July 18, 2019

Rabbi Eric Weiss: Healing the Sick

Rabbi Eric Weiss; Photo courtesy of Rabbi Eric Weiss

Since 1991, the nonprofit Bay Area Jewish Healing Center has been providing spiritual care to a diverse Jewish community. Rabbi Eric Weiss, who in a former professional life was a paralegal, is the center’s president and CEO. 

The center supports people struggling with some of life’s most difficult challenges, including illness, grief and death, by providing bereavement support groups, mental illness outreach, officiating at Jewish funerals and memorial services, inmate support, and providing Shabbat services and High Holy Days programs at senior residential facilities. The Journal spoke with Weiss about how the center in San Francisco fills a vital need in the community.

Jewish Journal: What drew you to the center?

Eric Weiss: I am endlessly fascinated by people’s spiritual experience of the world and what they do with it. I really believe that there are certain universal human experiences. Everyone comes to their last breath. Everyone gets sick. And everyone comes to fold grief into their lives. I think these naturally stimulate spiritual reflection and they yearn for a communal response. For me, being able to be with people in their human experience and to be part of their spiritual focus creates intrinsic nourishment. 

JJ: Who seeks out your services?

EW: We serve people who are sick in some form — living with mental, chronic or terminal illness. We work with folks in grief. Or someone who may be nearing the end of life, even though they’re not terminally ill. It’s important that we pay attention to people at the end of life, even if there’s no disease process. We typically think of dying as only being terminally ill, but when someone is 95 and otherwise healthy, they don’t know if they’re going to wake up the next day. People start thinking about some bigger issues, such as what might be beyond this life, their legacy, their place in this world and their relationships. We provide that support and spiritual care that’s needed at that time. We visit people wherever we’re needed, whether it’s a jail, a psychiatric facility, a hospital or someone’s home. 

JJ: Are the center’s services free?

EW: Our business model is a philanthropic model and there is no fee for service. People donate what they want and we also write grants and receive other donations. We do charge a fee for consulting, our formal programs or workshops, but nobody is turned away for lack of funds. 

JJ: Do you think there’s an inherent connection between Judaism and helping others?

EW: I think what’s unique is how Judaism talks about caring. Jewish life shows a way in which you have a relationship with something transcendent — beyond who you are as an individual, whether it’s religious or secular, God or not. If you’re mitzvah-oriented, caring for the sick is the most basic form of a mitzvah. There are time-bound mitzvahs, like lighting Hanukkah candles or Shabbat candles, but there are others that aren’t time-bound. There is no end to them. Ever. The wisdom of a rabbi saying that visiting the sick is not time-bound can feel overwhelming, but I think that the real wisdom is that it’s actually a way to be empathetic. It’s a way to stretch the empathy of a well person to understand the desire to be better. 

JJ: You deal with issues surrounding life and death. Is the gravity of that always with you? 

EW: It is. It sticks with me and it should. It’s part of the grandness of humanity. We grow in response to the ways we’re touched by others. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s extraordinarily rewarding. I think of it as an honor to be let in — and I’m willing and wanting to be touched by those experiences. That’s why we’re all in this world together. I’ve grown immeasurably by the relationship of caring. 

JJ: What is your Jewish background? 

EW: I grew up in Los Angeles in a large mainstream Jewish family with lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. My parents were elementary school teachers and my father taught religious school. Synagogue life was a given. Being part of an extended Jewish family was a wonderful thing. 

JJ: When did you develop an interest in learning more about Judaism?

EW: When I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I was a biology and Judaic studies major. I was fascinated by science. But I was also interested in what was spiritual, what was beyond a proton or an electron and what went beyond any one person. I have always felt attached to the spiritual narrative of life. 

JJ: How did you wind up becoming a paralegal? 

EW: I applied to and was accepted at seminary, but I was right out of college and didn’t feel I had enough life experience. I moved to San Francisco and took a job as a paralegal and I loved it. At around the same time, I also became part of the first cadre of LGBT hospice volunteers in San Francisco. When I did that, I started to gravitate to a more spiritual drive. I decided to reapply to seminary, this time as openly gay, and I got in again.

JJ: Do you think Judaism is accepting of all types of diversity?

EW: If we believe and assert that everyone is created in God’s image, then it’s easy to say that our diversity is a testament to God’s unfathomable creativity. We are diverse in our levels of observance, sexual orientation, gender, identity, race and class. We are better served by diversity if we live by divine intent. And the Jewish world is served by its diversity of rabbis and cantors and educators. We Jews are all over the place and we are every type of human being.

Allison Futterman is a writer living in North Carolina.

CCAR Files Brief in Support of LGBTQ Rights

The Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform Rabbinic leadership organization, along with other religious organizations and clergy of different religions, participated in the filing of a brief amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) in the United States Supreme Court on July 3 to support LGBTQ rights in three pending cases.
“The three cases all deal with whether Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects individuals from employment discrimination based on their status as gay, lesbian or transgender,” CCAR said in a statement to the Journal. “The brief argues that unequal treatment of LGBTQ individuals constitutes sex discrimination under Title VII, as severe lower courts have held.”
The amicus curiae will provide the justices with new information they might not have otherwise had. This specific case explains that many religious individuals consider equal treatment of the LGBTQ community as a religious imperative. In contrast, other faith communities believe their religions require them to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The brief that the CCAR joined argues that by allowing such discrimination, certain religions are being prioritized at the expense of others.
The three cases are Altitude Express, Inc. v. Zarda, R.G. & G.R. Harris Funeral Homes, Inc. v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and Bostock v. Clayton County. Decisions are expected to be made in the Supreme Court’s 2019 – 2020 term.

After 25 Years, Rabbi Lisa Edwards Bids Farewell to Beth Chayim Chadashim

After a storied, inspiring quarter of a century helming Beth Chayim Chadashim (BCC), the world’s first LGBTQ synagogue, which opened its doors in 1972, Senior Rabbi Lisa Edwards officially will retire on June 30.

In a phone interview with the Journal, Edwards recalled the tiny lightbulb moment when the idea of becoming a rabbi first came to her. It was when her parents, together with a few other local families, helped found a small Reform synagogue — Congregation Solel in Highland Park, Ill., which still exists.

“During that time, I found out women weren’t allowed to be rabbis,” Edwards said. “That was my first rebellious response — to do what wasn’t allowed.”

Slowly, things changed. By the late 1970s, when women were getting more involved in clergy in North America, “I didn’t have to prove anything,” she said, chuckling. And so the light bulb dimmed for a while.

Edwards went to the University of Iowa to pursue a doctorate in English literature. While there, she worked as a teaching assistant, informally studied Jewish scripture with a small group of Jewish women, and wrote a dissertation on American-Jewish fiction and its incorporation of traditional Jewish texts. 

“Iowa City was the first place I’d lived where Jews were really a minority,” Edwards said. “I had a sense there that I’d never had before. I didn’t really have to be Jewish there, but I was teaching students who’d never met a Jew. I felt a responsibility to not only teach Jewish writers to these non-Jewish students, but also to know something about it myself.” 

Then, while Edwards was in a dark multiplex, the light bulb came on again. She went to see “Yentl,” the 1983 Barbra Streisand film in which her character poses as a man so she can study Jewish scripture at a yeshiva.

“It really was a turning point for me,” Edwards said. “This woman craved Jewish learning and went to such extremes to do it. I also connected to it as a lesbian, watching her masquerade as a man to do that. It was a very powerful visual story for me. I think it helped spark something.”

“What I’ll miss most is the opportunity to spend time with my congregants during both the special and regular moments of their lives. I take to heart the idea of living in this community.”
— Rabbi Lisa Edwards

So Edwards and then-girlfriend Tracy Moore packed their bags and headed to Los Angeles, home of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the Reform movement’s seminary. It was the only rabbinical school Edwards could get into as a lesbian rabbinical student. When she was ordained in 1994, a position happened to open up at BCC, located in mid-city. (Today, BCC is located on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles.)

Edwards, who lives with Moore in Koreatown, has quickly found a home in the inclusive, Reform community that caters to Jews of various backgrounds. She came to the congregation at the height of the AIDS crisis — a formidable challenge for a newly appointed rabbi. With each new diagnosis in the congregation, the entire community felt the looming terror of another death sentence, she said. Many congregants passed away during her first few years and the social climate, even in progressive Los Angeles, wasn’t altogether welcoming to the gay and lesbian community. 

“In so many ways, the congregation was isolated from the community at large,” Edwards recalled. “They really became family to each other and really took care of each other. I think the community still feels like that. That doesn’t happen in every congregation. It was frightening, and the whole community was in grief with people burying their peers at a young age. It was horrible and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. But we came out of it with a very strong bond.”

That gave way to the marriage equality fight of the 2000s, for which Edwards was a face for Los Angeles, both on and off the pulpit. 

Now, Edwards is in the midst of a farewell tour of sorts. In March, Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove (CD 54) named Edwards a “Woman of the Year” during a formal ceremony on the Assembly floor in Sacramento. On June 12, the City of West Hollywood presented Edwards with a Rainbow Key Award for her decades of work “to make the Jewish community a more welcoming place for gays, lesbians and transgender Jews.” BCC even hosted a screening of “Yentl” in Edwards’ honor last weekend at the Laemmle Music Hall. 

“We’re losing someone who is the definition of a compassionate listener,” BCC’s Executive Director Rabbi Jonathan Klein told the Journal. “As someone who has been working with her, I’ve learned a lot more about how to be a good listener and be less contentious, less confrontational. To be around her is to learn from a master.” 

For congregants like Bracha Yael, 61, a retired engineering contractor who lives a few blocks from BCC, it’s Edwards’ personal touch she’ll miss most. Two years ago, Yael’s partner, Davi Cheng, 61, BCC’s former president, underwent brain surgery. Edwards was there. 

“[Edwards] spent all morning and all day just being with me,” Yael said. “She brought ritual to it, also. Before [Cheng] went in, she had prayers prepared, but also there was just her friendship on display. Sometimes, that’s the deepest connection you can have.” 

Marsha Epstein, 74, a retired public-health physician who lives in Mar Vista, said she always feels better after an Edwards-led service. “She just has this beautiful way of speaking,” Espstein said. “I’ve learned about poets from her that I wouldn’t have otherwise known about. She quotes them in her drashes. I love the way she takes stands on progressive issues without alienating people who might disagree. When she’s up there, she attempts to include everyone.”

“What I’ll miss most is the opportunity to spend time with my congregants during both the special and regular moments of their lives,” Edwards said. “I take to heart the idea of living in this community. I’m taking a little break because that’s the protocol, but then I’ll be back, albeit in a much smaller capacity. So, the privilege of being in these people’s lives, of being their clergy, is what I’ll miss most.” 

As for Edwards’ future plans, she and Moore plan to take a yearlong sabbatical to travel and relax before Edwards’ return as clergy emerita. However, Edwards predicts she won’t be able to relax too much with an upcoming presidential election cycle.

 “I suspect that election stuff will occupy a large part of my time,” she said. “I wish I could say there’s no work to do, but obviously there is.”

Why Choosing a Torah Path Is So Hard to Explain

Orthodox Jews like me often must try to explain our beliefs and practices to those who hold many misconceptions about Judaism.

A Christian colleague once asked me, “Is pork still not kosher?”

“Still not and never will be,” I answered.

A Jewish woman cornered me one night after a laughter yoga class and said, “I didn’t know you were allowed to attend a mixed gathering like this. Do you get out much?” On the flip side, when I recently arrived in Israel, the passport control man looked at me and asked, “You can go around in your community with that much hair showing from your beret?” I smiled and said yes. Then he whipped out a picture of his wife, who wears berets like I do. “She used to be Satmar,” he explained.

I used to carry loads of my own stereotypes about Torah observance. The most embarrassing one was thinking most Orthodox women were just Stepford Wives with two sets of dishes. Despite being a writer always in search of a good story, it never occurred to me to write a book about my slow transition to tradition — until a terribly awkward incident at a weekend writers’ conference.

I tried to duck out unnoticed on a Saturday night, being needed at home, but as the elevator doors were closing on my way down to the lobby, another writer jammed his foot inside and joined me. You didn’t need a journalism degree to be curious about the tall red and white box on my luggage cart with the incriminating label “KOSHER LAMP” on it.

“What is a kosher lamp?” he asked in a snarky tone. I knew instantly he was a Member of the Tribe. Most non-Jews wouldn’t dare be so chutzpadik about someone else’s religion. Hadn’t I already paid the price for being shomeret Shabbat by walking up the 11 flights of stairs on Friday night and Saturday, carrying my homemade meals on a paper plate to get to the conference room?

I tried to explain about the movable cover over the lamp, but I knew it sounded technical and weird. I failed the Hillel test spectacularly. When Hillel had been challenged to explain the entire Torah while standing on one foot, he did so masterfully — in one sentence. The MOT parried a second sarcastic question as we parted ways.

I was so frustrated. I hated being seen as some unthinking religious fundamentalist. A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.

This fellow writer and Jew knew nothing of my years of personal struggle — intellectual, emotional, spiritual — that preceded and to some extent continued in my life as a baalat teshuvah. How could I explain in mere seconds what it had taken me years to understand and appreciate? The magic of Shabbat is that it is a day when we stop frantically doing to enjoy the serenity of being. Yes, the laws of Shabbat observance are strict and numerous, but they are required for the integrity of the experience.

“A formerly snarky nonobservant Jew myself, I also had looked down on my brother and sister Jews who dutifully walked to shul on Saturday while I was driving right past them on my way to the movies.”

My decision to finally write a memoir about my experiences gained added urgency because around the same time, several anti-Orthodox memoirs were published, mostly by people in Chasidic communities. Their stories were uniformly damning, even dystopian. These books were lavished with media attention, despite several of the writers having little to no publishing history. The Jewish Book Council, an important review clearinghouse, reviewed them all. Yes, leaving religion is sexy.

In writing about Orthodoxy at its narrowest borders and in some cases, without the perspective of distance in time to offer a counterbalancing view, these writers unfairly reinforced the adjective “Orthodox” with “repressive.”

I could not let those writers speak for me. I chose my journey only after serious thought, study, conversation and observation. My truth was that signing onto the covenant at Sinai had given me great gifts of a warm and supportive community, pleasure and intellectual stimulation through Torah study, and a solid framework for my marriage and family life. I had been stunned to discover how little about Judaism I really knew. For example, I was blown away to learn the idea of an immortal soul — which I always thought was Christian — was Jewish in origin. What other emotionally nourishing ideas had been dropped from the syllabus?

Choosing Torah observance felt right but also was scary. It threatened my sense of self as a feminist and my social standing among my close Jewish friends. None of them ever asked me why I was doing this.

Thousands of formerly secular Jews have become Torah-observant over the last generation, and our stories are underreported. My life has been immeasurably enriched but still has plenty of challenges, as all lives do. While many mitzvahs have come naturally to me, such as giving 10 percent to tzedakah and trying to avoid lashon harah, or gossip, others — like covering my hair after marriage — were deeply unpalatable. I resisted for years until I found a measure of understanding and acceptance of the reasons behind them. If I find out one day that having kept a mitzvah that was hard for me earned me more points “up there,” I won’t mind.

Orthodox Jews get a lot of bad press, and some of it is deserved. But the beautiful stories about Torah life seemingly only are told in books and articles geared toward an insider crowd. Leaving Orthodoxy is sexy; joining it is not. My book, despite my credits as a longtime journalist and the distinctiveness of a funny memoir about finding Orthodoxy not abhorrent but rather wonderful, was ignored by all the secular media outlets that rushed to publicize the religion-as-abuse memoirs. Even the Jewish Book Council took a pass.

As for the MOT who razzed me about my “Kosher Lamp,” I am happy to report he came over to me as I packed my car, smiled and wished me a good week. I smiled in return. It had been a classic baal teshuvah moment — wanting all our MOTs to accept us.

My story is for him — and for all of us.

Judy Gruen’s latest book is her memoir, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love with Faith” (She Writes Press). Her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Jewish Action, Aish.com and many other media outlets.

Can Conservative Judaism Redefine Itself?

People play instruments during a ceremony on Venice Beach. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/REUTERS.

A major identity shift is taking place in the U.S. Conservative movement. According to the North American Jewish Databank, the percentage of Jews that identify as Conservative has fallen from 26% in 2012 to 18% in 2018, while the percentages of Jews that identify as Reform and Orthodox have remained steady at 35% and 10%, respectively. Some Conservative Jewish leaders see rising intermarriage rates as the primary cause of this decline, noting that increasingly intermarried Jewish couples favor Reform congregations over Conservative ones because the Reform movement admits non-Jewish spouses as full-fledged, voting members. 

In response to the declining membership, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ), the Conservative movement’s national body, embarked on a new strategy in 2017 allowing affiliated congregations to embrace interfaith families while still preserving halachic restrictions. The recommended framework is a two-tiered membership structure whereby non-Jews are admitted as members in the synagogue “community” but are excluded from religious rituals and sensitive leadership positions (“covenant”). The USCJ’s new approach constructs a distinction — a barrier, even —  between covenant and the community (C&C) for the first time in its history. 

But behind the scenes, the USCJ hasn’t been an entirely neutral arbiter, and has urged congregations to move quickly toward a decision on non-Jewish membership. Consequently, an issue central to Conservative Jewish identity is now being rushed to a resolution in many Conservative synagogues nationwide, often bitterly dividing congregants.

I have come across a few familiar arguments by those in favor of, or against, the initiative. Many agree with this move because they view Judaism as being welcoming to strangers and do not want to be perceived by the community as narrow minded. This perspective is closest to the justifications being provided at the USCJ level. Others in favor of non-Jewish membership wish to abolish all barriers to non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual. From their perspective, non-Jews who have become part of the community should be “adopted” as Jews even if they have not formally converted. Still others are willing to support this initiative because they trust their rabbi and the USCJ.

Others in favor of non-Jewish membership wish to abolish all barriers to non-Jewish participation in Jewish ritual.

Those opposed to non-Jewish membership believe the emphasis on fairness and inclusion rather than Jewish law will erode the movement’s Jewish identity. Others opposing the initiative believe two-tiered membership is discriminatory toward all concerned. Why, for example, would non-Jews accept “second-class” status if what they or their spouses seek is full inclusion?

Meanwhile, the USCJ and congregants aren’t exploring other possible factors contributing to dwindling membership. These factors may include the deterrent effect of high membership costs going toward maintaining the large 1960s-style buildings, the relatively longer services. There is also the possibility that the label “Conservative” presents a barrier to attracting younger Jews because it is easily conflated with the loaded term “conservative.” 

Perhaps as a path that is “traditional but flexible” Conservative Judaism is doomed to the same fate as other “moderate” movements in today’s American society. If so, carving a path through the middle may prove difficult. Clearly, in a country such as ours, where Jews have the
luxury and freedom to voluntarily detach from their Jewish identity without
adverse consequences while those of other or no faiths wish to join the
Jewish community, the resolution of this issue will require the wisdom of Solomon.

Jessica Emami is a sociologist living in the Washington, D.C., area.

June 28, 2019

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Facing Trauma, Personal and as a People

One measure of Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s elevated stature in the Jewish world is the fact that her new book has been heartily endorsed by such a long and diverse list of Jewish writers, healers and teachers, including Gloria Steinem, Susannah Heschel, Rodger Kamenetz, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Sarah Davidson and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, among many others.

“Wounds into Wisdom: Healing Intergenerational Jewish Trauma,” a joint publication of Adam Kadmon Books and Monkfish Book Publishing Company, is the story of her self-appointed mission to retrieve and untangle the secrets in her own family, which includes both victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and to do the same for fellow Jews who have endured the Shoah, religious persecution in Russia and Iran, and the violence of combat and terrorism in Israel.

“Like many post-Holocaust families, my parents did not speak directly of these matters,” she explains at the outset. “Yet, there is an inner compulsion to know. ‘One has to know one’s buried truth in order to be able to live one’s life,’ writes the late Professor Dori Laub, himself a survivor.”

Firestone is renowned both as a spiritual leader and a practicing therapist. Raised in an Orthodox family, she is the founder and rabbi of a Jewish Renewal congregation, Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colo., and she fuses the traditions of Kabbalah, the principles of depth psychology, and the feminine wisdom tradition into her teachings.

“Wounds into Wisdom” is based on Firestone’s conviction that the unspoken experiences and memories of one’s parents and other caregivers can be unconsciously transmitted into the minds of young children: Her father, for example, never spoke of his experiences as a liberator of Bergen-Belsen during World War II; only after his death did Firestone and her siblings find the photographs of the camp that he had hidden away in his files. Yet she insists that what he saw was somehow transmitted to his own children. “Trauma is embedded in the nervous system through all of our senses,” she writes.

She credits the “psychological health of the Jewish religion, where memory is sanctified and trauma is memorialized,” for allowing us to bear what might otherwise be an insupportable burden and to extract meaning from suffering that seems beyond understanding. Yet she recognizes and rises to the challenge of “go[ing] beyond an identity of victimhood.” Her goal is to guide her readers, both as individuals and as members of the Jewish community, to reclaim their dignity and agency without forgetting what they have survived. 

Not surprisingly, Firestone offers psychotherapy as a model for coping with trauma, both the intimate kind that can affect an individual — molestation, criminal violence, combat experience — and the collective kind that can befall a whole people. She urges us to disclose our secret suffering to “a safe witness” in a “safe place,” and she holds out the promise of redemption.

“Rabbi Tirzah Firestone’s goal is to guide her readers, both as individuals and as members of the Jewish community, to reclaim their dignity and agency without forgetting what they have survived.”

“With a compassionate listener, we enter a circle of safety where we can slowly begin to trust again,” Firestone writes. “In this relationship, where we are truly seen and heard, we may begin to find meaning in our experience, and our humanity can begin to be restored after it has been stolen from us.”

The second half of her book is devoted to a kind of seven-step program for the treatment of trauma, ranging from “Facing the Loss” to “Taking Action.” Along the way, she identifies the obstacles that may arise, some of which operate at the molecular level and others that operate in history and politics.

Firestone warns, for example, that medication for dealing with anxiety and depression only masks the underlying causes. She writes, “[T]he residual images and sensations remain embedded in the nervous system, reminding people that they are still susceptible at any time to further triggering and that their inner state is still volatile.” 

Even more pointed is her caution against what she calls “hyperarousal,” that is, the tendency to overreact to a perceived threat. As an example, she points out how a prayer vigil over the 2006 war in Lebanon turned chaotic when one participant expressed the hope “that all sides, including Israel, ‘would act with self-restraint.’ ” The audience, which had been “stiffly prayerful,” turned suddenly noisy and bellicose. “This was a hair-trigger: Jews had been passive in the Holocaust. Never again would they be sheep led to slaughter!” Yet she insists that such a reflexive response can be dangerous, even fatal.

“Self-defense is an unquestionable right, for Israel and for any person or group that is under life-threatening attack,” she concedes. But when a threat triggers “the limbic response of an entire group, that segment of the human nervous system that is responsible for survival at all costs,” our ability to accurately perceive and appropriately respond to a threat can be gravely impaired. To show us an alternative, she quotes an Israeli man named Rami, whose daughter was killed by a suicide bomber on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem.

“This is not our destiny to keep on killing people in this Holy Land of ours forever!” Rami cried out to a group of fellow bereaved parents. “It’s not written anywhere, and we can change it. We can break once and for all the endless cycle of violence and revenge and retaliation. And there is only one way to do it. This is simply by talking to each other. Because it will not stop unless we talk.”

To her credit, Firestone does not promise a quick cure to the ill effects of trauma in life and trauma in history. “Healing from trauma can take years, sometimes decades,” she insists. But the long ordeal does not condemn us to a lifetime of suffering. That’s why she uses Israel, an embattled country where trauma is a common experience and a continuing one, as an example.  

“[E]veryone who lives in this tiny land has lost loved ones: sons and daughters, teachers and students, comrades in arms, relatives, and friends,” she explains. “Yet Israeli culture is far from morose. It throbs with life and vitality.” And she quotes an Israeli woman named Daniela on the survivor’s credo: “I will either live or I will die, but I will not agree to a living death.”

“Wounds into Wisdom” fairly glows with the light that sometimes emerges from a charismatic teacher, but Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is also hard-headed, plainspoken and, above all, deeply courageous. This is not a touchy-feeling self-help book; rather, it is a stirring call to action.

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

Equality Has Pros and Cons for Jews

A well-known joke describes a boy excitedly announcing Babe Ruth’s 60th home run to his grandfather, who responds: “Nu, is it good for the Jews?” Events continue to prompt that question in this century, among the most recent being the Supreme Court’s decision in the case involving Masterpiece Cakeshop. Jewish groups filed briefs for both sides, with progressive organizations favoring the same-sex couple, and traditional groups favoring the baker who declined to help them celebrate their wedding. 

Some of that contrast derives from the groups’ disparate opinions about same-sex relationships. But the debate goes deeper. It concerns which value — equality or liberty — best guarantees a future that is good for Jews in 21st-century America. 

Egalitarians point to history. They recall when employers and social clubs routinely excluded Jews from opportunities available to the Christian majority, and they fear the denial of equal access to public life. From this perspective, a victory for the couple helps everyone who might suffer exclusion from full participation in economic and social activity. 

Libertarians also point to history — a more remote one. They recall when Jewish practices such as Torah study or circumcision were criminal, even capital,  offenses, and they fear state prosecution of a religious minority’s nonconformity. From this perspective, a victory for the baker helps everyone whose different beliefs and conduct the political majority might otherwise outlaw. 

Anti-discrimination laws can protect religious groups — or suppress them. Great Britain’s House of Lords found that a Jewish school’s favoring the children of Jewish mothers in admissions violated the law against “racial discrimination.” The U.S. Supreme Court likewise upheld a University of California policy that forbade a student Christian Legal Society from requiring its officers to embrace Christian principles. Ensuring equal access for outsiders can erode the autonomy and integrity of religious organizations. 

Jewish schools, camps and for-profit businesses must face the question: When is it legitimate to consider the religious status of an applicant or customer? 

Judaism often requires consideration of religious status. So while Christian vendors tend to object most to same-sex ceremonies, Jews express more concern over interfaith weddings. Of course, the law protects clergy from having to perform weddings conflicting with their religious perspectives — but that is narrow protection. 

For example, Jewish law requires scribes sell Torah scrolls only to Jews, and prepare ketubot only for Jewish weddings. Should anti-discrimination law force a sofer to provide such writings to all customers without regard to religious status? 

“Anti-discrimination laws can protect religious groups — or suppress them.” 

The question resounds beyond ritual items. Must a calligrapher design an invitation for an intermarriage? Must a Jewish matchmaker or dating site facilitate interfaith relationships? In many ways, Jack Phillips, the baker who would sell plain cakes to same-sex couples but not ones “celebrating” their wedding, resembled a wedding singer who performs pop tunes at interfaith weddings but not the liturgical “Od Yishama.” 

The debate over the legal significance of religious status dates to the aftermath of the French Revolution. Comte de Clermont Tonnerre famously offered Jews everything “as individuals” but nothing “as a nation”; Jews could expect full equality in public institutions, but could not maintain private ones such as a Jewish court system to resolve disputes among Jews. Algerian Jews declined the offer of emancipation, seeking neither its “sting nor … honey.” Most other Sephardim as well as Eastern European Jews didn’t even get this choice. 

The United States has not enforced the bargain as rigidly as Western Europe. Unlike the French Revolution, a quest to reduce inequality, the American Revolution sought to foster self-determination. Egalitarian Europe has focused more on protecting citizens from indignities, whereas libertarian America seeks to protect private decision-making. 

“Ensuring equal access for outsiders can erode the autonomy, and integrity, of religious organizations.” 

These competing priorities produce stark differences. It is more difficult to criticize Judaism (or Islam) in Europe, which vigorously prosecutes “hate speech,” which often is defined to encompass criticism of religious practices. By contrast, the First Amendment permits denying the Holocaust and describing Judaism as a “gutter religion.” 

But Europe also makes it harder to practice disfavored customs. Several European nations have prohibited kosher and halal animal slaughter, forms of Islamic dress, and are considering bans on circumcision. These European prohibitions create more problems for Jewish survival than America’s laissez-faire model. 

Should a caterer be allowed to refuse to serve a b’rit milah because of ideological opposition to circumcision? It is tempting to oppose such refusals as discriminatory, and insist governments compel participation. But governments powerful enough to compel participation in such religious events also are powerful enough to forbid them. 

Judaism has long survived — even thrived — in environments where vendors refused to serve Jews. Surviving where the state bans and punishes basic religious practices may well prove more difficult.

Mitchell Keiter, a former law professor, is a certified appellate specialist at Keiter Appellate Law in Beverly Hills. He filed a successful amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court last year in NIFLA v. Beccera. 

How Jewish Women Are Being Harassed Online for Fighting Anti-Semitism

As a Jewish woman who frequently shares her opinions on social media, I’ve been targeted online by white supremacists, communist bots from China, die-hard Donald Trump fanatics, Polish nationalists and Laura Loomer (before she was yanked off every kind of social media known to man). But the worst abuse I’ve received has been from my political home: the left.

Whenever I speak up against anti-Semitism, hordes of liberal men dogpile me, informing me I have a “bad take,” and calling me “stupid,” a “dumba– s—,” “fragile,” “delusional” and a “basic, petty worm.” Sometimes, they send me images of male anatomy or animals defecating. My critics have gone as far as to mock my appearance and advise me to get plastic surgery, or simply tell me to drown.

Unfortunately, I’m not alone.

Although all sorts of women experience abuse online, Jewish women face obscene sexual harassment for speaking out against hate. What’s more shocking is that the attacks come from progressive circles. Despite the left’s emphasis on gender equality, progressive men cruelly and consistently mob online Jewish women who are fighting anti-Semitism.

“Any time a Jewish woman, especially on Twitter, speaks up about anti-Semitism, we get hordes of trolls in our mentions, trying to silence us,” said Rafaella Gunz, a journalist for Gay Star News who lives in New York City. The 25-year-old has received messages telling her “Judaism is a racist cult, worse than Nazism” and “go f— yourself you white supremacist zio fascist b—-.”

“Not only do they despise people taking a stand against anti-Semitism (especially true on the left in my experience), but when the person taking a stand is a woman, there is a much more visceral reaction,” Gunz wrote in an email. “They call us words they wouldn’t call men: b—-, c—, whore.”

Kaitlyn Abas, a 26-year-old waitress in the United Kingdom who is active on social media, agrees. “I’ve seen more Jewish women, including myself, get abused more than men,” she said. “I think they see us as weaker. Clearly, they’ve never met a Jewish woman in their lives because if they had, they’d know how strong we are.”

To me, these attacks are a direct response to Jewish women’s strength. Many of us are unapologetically outspoken against bigotry. When our foes notice how determined Jewish women are in the face of anti-Semitism, they try to intimidate us with floods of misogynist abuse.

While Natalia Sloam, assistant managing editor at Linkwell Health, said she’s often called “condescending phrases such as ‘pet, sweetheart or darling,’ ” other women assert they’ve been threatened with promises of violence.

“What we are seeing is none other than victim blaming, carried out by the activist community that popularized the term.”

“I’ve been told to go back to the gas chamber. I’ve been told I should be raped, repeatedly,” said Elayna Tell, a personal assistant in Washington, D.C., who said she has experienced dogpiling from progressive men online.  “Simply because I speak about the Jewish experience as a Jewish woman.”

These attacks are rooted in anti-Semitism and misogyny.

After college student Ellen Borenstein called out anti-Semitism on Facebook, a man taunted her, writing, “I’ll send you a box of Kotex.” When Chicago-based 39-year-old Naomi Schmahl spoke up against anti-Semitism on the left, she was sent messages calling her a “Nazi whore” and “b—-” and to “go get f—ed but don’t reproduce, the world doesn’t need any more of you neocons running around.”

“I’ve been threatened. I’ve been called everything from a Jewish b—- to a baby killer to a Satan worshipper,” Abas said. “I feel alone. I feel sick. I feel like no one really cares. Each abusive message drains me as a person. I took out ‘Jewish’ from my Twitter bio so I’d get less abuse.”

Few are more explicitly Jewish on Twitter than Tablet contributing editor Carly Pildis. “I have been harassed by both the left and the right,” Pildis told me. “It’s definitely a trend.”

But for others, the attacks overwhelmingly have come from left-wing voices.

“I get more anti-Semitism from the left than I do the right, at the moment,” noted Abas, who predominantly is targeted for speaking out against anti-Semitism within the British Labour party. Sloam, who lives in London, is in the same boat. “It is absolutely extraordinary to me that this comes from Labour members,” she said. “They are supposedly the ‘anti-racist’ party, but since [Jeremy] Corbyn has become [the party’s] leader, everything has changed.”

According to Carly Susman, New York-based junior art director at the advertising agency Soubriet Byrne & Associates, the problem has crossed the Atlantic. “I see so much of it happening, specifically in spaces that pride themselves on being diverse and welcoming — anything from the Women’s March, [Rep.] Ilhan Omar’s tweets, other leftist spaces. I feel defeated and unwelcome pretty quickly,” the 27-year-old said.

In the case of prominent New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss, speaking out against anti-Semitism involves being called a b—-, whore and “bislut.” Some of her critics, one of whom said, “do not call yourself a lefty. You are nothing but an Israeli whore,” refer to her as a “worthless stupid c—” and wish for her violent death.

Now, Weiss is explicitly a liberal. But progressives are the first to attack her, along with scores of other left-wing Jewish women.

“I’m a registered Democrat but don’t always agree with the far left, as a lot of harassment comes from them,” said Renae Ison, 36, a customer service representative in Louisville, Ky. “I regularly feel dogpiled by them.”

“We not only get intimidated by the right, we are also incessantly harassed by the left — and this includes way too many Jewish men,” said Sara Bobkoff, a progressive writer living in the Netherlands. “If Jewish men put the focus on Jewish women, they can deflect from being targeted themselves and show loyalty in a movement where their role is precarious to begin with.”

When Schmahl accused liberal Jewish cartoonist Eli Valley of normalizing anti-Semitism, she was dogpiled. “I’ve been harassed by Neo-Nazis before but I’ve never had this level of sexual violence directed at me,” she tweeted.

What is the justification? If a woman criticizes anti-Semitism on the left, she is betraying progressive values. “If I speak up about anti-Semitism on the other side of the aisle, I get labeled as some sort of Republican enabler and not on the left,” progressive activist Schmahl said.

“Although interviewing many Jewish women who’ve faced this made me feel validated, it didn’t make me feel better.” 

For these men, social justice is a loophole to harass Jewish women without being called out as sexist. They rationalize we are the real threats to progressive ideas such as gender equality if we speak out against anti-Semitism demonstrated by people with whom they are politically aligned. In their eyes, they are the true feminists. Women are simply getting in the way.

When Schmahl went public with the abusive messages she received from criticizing anti-Semitism on the left, more liberal men shamed her for speaking out against the harassment. “I don’t know who you are trying to impress by making your conversations public on Twitter but it’s a low blow,” a man who identified himself only as Chris wrote to her. “It might do you some good to get a tougher skin,” Chris said. “The thing that I hope you understand is airing these comments publicly only strengthens the right. I know women who get inappropriate messages like this from overzealous people, they certainly don’t tweet about it publicly because they know it can be used against the left, they understand that there’s a greater good involved.”

For Chris, the greater good involved not ever coming forward with the sexism Schmahl experienced from progressives. “Your energy and time would be better spent going after conservatives and those fake lefties who enable them, these are the real culprits of sexism, misogyny and anti-Semitism,” Chris wrote, deciding that liberals who called a strange woman on the internet a whore weren’t the real misogynists. “I would also encourage you to consider deleting your thread with the messages you received from Eli’s followers and in the future think about how your tweets about others may hurt real progressives.”

(From left) Author Ariel Sobel and Sara Bobkoff, progressive writer from the Netherlands.

Chris is right. There are real progressives hurting from sexism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. But it’s not men like him; it’s women like Schmahl. Not only is the left demanding our silence on anti-Semitism, but also on sexist harassment we receive for speaking out against it. If a Republican terrorizes a woman, it’s despicable; if a Democrat does it, it’s “overzealous.”

The rationale behind the abuse is creative. Many liberal men are desperate to sexually harass a woman on behalf of another woman. Criticized Ilhan Omar’s tweets? There are plenty of “Bernie Bros” (angry male supporters of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders) ready to call you a dumb b— in her (and what they see as feminism’s) defense. God forbid, if, like 97% of Jews, a woman supports Israel’s right to exist, anything goes. Everyone knows it’s disgusting to call a woman a whore, but according to this crowd, if you call her a “zio whore,” she deserves it.

What we are seeing is none other than victim blaming, carried out by the activist community that popularized the term.

“We not only get intimidated by the right, we are also incessantly harassed by the left — and this includes way too many Jewish men.” — Sara Bobkoff, progressive writer from the Netherlands

“Misojewny,” “anti-Semisogny” or whatever term you’d like to use to describe hatred of Jewish women, exists on the left, just like misogynoir, the hatred of black women. Although these prejudices take different forms, both are rooted in the desire to take down the most vulnerable woman in the room. Jewish women often are blamed for others abusing us, particularly if we have a controversial stance on Israel. This makes Jewish women easy targets for progressive men.

Some people might think these scenarios are cherry-picked. This article began as an investigation of harassment against Jewish women by anyone and everyone, but scores of victims kept pointing their fingers to the left.

That’s not to say Jewish women don’t receive harassment from the right. Ariel Gold, the staunchly anti-Zionist national co-director of CODEPINK, the women-led grassroots peace and justice organization, has been subjected to misogynist hate from men who believe she encourages anti-Semitism. Gold said she recently received a message that read “suck big fat Nazi d— you kapo b—-,” along with a picture of male anatomy. She’s also been told, “I hope all your Arab friends rape you at once” and received verified death threats.

“I think they see us as weaker. Clearly, they’ve never met a Jewish woman in their lives because if they had, they’d know how strong we are.” 

I spent months this year with my picture as the pinned tweet of a white supremacist’s Twitter feed, which was devoted to spreading “profiles” of predominantly Jewish women and their anti-racist tweets as proof Jews are “trying to replace the white race with black people.” The humiliation and targeting I experienced was unbearable.

But it haunts me that the self-identified feminists I should be able to go to for help in these scenarios are not speaking out against this behavior. In fact, I find harassment from the left to be much crueler and consistent; others find it unbearable.

For Sloam, the harassment has reached a breaking point. “I’ve been on Twitter for 10 years and I am seriously considering changing my screen name. It’s my real name and I feel vulnerable,” she said.

I put on a tough front, but I feel vulnerable, too. 

I’ve tried blocking and reporting. Still, these men remain fixated on me, regularly attacking me long after I’ve had a “block” party. The worst part is that some women who dislike my opinions are all too happy to join in on the misogynist dogpile. These liberals rail against me because by speaking out against left-wing anti-Semitism, I am somehow “not progressive enough.” The truth is, no woman — progressive or not — deserves to be sexually harassed, whether she votes Republican, Democratic, Libertarian, Communist or Labour.

“I put on a tough front, but I feel vulnerable, too.”

Although interviewing many Jewish women who’ve faced this made me feel validated, it didn’t make me feel better. The women quoted are among the few who felt safe enough to use their names. Some were so terrified of more harassment, they made sure their social media handle wouldn’t be included in this story.

To break this cycle of abuse, I’d like to make less an argument than a plea. When you see a Jewish woman being dogpiled, come to her defense. When someone on Twitter gets “ratioed” (has much more disapproving comments than likes), it’s not a joke. It’s a rabid mob hellbent on silencing us, intent on damaging our mental and emotional health.

Please, jump in and tell the perpetrators they are engaging in sexual harassment. The progressive abusers often identify as feminists. Nothing would unsettle them more than getting called out for mistreating women. We have to recognize this for what it is: sexual harassment tinged with anti-Semitism.

Regardless of our gender, we must speak out against this abuse, and not just for women whose opinions we agree with — or even women we like. For women, Jewish or otherwise, to have voices in our society, we need the right to disagree without being mobbed, threatened and humiliated.

Ariel Sobel is a screenwriter, filmmaker and activist, and won the 2019 Bluecat Screenplay Competition. Her website is arielsobel.com.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote. Chris wrote, “It might do you some good to get a tougher skin.”

An Encounter Meant to Happen

Central Park in New York City. Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

There is something about New York City that drives me closer to my personal “d’mimah dakah” (still, small voice). That voice inside of me that connects my footsteps with the path ahead of me; that has a preternatural instinct of what street corner to turn at and which street light to wait for. All of this is apparent to me in New York City, where it seems that every day seems to lead me to some encounter of greater design revealed.
On a recent trip to New York City with my daughter, I walked to Central Park with the intention to treat her and my friend’s daughter to a carriage ride in the park. When we entered the park at 81st Street, the driver of an idling carriage informed me that he was waiting on a client. Ready to relinquish that activity and “find a new dream,” an Asian man on a bicycle-shaw pedaled up to us. “I know of another horseman who can take you now,” he offered, and invited us onto his bicycle carriage for a short ride to Tavern on the Green. Some still small voice in me said, “Go.”

Arriving at Tavern, I spotted a man loitering beside a horse and carriage, like a magical merkavah awaiting our arrival. As our group stepped off the bicycle-shaw, I said to the carriage driver: “Hi, I’m Lori. Are you free for a ride now?” The man introduced himself as Ariel. Recognizing that his name is a Hebrew name, I asked him in Hebrew where he was born. From this inquiry, I learned that Ariel was a veteran of the Golani Brigade when he served in the Israel Defense Forces, serving during the Yom Kippur War through the Lebanon War in the ’80s.

We rode through Central Park, singing “L’cha Dodi,” the children belting out the words and Ariel’s smile growing wider with delight. He turned for a moment, and said, “Do you know this one?”:

“HaYom Yom Shishi … HaYom Yom Shishi, Machar Shabbat … Shabbat Menucha. Hayom Kulum Ovadim Machar Shabbat … Shabbat Menucah … Shabbat Menucah. HaYom Yom Shishi … Shabbat Menucah.”

“This was a song we sang every Friday when growing up on kibbutz. Do you know it?”

Hearing the murmurs of children from swings nearby, I smiled with recognition. Ariel said that his wife teaches kindergarten at the Solomon Schechter School in White Plains, and he was a congregant of Rabbi Avi Weiss’ in Riverdale and brought goats (goats!) to the Hebrew school annually to teach children how to feel connected to the Earth and its creatures. He impishly added, “I had to keep them at my house afterward as they had nowhere else to go.”

He saw my delight. I told him that I was a “rabbah,” and creating a progressive community to make Judaism open and relevant for everyone on the periphery. I said that our community also loved inviting in goats, most recently as we sang “Chad Gadya” while doing goat yoga at the end of our Passover seder. He laughed with delight, in a way that only a kibbutznik can.

He told us, “I will remember this day. This made my year! And more! To sing these songs on Yom Shishi, in the park, on this carriage, with you all singing. I will remember this always.” 

I extolled a Shehecheyanu and an “amen!” Indeed, the moment was magic. It was a bit of what I think we all seek as we navigate the streets of our lives: a connection to the wind of our souls, an affirmation from the still, small voice that we are in the right place at the right time, an experience of pure connection. 

Ariel is a treasure. In our magic New York moment, a small piece of Eden was redeemed. As we near the end of the Book of Vayikra, and enter into our great narrative of our walk through the wilderness, Bamidbar, may we all keep our senses open for guideposts home along the way. Ariel was a holy malacay haSharit (ministering angel), for me; and a reminder that there are signs everywhere leading back home.

Rabbi Lori Shapiro is the founder and artistic director of The Open Temple in Venice. 

The Forgotten Holiday

Last week, my husband and I watched with pride as our daughter graduated from pre-kindergarten. While many jokes have been made about little kids putting on caps and gowns (there was no valedictorian or boring speakers!), the ceremony was indeed a milestone as we watched our children—many of whom have been together since before they could sit up on their own—walk up on the stage at the JCC waving and smiling for their families. And, like all other parents in the room, we were asking ourselves where the time had gone. Undoubtedly, the thought has been shared at multiple graduations across the country in recent days.

There is something truly amazing about how we keep track of time.  Just as the school year has come to a close, this coming Saturday night will mark the ending of the counting of the Omer, the seven week period between Passover and Shavuot. On two separate study sessions over the past few weeks, I have heard Shavuot referred to as “the forgotten holiday.” It is easy to see why.

Shavuot (literally “weeks” in Hebrew) is one of the three pilgrimage festivals (Sukkot and Passover being the others), mentioned in the Torah as a harvest holiday (Deuteronomy 16:9-10), but only in post-temple times did it become associated with the giving of the Torah. Because its meaning was changed so dramatically, it lacks the tangible rituals of just about every other Jewish holiday (e.g. Passover seder, Hanukkah menorah, shofar at High Holidays). Between that and this being the time of year when school is out, vacations are beginning, and people are beginning to “check out,” it can be easy to overlook this seemingly minor blip on the calendar. It need not be.

While the holiday may lack tangible rituals, it certainly has traditions. Among them include the following:

  • The Book of Ruth—reading the story of a woman who chose Judaism
  • Tikkun Leil Shavuot—staying up all night to study Torah, presumably to make up for the Jewish people falling asleep at Sinai and missing the Revelation
  • Confirmation—in Reform and Conservative congregations, those finishing tenth grade plan and lead the Shavuot service, confirming their Jewish faith before their communities

At first glance, the above may seem to have little in common. Look again and you will notice that they all are in essence the same—choosing Judaism. And just as there is no set rituals for Shavuot, there are no requirements for how these traditions should be followed. Two of my most treasured memories come from Shavuot—my own Confirmation and the year I was in Jerusalem, attending Tikkun at Hebrew Union College, walking down to the kotel, and then back to my hotel as the sun came up—a beautiful streak of blue hitting the Jerusalem stone in a picture forever etched in my memory.  What made these experiences so special was that I made them my own. While they have become traditions, there is no prescribed rituals for Confirmation or for Tikkun. They are ours to do what we want with. I have found this to be enormously liberating, a great parallel to the secular world where the rigors of school are now giving way to the less structured days of summer.

Ruth chose Judaism, making her one of the most famous Jews by choice. I would venture to say that we could all be considered Jews by choice. While the High Holidays challenge us to look inward at our character, Shavuot is a different kind of reflection—a way to look at ourselves as Jews. And to choose our own paths, our own meanings, our own traditions. While it may be more abstract and less tangible, there is no right or wrong way to do it. So whatever path you choose this Shavuot, I hope you find meaningful traditions, as Ruth did. And as Jews will for generations to come. And while you’re at it, enjoy your cheesecake!

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a Jewish educator and social worker living in Louisville, Ky. with her husband and two young daughters.

Rosner’s Torah Talk: Shavuot, with Rabbi Benjamin Weiner

Rabbi Benjamin Weiner has been the spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Amherst, for almost a decade. Before that, he worked for a time as a translator of Hebrew and Yiddish, and also wrote occasionally for publications including the Forward, Religion Dispatches and Pakn Treger. He lives with his wife, Cantor Elise Barber, and their son, Efraim, on a three-acre family homestead in Western Massachusetts, along with several dairy goats and chickens.
Our conversation focuses on the holiday of Shavuot, and covers topics such as the giving of the Torah, Ruth the Moabite and having Goats.
For more on Shavuot, watch our Torah Talk with Rabbi Joshua Lief, and listen to the podcast on Ruth with Dr. Gila Vachman.

Jewish Youth Are More Spiritual Than You Think

Working in Jewish media, I’ve learned that much of what constitutes Jewish thinking in the United States amounts to fretting about whether the next generation will be Jewish. 

It will be. 

Maybe not all, but a great deal of them will be Jewish. The question is: What kind of Jews will they be?

Most likely, they will be the type of Jews who spend a great deal of time fretting about whether the next generation will be Jewish. 

What do kids want? How can we make kids see Judaism as relevant? Can we offer yoga at synagogue? Can we, as was suggested in a recent Jewish Journal podcast, “remix” Judaism? Can we get people to just light candles on Shabbat? Can we get them to consider giving up pork?

We can’t force anyone; that’s a failing strategy. So perhaps, we should beg them. Perhaps we should seduce them. Perhaps — and this is a big one — we should trick them. We can slip Judaism into their lives like a heartworm pill into a glob of peanut butter and feed it to them.

But what if these strategies not only are losing ones but also insulting ones?

Speaking as a young, liberal, millennial Jew who is a practicing Jew, I believe this perspective on outreach is based on a series of myths, stereotypes and misconceptions about millennials and about Judaism.

Here are some of the big ones:

Myth One: Judaism Is Weird and Lame!
Traditional Judaism stinks. It’s boring. It’s hard. It’s irrelevant. And it’s full of bizarre and unmodern practices like putting a box on your head and reading about an ancient Temple where animal sacrifices were performed. Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism for today!


Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism that’s in line with their values. We want a Judaism that is welcoming to gay and trans worshippers, and treats women and men with equal dignity. We want a Judaism that won’t judge or scorn our observance level.

That said, we very well might appreciate a dose of the strange, the esoteric and the utterly Jewish elements of Judaism. As recently deceased Christian blogger Rachel Held Evans once wrote, millennials are looking for a religion that is inclusive — but not stripped of its ancient particularities.

“The trick isn’t to make church cool; it’s to keep worship weird,” Evans wrote. “You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality.”

Myth Two: Judaism Is Hard!
Young, liberal Jews want a Judaism that’s fast, easy and cool. They don’t like commitment. They like social functions and bright colors. You need a fun rabbi with Beto O’Rourke-style skateboarding and table-standing skills to really wow these youngsters!

Young, liberal Jews don’t want something easy. We want something real. When something is real, we can dedicate and commit. Millennials have not abandoned the pursuit of committed spiritual and ethical lives.

Think of millennials living zero-waste lifestyles; traveling the world and working on organic farms; going to yoga once a day; or traveling to monasteries to do silent Vipassana retreats. None of these things are easy, yet many young people are convinced they are worth the effort.

What young people don’t want is to be pandered to. As a gay, liberal millennial, the Reform movement seemed like a natural fit for me when I decided back in college to explore Judaism’s spiritual foundations.

What I found were temples so desperately trying to reach me that they barely allowed any space for me to reach Judaism. Each Shabbat had a “fun” theme: Jamaican Drum Shabbat, Buddhist Chanting Shabbat, Art Shabbat, Yoga Shabbat. 

At home, I would read books by Heschel, Buber and Kook. I was beginning to learn the religion I grew up with was full of deep mysteries, spiritual treasures and intellectual knots for me to explore and work out. Why were these temples and synagogues so convinced this wasn’t enough for me?

Myth Three: Judaism Doesn’t Do Anything!
Young, liberal Jews don’t care about Judaism. To get them to be Jewish, you must incentivize Jewish practice.

This point was stressed in the Jewish Journal podcast on “remixing” Judaism. Orthodox Jews, stated Roberta R. Kwall, practice religion because God said so, whereas liberal Jews need to be convinced religion will do something for them. Bring their families together, perhaps — or help them disconnect from busy work lives on Shabbat.

But what we do for an instrumental purpose always can be replaced by something that achieves that purpose better. Does lighting Shabbat candles bring your family together? Maybe. However, maybe playing Scrabble does the same thing. Maybe Scrabble is even more fun for the family than a Shabbat dinner. If the point of the thing isn’t the thing itself, then the point is the result, and the means can be replaced.

The only Judaism that will survive is a Judaism practiced for its own sake.

Myth Four: The Kids Must Be Jewish!
The Jews are going to disappear from the face of the earth! They will forget that they are Jews unless we impress this constant anxiety of assimilation onto them as it has been impressed onto us!

The yoga trend in America will die if people stop wanting to do yoga — if they find something else that’s better for their bodies, minds and souls. Like spinning or Pilates. But those who see intrinsic value in yoga — not just in its results but in the beauty of its gestures, language and message — will continue practicing. 

Isn’t this enough? How many yogis do we need? Is one yoga studio full of regularly practicing, dedicated, happy yogis worse than 20 studios? Would it be better to take that one yoga studio and start adding movie nights, tap dance classes and gospel singing to reach more people? 

I don’t think it would. So why are we doing this with our synagogues?

Demographics shift. There aren’t very many Jews in America and there may be fewer in the future.

We can assume those who remain Jewish will do so not because they have been begged, tricked or seduced, but because they fell in love with the beauty of Judaism’s gestures, language and message. 

Yes, Judaism is strange. Yes, Judaism takes effort. Yes, Judaism lacks incentives. 

And yes, these facts make Judaism a hard sell for some young people. For others, this is the appeal.

Why not focus on them for a change?

Matthew Schultz is a writer living and working in Tel Aviv.

Some Thoughts on Trusting HaShem

Photo by Pixabay

As a millennial Orthodox Jewish female writer living in Los Angeles, I often have struggles with money. My generation earns less money than our baby boomer parents did at our age (adjusted for inflation). It’s expensive to be Orthodox. Women earn less than men. Writing is not a lucrative career, and Los Angeles is unaffordable.  

Since moving to L.A., my husband, Daniel, and I have had our share of financial struggles. It can seem impossible to get ahead here. When will we ever be able to afford a modest, $1.1 million home in Pico? How will we pay for our future children’s annual $20,000 day school tuition? Why is the electric bill $350 per month?

This financial pressure led me to become a workaholic. I thought that if I took on more jobs and worked harder, I would be OK. I worked more than 60 hours per week at one point. My only day off was Shabbat.  

I was heading for serious burnout, and I was only 29 years old. I knew I had to make a change, and quickly. But how would we survive? My husband and I were working as hard as we could. 

I knew I had to try a different tactic. I cut back on work and created space for myself throughout the day, whether that meant praying, going on walks with my dogs, saying Shema before bedtime, taking more time to bless my food, and going on dates with my husband. I realized I wasn’t going to get anywhere if I constantly was running around, never having time for myself or time with HaShem. After all, the best ideas I’ve ever had came to me when I was in a calm and relaxed state.

I also decided to completely trust HaShem that my new plan of action would work. I wouldn’t be spending all my time making money, so it was a risky choice. But I had to try it. 

That was six months ago. Since then, my life has completely transformed. I no longer worry constantly about money or work. I am much more focused and mindful, and I feel centered instead of anxious. I have shifted my thinking from negative to positive.

It can be really difficult to trust that HaShem is going to protect you when you’re late paying the bills, you can’t pay your credit card debt and your income is stagnant. 

I used to see my friends buying houses and think, “When will it be our turn?” Now I think, “If it’s meant for us, it will happen.” I would get upset when I heard that people were completely supported by their parents and didn’t have to work. Then I realized that that was their journey; I was not born into the same circumstances. When I saw Facebook friends going on fancy vacations, I would get jealous and want the same for myself. Now I know that if I want to visit some fancy destination, I will save up for it and go there one day. 

I have discovered that disappointment comes when we set up unrealistic expectations for ourselves that we cannot fulfill. We begin to feel guilty and depressed that we can’t afford something or accomplish a goal — but it was simply not meant to be in the first place. 

Since I decided to stop worrying, we have received many blessings. My husband and I unexpectedly have gotten jobs and discovered answers to questions we had been pondering for years. It seems as if the universe has opened up for us, and things are going our way.

It can be really difficult to trust that HaShem is going to protect you when you’re late paying the bills, you can’t pay your credit card debt and your income is stagnant. I’ve been there, and I know how scary it is.  

What helped me was doing a metaphorical trust exercise where you fall backward. Stop worrying. Trust that things will be fine, and just let yourself go. I promise: HaShem will be there to catch you.

Kylie Ora Lobell is a Journal contributing writer.

‘Game of Thrones’ and Sefirat Ha-Omer’s End

The Iron Throne is seen on the set of the television series Game of Thrones in the Titanic Quarter of Belfast, Northern... Phil Noble April 14, 2019

Classic storytelling often begins with “Once upon a time” and concludes with “The End.” Over the past two decades, Hollywood has serialized and franchised movies and television shows with cliffhangers and teasers, keeping viewers hooked for the next installment. This unwittingly has created an audience desperate for stories to end.

I recently was counting sefirat ha-Omer when it hit me: We’re in the endgame now. The final season of “Game of Thrones” on HBO was the most popular ever of the award-winning show. Similarly, “Avengers: Endgame” is the finale of a 21-film Marvel Cinematic Universe cycle and the movie fastest to exceed $2 billion in ticket sales. It likely will overtake “Avatar” as the highest-grossing film of all time. Everyone wants to see how it ends. 

But what does this have to do with sefirat ha-Omer?

Hollywood is concerned with developing the next gateway drug into a new endless entertainment universe. It has audiences addicted to anticipation. Viewers never want a story to end; whenever it feels like it has ended, we want a taste of the next thing. Anticipation generates billions of entertainment dollars. But the incredible reaction to the final season of “Game of Thrones” and “Avengers: Endgame” conveys an important message: Fans are grateful when their favorite shows and movies end gracefully.

It turns out everyone — especially millennials who came of age in the era of serialized entertainment — needs things to end. Thanks to technology, the professional 9-to-5 workday and five-day workweek are quaint relics of a not-so-distant past. Our workday never ends. Our workweek never ends. The 24-hour cable news cycle and its evil sibling, Twitter, create a false sense of urgency to make sure there is no “end of the day.” The news is always on, always breaking. There is no time for anything to end.

This frantic 21st-century life has made us desperate for a breath of fresh air without teasers, notifications and breaking-news alerts. We need things to end.

Seven is a meaningful number in “Game of Thrones.” There are seven kingdoms, but more importantly, the primary practiced religion is the “Faith of the Seven” — a single deity with seven faces or aspects.

Shabbat reminds us to end our week and breathe. Celebrating Shabbat means the week actually ends on the weekend.

In Judaism, the number seven also is significant. In the creation story, the physical world was made in six days; on the seventh day, God rested. This is what Shabbat is about. We live in the physical world for six days and on the seventh day, we take a break from the physical world. We rest. Shabbat reminds us to end our week and breathe. Celebrating Shabbat means the week ends on the weekend.

Sefirat ha-Omer is the lesson of seven squared. We count seven days for seven weeks because a one-week cycle with a beginning and an end is part of another, even bigger cycle with a beginning and an end. The Jewish calendar is a never-ending cycle of beginnings and endings because it is so important for people to have endings. We are meant to use these ending moments for reflection and meditation on the times and experiences that brought us to these moments. This is the secret of Shabbat and sefirat ha-Omer.

Our world needs more endings. Life in 2019 is relentless. We need more opportunities to breathe, more moments to reflect. Hollywood had been working under the assumption that things always begin with excitement. However, enthusiasm tapers off as time passes. Hollywood solved this “problem” with intoxicating anticipation. But now there seems to be a shift.

The end of things is even more popular than the beginning and those tantalizing teasers that follow. “Game of Thrones” has never been more popular. “Avengers: Endgame” already is one of the most popular movies of all time. Hopefully, this is the beginning of a societal correction that makes time for things to end, so we can breathe.

Eli Fink is a rabbi and writer.

Letters to the Editor: Joe Biden’s Flawed Approach, ‘Character Assassination’ of Trump

Joe Biden’s Flawed Approach
Dan Schnur describes in his column (“The Joe Biden Gamble,” May 10) using arguments against President Donald Trump the policymaker but not against Trump the person. It’s apparent that Biden is against Trump in every way, shape and form. Biden apparently knows that Trump has done an enormous amount for the economy in two years, what former President Barack Obama — Biden’s boss — couldn’t do in eight years.

Schnur then describes Biden’s repeated references to the 2017 “white supremacy” rally in Charlottesville, Va. Biden described the demonstrators who wanted to preserve a Confederate statue as “white supremacists,” and Schnur repeated it. The people who opposed tearing down the statue were Unite the Right. The depiction of them as “white supremacists” has as much credibility as the Russia collusion hoax.

When Trump said there were good people on both sides in the Charlottesville event, he did not validate or indicate in any way that he was supporting any of the people who dressed like Nazis. Jared Taylor, one of the few people who got it right, wrote in American Renaissance right after the Charlottesville episode that people who get the news from the mainstream media might have believed that all of the violence was caused by “white supremacists.” It’s perfectly logical that peaceful, law-abiding people were there who just don’t want a mob to come into town to tear down the statue. Of course, what caused the violence was hostile counter-demonstrators, many of them wearing helmets and carrying shields. If they had not been there, there would have been no violence, and the rally would have taken place as planned.

Of all people, it was Trump who came the closest to getting it right, condemning “hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” This, of course, earned him near-universal condemnation. Joe Biden explained, “There is only one side,” and the problem was Unite the Right. This prompted a storm of retweets and similar sentiments.

Here, one side is demonstrating peacefully, though provocatively; the other side — the good side — is committing violent aggression. This is the moral calculus of Biden and the rest of the left. If Biden runs on this platform, he will have a lot to explain after the underlying premise of his platform is exposed as false, just as the Russia collusion narrative was exposed as a hoax.
Marshall Lerner, via email

‘Character Assassination’ of Trump
Letter writer Stephen J. Meyers is upset about “character assassination” of Trump (May 10). I wonder which part of Debra Nussbaum Cohen’s story about Poway is “character assassination” (“Dealing With the Threat of Home-Grown White Nationalists,” May 3).

Is it “Facts are not ‘fake news,’ though things described by President Donald Trump as fake news are just facts he doesn’t like revealed by the news.’ ” That’s 100% true, so it can’t be that.

Is it “Why then is 99.9% of our president’s attention focused on his largely invented dangers posed by brown people?” I’m sure you could quibble about the percentage, but it is a fact that he’s been very vocal about the border situation.

Or is it “Let’s use a Trump technique and repeat, repeat, repeat the fact that our president and other leaders of our country are ignoring the reality that nearly all extremist murders are being committed by homegrown white nationalists, not the immigrants over whom they obsess”? You can disagree about the premise, but it is 100% true that Trump repeats talking points obsessively, like any wannabe dictator. 

So which part is “character assassination” and which part is “fake news about Trump”?
Steve St. John, via email

Christianity and Judaism
With the ongoing and recent events in the world regarding the animus toward Christianity and Judaism, I feel compelled to write. I recently read Ben Shapiro’s column (“Don’t Give Anti-Semites What They Seek,” May 3), and that inspired me to write to you.

I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and I attended Catholic schools. I have no Jewish ethnicity but being a New Yorker, I was exposed to Jewish culture on a daily basis. As a child, I read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and that affects me to this day. I have read extensively about the treatment of Jews in Europe during World War II and I felt great outrage and sadness. After graduating, I worked in Jewish companies and made many friends. I love the Jewish sense of humor and strong family ties.

I went to Vilnius, Lithuania, recently and toured the Jewish section of town. As I stood on the cobblestone sidewalk, I was full of emotion to know of the annihilation that occurred there. And now renewed anti-Semitism is showing its face every day and I am truly alarmed. Has nothing been learned? 

I hope to visit Israel someday, and I will continue to stand with the Jewish community against dark forces. I pray that people of all faiths realize what dangerous times we are in.
Amy Matturro, via email

Stephen Smith’s column “A Christian Killer in Poway” (May 3) insists all Christian leaders must denounce the Poway synagogue killings. Anti-Semitism is escalating: If Poway presages events to come, there is ample cause for alarm.

But American Christians remain friends more than foes to Jews. Care must be taken not to jeopardize that, as the article’s tone and demands seem apt to do. Jews need Christians’ support. But Christians have challenges, too — and support should be reciprocal.

“Imported anti-Semitism” (with which Europe is familiar) fosters rising crimes targeting Jews, and fans societal acceptance of anti-Semitism — extending to Congress, where party elders have responded tepidly to the anti-Semitism championed from their midst. In the U.S., anti-Christian violence remains rare but it is open season on Christians in academic discourse, in a fashion that would not (yet) be tolerated against Jews (and would be condemned were the target Muslims). Internationally, anti-Christian violence is deadly: Help eludes Egyptian Coptics and Syrian Christians, under assault despite long historical presence in those regions. The Easter bombings in Sri Lanka signal expansion of the threat to Christians — and underscore the shared perils that should bind Christians and Jews.

It is mortifying that any Christian espouses the Poway suspect’s sentiments. But we mustn’t forget the broader picture: U.S. Christians have been great friends to Jews and to Israel, a small nation that assumes outsized importance, as burgeoning anti-Semitic assaults in Europe drive ever more people to seek refuge there.

Let’s make sure the friendship that Christians extend is respected, treasured — and reciprocated.
Beatrice A. Golomb, via email

The Jewish Journal printed two letters that were well thought out in response to Smith’s column. However, based on the negative change in attitude of some Americans toward Zionism and Judaism, I am not so certain that America will remain as positive as it is now.

Many American Christians are thankful for the positive influence of Judaism all over the world. However, they must be sure to state their horror over events like what took place at Chabad of Poway. There must be zero tolerance of anti-Semitism.
Neal Silversher, via email

‘Even-Handed’ Anti-Zionism?
In reference to David Suissa’s May 10 column (“How Even-Handed Should We Be With Terrorists?”) and George Epstein’s May 17 follow-up letter to the editor, IfNotNow’s and Rabbi Jill Jacobs’ statements are, at least as quoted, anything but even-handed. It is grotesquely one-sided to blame Hamas rocket fire primarily or exclusively on Israel The consequence of labeling such statements as even aspirationally even-handed is that it gives us an excuse not to be even-handed. 

I agree with Suissa that terrorists do not “deserve” even-handedness. And after rocket fire, unequivocal condemnations like the Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt’s are likely wiser than delving into the complex history of the conflict. But long-term, in no way should we excuse ourselves from being even-handed with our own. Just as self-hating ire blaming Israel for every Palestinian misdeed is shameful, so too is entirely dismissing the complexity of the conflict or the very possibility of our own mistakes.
Michael Feldman, Los Angeles

Now it’s your turn. Send your letters to the editor. Letters should be no more than
200 words and must include a valid name and city. The Journal reserves the right to edit all letters. letters@jewishjournal.com.

Making 1 Million Missing Jews of Color Welcome

Group photo of the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. Photo from Facebook.

I live in as diverse a Jewish community as there may be in America, in Brooklyn, N.Y., but often look around synagogue sanctuaries and other gathering spaces and wonder why there aren’t more black and brown Jews present.

Yehuda Webster’s experience tells us why. One Monday morning last November, Webster, who is African American and Jewish, was returning a sefer Torah he’d rented for a bar mitzvah where he officiated.

Webster — who lives in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary and in Israel, and ran a b’nai mitzvah tutoring company — carried the holy scroll toward his Lyft. A Chasidic man challenged where he was going. Webster ignored him. Within moments, another Chasid began pestering him. “I defensively told them I owed no explanation and their continued demands and harassment were racist,” Webster wrote on his Facebook page. 

He got into his vehicle but another car, driven by a Chasid, blocked it. Twenty or 30 Chasidim quickly circled. Police eventually dispersed the crowd. “It was one of the most racist and terrifying moments of my life,” Webster wrote.

In response, Webster doubled down on the Jewish community. He started JOC Torah Academy, a space where Jews of color (JOCs) learn from other JOCs. 

Most JOCs, however, walk away when they experience racism, said Ilana Kaufman, who directs the Jews of Color Field Building Initiative. “Racism pushes Jews of color away and we seek our refuge elsewhere,” she said. We spoke just before her initiative released a first-ever analysis of Jewish population studies, titled “Counting Inconsistencies: Analysis of American Jewish Population Studies with a Focus on Jews of Color.”

It found that a million Jews of color are missing from counts of America’s Jewish community. 

“Racism pushes Jews of color away and we seek our refuge elsewhere.”

— Ilana Kaufman

The meta-study was directed by Stanford University’s Ari Kelman, who analyzed seven national Jewish population studies, 15 local and community studies and four student studies. Some studies didn’t ask about race, others did inconsistently and used sampling techniques resulting in undercounting of JOCs, like relying on “Jewish” names.

“My friend Lee Smith would not get called, while Whoopi Goldberg, who isn’t Jewish, would,” Kaufman noted. “Jewish demographic tools don’t have any capacity to count Jews of color in a household,” she said. “It’s as if non-white Jews simply don’t exist.” 

In ways small and large, white Jews communicate to JOCs that they don’t belong. Today JOCs represent 12 to 15% of the American Jewish population. The Jewish community, like America in general, becomes browner with each generation. By 2042, over half of Americans will be multiracial or people of color, Kaufman said, and it will be no different among American Jews.

Raised with her twin brother, David, by their white Jewish mother in San Francisco (their African American father wasn’t involved), Kaufman felt caught between two worlds starting as a preteen. At Jewish camp, she felt unable to bond with the other Jewish girls over hair and clothes, she said. 

After 20 years as a teacher and administrator, Kaufman, 47, worked at the San Francisco Jewish Federation as a program officer and at the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council. In 2015, sickened that black men were being killed by police officers, she pivoted toward connecting racial justice and Jewish philanthropy. A year later, she started the JOC Field Building Initiative. 

Now that we know roughly how many JOCs are missing, how should the community respond? 

“We need a strategic plan where we pave pathways to real dialogue and eventually have leadership teams filled with engaged and savvy JOCs,” Kaufman said. “Our Jewish community is getting more racially diverse. If we stay as we are, we will tumble backward into a past where we don’t count and value all Jews,” she added. “Which Jewish world do you want to live in?”

I, for one, prefer to live in Kaufman’s world, where every Jew counts, rather than push away those who don’t fit into some preconceived notion of what Jewish looks like.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist living in New York City.

Two Nice Jewish Boys: Episode 139 – The Neo-Nazi Who Converted to Judaism

Today we’re joined on the podcast by Yonatan Langer. But Yonatan’s name wasn’t always Yonatan. It used to be Lutz. And Lutz used to be an ardent Neo Nazi.

Today Yonatan is an observant, orthodox Jew who lives in Israel and studies Kaballah, the Jewish Mystical school of thought.

The road that led from Lutz to Yonatan was a long one. But before all that, the story begins with a kids Karate instructor.

We’re really excited to have Yonatan on 2NJB today to tell his story.

The Kabbalah Center’s website.

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What We Can Change Is Our Attitude

When I was around 8 years old, I was summoned from class to receive the terrible news that my beloved Papa (my paternal grandfather) had been hit by a bus. He was walking the streets of Nob Hill in San Francisco, and a bus failed to stop at a stop sign. The impact threw my Papa into the air, breaking just about every bone in his body.

His doctors didn’t expect him to survive; miraculously he did. But he was in a badly fractured body, and he never recovered his vitality or resilience. His nerves were shattered, prompting him to cry often and for no apparent reason. His movement was faulty and his body so frail that he spent most of his time in his bedroom and his apartment. That meant that my Nana (my paternal grandmother) also was tethered to that same apartment. Day after day, she could look out of her windows to see the bustle below: the energy of San Francisco’s Chinatown, of its downtown district, of the wharf. But she couldn’t go out to participate. She was as much a prisoner as he was.

In such confinement, there are only two possible responses. The first is to dwell on the constraints that force a house arrest, and grow embittered, angry and sad over the many activities and social opportunities now out of reach. The second possibility is to shift one’s focus, to use the space created by imagination, memory and fantasy to create a world big enough in which to thrive, despite the very real and brutal restraints. 

The choice isn’t easy, but it’s simple. We can’t always change the reality, but how we relate to that reality can change its meaning, its impact and its significance.

Jewish law illustrates this essential insight in several instances, but I’d like to highlight my favorite. Let’s imagine that you want to take your dog for a walk on Shabbat, so you’re concerned that your stroll with the pooch should accord with Jewish law. Two immediate concerns might arise: The first is that is it prohibited to trap an animal on the Sabbath. Isn’t buckling a collar and leash on a dog a form of trapping (one of the 39 forbidden melakhot/forms of labor)? How can that action be justified? The second concern is that it is prohibited to carry on Shabbat (another of the melakhot). But if you manage to get that leash and collar on your dog, you will wind up holding the handle of the leash and carrying the leash, won’t you?

Turns out that Jewish law has an answer to both challenges, and they hinge on the attitudes of the dog! If the dog resists the leash and collar, then it is a form of trapping, and it is forbidden. But if the dog (like my Molly) responds to the leash and collar by jumping with excitement, wagging her tail and running to get the collar on so she can walk, well, in that case it isn’t trapping at all, and it is quite permissible. All because of the mental mood of the dog! Not only that, but if she is happy to have the collar and leash attached, then when she leads you out of the house, halachically speaking, it is she, not you, who is carrying the leash. 

In both instances, the physical reality remains the same, but the attitude, understanding and mood transform the halachic significance of the act entirely. Attaching the leash goes from biblically prohibited capital punishment to praiseworthy — entirely because of the appraisal and emotions of the pet.

My Nana — and anyone who wrestles with chronic illness, with different abilities, in hospice, in a nursery (and those who care for them) — understands that same fundamental choice: Focus on the limits and become dispirited, or focus on the love and possibilities, and then the prison loses much of its harshness. My Nana responded to her confinement by learning how to paint miniature nature scenes, which she painted by the hundreds. All of her friends and relatives were gifted these paintings, and I now realize that they were her portals into the great outdoors. Her feet could not hike the lake country, but her mind and spirit could.

We all retain the power to choose, to surrender to our challenges and participate in imprisoning ourselves through regret, resentment, rage, or to center ourselves in the resistance-generated freedom made possible by the attitudes we cultivate along the way.

I’d write more now, but Molly just came in with her leash in her mouth. We’re choosing to go for a walk.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson is the Abner & Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair and professor of philosophy at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of American Jewish University. He is also the dean of the Zacharias Frankel School at the University of Potsdam in Germany, training Masorti/Conservative rabbis for Europe.

Counting Our Days

Elderly woman hands praying with peace of mind and faithfully.

Psalm 90, ascribed to Moses, acknowledges the brevity of the human’s life and his or her finite time on Earth, and so he asks God to “Teach us to count our days, then we shall acquire a heart of wisdom.”

This is an unlikely question from Moses, the person closest to HaShem with the deepest understanding of God’s ways. In fact, God states, “Mouth to mouth do I speak to him …” (Numbers 12:8). Yet, punished for disobeying God, he, too, must die like the rest of us, raising the question, what does it mean to count our days? We get a hint this time of year.

In my previous column, I pointed out that Passover is the beginning of a journey, leaving behind slavery in Egypt and moving toward a life of freedom that culminates at Mount Sinai, receiving Torah and the Ten Commandments. Freedom is not a life of unrestrained and total self-centered determination. Although we have choice, we also live with values and ethics, with love and compassion, making room for others and living out divine qualities. We search for purpose and meaning in our lives and participate in supporting those around us and fulfilling the will of the creator.

Centuries ago, our people lived in relationship with nature and cyclical harvests. This was how they fed their families as well as offered, a number of times a year, a portion to God as a gift of gratitude from their produce. Torah spells out how much, and when, such offerings were made. “You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Holy Day, when you bring the Omer of the waving, seven weeks … fifty days, you, shall offer a new meal offering to HaShem.” (Leviticus 23:15-16) So the day after Passover, an Omer, a measurement of barley, should be brought to the Temple, and seven weeks later, another offering, this time two loaves of fine flour. Certain animals were also required. In all, gifts that would be burnt on the altar creating a “satisfying aroma to HaShem.”

This 50th day is Shavuot, meaning weeks, which the rabbis turned into a celebration of receiving Torah, but its origin is to mark the harvest of the wheat. So counting was a way to focus on nature with its steady growth and ultimate fulfillment; harvesting, gleaning, cooking/baking, eating and earnestly sharing with HaShem the profound expression of gratitude for sustenance and life.

After the Temple was destroyed, harvested offerings were curtailed but the rabbis saw the above commandment with fresh eyes and newly directed purpose. Counting became an inner process, a spiritual preparation from the second day of Passover until the 50th day, Shavuot, ready to receive Torah. Focusing on each day brought enlightenment and built anticipation, just as when we look forward to a wedding, a bar or bat mitzvah or even a vacation. How often do we count the days until our simcha or anticipated excursion? 

Counting the Omer, as it is known, has taken on new dimensions. Kabbalists, seeing the human being as a template for divine expression, the Etz Chayim (Tree of Life), focus on seven (one for each week) psycho-spiritual attributes, sefirot; chesed — lovingkindness, compassion); gevurah — boundaries, restraint, discernment; tiferet — balance, harmony;  netzach — victory, action, perseverance, accomplishment; hod — humility, empathy;  yesod — relationship, sharing, intimacy; and malchut — imminent divinity, how we express the divine and stand in the world.

Students of Mussar focus on ethical, moral and humane conduct; honesty, generosity, patience, listening, equanimity, etc. Counting is a process of elevating one’s character and purifying the soul in preparation for receiving Torah. Once we harvested grains, moving toward virtual Sinai is now an opportunity to harvest our best selves. 

The Israelites leaving Egypt carried post-traumatic stress disorder from years of abuse and enslavement, needing to go through a process of refinement and healing before standing at Sinai. From now until June 7, we, too, have an opportunity through meditation, study, prayer, deep inner exploration or shared dialogue to examine, and better understand, who we are, how we relate to others and the world, and if the values we hold dear have not slipped away. The genius of the Jewish calendar is that it provides time to acquire a heart of wisdom, time for self-reflection, by counting each day and making each day count.

Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and the author of “Spiritual Surgery, Journey of Healing Mind, Body and Spirit.” For more details and a chart for counting the Omer, visit Robbins’ blog at jewishjournal.com. expandedspirit.org

N.Y. Times Seen as Bad News for Jews

The New York Times remains the gold standard in world journalism, but its luster has been blemished by its own missteps over its long and ongoing run as America’s newspaper of record. That’s the point of “Print to Fit: The New York Times, Zionism and Israel, 1896-2016,” by Jerold S. Auerbach (Academic Studies Press), a study of what Auerbach regards as its sins of omission and commission when it comes to the Jewish state.

“Along the way, [publisher] Adolf Ochs’s enduring motto was inverted,” Auerbach asserts. “All the news ‘fit to print’ became news printed to fit New York Times’ discomfort with the idea, and since 1948, the reality of a thriving Jewish democratic state in the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.”

As Auerbach points out, the Ochs and Sulzberger families, owners of The New York Times starting in the late 19th century, were assimilated Jews who were disturbed by “the ominous cloud of dual loyalty” that hung over the Jewish community in America. For that reason, it was a practice of the Times to use only initials for reporters whose first name was “Abraham,” including distinguished journalists whose last names were Raskin, Rosenthal and Weiler. And the heroic achievements of the founders of Zionism in the first half of the 20th century were “only occasionally noticed by the Times and invariably disparaged.” 

That’s a fact of history, of course. But Auerbach’s book is meant to persuade his readers that the Times has only gotten worse. He is unsettled by the editors, reporters and commentators who are responsible for the coverage of Israel. He argues that the Six-Day War sparked a renewed period of hostility toward “a triumphant Israel,” and he charges the Times with failing to meet “the challenge to provide fair coverage” to Israel’s first right-wing government in 1977. “His support for settlements in what had been Jordan’s West Bank elicited incessant criticism of Israeli ‘occupation’ that shows no sign of abating,” Auerbach writes.

The villains, according to Auerbach, include U.S.-based writers such as Thomas Friedman, Roger Cohen and Nicholas Kristof, op-ed contributors from Israel such as David Grossman and Ari Shavit, and the late Amos Oz, whom he blames for launching “a fusillade of criticism of Israel.” Auerbach is troubled by the fact that in 2015, then-Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren and reporter Isabel Kershner were “joined by Diaa Hadid, a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause who was hired in response to the Public Editor’s suggestion that an Arabic-speaking journalist would enhance Times coverage.”

 “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by a blurb that characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism.

Ironically, Auerbach himself has been a contributor The New York Times, and his author bio points out that one of his 11 books was chosen as a New York Times Noteworthy Book in 1976. He is Professor Emeritus of History at Wellesley College and served as a Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University. Yet “Print to Fit” is a work of special pleading, perhaps best summarized by Edward Alexander, professor emeritus at the University of Washington, whose blurb characterizes the book as an effort to answer “the question of whether Jews should judge Judaism by the standards of The New York Times or the Times by the standards of Judaism,” whatever Alexander (or, for that matter, Auerbach himself) understands by the phrase.

To his credit, Auerbach documents the sometimes nausea-inducing and heart-breaking record of The New York Times at various crucial points in Jewish history. He concedes, for example, that Adolf Ochs was “[a]nguished by the persecution of the Jews” in Nazi Germany in the 1930s, but he argues that Ochs “remained determined that the Times must not be identified as a Jewish newspaper.” As a result, the Times underplayed or overlooked the facts of the Holocaust even as Jews in the millions were suffering and dying, a policy that he rightly calls “an appalling dereliction of journalistic responsibility.” Not until 1944, he points out, did the Times begin to find space for the facts of mass murder, but even so, “[t]he horrors of Auschwitz never made the front page.”

Auerbach’s use of quotation marks around the word “occupation,” as quoted earlier in this review, is a clue to his method and his motive. He complains that the West Bank is “rarely identified as biblical Judea and Samaria” in the pages of the Times, and yet Auerbach himself puts quotation marks around the phrase “West Bank” as if the phrase were an artifact of propaganda. We are left with the impression that Auerbach would be more comfortable if the Times adopted the aspirational vocabulary of Likud instead of plain English words to describe the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Or, to put it another way, he objects to the hiring of a Times reporter whom he condemns as “a Muslim advocate of the Palestinian cause,” but he appears to lament the absence of Jewish reporters who are willing to act as advocates of the Israeli cause. 

So we are left with the painful question quoted above — should we judge the Times by the standards of Judaism? And, even if so, what standards of Judaism does Auerbach embrace? It’s significant that he finds “West Bank” to be an off-putting way to refer a geographical feature of the Jordan River, and he describes that place as “the biblical homeland of the Jewish people.” To some Jewish readers, the phrase he prefers is a cherished article of faith. For others, however, it may be an argument, but it is certainly not a phrase we should expect to find in a secular newspaper whose mission is to serve the American democracy.

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

Debating Religion’s Role in American Politics

From left: Reinhard Krauss, Rabbi Adam Greenwald, Rev. Jonathan Chute and Aziza Hasan discuss religion and politics at American Jewish University.

“We are here to learn something about the distinctive insights and perhaps the helpful wisdom that Judaism, Christianity and Islam can bring to this crucial conversation of religion and politics based on the long history of each of these religious traditions.”

With those remarks, Reinhard Krauss, executive director of the Academy for Judaic, Christian and Islamic Studies, introduced a recent panel discussion held at American Jewish University (AJU).

The event was part of the series “Let’s Talk About Religion,” which features interreligious conversations highlighting the similarities and differences between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Krauss served as the moderator for this panel discussion, titled “God in the Voting Booth? The Role of Religion in American Politics.”  The panel featured Rabbi Adam Greenwald, director of AJU’s Miller Introduction to Judaism Program; Jonathan Chute, senior pastor at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church; and Aziza Hasan, executive director of NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

Hasan said religion and politics have always intermingled, noting how America’s first president, George Washington, addressed a synagogue about religious freedom and how former Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) was sworn in to the U.S. House on Thomas Jefferson’s Quran.

Greenwald said the sacred texts of the three monotheistic faiths do not prescribe policy positions. “So I believe one can be motivated by good religion and be a Democrat, and one can be motivated by good religion and be a Republican,” he said. “The question is, are they both responding to the call of religion to be aware of the social ills?”

Although religion has been used as a tool to oppress, Chute said the most sustainable religions are those that ask people to look inward. “I tend to feel that a healthy religious impulse is one that is more critical and actually more specifically self-critical; and one of the differences between what I think of as a healthy religious expression and something that is more reflective of a cult is its capacity for self-criticism,” he said.

Hasan said she was struck by a recent article in USA Today that said an increasing number of people feel like their way of life is being threatened by America becoming more diverse.

“If people are feeling like their values, their way of life is going to be threatened because minorities are taking over, we better start listening really quickly,” she said. She added that after the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, she was heartened to see people of diverse political beliefs coming together for a vigil at the Federal Building in Westwood. “We all got to grieve that night,” she said.

Similarly, Greenwald said the same groups that turned out to support one another after the Tree of Life shooting came out to express solidarity following the recent shootings at the mosques in New Zealand.

While the speakers said religion is a force for good in political and civil life, Krauss noted that established religions have not always aligned with good causes such as the civil rights movement and figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

During the event’s Q&A session, an audience member asked for the panelists’ opinions of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who has made anti-Israel statements on Twitter. Hasan, who was raised in Jordan by a Christian-American mother and a Muslim-Palestinian father, denounced the rise of “anti-Jewish sentiment.” She said the controversy surrounding Omar’s anti-Israel statements has furthered her education about the many forms of anti-Semitism.

“I can see tropes I was blind to before, and it’s been a journey,” Hasan said.

When an audience member said that clergy who use their pulpits to express political positions bothered him, Chute agreed. “I try to preach in a way that invites people to ask their own questions and to wrestle with things that I think are substantive and important,” he said, “but I really seek to avoid proscription and partisan pronouncement.”

It’s Time to Update ‘Being a Blessing’

As we celebrate Passover and reflect upon our redemption story, we can only imagine what kind of message this story must have had for the ancient world. It challenged the fundamentals of the conventional life order, showing that the paradigm of slavery was no longer in control and, although it took quite a process with the Pharaoh, at some point the world learned that the dominant lifestyle in the Middle East and other parts of the world had come to an end.

The transformative message that emerged from the Passover story had a clear vision about the issues of power, abuse and freedom. Followed by an endless discourse about the meaning of freedom, this message affected humankind beyond the particular Jewish narrative. 

We are a people with a great past. But can we go on with only memories and success stories? Do we Jews have anything to say about contemporary life and, more important, about the future? Can we challenge any of the existing paradigms and contribute anything to humanity today?

Perhaps our greatest message to the contemporary world would be to demonstrate how Judaism and the Jewish lifestyle can embrace core human needs. To deliver this message, we will have to argue about some existing powerful paradigms that dominate the Western world. We will need courage to bless some paradigms and rebuke others. Moreover, we will need to “rebrand” the Torah and Jewish life so that Judaism stops being “a paradigm of survival” and embraces new understanding of meaning, well-being and happiness.

In this article, I will try to challenge some of our conventional views and will address the question that, in my view, should be at the center of Jewish thought and action: “Why do Jews and Judaism matter in the contemporary world?”

Among the foundational Torah stories about the origin of the world, the central one is the story of the Garden of Eden, which speaks in a symbolic language about the fundamentals of human existence. The Tree of Life (Etz Chaim) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Etz ha-da’at, tov va-ra) are two such symbols. Etz Chaim implies vitality, creativity and love we possess; while Etz ha-da’at stands for duality, free choice and ethics. 

Eve and then Adam ate from Etz ha-da’at, which was prohibited to them, and since then a deep mystery has been imbedded in our reality: Etz Chaim, from which we were supposed to feed, has turned into the prohibited one and remained in the Garden of Eden from where we were expelled; whereas the forbidden tree, Etz ha-da’at, has become the center of our life and feeds us to this day.

The exile of the Jewish people further strengthened the centrality of Etz ha-da’at. For many centuries Judaism has focused on the language of good and evil. We have developed a wonderful set of ethical values to maintain family, community and people. Conserving and preserving our achievements has become the core of Judaism. 

In the 21st century, Jewish existence and vitality need to feed from Etz Chaim. It is this tree that encourages our pursuit of essentiality, well-being and meaning, and that defines how we eat, listen, speak, make love, deal with wealth and cope with sadness, loss and loneliness. It is the foundation for our leaders’ identity as well as for the leader within each of us. The reversal of the Etz Chaim–Etz ha-da’at paradigm will enable addressing the most challenging questions we struggle with today, the first and primary being: “Why be Jewish?” 

A while ago, I met one of the founders of Birthright Israel, who spoke proudly about the program’s extraordinary accomplishments. I was told that in just a few years Birthright will have a positive impact on Jewish demography, and the number of Jews in the world will significantly grow by 2025. I asked a simple question: “So what? Even if the number of Jews were to double, why does this matter?” Many great Jewish leaders aren’t asking this question. 

“The 21st century requires a paradigm shift: We need to strengthen the covenant of destiny and better understand the mission of the Jewish people.”

In Israel and the Diaspora, the Jewish world has an abundant variety of programs whose major aims are to engage Jews in Jewish life and community. With their sophisticated strategies and creative ideas, many great Jewish leaders, thinkers, educators and philanthropists participate in worldwide efforts to ensure Jewish continuity. For many years, I have devoted myself to Jewish education and pluralism in Israel, and I have gained vast experience dealing with Jewish values and their relevance in our era and with the issues of Jewish peoplehood and continuity. 

In 2017, I took a sabbatical to reflect upon my work, as I had begun to feel strongly that I had been part of a paradigm that needed a major review. After long contemplation and numerous discussions, I thought of what has become the crucial question for me and my colleagues regarding the Jewish mission today: Why be Jewish?

Without understanding the added value of Judaism and the Jewish people in the 21st century, we won’t find any meaningful arguments for why a person would choose to belong to the Jewish people and why Jews should remain a people. Our postmodern world has almost broken with the notion of a single, national identity to embrace universal values of humaneness and social justice. Even the concept of tikkun olam is no longer exclusively Jewish, as many wonderful non-Jews have taken upon themselves the common tikkun olam values.

In “Kol Dodi Dofek: Listen, My Beloved Knocks,” the great essay of 1956, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that the Jewish people live under two covenants that are formative for Jewish identity: the covenant of fate (brit goral) and the covenant of destiny (brit ye’ud). The covenant of identity was born from the experience of slavery in Egypt and implies a shared history of persecution and suffering; it was imposed on Jews by the outside world and unites us in the face of hostility. The covenant of destiny started at Mount Sinai, when the Jews chose to become God’s people. Under this covenant the Jewish people have our own voice and will, and we understand our historical mission is to be “God’s witness” on Earth (Isaiah 43:10-12).

The tragedies our people came through in the past centuries deepened and strengthened the covenant of fate. And so today, every act of terrorism committed against Jews — like the recent massacre at the Pittsburgh synagogue, every manifestation of anti-Semitism in Europe, and every terror attack in Israel — makes this covenant ever stronger, as Jews around the world identify with the tragedy and show their solidarity. American Jewish federations raise the most money in years of wars and tragedies. Even such important issues as assimilation and attitude toward Israel ultimately belong to the psychological mode of the covenant of fate and the paradigm of our people’s survival.

The 21st century requires a paradigm shift: We need to strengthen the covenant of destiny and better understand the mission of the Jewish people. Professor Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, stated the issue to me with this question: ”Can we be nourished with energy and motivation stemming from the vision of the future and not only from the past?” Indeed, can we imagine an annual campaign that raises money for the vision and future of the Jewish people?

Many thinkers worldwide assert that a fresh mindset is needed to deal with such serious emerging issues of our time — as, for example, the growing gap between the development of technology and the development of human beings. During the last century, technological innovation has created dramatic changes in the daily lives of much of the world’s population. Yet, alongside the phenomenal improvement in our material well-being, many of us suffer from a significant and consistent decrease in our emotional, mental and social well-being. We have lost the art of face-to-face contact and knowing the quality of intimacy. More and more people experience loneliness, anxiety, loss of direction and hope. Apparently, the daily struggle for survival that had been the central issue of human culture has been replaced with higher fundamental needs of belonging, esteem, personal meaning and self-actualization. 

These are the precise issues the “living Torah” should deal with. What does our tradition have to contribute to the existential questions of intimacy, loneliness, pursuit of wealth or dealing with power? Indeed, what is the mission of the Jewish people today? 

The good news is that the answers have always been there — since the very beginning of the Jewish story. The first words God addresses to Abraham — “Vehye bracha” (being a blessing) — imply this mission: “Go forth from your country … And I will bless you … And you shall be a blessing … and in you all the nations of the Earth will be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).”

What does it mean “to be a blessing”?

Vehye bracha is the “post–Garden of Eden” call for vitality, prosperity and meaning, which asserts that their source is not only from God but also from all human beings created in God’s image. The role of Torah and mitzvot is to define accurate measures for the endless abundance of life forces, so that human beings and the environment will be blessed, not abused. 

Unlike Sabbateanism and the New Age movements that imagined the world without boundaries, vehye bracha realizes that there is no return to the Garden of Eden; rather, we must be rooted in reality, responsibility and ethics. 

Vehye bracha is not a set of values, but rather a 24/7 mindset that places the qualities of Etz Chaim at the center of human existence and impacts all our inner emotions and external behavior. To internalize this mindset requires serious work, but it is rewarded with the wonderful gift of abundance and “oneg” (a unique Hebrew word for high-level joy and happiness), and can add a new dimension to the notions of relationships, responsibility and love. Shabbat is the source of bracha. We must add to Shabbat the elements of Etz Chaim and make it the “Jewish workout day” for exercising bracha and oneg.

The Jewish people were called on to live a life of bracha, and by this they will be a model for all the families on Earth. As it appears in the very first verse of “Lekh-Lekha,” the blessing starts with an individual’s growth and develops onward to the family, the community, the nation and the world. There’s no social growth without personal growth, and personal growth should lead to social growth. 

We must start imagining what a blessed economy, media, leadership and politics can be about. The latest elections in Israel made us clearly understand that we need leadership that can create a vision for the future and not only suggest solutions for current problems. Can we imagine a discussion about a “blessed Jewish State” and a “blessed Jewish community” as a shared agenda for Jews worldwide? This may become the novel concept for the new Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds to deal with. Vehye bracha should become the central theme of Israeli-Diaspora dialogue both on individual and communal levels. 

“We must start imagining what a blessed economy, media, leadership and politics can be about. The latest elections in Israel made us clearly understand that we need leadership that can create a vision for the future and not only suggest solutions for current problems.” 

The 21st century is the first time in our history when the particular Jewish story can enter a true and healthy dialogue with the world and address the universal questions of human existence. The way we speak, the way we work, the way we organize our political institutions and our media, the way we perceive the blessing of our body and our sexuality — all can be reviewed today through the bracha lenses to give a new meaning to Isaiah’s words: “Light unto the nations” (Isaiah 41-42; 49; 60). 

We conclude our Passover seder with “Le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim” (“Next year in Jerusalem”). For thousands of years of exile, this was a prayer for an end of the exile and return to the Land of Israel. Today, when we have the Jewish State with Jerusalem as its capital, “Next year in Jerusalem” stands for our hope and calls for a fresh discussion about the “Why?” question, our future and how we can contribute — in dealing with the questions of meaning, fullness of life and well-being — to the world of bracha.

Le-shanah ha-ba’ah be-Yerushalayim!

Rabbi Mordechai Bar-Or, the founder and past president of Kolot, a study center for social action leadership, has served as a personal rabbi and mentor to many leading Israeli figures including President Shimon Peres. Today Mordechai Bar-Or is a co-founder of a new  Innovative Research Center “V’ehye Bracha” dealing with the themes outlined in the article, from both philosophical and educational perspectives.

The Lioness of Female Empowerment

Rotem Weinner Shapira’s official title is director of Lion of Judah Israel (LOJI). The organization is the Israeli arm of a global philanthropic community of Jewish women that funds projects and nongovernment organizations geared to improving the lives and rights of women and girls. In reality, however, being LOJI’s only paid employee, Weinner Shapira is Jill-of-all-trades, with fundraiser, event producer, graphic artist and video editor among the many hats she wears. 

“I believe that when women [come] together, they have special powers,” she said. “Things happen differently when the space is shared with men.” 

LOJI hosts events for its community of some 160 women donors. Weinner Shapira says these are key to the foundation’s continued success because it affords them a space to just be themselves. “These are women who spend all day juggling their philanthropy, their businesses, their families, husbands, grandchildren but where are they themselves? Where are their souls?” 

With a focus that changes every few years, LOJI is currently homing in on three fields: violence against women, pensioners and women with disabilities. The communal fund has enabled issues that fall under the radar to gain exposure. One example is a project LOJI did in conjunction with Maslan, the sexual violence crisis center, training medical teams in hospitals and staff in senior citizens’ centers how to deal with women who have either experienced sexual abuse in the past or have suffered it in later years. The project also highlighted the abuse of Holocaust survivors by their caretakers. “We want these women to finish their lives with honor,” Weinner Shapira said. 

Weinner Shapira became LOJI’s director 11 years ago after returning to Israel from the United States, where she was an emissary in Pittsburgh. Even though her master’s specialized in American-Jewish studies, Weinner Shapira admits that she knew nothing about Jewish-American communal life before moving stateside. “I was amazed to see women reading the Torah and wearing a tallit,” she said, adding that Israelis are largely ill-informed about streams of Judaism outside Orthodoxy, since, unlike in the U.S., they comprise the fringes of Israeli society. 

“I believe that when women [come] together they have special powers. Things happen differently when the space is shared with men.” 

The growing disconnect between young American Jews and their peers in Israel is something that has to be tackled head-on, Weinner Shapira says, and it shouldn’t be the one-way street it currently is. “I think Taglit (Birthright) should be both ways, to make sure young Israelis get to know young American Jews.”

Weinner Shapira’s views on life and her career have evolved since taking the helm at LOJI, enabling her to navigate through different worlds. “I was born to be a bridge,” she said. This stems, in part, from her parents’ diverse economic backgrounds. “One grandmother gave me 500 shekels on my birthday while the other gave me chocolate,” she quipped. 

Weinner Shapira and her husband also decided to become more observant. Four months ago, the secular couple decided to begin keeping Shabbat. Asked how her three children under the age of 10 are accepting such a drastic change, Weinner Shapira beams. “They’re all over it. It’s the most amazing thing that’s ever happened to us,” she said. “They’re suddenly discovering one another.” 

Her views on her professional worth have also been transformed. “There was the Rotem of the Foundation who was a professional, a kind of prophet, and there was the Rotem who came home crying to her husband,” she said. “I will do all the work but it doesn’t matter if I don’t get the credit. I don’t care. Now I understand that there is a place to feel proud of myself.” n

Springtime Blessings

Let’s admit Southern California’s long-guarded secret:
There are actually seasons here. Perhaps not as drastically distinct as the seasons of the Northeast, nonetheless, Los Angeles erupts in raucous bloom in springtime, green bowers bake into brown under the summer sun, trees and shrubs constrict into the fall, and the chill of winter nourishes the region back into bloom. 

Which brings me to today and its springtime blessing.

This morning, walking through the backyard toward my car, I passed our resurgent orange tree, in full bloom. If you’ve never caught a whiff of a newly blossoming citrus tree, you haven’t smelled paradise. Delicate white petals swirl in symmetric circles of beauty, and the perfume they produce is sweet, pungent and inspiring.  A strong citrus scent, distillation of orange, hit me suddenly, grabbing my attention and infusing the yard with its whiff of bliss. 

Smell, the Zohar teaches, is the most spiritual of the senses. Touch is tactile and physical, as is taste. Sight is light bouncing off of physical objects. But scent wafts on the wind and seems ethereal and otherworldly. Memories unlock because of smells’ connection to particular occasions (recall the smell of turkey on Thanksgiving, or the scents that unlock memories of seders long forgotten, of kitchens laden with the smells of Shabbat). 

It turns out that Judaism recognizes the elevated spirituality of springtime blooms. There is a blessing the Talmud instructs us to recite not more than once a year, in the season when flowers bloom. In honor of my garden’s orange tree (and, I suppose, also in honor of the region’s extraordinary super bloom!), I stood in the yard, under the beckoning sunlight of a springtime morning, and recited these ancient words of mindfulness and gratitude:

We praise you, Holy One our God, Majesty of Space/Time, Who withholds nothing from the world, and who created goodly creations and beautiful trees in order to provide pleasure to humanity.

What a wondrous tradition that bids us to notice the resurgence of life and light in the spring! How marvelous that Judaism understands that pleasure is itself a gift from God, and that nature’s exuberance and beauty isn’t just a practical, functional response. There is such a thing as beauty for its own sake, pleasure for its own sake, raucous delight as a value in and of itself. 

Life is a gift. Pleasure, beauty and joy emerge in its wake. 

It is deeply Jewish to breathe deeply, savor the scents, and to then give thanks.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University and is the Dean of the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam, training Masorti rabbis for Europe.

Judaism in Action in Bangladesh: A Field Log From the Rohingya Refugee Camps

A view of the Kutulalong camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photos by Rares Michael Ghilezan

The Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is one of the most persecuted populations in the world.

After enduring decades of rights deprivations and abuses, more than 700,000 Rohingya in August 2017 fled full-blown genocide at the hands of the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military and security apparatus. This mass exodus joined previous waves of Rohingya refugees already living in neighboring Bangladesh, and together nearly 1 million remain today in sprawling, squalid camps.

In my position at Jewish World Watch (JWW), one of my first priorities was to classify the Tatmadaw’s persistent persecution of the Rohingya as an ongoing genocide, and to push elected officials and the U.S. State Department to do the same. 

Last August, I wrote an essay posted on the JWW website that explained why the attacks on the Rohingya by the Tatmadaw should by called a “genocide,” a term used sparingly by governments and legal entities. Multiple other entities have since followed suit in labeling this a genocide — and not just a mass atrocity — including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the United Nations’ fact-finding mission tasked with assessing the atrocities, and the Public International Law & Policy Group, contracted by the State Department to do the same. In December, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution designating the situation as genocide.

JWW was founded in 2004 on the belief that Jews cannot stand idly by in the face of genocides worldwide. Just as righteous gentiles saved Jews during the Holocaust, we stand united with people of all faiths to speak out on behalf of the world’s most vulnerable people — the survivors of today’s genocides and mass atrocities.

In early March, I traveled on behalf of JWW to the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh to learn how we, the Jewish community and beyond, can make a difference.

At JWW, we encourage our community to advocate, but beyond the loftier goals of international recognition of the Rohingya’s plight, we recognize that they need increased aid and — perhaps most importantly — accountability for what has happened. JWW has a history of supporting survivors of the Darfuri genocide and mass atrocities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others, with educational and vocational programming — particularly for women, and it was our belief that those avenues, along with community-building initiatives, could emerge as the most necessary and strategic means for us to engage with the Rohingya.

“For cultural and religious reasons, Rohingya women primarily are confined to their homes. Their children, by virtue of their statelessness, are barred from attending host community schools.”

What follows is a collection of my observations from a weeklong journey into the camps of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh — a journey that recalibrated my perspective, exposed me to bottomless need, and reminded me why all of us at JWW — including our many supporters in schools, synagogues and beyond — do this work: because we believe in the awe-inspiring resilience of the human spirit. 

Day 1: A prison with no walls

“The host community is on the left, the camps on the right,” my guide, Haythem, said after an hour of traveling bumpy roads, taking in the tableau of everyday Bangladesh. The activity of the host community’s bustling marketplace slowly dwindled as we approached the refugee camps that, although huge, appeared surprisingly still.

In Camp 6 we crossed paths with very few adult women. The most noise came from babies sitting in the dirt, calling out until older siblings scooped them up. I kept hungering to see programmed activities for the refugees, especially the children, who followed us with curiosity. It wasn’t just the conditions of the camp, with its fragile structures extending seemingly forever into the distance, that left me concerned. It was the lack of anything for the people to do.

For cultural and religious reasons, Rohingya women primarily are confined to their homes. Their children, by virtue of their statelessness, are barred from attending host community schools. An “informal” curriculum developed for use inside the camps may be taught only in English or Burmese, not Bangla — the language most similar to the one the Rohingya speak and the official language of Bangladesh.

Because Rohingya have no legal status, they cannot legally work for aid organizations or outside the camps. These limitations create an invisible barrier between them and the host community, preventing assimilation and diminishing the option to stay.

In this newer section of the camps I saw just one informal learning center, where a teacher led a class in English — a language she herself did not understand.

On this first day in the camps — despite seeing the 50 impressive monsoon-resistant dwellings JWW had commissioned last year as part of a pilot program to provide shelter for families — I felt flattened by the scene before me: All those listless eyes of children with untapped potential; the women confined to their homes with nothing to do and no way to heal from their trauma.

I witnessed the survivors’ need for purpose, to truly make lives for themselves and their families, even in the camps. 

A student writes on the white board in a school in a camp.

Day 2: Little things, big differences

I had hoped my second day would offer me opportunities to explore how JWW’s support of locally run programs might be of help, but I woke to learn that the government had shut down the roads to the camps because of street protests by the local residents. 

With the camps closed off, I pivoted to visit schools in the slums of Cox’s Bazar that educate many Rohingya from previous waves of persecution-triggered flight. The conditions in the slums were even worse than what I had seen in Camp 6.

John Littleton, regional director of an organization operating the slum schools in partnership with a Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization (NGO), announced our arrival at the first school. As I entered through a gate, I was spellbound by a lush garden with tidy bushes, blooming flowers, planters fashioned from repurposed plastic water bottles, and a set of swings! Old and rusty as those swings were, seeing them in this tiny, verdant oasis — such a stark contrast to the bleakness outside — filled my soul with hope.

We visited four schools across three slum areas. All had uplifting gardens and classrooms decorated with the children’s vibrant artwork — brightly colored paper streamers crisscrossing the ceilings, and mobiles made of shells, pompoms, straws and bottle caps. 

The benefits of these decorative touches could be seen in the smiling faces of the kids, who seemed genuinely engaged and grateful to be there. They got me thinking about how we might go about replicating such healthy learning environments within the Rohingya refugee camps.

There is a palpable difference in the response of beneficiaries whose unique circumstances are considered in the crafting of a project. Such recognition gives the refugees a sense of agency and joy, offering the message: “I believe in you, and you matter.”

Rohingya children in a learning center in a camp in Cox’s Bazar.

Day 3: True leaders rise

Today, with the camps reopened,  I was lucky enough to befriend several young people who, against all odds, have managed to pierce the malaise of being marooned indefinitely in a country that doesn’t want them.

I met a young Rohingya woman who worked with a communications organization that produced radio programs for the camps. Groups of refugees would huddle in listening groups around the few people with phones that picked up the programs.

The woman, who would not give her name out of concern for her safety, interviewed Rohingya on topics ranging from early marriage and sex trafficking to water sanitation and chickenpox. She also helped dispel rumors, like the one about vaccinations being a tool for religious conversion.

“We hear the words ‘human rights,’ and we are human, but where are our rights?” she asked me. “I would rather die in Myanmar than waste away my days here.”

If just one remark could capture the Rohingya predicament, that would be it.

She continued, talking about the desperate need to combat boredom.

“The men, they sit idle because there is nothing for them to do. It’s dangerous. They’re like in prison.”

The women, she said, also need help. “Many women here were raped or had their husbands killed in front of them. But because they have nothing else to do, they sit around reliving the horrors that happened to them. Their minds get stuck. …  There should be sewing centers for women everywhere!”

I then met a remarkable young man (who also would not give his name). He was born in one of the camps that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees established to deal with a large influx of fleeing Rohingya in 1992. When the mass influx from the Myanmar genocide began in August 2017, he started to work as a day laborer for an NGO to assist the refugees. Under the mentorship of the NGO’s director, he has risen to become a program coordinator, managing multiple projects across several camps.

“I’m not educated at all, but I’m resourceful and work hard,” he told me. “I don’t know where I’d be if [my boss] hadn’t taken me under his wing.”

These two brilliant young people both dream of one day earning a college degree. They demonstrate that incomprehensible resilience that pushes even survivors of atrocities to rise. They are the future leaders of their people, the sort JWW strives to seek out and help to empower.

“We hear the words ‘human rights,’ and we are human, but where are our rights?” — a Rohingya woman 

Day 4: Community is power

I sat upon many floors during my days in the camps, mostly in dark huts, surrounded by women. On this day I sat with one such group, huddled together to listen to a radio program much like the one produced by the young woman I met the day before. With them, I felt as though I was among girlfriends, sharing concerns and talking lovingly about our children.

Many Rohingya women have formed informal support groups in their communities. Among us was a young woman whose husband was beheaded before her eyes, and whose daughter bears deep white scars on her chest and neck. These women rely on one another. Any opportunity to bring them together, particularly to learn, has a multiplier effect. They hold each other up so that they may hold up their respective families in the wake of the unfathomable loss and unconscionable violations. 

In these sprawling camps of nearly 1 million people, I saw the power of human connection in teaching, learning, healing and rebuilding. The women,

in particular, have charted a way forward by building communities, such as a democratically elected women’s association that oversees operations in a school-uniform sewing center, as well as that radio-listening group and a communal garden.

The power of such groups is what helps the Rohingya to persevere.

They gave me hope and confidence that our interventions to help bring together and organize these survivors are crucial to making life in the camps sustainable for whatever time they remain there.

What’s next?

I am now compelled to share these and more stories with anyone who will listen to how we can support the Rohingya. I and others from JWW will be making ourselves available to speak at synagogues and events throughout Los Angeles to increase awareness and to ask you to join us in this fight. Over the next two weeks, I will also be at JWW’s annual Walks to End Genocide, where you also can learn how to get involved.

Please come walk with us and stop by to talk. With your help, we can provide hope and healing.

For more information on how you can advocate for the Rohingya, visit jww.org/actions.

On March 31, the Walk to End Genocide will be held at Pan Pacific Park, 7600 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. On April 7, a Conejo Valley walk will be held at Temple Etz Chaim, 1080 E. Janss Road, Thousand Oaks, from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Sign up to participate online.

Ann Strimov Durbin is a human rights attorney and Jewish World Watch’s director of advocacy and grantmaking.

The Many Faces of 21st-Century Anti-Semitism

Some of the 80 gravestones vandalized in a Jewish cemetery in the eastern French village of Quatzenheim, Feb. 19, 2019. (Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images)

The ancient Greeks imagined shape-shifting monsters of myriad faces. Today’s anti-Semitism is chimeric or kaleidoscopic. Choose from these up-to-date manifestations of age-old Jew hatred: 

  • Don ski masks and attack an aging rabbi in Buenos Aires in front of his terrified wife
  • Shame a French schoolgirl by ripping off jewelry identifying her as Jewish as she walks home from school
  • In the dead of night, use spray paint and black markers to deface New York public school playgrounds with anti-Semitic graffiti
  • Toss bricks through the window of a synagogue — then throw firebomb
  • Overturn tombstones in ancient Jewish cemeteries
  • As a Labour Party politician in the United Kingdom, spout conspiracy theories that the Mossad is already plotting to steal the next national election
  • Parade missiles promising “Death to Israel” through the streets of Tehran
  • Pass a fetid stream of United Nations Human Rights Council resolutions ignoring real culprits while condemning Israel for imaginary crimes against human rights
  • If you are an American Democratic congresswoman who tweeted that evil Israel is “hypnotizing the world” — wait seven years to mumble an unconvincing apology
  • As a Latino muralist in Los Angeles, which has the second-largest Jewish population in the world, proudly paint a giant mural on a high-profile commercial space depicting Israelis as the devil incarnate murdering children. Then, after the company owning the space defends you against charges of anti-Semitism, explain how you visited Israel and saw the genocidal face of Jews murdering Palestinians
  • Write an op-ed in the prestigious New York Times implying that staunchly pro-Israel Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was instead the spiritual founder of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement
  • Preach to African Americans that Jews that their traditional civil rights allies instead are members of “the Synagogue of Satan”
  • Turn Jewish summer camps into vehicles for anti-Israel indoctrination
  • As a college professor in Michigan, renege on a promise to write a letter of recommendation for a Jewish student who wants to study in Israel
  • Organize a whisper campaign to blackball students who visited Israel from running for campus office
  • Harass Jewish-American college students who voice support for Israel or wear yarmulkes on campus
  • Flood the internet with notorious anti-Semitic images dating from the Middle Ages that show hideous Jews as child murderers, shylocks and well poisoners
  • Falsify history by denying the Holocaust or the Jewish people’s 3,000-year link to Jerusalem and the Holy Land
  • Accuse Israel Defense Forces soldiers of murdering innocent Palestinians in order to sell their body parts on the international market
  • Deny Israel the rights to self-determination and self-defense while brushing off criticism with the lie that “anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism”

Welcome to the 21st-century’s horrible house of mirrors in which every reflection distorts the truth about the Jewish people and Israel. Our ultimate vindication against tormentors and traducers will be in the Lord. Until then, we will keep our powder dry.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper is the associate dean and director of Global Social Action Agenda at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Harold Brackman is a historian and consultant to the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Kingsborough Community College Embroiled in Anti-Semitic Allegations

Kingsborough Community College. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

An anti-Semitic harassment campaign appears to be being waged against identifiably Jewish and pro-Israel professors at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn – one of the storied City University of New York’s (CUNY) 25 colleges and graduate and professional schools, which educate some 275,000 students.

Despite tens of formal complaints filed with college and CUNY administrators over the past three years and the federal government’s Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and a lawsuit filed in federal court in 2016, leaders there appear to have taken little action.

While there are many documented instances of anti-Semitic graffiti at other universities and student government efforts to adopt resolutions backing divestment from companies that do business in Israel, Kingsborough’s situation involves what Business Department Chair Jeffrey Lax, describes in his 2016 federal lawsuit against the CUNY system and a former Kingsborough provost, a “pervasively hostile work environment” for “outward Jews.”

In 2016, CUNY’s chancellor ordered an outside investigation into charges of anti-Semitism at several other colleges, though not, at the time, at Kingsborough.

The report detailed multiple allegations of sporadic, isolated anti-Semitic behavior over several years and concluded that there is “no unchecked anti-Semitism” at CUNY schools.

However, the Journal spoke with several CUNY faculty members who have been victims of anti-Semitic harassment. Michael Goldstein is a 20-year-veteran business communications teacher and administrator at Kingsborough. An indefatigable cheerleader for the community college, which sits perched on Brooklyn’s shoreline, a public high school on the campus is named for his father, Leon Goldstein, who served as Kingsborough’s president for 29 years.  

Michael Goldstein became a victim of anti-Semitic attacks last year.  In February 2018, he arrived at his office on the Kingsborough campus and discovered that a  photo of his father presiding over a college graduation, hung outside his office door, had been defaced with swastikas and epithets written in pen: “F*** Trump Goldstein, Kill the Zionist Entity.”

“The vandalism marked the start of a systematic and pernicious campaign in which I have been targeted and harassed because of who I am and what I believe… this is an orchestrated, aggressive movement to destroy me,” Goldstein wrote in a Feb. 13 op-ed for the New York Daily News.

Goldstein told The Jewish Journal that he considers himself Kingsborough’s ambassador and resident school historian, organizing and speaking at events on campus and off, at high schools and community gatherings. The recent attacks, he said, have dimmed his enthusiasm for such activities.

Last May, as students arrived for final exams at the college, 1,500 fliers were left in classrooms and offices with images grabbed from Goldstein’s Facebook page, including a photo of his 13-year-old daughter. Goldstein is as energetic a re-poster of memes and cartoons on Facebook as he is a Kingsborough booster. His posts are visibly pro-Israel and opposed to progressive politicians including 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. While he is liberal on social issues including gay marriage and immigration, and voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, Goldstein said he was disappointed with Obama’s relationship with Israel and in 2016 voted for President Donald Trump because of his stance on Israel.

Goldstein said at least one faculty member was caught on college videotape distributing the fliers, but that Kingsborough leaders have refused to make that video available to attorneys working with Goldstein.

In addition, a Communist newspaper called “Challenge” published four separate articles between June and November of 2018 calling Goldstein racist, anti-Muslim and anti-gay. The paper was distributed widely just outside the campus gates, Goldstein said, adding that colleagues warned him that those campaigning to get him fired are “trying to get students to constantly harass me. I’m afraid one will take it too far by getting physical. I’m afraid of getting punched. I’ve never had a problem before this. I don’t want to be seen as racist or anti-Muslim. I like people for who they are.”

Now, among the academic left this anti-Israel attitude crosses into anti-Semitism all the time. I’m very pro-Zionist, so I’m automatically an oppressor — Michael Goldstein

Goldstein told the Journal fliers were put under his office door attacking him. They were also distributed widely around campus. In addition, he said, students banged on his office window, frightening him. Following these incidents, Goldstein requested campus security protection. He received it months later, but only after multiple requests and after a Christian administrator’s office was papered with crosses. Goldstein now has a campus safety officer escort him everywhere he walks on campus, and sit outside his office door whenever he’s inside.

“I can’t go to any community events anymore, even though I used to create and run them,” Goldstein said. “I used to be called ‘the mayor of Kingsborough.’ For many years I knew everyone, knew their families. Now I am isolated.”

He said he believes he’s being targeted because,  “now among the academic left this anti-Israel attitude crosses into anti-Semitism all the time. I’m very pro-Zionist, so I’m automatically an oppressor, and they think I hate Palestinians. I teach Palestinian students all the time. They’ve identified me as someone they can go after because I have no power. I’m low hanging fruit. They see me as a capitalist overlord and it’s funny. I make less than they do, probably.”

Last October, someone put nails in both Goldstein’s and Lax’s car tires while they were attending a faculty council meeting. They both filed complaints about the tire damage with campus security, but said nothing was done to track down those responsible.

This latest attack against Lax comes two-and-a-half years after Lax filed his federal lawsuit in February 2016, alleging his career has been damaged by Kingsborough administrators who, he claimed, have created a hostile work environment for those who are visibly Jewish.

Michael Goldstein

The lawsuit was filed with the assistance of The Lawfare Project. Lawfare Project founder and executive director Brooke Goldstein told the Journal, who also represents both Lax and Michael Goldstein told the Journal, “The lawsuit is a symptom of a much larger problem, which is a very dangerously hostile environment at CUNY for Jewish students and professors. Multiple violations of basic civil rights of Jewish professors and students are taking place on campus, and instead of dealing with the situation as it is legally obligated to, the administration is at best wilfully ignoring it, and at worst aiding and abetting it.”

The 2016 lawsuit names Stuart Suss, former interim president and provost at Kingsborough, claiming that Lax’s civil rights, along with state and city laws, were violated by religious discrimination and harassment in a pervasively hostile work environment. Lax, who teaches employment law, identifies as a feminist and has supported legal workplace protections for LGBTQ employees.

“Everyone in my classes seems to get along. If you don’t mention [Zionism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], it won’t explode. Once the issues are raised, it can be combustible.” — Sharon Flatto 

Suss allegedly told another professor that “there are too many Jews” on Kingsborough’s faculty. While Suss himself is Jewish, Kingsborough professors said he is not religiously observant. When Lax filed a complaint at Kingsborough about earlier anti-Semitic harassment of other faculty members, he said that then Kingsborough president Farley Herzek told him to “let it go.”

The lawsuit alleges that Suss was orchestrating an effort to get rid of current religious Jewish faculty, and worked to not hire new ones.

Suss “ridiculed, intimidated, and insulted Jewish employees through systematically eliminating Jews from the faculty, excluding and minimizing the roles of the Jewish faculty members who survived elimination, subjecting Jewish faculty members to frequent verbal harassment and disparate treatment, and encouraging anti-Semitism on Kingsborough’s campus,” Lax’s lawsuit states. Suss “insisted upon scheduling the interviews of Jewish candidates for positions at Kingsborough on Jewish holidays. By mid-2015 the religious discrimination became so palpable that some department chairs encouraged Jewish candidates to remove all religious head coverings, and any other personal items symbolic of their religious beliefs, before meeting with Suss. Discriminatory hiring practices have reduced the number of Jewish faculty members at Kingsborough and contributed to the pervasively hostile work environment.”

Suss did not return multiple requests for interviews by the Journal.

After Lax filed his lawsuit in federal court in February 2016, Lax claimed in legal documents that the retaliation increased, stating, “CUNY significantly reduced [my] compensation and excluded [me] from a compensation increase that a majority of Kingsborough’s chairpersons received.”

Lax is seeking a jury trial and damages from Suss and CUNY. In September, CUNY filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Both sides are awaiting the judge’s response.

The Journal reached out to Kingsborough’s President Claudia Schrader, and to CUNY’s media relations head seeking an interview with Interim Chancellor Vita Rabinowitz about anti-Semitic incidents on campus.

Kingsborough’s director of marketing and communications, John Aaron, responded with a statement: “The incidents to which you refer are under active investigation and, as such, we are not at liberty to comment beyond providing the following assurances: So long as the investigations are ongoing, and until the process is resolved in accordance with college and university procedures, we are taking all necessary measures to safeguard those who feel threatened, and to uphold the rights of those accused.”

However, in a Feb. 21 leaked email to CUNY trustees, Schrader wrote that recent positive developments at Kingsborough have “been overshadowed, to some extent, by the spate of negative news coverage that has recently appeared in the local press regarding allegations of anti- Semitism on our campus. The campus is also being besieged by a torrent of angry emails, expressing outrage on the part of individuals who are unknown and external to the college.”

“Last spring, the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) held a meeting focused on discrimination. The group scheduled it for a Friday night, declining to change the date even after non-Jewish PFC members complained that those who kept Shabbat would be unable to attend.”

On Feb. 25, Schrader sent an internal memo to Kingsborough’s faculty decrying the fact that “our community continues to be embroiled in tension.” She wrote, “In times of heightened emotions, we must take lengths to resist ad hominem attacks and strive to maintain constructive, inclusive dialogue. I urge every member of this campus community to refrain right now from the temptation to point fingers and cast blame. Doing so is counterproductive to the kind of engagement we all need at this time…let us resolve to do the difficult work needed to reach a mutual, workable understanding and chart a unified course forward.”

Other observant Jews or pro-Israel faculty members also say they have been harassed, to lesser degrees.

Economics Professor Susan Aranoff has taught at Kingsborough for 35 years. She told the Journal the climate has changed markedly in recent years. She used to attach two small flags – an American flag and an Israeli flag – to her car. Two years ago the  Israeli flag was broken twice and at one point was stolen, while the American flag was left alone. After those incidents, she decided not to replace them. She filed complaints at the time with college authorities who, she said, dismissed it as “ordinary vandalism.”

Aranoff, Goldstein, and other faculty members the Journal interviewed said last spring the Progressive Faculty Caucus (PFC) held a meeting focused on discrimination. They scheduled it for a Friday night, declining to change the date even after non-Jewish PFC members complained that those who kept Shabbat would be unable to attend. Aranoff lives within walking distance of Kingsborough’s campus, and asked a PFC organizer where, exactly, the meeting would be held, so that she could attend. She said he refused to tell her.

The PFC is ostensibly open to any faculty member. Aranoff said she asked multiple times to be added to its email list. At the time, she said, she thought that the caucus’s purpose was to “enhance Kingsborough’s teaching environment.” However, after months passed and she wasn’t added to the distribution list, Aranoff said she eventually realized that the PFC is open to anyone but religious Jews.  

Aranoff and other faculty members said not long after the request to change that Spring 2018 Friday night meeting, the university administrators blocked their campus-based messaging system and the PFC took their message system off campus.

Currently, the PFC has no website, no listing available on Kingsborough’s website and no listed phone numbers. Though publicly invisible the PFC is powerful, Aranoff told the Journal. Its members lobby “for candidates for positions on college council or various committees, so [Jewish faculty members are] disadvantaged in not being part of that group,” she said.

Aranoff and another senior faculty member, who is an Orthodox Jew and asked not to be named for fear of retaliation, filed a complaint with Kingsborough’s diversity officer last spring. Aranoff said the officer, Victoria Ajibade, left the college about 10 days later. In March 2018, Aranoff and her colleague filed a complaint alleging discrimination by the PFC with the EEOC. Aranoff said she was told to call to make an appointment to give their statements at the EEOC office. She said she left multiple phone messages with the officer assigned to their case, but he never returned the calls and she eventually gave up.

Ajibade did not respond to the Journal’s multiple requests for comment.  

Those being harassed at Kingsborough all cited Kingsborough Associate Professor of English Anthony Alessandrini, Associate Professor of Sociology Katia Perea and Associate Professor of Chemistry Patrick Lloyd, as being their chief antagonists within the PFC, none of whom responded to the Journal’s requests for comment.

Goldstein told the Journal that Alessandrini “is the head of the PFC, the puppet master, quiet and well spoken, and was a founder of (the anti-Israel) SPJ  (Students for Justice in Palestine)” at New York University when he was a student there.

Alessandrini, an ardent advocate of the Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) effort. wrote a recent essay on the website Jadaliyya titled, “After the Elections: Solidarities Old and New.” In it, Alessandrini writes about the BDS movement and links Jewish “whiteness” to white supremacy. 

Appropriating a 1984 essay by black American writer James Baldwin, in the essay, Alessandrini calls white Jews white supremacists, writing, “the struggle against Israeli apartheid needs to be articulated more clearly as a struggle against white supremacy, on a global scale.”

The Journal also reached out to religious Jewish professors on other CUNY campuses to see if they had experiences similar to those at Kingsborough.

David Gerwin, a professor of Social Studies Education at Queens College and chair of the faculty union there, wears a yarmulke. He said that in his 21 years there he has not experienced or heard about any ongoing anti-Semitic harassment.  

Sharon Flatto, professor of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College and deputy director of its graduate program, is also an observant Jew. While there has been anti-Semitic behavior on her campus, as documented in the 2016 CUNY investigation, she said none of it has entered her classrooms, where she has many religious Muslim and Jewish students.

“It’s not so grim day-to-day,” Flatto said. “Everyone in my classes seems to get along. If you don’t mention it, it won’t explode,” she said, referring to Zionism or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Once the issues are raised,” she acknowledged, “it can be combustible.”

Aranoff said administrators, faculty members and students at Kingsborough are expressing anti-Semitic attitudes more openly today than in years past. About a year ago she said a male, Muslim student first muttered and then audibly said something anti-Semitic. She asked him why, and he expressed resentment that ‘Jews have their own ambulances and schools.’ “I told him that Hatzalah (a privately funded Jewish community ambulance service) will pick anybody up when they call. The student said, ‘why should we pay for that?’ and I told him that there is no charge. A Christian student present pointed out that Catholics also have their own religious schools.

“I realized that there’s ignorance combined with pre-existing animosity and I never heard such things from students before,” Aranoff said. “There has also been a big drop in the number of Orthodox Jews on the faculty.”

Although she emphasized that she loves her students and teaching, Aranoff said, “Now I feel uncomfortable as a religious Jew. And I can’t put my finger on why.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that When Lax filed a complaint at Kingsborough about earlier anti-Semitic harassment of other faculty members, it was Stuart Suss who told him to “let it go.” 

Update: An earlier version of this article stated that Alessandrini had removed his essay comparing Jewish whiteness to white supremacy. He did not. The link to the essay is now in this story.

This article was updated on March 5 to include a statement from Brooke Goldstein of the Lawfare Project.

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is the Jewish giving maven at Inside Philanthropy and is a freelance journalist in New York City. She is the author of Celebrating Your New Jewish Daughter: Creating Jewish Ways to Welcome Baby Girls into the Covenant.

Religious Zionism and the Specter of Racism

Photo by Pixabay

Words from a broken, loving, and hopeful heart.

The recent explosion in anti-Semitic expression including acts of anti-Semitic violence in numerous quarters around the world is not only frightening and alarming, it is eerie and perhaps even ominous. The inevitable and logically-necessary descent of rabid anti-Zionism into the exclusion and even hatred of Jewish people is in plentiful evidence, and rabid anti-Zionism continues to provide an obscene, self-righteous veneer to anti-Semitism. Which is not to say that the “left” is the only worrisome quarter, for plainly it is not. We are living in a time when we need to be vigilant, to be unflinching in calling out anti-Semitism, to be strengthening old friendships and actively cultivating new ones. It’s a serious time.

Human nature is such that when a particular group feels besieged and targeted, when it feels that the world has abandoned its ethical and civil codes in its behavior toward it, that this group then responds by loosening its own commitment to these very same ethical and civil codes. Not out of the belief that “two wrongs make a right” or that “you have to fight fire with fire.” Rather out of the belief that the rules just aren’t the rules anymore, that we have entered an amoral jungle, a time and space which simply exists outside our normal ethical commitments. This is a very human response. It is the way of human nature.

And this is precisely the reason that God gave us religion. Religion’s revolutionary and radical claim is that there is no such time and there is no such space, that there is no such thing as the amoral jungle, that human beings – even when engaged in a state of warfare – are always accountable to the norms of God-fearing, God-loving, God-revering behavior.

Last week’s appalling decision by Habayit HaYehudi, the political party representing Religious Zionism, to join electoral forces with Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist political party whose platform is rooted in and founded upon racial hatred, is a precise manifestation of this awful tendency of human nature that religion was intended to correct. (Much has been written in recent days about Otzma Yehudit’s ideology and politics. I think that Yossi Klein Halevi‘s essay summarized it best. The defense that HaBayit HaYehudi is offering is that the State of Israel and Zionism itself are under siege from enemies both within and without the State, and electoral victory must be assured even at the cost of bringing the racists out from the political cold and into cabinet-level power. This represents of course, nothing less than the utter rejection of the mantle and responsibility of religion, rendering HaBayit HaYehudi’s claim to be the “Religious Zionist” party a mockery and a sham.

And frankly, it renders its claim to be a Zionist party at all to be a mockery and a sham, certainly in the sense that Israel’s Declaration of Independence which guarantees that the State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture”, is considered a foundational Zionist document.

It is heartening that numerous important and influential thinkers within the Religious Zionist community have condemned this turn of events. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein and Rabbi Benny Lau have been among the most public and courageous. And it is heartening that many American Jewish organizations, including AIPAC, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (through Malcolm Hoenlein, its executive vice chairman) have expressed their grave concern, in particular over the Prime Minister’s catalytic role in the political merger. (The National Council of Young Israel is one of the few organizations that has expressed its support for what has happened, and individual Young Israel synagogues must now express outrage at their leadership.) More voices of ethical and religious clarity are still needed. Absolutely including yours. Perhaps the worst outcome can still be averted.

There’s no underestimating the importance of this political moment in the history of our beloved Medinat Yisrael, and even in the history of Judaism as a great world religion. Yes, we must love and support Israel, and confront anti-Semitism, but לא כך – not this way. For the sake of all that we hold sacred, never this way.

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Medicine

Photo from PxHere.

Huddled over the hospital bed, the high-school students worked at placing a breathing tube down the throat of an elderly “patient” whose vital signs were crashing. The choices were stark and unfolding in real time: How would they revive this dying patient? Was there an ethical obligation to resuscitate someone on the brink of death without knowing the individual’s wishes?

It’s one thing to have this discussion in the abstract. It’s a far more complex experience when the crisis is literally playing out in your hands. And that is the point of the class I developed at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for high-school students to wrestle with practical Jewish medical ethics.

Every week, students from YULA Girls, YULA Boys and Shalhevet high schools meet in the Women’s Guild Simulation Center for Advanced Clinical Skills. There, they work in simulated operating rooms on lifelike mannequins with the capability to “breathe” and “bleed.” 

Informed by ancient Jewish wisdom and contemporary science, I guide the students as they grapple with the ethical ramifications of organ donation, artificial nutrition, when — or if — to resuscitate dying patients, and more. Through this process of discovery and discussion, the students begin to develop a great appreciation for the nuances involved in decisions of life and death.

I often start the semester with the hypothetical case of the elderly patient who is rushed to the emergency room in critical condition after collapsing at home. The students must decide whether to place the patient on a respirator to keep her alive or to withhold this intervention, allowing death. Keeping the patient on the respirator, they learn, might prolong a life of agony and pain.

What should they do? I ask. What do they think Judaism requires them to do?

To explore these questions, we turn to the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law developed in the 16th century and the story of the woodchopper working outside the room of a dying individual. The story relates that the chop-chop-chop rhythm of the work prevents the dying person’s soul from leaving. Is it permissible, then, for the woodchopper to cease his work and thus risk ending the dying person’s life? The Shulchan Aruch rules that the woodchopper may stop, explaining that doing so indirectly allows — but does not cause — the soul to leave. 

Not surprisingly, the story provokes questions. “Does this rationale apply to contemporary technology, which has the ability to directly save or end life”? one student asks. “If we have a way to save a life, why wouldn’t we?” a second asks. A third worries about acting rashly: “Shouldn’t we step back and see if there is a compromise approach?” 

“It’s one thing to have this discussion in the abstract. It’s a far more complex experience when the crisis is literally playing out in your hands.”

My students have a real thirst for this type of discussion. They want to know how our tradition wrestles with the choices we confront every day, including, for example, the risks involved with organ donation.

For this subject, I introduce the responsa of Rabbi David ben Zimra, the Radbaz, a 16th-century Jewish scholar in Spain. The Radbaz tells of a thief who is caught stealing and faces the punishment of having his hand cut off. When the thief escapes, the authorities threaten to kill an innocent Jew if he fails to return to face justice. 

Is the thief required to come back and risk his life to save that of an innocent person? 

We apply this story to questions around organ donation. Here again, the students are divided in their opinions of how much risk any individual should be required to assume to help another. They ask: If saving one life means sacrificing another, what are the obligations involved? What if the cost involves sacrificing not a life but an organ and a lifetime of normal bodily functions?

It often takes time for students to realize that there are no simple answers to complex ethical questions, whether religious or medical. Still, they learn to appreciate the direct line between classical Jewish teachings and contemporary medical conundrums. 

With that understanding, my students develop an ability to engage with texts and argue their positions with authority and passion, the same way their ancestors have done for centuries. In the process, they learn that they can make informed decisions about some of the most complex and difficult issues they may ever face.

Rabbi Jason Weiner is senior rabbi and director of the Spiritual Care Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.