives. Feelings of fear, guilt, shame and resentment, for example, also cloud our vision and impede our well-being. Living in a free country and having inner freedom are two entirely different things. The yoga of divine consciousness requires that, in general, we cultivate inner lives free of toxicity (including whatever those demonic Democrats or reprobate Republicans say next).

Good moral judgment is not judgmentalism. I regret having to subject the English language to enhanced coercion and use the neologism “judgmentalism,” but I have to find a way to distinguish between “using good moral judgment” from “excessive condemnation.” Oftentimes in conducting rational-spiritual counseling, using, for example, the theories listed above, I will hear that I am being “judgmental.” How can one say what love is? What inner feelings are better than others? That what I am doing is wrong? “Isn’t it all subjective?”

All morality, ethics, social justice, etc., requires a judgment: some things are right and some things are wrong, or put more softly, some things are morally better than others. Often times I see in a person’s desire to be tolerant and understanding (of others or of themselves), an unwillingness to assess morally a behavior or an inner state. All concepts, such as love, justice, truth and beauty, can be rationally discussed and applied if we believe that they name real metaphysical phenomena, not just inner states.

This list of five theories is not exhaustive, but rather indicates a way of thinking toward higher consciousness. Within the admittedly wide bounds of human nature, there really are better ways to think and feel, standards of truth that can be discovered, though often with difficulty. There are better and worse ways to love. And we really can create lives of inner beauty, as beautiful as anything you have ever seen or heard.

I hope you find your way to the Jewish “yoga studio” that serves your soul the best, and that you use these Holy Days upon us to shape your inner lives toward your furthest spiritual reach.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr Ha Torah in Mar Vista and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Resilience: We can learn from our trials

How life teaches us! We read the wisdom of books and study the lectures of professors and we think we are ready for what life brings us. Armed with our learning, we venture into the world and discover that the formulas of the brain don’t help bind the wounds of the heart.

I remember the first time I went into a hospital room to counsel someone who was dying of a terminal illness. I was accompanied by a wise chaplain with many years of experience. We stood by the patient’s bedside and I expected that we would commiserate with his plight. We would explain that this illness wasn’t a punishment from God, but that these tragedies are random. With the inexperience of youth, I believed that nothing good can ever come from pain, that suffering is but an enemy to be vanquished, never a teacher to be heeded.

Imagine my horror, then, when the chaplain turned to the patient and asked, “What has your cancer taught you?” And imagine my surprise when the patient responded by offering many valuable lessons that he derived from his illness: renewed love of life, better priorities, deeper love for his family. This man knew exactly what the chaplain was addressing, and he was able to share the precious insights  that he had gained at a very high price.

Another memory: When I was 14 I was diagnosed as having a terminal, inoperable cancer. Having endured two years of terrible pain, a pain so embarrassing that I hid it from my family throughout that period, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. After I revealed my suffering to my parents, they rushed me to a doctor, who promptly hospitalized me. There I was poked and prodded by countless experts, each trying to get a fix on my malady and to decide on a productive response. Thank God, one clever dermatologist noticed some bumps on my arm and connected that to my internal affliction. Within two weeks I was undergoing rounds of chemo and radiation therapy that lasted for several months. 

I’m pleased to tell you that the assessment that my cancer was terminal and inoperable turned out to be an exaggeration. But the pain and fear I felt were not. I would gladly never have confronted that trial, never have suffered that anguish. But I also know that I could not be the rabbi, counselor, husband, father or friend I am today were it not for the lessons I learned from my own brush with death and pain.

The truth is that we all suffer at different points in our lives. Each of us faces challenges and endures pain — both our own and that of our loved ones. As creatures who are finite, mortal and flawed, it is not ours to choose whether we suffer. But we do have the power to choose how to respond. We may not be the masters of our fate, but we are the captains of our souls.

It is now in this light that I would like us to think about the binding of Isaac. 

Whenever we encounter this story, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Part of our struggle, no doubt, is that we object to a God who demands the sacrifice of what we love most. We hate that Abraham is called to demonstrate faithfulness by offering up his beloved son. We resent the imposition of suffering in a world that is too filled with pain and sorrow. Abraham, as our tradition recognizes, is a stand-in for each one of us. As the Talmud notes, “Sound a ram’s horn before Me so that I remember in your behalf the binding of Isaac and count it to you as though you had bound yourselves before Me” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The trial of Abraham tries us all. We can all perceive our pain in his silent anguish.

Just like Abraham, we, too, must concede that life puts us on trial. Much as we might wish to determine our destiny, such control is not in our hands. We cannot choose whether we will suffer or not, but we can decide what to do with our suffering.

Abraham, our father, also faced such a choice. The Bible records, “God put Abraham to the test” (Genesis 22:1). Abraham has no exemption from suffering; indeed, his righteousness makes him even more aware of his own pain. As the midrash notes, “God tests the faith of the righteous in that God reveals to them only at a later time the ultimate meaning of the trials to which the are subjected” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:7). Like the rest of us, all Abraham feels is anguish and sorrow. In the midst of his suffering, he cannot discern purpose or pattern. Only pain.

In his experience of pain, he is no different than any other human being. Indeed, the Zohar recognizes that to live is to lose, that to be is to suffer and to grieve: “Rabbi Shimon said: we have learned that the expression ‘And it came to pass in the days of’ denotes sorrow, while the expression ‘And it came to pass’ even without ‘in the days of’ is still tinged with sorrow” (Zohar I:119b).

“Tinged with sorrow.” I can’t think of a better description of what it feels like to be alive. We know that the dominant flavor of life is bittersweet — even in our moments of greatest joy, we recall our losses. Even in our greatest grief, we draw consolation from our love and our hope.

Yet this test need not shatter us; being tried doesn’t have to destroy us. Interestingly, the biblical word for test, nisayon, develops into a word which in modern Hebrew can mean “experience” or “experiment.” We alone can transform our test into an experience — something that provides an opportunity for new understandings and deeper connections. With the right attitude, our trials can transform us. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Our father Abraham learned a similar lesson. I think he would have said, “What doesn’t kill me can make me wiser and more compassionate.”

Why is Abraham’s resilience tested? We are never told. One possibility, however, is that suffering was a necessary — if regrettable — spur to depth, caring and meaning. Throughout his life, Abraham had known only success: a beautiful and devoted wife, great wealth, prominence and intimacy with the Creator of the universe. With all that bounty, how could he learn to empathize with others? How could he not feel smug and superior to other people with their failures and their sorrows? How could he not blame them for their sorrow? Suffering taught Abraham what success could not. The Zohar notes this salutary function when it asks, “Why is it written that God tested Abraham and not Isaac? It had to be Abraham! He had to be crowned with rigor. … Abraham was not complete until now” (Zohar 119b).

Perhaps the worth of Abraham’s trial lay in adding a layer of depth to his faith. How easy it is — when all goes well — to put God in our pocket, to think of God as a big buddy, a Santa in the sky. How tempting it is to think of God as merely there to indulge our obsession with ourselves! Suffering makes such a narcissistic and arrogant faith impossible. By undergoing the ordeal of his trial, Abraham could transcend the bartering faith of his youth for the more nuanced trustfulness of mature faith. As the psalmist sings: “You Who have made me undergo many troubles and misfortunes will revive me again. … You will turn and comfort me” (Psalms 71:20-21). While faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, it does provide comfort even amid the pain. Abraham learns that faithfulness between God and humanity is not wish fulfillment. It is commitment, relationship and steadfastness.

The Bible records no reason for Abraham’s trial. And few of us ever know why we must endure suffering and sorrow. But we do know that how we respond to our suffering has the power to transform us, for good or for ill. As 20th century spiritual leader Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan notes, “According to Jewish traditional teaching, a person is not trapped but tested. Our vicissitudes should serve as a challenge to our faith. … To deny the worth of life and to fall into despair because the promise is slow of fulfillment is to fail the test (“Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” p. 68). How we cope with the trials of life spells the difference between renewal and resignation, between spiritual growth and spiritual stagnation.

Abraham’s greatness lies precisely in his determination to respond to his trial with resilience and resolve. God calls out the test, and Abraham does not evade the challenge. His immediate answer is Hineni, here I am. Abraham’s willingness to set out on this gruesome path is rooted in faithfulness — to Isaac, to himself and to his God. In the words of 20th century Bible scholar Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, “This is the true faith, which enables us to endure all trials and stand all tests, and prove ourselves fit and ready for the great work for which, sooner or later, God calls every one of us.”

Abraham passes the test because he faces the challenge that is posed to him. Rather than fleeing what lies ahead, rather than cowering and allowing its struggle to cripple him, Abraham moves forward to do whatever needs to be done, to go wherever it is that his path in life will lead.

Abraham learns that suffering — as painful as it is — can be a source of insight. It is in this spirit that the 13th century medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman asserts, “All trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.” Not that pain is good — true faith doesn’t celebrate misery. We don’t seek out suffering, and we certainly don’t enjoy it. But neither do we refuse to learn from life’s challenges. In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “Why do you scorn suffering?”(Peah 8:9) The great men and women of the Torah were able use their trials to derive great lessons about life. They wrestled with their pain and emerged wiser and better because of how they responded to it. In that sense — and in that sense alone — their trials were for their benefit. They used those trials as occasions for deeper understanding and connection.

Abraham learned from his trial, and it became a source of personal growth and spiritual depth. The Zohar recognizes a hint of that growth from the way the angel calls out his name as Abraham is about to slaughter his son. At the moment when Isaac is bound to the altar, as Abraham raises the knife high in the air, “An angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’” 

Why does the angel say Abraham’s name twice? “Rebbe Hiyya said that the angel repeated Abraham’s name in order to animate him with a new spirit and to spur him to new activity with a new heart” (Zohar 119b). Having faced his suffering directly, having been willing to learn from his terrible trial, Abraham emerges with a new spirit and a new heart. Indeed, the Zohar claims that the angels shouted “Abraham! Abraham!” to show that “the latter Abraham was not like the former Abraham; the latter was the perfected Abraham while the former was still incomplete.” Out of the horror of his suffering, Abraham changed. Abraham grew.

“God tries everyone in some way. … The real test is the way we offer our sacrifice, the willingness with which we give up what is dear, the perfect faith in God which we still preserve, and which keeps from doubting God’s wisdom and goodness (‘The Book of Genesis,’ p. 148).” These words of Rabbi Morgenstern, written almost a century ago, translate the great lesson of the test of Abraham: We do not seek to suffer. We do not deify pain. But we know that suffering and pain are part of the journey we call life, and we know that we can learn, and grow, even from an encounter with tragedy, especially from the trials life brings.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. This is an excerpt from “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac” (Jewish Lights).