April 2, 2020

Rabbi Ponders Questions of Life and Death

A rabbi is called on to perform many roles in the lives of his congregants, but surely the most challenging is comforting others in the face of death. For Rabbi Benjamin Blech, however, death suddenly became an urgent and highly intimate matter.

“My wake-up call came with the medical diagnosis that I have a fatal disease for which at present there is no cure,” he writes in the opening pages of “Hope, Not Fear: Changing the Way We View Death” (Rowman & Littlefield). “Like everyone else, I’m going to die — but for me it will probably be sooner rather than later.”

Rabbi Blech is a professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and a recipient of the American Educator of the Year Award. He writes a weekly column for Aish.com, contributes to The New York Times and Newsweek, and is the author of 11 books, including the Times best-seller “Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican.”

Blech draws deeply on the Jewish mystical tradition in his search for answers to the mystery of death. But he is courageous enough to reveal his own moments of dread, and sometimes he performs the remarkable feat of doing so with a sharp sense of humor. After learning that he was suffering from a disease called cardiac amyloidosis, for example, Blech did exactly what most of us would do.

“I rushed home to Google what the internet had to teach me about my illness,” he confides. “Big mistake.”

Blech encourages his readers to be courageous, too. “It is not morbid to tell yourself, ‘I am going to die,’” he writes. “It is liberating. It frees you from being enslaved to what in your heart you know doesn’t really matter. … It prevents you from wasting your life while you spend your days preparing to live.”

Some readers will be surprised at Blech’s ability to extract useful lessons from various artifacts of American popular culture, ranging from Mitch Albom’s book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” to “The Good Place,” a network television comedy starring Ted Danson.

But “Hope, Not Fear” is deeply rooted in the author’s mastery of, and reverence for, Torah and Talmud. While Blech quotes Woody Allen, who once quipped that he was not afraid to die but “I just don’t want to be there when it happens,” Blech finds more comfort in the talmudic account of Rabbi Eliezer, who commanded his followers to “repent one day before your death.” When they pointed out that it was impossible to know when the day of repentance had finally arrived, he responded, “For that reason, we must live every day as though it were our last.”

“Which is why, after much thought,” Blech said, “I now believe that my diagnosis of death, with its message of warning, in its own strange way carries with it unspoken blessings.”

Even so, Blech reminds his readers that the Bible itself does not actually answer the question that must have occurred to the very first human beings who walked the earth: What happens when we die? “The questions are limited only by our imagination,” he writes. “Surely a book written by God, or at the very least inspired by Him, should offer the answers. Remarkably, and sad to say, it doesn’t — at least not clearly, other than by way of hints that might be said to imply hidden meanings.” 

“Blech draws deeply on the Jewish mystical tradition in his search for answers to the mystery of death. But he is courageous enough to reveal his own moments of dread, and sometimes he performs the remarkable feat of doing so with a sharp sense of humor. “

But he offers a pious explanation for the omissions. “That’s because there has always been the idea of an orally transmitted Torah that accompanied the written word,” he writes. “That’s why God was content to simply hand over a book; He made sure to teach its true meaning to Moses so that through the oral tradition, the correct and full import of every text would be preserved.”

Thus does Blech validate his most important source, the teachings and commentaries of rabbis and sages. To illustrate the point, he recalls a visit that he made in the company of two other rabbis to the home of Ernest Hemingway, where the great writer praised Judaism as “a religion of life” and Blech followed up with a lesson about the laws that prevent Kohanim, the descendants of the temple priests, from making contact with the dead “so that they spend their time, their efforts, their concerns, and their energy with the living.” And Blech reminds us that Hemingway himself took his own life: “[T]ragically, the biblical ideal to ‘choose life’ that he praised in our meeting could not guide him in the end.”

While Blech’s book is uplifting and life-affirming, he does not flinch from asking (and answering) the hardest questions of all. His strong religious belief prompts him to argue that there is a heaven and a hell, places where rewards and punishments are meted out to the souls of the dead, even though the Tanakh does not explicitly mention them. “It is a theological problem that can have only one answer,” he insists. “We have no choice but to conclude that the survival of the soul after death and its judgment must be assumed if we are to accept the Bible’s validity. … Yes, even a God of love punishes.” Otherwise, he concedes, “the Bible would be a lie, deluding us with a distorted picture of the consequences of our actions.”

For all the human compassion and modern wisdom that Blech embraces, “Hope, Not Fear” is ultimately a confession of faith rather than a glib self-help book. “My faith has taught me to appreciate life and to be prepared for death,” he affirms. “And to be wise enough to share the conviction of the Hasidic rabbi who, when asked on his deathbed how he was feeling, responded ‘Almost well.’”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

A Most Remarkable Miracle by Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Hope - Magic, Miracles, and Health

[Ed. Note: As we approach Rosh HaShanah, here is an entry that offers hope and a positive story. All of us at Kavod v’Nichum offer you wishes for a Shenah Tovah Umetukah! May you be inscribed and sealed for a year of blessings. — JB]

Once upon a time, on a most average, ordinary day, I received a call from a local Rabbi asking if I was available to go immediately to the ER at a local hospital as an elderly Jewish woman was imminently expected to die… and her husband of 60 years was distraught as he stood near her gurney.

In that brief phone call … minus many details … I was informed that this very day was their anniversary. The plan had been that they would renew their vows later this evening. But as we know, often we make plans and G-D laughs.

As I changed from my jeans to more appropriate “clergy/chaplain” clothes my hubby gathered some flowers from our yard, a small glass and a little bottle of grape juice. With these items in hand, off I went to the ER.

Security guards ushered me to the correct bay, and upon my entering this cubicle, the two non-Jewish chaplains left.

So, there I was with the distraught husband, and his wife who was as white as the sheet she was laying on. I held the wife’s hand as I asked the husband to repeat a very very very condensed version of a renewal ceremony – made up on the spot!!

Concluding this ceremony with the shehechiyanu prayer, expressing thanks that they DID reach THIS day, I began to ask him about his years with her. I asked, “what was the most memorable moment that you can recall?” He responded that it was their trip to Israel the year before.

We talked about the various cities and towns where they stayed, and I asked if they had any relatives in Israel. Nope – not a one. My follow-up question was, “What in Israel moved your wife the most?” He quickly responded, “the Kotel.”

With that answer he was moved to obvious emotion. But this obvious emotion paled compared to the emotion he demonstrated when SHE responded, “the Kotel!”

This sick, frail, and dying woman somehow gathered the inner strength to say, though admittedly in a whisper, “The Kotel.”

The fact that this woman had heard us, could respond and defy the odds was strange enough. The devoted, loyal, distraught, husband NEARLY had his own medical emergency when he heard her speak. He had to catch himself from falling!

With that one unbelievable phrase – “the Kotel” – one has to wonder what the powers that be – let be. Why would THIS conversation have the power to elicit strength that was just moments before absent? How is it that she must have  heard all the previous discussions, prayers, and her husband’s pleas for her to get better, but all that for naught, and yet she heard THIS question?

The doctors were sure that death was a certainty, the chaplains were offering comfort and words of early condolence, and the husband was told to call the funeral home and “make necessary plans.” I am the Roshah of the Chevrah Kadisha in this community, and I would put out the call at news of a death.

And yet, the mention of the Kotel stirred her, emotionally and physically. Slowly, color returned to her face, and ever so slowly she began to “look” less at deaths door.

Her husband recounted to her that they had just had a Renewal of Vows, that it was in fact the day of their anniversary, and he was moved to tears that she appeared better.

With that I left the cubicle.

Outside the cubicle, several feet away, the two Christian chaplains were nonplussed and flummoxed, to say the least. Having overheard that she spoke, they wanted to know the Jewish Secret – what had I done? I simply told them “Kotel,” and left!

I did learn that the elderly, imminently going-to-die woman was released to home after 3 days – showing the power of Hashem, miracles, good luck, coincidence.

Laurie Dinerstein-Kurs hails from Brooklyn, currently living in NJ.  Having originally learned about Taharah as a yeshiva student, I knew I would participate as soon as the opportunity presented itself.  I have participated in doing Taharah for almost 30 years.  I am currently the ROSHAH of our chevrah.  When not doing Taharah, I taught school – up until I retired and went back to school and became a chaplain.  I held the Federation position of County (Mercer) Chaplain for 15 years.   My two children have blessed us with grandchildren.

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

Rabbi Laurie Dinnerstein-Kurs

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Gamliel Courses

The next course in the cycle of core courses offered by the Gamliel Institute will be Course 4 – Nechama/Comfort. It will be offered online during the Fall from October 9th to December 25th on Tuesday evenings, for 90 minutes each week for 12 weeks. The classes will begin at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Primary instructors will be Dan Fendel and Edna Stewart, with guest instructors.

Registration is now open – click here.

The course planned for Winter 2019 is Course 2 – Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah. Plan ahead!

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Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to a free informal online session, held monthly. On the third (3rd) THURSDAY of each month, different person(s) will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is September 20th. More details will be sent out soon.

If you are interested in teaching a session, you can contact us at rboroditsky@jewisgh-funerals.org, rlight@jewish-funerals.org, or info@jewish-funerals.org.

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Gamliel Continuing Education Courses

Gamliel students should be on the lookout for information on a series of Gamliel Continuing Education  Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will usually be in groups of three ninety minute sessions (three consecutive Wednesdays) offered roughly twice yearly, with different topics addressed in each series. The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. The first course took place in Fall 2017, focusing on Psalms, and the second was on The World to Come and the Zohar.

The next course will be November 28th, December 5th, and December 12th. We will continue to look at death as seen in the Zohar, taught by Beth Huppin.

Registration is required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for each three session series. Contact us for information, by email info@jewish-funerals.org, or call 410-733-3700, or simply register online at www.jewish-funerals.org/gamreg/.

You can also register for prior courses and access them via recording.

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Taste of Gamliel Series

The 2018 Taste of Gamliel series has concluded, but it is not too late if you want to access the recordings. You can Register for the 2018 series, Your’re Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone: Jewish Practices of Remembrance, or any of the series from prior years, and view them in recordings.  There are usually five sessions in a series, and each session is approximately 90 minutes.

The 2019 series is being planned now. Registration for Taste of Gamliel is mandatory to access the sessions. The Registration fee of $36 for each series helps us defray the out of pocket costs.
Those registered will be sent the information on how to connect to the sessions. To register, click here: register.

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DONATIONS

Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the annual conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Continuing Education courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities. There is a matching donation program in progress so your dollars go further. See the website for details.

You can donate online at http://jewish-funerals.org/gamliel-institute-financial-support or by snail mail to either:

Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute,

c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum,

8112 Sea Water Path,

Columbia, MD  21045.

Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute] are recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (http://www.jewish-funerals.org/money/).

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SUBMISSIONS WELCOME

Please note: this blog depends on you for content. Without you it cannot publish new material. If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email J.blair@jewish-funerals.org. We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.

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ARTIST OF THE WEEK: Laura Ben-David

Laura Ben-David
“HOPE,” 2014

A farewell party in Manipur, India, for Bnei Menashe Jews who were about to make aliyah. “Hope” is part of the international exhibition “Passage to Israel,” at the Sagamore Hotel in the South Beach area of Miami Beach through May 30, as part of a three-month “Peace 70” initiative (passagetoisrael.org).

Despite a Year of Anxiety, a Note of Hope

As 2017 comes to a close, the weariness and exhaustion generated by the Donald Trump presidency seem everywhere. Dinner conversations inevitably come around to dreary discussions of Trump’s latest tweets, his disregard for democratic norms or his fantasyland distortion of demonstrable facts. Family gatherings have a pall cast over them as people contemplate three more years of disarray and mendacity.

It is easy to be depressed and assume the achievements of past decades — under both Democratic and Republican administrations — on issues of tolerance and intergroup relations are being undone by a president who has no shame in targeting minorities and the most vulnerable in overt, insensitive and mocking ways.

Despite Trump, I remain hopeful that, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” If one steps back a bit, it seems that America has banked enough goodwill and broadly inculcated notions of tolerance that the body politic can withstand the fevered emanations from the Oval Office.

The vote in Alabama is one indication that even in the reddest of states, Trump’s act is wearing thin. His disdain for the norms of modern American modes of conduct helped sink the Roy Moore candidacy. Despite Trump’s entreaties, some 350,000 to 400,000 Alabama evangelicals did not show up at the polls this month to support Judge Moore in his bid for the Senate.

Evangelicals are the core of Trump’s support. If they are seeing through his pseudo-religious veneer, many others will, as well.

Despite his distancing of himself and his office from minority groups and his assault on them during his campaign and since his election, Americans haven’t forgotten what work remains on the intergroup front.

In summarizing a recent poll, the Pew Research Center said that “growing shares of the public say more needs to be done to address racial equality and see discrimination against Blacks as an impediment to this.”

Sixty-one percent of the public (81 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans) say the country needs to continue making changes to give Blacks equal rights with whites. Support for that proposition among Democrats is at a high mark since 2010 and within 3 points of the Republican high of support from 2015. The Trump effect hasn’t blinded Americans to the work that remains.

Even on the local level, racial groups get along, despite the Trump effect. A study earlier this year by the Center for the Study of Los Angeles found that 76 percent of Angelenos believe that “racial groups in Los Angeles are getting along well.” That compares with 37 percent in 1997 (five years after the riots), 48 percent in 2007, and 72 percent in 2012. Angelenos have equaled the most positive assessment of race relations at any point in the last 25 years.

In terms of particular groups in L.A., African-Americans think we are getting along “well or somewhat well” at 73 percent, Asians at 79 percent, whites at 81 percent and Latinos at 72 percent.

The barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context.

These findings, though taken early in the Trump presidency, suggest that groups can distinguish between the rhetoric of a president who cares not a whit about whom he ostracizes, condemns or harms and the real world. They have figured out that their lives are independent of the show in Washington, D.C. Even Latinos, a particular target of Trump, have a positive assessment (at 72 percent) of how we are getting along in L.A.

On a more global scale, there is reason for optimism. In a post-Trump election interview posted on Vox, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”) warned about getting too concerned with the headlines of the day and the media’s “given wisdom.” The fact is that well-established trends and attitudes transcend the vagaries of one election.

“More generally,” Pinker said, “the worldwide, decadeslong current toward racial tolerance is too strong to be undone by one man. Public opinion polls in almost every country show steady declines in racial and religious prejudice — and more importantly for the future, that younger are less prejudiced than older ones. As my own cohort of baby boomers (who helped elect Trump) dies off and is replaced by millennials (who rejected him in droves), the world will become more tolerant.

“It’s not just that people are increasingly disagreeing with intolerant statements when asked by pollsters, which could be driven by a taboo against explicit racism. [Seth] Stephens-Davidowitz has shown that Google searches for racist jokes
and organizations are sensitive indicators of private racism. They have declined steadily over the past dozen years, and they are more popular in older than younger cohorts.”

If you want to see the dark clouds on the horizon, there are plenty. The next three years will continue to be very rocky. The nightly news will stream awful stories and troubling facts. Yet, the barrage of bad news is rarely contextualized and set in its historic context. By most measures we and the world are doing better than we ever have, if not as well as we might.


David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., which is chaired by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.

Hope must once again conquer “The Rabin Square”

It now seems as if thousands of light years have passed between the summer of 2011 and the summer of 2014. It is hard to believe that the same “city square”, once an open arena for hopeful debates involving social issues and reform, has now recently become an arena of confrontation between the violent and hostile groups about “Operation Protective Edge.”

During the summer of 2011, while shouting out for much-needed social reforms involving the high cost of living, we never asked who is shouting next to us. We didn’t try to find out if they love or hate the Israeli flag or if they support “Beitar” or “Hapoel” soccer teams. We didn’t ask what they think of Haneen Zoabi, Miri Regev, Gideon Levi or Danny Danon. We didn’t ask their position on the threat of rockets from Gaza or a political agreement with the Palestinian Authority. We never asked for their opinion on renting apartments to Arabs or the “Price Tag Policy”. We simply marched together, shouting at the top of our lungs, motivated by a strong, optimistic feeling that we had a joint future to fight for.  In that summer’s debate about social justice, one thing was clear – the voices echoed hope. The voices were ones which expressed the desire to build and fix what needs to be rectified; they were voices that sought to mend fractures and secure our seams, not unravel them.

Something good happened to us as a result. We were finally able to see clearly and to discern the outline of an “old order” which had directed and organized our society and our economy. We learned the power of this order and also realized that we have the power to change it. We understood that the “common force that swept the streets” can be translated into a variety of initiatives and social acts that could give power back to the people. We realized that we had embarked on a deep, ongoing process of “change”, one that touches all wakes of social life; one whose goal was to gradually change our politics, our economy and our society.

But somewhere during that summer of optimistic “social outpouring”, we managed to lose sight of other darker, more extreme trends that were growing around the social edges and then slowly, but surely, penetrated its core.  Even while dark manifestations of sectarianism, hostility, violence, racism and unjustified hatred were secretly rearing their heads, still there was hope.

Then came “Operation Protective Edge”, and everything quickly changed. Hope was replaced by despair. The fragile fabric, so meticulously woven to connect groups and individuals around new and creative ideas, evaporated with the click of a keyboard. Friends and acquaintances who had met and organized into social networks for social justice now found themselves on opposing sides of the issue of the war, casting words at one another, sharper than poisonous arrows.

“Operation Protective Edge” is far from over but one thing is already very clear: we have a lot to fix – socially, civically, democratically; the seams we have been repairing in recent years will need to be re-stitched, having been ripped apart by the hostilities. This time we will have to do it differently – we will be more determined and will include many more groups and partners. Our rehabilitation also needs to become the top social project of the government awaiting us after “Operation Protective Edge”.  Our national strength is there – and not in shelters and iron domes. Hope must once again conquer the “city square”. 

The writer is Tomer Lotan- CEO of The Citizen's Empowerment Center in Israel (CECI).

The ironic ma nishtana

There are two ma nishtanas – one adorable, and one ironic. 

They both mean the same thing in Hebrew: “What is different?”  “What has changed?”

The adorable one gets its charm from being sung by the youngest child at the Passover seder.  Ma nishtana starts the sentence setting up the Four Questions: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  They are the questions of an innocent puzzled by the changes at the evening meal, and even if the 8-year-old asking now also asked last year, and will ask again next year, and knows what the four answers are, everyone around the table is glad to play their roles in Pesach theater.

If you’ve been to a seder, you know that the Four Questions are about things like why do we eat matzah instead of bread, and what’s up with this biting into a horseradish; they also prompt the telling of the Exodus story, which is the purpose of the holiday: to pass the once-we-were-slaves-in-Egypt legacy to the next generation. 

The ironic ma nishtana is not part of Passover, though it could well be said while passing the seder brisket, in response to the report that Cousin Harold’s new girlfriend is 15 years younger than him, or that Aunt Yetta blew her Social Security check at the slots.  This one means, “So what else is new?”  “Tell me something I don’t know.”  “What a surprise.”  

This is the been-there-done-that ma nishtana, the wry, weary voice of experience about the way of the world.  A non-Hebrew version of it is a rhetorical question and answer that goes something like this:  Q: “What do you call it when a Wall Street banker who sells worthless junk to pension funds gets a bailout and a bonus instead of jail time?”  A: “Tuesday.”  Another day, another garden-variety outrage.  Welcome to normal.  If you’re surprised by sin, you haven’t been paying attention.

Usually, when I encounter some appalling evidence of immorality or injustice, when I see some deception or ignorance flushed out by facts, my first instinct is optimism.  Michael Lewis reveals the predatory practices of high-frequency traders in his new book, ““>The Unknown Known,” and I anticipate the accountability his documentary will inaugurate.  General Motors, BP, Kerr-McGee and Massey Energy are caught red-handed, and I think, “Surely this will deter future corporate criminality.”  Jon Stewart shows videotape that nails politicians and journalists for their hypocrisy, Bill Moyers disinfects corruption with investigative sunlight, and I celebrate their speaking truth to power and the miracle of checks and balances. 

But then I wake up and smell the ma nishtana.  If it’s plutocracy, this must be Tuesday.  Nice nations finish last.  The golden rule isn’t “do unto others”; it’s “don’t get caught.”  Hope isn’t “the thing with feathers,” as Emily Dickinson called it.  It’s the thing with denial. 

When a magnitude 5.1 earthquake shook Southern California a couple of week ago, the Los Angeles Times ran a front page “>piece by Stanford neuroscientist Robert M. Sapolsky called “Hoping against hope: Humans are forever running up against the limits of optimism,” pegged not to the earthquake, but to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 and the persistence of the hope that its passengers survived.  Depressed people, Dr. Sapolsky wrote, “are often more accurate in their assessment of the world” than healthy people.  Depression is “a failure of the human capacity for denial and self-deception…. For those counted among the affectively healthy, hope is sustaining.  We are able to ignore the reality of death…. We believe our love will be requited, our efforts rewarded and that nothing bad would ever happen to Bambi’s mother in real life.” And, I’d add, that justice and freedom will prevail, as it does in the Exodus story. 

So ma nishtana is an auto-antonym. Like the word “sanction” – which means both “to approve” and “to forbid” – it contains its own opposite.  It’s the anthem of spring, hope and liberation, and it’s also the story whose moral is “sadder but wiser,” plus ça change, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  We won’t get fooled again?  Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.  Moses may have led us out of the land of Pharaoh.  But that golden calf?  Ma nishtana.

martyk@usc.edu.

An enduring miracle

This coming Shabbat, together with Jewish communities around the world, we will celebrate the joyous festival of Chanukah. Most of us are quite familiar with the story of Chanukah and the miracle that our tradition recalls.

We learned as children that when the Maccabees rededicated our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, they found enough oil to light the menorah for only a single day. God’s miracle, we learned, was that the oil that should have lasted but one day lasted, rather, for eight days.

The rabbinic sages, explaining the ritual lighting of Chanukah, recounted in the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat the miracle noted above. We might wonder whether this miracle actually occurred. And, if it did not occur, we might question whether we should continue to observe the ritual lighting associated with this nonevent.

In order to understand the original and continued significance of the lighting of Chanukah’s flames, we might explore the manner in which we light the chanukiyah — Chanukah’s eight-branched menorah. We can thereby gain a deeper and enduring appreciation of the lighting, one that chronicles a miracle we live today as much as it commemorates a miracle of long ago.

The Talmud instructs us to observe Chanukah’s ritual lighting in accordance with the sage Hillel’s practice. We are to kindle one additional flame for each successive day of the holiday. On the first day, we kindle one flame; on the second, two flames; etc. According to the sage Shammai’s dissenting opinion, we ought eliminate one flame for each successive day of the holiday; on the first day, eight flames; on the second day, seven flames; etc.

At first glance, Shammai’s approach seems compelling: In recounting the miracle of the single jar of oil that lasted eight days, we should acknowledge that, despite our rational conclusion to the contrary, there was in actuality enough oil on the first day of Chanukah to last eight days, on the second day to last seven, and so on. In other words, Shammai suggested that the proper way to recount the miracle is to recall what once occurred from the perspective of one who knows how the story ends.

Still, the Talmud rules in accordance with Hillel. I believe Hillel’s view prevailed because it reflected a belief that the ritual lighting of Chanukah is more than commemorative; it exists very much in the present tense, experientially. Standing outside the miracle, remembering it historically as Shammai did, the focus is simply on how much oil remained each day. However, when we use the ritual to relive the miracle in our present, when we experience each day of it anew, we are not certain that our oil will last yet another moment. We cannot be sure that the lights we revisit from our ancient Jewish past, or even those we strive to preserve and nourish today, will endure. Will the Jewish flame of our era burn forth unto our children and our children’s children? Are we any less at risk of losing our light than the menorah in the Temple was so very long ago? Might it have been the case for the rabbis long ago that the “miracle” of Chanukah was a metaphor for our people’s unlikely but persistent survival and flourishing, against all odds? Is it possible that the miracle that we celebrate in our own era, when kindling our own flames of Chanukah, is the ever-constant miracle of our presence in this world, altogether, as Jews?

The flames of Chanukah, as Hillel had us kindle them by adding one more flame each day, express our enduring faith that our flame of today will grow ever stronger, in our own generation and beyond. The flames we kindle on Chanukah represent our commitment to the work we must do to enhance and clarify the light of our people and the beauty and depth of Jewish meaning and purpose. Ultimately, from within the annual and ongoing miracle of Chanukah, we might even come to recognize that we, ourselves, are the flames; we are the enduring miracle of Chanukah, if we make it so.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ner Tamid, a Conservative congregation in Rancho Palos Verdes. For more information, visit http://www.nertamid.com.

Hope vs. slippery slope

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Hope breeds strength

PARIS — “It was invisible, as always,” begins Theodore White’s classic “The Making of the President, 1960,” describing the mysterious process by which millions of voters combine to make their most important political decision.

This time, it was visible.

The crowded lines at the polls, the frenzied communications on the pathways of the Internet, the huge crowds at political rallies revealed this to be an election like no other. Most of the time history just happens and we see it in the rearview mirror. This time history happened right in front of our eyes.

The Democratic Party that has won a mandate to govern the White House and the Congress is a party transformed. In the Roosevelt and Truman years, the Democrats were the party of the working class, of the urban and rural areas, and Jewish voters, among many others, were enthusiastic supporters of the New Deal and Fair Deal coalitions. But the issue of race had to be glossed over because a party of Southern rural whites could not be racially progressive.

In the 1960s, the Democrats had to choose, and they chose the side of racial equality, supported by Jews, who were actively engaged in the civil rights movement that forced the hand of national Democrats.

The party paid a steep price for that choice, as white voters in the South and many whites outside the south deserted the Democrats for a rejuvenated Republican party that clearly placed itself on the side of whites. After Lyndon Johnson’s landslide election in 1964, only one Democrat, Jimmy Carter, has received more than 50 percent of the popular vote — Carter got 50.1 percent — and Republicans have dominated presidential elections. (Bill Clinton managed to win twice without breaking 50 percent of the vote.) How to hold onto white working voters and minority communities in the same party became the agonizing task of a party that hoped to provide health care and other progressive economic policies. Meanwhile, the African American militancy of the 1960s and the apparent softening of support for Israel in some corners of the left opened up serious rifts within the Jewish community, concerns that would reemerge in Obama’s run for the presidency.

When this campaign started two years ago, no one anticipated that not only would Democrats finally overcome their painful standing in a presidential election, but that the candidate who would do it would be African American. In fact, history suggested that to be, perhaps, the least likely option. The expectation was that it would take another Bill Clinton, a white candidate who could walk comfortably in both racial camps, to solve the problem. And that maybe Democrats could hold their industrial base and the Northeast and West Coast to squeak out a victory, with one or two more states added in.

Instead, Obama obtained more than 52 percent of the popular vote, the most for a Democrat since 1964. He redrew the political map with victories in Nevada, Colorado, Indiana, Virginia, Ohio and Florida. The most dramatic moments came with his victories in Pennsylvania, and the big fish, Ohio. These blue-collar states, with lots of conservative Democrats, were seen as difficult for Obama, but he won them both. White suburban voters helped Obama win, a significant shift from the days when suburbs helped Republicans beat the urban turnout, and Jewish voters undoubtedly helped Obama turn Florida blue.

The Republican Party, and particularly George W. Bush, helped make this historic election possible. Certain of their dominance of national politics, Republican leaders came to believe that if they simply stuck together and mobilized their conservative base, that the feckless Democrats and moderate Republicans would continue to recede as a threat. Having taken control of the White House in a disputed 2000 election, the Bush team moved to enact their program with discipline and contempt for Democrats. Inspired by Vice President Dick Cheney, they came to believe that they could do whatever they wanted. Victory in the 2002 congressional elections appeared to them to be evidence that the strategy was working. The result was the ill-advised invasion of Iraq in 2003. That invasion set in motion the forces that led to the 2008 watershed.

As weak, demoralized and disorganized as they were, Democrats nursed a grudge that grew into a burning rage against the Bush administration. They could not agree, however, on how to fight back. The Iraq war divided Democrats between the Howard Dean wing of the party that wanted to fight against it, and the Clinton wing that had succeeded by narrowing the differences with ascendant Republicans and hoping to win narrow national victories. Dean proposed a 50-state strategy to put the party into every state and to concede no state. He could not win the party’s nomination in 2004 and instead became party chair where he tried to get the strategy going. When the Democrats finally openly opposed the war in 2006, they won a major victory in congressional elections.

Meanwhile the deterioration of the Bush administration, its handling of Hurricane Katrina and the slowing economy eroded the re-elected Bush’s popularity. His has become the most unpopular presidency since polling began. Obama challenged the inevitable nominee, Hillary Clinton, with his early opposition to the war. That issue, and his decision to implement Dean’s strategy by competing for delegates in red states, catapulted him to a shocking upset of Clinton for the nomination of his party. Yet Obama could not easily crack Clinton’s base among women, Jews, older voters, and Latinos.

Republicans had every reason to believe that they could beat Obama. As an African American candidate, he could directly embody the racialized images of “otherness” that they had so successfully glued to the Democrats. But they ultimately discovered that the “base” strategy that had won the 2002 and 2004 elections would not work in 2008, just as it had failed in 2006. The base strategy cost them the suburbs. It cost them blue-collar voters. It cost them Latinos. It cost them a generation of young voters. It cost them women. And it also cost them Jewish voters. No one understood that black turnout in the south would be so large as to put several red states into play.

The problem with building a party around white racial resentment is that the spigot cannot easily be shut off. Bush, Karl Rove and John McCain all understood that the future of the Republican party rested with the immigrants who had come from Hispanic and Asian nations. The conservatism within those groups could make them natural Republicans. That was the Republican hope for a long-term majority, and it was a pretty smart plan. But the base that Bush and Rove had fed so long turned on immigrants, just as they had earlier turned on African Americans. The Bush-McCain immigration plan that might have built a bridge to Hispanics died, and McCain was forced to renounce his support for his own plan to have a chance of winning the Republican nomination. The result? Obama and the Democrats reaped a massive harvest of Latino votes in the Southwestern states of Nevada, New Mexico, and Colorado. McCain, the candidate whose image of moderation made him the best choice for the Republicans in a tough year, had to hew the party line as that line became unpopular on issue after issue.

Certain that white, working-class voters would be driven by culture and race to support Republicans, the White House dithered as the economy slid. To the end, McCain stuck to traditional Republican economics, downplaying the crisis and calling for trickle-down economics. Instead, there would be red meat for the culture wars. Joe the Plumber would symbolize the white guy who fears that his tax dollars will go to some vaguely described “welfare” program. It probably did work with some voters. But many other cross-pressured, older white Democrats in the industrial states seem to have ultimately decided that while Democrats may sometimes act like latte-drinking goofballs, they at least ought to get a chance to do something about the economy. That probably blunted some of the much-feared Bradley Effect.

The social conservatism symbolized by a rigid pro-life stance caused heartburn for Republicans among suburban voters, with women, and ultimately with Jewish voters. Jewish women are the most pro-choice group in the electorate, and Jews tend to be on the most tolerant end of most measures of social liberalism. One could almost hear moderate Jewish voters crying out to Republicans to send them a real moderate, a Dick Riordan, an Arnold Schwartzenegger, a Nelson Rockefeller for those with a longer memory. Instead, Republicans sent them the message that Democrats would weaken Israel — don’t worry about those other issues. The Sarah Palin nomination may have been the final push for wavering voters. The relentlessly anti-intellectual Palin was hardly the ideal candidate to appeal to Jews.

It was Obama, of course, who took this situation and turned it into an unlikely victory. If Iraq was his road to the nomination, the economy was his road to November. As the war receded as the decisive issue for the fall election, the economy turned out to be the monster one. As a first time African American candidate, Obama had to run a near-perfect campaign. Many Americans had never had the chance to vote for a black candidate, and voters are extremely cautious about the new and the different. In the debates, Obama showed steadiness and maturity and easily won all three. The comparison between the vice presidential picks of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin could not have been clearer. The Wall Street collapse tore the ground out from under the McCain campaign, and the race did not change much from then until the end. Obama’s organization turned out to be a thing of beauty, and it has replaced the rickety, amateurish Democratic Party organization with a 21st-century version that actually works.

The mood of celebration that has greeted Obama’s victory belies the hard days ahead. The nation expects answers on the economic crisis and also hopes that Obama, inexperienced in foreign policy, will show the steadiness at the helm that he demonstrated in his presidential debates. Pre-election polls showed that Jews had in the main overcome their initial suspicions of Obama to reach more than 70 percent levels of support, but many want to be sure that their decision to take a chance on the new guy over the well-known older guy was well founded. That means close attention to Israel and its defense, even in a period when domestic economic matters are likely to dominate the new president’s agenda.

In the inside-baseball world of politics, Obama’s election probably means a complete shift from one set of Jewish foreign policy advisors for another. Neo-conservatives, a number of whom are Jewish, comprised a core block of Bush’s advisers, and they were a major force in pushing the war in Iraq. As the war went bad, they drifted from the White House to media punditry and other perches. Quite a few gravitated to the McCain campaign, which in that sense campaigned to the right of the Bush White House — which had begun in its late days to quietly walk back from its own unilateralism in foreign policy. McCain’s loss means that they now have to fight for their place in their own defeated party rather than sitting in the seat of power. Their most prominent political ally, now that McCain has lost, is independent Senator Joe Lieberman, who now has to find his own place in a Senate where Democrats no longer need his vote to have a majority.

Obama will bring to the White House old hands like Dennis Ross and Jewish Democrats in the Congress with a different view of foreign policy than the neo-conservatives. How this new foreign policy team operates may not be a central concern for American voters as a whole, but it will certainly be closely watched by Jewish voters and organizations.

New presidents face their first political test in the congressional elections that follow two years after their initial election. In 2010, voters will render their first verdict on Obama’s presidency and his party’s performance. This cycle is a sobering reminder that in a democracy voters only give you the chance to prove yourself, not a blank check. The Republican party, soon to have a bitter internal debate about its future, will be a formidable competitor once again if it can open its doors and its minds to the same winds of change that drove them aground for now.

From my temporary perch in Paris, where I not only talk to lots of people from all walks of life, but collect news from around the world, I can tell you that the global interest in this election has been phenomenal. The raw excitement and expectation that has been set off in recent weeks by the possibility of Obama’s election has been transformational. It is, for me, a reminder that the world has only the greatest hopes for America. In Paris, any discussion of the U.S. election draws a standing-room-only crowd, and it is quite entertaining to hear people discourse about what is going to happen in North Dakota or to debate whether or not there is a Bradley Effect. I think that the often-opaque American political system has now, for the first time, become understandable around the world because of the intensity of the event.

The French now understand that Obama’s election will set off a long overdue debate about the status of minority communities within their own nation. Why, people are asking, are there not more minority members of the national legislative bodies? Would France elect a president of African origin? Nothing is going to be left untouched by these historic events. One of my students, who is black, flew to America to campaign for several days last week, and he told me that if Obama wins he is going to get active in French politics and maybe run for office.

When all is said and done, this is still a time for celebration. Racial divisions do not go away just because of an election, but we might think of these issues in a different way, and sometimes that is how intractable problems become tractable. In his inaugural address in 1961, John F. Kennedy said memorably “We observe today not a victory of party, but a celebration of freedom.” Obama’s victory gives his party a chance at the helm, but more importantly, it has tapped into a rich vein of hope too long hidden by the false confidence of cynicism. For Jewish voters, the decision to give Obama a chance is an important one. If he can fulfill those expectations, some of the ill will that is rooted in recent decades may lose its sting.

Hope is not always rewarded, but it is the one thing that generates the strength to face the worst of problems, and it is therefore the one thing we cannot do without.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, is the 2008 Fulbright Tocqueville Distinguished Chair in American Studies at the University of Paris VIII.

MUSIC VIDEO: Hannah Friedman: ‘Oh, Obama’

Writer (and singer) Hannah Friedman stayed up all night to bring us this song.

Beauty can arise from tragedy

In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Cancer survivor brings art, courage to other patients

Judi Kaufman has trouble remembering numbers. So the two-time brain cancer survivor, who is now living with her third tumor, assigns colors to numbers to help keep them straight.

The system is simple and intuitive: zero is white, 13 is black. Eighteen — chai — is red.

“Red is the color of courage,” said Kaufman, 64. “Life takes courage.”

If Kaufman’s courage ever falters, few could tell from her brisk schedule of activities. She’s a member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Board of Governors. A one-time recipe tester for Bon Appétit magazine, she holds kosher cooking classes for adults and children. And she gives the bulk of her time and energy to Art of the Brain, a nonprofit she founded in 2000 to help fellow brain cancer patients navigate the disease’s often-profound physical and mental effects — through art.

“People who have brain cancer oftentimes turn to art to feel better,” Kaufman said at her Beverly Hills home on a recent afternoon. “They learn to stop judging their work. Any kind of art can help, whether it’s music, writing, filmmaking, painting. We are always trying to help patients find their own artistic talent.”

Kaufman began writing poetry to counter feelings of despair following her diagnosis in 1997. Since then, she has composed enough material for four books. Proceeds from the sale of her books help fund Art of the Brain, which through galas and partnership events has so far raised more than $3 million for cancer research at UCLA.

As the organization gears up for its ninth annual fundraising gala at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Oct. 4, Kaufman hopes Art of the Brain can reach out to more cancer patients in need of comfort and hope.

“Brain cancer is the most lonely cancer,” she said. “It affects the way you act and feel. You think, ‘Should I go out and be seen like this, or stay inside?’ It’s easy to just stay inside.”

That’s a decision Kaufman still wrestles with. She sometimes turns down lunch dates with friends because her speech, which was damaged by her two surgeries, often comes out slurred and normal conversation takes as much energy as “running around the block.”

But Kaufman said her personal struggles are what make other people with brain cancer — many of them lonely and misunderstood — able to relate to her.

“Unless you walk this trip, you don’t really know what people are going through,” she said. “You don’t have much left after brain cancer. I felt I was only half a wife, half a woman. One of the premises of Art of the Brain is to restore peoples’ self-esteem.”

The organization is built on a system of 20 volunteer “illness mentors” who visit with cancer patients and their families and offer both physical and emotional support. These volunteers, affectionately called “Brain Buddies,” aid with everything from meal preparation to explaining the nuances of the disease. They also help patients cope with anger and depression by encouraging them to pick up, for example, a paintbrush or a pen.

When Kaufman first started sketching out poems in 1997, she found she had a lot to say that she wasn’t able to tell family members or friends.

“I tried not to burden other people with my depression, so it came out in my writing,” she recalled. “That was how I survived. I learned to take layers off — to become more truthful. I lost all my inhibitions.”

Kaufman’s poetry deals with cancer and sex, social acceptance and forced limitations. Her humor, which she freely deems “cockeyed,” can be jarring, as when she compares her tumor to an unconventional pregnancy. Her sadness and strength are palpable in her 2007 book “Do You Want Your Brain to Hurt Now or Later?” as she dwells on the value of flaws:

Perfection is not about real human beings.
Perfection is a cartoon, without the humor.
Perfection cuts away the core of caring.
Perfection is a hidden illness.

Writing was a catharsis for Kaufman, whose initial misdiagnosis almost cost her her life.

For two years, Kaufman had chalked up her recurrent headaches to menopause. When the headaches eventually turned to seizures, her husband, Roy, rushed her to the emergency room. Doctors there told her she’d had a stroke and sent her home with no medication.

“Seizures are often a symptom of strokes; that’s why brain cancer is often misdiagnosed as a stroke,” she said. “They told me, ‘Go home, rest.’ But I still felt that something was wrong.”

Kaufman went to UCLA’s Neuro-Oncology department for a second opinion, where she was properly diagnosed and booked for emergency brain surgery.

“They said, ‘The good news is you didn’t have a stroke. The bad news is you have a brain tumor the size of a golf ball,'” she recalled.

After her surgery, Kaufman sought a meaningful way to thank Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director of the UCLA Neuro-Oncology Program. She wanted to create a support system for other brain cancer survivors, stripped of their professional skills, deprived of basic mental functions and plunged into an uncertain new lifestyle marked by fear and self-doubt.

Kaufman and Cloughesy founded Art of the Brain based on Cloughesy’s observation that the creative process had helped many of his patients find release and hope on the often-steep hike to recovery.

“We want to give people back a sense of purpose in life,” said Kaufman, who dealt with her own feelings of loss after having to abandon a successful career as an entrepreneur and business owner.

A Pasadena native, Kaufman got her degree in home economics from CSUN, and went on to work for the Southern California Gas Company giving home cooking demonstrations. She tested recipes for the newly founded Bon Appétit magazine in the early 1970s, and in 1977 — after a “wild vision” — established a mail-order confection company Grand Chocolate Pizza in her own kitchen.

After she and her husband adopted and raised two daughters — Jennifer and Suzy — Kaufman gave a series of cooking classes she called “Building Bridges by Breaking Bread,” based on the notion that sharing food fosters friendships.

Perhaps most devastating to Kaufman, when her brain cancer returned in 2003, was being deprived of her ability to cook.

Kaufman couldn’t speak or walk after her second surgery. She lost her senses of taste and smell for two years. She lost her ability to comprehend numbers permanently.

“I wasn’t able to cook because I couldn’t measure,” she said. “But then I said, ‘Oh, forget the measuring.’ Now, I just feel the art of it.”

Recently, Kaufman began giving cooking classes again, and can often be found in her stainless steel kitchen baking mandelbrot. She calls the jagged scar on her scalp, usually hidden beneath a heap of honey-blonde hair, “my badge of courage.”

Having cancer has emboldened Kaufman in other ways, too — after her first surgery in 1999, she traveled to Israel for the first time.

“I wanted to learn more about my roots,” said the 30-year AJC member, who is active on both the Los Angeles chapter board and the national Board of Governors. “When I think about hope, which can be a little shaky, I go to the Torah to learn lessons about motherhood, belief, family struggles, life and death.”

Kaufman’s tumor is inoperable, and she doesn’t know how much time she has left. But in late August, she got to experience a milestone she didn’t expect: becoming a grandmother.

“I never thought I’d live to see this,” she said of her grandson, Garrett. “I feel like I’m in God’s hands right now. I have been reborn twice, after my first and second surgeries. Now there is a third new life — my grandchild. What more could I ask for?”

To learn more about the cooking classes, call Judi Kaufman at (310) 858-7787. Kaufman’s poetry books can be found online. Art of the Brain’s ninth annual gala takes place Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. For more information, call (310) 825-5074 or visit

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On having your (political) heart broken — the Edwards scandal

The e-mail came when I was in Mexico, at a fitness resort that — in pursuit of wellness — confines BlackBerry use to guests’ rooms.

“Need to chat briefly with you regarding John Edwards and the effects of this scandal on his future political career.” It was from a reporter I know at People. I had no idea what he was talking about. Though I’d cut way back on my news intake, not to mention my beloved carbs, while at the ranch, I figured that my furtive Web browsing during the week was keeping me reasonably well informed on the big stuff.

His follow-up message, in response to my away-from-my-e-mail auto-reply, vibrated in my pocket during dinner, where no one else at my table had a clue what scandal had erupted. I stole a look at the screen, my transgression, I hoped, concealed by the tablecloth.

“What do you think are going to be the effects on John’s political future, most notably his chances for a vice presidential nod from Obama? From your perspective, where does this scandal, if you will, rank in the history of American politics? Why do you think so many people are appalled by these developments? His wife’s illness?”

It would be 24 hours later that I fully re-introduced media toxins into my system. Ingesting the National Enquirer account of Edwards’ purported Beverly Hills Hotel visit to the purported mother of his purported love child turned out to be as shocking to my system as the I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! Light that I unthinkingly shmeared on the ranch bread, won at bingo, that I’d brought home with me.

But the e-mail alone — “appalled,” “his wife’s illness” — was enough to get me to contemplate the awful, unsubstantiated conclusion the moment I got it. I know enough to mistrust rumors. But I couldn’t help hypothetically feeling the same nausea, the same kicked-in-the-stomach wallop that hit me when Bill Clinton fessed up to his sexual infidelity and to lying about it. Appalled? No, more like heartsick.

I had spent the weekend before the Iowa caucuses — still undecided, even after the torture of watching what seemed like a gazillion pre-primary debates — taking in every minute of every Democrat’s stump speech that I could find on C-SPAN. Some online issues poll I’d taken told me that Dennis Kucinich was the candidate closest to my views, but I was in no mood to be romantic or sentimental about my choice.

What surprised me was that Edwards turned out to be my candidate. I wanted a fighter, someone as furious about what had happened to America and to the Constitution as I was, and Edwards — unlike Barack Obama, who struck me as having been snookered by high-minded editorial writers’ jonesing for bipartisanship — seemed ready to kick butt and take names. And much as I respect Hillary Clinton’s smarts, I was world-weary of the pols and hacks who surrounded and spoke for her, and her stump speech sounded uncannily like what I had written for Walter Mondale; much as I respect him, 2008 isn’t 1984.

Edwards’ populism rang my bell. He had some political problems — the haircut, the house, the lackluster performance in the Cheney debate — but watching him ignite crowd after crowd that snowy weekend, I experienced him as sublimely authentic. Plus, of course, there was Elizabeth.

It wasn’t just her bravery in the face of cancer that made people love her. It wasn’t just the young children. It was also how authentic she was, and how smart, and the sacrifice she was prepared to make, the trade of precious family time for a higher purpose.

John Edwards couldn’t recover politically from his loss in Iowa. As I write this, his camp is dismissing the Enquirer story as typical tabloid trash. That may be entirely true, just as other political scandals, from John McCain’s love child to John Kerry’s swift-boating, have also turned out to be smears spread by political enemies. Is mentioning the Enquirer story lashon hara, the evil tongue? If you can’t talk about contemporary political discourse — all of it, even the vile — you can’t talk about contemporary politics.

Even if the Enquirer’s story turns out to be no more than a hit job, I won’t soon forget the feeling that those e-mails from People churned up in me.

As potentially appalled as I was for Elizabeth Edwards, as potentially amazed as I was by what would have to be John Edwards’ colossal arrogance, what disturbed me most was the possibility that I may have been played for a chump, that I had been as politically naïve as any greenhorn who’d just fallen off the turnip truck, that my belief in Edwards — not just in the message, but in the message-bearer — demonstrated that, for all my years of accumulating a justifiable cynicism, I was still susceptible to the stagecraft of political authenticity.

The night that Obama won the Iowa caucuses, I found myself, like many Americans, thrilled by his rhetoric and moved by his story. The Edwards “scandal” has made me mindful of how inclined I have become to believe in Obama. His recent positional shifts, while disconcerting, I have chalked up to a misguided effort to chase voters who will never be for him anyway. But the emotional whiplash engendered by the Enquirer allegations has reminded me that Kool-Aid, like in-room cable news, was also absent at the wellness ranch.

I believed in “I still believe in a place called Hope” until the blue dress. Do I still believe in the “audacity of hope”?

New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan once remarked, “There’s no point in being Irish unless you realize that sooner or later the world will break your heart.”

He may just as well have said Jewish.

Marty Kaplan was deputy campaign manager of Walter Mondale’s presidential bid (yes, he lost 49 states), and chief speechwriter for Mr. Mondale when he was Vice President. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Organize now against oppression in Burma

We never hear much about Burma, officially known today as Myanmar, until it’s too late. Take, for example, last fall. Crimson-robed monks marched peacefully in the streets of Rangoon, making the case for democratic reforms and human rights.

The monks’ nonviolent approach and well-argued appeals were met by beatings, imprisonment and even death — not all that surprising from a country whose military dictatorship has ruled with an iron fist. Burma — a country roughly the size of Texas and with a population of some 50 million people — manages to put some of the better-known human rights violators to shame.

But when those powerful images dropped off the front pages of newspapers and news sites, they also seemed to drop from our consciousness.

That is unconscionable. Under the current junta, the regime has perpetrated a coordinated program of ethnic cleansing that relies on rape as a weapon of terror, while destroying more than 3,200 villages (displacing far more than 1 million people) and conscripting more than 70,000 child soldiers (putting it literally at the top of the list for any country).

In the meantime, Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected leader of Burma, whose party won 82 percent of the seats in Parliament, has spent roughly 12 of the last 18 years under house arrest. Rather than transforming her nation through her vision and a commitment to nonviolent change, she has been unjustly imprisoned.

So why am I writing this now, when the world’s attention is on issues like the tragedy unfolding in Darfur or the fight for political independence in Tibet? The simple answer is that as important as those two issues are — and they both are of the utmost importance and are deserving of a great deal of our support and attention — there is something so simple about the issues in Burma.

Among other things, there is fact that the Suu Kyi has the distinction of being the only Nobel Peace Prize recipient who was prevented from ever accepting her prize. She earned another honor on April 24, when she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress.

What can we do? About a month ago, my friend Jack Healey, a former Franciscan priest, told me about his idea to create a new kind of celebrity-based public service announcement to take the case for Burma to the public. Healey is no beginner when it comes to mobilizing big names. I met him nearly 20 years ago when he was executive director of Amnesty International in the United States. At the time, he had pulled together some of the biggest artists of the decade — Bruce Springsteen, U2, The Police, Peter Gabriel — to embark on a world tour intended to raise the issue of human rights and to put Amnesty International in the public consciousness.

Healey and Jeremy Woodrum, who runs the U.S. Campaign for Burma, have devoted their lives to fighting for the people of Burma, trying to rescue the country from the overbearing grip of a military junta and a violent dictator.

I volunteered to help. In the last month, we’ve managed to put together a campaign of 30 television and Internet spots, shot by and starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names, with the hope that their messages will reach not only millions of Americans but also the rank-and-file soldiers in Burma, who may not even realize how closely the world is looking at the atrocities many of them are carrying out on everyday citizens and, especially, monks.

Our campaign relies on internationally recognized athletes, actors, directors, writers and musicians to address what is happening today in Burma. We are running the spots on our Web site (www.fanista.com), as well as a host of other online distribution sites, trying to drive a million people to sign a virtual petition at www.burmaitcantwait.org.

We have just finished marking Passover, a holiday that demands of us to both celebrate our freedom and fight for the oppressed. It is incumbent on all of us who live in this great country, who have been blessed with the freedoms of democracy, religious tolerance and equal rights for all, to do anything we can to ensure that others — be they within our own communities or on the other side of the world — enjoy those same freedoms.

We are, as I heard Rabbi Elazar Muskin say over Pesach, a “people of hope.” That sense of hope not only allows us to dream of a better and more just world but also obligates us to do what we can to make those conditions a reality. May all of our efforts help achieve those goals for Suu Kyi and the people of Burma and for all oppressed people, wherever they may be.

Dan Adler is the Founder and CEO of “>Human Rights Action Center and the

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Genocide 2.0

People who take their Holocaust seriously have to take other people’s holocausts seriously.

You can run tacky, self-aggrandizing advertisements in the Los Angeles Times for your Holocaust memorial ceremonies — ads that feature the faces of donors and dignitaries, as if we’re honoring them — but you honor the victims more by engaging in the day-to-day grunt work of preventing the next slaughter of innocents.

Of course you know by now that, since 2003, the Islamist government of Sudan and the Arab supremacist movement known as the Janjaweed have carried out a program of ethnic cleansing against African tribes in the Darfur region of Sudan. More than 250,000 Sudanese have died and another 2 million to 3 million have fled as a result of violence, starvation and disease. Jewish groups have nothing to be ashamed of when it comes to confronting this genocide.

Organizations like the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) helped mobilize thousands of protesters, and out of Encino, Jewish World Watch (JWW) sprang up in 2004 to help address the situation. Longstanding Jewish organizations added their voices in Washington and abroad.

But guess what: It’s not enough.

A couple of weeks ago, I sat down with two Sudanese activists, one of whom had just returned from southern Sudan, and with leaders of JWW. The Sudanese’s message was fairly chilling: If you think it’s bad now, just wait.

“There is a war coming,” Francis Bok, of the American Anti-Slavery Group, told me.

In 2011, the Interim Settlement Agreement between the Muslim government in Khartoum and the largely Christian and animist southern Sudan will end. That deal, signed in 2005, has so far kept the war-torn nation together. The end of the agreement will bring with it the very real possibility of wholesale chaos and slaughter.

In this month’s Foreign Policy magazine, former U.S. Envoy to Sudan Andrew Natsios corroborates Bok’s prediction. He outlines a scenario in which Sudan’s Islamic government in Khartoum could obstruct further peace negotiations and hardliners in the south could provoke a confrontation in hopes of securing battlefield gains, leading to a full-scale war raging throughout the country. That would destabilize Sudan’s neighbors, including Egypt, Chad and Libya; provide refuge and opportunity (again) for Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda; and lead to far greater suffering in the Darfur region itself.

“Peace cannot be achieved in Darfur if it is not secured between the north and the south,” Natsios wrote. “The year ahead may be the most important in Sudan’s post-colonial history.”

Natsios quoted one African diplomat: “If the north and south return to war, it will unlock the gates of hell.”

I met Bok, along with Kola Boof, of the Sudan Sensitization Peace Project, and JWW’s founding president Janice Kamenir-Reznik at Milken Community Jewish High School, where the three were participating in a day to raise student awareness of the situation in Darfur. Bok had recently returned from Sudan, where he visited his native village of Gurian.

When he was 7, Arab Islamic raiders kidnapped him in the marketplace. He spent the next 10 years as a slave to an Arab farmer, enduring frequent beatings. When he was 17, Bok escaped. Within two years, he was testifying about Sudanese slavery before Congress and meeting with President Bush. Now Bok, who lives with his wife and two children in Kansas, lectures widely on Sudan and slavery.

“Francis is our Martin Luther King,” Boof said.

When he returned to southern Sudan for the first time since 1986, Bok found his village almost empty.

“Most people were killed,” he said. The survivors must have thought they were seeing a ghost.

“They had no idea who I was,” he said. “They thought I had been killed.”

But now such violence looks like the beginning, not the end. And activists like Bok hold out little hope for a settlement.

“We hope it will be peaceful becoming our own country,” Bok said of southern Sudan. “But nothing has been peaceful dealing with Khartoum.”

What, then, can we do?

China pumps the most cash into Sudan through oil purchases, and provides it with the most weaponry.

But Reznik knows a boycott on Chinese goods would be a hard sell. Her organization, which doesn’t buy Chinese, has to pay 40 cents wholesale for each of those green rubber SAVE DARFUR wristbands that it could get from China for just nine cents.

So Jewish World Watch and other organizations see the 2008 Olympics Games in China as a touch point for awakening the world to the current hardship and the coming catastrophe. They are planning a series of protests and educational opportunities throughout the Olympics to convince China to pressure Khartoum.

“We believe this is more effective than a boycott,” Reznik said.

Getting Hollywood on board has been helpful — director Steven Spielberg’s withdrawal from the Games was a high-profile move that helped push the Darfur issue to the front pages. But mass slaughter demands mass protest.

Tough as the situation is, taking action now can help prevent genocide in the future. After you attend a Holocaust memorial service, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org for a list of suggested actions — not a bad way to mark Yom HaShoah.

Jewish life in the City of Lights

Fortunately I traveled to Paris before Pesach, because missing buttery croissants and oven-fresh French baguettes would have been ruinous to my experience. Indeed, France is most famous for its delicacies — wine, cheese, pastries, foie gras — but it is also home to a vibrant Jewish community; one that has prospered for the better part of 2,000 years, but currently suffers from a malaise of bad press.

Despite the historic turbulence of Jewish French life, current population statistics suggest there are between 500,000 and 600,000 Jews living in the region, the majority of whom reside in the cultural capital of Paris. The figure is surprising, considering frenzied media depictions of French anti-Semitism, recent waves of Jewish French immigration to Israel and also because the population was estimated at 300,000 prior to World War II, which suggests that, even though France is depicted as less than empathetic to the Jewish community, the Jewish population there has actually grown.

However, the aftermath of Nazi occupation in France left the country scarred, with a visibly guilty conscience, which I investigated during my stay in a 16th century walk-up on the Ile St. Louis.

In a bustling student cafe on Rue Saint-Guillaume just across from the elite French university Sciences Po, a young Parisian typed on his laptop before striking up conversation about the thesis he is writing on generational divides. He seemed well informed, so I asked, “Is it true that the French are hostile to their Jews?”

He laughed, and said that too many people argue politics about the Arab-Israeli conflict without knowing the history, essentially implying that if there’s hostility toward the Jews it’s related to Israel. But it also begged the question: Is argumentation or even Palestinian empathy what the world perceives as hostile to French Jews?

The following night, Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai attended a screening of his new film, “Disengagement” at an artsy independent theater in Place Saint Germain. The film, a French-Israeli co-production (and a good sign of comity in the arts), depicts a woman’s search for the daughter she abandoned, set against the backdrop of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza. The film was, in short, riveting; and the Q-&-A that followed revealed French cineastes. were provoked by its content.

Dressed in black with a white scarf draped around his neck, Gitai, 58, stood aloof at the front of the room, fielding question from critics and fans, brooding during one man’s rant about the film’s lack of a Palestinian portrayal.

“This is an Israeli story,” Gitai said, explaining that the conflict in the film was not between Palestinians and Israelis, but between Israeli soldiers and the Israeli citizens they were ordered to remove from their homes; a conflict between secular Jews and religious Jews.

Scrubbing aside content and politics, there was still the idea that an Israeli filmmaker — telling an Israeli story — had been invited to screen his film at a distinguished arts venue, in a city ensconced in highbrow cultural snobbery. Perhaps more importantly, a famous and beautiful French actress (Juliette Binoche) figured prominently on the theater’s marquee, wrapped in an Israeli flag.

Whether fueled by guilt or regret or just plain reparation, Jewish culture is pervasive almost anywhere you go in Paris: There’s the sophisticated bookstore, Librairie Gallimard, which contains shelves full of books about the Holocaust, French resistance fighters and Nazi occupation, along with a special section devoted to Israeli literature; there’s the Holocaust Memorial on the Ile de la Cite, just behind the Notre Dame cathedral, certainly one of Paris’ most popular destinations; there’s the Jewish quarter, Rue de Rosiers, undeniably well situated in the trendy Le Marais, with some of the city’s best shopping, and near the historic Place des Vosges, an opulent 17th-century manse built for royalty.

So for the few-thousand French Jews who have made aliyah since 2004, there emerges new hope, like Gitai’s crosscultural storytelling or the Paris-born, Israeli-raised pop singer Yael Naim whose shows sung in Hebrew, French and English sell out among young, bourgeois Parisians.

In the song “Paris,” Naim’s enchanting ode to her beloved birthplace, she best captures the conflicting sentiments Jews feel for the City of Lights: I came here / A bit disenchanted / This beautiful illusion of mine / The country is so good to me here / So why do I cry and get upset?

Well, because it’s hard choosing between Paris and Israel. But still, it’s delightful to have that choice.

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Hopes for peace rest on getting politicans out of the way

Precisely when the prospect of peace between Israelis and Palestinians seemed at its most remote, I received a call from my friend, Walid Salem.

Salem is a Palestinian peace activist who for years has been working tirelessly for a two-state solution.

He said I should come to the Ambassador Hotel in Jerusalem, where one of the organizations he has been involved with, Bringing Peace Together, was holding a roundtable discussion about the situation.

Recently, I have become a bit tired of all these discussions. For years we used to sit there, Israelis and Palestinians, and exhaust each other with accusations, historical analyses and far-fetched plans, which all came to nothing. However, Salem and I became personal friends, and therefore, when he called, I couldn’t refuse.

At the Ambassador Hotel in East Jerusalem, after hugs and kisses, we sat down. Next to me was Salwa Hdeib-Qannam, an impressive woman who is the deputy minister of women’s affairs in the Palestinian National Authority. She apologized for being late: “The checkpoint today was slower than usual,” she said as a matter-of-fact. When we exchanged business cards, she scribbled on hers a different e-mail address.

“The Hamas stole our Internet system,” she explained.

I looked at the Palestinians around me, pondering what they had to go through in their lives, both nationally and personally. There was Ali Abu Shalla, a businessman from Gaza, who said Israel should lift the siege off Gaza.

“If I want to buy chocolate for my grandchild, I can’t,” he said, touching the hearts of us all.

I didn’t even think about reminding him of the Qassam rockets from Gaza harassing the lives of the people of Sderot. He wasn’t launching them; as a matter of fact, his life was threatened by Hamas, who had been ruling Gaza with an iron fist.

The comic relief was provided by a young representative of the Israeli Ale Yarok (Green Leaf) party, which — among other things — demands that the cannabis plant should be removed from the dangerous drug act and become completely legal. Reading solemnly from his papers, this guy described his peace plan, which, if I heard right, included “the import of water from Turkey, so that Israel can safely retreat from the Golan Heights.” Some of us, including the Arabs, couldn’t help but giggle, to which he responded with a heartbroken look that made me approach him during the coffee break and apologize for our insensitivity.

Back in my office, I met with Dr. Yehuda Stolov, the founder and executive director of the Interfaith Encounter Association. Stolov, a religious Jew, described to me how from a handful of enthusiasts the association grew to encompass more than 3,000 people, meeting in 27 groups of Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians.

I sat there listening to this good man, who was passionate about what he was doing. I liked him right away. He was a bit of fresh air, a contrast to the dangerous, unholy marriage between religion and politics, which had become so popular in our area. He told me about Muslims and Jews together breaking the fasts of Ramadan and Gedaliah, sacred to both believers, respectively; about retreats where Israelis and Palestinians discussed themes like “forgiveness” and “reward.”

I almost couldn’t believe that all this had been happening, while the common wisdom was that all Jews and Arabs could do was to grab at each other’s throat. He smiled and told me about joint Jewish-Muslim teams knocking on doors of Jewish homes in Jerusalem, collecting products for needy Muslims in the other part of the city. This was just before Passover, when religious Jews have to get rid of food products that according to the Jewish religious law cannot be used during the holy days.

“We were filled with hope for reconciliation and understanding,” he said. “When we saw that contrary to what we expected, most people agreed to donate for people of the neighboring nation, despite the ongoing state of war.”

Usually, I’m not such a religious person myself, but this week’s encounters filled me with a great desire, a prayer, if you wish, that God would once again appear in a storm and wipe out the politicians from the face of the earth.

Then we will be left with individuals like Salem and Stolov, who believe that if people would just sit down and talk to each other, the world would be a better place.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.

Rays of light

A couple of events over the past week have given me a nice dose of optimism for the Jewish people. The first event was a Little League baseball game in a Jewish league called Blue Star, where my son Noah’s team, the Rays, were playing a very talented team called the Jays.

For a while, I thought I was in one of those “Bad News Bears” movies, where one team fumbles everything while the other team is smooth and confident. And just like in the movies, near the end of the game, the Jays scored five runs to go up 6 to 1 (they have a “mercy” rule in this league where they stop an inning if you’ve scored five runs).

Now it was the Rays’ last chance. These cute little kids came into the dugout and, instead of being demoralized by the five runs they had just given up, decided they were going to rally. No kidding. In their first two games, they had barely managed to get one or two hits, and only walks and an error gave them their only run. It’d be a miracle just to get someone on base — let alone score five runs!

You could just imagine the thought bubbles over the parents’ heads: “These kids are in for some hard lessons, like you better learn to lose and it takes more than enthusiasm to make it in life.”

But these little guys didn’t know from grown-up realism. It’s as if they completely forgot their past failures at scoring runs, and this was simply a brand new inning where anything could happen. While I was bravely trying to match their enthusiasm, all I was thinking was: There will be peace in the Middle East before the Rays score five runs against the Jays.

Well, 30 minutes later, I was feeling a lot better about peace in the Middle East. Don’t ask me how, but the Rays scored those five runs. Grounders, errors, fly balls, a few walks, gutsy running, an amazing double and lots of wild cheering from the dugout — including an improvised backward twist of their cap that they called the “rally caps” — gave the Rays a miracle comeback that they’ll probably still remember when they’re grandfathers.

When the shock wore off, part of me felt like an idiot for having been so “realistic,” and for not taking more seriously the optimism of these courageous munchkins. For the first time in years, I started thinking without cynicism about the incorrigible optimism that some of my friends on the political left have always had for peace in the Middle East — an optimism I have rarely taken seriously.

It took a little miracle at my son’s baseball game to make me consider the possibility of other miracles. When I shared this story with a friend who is to my political left, he took over my role as the cynic and joked that when it came to peace with our enemies, Israel might as well be “miracle proof.” Of course I knew where he was coming from, but on that cool and windy Sunday in the San Fernando Valley, the miracle of Noah’s Rays was so mind-blowing that I was in a mood to think only of miracles — even unimaginable ones.

The second event that has fueled my optimism happened at my friend Rabbi David Wolpe’s Sinai Temple. For those of you who were around about seven years ago, you might remember that a good chunk of the Orthodox community wanted to run the Conservative Rabbi Wolpe out of town for suggesting at a Passover sermon that the Exodus might not have happened exactly how it is explained in the Bible. Although Rabbi Wolpe’s ultimate message was to promote faith and mitzvahs despite any doubts one might have about the literal veracity of Bible stories, this idea got lost in the front-page coverage of the Los Angeles Times, and the controversy sparked a firestorm that simmers to this day.

You can imagine, then, my shock and awe when I saw Orthodox rabbis and all these Orthodox Jews gathered at Sinai Temple on a Monday night to help launch an organization called Standing in Unity. About 200 Jews of all denominations were there to listen to Rabbi David Baron of the Reform Temple of the Arts, Rabbi Yitz Jacobs of the Orthodox Aish HaTorah, Rabbi Wolpe and the Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan speak passionately about Jewish unity in honor of the eight fallen yeshiva students of Jerusalem.

What was remarkable was that the Orthodox were not simply participants, but were instrumental in putting the whole event together. Rabbi Jacobs talked about transcending our differences by focusing on the things that bind us, like preserving Jewish lives and Jewish peoplehood. Rabbi Wolpe connected Mordechai’s message to Queen Esther in the story of Purim — that she was given the unique power of a queen precisely to help save the Jewish people — with the idea that our generation has been given unique powers and resources precisely to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.

Everyone — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — spoke about Jewish unity.

Of course, it was easy to be a cynic and remind yourself that only tragedies seem to bring Jews together; or that Jewish unity is a tribal idea that undermines the importance of healthy self-criticism; or even that a night of unity hardly makes for a movement.

But cynicism and even realism don’t allow for miracles. Jews coming together despite their sharp differences is a little miracle, even if it took a crisis to make it happen. It’s like the story Rabbi Jacobs told of the British soldier during the Falklands War who pointed his gun at a lone Argentine soldier left in a foxhole. The Argentine covered his eyes and started saying the “Shema,” at which point the British soldier, who was also Jewish, dropped his gun, hugged his “enemy” and said the “Shema” with him.

It was a week to be reminded that miracles do happen, in foxholes, baseball dugouts and even synagogues.

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

The Power of Love

“Why not just give up hope? I mean, really, do you think that we human beings can ever get it together enough to make the world as we dream? What makes you think that we have any chance of making a difference, let alone succeeding in the task of tikkun olam, of creating a fair and decent world where all people, and I mean all people, have access to food, water, medicine, shelter, are free from war, oppression, occupation, violence, hatred, where children can go to school and learn, come home and play, and people can really feel like we have made it?”

Silence.

“Well, rabbi, are you going to say anything?”

More silence.

We sat together for a bit longer and then I told this person, who had come to see me and opened with this messianic vision question, that I am comforted by the words of this week’s parsha, Nitzavim-Vayelech. This is essentially what I said.

I believe in the goodness of humanity, the hope that we can actually make the changes he was speaking of, because of a combination of verses that we read in Nitzavim. There is just a cacophony of incredible verses teaching us how to create a better world.

This parsha is replete with hope: love, repentance, awareness, life and Torah. The theme of returning, teshuvah, comes in Deuteronomy 30:1-10, where the root shuv appears seven times. I am moved by verses 2-3: “And you return to Adonai your God, and you and your children heed God’s command with all of your heart and soul, just as I call you this day; then God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love….” No matter how far we have drifted, how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God will help us come back, return to a path of goodness and righteousness, justice, peace and love.

How? That is what the man in my office was seeking to know.

I see God as the power of love in our world, the power that opens our eyes to the fact that every human life is sacred, every human life is holy and deserving of love, compassion and mercy. When we realize that fact, when our hearts are cracked open with the pain that we are causing, then we will be able to create the world of our dreams, what some call the messianic age. My friend and teacher, the Rev. Ed Bacon, preached recently that a world that lives with the acceptable idea of collateral damage is dead to humanity. When we treat others with love, then God takes us back in love. When we realize that God is love, we will treat others with that love as well.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose centennial we observe this year, continually taught us that we are in partnership with God, sharing the burden of creating a world that merits the Divine presence. Sometimes we don’t feel like we have the power to do it all alone, but as Psalm 27, the psalm of this season, reminds us, “Adonai is my light and my help, whom shall I fear?” When we seek support, God is there; when God seeks action in the world, we are there. Together, we become echad, the true oneness of a holy world.

And then there is the notion of how hard it is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God, as the prophet Micah famously taught. The other section of this week’s parsha that helps me to understand what needs to be done says, “Surely this mitzvah which I teach you today is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in heaven…. No, the word is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

I once heard Shimon Peres speak, saying how easy it was to make war, but how hard it was to make peace. I had always soundly believed that, until recently when I read something from Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, commenting on these verses from Devarim. On the words, “but the word is very near to you,” the great Chasidic master teaches, “Only the way to Gehinnom is arduous and difficult. I see people spending their days and nights plotting how to go about sinning, and afterward, they regret their actions bitterly. But the way to the Garden of Eden is an easy one, and pleasant for those who walk it” (Iturei Torah).

And maybe he is right.

How much easier would it be to build a world of love, compassion, justice and peace than the continued path of war and violence? How much cheaper would it be to end poverty, provide health insurance for all people, educate and feed the world and foster peace? We see what we get for the trillions of dollars that are spent on war and domination. Maybe we ought to try a different path. No matter how far we have fallen, how ugly and terrible things have gotten, God is always ready and waiting to take us back in love, showing us how the world can be different.

Teshuvah is possible, always. Maybe it is time to heed the call of the end of this parsha, “See, I set before you this day life and goodness, death and adversity” (Deuteronomy 30:15). This moment, this Shabbat, this Rosh Hashanah, let us choose life, choose love, choose peace. This is how I keep my hope alive. Shabbat shalom and Shana Tovah.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center. He serves as the Corresponding Secretary and Social Action co-chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, on the national board and as Los Angeles chapter chair of Brit Tzedek V’shalom, and recently helped to found Jews Against the War. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Documentary shows ‘Blood and Tears’ of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Isidore Rosmarin is a brave, or foolhardy, documentary filmmaker. In “Blood and Tears: The Arab-Israeli Conflict,” he has attempted to encapsulate, without fear or favor, the relationship between the two peoples — from biblical times to the present — all within 73 minutes.

Surprisingly, Rosmarin, a veteran of “60 Minutes” and “Dateline,” has come as close to objectivity as seems possible amid the swirling passions. He starts out on the assumption that his general audience has little factual knowledge about the Middle East and that partisans on either side are largely ignorant about how their adversaries feel and think.

Thus, like a good teacher, he stops the narration at intervals to flash signboards with pithy explanations of key terms: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Zionism, Hamas, Fatah. That technique may be a bit of a drag for the “expert” but helpful to the millions with firm opinions based more on prejudice than knowledge.

Through interviews, file footage, graphics and animation, the film manages to squeeze in an astonishing amount of information and an impressive array of talking heads, spanning the spectrum of ideologies on both sides. To add flavor and body, regular folk in the Arab village or Jewish town have their say, often to convey their grievous sense of loss and pain at the killing of sons and daughters.

Israeli politicians, such as Binyamin Netanyahu on the right and Yossi Beilin on the left, weigh in, as do Palestine Authority spokesman Saeed Erekat and Hamas co-founder Abdul Aziz al Rantissi, interviewed in the film before he was killed by an Israeli Apache helicopter missile in 2004. Lending a scholarly, though not unbiased, view are Princeton’s Bernard Lewis, Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz and American University’s Akbar Ahmed .

More interesting than the largely predictable pronouncements by politicians and professors is the genuine soul-wrestling by such men as American-born Israeli journalist Yossi Klein Halevi, who served as a soldier in the Gaza Strip.

On the one hand, “There was the shame of policing other people,” Halevi ponders, offset “by the realization that [the Arabs] wanted to turn us into refugees.”

His counterpart on the Palestinian side is a young physician who rejects the argument that the land is too small by quoting an Arab proverb, “A small house is large enough to accommodate 100 friends, but too small to hold two enemies.”

Pessimistic Lewis puts little faith in proverbs, explaining that a basic tenet of Islam is that any land once under Muslim rule can never be given up; and be taken back from the infidel. He emphasizes the point more colloquially, declaring, “Asking Islam to give up terrorism is like asking Tiger Woods to give up golf.”

For his part, Rosmarin holds out little hope that peace will come through the exertions of politicians or pressure from outside powers. Peace will only come “from the ground up,” he believes, when the two wounded people decide that an imperfect compromise is better than endless killing.

“Blood and Tears” opens Aug. 24 at Laemmle’s Grande 4-plex. (213) 617-0268.

New ‘big idea’ for Mideast could be big trouble

U.S. policy over the last decade has been very much influenced by big ideas designed to transform the Middle East. None of these ideas has worked, which is why Washington is
being bombarded with new, alternative big ideas.

I have watched one of these ideas evolve over the past year, getting bigger and bigger, and I would go so far as to call it the enemy from within.

But before I tell you what the enemy is, let us briefly look back at what has already gone wrong. We have to look back, because the debate today is the result of a decade of American failure in the Middle East. Three big American ideas or grand strategies for transforming the Middle East have failed over the last 10 years: peace, globalization and democracy.

Grand Failures

First, peace. That is the generic name, but you also know it under its brand name, the “new Middle East.” In the 1990s, some observers began to argue that the conflicts in the Middle East had been put out of business by the end of the Cold War. The Soviets were not around anymore to back up their Arab clients, such as the PLO and Syria. Their weakness supposedly left them more amenable to joining the “peace process.”

If peace agreements between Israel and its remaining enemies could be nailed down in a diplomatic push, the Middle East could become a cooperative zone, like the European Union. Animosities would wane; borders would melt.

The brand name, “new Middle East.” came from the title of a book published by Shimon Peres in 1993. Peres wrote: “I have earned the right to dream. So much that I dreamed in the past was dismissed as fantasy, but has now become thriving reality.”

But not every dream comes true, and the failed pursuit of fantasies is not without cost. In reality, it turned out that Syria and the PLO, even without the Soviets behind them, were not going to be pushed or pulled into any “new Middle East.”

Syria never came in, and the PLO stepped in at Oslo and then out again at Camp David. Yasser Arafat’s intifada then turned the “new Middle East” into an object of ridicule, and the peace process went down with it.

Second big idea: globalization. Where diplomacy couldn’t do the job, so the globalists said, economic forces would do it. Tom Friedman became the champion of this notion in his 1999 book, “The Lexus and the Olive Tree.” There he wrote about the “silent invasion going on in the Middle East — the invasion of information and private capital through the new system of globalization.”

The Arabs and Iranians would eventually have to put on what he called the “Golden Straitjacket.” “As your country puts on the Golden Straitjacket,” he wrote,” two things tend to happen: Your economy grows, and your politics shrink.”

Friedman filled his book with anecdotes about another Middle East, full of wired, business-focused Arabs and Persians. His book became a bestseller, because it made Americans feel good: Market forces would fix the world.

The United States tried to accelerate the process by organizing Middle East economic summits. And the United States punished bad guys with economic sanctions, which became the all-purpose jackknife of U.S. Middle East policy.

Even by the late 1990s, it was obvious that economic sanctions were not taming the radicals. But the globalization idea finally came crashing down with the Twin Towers on Sept. 11. Globalization, it turned out, could also empower the wrong Arabs — most obviously, Osama bin Laden and the global jihad.

They were using e-mail to plot terror acts, the banking system to transfer money and Web sites to post their videos, which were carried by Al-Jazeera via satellite to millions of viewers. Globalization in the Middle East, we now know, has not made politics shrink; it is making them expand, politicizing every corner of society, often against us.

If globalization wasn’t going to cure the Middle East, what would? Obvious, said the neoconservatives: democracy. The root cause of the problems in Middle East, they said, is the absence of democracy and the continued rule of dictators.

The way to cure the Middle East was to shake it up by promoting democracy — first by forced “regime change” in Iraq and then by encouraging liberals across the Middle East. The president launched what he described as a “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” It became known as the “Bush Doctrine.”

Now that big idea has crashed, too. It has crashed, first, as a result of the maelstrom in Iraq, and second, as a result of the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, and the fact that free elections everywhere end in victory for Islamist zealots.

The “forward strategy of freedom” is ending in a quest for an exit strategy from chaos. Poll after poll now shows that the majority of Americans think there is no chance of making Iraq into a model democracy, and that is understating it. Promoting democracy to Arabs is coming to be regarded in this country as the ultimate fool’s errand.

So the three big ideas for transforming the Middle East — peace, globalization, democracy — all have been repulsed or hijacked by forces opposed to America’s vision.

The Next Big Thing

This has left us at one of those rare moments in Washington, when the playing field is suddenly made level for the competition of new big ideas. It happened after Sept. 11, and it is happening now because of Iraq.

In this environment, everyone gets a hearing. Jimmy Carter has a book on Palestine, and former Sen. George McGovern has one on Iraq. Ideas are ricocheting around town, some of them old, some of them recycled and some of them brand new.

We are seeing the beginning of a true battle of ideas. And there is a big idea out there that is moving toward the center of the battlefield and that I have no hesitation in describing as the enemy from within. This big idea calls itself “engagement.”

Israel and Syria secret talks reported; Abbas calls for ‘resistance’

Report: Israel, Syria Held Informal Talks

Israelis and Syrians reportedly held unofficial negotiations recently on a potential peace accord. Ha’aretz reported Tuesday that between 2004 and 2006 Alon Liel, former director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, was in an Israeli delegation that met secretly with Ibrahim Suleiman, a Syrian American considered close to the Assad regime, as well as an unnamed European mediator. According to Ha’aretz, the sides settled on a blueprint for a gradual Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. The plan called for much of the strategic plateau to become a park for Israelis and Syrians to use, and Damascus would distance itself from Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, the report said. Ha’aretz reported that the governments of Israeli Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were aware of the talks, though Olmert denied it. The Syrian government also called the report “baseless.” Israel Radio quoted Liel as confirming he took part in the meetings but saying he “did not represent anyone.”

Abbas Calls for ‘Resistance’

Mahmoud Abbas praised Palestinians who fight Israeli “occupation.””We have raised our rifles against the occupation, and that is a legitimate right,” the Palestinian Authority president said last week at a rally of his Fatah faction in the West Bank. “It is forbidden to raise rifles against one another. Our rifles, all our rifles, are aimed at the occupation.”

Abbas, generally portrayed as a moderate, has been scrambling to head off civil war between the secular Fatah and the terrorist Hamas group, whose ascent to power drew a Western embargo on aid to the Palestinian Authority last year. Despite his apparent endorsement for Palestinian attacks on Israelis, Abbas also voiced hope for renewing peace talks with Jerusalem.

“Our hand is outstretched [in peace,”] he said. “We have rights and we want to live as others live.”

Rape Charges Expected Against Katsav

Israeli prosecutors reportedly are preparing to indict President Moshe Katsav on at least one count of rape. Yediot Achronot reported Monday that the State Attorney’s Office, which has been examining allegations of sexual molestation and rape lodged against Katsav last year by several former female employees, has decided to charge him on at least one count of the more serious felony. No date was given for theindictment.

Sources at the State Attorney’s Office said no final decision has been made on Katsav’s case, but confirmed that an indictment was considered imminent. The Israeli president, who is due to step down this summer, has denied any wrongdoing.

House Calls for Ahmadinejad Charges

A bipartisan slate of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a resolution calling on the Iranian president to face genocide incitement charges.

The nonbinding resolution brought last week to the House’s Foreign Affairs Committee and initiated by Reps. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) and Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) said statements by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the destruction of Israel amount to crimes according to the 1948 Convention on Genocide.

The convention not only provides for punishment for genocide, Rothman and Kirk wrote in a letter to their colleagues, but “also prohibits ‘direct and public incitement to commit genocide.’

It further provides that individuals committing genocidal crimes shall be punished ‘whether they are constitutionally responsible rulers, public officials or private individuals.’

Ahmadinejad’s hateful rhetoric calling for the elimination of Israel, a Member State of the United Nations, qualifies as inciting genocide.”

The resolution has garnered 22 sponsors.

Olmert Courts China on Iran

Ehud Olmert secured a Chinese pledge to use diplomatic pressure to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. The Israeli prime minister returned home last Friday after high-level talks in Beijing, where he argued that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten not only the Jewish state but also stability in a region that supplies China with much-needed oil. Olmert quoted both Chinese President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao as telling him that their country was opposed to the Iranians obtaining nuclear weapons, but also believed that diplomatic pressure could rein in Tehran.

The China trip culminated a tour that Olmert launched last year among countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, which on Dec. 23 passed a resolution imposing limited sanctions on Iran and giving it 60 days to halt uranium enrichment. Olmert aides said they were hopeful that should Iran flout the resolution, sanctions would be stepped up.

Irish Leader Presses Peace on Hamas

Ireland’s prime minister called on Hamas to renounce violence and accept a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Speaking to leading Saudi politicians and businessmen Monday in Riyadh, Bertie Ahern said it is “fantasy for Hamas to pretend that there is an alternative to a negotiated two-state solution.”

But he also cautioned the West not to ignore or set aside the views and interests of Hamas supporters. In a nod to his host, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, Ahern also praised the Arab League’s 2002 Beirut declaration — promising a pan-Arab commitment to peace if Israel met certain conditions — as “historic.” Israel reacted cautiously to the plan when it was announced, but Prime Minister Ehud Olmert recently signaled a willingness to revisit it. Ahern is heading an Irish trade delegation to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

SS Widow Settles With Irish Broadcaster

The widow of a Belgian SS volunteer reached a court settlement with the Irish national broadcaster granting her the right of reply to a documentary about Nazi fugitives and collaborators in Ireland. Juliet Folens, wife of the late Albert Folens, a former member of the SS-affiliated Flemish Legion and founder of Ireland’s largest publisher of schoolbooks, had sought an injunction preventing RTE television from broadcasting a portion of “Ireland’s Nazis” dealing with her husband’s wartime activities. The second half of the documentary was set to air Tuesday, but it was redacted to exclude an enactment of torture that Folens allegedly carried out during the war. The program also will include a reply by Folens stating that she and her family do not accept that Folens was a member of the Nazi party or employed by the Gestapo, as the film claims. Folens was sentenced to 10 years in prison by British authorities for his participation in the Flemish Legion, but escaped custody in 1946 to Ireland, where he lived until his death four years ago. The film documents several Nazis and collaborators who found safe haven in Ireland in the postwar years.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

PBS: ‘Los Angeles — Dream of A Different City’

Sick of traffic? Sick of smog? Sick of urban sprawl?

Don’t just complain about it. See what’s being done to change it.
On Jan. 11, KCET will air a Los Angeles-focused segment of its acclaimed series “Edens Lost & Found.”

This one-hour installment of the multipart series titled, “Los Angeles: Dream a Different City,” will focus on community leaders and groups in the greater L.A. area who are finding solutions to what a century of almost unchecked growth has wrought on our landscape and our lives.

The segment begins with host Jimmy Smits providing a quick overview of a familiar litany of problems besetting Los Angeles. There are traffic-choked interchanges, vast tracts of unchecked development, a trickle of water to slake a thirsty city and brownish air.

“If Southern California can solve these problems, there just might be hope for the rest of the world,” Smits says.

Producer and director Harry Wiland and Dale Bell track down the people and groups who have found ways to confront these problems. To watch the documentary is to find much reason for hope:

  • TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis, who talks of discovering the importance of trees during summers at a Jewish camp in the San Bernardino Mountains, shows how urban forestry and water recovery projects throughout the city can provide shade, lower electricity usage and replenish groundwater.

    The 35-year campaign has gained powerful allies. TreePeople’s main on-screen advocate is L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose first act as mayor was to plant a tree. And County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky says of the groundwater recovery efforts, “If it works it will revolutionize the way we do flood control.”

  • Lewis MacAdams of Friends of the Los Angeles River and Melanie Winter of The River Project show how the battle to re-green the 58-mile cement ditch will reshape the city.
  • Darrell Clarke and Presley Burroughs of Friends 4 Expo Transit speaks of his 21-year struggle to get a light-rail line from downtown to the beach.

“It’s a ladder for upward mobility,” Burroughs says.

That last theme is crucial to the filmmakers. A good amount of the program looks at how economically depressed areas in Boyle Heights, the north San Fernando Valley and El Monte benefit from re-connecting and fighting for Los Angeles’ environment. “Improving L.A.’s natural environment,” says the mayor on screen, “will improve families and the economy.”

“Eden’s Lost and Found” is part of a series that also looks at innovative solutions in Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago and other American cities. A companion book and DVD provide ample information for would-be activists.

Wiland, a Venice resident and Jewish activist, sees the effort as part of a larger educational and social campaign. “We want everyone to be involved in dreaming a different city,” he said.


Marilyn Harran: A Modern Righteous Gentile

Marilyn Harran

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

As a young assistant professor at New York’s Barnard College in the mid-1970s, historian Marilyn Harran befriended one of the school’s maintenance workers. One day the man asked Harran to look at some of his wife’s artworks.
“Why not?” she remembers thinking.

Unbeknownst to her, his wife was a Holocaust survivor whose charcoal drawings depicted the horrors she had witnessed. A rendering of dead babies’ bodies being stacked like lumber underscored for Harran the Holocaust’s horror and brutality. From that moment on, she made a personal mission of bringing the Shoah to light out of the dark recesses of hidden nightmares. For Harran, who is Protestant, keeping these memories alive is nothing less than a human imperative.

“I want to create a generation that never believes some people are more human than others,” she said.

A diminutive woman with an easy laugh, Harran, now 58, is a professor at Chapman University in Orange, which is affiliated with the Disciples of Christ. Over the past two decades, largely through her efforts, Chapman has come to offer several courses on the Holocaust; it also hosts annual lectures on the subject and even offers a minor in Holocaust history.

In 2000, Chapman opened the Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education and established the Stern Chair in Holocaust Education, which Harran holds.

In April 2005, again at Harran’s instigation, Chapman opened the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library. The renowned Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Eli Wiesel, after two years of coaxing by Harran, attended the library’s dedication ceremony.

With the help of her supporters, Harran “has been able to place awareness of the Holocaust at the center of Chapman’s intellectual life, and, perhaps even more remarkably, as a topic of regular attention and concern in Orange County,” said David N. Myers, a professor of Jewish history and director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.

William Elperin, an attorney and president of the “1939” Club, an organization for Holocaust survivors and descendants that has supported many of Harran’s endeavors, goes even farther in his praise.

“She is the person most responsible for transforming Orange County from a Holocaust denial center to a Holocaust education center,” Elperin said.

Sitting in her Chapman office surrounded by books and a photo of Wiesel, her hero, Harran said she spends about 100 hours per week on Holocaust-related activities. She teaches three classes on the subject, arranges for guest lecturers and oversees her students’ work on an ambitious survivor project she hopes will lead to publication of a book detailing survivors’ experiences. She also participated in the publication of “The Holocaust Chronicle: A History in Words and Pictures,” which has sold 200,000 copies.

Looking forward, Harran dreams of establishing a visiting scholars’ program at the university and growing the Holocaust library’s small collection, although raising the needed money might prove difficult, she said, given her distaste for fundraising.

Harran admits her “obsession” with the Holocaust has taken a toll on her personal life, but she believes it’s a small price to pay. She hopes that maintaining a focus on the Holocaust might encourage students and others to speak up against present-day atrocities in Darfur and elsewhere.

Still, she wonders whether she has done enough.

“I hope I’ve made a contribution,” Harran said.

Can Olmert’s goodwill gestures kick-start peace?

After the plethora of goodwill gestures Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert made in his meeting Saturday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, politicians and pundits on both sides are asking one question: Will it be enough to kick-start the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Leaders on both sides are optimistic. They see Olmert’s moves as part of a new and wider American plan for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation.

Pundits, however, are downbeat. Few believe Abbas will be able to create the necessary conditions on the Palestinian side for successful negotiations with Israel.

The meeting was the first between the two leaders since Olmert’s election victory last March. Its primary purpose was to help strengthen Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah movement in their ongoing power struggle with the radical Hamas.

Olmert’s moves were part of a two-pronged plan: To show the Palestinian people that more can be achieved through Abbas-style dialogue with Israel than armed confrontation, and to strengthen Fatah militarily by allowing it the wherewithal to build up its armed forces ahead of a possible showdown with Hamas over approaches to Israel.

With this in mind, Olmert made the following goodwill gestures:

  • Israel would release $100 million in frozen Palestinian tax money.
  • It would remove dozens of checkpoints to facilitate Palestinian movement in the West Bank.
  • It would ease passage in and out of Gaza to enable the free flow of goods and medicines.
  • It would consider freeing a few dozen Palestinian prisoners in early January to mark Id el-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice, ahead of the release of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held by Hamas-affiliated terrorists.
  • It would agree to set up joint committees to consider further prisoner releases and the removal of key Fatah operatives from Israel’s wanted list.
  • It would allow Egypt to supply Fatah with 1,900 Kalashnikov rifles.
  • It would allow the Palestinian Badr Brigade, currently stationed in Jordan, to redeploy in Gaza.

Olmert went out of his way to show friendship and respect for Abbas and his presidency, waiting for Abbas outside the prime minister’s residence and embracing him warmly on arrival.

Olmert also made a major symbolic gesture: For the first time, Palestinian flags were flown in an official Israeli state building.

“Abu Mazen is an adversary — he is a not an easy adversary, but with an adversary like this, there is, perhaps, a chance of dialogue that will bring an accord between us and the Palestinians,” Olmert said in a speech Sunday, his first public comments following the two hours of talks with Abbas.

Senior Abbas aide Saeb Erekat also was cautiously optimistic.

“It would be a mistake to think that all the problems could be solved in one meeting, but the meeting improved the feeling on both sides,” he said.

Writing in the mass-circulation daily, Yediot Achronot, political analyst Itamar Eichner summed up the new friendship between Olmert and Abbas.

“They have a common interest not to mention a common enemy: to block the rise of Hamas, which enjoys massive support from Iran,” he wrote.

The Israeli moves complement U.S. and European efforts to strengthen Fatah.

The Americans are soon expected to release about $100 million to Abbas, and they also have been training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, in a mid-December visit to Ramallah, outlined economic projects from which the Palestinians could benefit if they reached accommodation with Israel.

All of these moves are part of a wider plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that has begun to take shape in the U.S. State Department. The new American thinking envisages leapfrogging stage one of the internationally approved “road map” for Israeli-Palestinian peace and moving directly to stage two, which calls for the establishment of an interim Palestinian state with provisional borders.

Discarding stage one means that talks could go ahead without the Palestinians first stopping all violence and without Israel dismantling West Bank outposts.

The idea is that once a ministate is established, those things would be much easier for the parties to handle.

By strengthening Abbas, the Americans hope to create conditions for the establishment of a new Palestinian government that would recognize Israel and become a serious negotiating partner. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to make a visit to the region soon to press the plan.

The American approach is not much different from ideas being bandied about in the Israeli Foreign Ministry and supported by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Livni, who favors going directly for an interim Palestinian state, told a meeting of Europe-based Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem on Sunday that the Olmert-Abbas meeting was important not as “a lone gesture, but as a process of which gestures are a part.” She added that in her view, moderate Arab and Muslim states should be involved, as well.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas also expressed the hope that the meeting would lead to peace talks.

Israeli pundits, however, are skeptical. They doubt Abbas will be able to carry off the necessary first step: the establishment of a Palestinian government that makes the right noises about recognizing Israel, accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and renouncing violence.

“First that must happen, but as we know from experience, something on the way is bound to go wrong, and all we’ll get is more of the same,” political analyst Ben Caspit wrote in the Ma’ariv daily.

“Many meetings between Palestinian and Israeli leaders have taken place up till now, but it seems that never have two such weak partners sat on either side of the table — Abu Mazen on the verge of a civil war and Olmert after a war and embroiled in an investigation,” Caspit wrote.

“They have a great many qualities in common: not a bad vision and considerable courage. On the other hand they are lacking in leadership and confidence, exhausted and shackled by political constraints, enemies inside and out.”

The trouble is, Palestinian society is deeply divided over how to proceed.

In Abbas’ view, the Palestinians will always be outgunned and therefore will lose in any violent confrontation with Israel. Thus, negotiation is the way forward.

Hamas holds that time is on the Palestinians’ side, and the best path is to establish a temporary truce, use it to stockpile weapons and wait for Iran to become the dominant regional power.

Israeli intelligence estimates that if Abbas is able to rekindle a peace process, Hamas will escalate its violence against Israel in a bid to extinguish it.

Complicating matters even further, the fight on the Palestinian streets is not only between Fatah and Hamas. Poverty and the breakdown of law and order have spawned violent, armed gangs loyal only to themselves and contemptuous of authority, whether from Fatah or Hamas. They will probably continue to use terror against Israel, even if Abbas and Hamas agree to a cease-fire.

If the latest American initiative is to succeed, it will have to find a way of neutralizing both Hamas and the street gangs. Otherwise, new peace prospects will drown in a sea of Palestinian chaos.

Making peace at the best of times would not be easy. In these circumstances, it will be a very tall order indeed.

Leslie Susser is diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem report.
JTA correspondent Dan Baron in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

A Mensch

A month ago I lost my wallet.

I had just picked my son up from day school at 5 p.m., run an errand, then returned to pick up my daughter, whose religiousschool classes got out at 6:30 p.m.

It was one of those days. My wife was out of town on a work trip, and between my own job and drop-offs and pick-ups, I’d logged about 100 miles, and the day wasn’t over.

I had until 7 p.m. to make it to the auto shop to switch cars, and the clock was still ticking on dinner and baths and bedtime. That last sequence of “Good Fellas” where Ray Liotta has to do a drug deal, launder cash, run family errands and avoid the Feds? That was me, without the drugs, cash and cops.

Trying to shave a minute off deadline, I parked a block from the school, ran at a dead heat up La Cienega Boulevard, grabbed my daughter and power-walked back to the car. Then off through rush hour traffic to Miller Honda, where I arrived as the giant metal garage doors were rolling shut. I hurried to pay for my repairs — without my wallet.

It wasn’t gone, I told myself. It was black, my seats were black and the sun had set. I searched. The kids searched. Small hands went in and out of seat cracks. It took me a good two minutes to go from bemused to perplexed to frantic.

Forget the 100 bucks. What about the credit cards? The driver’s license? The identity theft. The hours on the phone navigating voice commands. A crazed thief showing up at our home address. My ATM card somewhere on its way to Vegas.

I drove back to the school. By cellphone I alerted the security personnel there, who quickly scanned the sidewalk and came up empty-handed. I traced my steps and found nothing.

“If you dropped it in the hallway,” one guard comforted me, “whoever finds it will give it to us. If you dropped it on the street, forget it.”

Of course he was right. It was dark. That section of La Cienega hosted a stream of transient foot traffic from the bus stop to 7-Eleven to dark alleys where pickpockets warmed their hands around trash can fires kindled with the useless receipts from emptied wallets … or so I imagined. I was, at that point, without hope.

And my kids, hungry and tired, were aching for food, which I had no money to pay for.

Just before I left school, I had the idea to call my work phone. Who knows? There was a message, which I’ve saved: “Hi Rob. This is Michael. I’ve found your wallet. Give me a call. I’m sure you’re probably looking for it.”

I pulled over and called. The young man on the other end of the line gave me his address, which turned out to be on Corning Avenue, the next block over. He was waiting out front when I swung around.

I rushed out to shake his hand, to thank him. I thrust a reward at him, which surprised and slightly embarrassed him. Somehow I figured words weren’t enough.

When I drove back to school to thank the security guards and share the good news, they were astonished.

“In this city,” said one of them, “That’s one in a million.”

They asked how old he was. Around 20. They asked what color he was. I said black. They shook their heads. From their faces, I could see their stereotypes melting about as gently as nuclear fuel rods.

A little while later I called Michael Evans to thank him a bit less breathlessly.

On the one hand, he didn’t cure cancer or rescue an endangered species or rush into a burning building. On the other hand, he found a wallet full of cash on a dark street, made the effort to contact the owner, and returned it. No big deal? Not if it were your wallet.

Michael told me he is 22. He was born in New York City and moved out here when he was 10. His parents died when he was 4 — not a subject he wanted to delve into — and he was raised by his grandmother, a retired schoolteacher. She’s 92 now, and Michael decided to live with her to watch after her.

Michael attended Carthay Circle Elementary, Hamilton High and Los Angeles City College. He works as an accountant in Burbank for Smith Mandel and Associates.

The night we met, he was walking up La Cienega toward the 7-Eleven to buy his grandmother a newspaper when he saw my wallet.

“I thought I might as well go and help this person,” he told me, verbally shrugging off the whole incident. “It’s not inconvenient, and I’d want somebody to do the same thing for me.”

He searched out my business card, called me and e-mailed me. “I don’t think it was too much trouble to go and do that.”

I told him what the security guards said, that in a city like this, he’s one in a million.

He laughed.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “There really was no other option.”

This is the second year The Jewish Journal has compiled a list of our “Top Ten Mensches.” Let other magazines slobber over the 50 Sexiest or the 400 Richest or the 20 Most Influential. Rich, sexy and powerful are easy. Mensch is hard.

How hard? You could make all those other lists and still not qualify for ours. There are three crowns, says the Pirke Avot, the crown of the law, which is knowledge; the crown of royalty, which is power and wealth, and the crown of priesthood, which is holiness.

But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.

Thus, Michael Evans.

Laura’s Smile

Laura Benichou was born on June 9, 1998, with a hole in her heart. This hole probably saved her life, because she was also born without her main pulmonary artery.

The blood had to go somewhere, so it went through the hole. Her condition would take too long to explain, but one result was the lowering of the oxygen level in her blood to 75 percent and below (normal is 99 percent to 100 percent), which meant that her body had to compensate by producing more red blood cells. This in turn thickened her blood and caused other complications, like periodic brain seizures.

The first major seizure happened before she was a year old. To save her life, the top cardiac team at a major hospital in Los Angeles performed an 11-hour operation that implanted small “pipes and faucets” to help normalize the blood flow between her heart and lungs. This didn’t get the results they wanted, so a few weeks later they went back in to implant larger devices. Laura was not responding well to post-surgery care, which created more complications and led to another operation. After six months and three major operations, Laura was a year and a half old when she returned home.

Laura has never spoken a word, but she can coo, laugh, sigh and cry. At her best, she has taken steps with the help of a walker. She has a thin body with a smallish, sweet face framed by dark-brown hair. She gets 24-hour home care, with three rotating nurses monitoring her breathing and other vital signs.

One of those nurses says that Laura expresses a wide range of “appropriate” emotions, from happiness to surprise to crying for attention. Her favorite movie is “Mary Poppins,” and her favorite TV show is “Hannah Montana.” She likes toys that move, and she has a fondness for anything slapstick.

Oh yeah, and she loves to smile.

It’s that spontaneous smile, which I saw firsthand on a recent visit to her family’s handsome high-ceilinged apartment in West Hollywood, that her mother says “hypnotizes everyone who meets her.”

I think the smile has also helped her family fight to keep her alive. While she was in the hospital for six months, her parents took turns to be with her at all times. Her brother, a very cool-looking 16-year-old who’s a starter on his high school basketball team, is very protective of her and seems to have a knack for making her laugh.

Her mother, Veronique, a thin and perfectly put-together French Moroccan Jew in her early 40s, has become a walking medical handbook. During my late-afternoon visit, while she was serving mint tea in elegant china, she took several hours to calmly answer all my questions regarding their ordeal, and Laura’s medical history, even drawing a diagram to explain one of the surgeries.

Veronique says she “stopped living” when the doctors told her the news about Laura. At the time, she had a thriving international trading business. Her husband Richard, an intense, darkly handsome, French Algerian Jew who is a member of the Pinto shul on Pico Boulevard, ran a successful garment business. They were also going through a major renovation of their home near the Sunset Strip, which they were preparing for the new baby.

It didn’t take long for the house (which they have since sold) and their businesses to take a back seat to Laura. Veronique herself was in a “coma of denial” for the first few months, but once she got out of it, she became quietly unstoppable — whether fighting in court against insurance companies (so far, she has prevailed at the key hearings) or doing constant research on the Internet to make sure that everything medically possible is being done for her daughter.

And God knows she’s done it all, medically and otherwise. She recalls now, with a tinge of disappointment, how vulnerable she was to faith healers of all kinds. She especially remembers the woman mystic from Israel, who spent three days rubbing different oils on her daughter while chanting special prayers. Veronique knew then that because they were people of means, there would be no shortage of miracle workers knocking on their door. But she was too vulnerable to turn them away.

Meanwhile, she was knocking on the doors of emergency rooms at all times of the day and night, whenever Laura had a seizure or some other complication. After a few years, she got so frustrated with the service and long waits that she started a company called SOS Medlink, which coordinates a network of doctors who make house calls (I’ve used the service myself, and if I had a say on the Messiah, I’d nominate a doctor who makes house calls). She is currently looking for partners to expand the business nationally, in the hope that it will help provide for Laura’s future care. Her husband has also gone back to work.

Right now, they’re both hoping for a medical success. They don’t like the option of doing nothing, because Laura’s condition hasn’t gotten any better, which leaves her at risk of another seizure (Veronique won’t elaborate). At the same time, though, an “out of the box” operation to repair Laura’s heart is also delicate. So they’re torn between two risky options.

Veronique and her husband will soon make a decision. In the last few days, they have met with a prominent surgeon, and they are exploring a “middle of the road” option that will hopefully do a little repair of the heart and buy them some more time.

In the meantime, they will continue to care for Laura around the clock, take her to parties and to visit family around town, and enjoy one thing that can always fill the hole in their own hearts.

Her smile.

Los Angeles mom pleads for life of son kidnapped in Iran

“Why is the world so silent — why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?” Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.

Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families — who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation — have filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.

“As a citizen of the United States,” Tehrani said at a rally in New York, “I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!”

Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.

“I was hoping that from this rally … the world would become more aware of this issue,” she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. “But I don’t know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since.”

She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.

“We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami,” Tehrani said. “We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers”.

A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying.She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.

“I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he’s still alive,” Tehrani said. “We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms.”

Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said.

Leaders from the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a Los Angeles umbrella group of Iranian Jewish organizations, have made quiet diplomatic efforts for the last 12 years to help secure the release of Babak Tehrani and the other imprisoned Jews. Six years ago some activists in the Iranian Jewish community, among them George Haroonian and Frank Nikbakht, became so unhappy with the IAJF’s lack of progress, that they began to pursue a more vocal public approach in attempting to secure the release of the prisoners.

IAJF leaders have long advocated minimizing criticism of Tehran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Despite internal differences of opinion, the various factions within the local Iranian Jewish community recently banded together in support of victims’ families’ lawsuit.

“Our entire community is united in demanding the immediate release of these individuals and will support any legal and moral course of action that their families may choose to pursue,” the group said in a statement released by the IAJF.

In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community spread news of the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, prevented the execution of the “Shiraz 13,” and they were eventually released.

Babak Tehrani was last seen in 1996, according to Fereidoon Peyman, an Iranian Jew who was the Tehranis’ neighbor in Iran and who now lives in Los Angeles. In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, Peyman said that in 1996 he visited Tehran’s infamous Evin prison while attempting to sell land nearby to prison officials. While there, he stated, he saw Babak.

“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye, I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” Peyman stated in his affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”

Evin prison is a maximum-security prison allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, Nikbakht said.

Experts familiar with Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran’s official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.

Babak’s father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.

Fatah-Hamas conflict forces Palestinians to choose

In calling for elections, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharpened the choice facing the Palestinian people: Back his Fatah party and have peace with Israel and the promise of economic prosperity, or support the rejectionism of Hamas, whose nine months in office have brought only war, chaos and impoverishment.

Abbas’ call Saturday for early elections in the Palestinian Authority triggered fierce street fighting between Fatah and Hamas, which won the last election in January. Despite a hastily arranged cease-fire Monday, the two factions remain on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries are hoping for a Fatah election victory that could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States is actively helping Fatah, but Israel — fearing that support for Fatah will backfire and undermine the moderates — is staying out.

The turmoil in the Palestinian camp comes as Syria launched a new initiative for peace with Israel. Peace with Syria would be a major strategic gain for Israel, breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, and it would put additional pressure on the Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel.

But Israel is not biting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not trust Syria’s intentions and does not want to cross President Bush, who opposes dealings with Damascus.

The internal Palestinian struggle and the Syrian overtures are both part of a greater regional struggle for hegemony, pitting Iran and radicals such as Syria and Hamas against Western-leaning moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah. How the Palestinian struggle plays out, and whether Syria comes over to the moderate side, will have major implications for Iran’s position in the region.

In his speech Saturday calling for elections, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas’ policy of violence and non-recognition of Israel.

“The settler land” — parts of Gaza that Israel evacuated last year — “should have flourished with economic, tourist and agricultural projects, but some people insist on firing rockets,” he scoffed.

“They kidnapped the Israeli soldier,” a reference to Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was abducted by Gaza gunmen last June. “And since then they paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of homes destroyed.”

The subtext was clear: Violence is getting the Palestinians nowhere, while peace moves could bring economic reward.

But Abbas did not set any date for elections. Analysts say he hopes to use the threat of elections to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government with Fatah. That might enable the Palestinian Authority to accept the international community’s benchmarks for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence — paving the way for peace talks and the lifting of the international economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some Hamas leaders are in favor of this. Others still hope to circumvent the boycott by bringing in Iranian money.

P.A. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was intercepted recently trying to smuggle $30 million from Iran into Gaza in a suitcase. Indeed, Hamas strategy is built on financial and political ties with Tehran.

“Iran gives us strategic depth,” Haniyeh declared during a recent visit to Tehran.

The thinking behind this is the basis for Hamas rejectionism. Hamas leaders believe that if they can hold out until Iran gains regional dominance, they’ll be able to defeat Israel. Therefore, they argue, any attempts to make peace with the Jewish state are short-sighted.

The fighting on the streets was the worst between Fatah and Hamas in years, with children caught in the crossfire. Leaders on both sides also came under fire: There was a shooting attack on Haniyeh’s convoy as he returned to Gaza from Iran. Hamas blamed Fatah strongman Mohammed Dahlan and threatened to assassinate him.

Later, mortars were fired at Abbas’ presidential compound in Gaza.

Pundits say the slide into civil war can only be averted if there is an agreement on holding elections or if a unity government is formed. Hamas has been adamantly against elections, describing Abbas’ call for an early ballot as an “attempted coup” against a legitimately elected government.

Despite efforts to reach a compromise, analysts argue that an eventual showdown is inevitable, since the two groups’ basic positions on Israel and the nature of a future Palestinian state are irreconcilable.
As both sides prepare for armed conflict, the West is openly backing Fatah. The United States has pledged funds, and an American general, Keith Dayton, is training Fatah forces.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ramallah on Monday to back Abbas’ conception of peacemaking as something that brings significant economic benefits. By outlining a vision of economic prosperity, Blair hoped to convince the Palestinian people that Abbas’ approach has a good chance of success.

Abbas also has the backing of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which is providing funds, and Egypt, which reportedly is supplying weapons.

Syria, however, continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus, and that is one of the reasons Israel is wary of its new peace offer.

The Syrian peace rhetoric was unprecedented. In an interview with Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper, President Assad invited Olmert to meet him and test his intentions, while Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem told the Washington Post that a commitment to return the Golan Heights was no longer a precondition for talks.

Israeli leaders are divided on how to respond. Olmert, and most of the government, argue that Syria must first show whether it’s on the side of Iran or the West. It can do that by expelling Hamas and other terrorist leaders from Damascus and stopping its meddling in Iraq and Lebanon.

Others, in Labor, the left and the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, say Israel should use the chance to engage Damascus and try to swing it to the moderate camp. In a briefing of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Mossad Chief Meir Dagan came down firmly on Olmert’s side, arguing that Syria isn’t really interested in peace but simply wanted to use talks with Israel as a means of easing Western pressure.

Some pundits argue, however, that Olmert is making a huge strategic blunder. The most scathing was Ma’ariv political analyst Ben Caspit.

“I wonder what Ehud Olmert will say to the members of the next commission of inquiry — the one that is set up in two or three years time after war with Syria or after it becomes clear just how big a chance was missed to split the axis of evil and isolate Iran,” Caspit wrote.

Second-class Conservative citizens

When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.