November 16, 2018

Shootings, Elections and Dust in the Wind

There are certain weeks in the news business when the pressure becomes almost unbearable. Last week was one of them.

First, there was the continuing shock of the deadliest attack against Jews in U.S. history, when 11 Shabbat worshippers were shot dead by a neo-Nazi at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. This was not an event that we could just grieve over and move on. This was a communal trauma. The shock lingered. The questions multiplied. The grieving stayed.

Virtually every synagogue in the world honored the 11 victims on the Shabbat following the massacre. If you’re looking for signs of Jewish peoplehood, consider that Exhibit A.
A few days later, on Nov. 6, all eyes were on what some called the “most consequential midterm election of our lifetime.” That night at the Journal, we extended our print deadline to midnight so we could include an initial take of the results in the Nov. 9 print edition.
In the aftermath of those two major events, our online staff was tested. Day after day, they posted stories and analyses on both Pittsburgh and the elections, including videos and special podcasts.

For this week’s cover story, our plan was to do a deep dive into the election results.
Then, before we could catch our breath, another mass shooting grabbed our attention late on Nov. 7, this one at a bar in Thousand Oaks that left 12 people dead.
We managed to get in touch with one of the survivors, Ben Ginsburg, who put into words the story of his nightmare, which you can read in this week’s issue.
Then, the next night, all hell broke loose as vicious Santa Ana winds unleashed their rage across large swaths of Malibu, Westlake Village, Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and surrounding areas, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate and wreaking devastation over the next two days that damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes and some Jewish institutions.

“So, which nightmare to put on the cover?”

Nightmare was following nightmare.

On Saturday morning, Nov. 10, as I walked out of synagogue on Pico Boulevard, I could smell the burn. Shifting winds had brought smoke and tiny flakes of ash from those distant fires to our cozy Jewish neighborhood, creating a reddish haze that hovered in the distance. We felt the pain of our faraway neighbors through the dust in the wind.
Dark stories were colliding and overlapping. Some of the families touched by the Thousand Oaks shooting had to evacuate their homes because of the fires. A rabbi from the area, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who had written a poem of mourning for the shooting victims, now wrote a special prayer for these “fire-filled days.”

So, which nightmare to put on the cover? I had already asked our columnist Ben Shapiro to write a cover story on how to deal with the madness of mass shootings. But we couldn’t ignore these apocalyptic fires, which have touched everyone in the greater City of Angels (not to mention all those in Northern California).

“Dark stories were colliding and overlapping. Some of the families touched by the Thousand Oaks shooting had to evacuate their homes because of the fires.”

As you can see, we decided to feature both events on the cover and give each story top billing. Shapiro analyzes the complexity of the mass-shooting phenomenon, and what we can do to address the epidemic of gun violence; and the Journal’s reporting staff and editors cover the devastation of the fires and the compassionate response from our community.

We also have a column from Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles head Jay Sanderson on how he and his team dealt with the crises over 72 hours.
And, as if all that weren’t enough, the winds of war were blowing again in Israel, with nearly 500 rockets fired at Israel from Gaza within a few days. (As I write this, it looks like a ceasefire is in the works.)

One of the cruel aspects of journalism is that it doesn’t allow much time for emotion. We hear about a horrible event and, almost instantly, we have to think about getting you the story, and how quickly and accurately we can do so.
As we continue our coverage during these nerve-wracking times, I’m tempted to come up with words that will make us all feel better, or at least help us cope. Beyond the usual cliches, I don’t really have any.

My only wish is that we will be blessed, very soon, with a few weeks free of human tragedies.

After the Fires, I Got a Lesson in Repairing the World

The great poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” I am proud to say that my school, de Toledo High School, has been home to so many this past week. Fires damaged and devastated many homes and several Jewish communities throughout the Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and the Malibu area. Although in recent days, so many communities were shattered or even destroyed, I saw how the Jewish community came together as one — like a family.

The combined efforts, unity and hard work by students and staff from my high school as well as the Jewish Federation, Hillel 818, Temple Aliyah, Temple Or Ami, Ilan Ramon School, PJ Library and C Teen have made it possible for there to be a day camp for children and a gathering place for families at de Toledo High School for as long as needed. 

There have been more than 50 volunteers on campus ready to give back to the Jewish community of greater Los Angeles. Within us all is the drive to restore the kehillah together. Ranging from middle school students to rabbis and other clergy, the efforts from all volunteers have been remarkable. “I am here because I was taught the importance of giving back when I am fortunate enough to do so,” said 17-year-old Juliette from Oak Park High School. She went on to describe the “human drive my Jewish and non-Jewish friends have to help.” 

“The community has mobilized so quickly, so many people are stepping forward, we have more volunteers than we could have imagined. It is beautiful,” Rabbi Ben Goldstein of Temple Aliyah said. Smiles and laughs are prominent around campus today. Students smile as they walk past young toddlers playing in the grass; a friendly game of basketball in the gym has players from all ages, happy and engaged. 

“From the moment we realized we were displaced, de Toledo High School opened its doors to our community as well as to others,” Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami said. “Their answers to our requests were not just ‘yes,’ but ‘what else do you need?’ The space, resources  and comfort that de Toledo High School is providing is the true definition of community.”

“The community has mobilized so quickly, so many people are stepping forward, we have more volunteers than we could have imagined.” — Rabbi Ben Goldstein

The relationships we have formed help those who were affected by the fires but also heals those who were able to reach out and help. “It has been our honor and privilege to open our campus to the various impacted organizations,” said Mark H. Shpall, Head of School at de Toledo High School. “The ability of de Toledo High School to open its arms wide allows us to put our mission statement of ‘raising the next generation of Jewish leaders’ into practice. As leaders, our students are engaged in meaningful acts of giving to those affected. In addition, the tremendous outpouring of resources, love and tangible support from the Jewish community for the affected synagogues, camps and day schools has been awe-inspiring.” 

For my entire life, I’ve been taught the value of Tikkun Olam (repairing the world), and in a time of great brokenness, the Los Angeles Jewish community has shown me the power in repairing together. We built a home together because that is who we are as a Jewish community.


Ariela Zweiback is a student at de Toledo High School.

Congregation Or Ami Continues Camp for Support and Community

As the two wildfires continue to grow in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, so does the need for support. In response, Congregation Or Ami on Nov. 9 opened to the entire Jewish community the “day camp” it set up for its members.

Children and adults who are impacted by fire are welcome at the camp, which is being held at de Toledo High School. They have activities for the kids, support for the adults, coffee and food. It will be open on Nov. 10, 11 and 12 from 10 a.m. until at least 3 p.m.

“If you are tired, strung out, if your kids need a place, if you need support, come to our camp,” Rabbi Paul Kipnes told the Journal via phone.

Arthur Rozenberg of Fat Sal’s in Encino brought lunch on Friday.

Kipnes and his team spent Nov. 8 reaching out to anyone in their congregation within 20 to 30 miles of the Thousand Oaks bar shooting, which occurred the night before when a gunman killed 12 patrons, to offer support and programing. After the news broke about the fire around 3:30 p.m., they shut it down and evacuated. Or Ami Rabbis Kipnes and Julia Weisz, along with rabbinic interns Elana Nemitoff and Meir Bargeron, then got to work on setting up the camp. 

“Congregation Or Ami has set up a “day camp” at de Toledo High School for those impacted by the wildfires.”

“Having learned from the flood down in Houston (after Hurricane Harvey) and the fires up in Santa Rosa, we immediately set to work to open a camp for kids who don’t have school and for adults who just need a place to gather together,” Kipnes said.What we learned from the other two places is that the need grows as this disaster continues.”

As far as Kipnes can tell, about 70 percent of the congregation either has been mandatory or voluntarily evacuated. “People are overwhelmed,” he said. “Thankfully a number of them have been talking to the therapists who have been here.”

Eden Bookman, 3rd grade, and Nathan Dashevsky, 1st grade, at Or Ami’s “camp.”

The smaller crowd on Nov. 9 enabled the Or Ami team to get systems up and running. They expect more people in the coming days now that they’ve opened. 

Or Ami has partnered with other synagogues and the Jewish Federation, and has received support from the Union for Reform Judaism and Camp Newman. Arthur Rozenberg of Fat Sal’s in Encino saw what was going on and brought over lunch on Nov. 9.

When asked how the community is responding, Kipnes said, “The kids like having older teens to play with. There are some adults who have nowhere else to go and are just hanging out.

“It’s been really meaningful to be together,” he said.

Ventura County fire officials issued mandatory evacuation orders for several areas including the Malibu Canyon area, Agoura Hills, Calabasas and Westlake Village.

Detailed fire and shelter information can be found at  vcemergency.com.

#WeAreAllJews: The Jewish Media Stand With Pittsburgh

Earlier this year, our colleagues at the three leading Jewish newspapers in the United Kingdom published the same front-page headline and joint editorial voicing concern over rising anti-Semitism in Britain’s Labour Party.

Today we have found a mournful occasion to follow in their footsteps.

For many Jews, the United States has long held a unique role in our collective imagination. It has been an unprecedented land of promise, of refuge, of freedom, of opportunity and of safety.

But after the horrific attack last Shabbat at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, in which 11 of our brothers and sisters were brutally murdered, we can’t help but be shaken and concerned for the America we have come to know and love.

We therefore join together to unequivocally condemn this brutal act of anti-Semitism and all deadly acts of hate. We also condemn the climate of hate that has been building for some time now, especially on college campuses and on social media, where the veneer of anonymity has allowed anti-Semitic cesspools to flourish, and from irresponsible political leaders who engage in hateful speech and are abetted by the silence of others.

As journalists, we hold a variety of opinions about politics in this country and in Israel. The American Jewish community is diverse, and those differences are reflected on the pages of its media.

In coming together now, we are not erasing those differences, but rising above them to issue a call for solidarity and respect, and asking our political and communal leaders to do the same.

The gunman who invaded a sanctuary on Shabbat did not distinguish among his victims. To him, they were all Jews.

We are all Jews. Let this horrific massacre be a moment of redemption as well as grieving. Let us argue with each other as Hillel argued with Shammai — with civility. Let us acknowledge our common humanity with other Americans who have been subject to unconscionable violence, too.

Jewish media has a long and proud history in America, and we pledge to continue our mission to inform, reflect and bind our communities — even more necessary in this painful time.

Jane Eisner, Editor-in-Chief, The Forward

Dovid Efune, Editor-in-Chief and CEO, The Algemeiner

Ami Eden, CEO and Executive Editor, 70 Faces Media (JTA, Kveller, Alma, My Jewish Learning, Nosher, Jewniverse)

Nadine Epstein, Editor-in-Chief and CEO, Moment Magazine

Sue Fishkoff, Editor, J. The Jewish News of Northern California

Jerry Greenwald, Managing Editor, The Jewish Press

Lisa Hostein, Executive Editor, Hadassah Magazine

Gabe Kahn, Editor, New Jersey Jewish News

Janet Perez, Managing Editor, Jewish News of Greater Phoenix

Brett R. Rhyne, Editor, The Jewish Advocate, Boston

Gary Rosenblatt, Editor and Publisher, Jewish Week of New York

Joshua Runyan, Senior Editorial Director, Washington Jewish Wee

Liz Spikol, Editorial Director, Baltimore Jewish Times

David Suissa, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, Tribe Media/Jewish Journal

Jonathan S. Tobin, Editor-in-Chief, Jewish News Syndicate


The post #WeAreAllJews: The Jewish media stand with Pittsburgh appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

What’s it like to be a gay Israel lover in Hollywood? To act with Sean Penn? To be on top of your game at 74? Hollywood wunderkind Howard Rosenman shares his life’s scoops.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out this episode!

Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Israel with a Side of Goosebumps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

Check out this episode!

Words—Historic and Current—To Be Heeded

In November, 1953, less than a year into his first term in office, during the height of the McCarthy era, President Eisenhower received an award from and delivered the keynote address at the Anti-Defamation League’s annual board meeting in Washington, D.C. As the story was recounted to me by someone who was there (I worked for the ADL for 27 years), those in attendance thought it would be a routine address by the new president making nice to one of the country’s leading civil rights/Jewish organizations, kind of a pro forma “you are nice and do good work”.

Shortly before the speech, ADL leaders learned that the national press and the then novel TV cameras would be observing and what was going to be routine was now a “major policy address.”

It turned out that the speech was among the, if not the, first times that Ike spoke out and distanced himself from Sen. Joe McCarthy. But it was by indirection, he never mentioned McCarthy’s name (to that point Ike was still trying to ignore McCarthy, as if the senator didn’t matter).

To those in attendance, it wasn’t clear what the news was, but by the next morning the message had gone out. Eisenhower had spoken about the right of every American to meet “your accuser face to face”, the “right to speak your mind and be protected in it.” He extolled the values of the “soul and the spirit” that make us proud to be Americans; who the threat to those values was became apparent:

Why are we proud? We are proud, first of all, because from the beginning of this Nation, a man can walk upright, no matter who he is, or who she is. He can walk upright and meet his friend–or his enemy; and he does not fear that because that enemy may be in a position of great power that he can be suddenly thrown in jail to rot there without charges and with no recourse to justice. We have the habeas corpus act, and we respect it.

And today, although none of you has the great fortune, I think, of being from Abilene, Kansas, you live after all by that same code in your ideals and in the respect you give to certain qualities. In this country, if someone dislikes you, or accuses you, he must come up in front. He cannot hide behind the shadow. He cannot assassinate you or your character from behind, without suffering the penalties an outraged citizenry will impose.

                                                                   ****

….I would not want to sit down this evening without urging one thing: if we are going to continue to be proud that we are Americans, there must be no weakening of the code by which we have lived; by the right to meet your accuser face to face, if you have one; by your right to go to the church or the synagogue or even the mosque of your own choosing; by your right to speak your mind and be protected in it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the things that make us proud to be Americans are of the soul and of the spirit. They are not the jewels we wear, or the furs we buy, the houses we live in, the standard of living, even, that we have. All these things are wonderful to the esthetic and to the physical senses. [Emphasis added]

I was reminded of this historic statement by two speeches this week from leading Republicans, who, like Eisenhower, bravely took on one of their own and made clear what others fear, or lack the courage, to say. They laid down markers as to what is acceptable conduct in American politics and, without being explicit, who was engaging in conduct that was beyond the pale.

On Monday night, Sen. John McCain spoke at the National Constitution Center as he received its Liberty Medal. It’s a passionate statement about what’s important and unique about America.

During the course of the speech he offered the following:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to. [Emphasis Added]

Like Eisenhower, without mentioning the name of his antagonist, the senior senator from Arizona got his message across loudly and clearly.

Then on Thursday, former President George W. Bush delivered a speech in which he never mentioned Trump, but the sinner he was referring to was transparently clear:

Our politics seems more vulnerable to conspiracy theories and outright fabrication…. We have seen our discourse degraded by casual cruelty. At times, it can seem like the forces pulling us apart are stronger than the forces binding us together. Argument turns too easily into animosity. Disagreement escalates into dehumanization. Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples while judging ourselves by our best intentions – forgetting the image of God we should see in each other.

We’ve seen nationalism distorted into nativism – forgotten the dynamism that immigration has always brought to America. We see a fading confidence in the value of free markets and international trade – forgetting that conflict, instability, and poverty follow in the wake of protectionism.

We have seen the return of isolationist sentiments – forgetting that American security is directly threatened by the chaos and despair of distant places, where threats such as terrorism, infectious disease, criminal gangs and drug trafficking tend to emerge.

                                                                 ***

This means that people of every race, religion, and ethnicity can be fully and equally AmericanIt means that bigotry or white supremacy in any form is blasphemy against the American creed. And it means that the very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.

We need a renewed emphasis on civic learning in schools. And our young people need positive role models. Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry, and compromises the moral education of children. The only way to pass along civic values is to first live up to them.

In short, it is time for American institutions to step up and provide cultural and moral leadership for this nation. [Emphasis Added]

The McCain and Bush speeches are historic moments; perhaps the beginning of a wave of revulsion at the lies, distortions, hate and awful policies that emerge from the Trump White House. When two pillars of a party, much like Eisenhower in 1953, say enough is enough and that it is time to “step up”—perhaps people will listen.

Las Vegas Embraces Torah in Time of Tragedy

An interfaith vigil in response to the Las Vegas shooting was held at Guardian Angel Cathedral nearby the Las Vegas strip.

Three days after the Oct. 1 mass shooting in Las Vegas, the Jewish community there headed into Sukkot, and the words recited at evening prayers, Ufros Aleinu Sukkat Shlomecha — Spread over us Your shelter of peace — never seemed more apt.

Rabbi Sanford Akselrad, spiritual leader of 600 families at Congregation Ner Tamid in nearby Henderson, Nev., held a small vigil on Oct. 2 alongside the community’s sukkah that was still under construction.

“I wanted to have an outdoor vigil,” Akselrad told the Journal, “because when you looked up, you could see the stars and see how small we are, and there has to be something greater we can draw upon and give us courage.”

His Reform synagogue also plans to host a fundraising concert called “Vegas Strong in Song” on Oct. 15 for the victims of the attack, in which 58 people died and more than 500 were injured. The event will include Jewish performers from around the country.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz of Congregation P’nai Tikvah, which holds services in Las Vegas and has about 100 families as members, said that during Sukkot services “we acknowledged that life is certainly as fragile as a sukkah. In lieu of any kind of a sermon I might have given, I acknowledged that sometimes words are inadequate and gave my congregation the opportunity to break out in small groups and simply share what they had been going through since the massacre.”

Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said he was proud of the community and its response to the shooting.

“Whether it’s been collecting food and water for people, donating blood, or the upcoming concert, our community has been nothing short of miraculous and has responded to those in need,” he said.

Mintz personally called every family in her congregation after the attack.

“It’s unfortunate that it took such a tragedy for this to happen, but it happened instantaneously,” she said. “The interfaith community, especially, became galvanized, and rallies and vigils sprung up all over the city.”

Among them was the interfaith vigil at Guardian Angel Cathedral just off the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2, which Akselrad helped organize. “I spoke at so many vigils last week,” he said, but noted that his mantra at each of them was the same: “I choose to love love more than I want to hate hate.”

He said he spoke of what it was important to remember and what should be forgotten: “I don’t want to remember the name of the [shooter]. I want to remember the acts of courage and faith and of love. And the emphasis will be not that this was the worst tragedy, but that there were heroes who came forward in a time [they were] needed most.”

Beyond dealing with the physical needs of the victims, it became a priority in the Jewish community to make sure area children felt safe. P’nai Tikvah member Arlyn Katz said that in addition to the phone call from Mintz — who has two adult children and one who is 10 — she received an email on how to talk to her children.

“I was really grateful for that,” she said.

Mintz’s youngest child, Kayla, had to deal with a particularly close connection to the tragedy: The secretary of the dance academy she regularly attended was shot twice in the chest and hospitalized in critical condition as of Oct. 8. The secretary’s 13-year-old daughter was shot in the arm.

“When I woke up to get ready for school, I was really scared. That was a hard morning,” Kayla told the Journal.

While local public schools were closed the day after the shooting for security reasons, the private Jewish day school Kayla attends held classes as a result of the security already in place there. However, the school’s social worker came and spoke to the children, and the first hour of classes was canceled.

“It was a really heartfelt hour,” Kayla said. “It was emotional, but they kept asking us how we were and tried to calm us down.”

During Sukkot, Akselrad said he spent time doing a “trust walk” with the 15- and 16-year-old youths at Ner Tamid. The teens wrote prayers, wishes and poems and hung them in the sukkah. “They talked about their hope for healing and no more gun violence,” Akselrad said.

Yonina Kronfeld Schnee, a P’nai Tikvah member and special education teacher who lived in Israel for more than a decade, said the community came together following the shooting spree.

“I always felt safer in Israel than anywhere else because Israel is more prepared for things like this,” she said.

Journalist Chris Sieroty had attended Yom Kippur services at Beth Sholom, a Conservative shul in Las Vegas, and was staying at the Mirage on the Strip for a conference when he heard sirens on Oct. 1. Initially, he thought nothing of it. 

“It’s Vegas,” he said. “If you’ve lived here long enough, you always hear sirens on the Strip.” 

But then his phone started buzzing. It was his niece who lives in Israel and is in the army calling to see if he was safe.

“I thought, ‘What’s she doing calling so late?’ so I didn’t pick it up,” he said. “But then I looked out the window and saw all the police, and the Strip was empty.”

He later realized that was because everyone had run into the casinos. Sieroty said he tried to get downstairs to see what was happening but the Mirage wasn’t letting people move about due to the concern that there might be another active shooter in the area.

More than a week after the shooting, the community now is focusing on how to move forward.

“The shooting affected everybody, and I suspect that the shock and the grief that initially fell over the city will give way to a plethora of other emotions, including anger and hopefully action,” Mintz said. “The prayers that sprung up will hopefully become what Abraham Joshua Heschel said: We will pray with our feet.”

Mintz said she hopes that will translate into “some sort of change that includes common-sense regulations for both firearms and for mental health.”

Akselrad echoed Mintz’s sentiments, adding, “We have to get involved in whatever we can do to help stop this horrific violence that guns cause.”

Polikoff said the Federation is thinking about “the long game.”

“We’re working with the Israeli Trauma Coalition and hoping to bring some of the Israeli expertise out here to help people deal with the trauma, the mental trauma,” he said. “The physical trauma will heal, but those first responders and those who were there that night are going to need help in the future, whether they know it now or not.” 

Words Matter…Dammit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Craig Taubman

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

 

Adam Krief, whose battle with cancer united community and attracted celebrities, dies at 32

Adam Krief with his wife, Lia Mantel Krief. Photo courtesy of Hope4Adam/Facebook.

Adam Krief, the cancer-stricken Jewish man from West Los Angeles whose search for a bone marrow transplant rallied the community and gained the notice of international celebrities, died on March 14. He was 32.

Donor drives to find a match for the father of three young children were held all over the United States and in France, Israel and Mexico. Several matches resulted and Krief underwent a bone marrow transplant in December. But in a tragic turn of events, his body rejected the transplant and his condition deteriorated quickly, according to Jeremy Braun, a family friend.

Braun, who went to college with Krief’s wife, Lia, said he grew much closer to Adam over the last year. He said that even in his dying days, Adam was focused on the impact his story could have on others.

“He said that Hashem gave him this to save other people’s lives,” Braun said. “That was consistent throughout. He never wanted people to be in the [national bone marrow] registry just of his sake. The drives organized for him have found matches for at least 13 others and has saved lives.”

Last summer, Krief began chemotherapy to treat a rare form of blood cancer called primary myelofibrosis. To save his life, he needed a bone marrow transplant but there wasn’t a single match in the national bone marrow registry’s 13-million person database.

A “Hope4Adam” Instagram account and Facebook page with more than 13,000 “likes” documenting his story got the word out. “Big Bang Theory” actress Mayim Bialik and reality television star Kim Kardashian West were among those who helped publicize a search for a matching donor, encouraging people on their social media accounts to join the registry and become donors.

Braun, his wife Michal and other community members rallied behind the Krief family as well. Many relatives, friends and neighbors signed up to become bone marrow donors and created a “hot meal train,” signing up and taking shifts to deliver food to the Krief household. Late night prayer sessions were arranged at the Krief’s Fairfax-area synagogue, Baba Sale Congregation.

Bikur Cholim, a Jewish medical charity organization, provided platelet donors for Adam when his hospital ran low. Platelets are tiny cells in blood that form clots and stop bleeding, and they’re often critical to fighting cancer.

People dropped by the hospital to visit Adam to play guitar and sing Havdalah songs after Shabbat. Jews from around the globe captivated by Adam’s story flooded the Kriefs with pictures, prayers and videos with words of encouragement.

“It’s been really special and takes away from feelings of isolation and aloneness,” Adam’s wife Lia said for a December story in the Journal. She also called those who helped out in any way her family’s “vigilantes” and “knights in shining armor.”

Braun said he told Adam how much his courage has meant to the community when he visited the hospital on Sunday to say goodbye to his friend.

“I told him, on behalf of entire world, I want to say thank you for inspiring us and making us better people,” he said. “Thank you for making us do good for other people. Thank you for changing the world. I told him you have my commitment that this isn’t over. We’ll continue to do blood drives for people who need it.”

Braun said so far donor drives held on behalf of Adam — an avid basketball fan, skateboarder and snowboarder—have resulted in more than 60,000 new bone marrow donors to the national registry.

“He was this young, vibrant guy and his life was turned around and taken from him in one quick year,” he said.

Krief is survived by his wife, Lia, and their three children, Lev, Joel and Luca. Services were scheduled to be held March 15.

Wisdom is the Antidote

In the last two weeks or so, I have read a great deal of statements made by Jewish organizations and rabbis dealing with our immigration policy and the merits of compassion, protest and defiance.  I’ve seen Facebook posts by liberals and conservatives that contain words in all caps.  In general, I’ve seen many statements but listened to little conversation.

I would like to add a different note to this conversation.  The quality we are missing from dialogue today is wisdom.  Wisdom is the key corrective measure to our brokenness today.  Movements and mob mentalities usually feed off of emotions rather than rational thought.  The Jewish community should not get sucked into partisan warfare and bullhorn politics just because it feels good.  We should worry less about feeling good and concern ourselves more with acting prudently and elevating discourse.

We, the Jewish People, are commanded by the Torah to follow the path of wisdom.  Deuteronomy 4:6 states, “Observe them (the laws) faithfully, for that will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples, who on hearing of all these laws will say, ‘Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people.’”  We should be elevating the national dialogue, not feeding into a bipolar system consisting of executive orders and mass defiance.  We can choose a third way – the path of wisdom.

Last week, I listened to an interview with legal expert Alan Dershowitz, who explained that Attorney General Sally Yates should have outlined the constitutional legalities and illegalities of President Trump’s executive order on January 27th limiting immigration before she resigned.  Yates was not a hero for resigning.  Our national dialogue, and the responsibilities of her job, required her to bring forward her legal arguments into the public domain.  Dershowitz observed that Yates made a mistake and made “a political decision rather than a legal one.”  I would argue she made an emotional decision, rather than a rational one.

Rational thought had its day in court last Friday. US District Judge James Robart in Seattle heard the case and ruled to suspend the executive order.  Then, the administration challenged Robart’s ruling.  Yesterday, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Robart’s decision.  Whether or not one agrees with the outcome, the US legal system functioned exactly as they are expected.  The courts decided this issue according to legal reasoning and logic rather than hysteria.  I believe the rabbis of the Talmud would have preferred judicial arguments as well.

President Trump nominated Neil Gorusch for the Supreme Court.  Emotions aside, I believe he is qualified.  I heard Rep. Nancy Pelosi describe him as “a hostile appointment” by President Trump.  Even if that’s true, he is still qualified.  President Obama nominated Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.  I believe he was also qualified for the position.  Garland never even received a confirmation hearing.  The Republican majority in the Senate acted as immaturely as Yates.  They made an emotional decision and covered their ears rather than argue the merits of Merrick Garland’s nomination.

How long can this amazing country last without dialogue or compromise of any kind?  Is no rational conversation about immigration and safety possible?  One that acknowledges the fears and merits of immigration.  Is no rational conversation possible about Supreme Court nominees?  Is it better to vilify every judge in the entire judicial system until nobody is left?

We as Jews are commanded to heed the words of God and the Torah, not to faithfully observe the positions of a single political party.  Too often today it seems like I am speaking with a Jewish Democrat or a Jewish Republican.  If we are more loyal to policy than to values, then why even attend synagogue?  Why not just worship the political party platform?

The Torah is bigger than politics.  It is bigger than policy.  And it has to remain so for the sake of the future of the Jewish People.  The Torah challenges us to navigate through ideas that make us feel good and make us feel uncomfortable.  That is the Divine wisdom of the Torah.  We continue to read it and study it and debate the Torah every week as a community.

We are required to bring wisdom into the conversation, not accept the indecency of today’s shouting.  We must reject our current broken political system and raise the level of intellectual conversation.  As Deuteronomy teaches, our conduct must inspire others to look at us and say, “…that great nation is a wise and discerning people.”

The Jewish People have always offered the world a model of wisdom.  Our Talmud models heated debate that produces a synthesis of ideas – a well-reasoned compromise.  Now is not the time to descend into extreme partisanship.  That does not benefit the future of the Jewish People.  Now is the time to offer our neighbors the antidote to the stagnation and shouting that has enveloped us.

As we say every time we open the ark to reveal the Torah, “Blessed is God who gave the Torah to Israel in holiness.”  God gave us the Torah and now we, as American Jews, must share it with those around us so that we can reason, can reach compromise and can once again seek solutions to our communal problems – together.

Trump advisor: Jews can’t expect immediate condemnations on anti-Semitism

Donald Trump’s Jewish confidant and advisor says the Jewish community cannot expect the presumptive Republican presidential nominee to immediately condemn and denounce anti-Semitism as it occurs because Jews are not the only community in the United States.

“He condemned David Duke,” Jason Greenblatt said in an interview with the “>New York Times in May.

“He spoke to The New York Times, condemned Duke’s remarks, said very clearly anti-Semitism has no place in society,” Greenblatt asserted in the interview with the Jewish Press, an online publication. “I think his broad condemnation of anti-Semitism is even stronger than had he merely condemned irrelevant Twitter trolls.”

“I know that there’s been a lot of discourse in the Jewish community about how he hasn’t gone far enough to condemn some of his followers who are anti-Semitic. I think that’s very unfair criticism,” he added.

Trump has come under fire for a weekend tweet that was deemed anti-Semitic. A meme tweeted by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s account had a montage of Hillary Clinton with a Star of David inscribed and a pile of money in the background. The tweet was soon deleted and reposted, this time with a circle in the star’s place. Trump, speaking at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio on Wednesday, “>BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that it was “perplexing” that Trump’s campaign appears to be sourcing images from white nationalist sources. “I wish he would bring the same firmness to his rejection of anti-Semites and racists as he brings to members of the media and other candidates,” Greenblatt was quoted as saying. “I don’t understand why he’s courting the white nationalist vote.”

But according to Trump’s advisor, Jason Greenblatt, “People need to look at the whole campaign story and not a particular story, biased or unbiased, in a particular newspaper on a particular day.” Adding, “Having worked here for twenty years as a frum person, I can tell you that Donald has been enormously respectful of my being Shomer Shabbos. He has bent over backward to help me succeed in the company despite my being Shomer Shabbos.”

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Ultra-Orthodox feminism: Not a contradiction in terms

I am an ultra-Orthodox feminist. And no, that’s not a contradiction in terms. Furthermore, my identity and the social processes that my colleagues and I are leading, aren’t merely personal journeys and struggles: We may just hold the key to the future of Israeli society.

The Israeli ultra-Orthodox (Charedi) community is changing. These changes are mostly happening under the radar, away from the shrill headlines. A new generation of Charedi social activists is slowly emerging, inspired not only by the beauty of Jewish tradition, but also by values of individualism and equality. Charedi feminism is part of this trend, which also embraces integrating Charedi men into the Israeli workforce and society.

Charedi feminism is mostly focused on gaining equality of opportunities, opinions and representation. In this sense, it plays out quite differently from religious Zionist feminism, which is rooted in Rav Kook’s approach that, “The old will be renewed and the new will be sanctified” — in other words, recognizing the authenticity of modernity and the need for religion to be integrated into every layer of life. On the other hand, the Charedi world is built on the Chatam Sofer’s famous line that, “Anything new is forbidden by the Torah” and its consequent opposition to anything that smacks of change.

Ironically, this enables, rather than prevents, Charedi feminism. One of the central tenets of Charedi life is separatism. That separatism plays out not just as a physical separation of Charedi communities from the outside world, but also through internal cultural mechanisms of separation between religious values and other values. Torah study, the joy of the Charedi lifestyle, the value of learning without concern for material gain — these and other Charedi values are considered pure and separate from the outside world, with no attempt to integrate them. While that sounds draconian, the advantage of this system is that it leaves vast areas that can be considered simply “secular” or “mundane” — like getting a secular education or going out to work. These areas can be separated from Charedi values, without the baggage of needing to integrate them into one synthesized worldview.

So this mechanism of separation is actually what has opened the window for these groundbreaking recent developments. If you make a total separation between the value of Torah study and its communities of dedicated scholars on the one hand, and the harsh reality of poverty and the economic necessity of earning a living on the other, then it becomes acceptable to encourage Charedi women to go out to work. We just compartmentalize: When we need to, we close off our “holy” compartment, and open up the one marked “secular,” where there’s room for earning a living and even enjoying it. This philosophical understanding has created a new generation of middle-class Charedim whose members use it to take part in Israeli society without feeling that they are compromising their values.

These so called “New Charedim” thus effectively live in two worlds simultaneously. One is value-laden and spiritual, full of beauty and daily wonders but also cloistered and isolationist; the other is pragmatic, anchored in Western values, and collaborates with the rest of Israeli society.

Things aren’t perfect. In the areas where people fear that the secular can blur with the holy, there are still barriers. A Charedi woman can talk about earning a living, but not about a career; a Charedi man can go to college to learn a profession, but to study Torah through the prism of academic scholarship is still utter heresy.

What about the New Charedim’s attitude to Zionism? Charedi society has in recent years developed an Israeli and even a Zionist identity. Charedi Zionism isn’t the same as classical religious Zionism, and doesn’t talk in terms of the holiness of Israel or messianic redemption. Charedim are voting in greater numbers in the elections, and though Charedi members of the Knesset play increasingly active roles in government, they still mostly avoid taking on full ministerial appointments. You see Charedi families having barbecues on Yom HaAtzmaut, but you won’t find Charedi synagogues where they sing Hallel thanking God for the State of Israel. The Zionism that the Charedi community has adopted is, ironically, a secular Zionism of symbols and cultural identity.

And the same goes for Charedi feminism. It’s a secular feminism. It’s focused on secular areas such as representation and equal opportunities. The hot potato issues of mainstream religious feminism, like the equality of women in prayer, aren’t even on the radar screen of Charedi feminism.

I pay a price for my split existence. It’s not easy — sometimes even impossible — when the gaps between the isolationist Charedi worldview and modern society get bigger and bigger. But there are more and more people like me in the Charedi world. You won’t believe what kind of magic has been brewing there recently. You won’t believe how honestly we want to be an inseparable part of this people. There are more and more seeds of hope.

My colleagues and I are paving a critical path for Israeli society. The Charedi communities aren’t going away. If Israel is to survive, then we all need to find a way to enable us to participate in Israeli society.

Racheli Ibenboim is a leading Charedi feminist activist and heads Shaharit’s Charedi programs. She is the founder and director of Movilot, a program that places Charedi women in high-quality jobs through internships.


This is the first in a series of essays by writers connected to Shaharit (shaharit.org.il), an Israeli nonprofit that brings together activists to re-imagine local and national politics. Shaharit’s leaders come from across the religious, political and ethnic spectrum of Israeli society, and work together to create policy and strategy built on open hearts, forward thinking and shared vision. 

9 Jewish LGBTQ activists you should know

New York City’s gay pride parade on Sunday was full of highlights. The NBA and WNBA became the first professional sports leagues to march. A Syrian refugee whose life was threatened by an ISIS operative served as a grand marshal. Even Hillary Clinton made a surprise appearance.

Also, the parade brought out a new gun control group, Gays Against Guns, inspired by the shooting this month at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 dead.

The deadliest such attack in U.S. history has thrust the LGBTQ community into the national spotlight for weeks. The shooting also happened in the middle of LGBT Pride Month, which has been officially recognized by U.S. presidents since Bill Clinton signed a proclamation in 2000.

Why June, you ask? The monthlong celebration is technically a tribute to the Stonewall riots, which galvanized the LGBT-rights movement following the police raid of Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn on June 28, 1969. (Kicking off a tradition, the first pride parade happened the following year.)

From Stonewall to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states — also in June — Jews have been at the forefront of the fight for LGBTQ rights. Here are nine of the most influential Jews who have helped make LGBTQ issues visible and are still working to enact change.

Jazz Jennings

Jazz Jennings posing with the Trevor Project Youth Award during TrevorLIVE LA 2015 at Hollywood Palladium in Los Angeles, Dec. 6, 2015. Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Trevor Project

Jazz Jennings — who was born with a longer, “very Jewish” last name — has accomplished a lot for a 15-year-old: She’s a reality TV star, a published author and a face of Johnson & Johnson’s Clean & Clear campaign. (She was also the youngest grand marshal of New York’s Pride Parade on Sunday.)

It probably helped that she got a head start in the public eye at the age of 7, when she became one of the youngest people to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria — a condition in which a person experiences clinical distress with the gender she or he was assigned at birth (in Jennings’ case, male).

Jennings’ book and popular TLC show “I Am Jazz,” which focus on her life and obstacles as a trans teen, have made her the unofficial face of America’s transgender youth.

Barney Frank

Rep. Barney Frank, who served in Congress from 1981 to 2013, at his office in Washington, D.C. Photo by Michael Chandler 

Before publicly coming out in 1986, Barney Frank admitted he was gay to then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill.

“I’m sorry to hear it,” O’Neill said. “I thought you might become the first Jewish speaker.”

Frank, of course, never became speaker — but his coming out during the height of the AIDS crisis (and becoming one of the first openly gay U.S. congressmen) remains a big piece of his professional legacy. In addition to passing prominent legislation like the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill, he became the first person to marry someone of the same sex while serving in Congress in 2012.

Fran Drescher

Fran Drescher at a charity event in Vienna in 2010. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Fran Drescher is known for happy things, like her signature nasal laugh and comedic roles in shows like “The Nanny.” But her personal life took what appeared to be an unfunny turn when she divorced her husband of 20-plus years, Peter Marc Jacobson, and he came out as gay.

But here’s what happened: Drescher stayed close with Jacobson, and the pair produced a show based on the ordeal, “Happily Divorced.” She was so inspired that she lent her voice in 2010 to the campaign for legalizing same-sex marriage in New York (it became legal in 2011). Then, in 2012, she became an ordained minister just so she could wed same-sex couples.

“Even though I am Jewish, I take no offense at being a minister or called Reverend Drescher,” she told The New York Times. “Love is love. I’m not a divisionist; I am a uniter.”

Tony Kushner

Tony Kushner attending the “Mike Nichols: American Masters” world premiere at The Paley Center for Media in New York City, Jan. 11, 2016. Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

If you surveyed Americans about the most important works of art symbolizing the LGBTQ community’s struggles and triumphs, Tony Kushner’s play “Angels in America” would likely be near the top of the list.

The epic two-part opus, which examines the complexity of gay life and relationships in the 1980s, premiered in 1991 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award for best play and the Drama Desk Award for outstanding play.

It’s still produced around the world and has been made into an HBO miniseries and an opera — in other words, it has been a prominent part of the American cultural lexicon for more than two decades.

But Kushner didn’t stop and rest on his laurels. In addition to writing screenplays for films like “Munich” and “Lincoln,” he has since written defenses of gay idealism and spoken publicly about the AIDS crisis. Although his criticism of Israeli government policies has riled many in the pro-Israel community, he alsoinsists, “If I were to imagine laying down my life for any country, it would be Israel as much as any other.”

Abby Stein

Abby Stein, seen after leaving the Hasidic community. Photo is screenshot from YouTube

“In the community that I was raised in, Trans did not exist, neither was it ever discussed,” Abby (nee Srully) Stein wrote on her blog last year.

Stein’s community was a Hasidic Jewish one — in fact Stein, from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is descended from a long line of influential Hasidic rabbis. That made her decision to leave the haredi Orthodox community last year even more shocking.

Stein’s two transitions — from out of the Hasidic world and from man to woman — made headlines from theNew York Post to the Daily Mail.

“My main goal is to get people to talk about it,” she said. “I don’t care how hateful the reaction might be within the Orthodox community.”

Larry Kramer

Larry Kramer is one of the most important figures in the history of LGBTQ activism. Photo courtesy of HBO

Writer Larry Kramer has been called the “angriest man in America.” Fortunately he has channeled most of that anger toward fighting AIDS and combating anti-LGBTQ forces in American society.

His 1978 novel “Faggots,” about the hedonistic lifestyles of many gay men in New York at the time, earned him enemies both gay and straight. His semi-autobiographical 1985 play “A Normal Heart” — inspired by a visit to the Dachau concentration camp — portrayed an angry gay activist fed up with the more polite strategies adopted by his colleagues.

Kramer was a co-founder of the massively influential Gay Men’s Health Crisis, now one of the biggest AIDS service organizations in the world, but was forced out due to his confrontational demeanor and went on to found the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP.

Kramer will be remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of LGBTQ activism. And his worldview was undoubtedly shaped by his Jewish identity.

“In a way, like a lot of Jewish men of Larry’s generation, the Holocaust is a defining historical moment, and what happened in the early 1980s with AIDS felt, and was in fact, holocaustal to Larry,” Tony Kushner said in 2005.

Rabbi Denise Eger

Rabbi Denise Eger, center, reading Torah during her installation as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, March 16, 2015. Photo by David A.M. Wilensky 

When Rabbi Denise Eger became the president of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis last year, she did not become the first openly gay or lesbian clergy member to lead a rabbinical group. That honor belongs to Rabbi Tova Spitzer, who became president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in 2007.

But Eger’s accomplishment was just as momentous, if not more so, since the Reform movement is by far the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., and the Central Conference of American Rabbis is the largest and oldest rabbinical organization in North America.

Eger’s professional and activist career arc — from coming out to the L.A. Times in an article in 1990 to founding Los Angeles’ pioneering LGBTQ-friendly Kol Ami synagogue in 1992  — closely parallels the arc of LGBTQ rights in America.

And she knows it. “I smile a lot — with a smile of incredulousness,” Eger told The New York Times last year.

Evan Wolfson

Attorney Evan Wolfson is recognized as the architect of the modern marriage equality movement. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In recent years, many celebrities have lent their voices to the push for LGBTQ rights, particularly the fight for same-sex marriage. But the man recognized as the architect of the modern marriage equality movement is a Jewish lawyer named Evan Wolfson.

As a Harvard Law student in 1983, Wolfson wrote a thesis on the legal basis for same-sex marriage, well before the topic had been seriously considered anywhere around the world. His book “Why Marriage Matters: America, Equality and Gay People’s Right To Marry” earned him a spot on the Time 100 list in 2004. The Freedom to Marry nonprofit, which he formed in 2003, would go on to be credited with driving the Supreme Court’s decision last year to protect same-sex marriage in every state.

Wolfson’s successful strategy was to change the way people think about same-sex marriage — to convince them that it was a matter of constitutionally protected freedom.

“Marriage is not defined by who is excluded by it,” he wrote in 2011.

Rabbi Steven Greenberg

Rabbi Steven Greenberg, seen in 2014, was the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi and has propelled the conversation about LGBTQ acceptance in the Orthodox community. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Boston resident Steve Greenberg was the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi, coming out in 1999. This was no easy task, since being a gay member of the Orthodox community was and is still not a fully accepted idea.

When he first told one of his teachers he was gay, he was asked: “Stevie, have you gotten help?”

So it was a momentous occasion — and perhaps partial vindication for his work within his community — when a group of Orthodox rabbis participated last year in a discussion about the treatment of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews.

Greenberg, who holds an ordination from Yeshiva University’s Orthodox rabbinical seminary, helped found Eshel, a national Orthodox LGBT support and education organization. He has not been hired by an Orthodox congregation, but he has propelled the conversation about LGBTQ acceptance in the Orthodox community. His book “Wrestling with God and Men: Homosexuality in the Jewish tradition” won the Koret Foundation’s Jewish Book Award in 2005.

Anti-Semitism charges stir the calm waters of bucolic Oxford

For a city that has made headlines recently for its anti-Semitism problem, Oxford has a pretty laid back Jewish scene.

On a recent Friday night, dozens of recognizably Jewish families and students wearing kippahs were enjoying the afternoon sun as they strolled to one of Oxford’s two synagogues.

They converged at a modern building that houses a Jewish community center, complete with a kosher kitchen and a shul with a tall, sloped ceiling of white plaster that evokes the feeling of standing between the pages of a giant book. The same building has separate halls for Progressive congregants (Conservative and Reform) and Orthodox prayer, where services are held simultaneously.

Across Britain and Western Europe, worshippers more commonly cover their kippahs with a hat on the way to synagogue, where they are inspected or questioned – and sometimes even frisked – at the entrance by police or military. And while the Oxford Jewish Centre has some security, visitors can often walk in no questions asked.

It’s part of living in a city with hardly any violent anti-Semitic incidents, says Jake Berger, a third-year psychology student from Manchester.

“I definitely feel safer walking around with a kippah here compared to Manchester,” Berger said.

Yet despite the rarity of physical attacks on Jews, anti-Semitic rhetoric and hate speech against Israel in Oxford has invited scrutiny and cast an ugly shadow on this bastion of the British left. A picturesque university town of 160,000 residents 60 miles northwest of London, Oxford is internationally famous for its scholastic excellence and for churning out leaders in a variety of fields. The University of Oxford was ranked as the world’s fifth best in the Center for World University Rankings this year.

Students fill the many affordable pubs here until deep into the night. On weekends, lovers and hikers walk or sail along the Oxford Canal, which intersects the city’s center and stretches for 80 miles.

Especially for Jews who are openly supportive of Israel, Oxford is “an Eden with a dark underbelly,” according to Richard Black, a fourth-year history student and former member of the local JSoc, the Oxford University Jewish Society. As a pro-Israel activist, he has been called “baby killer” several times in Oxford.

He says he overheard a classmate explaining that Jews exploit the memory of the Holocaust while committing their very own Holocaust against Palestinians, adding that Jews control American finance and media. After an argument on Israel, Black recalls, a member of the academic faculty told him that the Hebrew Bible was “genocidal” and that Black provided “the best advertisement for anti-Semitism.”

Black also recalls that at one event in 2011, a pro-Palestinian activist told him that “Adolf Hitler was a good man.” She was holding a banner supporting Palestinians and speaking with Black calmly about the factors that led to Israel’s existence, including the Holocaust.

“I was shocked back then, but I have grown accustomed,” Black said.

Like many Jewish students at Oxford, Black cites the increasingly popular pejorative of “Zio” as proof of widespread but covert anti-Semitism. Short for Zionist, “it’s shorthand, used by people who hate Jews as cover for what they’re really saying: ‘Dirty Jew,’” Black said. “The true meaning lies in context: Zio media, Zio lobby – You overhear this sort of thing here.”

Last year, African rights activist Zuleyka Shahin, during a failed campaign for president of the Oxford Union, wrote on Facebook that “Judeo-Christian white men” and “Zio white men” are “complicit in the funding of wars and the social genocide of my people.”

In February, a non-Jewish Oxford student had enough of anti-Semitic chatter. Alex Chalmers, a co-chair of the university’s Labour chapter, resigned his post over the chapter’s passing of a motion endorsing Israel Apartheid Week, explaining that he no longer wanted to be associated with a framework that has “some kind of problem with Jews.”

The word “Zio,” he wrote in an op-ed explaining his move, “was part of the [Labour] club’s lexicon.” The song “Rockets over Tel Aviv” was a favorite among a certain faction of the club. Concerns of Jewish students “were ridiculed,” Chalmers added.

His resignation triggered an internal probe by Oxford’s Labour chapter which found that the Oxford University Labour Club is not institutionally anti-Semitic, but faces “difficulties” that must be addressed, the Jewish Chronicle reported Tuesday.

More significantly, it also started a chain reaction, exposing the left-wing party to intense media scrutiny in Britain that generated one of its worst public relations fiascoes in years. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn – himself branded untrustworthy by Jewish community leaders over his support for the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah – was forced to suspend at least 20 of the party’s members for making hateful remarks or statements on Jews and Israel.

Among those suspended this month were former London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who said Hitler supported Zionism in defending a Labour lawmaker who had been suspended earlier for making a similar statement.

Earlier this month Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, told The Times of London that Jewish students at British universities, including Oxford, face a “wall of anti-Zionism, which they feel and know to be Jew hatred.” He is scheduled to speak later this month at the Oxford Union.

For some Jewish students and faculty, the storm is “just brouhaha,” said Jonathan, a former computer science student who graduated in 2013.  He returns to Oxford regularly for JSoc activities and to attend lectures.

Jonathan, an observant Jew who did not want his last name mentioned, said: “The ones who experience anti-Semitism are the hacks,” meaning people active in student or university politics.

Most Jews in Oxford “enjoy a very good situation of safety and a robust Jewish community with excellent facilities that are actually far better than what one finds in many other British universities,” said Berger, the psychology student from Manchester. Even Black – a supporter of the Conservative Party – said that “for every negative experience” with non-Jews in Oxford, he has had “a hundred positive ones.”

While the recent scandal exposed widespread hate speech at Oxford, it also reinforced growing rejection of anti-Semitism “by the vast majority in Oxford” who understand “how criticism of Israel spills into anti-Semitism,” Black said.

Last month, four of Oxford’s six delegates to Britain’s National Student Union said their university should disaffiliate from the union following the election of Malia Bouatia as its president. Bouatia, a student at the University of Birmingham, is accused of justifying violence against Israelis and opposing a motion to condemn the Islamic State terror group lest it stigmatize Muslims. She also blamed the “Zionist-led media” for oppression in the global south.

Two British universities, Lincoln and Newcastle, this month disaffiliated with the union, citing lack of confidence in its leadership. Oxford is set to hold a disaffiliation referendum in the coming weeks.   

As for Israelis living in Oxford — there are hundreds of them, mostly students and researchers — they say they suffer no discrimination or abuse for their country of origin.

“It’s a very international place, many languages spoken, very tolerant,” said Lior Weizman, 36, a father of four who moved to Oxford last year to work as a post-doctoral fellow at Oxford specializing in medical imaging of the brain.

“I’m not a political person,” he said. “But if there are situations of people being singled out in Oxford because of their country of origin, I haven’t encountered them.”

The fifth child – missing in the contemporary world

Last weekend many Jews attended a Seder, but many others did not. I find it heartbreaking when I think about all the Jews who chose not to participate, and question the reasons for this. What are the implications of so many people not connecting to this paradigmatic story of the journey from enslavement to freedom? In the past decades, Passover has seen a tremendous infusion of creativity and Haggadot have been written for nearly every social or personal identity and political cause. The ancient rabbis who shaped the Haggadah were creative geniuses who captured the timeless story of the Israelite’s journey from slavery to freedom

Although I find the Haggadah one of the most imaginative, insightful and timeless dramas ever created, there is one modern-day phenomena that the rabbis did not anticipate. When they describe the four children–the wise one, the one who is angry, the innocent one, and the one who does not know how to ask–they are operating under the assumption that everyone will be together at the Seder table. These four personality traits cover most of the human behavior characteristics and qualities that we all possess. Thus, all who represent the four children sit at the Seder Table, regardless of whether or not they like participating in Jewish practice, feel alienated, are uncomfortable, are going through tough times, or do not understand the holiday or know how to participate.  They are still there – they are at the table of Jewish life.

The ancient sages did not anticipate modernity and the fact that many Jews would no longer actually be at the Seder Table. They did not imagine the fifth child. I am hearing more and more about people who did not attend a Seder, that Passover observance is on the decline and that the Jewish community is not offering enough welcome and dynamic tables that are open and affordable to all.

This fifth child is a lens into the perhaps the greatest challenge of the contemporary Jewish life. For whatever reason, some people feel alienated, disconnected, or have made other activities a priority and don’t feel the need of being at the Seder Table. In many ways, the Jewish community has failed to convey that without the fifth child present, we are not the same – we are somewhat of an incomplete community; our tables have too many empty seats.

The greatest concern lies within the non-Orthodox community. The majority of American Jews have made a Seder an optional activity, no longer an expectation to gather for this family holiday where we explore the quintessential story of freedom that has shaped the Jewish people. A recent Pew Study showed that 70% of American Jews attended a Seder in 2015. Up through the late 90’s the percentage was around 90 percent. We need much more than programmatic solutions like “audacious hospitality” (a well-intended term developed by the Reform movement) in order to reach the fifth child.  It is a good start but we need to explore solutions that resonate to the fifth child, we need ideas that take us out of our comfort zone and push us to find ways to welcome people back to the table. We need to thoughtfully listen to the reasons they are missing from our tables, in order to fully understand what’s going on.

The fifth child has become the third rail of Jewish life. We are scared to really examine the phenomena and we convince ourselves that things are great because we had a good Seder. Passover remains the Jewish holiday that has the highest participation, and it is on a decline. We will only really begin to stem the tide of assimilation and alienation when we start to listen with the fifth child, when we engage with creative, dynamic and open minds (who often are not part of the Jewish establishment) but who are finding solutions to some of the most vexing issues in the modern world and when we really do an honest self-examination of the state of Jewish life.

 We can only really be free when more Jews are back at the Table. For the fifth child reading this – we need you. For those of us who are one of the four children – we need to dig deeper, look inward and listen better so that we can include the entire family, especially the growing number of fifth children.

On this holiday that is truly an anchor of Judaism, we are reminded of the power and responsibility of freedom. Let us take serious stock of this problem.  The creativity and imagination that freedom allows can fuel us to take action and find better ways to include the fifth child at the Table. When more people sit at the Table of Jewish life on Pesach and throughout the year, when the Tent of Jewish life is more tolerant and respectful of divergent views, we will include many more who will nurture and sustain us. With more thoughtful and comprehensive community involvement, the possibility of the fifth child returning to the Seder Table becomes a reality, which fills me with hope about our Jewish future.


Rabbi Lee Bycel is rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa and an adjunct professor in the Swig program in Jewish Studies and Social Justice at the University of San Francisco.

Joe Biden to address J Street on heels of AIPAC address

Vice President Joe Biden will address J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group announced Monday.

The April 18 event comes a month after Biden, the Obama administration senior figure closest to the pro-Israel community, addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent Israel lobbying group often at odds with J Street.

Biden will speak to the group as media speculation increases over whether President Barack Obama will outline the parameters of a two-state solution before he leaves office in January. J Street since its inception has backed an assertive U.S. role in advancing peace talks, while AIPAC counsels greater U.S. deference to Israel on whether and how to initiate peace talks.

The 2013-14 peace talks spurred by the Obama administration collapsed in mutual recriminations; officials on both sides are wary of what Obama would include in his vision for a permanent peace deal.

Biden last spoke to J Street in 2013, months after he had addressed AIPAC.

It’s time to allow conservative rabbis to officiate at interfaith weddings

The Conservative movement’s leadership must drop its ban on Conservative rabbis officiating at interfaith weddings — before it’s too late.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s unequivocal rule is that a Conservative rabbi may not officiate at an intermarriage. But after 42 years as an active rabbi, during which I abided by that prohibition, I now believe it is no longer in the best interests of Conservative Judaism or the Jewish community.

Reality has overtaken us. Sixty percent of Jews who wed marry someone from another faith. The Conservative movement’s prohibition is ineffective as policy if our goal is to reduce intermarriage. It is counterproductive if we are trying to influence Jewish souls and bring them closer to the Jewish community. It needs to be modified if we are to serve our congregants faithfully.

We all want a strong future for our Jewish community. Intermarriage, the argument goes, weakens that future. But that’s not necessarily so.

In most cases of intermarriage, Jewish partners are not abandoning Judaism or rejecting their heritage, family, congregation or people. They just want to marry the people they love.

Often they want a “Jewish wedding,” which is why they want the officiant to be a rabbi, preferably one with whom they have a relationship. That is why they are so hurt when we refuse.

As they plan their interfaith ceremony, they learn more about the elements of a Jewish wedding. They typically choose to have a chuppah, blessings over wine, seven marriage blessings, a ketubah and the breaking of the glass. They include these elements not to please their parents but for themselves. They often express surprise at how important these rituals turn out to be for them.

We do not know which interfaith couples will raise their children as Jews. We do not know which of their children — whether their parents raise them as Jews or not — will want to claim their Jewish identity. The landmark 2013 Pew Research Center study of U.S. Jewry found that among millennials, 61 percent of those born to intermarried couples consider themselves Jewish.

We need to recognize that even when two Jews marry, there is no guarantee that their children will be dedicated Jews.

Some argue that if Conservative rabbis officiate at intermarriages, it will further lower Jewish standards and encourage intermarriage.

This is nonsense. It is delusional to think that a rabbi’s refusal to officiate will change any couple’s mind about whether to wed. Who would forgo a life with their beloved just because their beloved rabbi can’t be at their wedding ceremony?

The Conservative movement has approached intermarriage with ambivalence. Rabbis must refuse to be part of intermarriage ceremonies (we’re not even supposed to attend such ceremonies, though many of us do), but after the wedding we open our arms to the newly married couple and invite them to become part of our community.

But those we push away on Saturday night are not so ready to come back on Sunday morning. It is not easy to get over the initial sting of rejection and the stigma of the ambivalent way we view their marriage.

For a decade or so before my retirement from the pulpit in 2014, I increasingly felt uncomfortable sending young people for whom I had been their lifelong rabbi and our congregation their lifelong place of worship to a rabbi they did not know to perform the most sacred ceremony of their life just because their beloved was not Jewish. I felt I was abandoning them.

The issue became personal after I retired. My stepdaughter became engaged to someone who is not Jewish. Initially, I thought I would approach one of my Reform colleagues to do the ceremony. But the couple wanted me to marry them, not a stranger. We talked about it. They wanted the ceremony to be as Jewish as possible. The religious symbolism would be exclusively Jewish, and I would be the only clergy officiating.

So I agreed. Looking back, I can’t believe I even gave it a second thought. Since then, I have agreed to do similar ceremonies for people dear to me, out of a sense of friendship, loyalty and love. In each case, I have been impressed by the sincerity of the couples and their desire to make their wedding both a personal and Jewish statement. I have been touched by their gratitude for my presence as a rabbi, blessing their most emotionally intimate moment in life and affirming the promise of their place in the Jewish community.

We can no longer stand on the sidelines, piously refusing to involve ourselves in intermarriage ceremonies. If we extend ourselves with acceptance, if we affirm the legitimacy of the loving choices people make by agreeing to be part of their ceremonies, more couples would be inclined to seek the spiritual fulfillment that comes from Jewish commitment.

At the very least, a superfluous impediment to couples’ involvement in our Conservative Jewish houses of worship would be removed. 

Rabbi Seymour Rosenbloom retired recently after 36 years as spiritual leader of Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, Pa. He is now the president of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network. Courtesy of JTA.

Even Orthodox Jews starting to wrestle with transgender issues

Here’s a riddle: If a transgender Jew shows up at an Orthodox synagogue, on which side of the mechitzah barrier separating the sexes should the person be seated?

That’s an easy one compared to more complex Jewish legal questions raised by people who don’t identify as the gender suggested by their physical anatomy at birth.

Is a woman who transitioned to male required to put on tefillin daily? Can a man who becomes a woman marry under Orthodox law? What about someone whose gender identity doesn’t fit binary categories? Can the circumcision requirement of conversion be waived if the convert is male but has no penis?

With the growing visibility of transgender people, these are no longer theoretical questions.

While American society generally grapples with how and how much to accommodate trans preferences, Jewish religious denominations are doing some unique grappling of their own. 

The more liberal movements have been the most progressive on transgender issues. But even in the Orthodox world, which presents the most barriers to transgender acceptance, both culturally and in Jewish law, some community figures are talking about the need to find a place for trans Jews.

“It’s something that has to be dealt with,” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union, told JTA. “I’ve read a lot about it and offered a range of opinions along with a plea for compassion. These are people who are going through difficulties. How do we reach out to them compassionately as human beings, as fellow Jews, as people we don’t want to lose from the Orthodox community?”

Last November, the Union for Reform Judaism passed a landmark resolution affirming transgender equality. It called on Reform institutions to adopt changes to embrace trans individuals without impediment: referring to them by their chosen identity, providing gender-neutral bathrooms, instituting sensitivity training for staff and community members, and making liturgical language more gender neutral. The trans equality resolution went further than any major religious denomination in America has gone – Jewish or non-Jewish.

In the Conservative movement, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards is nearing a vote about what constitutes sufficient grounds in Jewish law for someone to change their gender: Is it enough to “present” in the new gender identity, or must there be at least hormonal change, or is sex reassignment surgery required?

There are practical implications to this question. Even in egalitarian Conservative Judaism, gender determines how one is prepared for burial, what kind of wedding ceremony one has (same-sex or traditional) and whether one must undergo a circumcision in order to convert.

The new proposed Conservative rule, drafted by Rabbi Leonard Sharzer, argues that gender identity should be broadly defined.

“A person with male anatomy who identifies as female and is presenting to the world as female in terms of dress and action, even if there has been no hormonal therapy or surgery, then in most situations we should apply halachah as it applies to their adopted gender,” Sharzer said, using the Hebrew term for Jewish law.

Meanwhile, the movement is making trans-friendly changes. The Jewish Theological Seminary recently designated two all-gender bathrooms, and the school’s application form has been changed so applicants can define their gender any way they choose rather than checking off boxes labeled male or female. Some rituals, too, have been adapted. For example, individuals may be called to the Torah without the traditional gender-specific language “son of” or “daughter of.” Instead, the person is identified as “of the family of.”

“We’ve tried to help students who do not want to identify according to strict binary categories,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, dean of the JTS rabbinical school. “I won’t claim we’ve got it all down. They have discreet needs that we’re trying our best to understand – and to embrace them, which is what we really want.”

Though most but not all Orthodox authorities who have considered the issue say the hallmarks of transgender identity – cross-dressing, hormonal treatment, sex reassignment surgery – are forbidden, that still leaves two key questions. One, if someone has surgically altered their anatomy, what gender are they according to Jewish law? And two, how should Orthodox communities strive to treat trans Jews?

To be sure, in most Orthodox communities these are still largely theoretical questions, and there is no shortage of Orthodox Jews who don’t want to talk about or see transgender Jews in their shuls. And most Orthodox Jews who do come out as trans tend to leave Orthodoxy.

“Most people who are trans probably won’t feel comfortable remaining in the Orthodox community, which is sad but for the moment I think is a fact of life,” said Rabbi Mark Dratch, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, the nation’s main centrist Orthodox rabbinical association. “On the other hand, for those who want to stay Orthodox, there are the challenges of creating a safe space in a community where there’s lots of misunderstanding, prejudice and concerns about halachic complications.”

Dana Friedman, a 51-year-old trans Orthodox Jew, is familiar with many of those complications. She grew up modern Orthodox, left the community amid transitioning three decades ago and returned to Orthodox observance in 2008, when she felt things had changed enough for her to be accepted.

“It’s been eight years and nobody’s made a public fuss,” said Friedman, an information technology consultant in New York who dabbles in “Orthodox tranny” standup comedy (it’s a very small genre). “Nobody has asked me to leave anyplace. And I have not heard that anybody has a real problem with me being in the women’s section.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Fox, the head at Yeshivat Maharat, a religious seminary for Orthodox women co-founded by the liberal-minded Rabbi Avi Weiss of Riverdale, has researched trans-related questions of Jewish law. Since he started lecturing publicly about the subject three years ago, he says he has been contacted by some 30 trans Jews in the Orthodox community.

“How can we help them have a meaningful Jewish life? I don’t think the answer is to tell them you just don’t belong in my shul,” Fox said. “This means we’re confronting questions we could never have imagined before.”

At first glance, Orthodox Jewish law might seem pretty clear-cut on gender transitions. Cross-dressing is explicitly prohibited in the Bible, and the Torah’s ban on castrating animals generally is understood to apply to humans, too. From the perspective of Jewish law, according to Weinreb, a Jew’s gender is unchangeable and determined solely by anatomy at birth, regardless of surgery or hormonal treatments.

However, there is ample rabbinic discourse about men who have lost their genitalia – once a more common happenstance due to warfare, accidents, disease and the prevalence of eunuchs. The Talmud also debates Jewish law as it relates to those born with both male and female physical characteristics, and those who appear to have neither.

In fact, the authoritative Code of Jewish Law known as the Shulchan Aruch makes clear that a prospective convert whose penis has been amputated may convert without circumcision.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Israeli Orthodox rabbinic figure known as the Tzitz Eliezer who died in 2006, suggested that a person’s gender was determined by their current anatomy. He ruled that a married person whose genitalia were surgically altered to that of the opposite sex would not require a get, or religious writ, to consummate divorce, since same-sex marriage is impossible according to Orthodox Jewish law. Many of the rulings by Waldenberg, who served as an Orthodox rabbinic authority for Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek hospital, were not consensus views, however.

Fox said there are instances when Jewish law may support helping someone make a gender transition – namely, in cases where an individual is so distressed by gender dysphoria as to be suicidal. That’s actually quite common, Fox said, noting that the commandment of pikuach nefesh – saving a human life – should supersede restrictions against castration or cross-dressing.

If someone surgically alters their anatomy even in contravention of Jewish law, the question of what gender they are – and therefore what Jewish rituals they are required to observe – depends on which rabbinic opinion one follows.

In any case, most trans Jews are not asking rabbis for permission to undergo hormonal therapy or surgery, Fox noted. They’re making changes on their own, and are concerned about being welcomed in the community. The question, then, is how rabbis and Orthodox communities react.

“When you’re dealing with life and death issues, the question of whether you count in a minyan is secondary,” Fox said. “We have to make sure these people are safe and are welcomed.”

The quandary of how Orthodox communities should relate to people who have contravened Jewish law is not unique to transgender issues. Generations ago, Orthodox rabbis debated how to treat Jews known to violate the Sabbath or kosher laws, and whether they could be counted toward a minyan. More recently, Orthodox communities have been grappling with how to treat openly gay individuals.

Trans Jews should be treated just as sympathetically, said Rabbi Asher Lopatin, president of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, the “open” Orthodox rabbinical school also started by Weiss. He recalled helping an observant trans congregant at the Chicago synagogue he led for two decades figure out which side of the mechitzah to sit on. The community’s own comfort level figured into the decision, he said.

“These things are not always as binary and clear-cut as people think,” Lopatin told JTA. “LGBTQ issues at least have to get us to start thinking and being creative.”

Croatian Jews to boycott country’s official Holocaust commemorations

The Jewish community in Croatia said it will boycott the country’s official Holocaust commemoration events this year to protest alleged government inaction to curb neo-Nazism.

The Coordinating Committee of the Jewish Communities of Croatia said it would hold its own commemoration “in line with Jewish tradition” instead of participating in the government one, the Voice of America reported Monday.

The committee’s president, Ognjen Kraus, told the radio station that the move followed cases of open anti-Semitism, including chants by demonstrators of pro-Nazi slogans at an anti-government march in January and during a soccer match between the Israeli and Croatian national teams last month.

“The state is simply not doing anything about it and does not want to,” Kraus said Monday.

The Croatian government has not yet responded to the Jewish community’s decision to ignore the official ceremony. But Prime Minister Tihomir Orešković has spoken out against hate speech in the media.

Every April, Croatia honors the victims of the Jasenovac death camp, operated by the pro-Nazi Ustasha regime of World War II. The camp is known as Croatia’s Auschwitz.

In all, some 30,000 of Croatia’s Jews died during the Holocaust — 80 percent of the country’s Jewish population, according to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem.

Point: What work must be done on our college campuses?

Over the past few days, I have done a great deal of soul-searching, and would like to share with you some of my feelings and in a public way reintroduce myself to you. 

I will start by saying my interview with Haaretz was a mistake. Haaretz ran a headline that distorted what I was saying and enraged many readers, and the article missed the context of my comments. Combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement has been and continues to be a priority of mine and of our Federation. We work closely with our partners on college campuses, at City Hall, in Sacramento and across our city and country to do this critical work. We have and will always support a strong and safe Israel.

My interview never intended to criticize the government of the State of Israel. Rather, I was asking that this newly public government initiative consider that our campus leaders know our campuses and our students and their challenges best.

I talk to my colleagues a great deal about “context,” and clearly “context” was missing from my interview. I rarely make our very important work about me, but the results of this interview have done exactly that. This has become about me, and clearly without context the concerns that I tried to express have become lost by many.

I took this job more than 6 1/2 years ago because I am deeply committed to Israel and the Jewish community. I believe that from my first interview, the leadership of our Federation saw that commitment and also saw that I am passionate and that I have a voice. I have loved and supported Israel and been a highly committed Jew my entire life. Permit me to tell you a little about myself so I can put my personal commitment in context.

My father died unexpectedly before my fifth birthday, and my very strong mother moved us to be closer to my grandparents. Until I graduated from high school, we lived as the only Jewish family in a rough housing project outside of Boston. My grandparents were immigrants from Russia and Hungary. They were religious, so I had an Orthodox upbringing. As you can imagine, I was not a popular kid in my neighborhood. I experienced anti-Semitism in a very real way almost every day of my adolescence, and not long after my bar mitzvah, three older kids dug a hole and buried me alive. I laid there screaming for many hours until finally someone heard me and saved my life.

My rabbi thought that I needed to find a new way to feel good about the Judaism that had become so challenging for me to express, and so I received a scholarship from the Boston Federation. I was accepted on a Jewish Agency-sponsored high school trip to Israel. On the trip, I realized that not only did the community take care of me, but the Jewish Agency softened the rules and allowed me to participate even though I was a year younger than the required age.

My first trip to Israel changed my life. For the entire summer, I felt free as a Jew, and for the first time in my life I felt like I was home. One morning, four of the hundreds of kids from around the world were chosen to have breakfast with Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. I had never felt chosen before and was overwhelmed by being selected. As we were leaving our breakfast, I felt an arm pulling me away from the group. It was him. He looked at me and said, “Take care of Israel for me.”

Several years later, I was a college student at Syracuse University. I, like many of my friends, was focusing on everything but Judaism. I tried Hillel but just couldn’t connect. As a film student, I learned about a nearly completed documentary, “The Palestinian,” produced and narrated by actress Vanessa Redgrave. It was 1978 and I felt like I needed to do something, so I started a group called Israel on Campus. With a dozen students, we began an organization that set up student-led picketing of the film on campuses across the country.

There are many who believe this was the first pro-Israel advocacy effort on college campuses.

In 1984, I found a way to combine my media experience and my love for Israel and became the head of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) and JTN Productions. I created hundreds of hours of television and web content seen by millions of Jews and non-Jews around the world. During the summer of the Second Intifada, I lived in Israel, spending weeks with families whose lives were shattered by suicide bombings, and produced a powerful documentary, “No Safe Place.” I also produced the PBS series “The Jewish Americans” and the film “Worse Than War,” which put an exclamation mark on “never again” by documenting genocide in our time.

Six years ago when I began here at Federation, I made combatting BDS both a local and a national priority. I am proud of my leadership role in the creation of the Israel Action Network, a national grass-roots initiative. I’m equally proud of the work my staff is doing locally, especially at UCLA after the incident last spring, engaging and empowering the students on that campus to be leaders.

So now that you know me and my “context” a little better, you understand how this work is deeply personal to me.

I have found it very challenging to be a Jewish leader and have a voice during this increasingly polarizing time. I understand the issues now surrounding my recent Haaretz interview and take full responsibility for the concerns it has raised.

I know that both those who have commended me and those who have challenged me share a deep love for and commitment to Israel and the Jewish people.

For me, the last paragraph was what I truly want us to grapple with. It relates to an ongoing conversation I am having with my 22-year-old daughter, a recent college graduate. She, like me, loves Israel, but she does not feel considered or heard, and worse, she, like thousands of her contemporaries, feels alienated.

We need to take a step back and look at the whole campus picture as we do our anti-BDS work. There have been great successes on college campuses led by highly impactful organizations even as the battles rage on. What will we accomplish if we don’t prioritize our young people and their individual and collective Jewish journeys? Can’t the growing number of organizations doing this work sit together and look at how we can consider those young people as we do this work in a more collaborative, strategic way?

I never intended to criticize any advocacy organization or minimize the challenges posed by the incendiary BDS movement. I believe we can bring our young people closer to us and to Israel if we do a better job of listening to them and considering engaging their Jewish journeys with Israel as a key component, but not the only component. We can bring them closer to us and truly ensure Israel and our Jewish community’s future.

I continue to be committed to this work. Thank you for your understanding and continued support. 

Jay Sanderson is president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

In real-life Anatevka, Ukraine’s Jewish refugees build a community

At the age of 53, Sergey and Elena Yarelchenko fled their native city of Lugansk with three suitcases and moved into a wooden room in a muddy refugee camp outside Kiev.

Like hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine’s war-torn east, life for this Jewish couple in 2014 went from a normal bourgeois existence to a hellish struggle for survival and flight from a city that within days became the arena for vicious urban fighting between government troops and pro-Russian separatists.

But unlike many refugees, the Yarelchenkos’ story is no tearful account of rootlessness.

Thanks to one rabbi’s unique project for Jewish refugees from the east, the Yarelchenkos are part of the nascent community of Anatevka, a small village that sprang into existence six months ago near the capital, where 20 families are now building a future based on Yiddishkeit and self-reliance.

Named after the fictional hometown of Tevye the Dairyman from the famed Broadway musical “Fiddler on the Roof” – and the iconic Sholom Aleichem short stories on which it was based – Anatevka is a tribute not only to that town but to the real Jewish shtetls that dotted Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

Spread on a plot the size of three football fields, Anatevka features a wooden synagogue with two mikvahs. A rickety path made of splintered wooden pallets connects the three-story synagogue building to a dormitory-style residence with 20 apartments and a central kitchen. A ways off is a school newly built from concrete with 25 classrooms.

“Our son in Israel is pressing us to make aliyah, but Anatevka looks like a better option for us,” said Elena Yarelchenko.

Jewish refugees at Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community's new synagogue on Feb. 29, 2016. (Courtesy of the office of Rabbi Moshe Azman)Jewish refugees at Anatevka celebrate the opening of the community’s new synagogue, Feb. 29, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Office of Rabbi Moshe Azman

Her husband, Sergey, is a carpenter making a small salary in Anatevka, which is largely built from wood. As she helps prepare food for all the other residents, Elena gestures at her husband’s small workshop outside the residential complex.

“Sergey’s a workaholic who either sleeps or works,” she said. “Do you think Israel’s holding its breath for a 53-year-old carpenter who doesn’t speak Hebrew?”

Between the school — the only structure in town that is not made of wood — and Anatevka’s muddy access road are the fresh concrete foundations for a clinic and rehabilitation center that workers, some of them local residents like Sergey, are laying under the watchful eye of the man who created Anatevka: Rabbi Moshe Azman of Kiev.

A burly man with a bushy gray beard and a full head of hair, the 50-year-old Azman comes into the residential complex and peels off several layers of thick snowy clothing in the foyer of the building, whose design is reminiscent of a rustic ski lodge.

“It can get pretty hot in here,” he notes with satisfaction at the effectiveness of the central heating system.

Working with money from his own pocket and private donors — they include the Moscow-born kosher food supplier Michael Zelman of London and the Dubinsky family from Kiev — Azman has spent more than $1.5 million on Anatevka, which he designed not only to serve as a refugee center, but as a living, breathing community.

A maverick rabbi who remained influential here even when he broke with the official institutions of the Chabad movement over a contractual dispute, Azman says he is “trying to survive from day to day” because of debts he incurred while realizing his plan for Anatevka, which critics doubted would ever come to pass.

“I’m aware of the risks I’ve taken,” Azman said solemnly, adding that he recently had to borrow money from a friend for gasoline so he could remain mobile throughout this week.

“I’m in debt to my eyeballs, but I’m not afraid because this is God’s mission. Besides, each day that Anatevka is running is another day that my community lives in dignity. Builds a future. You can’t put a price tag on that,” he said.

Carpenter Sergey Yarelchenko at his workshop in the Jewish refugee community of Anatevka near Kiev on March 13, 2016. (Cnaan Liphshiz)Carpenter Sergey Yarelchenko at his workshop in the Jewish refugee community of Anatevka, near Kiev, March 13, 2016. Photo by Cnaan Liphshiz

To keep Anatevka running, Azman has relied on donations also from members of his own community in Kiev, whose children account for the majority of the 150 pupils attending Anatevka’s school.

While residents provide much of the labor force at Anatevka, not all of them can work. Isaak Mohilevsky, an octogenarian from Lugansk who used to be the caretaker of that city’s synagogue, can barely walk. But he, too, is pulling his own weight: On Feb. 29, he received the keys to Anatevka’s new synagogue, which opened that day in a ceremony attended by Israel’s ambassador to Ukraine, Eliav Belotsercovsky.

“When I left, I never thought I’d have another synagogue under my care,” Mohilevsky said.

In its present (and unfinished) form, Anatevka is a confounding mix of novel and antiquated. The central heating system, for example, uses wood as fuel – not out of nostalgia but because it is cheaper than either gasoline or gas in a country that has been under sanctions from mineral-rich Russia ever since the 2013 revolution that ousted Ukraine’s pro-Kremlin regime and triggered the fighting in the east.

The wooden logs that were used to build the walls of Anatevka’s synagogue and residential area are sealed with fireproof chemicals and high-tech insulation from Germany that help keep the place warm in winter.

Still, Anatevka isn’t for everyone. Noisy, dirty, inaccessible and devoid of even basic amenities such as a grocery shop and postal services, it is deemed unsuitable to their housing needs by even some of the refugees involved in the project.

“I’m a city person,” said Svetlana Koznitsova, a refugee from Lugansk who helps Azman run Anatevka but lives in a rented apartment in Kiev with her daughter. “I need to stay in the city and I will for as long as I can earn a salary.”

In one of the first-floor apartments in Anatevka, Meshulam Kolesnik, a web designer who was forced to leave Crimea after its annexation from Ukraine by Russia, is using Anatevka’s fast WiFi connection to improve thewebsite he built to solicit new donations for the project.

“I’m not a carpenter like Sergey, but I build what I can for this place,” said Kolesnik, an observant Jew who lives here with his wife and has an office in the room of their two boys, 5-year-old Yitzhak and his little brother, Leib. Their colorful drawings are plastered all over the wooden interior of their room.

Kolesnik, 35, left his apartment in Simferopol last year because he had refused to trade in his Ukrainian passport for a Russian one. When his children were prevented from attending school, Kolesnik broke down and asked for the Russian nationality, but by then he was deemed ineligible because he wasn’t in the country when a majority of the population voted for annexation in a referendum that was deemed illegal by the international community.

When he moved to the Kiev region, Kolesnik left behind a successful business and a central apartment in sunny Crimea. But he says he is not bitter over the loss.

“We are once again living among equals in our own Jewish community and country,” he said. “And like this, I think we can face whatever lies ahead.”

Non-Jewish activists link arms with Hungarian Jews in ‘symbols war’

Hungarian officials likely anticipated some Jewish opposition to their decision to erect a monument in Budapest to a Holocaust-era lawmaker who promoted anti-Semitic legislation.

What they probably didn’t expect was that the Feb. 24 unveiling of a bust honoring Gyorgy Donath would attract a protest of mostly non-Jewish Hungarians. The protest would lead to the statue’s indefinite removal over vandalism concerns.

Hungary’s Jews have been fighting what one leading rabbi has called “the symbols war” against the government for years over the public veneration of Holocaust-era figures who promoted anti-Semitic laws. But the mostly non-Jewish protest, in which participants carried EU symbols and chanted anti-fascist slogans, was taken as a sign that the effort is winning allies beyond the Jewish community.

Hungarian Jews launched the monument battle in 2014, when a statue seen as minimizing Hungarian complicity during the Holocaust was unveiled in Budapest’s Freedom Square. The monument, which depicted an angel (understood to represent Hungary) attacked by an eagle (understood to represent Germany), was vigorously opposed by the Hungarian Jewish umbrella group Mazsihisz, which briefly suspended its ties with the government after its unveiling.

“It began with Jewish community activities but has spread beyond to a protest front with members of many affiliations,” said Adam Csillag, a filmmaker who has documented the protest since that unveiling.

That protest movement, which comprises a loose coalition of Christians, liberal political activists and Hungarian Jews, scored its first victory last year when Prime Minister Viktor Orban scrapped a plan to erect a statue of Balint Homan, another Holocaust-era politician who prompted anti-Semitic laws. The Faith Church, a Pentecostal body with 70,000 members, provided approximately half the 700 protesters who gathered at a site 30 miles west of Budapest in December to protest the Homan statue, which was canceled following an international outcry.

A statue of Gyorgy Donath in Budapest, Feb. 24, 2016. (Adam Csillag)A statue of Gyorgy Donath in Budapest, Feb. 24, 2016. Photo by Adam Csillag

“Every time an anti-Semitic figure is honored, there is a significant resistance from the civil society, and the members of Faith Church often take part in these protests as anti-Semitism is contradictory to our moral values and faith,” said Daniel Kocsor, a 20-year-old church activist.

The symbols war comes at a time of rising nationalist fervor in Hungary driven by several factors: economic crises, opposition to EU interference in the country’s affairs, growing Russian assertiveness and the recent arrival on Hungary’s borders of hundreds of thousands of Muslim migrants from the Middle East. Wary of losing support to the far-right Jobbik party, Orban’s ruling Fidesz party has cracked down on liberal activist groups and increased efforts to celebrate figures like Donath and Honan, who are considered patriotic by the right.

Both wartime politicians supported legislation in the 1940s that targeted Jews. Homan, who served as culture minister, authored a law to limit the number of Jewish university students. Donath argued for a measure to bar any sexual relationship between a Jew and a non-Jew.

They died at the hands of communists and have been embraced by the far right as nationalist symbols of communist oppression. But critics of the government believe the effort to portray them as freedom fighters is merely a thin veil intended to obscure their virulent anti-Semitism.

Homan is “a marginal figure,” Kocsor said. “So the point of the monument … is to send a message because he’s a racist and an anti-Semite. That’s outrageous.”

Other partners to the anti-government coalition include Kovacs’ group Living Memorial, which started in the wake of the Freedom Square protest and now meets in the square twice a week to display alternative commemorations featuring Holocaust-themed artwork. Also participating is Dialogue for Hungary, a small opposition political party that took part in the Donath protest.

“There’s a nostalgia toward the good old Hungary” of the 1940s, historian Eva Balogh said. “It’s scaring a lot of people and driving them into action.”

In Flint crisis, Jews pitching in with corned beef, Dr. Brown’s — and water

At 86, Jeanne Aaronson is blind and lives alone, but she has seen a lot over the years.

She lived in Flint when it was a manufacturing powerhouse, a center of the automotive business and a symbol of American industrial might and ingenuity. She lived through the city’s decline in the 1970s and ’80s as the auto factories closed and the population decamped for better opportunities elsewhere. And more recently, she witnessed the beginning of its revival, with the opening of new businesses and a slew of brewpubs and coffee shops on Saginaw Street.

Now Aaronson is living through yet another difficult period in Flint history, as the city copes with toxic levels of lead in its drinking water that has made Flint a national example of failed governance. Like all the residents here, Aaronson is surviving on bottled water, which she must even feed to her elderly dog.

“Am I ticked? You bet I’m ticked,” Aaronson told JTA. “I’m ticked at the stupidity of our governor for appointing that emergency manager who decided to save a few bucks by poisoning us. Just stupid. I’m ticked at everyone from the very top to the very bottom. Except our new mayor. Mayor Weaver’s doing a good job. But otherwise, I have no faith. None at all.”

Flint has been facing a public health emergency since April 2014, when the city, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, began to use the Flint River as its water source. The city used to get its water from Detroit’s water system, which relied on Lake Huron and the Detroit River as water sources. After the switch, the state chose not to use phosphates as an anti-corrosion agent, which caused lead to leach from old pipes into the drinking water.

The crisis was featured prominently in the Democratic presidential debate on Sunday, with both candidates addressing the water situation in the opening minutes. Clinton described meeting mothers terrified for their children. Sanders spoke of his broken heart at hearing of a child now developmentally delayed as a result of lead poisoning.

“Whether this happened because of sins of omission or sins of commission doesn’t matter,” said Steve Low, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, which has been helping deliver bottled water to local residents. “It doesn’t make the poisoning of Flint’s water supply any less heinous.”

Volunteers offloading water donated by the Flint Jewish community to a local church. (Courtesy of Flint Jewish Federation)Volunteers offloading water donated by the Flint Jewish community to a local church. Photo courtesy of Flint Jewish Federation

Aaronson’s is one of only 66 identified Jewish households left in Flint, a city of 100,000 people 60 miles northwest of Detroit. About 200 more Jewish families live in the Flint area but outside the city limits, where the water hasn’t been affected.

Like Aaronson, many Jews in Flint are elderly, and they’ve been particularly battered by the crisis. For some with arthritic hands, merely opening the bottled water that is now an essential commodity here can be a challenge. Others have had difficulty getting assistance because they don’t have Internet access or are hesitant about opening their door to strangers in a high-crime city.

“For me, this is one giant pain. And yes, I am plenty angry. But I can take care of myself,” said Sue Ellen Hange, 61, a member of Flint’s Temple Beth El who got skin rashes from showering in the contaminated water. “I can’t imagine what it’d be like to be homebound and dealing with this.”

The Flint Jewish community has responded with support both moral and material. To ease the fears of the city’s older Jews, familiar faces from the federation’s senior services division often accompany the water delivery. Two of Flint’s synagogues have held informational meetings and offered special prayers for healing. Synagogue social action committees have also reached out to local residents to remind them they’re not alone.

Support has also come from further afield. The Metro Detroit Federation made a cash contribution of an undisclosed sum to the community. Several Detroit-area congregations joined forces and made the trek 60 miles north with a truck full of water. The Yad Ezra Food Pantry, a group of Detroit-area Chabad houses and the Jewish Federation in Toledo, Ohio, also made water donations.

Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis. (Courtesy of Flint Jewish Federation)Steve Low, center, the director of the Flint Jewish Federation, takes a delivery of food from a kosher deli in Indianapolis. Photo courtesy of Flint Jewish Federation

From Indianapolis, Shapiro’s Deli sent a complete Shabbat meal for 150 in January, including corned beef, pastrami, knishes, chicken soup with matzah balls and even Dr. Brown’s soda. The Jewish relief effort even reached as far as California, where San Francisco chocolatier and Flint native Chuck Siegel sent over an array of sweets and beloved Flint nostalgia foods like Vernors ginger ale and Koegel’s hot dogs. In Los Angeles, Flint native and Hollywood publicist Howard Bragman helped stage the Hollywood Helps Flint fundraiser on Feb. 21, which has so far raised $33,000 for the city.

“We may have left Flint,” Bragman said at the fundraiser, “but Flint never left us.”

The crisis comes at a particularly unfortunate moment for Flint. After decades of mounting poverty and crime, the city had recently begun to rebound. Businesses as varied as a small maker of hip eyeglass frames to corporate giants had set up shop in the city. Renovated dowager buildings downtown are now trendy loft apartments. The Michigan State University Medical School opened a new campus downtown, and Kettering University and the University of Michigan-Flint both dramatically expanded their footprints in the city.

“If it’s possible to see the good in this,” Low said, “it’s that the water crisis threw a big net over the community and has drawn us together. Going back to the 1950s, Flint’s Jews and the African-American community have always worked together. Lately, not so much. But the water has rekindled some of those passions we both share for social justice.”

The crisis has also drawn the Jewish and Hispanic communities together. At a recent meeting at Flint’s Temple Beth El, congregant Melba Lewis pointed out that many local Hispanics are undocumented and are loath to open their doors to uniformed officers to distribute water. The synagogue wound up partnering with a large Hispanic church to distribute a pallet of water to the church for distribution.

But whatever silver linings Flint residents might find in the crisis, their faith in elected officials seems unlikely to be restored anytime soon. Low saw signs of racism in the crisis, likening the decisions that created the crisis in this majority-African American city to other government moves — like the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling invalidating a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the nationwide trend to implement voter identification laws — that have disproportionately impact on minorities. Aaronson simply feels abandoned.

“I was listening to the Republican debate last night, 70 miles from here in Detroit, and there’s one question about the water,” she said last week. “One question! That’s so wrong. It should have been on the top of the list.”

David Stanley is a writer based in Flint, Mich. He served as a member of the Flint Jewish Federation board of trustees from 1990 to 1992.

Callers and donors come through on Super Sunday

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles raised more than $1.3 million in pledges Feb. 21 at its annual phonathon, Super Sunday, surpassing last year’s total by about $100,000, according to Federation spokesman Mitch Hamerman.

But despite receiving 2,650 distinct commitments over the course of a single day, Andrew Cushnir, Federation executive vice president and chief development officer, said the event was about more than the money. 

“Super Sunday is a day when we rally hundreds of members of the community to reach out to thousands of members of the community to support the Jewish Federation’s work in Los Angeles, Israel and around the world,” he said. “The goal is to reach as many people as we can and raise as much money as we can, but we don’t think in terms of a specific dollar goal. We think in terms of reaching as many people we can with stories about the good work of the Federation.”

Cushnir spoke to the Journal from the organization’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters, one of two sites transformed into call centers where volunteers phoned longtime Federation supporters as well as first-time donors and requested support. The other location was Federation’s Valley Alliance office in Woodland Hills. 

Super Sunday has been taking place for more than 30 years, according to Cushnir, raising money for the umbrella organization for Jewish life in Los Angeles. Federation provides grants to dozens of Jewish organizations across the city, operates programs that send locals to Israel, assists low-income Holocaust survivors and more. Its three areas of focus are caring for Jews in need, engaging the community and ensuring the Jewish future. 

Approximately 500 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds turned out to the organization’s two makeshift call centers, according to Federation leadership. One such caller was Stan Weinberg, 73, a certified public accountant from Westchester. He said he has been volunteering at Super Sunday for the past 15 years, and so he took first-time volunteer Diane Ring, who was seated next to him, under his wing. He said he enjoyed “reaching out to the local Jewish community” on behalf of the local Federation.

As with previous years, a number of elected officials turned out to show support for Federation’s work. This year, they included L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. City Councilmen David Ryu and Paul Koretz, state Rep. Richard Bloom and state Sen. Ben Allen.

“The reality is the work of the Federation could not happen without a lot of people contributing and giving of themselves and their money,” Galperin said. “We know the money will be well used by the Federation, as it has for generations.”

Federation allowed volunteers to use their own cellphones but lent some to those who did not want to use their personal cellphones to make calls. Hamerman, Federation senior vice president of campaign management and communications, interrupted phone calls about every hour to announce the updated fundraising totals. He also announced raffle-ticket winners of an assortment of prizes. 

Mark Meyer, a 43-year-old urban planner who volunteered for the second consecutive year on Super Sunday, praised Federation’s work — and the fundraiser.

“It’s a great organization. I did it last year and it was so much fun,” he said. “The Federation does a lot of important work. It’s a great day and I am honored to be here.”

Over the sound of volunteers ringing bells to alert their peers about successfully receiving a pledge, Federation Board Chairwoman Julie Platt said the energy of the event appealed to her.

“I just love standing here and listening to the buzz in the room. Everybody is on the phone,” she said. “People understand what we do better than they ever have before and you can see they are trying to share that on the phones.”

Jewish community professionals turned out to help, as well, including JQ International Executive Director Asher Gellis and Theatre Dybbuk Artistic Director Aaron Henne, both of whom lead organizations that are beneficiaries of Federation funds.

Super Sunday was also, for some, a family affair. Attendees included Sheilah Miller — who traveled to Israel when she was 17 with the help of an organization partially funded by The Jewish Federations of North America — her 9-year-old granddaughter Abigail Fischler, and Miller’s daughter Rachel Fischler, Abigail’s mother.

“This makes me feel good,” Miller said. “I’m doing something constructive.” 

For Jewish campaign staffers, a welcome respite at Iowa Shabbat dinner

Some 50 presidential campaign staffers and volunteers, journalists and local movers and shakers from this capital city’s Jewish community munched on house salads inside a stately ballroom at the downtown World Food Prize building last Friday night as Aliza Kline welcomed them to Shabbat dinner.

Around the room, local prosecutors sat next to Planned Parenthood activists in Iowa to support Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Organizers for Clinton’s main challenger, Bernie Sanders, mingled with board members of the local federation.

It was an indubitably Democratic gathering, although at least one Republican – a 19-year-old Vassar College sophomore named Pieter Block who has been volunteering for the Jeb Bush campaign over winter break – braved attendance.

And yet there was a common denominator in the ballroom that Kline, the executive director of OneTable, a New York-based organization that helps Jews in their 20s and 30s organize Friday night meals, picked up on.

“I’m in a room with people who give a shit,” Kline exclaimed, “and that makes me happy.”

Founded in 2014 with support from a trio of Jewish nonprofits – the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, the Paul E. Singer Foundation, and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation – OneTable has facilitated 880 Shabbat dinners. Most have been in New York, but also in Chicago, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and Boulder, Colorado.

On the same day OneTable landed in Des Moines, dinners took place at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and in Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival.

The initiative exhorts busy professionals to organize dinners not only to foster Jewish community but, more simply, for a much-needed change of pace – a manifesto that has particular resonance in Des Moines this time of year. With 10 days left before Iowans officially launch the presidential nomination process, statewide politicking, already clamorous in the lead-up to the Feb. 1 caucuses, only stands to intensify as campaigning draws to a close.

In a cheeky nod to campaign fatigue, OneTable organizers left gold-and-black sleep masks, inscribed “Sssshhhhabbat,” at each place setting.

Lisa Gerlach, 21, a scheduling and advance assistant for the Sanders campaign, acknowledged that her job is not conducive to drawn-out meals, let alone ones with three courses. So the dinner, she said afterward, was “definitely a good part of my week.”

After Kline finished her address and guests finished their appetizers, they tucked into plates of maple-glazed salmon and sautéed asparagus followed by an assortment of desserts – rugelach, halvah and cookies – supplied by the city’s lone kosher restaurant, Maccabee’s.

Next to the eye masks were cue cards with nonpolitical conversation starters (“French fries or tater tots?”), though discussions inevitably shifted to news of the day: Clinton’s planned address at the Jewish federation here, the merits of a national clean energy strategy, and so on.

The dinner was a success, Gerlach said, because during an election, “you never really get to interact with people on the other side of the aisle in a very human way.” And moreover, it is rare that people from across the political spectrum have the opportunity to sit down for dinner in a non-hostile environment.

On Friday, the discourse was notably civil, which is characteristic of Iowa in general, said Will Rogers, 46, the chairman of the Republican Party of Polk County and vice president of Tifereth Israel, the Conservative synagogue here.

“We don’t attack one another and we don’t beat each other up,” Rogers said. “It’s kind of like a big family rooting for different teams during the Super Bowl.”

Building off momentum from Friday’s dinner, OneTable’s hope is that similar affairs will pop up around the country over the course of election season. A dinner has been scheduled for Feb. 5 in Manchester, New Hampshire, four days before the primary there.

“I’d love to see lots of primary Shabbats,” said Kline, 44. “It’s one more opportunity for people to get involved and to get together on a Friday night. So that feels very win-win for us.”

With Sanders polling well beyond expectations in Iowa and New Hampshire, and reports that billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City, is mulling a late bid as an independent, the field of candidates could take on an unusually Jewish patina in the months ahead.

Would OneTable try to involve the campaigns in future dinners? Probably not, said one of the organizers, Seth Cohen, a senior director at the Schusterman Family Foundation. Better to stay above the fray.

“These dinners,” Cohen added, “are about the people in the politics, not the politics themselves – or the politicians.”

 

Conservative Judaism — many options, unlimited possibilities

When I was a law student, I took a course by a renowned professor who warned that if a prosecutor ever told us that our client only had two choices, we should walk away from the bargaining table. His point: There are always more options.

In a recent JTA Op-Ed, law professor Roberta Rosenthal Kwall said this is precisely the situation facing Conservative Judaism. Her piece, headlined “Conservative Judaism has just 2 viable options,” argues that the movement can either merge with the Reform movement or shrink dramatically to a limited core group “whose daily lives revolve around Jewish law in a way closer to modern Orthodox Jews.”

Are those really the only two options open to more than a million Conservative Jews in North America? If so, we should just walk away.

Fortunately, there are other options likely to bring new vitality to the Conservative movement.

Kwall joins the voices of others who assert that the 2013 Pew Report and other data show a sharp decline in Conservative affiliation. From there, she projects a dismal future for the movement. Similar statements were made about the fate of Orthodoxy 50 years ago — look how those predictions turned out.

Jewish history is rarely linear. In fact, the actual numbers in the Pew Report undercut the narrative of irreversible decline for the Conservative movement.

In a JTA Op-Ed titled “On Conservative Judaism, why all the talk about failure?” published last fall, three eminent scholars of Jewish history and demography note that the Pew data shows “the Conservative proportion of the non-Orthodox Jewish population is holding steady.” Importantly, the proportion of non-Orthodox Jews who identify as Conservative remains constant across the critical age groups of Jews 45-59 and 30-44 (20 percent for each group), showing no proportional decline in the younger adult generation.

When we turn from market share to impact, there is no reason to wring our hands. The movement’s Ramah camps are indisputably the most successful religious and educational camping program in North America. Most of the independent minyanim, innovative Jewish start-ups, and other cutting-edge organizations in the Jewish community are founded or led by products of the Conservative movement.

The movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary continues to produce leaders who are in high demand. And hundreds of thousands of Jews join Conservative synagogues and find experiences of meaning and community that are joyful, profound and inspiring.

No one denies that we face a host of challenges, including low birth rates, high intermarriage rates and a decline in affiliated synagogues. Our unique vision has not been clearly and consistently articulated for the new situation confronting North American Jewry today. And we face the age-old problem of the disparity between the movement’s commitment to Jewish law and the actual observance patterns of most of its members.

But the answer to these challenges is not to merge the movement out of existence or to turn it into an elite cadre of modern Orthodoxy, albeit with an egalitarian twist. The first option ignores the important differences in ideology, practice and outcomes between Conservative and Reform Judaism, while the second would denude the movement of its unique characteristics of innovation and inclusiveness, rendering it unrecognizable and undermining its raison d’etre.

The future of the Conservative movement does not lie in abandoning its distinctiveness or its innovative spirit or shrinking it to a core without a mission to the larger community.

As a movement, we need to clearly, succinctly and consistently articulate our vision of Judaism — a Judaism, to quote the JTS mission statement — “that is learned and passionate, pluralist and authentic, traditional and egalitarian; one that is thoroughly grounded in Jewish texts, history and practices, and fully engaged with societies and cultures of the present.”

This is not merely a branding or marketing exercise. It reflects a claim to both authenticity and inspiration that are essential to attracting new adherents.

We must also train a new type of communal leader — whether rabbi, cantor or educator — who understands and is equipped not merely to head a community, but to create one. We need entrepreneurial professionals who go beyond the four walls of synagogues or other institutional forms and seek out Jews who are unaffiliated and feel disenfranchised. These are the individuals to whom our sacred wisdom can bring meaning and fellowship.

Other strategies must be deployed as well, but the Conservative movement’s future requires neither disappearance through merger nor dramatic shrinkage to an elite few. It requires dynamic and entrepreneurial leadership, a clear and compelling message, the courage to fully exploit the innovative spirit of our tradition and the commitment to create radically welcoming communities.

Marc Gary is the executive vice chancellor and chief operating officer of the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Star Wars and Jewish Cosmic Wars

I made a bet with myself that I could resist using the Star Wars craze as an analogy to write something about the state of the Jewish world. The moment I lost that bet was when I discovered, in Terror in the Name of God, Mark Juergensmeyer’s landmark book about religious extremism, the concept of “cosmic war.”  Then I realized that, just as Darth Vader and Han Solo are involved in a cosmic struggle, so too are we. Sadly.

Juergensmeyer and others use the term “cosmic war” to characterize conflicts in which one or both sides are extremely polarized, perceiving their fight to have larger-than-life proportions.

In a cosmic war, a disagreement over a specific issue—say, a government policy, or a territory—becomes much larger and much simpler. It’s a supremely significant struggle between pure good and pure evil, a fight to carry out the divine plan or enact the group’s ultimate destiny. Losing such a war is unthinkable, compromise with the “primary enemy” is impossible, and even those in the in-group who  consider compromise, or question the cosmic nature of the struggle, come to be seen as the enemy themselves (“the secondary enemy”). In a fight between martyrs and demons, moderates can’t be tolerated, and the primary and secondary enemy become so conflated that they are interchangeable.

Cosmic warriors feel ennobled, exalted. They aren’t just thugs or bullies; they are saving the world. Simultaneously, they invariably see themselves  as victims. Any violent act they commit is always self-defense, and in any case the urgency of the fight supersedes all laws and scruples. The dramatic denouement is always near, and the actions of a cosmic warrior can tip the balance to ultimate victory. That’s how jihadis of all religions go about murdering noncombatants without the slightest pang of conscience.  

These characteristics are demonstrated clearly by Islamic radicals, who fight for world domination and completely blur the distinction between primary and secondary enemies. The FIS in Algeria mainly killed moderate Muslims and neutral villagers for not joining their jihad. All Islamic terrorists see themselves as victims and “martyrs,” and compromise isn’t possible or desirable. Believing their cosmic war to be simple and binary, Islamic radicals are untroubled by inconvenient facts; radical Muslim clerics can claim — against all evidence — that there was never a Jewish Temple on the Temple Mount.

The mentality of cosmic war, while most prominently expressed in Islamic fundamentalism, is not the exclusive patrimony of Islam. All our communities, to different degrees, are infected by the same virus. In the Jewish world, the notion that we are at cosmic war is gaining ground, and creating a culture of unprecedented polarization and violence.  

When Yigal Amir killed Yitzhak Rabin, he was conflating the primary enemy with the secondary enemy who negotiates with him. Not all manifestations of cosmic war are immediately violent like Amir’s act of murder, but they do contribute to creating the ferment of violence. The latest of many examples in Israel include the vicious and verbally violent attacks on Israeli President Rubi Rivlin for daring to attend a conference of “left wingers,” and a video of wedding revelers singing as they stab the photo of a Palestinian infant. These unthinkable expressions of violent intention toward a president with whom they disagree, or a child far too young to deserve anyone’s enmity, can only be explained by the paradigm of cosmic war. A similar pattern emerged in the American Jewish community during the debate around the Iran deal. Both sides saw their opponents not as holding valid but dissenting opinions, but rather as cosmic foes.

We see the same ideology gaining ground in the larger American political scene. Policy debates and discussion of ideas are conspicuously absent from a political discourse that focuses increasingly on demonization. As with the Temple Mount, facts become irrelevant; the more outlandish the claim, the more political rewards one reaps. When reading the “fact check” after a recent presidential debate, I was bewildered; only one claim was qualified as “true but misleading”— all the others stood in diverse degrees of falsehood. It doesn’t seem to matter.

Cosmic wars, religious or secular, never end well. Their fighters hope their martyrdom will bring final victory, but while they may find death, they do not achieve their utopias. They come to the end as pathetic extremists, dying for no cause except hatred and paranoia, and creating vast suffering around them.

The weakening of the moderate center is changing the face of the Jewish community, which seems now to be dominated by extreme positions on the left and right. Without a conscious effort, the wave of radicalization sweeping the world will drag us, too, into the abyss of self-destruction. Now, more than ever, we need to be advocates of rationality and moderation. True, traditional Judaism embraces the vision of a future utopia where there’s no war and suffering: It’s called “the messianic era”. We pray for that several times a day and we never cease yearning for that time. But our sages, conscious of the dangers, never perceived this aspiration as a call to jihad or cosmic war. Rather, they saw it as a beacon that would guide human self-improvement until the final goal is attained at the “end of days.” Furthermore, the Jewish promise of a messianic future enables more pluralism in this world; disagreements don’t require an absolute winner now, because —as the Talmud says—the messiah will elucidate who’s right.

We must reject the notion of cosmic wars. Our disagreements are differences of opinion that can be bridged, not monumental fights to the death. We must reclaim our heritage of “elu v’elu,” the principle that two divergent opinions can be true and Godly. We need to reframe our conflicts as specific rather than cosmic, and rescue the notion of pragmatic compromise that was so dear to the Talmudic masters. This fight for moderation is a worthy and noble one, and it is one that we can win with the force of our reason and our passion.

May that Force be with you—and may we all remember that any Force worthy of the real world is a lot more complicated than one that has only two sides of Light and Dark.

Andres Spokoiny is the Executive Director of Jewish Funders Network