November 18, 2018

How Jewish do I want to be?

I was born in Israel to two Jewish parents. I speak Hebrew. I sent my son to conservative Jewish Day School for ten years. He had a Bar Mitzvah. I light candles every Friday night. I go to temple regularly. I observe high holidays. I make what can only be described as the world’s best matzo ball soup. I am divorced and made sure I also received a gett. I not only consider myself to be a practicing Jew, but define myself as a Jew. I am Jewish in my soul. I am Jewish by birth and by choice. I spent a large chunk of my adult life working in the Jewish community. I write for a Jewish newspaper. All that said, I woke up this morning and wondered, how Jewish do I want to be?

 

I’m not sure what inspired the question, but I can’t shake it from my mind. It’s all I can think about and do not know what the answer is. Perhaps it is the murders in Pittsburgh that have left me with this painful question. I have been unsettled since the horrific attack and can’t seem to quiet my brain. I live my Jewish life out loud so there is part of me that wonders if I need to change that. There is another part of me that wants to scream from the rafters that I’m Jewish and defy anyone to say anything. I am stuck between wondering how Jewish I am, and if I am Jewish enough, and that is a very odd feeling.

 

I am scared by what happened, but also angry. I spent many years working in Holocaust education and to have people killed this way, in 2018, is frankly debilitating. I feel sick about what happened in Pittsburgh. I am stuck and unsure what to do or how to feel. I was not alive during the Holocaust, but I heard countless firsthand stories during the years I worked at Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, so for people to be killed again, just for being Jewish, is terrifying. I have personally experienced anti-Semitism, but this is different. This is murder of Jews for being Jewish and I simply cannot comprehend it.

 

I am a hockey fan and this week when the Pittsburgh Penguins put “stronger than hate” patches on their uniforms, I thought it was a wonderfulI display of solidarity. I was also offended that the Jewish star on the patch was done partially in yellow.  I get that black and yellow are their colors, but the Jewish star should not have been yellow in my opinion. Important to note I understand how ridiculous that will sound to some people, but it bothered me. It was a custom made patch and easily could have been another color. I sound like a crazy person but like I said, these killings are debilitating and all my senses are heightened when it comes to my religion.

 

I watched President Trump visiting Pittsburgh with his wife and I was enraged. I am offended by everything lately, which is not who I am as a human being. I want so much to understand, but am not sure what it is I am expecting to understand. If someone asks me if I am Jewish, do I say yes? If someone says something unkind about my faith, do I speak up? If someone writes me an anti-Semitic comment on my blog, do I report them? Am I supposed to just accept that people hate Jews and that is the world we live in? I am struggling not only with how to define myself within my faith, but whether to share it with the world or keep it private. I am educated and awards this shouldn’t be a struggle, but I am struggling.

 

It will pass of course, but I don’t want it to pass without understanding my feelings. I do not want to be afraid. I want my anger to become action. I want my disgust to empower me. I want to be free to live my Jewish life in whatever way I want. At the end of the day I am proudly Jewish. I am comfortable in my practice and nobody can judge me on how much or little Judaism I practice. I am Jewish enough and God knows me. I will not allow fear to make me question my faith, but it has been a stressful week.

 

As I read back what I have written I am not sure it will make sense to anyone but me. I am questioning whether or not to even publish it, which is crazy. I have written my truth here for almost a decade and have never regretted anything I write, so to be questioning myself now is very sad. I have openly and honestly shared all aspects of my life here and have been blessed with loyal and wonderful readers. There are haters of course, which is always fun, but I have never been stuck like this. I will publish this because that is what I do, but today just feels off. I am hoping someone will read it and share their own experience, which always happens and always helps.

 

I am thinking about all Jews around the world today and know we will get through this. We are united. Orthodox, conservative, or reform, Jews are the same and together we are strong. There are enough good people in the world to help lift us up when darkness comes, so while it is of course important to be careful, fear does not need to control us.  I am one day closer to understanding, so am taking it one day at a time. I am trying to be brave and hope to go into Shabbat today with some peace. I may never understand the world we live in, but I am still keeping the faith.

Tel Aviv GA Sought to Bridge Israeli-Diaspora Gap

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, speaks at its General Assembly in Tel Aviv. Photo by Eyal Warshavsky/JFNA

Jay Sanderson has attended many a General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, but the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said this year’s gathering in Tel Aviv was different.  

“In previous GAs we talked about a lot of different issues,” Sanderson said during an interview with the Journal at the Oct. 22-24 conference, which attracted more than 2,000 North American and Israeli participants. 

“What was unprecedented about this GA was that we focused on one thing: How to build a new kind of bridge between Israel and the Diaspora that enables as many people as possible to cross from both sides.”

The theme for this year’s event, “Let’s Talk,” was a recognition that Israeli-Diaspora ties are strained, and that both communities need to come together and heal the rift before it becomes unbridgeable. 

Held in Tel Aviv for the first time, the annual conference acknowledged that Israelis and North American Jews have different priorities and agendas because they have fundamentally different life experiences.

“We’re like two ships passing in the night,” Sanderson said. “Israelis don’t have a full understanding of what’s important to North American Jewry,” including religious pluralism, assimilation, anti-Semitism and the treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank.  

In Israel, he continued, “Pluralism isn’t high on the list.” Security is, and the fact that most Jewish Israeli 18-year-olds are drafted when they’re 18.  

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders,” Sanderson said. 

Richard Sandler, who is concluding his term as chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, said that despite these differing priorities, “we share common traditions and a common value system. We need to focus on the things we have in common, which far exceed the things that divide us.” 

“A rocket fell on a house in Beersheva and a mother heroically saved her three children. We don’t have rockets on our borders.” — Jay Sanderson 

During and between sessions, some of the North Americans expressed their concerns about Israel’s new Nation-State Law, which codifies Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish people but does not mention the rights of the country’s minority groups. They also expressed hope that Israel will do much more to ensure the equal treatment of non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism. 

Sandler said the North American-Israel relationship has shifted over the years, to the point where Israel — which once struggled to feed and house its citizens — now offers educational and logistical assistance to Diaspora communities and is seeking to expand that role. 

During the GA, Israeli leaders floated the idea of creating a “Reverse Birthright” that would bring young Israelis to Diaspora Jewish communities, and setting up programs to teach Hebrew to North American Jews.    

“When I grew up you had two things you don’t have going on today,” Sandler said. “Back then, Israel needed a large infusion of philanthropic dollars from the U.S. Israel didn’t have the strong economy it has now. Today, Israel doesn’t need our dollars to the same extent, though of course there are people still in need.” 

At a time when Israel still relies heavily on the federations’ help to fund numerous programs for the most disadvantaged sectors of Israeli society, Israeli officials are concerned about Jewish identity among North American Jews and are seeking ways to strengthen it. 

Sandler said this change in the Israel-Diaspora power dynamic has taken many Diaspora Jews by surprise. 

Referring to a presentation by the organization Israel Flying Aid, which is providing vital assistance to people in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, Sandler said, “I don’t think American Jews think of Israeli NGOs reaching out beyond their border and making a difference in the world, just as we try to make a difference in the world. It makes us proud.” 

Helene Siegel, a federation delegate from Orange County, said she was impressed by the strides Israeli nonprofits have been making in addressing coexistence. 

During a GA session, two organizations that bring Jewish- and Arab-Israeli children together presented their work. One of them, Kids 4 Peace, brings Arab and Jewish teens together to work on joint projects and celebrate each other’s holidays. Their parents also meet on an ongoing basis. The program is considered a major success. 

“For me, this was a highlight of the GA because I really believe that kids are our future,” Siegel said. “These kids make connections with one another and then bring those connections back to their parents and ultimately to their communities. Instead of seeing them as ‘the other,’ they learn that ultimately most people want peace.” 

Blossom Siegel, Helene’s mother and a former head of the Orange County federation, said the GA always provides something new and innovative. The Tel Aviv GA marked her 40th visit to Israel. 

“This year, it was all about bridging differences,” she said. “The Israelis are more openly protective of their children while we Americans take our safety, our standard of living, our ability to get jobs somewhat more for granted.” 

Blossom Siegel said she felt gratified that so many of the sessions focused on the integration of Israel’s Arab community and on programs “that help children from different backgrounds become more tolerant of one another.” 

“It won’t happen overnight,” she added, “but it will happen.” 

Why Judaism Matters

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, is interviewed onstage by Jewish Federations of North America Chairman Richard Sandler at the General Assembly in Tel Aviv, Oct. 24, 2018. Photo by Kobi Gideon/Israeli Government Press Office

The following is excerpted text of the speech delivered by Richard Sandler, outgoing chairman of the Jewish Federations of North America, at the Knesset on Oct. 23 during the JFNA’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv. 

During these past three years, I have had the opportunity to study our community and the important issues that inspire us, concern us and often divide us, and I keep coming back to the same three questions: Why does Judaism matter? Why does how we treat one another matter? Why does Israel matter? And tonight I will ask you to please consider three imperatives that relate to these questions, for it is important to talk but it is also important to then take positive action.

Why does Judaism matter? We all know that we are a small people, less than 0.2 percent of the world’s population with many adversaries and enemies throughout our history; and yet, we have survived against incredible odds, while making a positive difference in the world exponentially disproportionate to our numbers. How could this be? It is because of a tradition rooted in the values in our Torah, which is over 3,000 years old. Times may change, but these values do not. 

The Torah is about who we are, where we come from and what is expected of each of us. It is so much more than a slogan or a verse that may support a point of view. 

We can only understand our tradition and its importance to our lives by going back to the basics, by learning the depth, richness and complexity of that tradition. We cannot live Jewish values if we do not understand what they are. 

So the first imperative is a collective communal commitment to studying Torah and the writings of our tradition. This commitment must not be driven by politics or religious philosophy, but by the earnest search for true meaning. I commit to you that I will study Torah this year, and I ask you, the leaders of our community, to do the same.

We need to take advantage of this remarkable time in our history, by learning our history and our tradition so that we can determine a future course in which we strengthen ourselves and our people according to Torah values. It is time we learn what made the Jewish people the Jewish people. 

Which leads me to the second imperative: No matter where we live; no matter whether we are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or secular Jews; no matter what political or philosophical position we hold; all of us must end the divisiveness that exists between us. We are a small people who have enough enemies outside of our community. We do not need to do their work for them by being so divisive.

“We can only understand our tradition and its importance to our lives … by learning the depth, richness and complexity of that tradition.”

We will agree. We will disagree. Our tradition is about debate and disagreement, but where people listen to each other, learn from each other and respect each other.

The most repeated prayer in our tradition, one of the only two prayers that the Torah commands us to say each day is the Shema. Shema means “hear” or “to listen.” We need to study together as we debate important issues and listen to different points of view. We do matter to one another. We’re too small a people to be like the rest of society where people of different points of view refuse to listen to one another and instead engage in Lashon Hora — negative or derogatory speech, or even worse, engage in sinat chinam, senseless hatred. And let us not forget that it was sinat chinam among the Jewish people that resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Let’s leave this GA committed to being better informed to lead our communities from Lashon Hora to Shema — not as Israelis or Diaspora Jews, not as secular or religious Jews, and not as Jews from the left or from the right but as Jews who share a remarkable tradition and a common destiny. Our children are waiting for spiritual wisdom, for heroic ideals and for heroic vision. They want to stand for something and something important. Let’s dedicate ourselves to learning, to respecting each other and to protecting what is sacred so we ensure a Jewish future for our children in this remarkable time when we again have a Jewish homeland for the first time in 2,000 years and feel so comfortable and at home here in the United States.

And that leads to our third imperative. Being at home gives us new security and new responsibilities. Let’s never forget that the reason we feel at home in America is because there is this remarkable country called Israel. 

Our homeland is a small country the size of New Jersey. It has been in constant conflict for all of its 70 years. Today, there are countless thousands of missiles on Israel’s border aimed at Israeli citizens, in the hands of terrorists who call for the total destruction of Israel and the Jewish people. Those of us in the Diaspora can’t even begin to understand or appreciate the challenges and pressures the Israeli people endure daily. 

This does not mean that as committed and caring Jews we do not have the right to expect more from Israel. Israel is far from perfect. And Israel also has a right to expect more from us. But first, all of us must listen to one another to truly appreciate and understand our different concerns and the different lives we lead, yet never forgetting Kol Y’Israel Arevim Zeh La Zeh. All Jews are responsible for one another. We have many differences, but so much more in common.

To my fellow Jews in Israel, I say we are all better off with thriving Jewish communities well beyond your borders. No people on this planet will ever care as much about a strong Jewish state as we do. 

And to those in the Diaspora, I say never take the miracle of Israel for granted. Israel gives us a seat at the world table — a seat we did not have in the 1930s and 1940s. It provides a shield for all of us we never had before. 

Let not any of us ever forget that because there is an Israel, and a strong Israel, there is an army that protects each and every one of us each and every day. Every young man and woman who serves in the IDF risks his and her life to protect us — all of us.

So as I close, I repeat the three imperatives:

Learn and encourage those in your community to learn Torah, learn the beauty and depth of our tradition; 

Listen to each other with respect and understanding. None of us has all the answers, but by listening we will gain a new knowledge of how to answer the important questions;

Never forget the blessing that Israel is to us — she protects us and connects us to the Torah.

Maimonides refers to Moses as the most perfect human being. At the end of his life, near the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses set out a choice for the Jewish people which the Torah certainly sets out for us today: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, therefore choose life so that you and your children may live.”

Following Hillel’s Example of Decency

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

Is there anything more Jewish than a debate about debates? I guess there could be a debate about the debate about debates. But while many recognize the cultural significance of debating within Judaism, an overlooked yet vital aspect of this Jewish “national sport” is the ethics of how to debate. 

In an old Jewish joke, two disputants come to the local rabbi to settle a dispute. The rabbi hears the first disputant’s case and declares, “You’re right!” The rabbi then hears the second disputant’s case and declares, “You’re also right!” The rabbi’s assistant jumps in and says, “But rabbi, they can’t both be right!” To which the rabbi replies, “You’re right, too!” 

The spiritual ancestor of this joke is actually 2,000 years old, and it comes from a Hillel vs. Shamai debate in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b). 

For context, Hillel was basically the LeBron James of Talmudic sages, and every “Hillel” you know — college organizations, schools, Passover seder sandwich, etc. — is named after that one famous Hillel. Shamai, on the other hand, has a name that, if familiar, is known for having lost nearly every one of his more than 300 debates with Hillel. Shamai’s consolation prize is one street in Jerusalem. It is, admittedly, a very nice street. 

So back to our text, Hillel and Shamai spend three years debating a Jewish legal issue that doesn’t even get named, because, as you’ll see, the content of the debate isn’t at issue. Hillel’s team argues that the law is in accordance with their opinion, and Shamai’s team argues that the law is in accordance with their opinion. Finally, in a rare occurrence (talmudically speaking), the Divine Voice emerges from the heavens and proclaims, “These and these are both words of the Living God!” You’re right, and you’re also right! But being a practical people, we need an answer as to whose opinion we should follow. So the text tells us that the law is decided in accordance with Hillel. 

“What would happen at our schools, synagogues and Shabbat tables if we practiced Hillel’s ethics of debate?”

The question is, why? If, from the Divine perspective, both Hillel and Shamai are speaking the truth, why do we follow the rulings of Hillel? The Talmud gives an answer, but I’d ask you to think about your own experience in participating and/or witnessing debates first. What makes you side with one party over the other? The logic? The volume of the voices? What is it?

Here’s where the Talmud offers an explanation of Hillel’s superiority that provides a blueprint for our own debates, be they religious, political, or on mundane topics such as Kobe Bryant vs. LeBron James. 

The Talmud mentions nothing of Hillel’s rhetorical ability or his intellectual stature. Rather, Hillel beats Shamai for three reasons, according to our passage. First, Hillel was kind. I imagine this means that whichever side you were on, Hillel would treat you with respect. Second, Hillel had the incredible and all-too-rare quality that Moses was famous for, namely humility. I imagine that this means he would truly try to understand the other side of a debate, rather than digging in his heels and insisting that his position was the only legitimate one. 

Finally, and to me, this is the most amazing quality, Hillel not only would teach Shamai’s position in addition to his own, but Hillel would explain Shamai’s position first, showing deference to the person with whom he disagrees on almost everything. Hillel would sincerely try to understand the other side, and present it with integrity, even when he disagreed with that position. And, because of these qualities, Hillel was the winner. Our tradition presents a plan for how to emerge victorious, and it’s the opposite of how many of us — myself included, too frequently — approach the topics we might debate.

What would happen at our schools, synagogues and Shabbat tables if we practiced Hillel’s ethics of debate? If we were kind, humble and sincerely sought to understand and articulate — without cynicism — the position of the other side? Would we become weaker in our resolve to fight for what we believe is right? Or would we have a better grasp of the issues and a clearer articulation of our own core values?


Rabbi David Saiger is the upper school rabbi at Milken Community Schools.

A Holocaust Education in the Arab World

Morocco recently decided to include Holocaust studies in its educational curriculum. How important is this step, and how is the issue playing out in other Arab countries? 

Morocco’s King Muhammad VI recently decided to integrate the study of the Holocaust into the country’s educational curriculum. Moroccan Education Minister Said Amzazi publicly announced the king’s decision during a roundtable discussion on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week. 

According to Le Desk, a Moroccan news website, Amzazi relayed the king’s message regarding the matter, saying that anti-Semitism is the “antonym of freedom of expression. It manifests the negation of the other and is an admission of failure, insufficiency and the inability to coexist.
“This is the anachronistic return to a mythical past,” the education minister continued. “Is this the past that we want to leave as a legacy for future generations?

“For all that, the battle against this plague cannot be handled carelessly. It is fought neither with the military nor with money; it above all depends on education and culture. This battle has a name: education. And in the interest of our children, it is important for us to win it because they will be the beneficiaries and our ambassadors in the future,” Amzazi concluded. 

Israeli parliamentarian Michael Oren (Kulanu) immediately praised the decision on Twitter, writing: “Morocco’s King Muhammad V (sic) sent a profound moral message to the world. Anti-Semitism & Holocaust denial is rising in the West, the leader of a proud Arab country is introducing Holocaust education into Moroccan schools with the goal of fighting anti-Semitism. There is indeed hope.”

Le Desk also reported that Morocco had considered incorporating Jewish-Moroccan history, as well as Holocaust studies, into its educational system back in 2008. The government, however, failed to devise a concrete plan toward that end. 

But in more recent years, Moroccan educational authorities began to collaborate with other institutions, notably the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, to develop an appropriate curriculum and pedagogy—one that includes Holocaust studies with the general aim of countering racial hatred. 

“The leader of a proud Arab country is introducing Holocaust education into Moroccan schools with the goal of fighting anti-Semitism. There is indeed hope.” — Michael Oren

Morocco’s decision marks a turning point in what some analysts see as shifting Arab perspectives toward the region’s Jewish community, although it is unclear how teaching about the Holocaust could translate into warmer relations with Israel. The kingdom, like many other Arab countries, does not recognize the Jewish state.  

Professor Meir Litvak, chair of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University, told The Media Line that in the Arab world the general view on issues surrounding the Holocaust “has always been ‘whatever happened to the Jews in Europe was a European affair. Europeans were perpetrators and the Jews were victims. But the real price was paid by the Arabs when Israel was established.’” 

Therefore, he explained, attitudes among Arabs toward the Holocaust were often seen as part and parcel of the conflict with Israel, and not as an event in itself. This led to various views of the Holocaust on a spectrum from total or what is called “soft” denials of it, to sometimes justification of it, as well as various equations between Zionism, Judaism, and Nazism, or between Israel and Nazi Germany. 

Many Arabs also believed that Israel benefited from the Holocaust, which the Israelis used to gain political support and money. 

“But starting in the 1990s, we see a different and minority view emerging among some Arab intellectuals — especially many liberals, many of whom lived in the West — which held that ‘there was a Holocaust, it was horrible and we should try to understand and accept it,’” Litvak said. 

It happened for two reasons, he explained. First, these intellectuals felt that to be part of the civilized world, Arabs needed to accept and recognize the Holocaust. Second, to make peace with Israel, they deemed it important to understand how Israelis viewed such a tragic event in Jewish history.  

“But this is still, unfortunately, a minority position in the Arab world,” Litvak added. 

Morocco’s decision, he concluded, “is significant because it is the first time an Arab state takes such a courageous decision. But how much impact it will have on other Arab countries remains uncertain as Arab governments now have other matters to attend to. Also, raising the issue would clearly arouse the anger of Islamists.”    

Ido Zelkovitz, an expert on Palestinian history and politics and a Policy Fellow at the Mitvim Institute, told The Media Line that “by and large, the Holocaust has played a major role in Palestinian discourse regarding Israel and Zionism. 

“The Palestinians have used it in the past — and perhaps also in the present—to describe themselves as ‘the victims of the victims,’” Zelkovitz said, adding that “the issue of victimization is a central pillar of modern Palestinian identity.” 

But in the last few years, he added, we are seeing progress among Palestinian elites in the way they are approaching the topic. “We saw delegations of Palestinian activists who came to explore Yad Veshem [Jerusalem’s World Holocaust Remembrance Center] and later even published their impressions of the visit.”   

The Holocaust has also played a large role among Palestinian politicians in their efforts to better understand Israelis, Zelkovitz explained, recalling that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas wrote a 1984 book on how the Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust had been exaggerated by Zionists for political ends. 

“Though he didn’t deny the Holocaust in the book, he vastly underestimated the number of its victims. One can argue that this is a form of Holocaust denial,” he contended. 

“From the Palestinian perspective, I don’t see any true empathy when it comes to the Holocaust and its implications, but there is an understanding of how the Palestinians can use the event in their political calculations with the Israelis,” Zelkovitz concluded.  

“But perhaps this is a sign that in fact the Palestinians already recognize the Holocaust. And maybe in the future, from recognition they can move to the next step of perhaps not compassion, but a deeper understanding of it.”

Moving Traditions’ New B’Nai Mitzvah Traditions

From the L.A. pilot program

A teenager’s role in the modern b’nai mitzvah ceremony appears clearly defined: study, perform then party. Planning for the event falls to the parents. But should this be the case?  

“Our job is not just the logistics and writing the checks,” Lori Tessel, a mother of two and member of Temple Beth Am in West Los Angeles, told the Journal. “Our job is to experience the learning process together and deepen our connection to Judaism during this journey alongside our kids. That elevates the process for the entire family.” 

Moving Traditions, a Jewish youth education organization, agrees. The Jenkintown, Pa.-based organization has partnered with more than 400 institutions across North America, trained nearly 1,500 educators and impacted the lives of more than 20,000 teens. Its innovative b’nai mitzvah program carves out space for parents, too. 

Two years ago, Moving Traditions received a cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles totaling $200,000 over three years to bring its pilot b’nai mitzvah program to Los Angeles. It supplements staples like the recitation of the haftarah, speechmaking and the party, with weekly sessions to facilitate honest discussions about faith and adolescence among synagogue educators, clergy, teens and parents.

At Temple Beth Am, Moving Traditions partner Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman helps lead b’nai mitzvah education for 20 to 30 families a year. Hoffman has seen the benefits of the training he and his colleagues received from Moving Traditions at the outset of Moving Traditions’ pilot launch in 2016.

As pre-teens get older, communication gets more difficult. When the Jewish community can create a framework for dialogue and a space where they can hear each other and have empathy for one another, that’s crucial.” — Rabbi Daniel Brenner

 

“[Moving Traditions] helped us make the process much more powerful than just planning for an event,” Hoffman said. “Parents need support systems for each other and not just for party planning tips or navigating synagogue policy.” 

Now, Moving Traditions is readying a national launch to expand to Chicago, Denver, Boston, New York and Philadelphia. 

One of the highlights of the program is a six-part podcast Moving Traditions has produced for families. In weekly sessions, teens broach a range of topics with clergy, educators and parents about varied pressures surrounding the b’nai mitzvah process. Parents often are present to engage in free-flowing, open conversation with their teens; parent-only cohorts also discuss their concerns separate from their kids. 

“The parent cohort is a huge benefit,” said Tessel, whose 12-year-old son, Elliot, will celebrate his bar mitzvah in May 2019. “I’m having conversations with parents that I normally don’t get to talk to. We have spiritual conversations about what it means to raise a teen and what the ceremony means to us.”

That type of praise from parents has become increasingly familiar to Moving Tradition’s Chief of Education Rabbi Daniel Brenner, who held a Los Angeles training for clergy and educators in August to help implement the program at their synagogues. 

“That feedback makes you stop and realize this is something that’s connecting in a way parents really need,” he said. “As pre-teens get older, communication gets more difficult. When the Jewish community can create a framework for dialogue and a space where they can hear each other and have empathy for one another, that’s crucial.”

“The most rewarding part has been learning how to hold conversations with my son about values, what they mean to me and to us,” Tessel said. “We talk about that moment on the bimah. We talk about how getting there isn’t a means to an end. It’s the beginning of your life’s journey of Jewish practice — a journey we’re on together.”

Awed by Days of Awe? Keep the Holiness Going

The Open Temple, a Jewish community in Venice that blends arts and Judaism, was one of three L.A. nonprofits to win an UpStart Accelerator grant. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Lori Shapiro

At Open Temple’s break-the-fast meal in Venice, a young man introduced himself.  

“I’m not Jewish, but I’ve been on a six-day fast and I saw that your Yom Kippur Urban Retreat was happening at the same time,” he said. “I attended your entire observance and want you to know that I feel that this has really deepened my cleanse and what I was hoping to get out of it.  Thank you so much. You inspired me to want to keep it going. Yom Kippur is awesome!”

Indeed, the Days of Awe are exactly that — awesome. We emerge with a sense of wonderment about our bodies, our place in the universe and connection to community. After experiencing this outsider’s expression of his natural Jewish high, I wondered: How can we keep this party going?

In a part of town where every corner along Abbot Kinney Boulevard offers a different cold-pressed juice option to cleanse our bodies, I return to the fundamentals of Jewish ritual life and the way Judaism invites all of us to experience regular cycles of individual and communal catharsis, cleansing and renewal.

This year, Open Temple offers an invitation to all into the “Yom Kippur Katan” observance, an opportunity for us to “turn and return” inward monthly to our Yom Kippur awareness and rededicate our lives and our bodies to their purest forms.  

Yom Kippur Katan, a 16th century innovation, originated in the mystical city of Safed. Rabbi Moses Cordovero (aka the Ramak, an organizer of Kabbalistic thought) is credited with beginning this observance, which is first cited in Isaac Luria’s “Seder ha-Tefillah.”  This observance occurs the day before Rosh Hodesh each month (with the exceptions of Chesvan, Tevet and Iyar because of Yom Kippur, Hanukkah and Nissan observances), or the Thursday before, if the day of observance falls on Shabbat.

“Following the custom of the very pious, one must repent and make restitutions both in money and personal acts, in order that one may enter the new month as pure as a newborn infant,” said Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (aka the Shelah haQaddosh).  

Yom Kippur Katan is like an invisible track keeping us steadily moving forward through the spiral journey of the Jewish year.  

Liturgically, we recite Selichot during the afternoon (when tallit and tefillin are also ritually worn). If engaging in communal observance, a reading from Exodus is included. We listen as Moses pleads for God’s compassion: “Why, God, should Your anger flare up against Your people, whom You have taken out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand?” (Exodus 32:11). We are asked to role-play as stand-ins for Moses in the modern era — fast and pray, with liturgical recitations from the Viduii and Avinu Malkeinu — and then return to our lives bearing a deepened awareness of our hand in the maelstrom of corruptive destruction and redemptive potential.    

What will the High Holy Days of 5780 look like if we spend a year dedicating ourselves to this observance? How can we transform our communities, our families, ourselves?

While it’s fairly easy to purchase bottles of greens or charcoal water to ingest every two hours, what might it mean to press some deeper meaning into the cocktail?

Los Angeles is filled with “After Burns” — communal post-Burning Man gatherings. Yom Kippur Katan is the yearlong cycle of After Burns for the Jewishly curious.  

A Blessing for 5779:  May we deepen our observance of the revelatory High Holy Days experience with an awe-awareness spanning the next 11 months — and may our skin be all the brighter from it.

Yom Kippur Katan Calendar, 5779
For each Yom Kippur Katan observance, choose whether to engage in communal or private ritual. Choose to fast with no water, with water or with a juice cleanse. Keep a journal to check in each month: set goals, name challenges, monitor personal growth.

Oct. 8: Rosh Hodesh Chesvan (no observance): Schedule an hour to journal and reflect upon the High Holy Days experience.
Nov. 7: Rosh Hodesh Kislev.
Dec. 6: (no observance): Rosh Hodesh Tevet. Light hanukkiah and meditate upon the light.
Jan. 6: Rosh Hodesh Sh’vat.
Feb. 4: Rosh Hodesh Adar I
March 6: Rosh Hodesh Adar II (bonus this year!)
April 4: Rosh Hodesh Nissan
May 2: Rosh Hodesh Iyar (no observance; no fasting in Nissan): Reflect upon freedom and civil liberties in our lives.
June 3: Rosh Hodesh Sivan
July 2:  Rosh Hodesh Tamuz
Aug. 1: Rosh Hodesh Av
Aug. 29: Rosh Hodesh Elul


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

Roseanne: Between the ‘Sacred and the Profane’

From left: Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, Roseanne Barr and David Suissa discuss “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” (Photo courtesy of World Values Network)

On Sept. 17, the night before Erev Yom Kippur, at the same time as the 70th Primetime Emmys Awards ceremony, comedian and actress Roseanne Barr was participating in a discussion titled, “Is America a Forgiving Nation?” 

Appearing at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, Barr addressed the event that torpedoed her career: In May, Barr wrote a racist tweet about former President Barack Obama aide Valerie Jarrett. 

During the onstage discussion at the Saban with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, which was moderated by Journal Publisher and Editor-in-Chief David Suissa, Barr said the fallout from the tweet, including ABC’s cancellation of its hit reboot of her show “Roseanne,” was devastating.

“It was so hard I thought I was going to die,” the 66-year-old said. “And it physically defeated me, and I was just leveled. And still it has been two months … but I still can’t. I feel like I have been psychically attacked and I have trouble staying awake. I went into a really bad place.”

Barr said her tweet arose from frustration with former President Barack Obama’s administration’s handling of the Iran deal, among other things. 

The sympathetic audience of close to 200 people applauded when Barr said, “I apologized for the hurt it caused people, but also I tried to clarify it and this has been quite a battle in which the right to clarify what I meant has been denied to me.”  

“That’s what I regret,” she added, “that I was not absolutely clear in what I meant.”

Boteach, who has been a friend of Barr’s for 20 years, and regularly studies Torah with her, said he reached out to her in the wake of the fallout, because of the strength of her Jewish character. 

“I wish people could be exposed to the depth of the conversations that Roseanne and I have had over the past few months,” he said, “because America knows Roseanne as an extremely funny woman, who created one of television’s most successful sitcoms and last season dominated the ratings, but what they don’t know is what a profound student of Torah she is. I mean, profound.” 

Boteach added, “She is a phenomenal, ferocious lioness for the Jewish people, and she deserved our steadfast support while making it clear she should make this right, because we Jews have values.”

Much of the evening centered on Barr’s commitment to Judaism. Raised in a Jewish home in Salt Lake City, Barr said Judaism plays a central role in her life. “My main passion and joy and compulsion is the study of Torah,” she said.

When Suissa asked how Barr reconciles her love of Torah with her irreverent comedy, Barr said her life is a balancing act between “the sacred and the profane.”

Yom Kippur 2018

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

Kol Nidre LIVE 2018

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

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

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

Sign up for Kol Nidre LIVE updates!

 

[Support this program by donating to Nashuva]

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

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

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

Check back on this page for updates!

 

 

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram

Check out this episode!

Howard Rosenman: Award-Winning Producer Opens Up

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

Follow David Suissa on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Check out this episode!

Episode 100 – Hawaiian Jewish Beauty Queen Takes on Israel

What makes someone a Jew? Some might say: I’m a Jew because I believe in Judaism, and I feel Jewish. But to many, including most Orthodox and conservative rabbis, that’s not enough. Some might say: I’m Jewish because I’ve been converted. But the State of Israel, for example, doesn’t recognize Jews who were converted by reform and conservative Rabbis. And to many, even those who converted by the most stringent of laws, are not REALLY Jews, and referred to as “Meguyar” or “Converted”

But some people choose to take their own path, disregarding what others think, and pursue their dream with all their might. Frances Wilson, is undoubtedly one such person. Wilson is an African-American from Hawaii, who converted to Judaism and now came for one year of teaching and volunteering in Israel. Winner of several beauty contests, Frances’s path to recognition in Israel is not without struggle, and she’s joining us today to talk about why she came here, and the bewildering choice to join one of the most exclusive and often loathed religions in the world.

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Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

Follow Rob and Ricochet on Twitter 

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Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

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

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

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

Check out this episode!

Widows, Orphans, and Strangers at the Border

“You will not undermine the justice due to a stranger or an orphan and you will not seize the widow’s garment as collateral.” Deuteronomy, 24:17

“Fathers and mothers have been humiliated among you, strangers have been cheated in your midst, orphans and widows have been wronged among you.” Ezekiel 22:7

“There is no greater or more glorious joy than bringing joy to the heart of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the strangers.” Maimonides, Hilchot Magila v’Hanukah, 2:17

On June 11, U.S. Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions ordered immigration judges to cease granting asylum in the United States to fugitives from domestic abuse and gang violence. This act should shock the conscience of every American, but for Jews it is a particular outrage.

Why does our Torah, echoed by our prophets and sages, exhort us repeatedly to care for the orphan, widow, and stranger and warn of catastrophes for those who ignore the call? In the patriarchal society of the ancient Hebrews, widows, orphans, and strangers were people without protection. They were socially naked, vulnerable, and, according to Jewish values, owed the community’s help.

Vulnerability is no shame in Judaism. We are all “the weak.” We are temporary, puncturable, fleshy creatures, puny even by mammalian standards. We are not made, as tigers are, to hunt alone. We are made to form communities, to speak, and to care. Our founding story of slavery and redemption reminds us of that mutual dependence and obligation which offers whatever glory humans can attain.

Women and children who live in countries where domestic abuse and violence are not taken seriously by authorities and where everyone but the most privileged is subject to impressment by brutal gangs are “members of a particular social group” with a “well-founded fear of persecution.” The Geneva Convention of 1951 and U.S. law allow such people to find asylum here.

Yet, when such families present themselves at the border of our country, they have been pulled apart. Children are yanked out of their parents’ arms and forced into detention without explanation, often by people who cannot communicate in the child’s language. They are kept away from parents for months at a time, inflicting trauma that will reshape their brains and wound their hearts for a lifetime. This has been happened to all border-crossers and asylum-seekers since May when Attorney General Sessions declared a “zero tolerance” policy for every person who is caught or who presents themselves without documents at our borders. Previously, such families could remain together until the parents could make their case in court. This brutality does not reflect ‘how things have always been,’ it is a terrible new policy of the current administration.

Now Attorney General Sessions has said that women who have been beaten, raped, mutilated, or threatened with death by domestic partners and been routinely ignored by authorities in their birth countries don’t count as persecuted people who need our help. He has said that teens who have been threatened with torture, including sexual violence, if they themselves do not aid the perpetrators of such violence cannot count on us either.

We American Jews cannot allow this to stand. The fugitives from patriarchal violence who arrive at our borders are the widows, orphans, and strangers of our day. They are precisely the people we are commanded to help—those who, because of their position in society, are denied the political means to defend themselves where they are. We whose ancestors found sanctuary here are obliged to be the welcoming neighbors for whom those ancestors prayed.

There is much we can do. We can support a bill introduced by our state’s Senator Diane Feinstein, the Keep Families Together Bill along with the Help Separated Children Act (S2937) and S2468, which provides free counsel for children in immigration court. We can call and write the office of the U.S. Attorney General. Every day. We can march today with Families Belong Together.

We learn in Gittin 61a that, “The Rabbis taught, we support the non-Jewish poor with the Jewish poor, and visit the non-Jewish sick with Jewish sick, and bury the non-Jewish dead with the Jewish dead, because of the ways of peace.” We also act on behalf of the widow, orphan, and stranger, no matter where they are from.

Don’t Look the Other Way When Depression Hits

Photo for The Daily Beast by Bebeto Matthews

Refections on the recent suicides of Kate Spade, Avicci, and Anthony Bourdain and how we must act when depression hits

The world was shocked and saddened by the suicide of Kate Spade, a mega-designer, at age of 55 after a long battle with depression. According to her husband, Spade was “actively seeking help for depression and anxiety over the last five years, seeing a doctor on a regular basis and taking medication for both depression and anxiety…”

The immediate reactions have returned the spotlight to the real and immediate crisis that serious depression inflicts on our society. Avicci, Anthony Bourdain, Robin Williams…Depression not only inflicts pain on the one who bears the illness, but it also has the potential to create significant pain, strife, and damage to others.  

On the community level how do we address this? If you know someone who seems down, not themselves, withdrawn – don’t look the other way or think that only the “professionals” will be able to help them. According to research, “social connectedness and support from friends, family, communities and institutions may also help people who are struggling for any reason.”

In other words, taking pills and seeing a therapist aren’t necessarily enough. It does not mean that a certain person’s suicide could be prevented with these additions, but it can help. 

Judaism Prescribes Community Connections

Many people who are depressed don’t want to be around others, and will push people away. They may retreat into their own worlds making including them in LIFE so much more difficult. They also may turn to drugs to numb the pain of the depression. The self-medication is another malady that compounds the depression and makes treatment more difficult. But don’t give up on them, ever.

We are fortunate that our tradition and Torah prescribes participation in community, ample times for social connectedness, and the mitzvah to look out for one another. Additionally, our daily spiritual practices offers opportunities to strengthen our relationship with our Creator. 

But still people can become derailed, feeling that their life has no real purpose, and that somehow they have failed and they may be doing the world a favor by dying, God forbid.

We must tell everyone we know that seems to be falling off the rails,  “Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful.” Throw them a life preserving phone call, house visit, lunch or coffee. Invite them to the movies, a concert, a stroll along the boardwalk. No texting – but real live connections. 

God created everyone of us with an individual purpose and also also created a deep interconnectedness that transcends the individual. When someone falls into depression, it calls us to action.

Just turn on with me, and you’re not alone, 

Let’s turn on and be not alone

Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful

Gimme your hands, ’cause you’re wonderful

Oh, gimme your hands

— David Bowie, Rock n’Roll Suicide

We all have to act

The Torah teaches in Vayikra (19:16) “lo ta’amod al dam rei’echa,” do not stand idly by your fellows blood. The Talmud in Sanhderin 73a teaches that if one sees someone in a life-threatening situation they have an obligation to save them.

Kate Spade’s death is tragic. She was one of the 123 Americans that kill themselves every day on average. Depression is a real and life-threatening situation that obliges us to reach out and help.

I pray for all those who are depressed to be able to feel how much God and others love them and appreciate them being in the world. And how their death would pierce our hearts and our world and leave a vacuum that cannot be filled.

And I pray that with God’s help we can prevent future tragic deaths. 

If you would like to learn more about what to do when someone you know is facing depression, check out this recent article.

Comedians Stand Up for Judaism

Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher.

For years before they met, Los Angeles-based stand-up comedians Natasha Leggero and Moshe Kasher traveled alone on the road.

Today, having now been married for three years, and as parents to a newborn daughter, the couple are able to work together and travel wherever they want.

As individuals, both achieved acclaim on stage and on major late-night television shows. Together, their recent gig in Austin, Texas, was filmed and turned into their new Netflix special, “The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special.” In it, Leggero and Kasher perform two separate sets, then go onstage to roast other couples in the audience.

“We started thinking we could travel together just doing our stand-up,” said Kasher, 38, in a phone interview with the Journal. “We talk about our marriage on stage and do live relationship counseling with couples [in the audience].”

Leggero, 44, was heavily pregnant while filming the special. Onstage, she wore a short, glittery dress with a massive fur coat, which emphasized her belly.

“I was Catholic my whole life, but obviously not practicing, because I’m also intelligent.” — Natasha Leggero

“Having a baby and being pregnant is definitely a new experience,” Leggero said. “It’s something to write jokes about, and it’s something new that’s happening to you. It’s kind of miserable, which for me is always the best for comedy. When you’re falling in love or getting married, or having a TV show, those things feel good but sometimes they’re not the best thing for comedy.”

Kasher joked, “Natasha likes to perform while miserable because her audiences are also miserable while she performs.”

At one point in the show Leggero joked, “I am pregnant. Please, hold your applause. I’m still in the abortion zone.”

In his act, Kasher joked that people were trying to persuade him that being a parent was the greatest thing in the world. “It feels like they’re trying to convince me to eat sh–,” he said.

Kasher and Leggero dated for three years before marrying. During that time, Leggero took conversion classes with Conservative Rabbi Neal Weinberg at Judaism By Choice in Pico-Robertson. The couple attended the course’s 19, four-hour-long classes, where they learned about Shabbat, the prayers and wedding customs.

“The rabbi makes these classes available every single night except for Friday,” said Leggero. “It’s intensive. There’s not even a bathroom break.”

“The rabbi comes into the bathroom, stands behind you as you urinate,” Kasher quipped, “and sings ‘Adon Olam,’ because there’s no rest for the wicked.”

The two were married in their backyard in Los Angeles in 2015. They hold Shabbat dinners every Friday night.

“I was Catholic my whole life, but obviously not practicing because I’m also intelligent,” Leggero said. “The Shabbat practice is really the jewel of Judaism. If I could just do that, and also share it with my child, I’d be really happy.”

Kasher, who has a Chasidic father and whose brother is David Kasher, the newly appointed associate rabbi at IKAR, said, “As a typical convert, Natasha is very evangelical about us keeping Shabbat. Every Friday, she is the one who says we have to light candles, we have to do Shabbat. It definitely is a big part of our lives.”

For now, Friday nights are spent at home, as Kasher and Leggero raise their baby. But they hope to be able to go on the road together again. “I know I’m not doing another special while pregnant,” Leggero said. “I’d like to wait for our darling child to be 4 or 5 so she can open for us.”

“The Honeymoon Stand-Up Special” is currently streaming on Netflix.

Reclaiming Our Mystical Mojo on Shavuot

Rabbi Joseph Karo.

It is time to take back mysticism, and Shavuot is the perfect time to reclaim our mystical mojo.

Modern man has become skeptical and cynical. We demand evidence and logical arguments. Usually, that is a good thing, but without an unreasonable suspension of disbelief or religious imperative, modernity turns mysticism from inspiration into “fake news.”

There is a tradition to study Torah all night on Shavuot. The origins of this practice are cloaked in mysticism and mystery. Rabbis Joseph Karo and Shlomo Alkabetz lived in 16th century Safed, Israel, with a small group of dedicated disciples. Alkabetz, who composed “Lecha Dodi,” was an extraordinary poet and musician. He was pure soul. Karo, compiler of the “Shulchan Arukh” — Jewish Code of Law — was a halachist without peer. His study partner could only be an angel of God. Karo studied with an angel and he recorded their conversations in a book called “Maggid Meisharim.” Nobody knew about Karo’s special chavruta until Shavuot night 5733.

Karo and Alkabetz made a pact to study Torah for the entire night with their students, reverently chanting the holy words. At midnight, a disembodied voice began to speak through Karo:

“You are blessed in this world and the next word because of the crown you have returned to my head. Years ago, I was thrown into the garbage heap and my crown was taken from me. I was inconsolable but tonight you have restored my crown to its glory. Be strong! Be courageous, my loves! Rejoice and celebrate!”

Alkabetz understood this heavenly voice was Karo’s study partner.

Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

After the monologue, the group studied mystical secrets of the Torah together with the voice. However, they were informed that they lacked a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so they could not hear all the secrets of the Torah.

The group diligently completed their vigil of Torah study until morning. Three students missed the learn-a-thon because they went to sleep. When they heard the story, they were heartbroken. So they decided to do study for a second consecutive night.

On the second night, the voice did not wait until midnight. When the group began to study, the voice returned with more praise, love and insights. The angel said that on both nights, their Torah was able to touch God and hasten the redemption.

And so, a tradition was born.

Judaism ceded mysticism and mystery to the Charedim. Everyone else is a skeptic. But we all need the legends of the mystics in our Judaism. Stories do not need to be true to inspire and invigorate us spiritually. They just need to be good.

We need great stories like Karo and the voice of God on Shavuot night to inspire another 500 years of Judaism.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Conversion Doesn’t Stop at the Mikveh

This past New Year’s Eve, I was with my husband, Daniel Lobell, in the living room of our good friend, talking with him about our struggles with Judaism. We were lonely and lost. It felt like I was hitting rock bottom with my spirituality.

I had become increasingly disenchanted with my Orthodox Judaism. I was sick of hearing criticism of the #MeToo movement at the Shabbat table. I was tired of seeing unabashed support of President Donald Trump.

I also felt very out of place in my community, because I had just turned 29 and couldn’t afford to have children yet, while many of my peers had at least two kids and a mortgage. I couldn’t see any future where we’d be able to afford a house or send our future kids to a Jewish school in Los Angeles.

It had been 2 1/2 years since my conversion through an Orthodox beit din. But before dipping into the mikveh and signing my conversion papers, I’d been living an Orthodox life for years. I’d gradually given up treif food, observed Shabbat, prayed frequently, learned at least once a week and moved into the religious community in Pico-Robertson. I was becoming more observant and it was easy; I had an end goal to look forward to.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

After I dipped in the mikveh, and got married, I finally took a breather. For years, I had imposter syndrome, and for once, I could just “be Jewish.”

I kept the laws but ceased learning regularly. I began going to synagogue on Shabbat later and later and skipping it some weeks. Our best friends, with whom we had spent every Shabbat, moved to New Jersey. People’s lives were progressing all around us, and Daniel and I seemed stuck in the same place.

This all led to me breaking down at the end of last year. Not knowing where else to turn, we called our friend for advice. He listened patiently and said Orthodox Judaism is something that he has struggled with, too. We were so surprised. Daniel and I looked up to him and thought that he had it all together. But even he had challenges.

Our friend encouraged us to build our own community by going to different synagogues, seeing what we liked and appreciating each one for what it had to offer. He talked about how he learns regularly with a few inspiring rabbis around town. He invited us for a Shabbat lunch, introduced us to new people and took Daniel to a local minyan, where they had a spiritually uplifting experience.

Thanks to our friend, I realized that just because I was feeling low it didn’t mean I had to throw it all away. There were always solutions.

We started to visit different synagogues. We met more people, received invitations to meals and felt less alone. I started learning with a chavruta (study partner) and going to shul earlier.

I took on additional mitzvot and began to daven consistently. As for the political and cultural issues within Orthodoxy, I discovered a movement called Open Orthodoxy that has similar views to mine. Strengthening my spirituality has helped me have faith that Daniel and I will be able to make it in L.A.

Today, I am stronger in my Judaism than ever before. The more I learn, the more I want to learn. The earlier I go to shul, the more I want to attend. If I do more I feel connected, and want to only increase that connection.

Just like any Jewish person, I need constantly to take on more mitzvot, study and try to be better. And the politics and customs in my community shouldn’t discourage me, because it’s not about that. It’s about putting faith in HaShem and doing what is right and true to myself.

Even though I already went to the mikveh, every day that I get up and decide to live another day as a committed Jew, I convert all over again.

The Wrong Kind of Jew

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Last week, I was kicked out of a Jewish museum in Granada, Spain.

I wish I were being funny or ironic, but this unfortunate event actually happened. It was my first Jewish stop on a trip tracing the roots of Sephardic Jewry throughout southern Spain, when a friend and I visited a small family-run museum that fills the bottom floor of the family’s home.

In accordance with the diminished Jewish presence that is a fact of modern Spain, Granada’s Jewish museum is small and modest. There are a handful of rooms cluttered with Jewish symbols and memorabilia, clearly curated out of love but not, evidently, with much scholarship.

My friend, a rabbi and published author, quickly noticed a significant error in the museum literature: It claimed that Yehuda Ibn Tibbon, one of Granada’s most famous former residents (a monument of him appears in a public square) had translated Maimonides’ “Guide for the Perplexed,” when in fact it was his son, Samuel Ibn Tibbon, who translated the work from Judeo-Arabic to Hebrew. My friend asked to speak to the museum owners and offered to help correct the error.

It certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another.

Soon, a middle-aged woman and an older man descended the stairs and introduced themselves. Things went south quickly.

“You no respect museum. You get out of my house!” the woman yelled.

We tried to explain that we were deeply appreciative of the museum, but we simply wanted to help correct the error. But they wouldn’t hear it. None of us could really understand one another — I speak broken Spanish; the museum owners spoke broken English — and I’m sure the language barrier was responsible for the miscommunication that ensued.

But a language barrier does not explain what came out of the woman’s mouth next, which was very clear:

“You’re liberal,” she sneered at my friend, a Conservative rabbi who was wearing a kippah and tried to speak to her in Hebrew. “You’re Reform.”

I was raised in a Reform community, so I had never heard the word Reform uttered with such disdain.

“I’m Orthodox,” the woman said, stomping her foot.

Then she turned toward me, standing stunned and silent in gray jeans and a wool coat.

“Look how she’s dressed,” she sniped. “You’re liberal! You’re Reform!”

That’s when we headed for the exit.

Afterward, I wondered how the museum lady could possess such hostility toward liberal Jews when she devotes an entire wall to Jews like Sigmund Freud and Karl “Max” who I’m pretty sure were not as observant as she is.

A week later, I still can’t get this episode out of my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’ve been made to feel inferior for my status as a non-halachic liberal Jew, and it certainly wasn’t the first time Jews have been at odds with one another. The rabbis tell us that sinat hinam — “baseless hatred” among the Israelites — was the reason the Second Temple was destroyed. And although Maimonides commands tremendous reverence today, there were rabbis so disapproving of his “Guide for the Perplexed” when it was first published that the book was burned in Montpellier and Paris.

What I encountered last week wasn’t unprecedented, but it does reflect the dangerous and growing divide among Jews that is driven by political and ideological difference, and which has intensified during the Donald Trump era. Today, Jews of different persuasions are more likely to meet at the combustible intersection of religion and politics than around the Shabbat table. The idea of “am Yisra’el” seems almost quaint. And I fear we’re reaching an inflection point in the disruptive and demeaning way we relate to one another.

In Israel, the ongoing battle over who has the right to pray at the Kotel has driven a wedge between liberal American Jews and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Also, enduring tensions exist between secular Israelis and the Orthodox power structure.

More than any time in recent memory, our community seems perilously close to the atmosphere of sinat hinam that once wrought destruction and tragedy. On April 25 in Los Angeles, I’m moderating a panel for the Shalom Hartman Institute at a conference titled “Israel and Diaspora: Peoplehood in Crisis?”

I have a terrible feeling I know the answer.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

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

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

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

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‘One Strange Rock’ Astronaut Shares Views of Space, Judaism

Scene from “One Strange Rock.” Photo courtesy of National Geographic.

Among America’s 536 astronauts who have gone to space, only a dozen have been Jewish. Jeffrey A. Hoffman is in that elite group. An astronomer and astrophysicist, he flew five space shuttle missions, repairing the Hubble Space Telescope on his third flight in 1993.

Now a professor of aerospace engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Hoffman is featured in the new 10-part National Geographic Channel series “One Strange Rock,” in which eight NASA astronauts share their perspectives on Earth and its place in the universe. Its environmental message is clear.

“When people appreciate the uniqueness of the planet, they will make the connection that we better not screw things up,” Hoffman told the Journal. “If we don’t understand how the universe was formed and how Earth works as a planet, we can’t take care of it.”

Hoffman described the sight of Earth from space as overwhelming.

“There’s a sense of grandeur, of awe in the deepest sense,” he said. “I never got tired of looking at sunrises and sunsets, lightning storms, and the aurora borealis and aurora australis from above.”

Hoffman, who joined the space program in 1979, made his first shuttle flight six years later. His only fear at that time was “screwing up,” he said. As for fearing death, he pointed out, “During launch, you’re sitting on 4.5 million pounds of high explosives. If that causes undue stress, you might be in the wrong profession.”

While the astronauts were dedicated to carrying out the mission of every flight, Hoffman said the success of the Hubble mission, which came with high pressure and high stakes, was “a great thrill” and his proudest achievement. “The future of NASA was on the line,” he said. “It’s a moment that will be with me for the rest of my life.”

That Hubble-repair flight coincided with Hanukkah, so Hoffman took a dreidel with him to celebrate. He brought other Jewish artifacts along on other missions, too, including the atarot from his sons’ tallisim, a sefer Torah that is now in use at a synagogue in Houston, and a mezuzah that decorates the door of the Bloomfield Science Museum Jerusalem.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition between Judaism, one of humanity’s oldest traditions, and space flight, which is one of the newest.” — Jeffrey Hoffman

“I donated it back in 1993, and in 2013 I was back and we had a dedication for the 20th anniversary,” Hoffman said. Some items that he took with him are on view in the “Jews in Space” exhibition through June at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the juxtaposition between Judaism, one of humanity’s oldest traditions, and space flight, which is one of the newest,” Hoffman said. He often gives talks about his experiences to Jewish community and youth organizations, which he wrote about in his book, “An Astronaut’s Diary,” in 1986. He’d like to write another, he said, but has yet to find the time.

Jeffrey Hoffman. Photo by Stewart Volland/National Geographic.

Hoffman, 73, was born in Brooklyn and raised in Scarsdale, N.Y., in a Reform Jewish family of Eastern European descent. In 1965, he and his brother traveled with their paternal grandfather to their grandfather’s childhood hometown near Minsk, Belarus. “There was a pit where they had all the Jews dig a hole,” and for his grandfather, seeing it “was quite painful,” Hoffman recalled.

He noted that once he joined NASA and began going to services at a Conservative synagogue in Clear Lake, Texas, he “was exposed to some Jewish traditions that I hadn’t grown up with, and I learned quite a bit,” he said.

Now living in Boston, Hoffman attends Hillel services on the MIT campus with his British wife, Barbara, a retired librarian. They met in 1972 when Hoffman was working in England at the University of Leicester and married two years later. They have two sons — Sam, 42, is a ceramist; and Orin, 38, is a robotics engineer — and two grandchildren.

Although he’s been to Antarctica and the Himalayas, sailed the Northwest Passage and logged 21.5 million miles in orbit, “There are still places on Earth I haven’t been to,” Hoffman said. He is planning to take his older grandson, now 12, on a trip to Costa Rica next year, and he’s going on a trek to Bhutan in May.

He is also working with NASA on the Mars 2020 rover project, in preparation for humans going to Mars and “living off the land.” “For the first time we’re going to manufacture oxygen using Mars resources — taking carbon dioxide from the Mars atmosphere and putting it through an electrolysis unit,” he said.

Hoffman believes it’s important to continue to explore the universe, not only for curiosity’s sake or because “some day an asteroid is going to come toward Earth with our number on it,” he said. “Global warming was first discovered on Venus. Venus is a hot hellhole. Mars is a frigid desert. How did Earth make it just right? The real question is whether it’s going to be able to continue to support humanity. If we’re going to solve our problems on Earth, it has to be done on a planetary level.”

With everything he knows about astronomy, astrophysics and space travel, Hoffman can’t help but watch movies about space with a critical eye.

“ ‘Gravity’ did a great job in the views from space, but the [Extra Vehicular Activities] were terrible,” he said. “They had no connection with reality. But I enjoyed it for the visual splendor.”

As for films that were more accurate, “ ‘The Martian’ did a pretty good job. ‘Apollo 13’ was probably the best in that respect,” he said. “When they do get it right, it’s always gratifying. But, I understand that a movie is a movie. ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ is still my favorite.”

“One Strange Rock” premiered March 26 and airs at 10 p.m. Mondays on the National Geographic Channel.

Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman

 

David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

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An Arab Comes Home to His Judaism

Mark Halawa

This is the story of a man born in Kuwait to a Palestinian-Muslim family and who today lives as an observant Jew in Jerusalem.

It is a story of slavery, of exodus and of personal redemption.

Some of the man’s tale has appeared in newspapers and video clips, and he has recounted it to audiences all over the world. But some of the story has been shrouded in secrecy and shame.

Until now.

Mark Halawa has been aware his entire life that he came from Jewish blood. When he was in the Palestinian Boy Scouts burning Israeli flags, or listening to his father rail against the “evil Zionists,” or learning math from a teacher who asked, “If one rocket could kill five Jews, how many rockets will it take to kill 35 Jews?”, he knew his maternal grandmother had been a Jew in Jerusalem. He did not know what that meant until years later when, while studying at the University of Western Ontario in Canada, he met a Jewish professor who told him that it meant he was also a Jew.

The revelation brought with it consternation, intrigue and delight in equal measure.

“I was shocked and interested and happy to belong to a multifaith family. It made me feel cool and special,” he said. “When you grow up with so much anti-Semitism, you have the utmost hate and the utmost curiosity.”

Halawa was full of questions. He began to explore. But he took care not to offend his parents, with whom he was still close. His father, a staunchly secular Palestinian nationalist who in the 1960s helped fund the establishment of the PLO, did not want to hear about it.

“I was so angry, I wanted to tell the whole world my story.” — Mark Halawa

When it came to his mother, Halawa remembered thinking that he would be able to talk with her more openly: “My mother is youthful. She’s funny. I tell her everything.”

He did not tell her, however, that he had moved from Canada to Jerusalem to study Torah at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. At the time, his mother was becoming a more religious Muslim — a move that eventually led his father to divorce her — so in a way she was glad her son had shed his partying “frat boy” lifestyle and was becoming more devout.

“We would speak in broad terms about God and godliness,” Halawa said.

But later, when Halawa was married and had made Jerusalem his permanent home, the gulf widened between his mother’s beliefs and his own.

Things came to a head with the birth of Halawa’s daughter. The happy event came in the wake of the Duma arson attack, which resulted in the deaths of three people, including a toddler. Jewish extremists were suspected of committing the crime.

Halawa sent a photo of his baby girl to his mother. Her response: “I hope she burns along with her mother. Just like those Jews burned that boy.”

That moment broke Halawa. He became deeply depressed, he said. “It burns a hole in my heart, but I don’t want to connect to my mother anymore. She sees my helpless child as an infidel Jew.”

Yet at the same time, the future was suddenly clear. All the ambivalence he had felt about speaking in public was gone. “I was no longer scared,” he said. “I was so angry, I wanted to tell the whole world my story.”

And tell it he did. Halawa made videos in Arabic for the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs that went viral, and he has established a nonprofit for pro-Israel outreach to the Arab world.

“I was enslaved by hate,” Halawa said. “I was under my mother’s thumb, even as a Jew. But that moment when I broke from my mother, I crossed the Red Sea.

“I was finally free.”

Israel Should Open Judaism to Refugees

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Talleyrand’s famous aphorism applies to Israel’s immigration policy: It is worse than a crime — it is a blunder. Pursuing a more creative and enlightened asylum policy could generate a significant benefit for the Jewish people.

Israel and the worldwide Jewish community should see potential refugees as a resource rather than a threat. Suppose that out of 100 million potential migrants, only 2 percent might be willing to convert to Judaism in order to become Israeli citizens. This development would significantly boost Israel’s Jewish majority while simultaneously making it a haven for those fleeing oppression and poverty.

I can hear the obvious objection: These wouldn’t be real converts. They would become part of the Jewish people only to move to Israel. Here is the unobvious answer: It doesn’t matter.

Ask yourself: When did you first decide to be Jewish? For most of us, it is an absurd question. We didn’t decide to be Jewish. We just are. Our parents raised us that way: Identities come from cultural surroundings.

Now imagine a family newly settling in Israel — from Congo, say, or Guatemala — who have at least committed to become “Jewish” for the sake of immigration, and spent several months in conversion classes. They study Hebrew. They observe the Jewish calendar. Their children learn Jewish history and culture in school. When those children grow up, they are “Jewish” in the Israeli sense: not particularly religious, but conscious of being part of the Jewish people. By the time the grandchildren grow up, they are as “Jewish” as any other member of “Middle Israel.”

Israel and the worldwide Jewish community should see potential refugees as a resource rather than a threat.

Do Jews do this? We do far worse. The Maccabees forcibly converted the kingdom of Edom at the beginning of the first century B.C.E.; by the time of the siege of Jerusalem 170 years later, according to Josephus, Edomites helped lead the Jewish resistance to Rome. A century later, no one distinguished the two peoples: All were Jewish. Most Jews, then, have a substantial amount of Edomite blood (generating an ironic meaning for prophetic condemnations of Edom). If forced conversions yielded such a result, voluntary ones certainly could.

Would it work? I don’t know; it has never been tried. The State of Israel or Jewish organizations should set up shop in areas where refugees are fleeing and announce that conversion to Judaism makes one eligible for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Outside of Israel, conversions do not have to be Orthodox.

Perhaps no one will accept the offer. Perhaps those who do will come to Israel and quickly revert to their original religions. Perhaps they will train their children secretly in the old ways. And perhaps this will comprise the majority of such admittees. Because it is a pilot program, we will know soon enough. We certainly cannot assume the opposite, unless we also assume that Israeli Jewish culture is so weak, and so unattractive, that no one else could possibly want to adopt it. (Of course, a warm rather than begrudging welcome would strengthen Judaism’s appeal.)

The 2013 film “Transit” concerns a Filipino family in Israel, where a single father must hide his children from immigration police after the government decides to deport children of immigrant workers. The young son develops a warm relationship with the octogenarian Shoah survivor for whom the father serves as a caregiver. The survivor lovingly teaches the boy how to leyn Torah. As the children are being carted away, the boy stands in the immigration office, chanting his parsha. Earlier, he asks his father, “Dad, how do you become Jewish?”

“I don’t know,” the father responds. “I think you have to be born that way.”

But you don’t have to be born that way. You can be a little Filipino boy, learning Torah from a Shoah survivor, living in Israel, being a Jew.

Romantic? Perhaps. It’s a movie. But if you will it, it is no dream.


Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Watching the Watchers

Every year, Hollywood creates a handful of culturally significant movies that captivate a wide audience and sweep us away on what can be described as a cultural wave. Recently, I’ve taken to rewatching those films that had a lasting impact on me. Rewatching, but not re-experiencing. Rather, I’m sharing them with my sons.

For me, rewatching is not simply the act of “watching again.” By default, rewatching bypasses the hype and hoopla of a new release. All that remains is the actual film. There is no cultural wave to sweep us away but something more meaningful is left in its place.

I want to share those feelings with my sons and I hope they will feel something, too. I watch the screen with one eye, the other eye on my boys, to see their reactions to powerful moments in the story. You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

“Game of Thrones” is one of the most popular shows in television history. It is also one of the most intense, and you can watch videos of people’s reactions to scenes from the show on YouTube. Those who had read the “Game of Thrones” books were ready for these moments and used their phones to record their friends’ and family’s reactions to them on the screen. Uploading these videos to YouTube helped propel the “Game of Thrones” phenomenon. The show pushes our most sensitive, emotional buttons and arouses our most primal feelings.

You get only one chance to see your kid’s face when he finds out Darth Vader is Luke’s father.

James Cameron’s “Titanic” was a cultural tsunami. It was big and beautiful, sad and spectacular, and infinitely rewatchable. Some teens saw the film dozens of times. They went not only to rewatch the movie but to watch others watching it for the first time.

Sharing feelings with words is clumsy. Sharing experiences that create those feelings is Divine, and it’s this idea that explains Jewish holiday rituals.

We weren’t there for the original cultural mile markers. We weren’t liberated from bondage by Moses; we weren’t present when God split the sea; we weren’t imperiled by Haman’s xenophobia; and we weren’t saved by Esther’s heroism. But those who were there shared their stories with their children so they could feel the same thing as their parents.

That is why we retell our stories and why our holiday rituals are so important.

Judaism does not live in the past. It is the past that lives in us.


Eli Fink is a rabbi, writer and managing supervisor at the Jewish Journal.

Jewish Background Helps Comedian Rise to Roastmaster General

Jeff Ross is a comedian, writer and producer also known as the Roastmaster General. His comedy roast “victims” have included Rob Lowe, Justin Bieber, James Franco, Charlie Sheen, James Carville and Donald Trump. Jeff’s most recent comedy special is “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville, Texas,” which is available on Comedy Central and iTunes.

His latest TV series is “Jeff Ross Presents Roast Battle,” a comedy competition show about to start its third season on Comedy Central. He will be appearing live at Caroline’s Comedy Club in New York City, February 8-11.

Jewish Journal: What motivated you to become a comedian?

Jeff Ross: I was struggling, living in New Jersey with my grandfather, trying to start a video production business. A buddy said, “Why don’t you try taking this stand-up comedy class? I think you’d be good at it.” He said it would be a good way to meet a girlfriend, have a social life and a creative outlet. The class was near the bus station where I was going home every night, anyway. So, I tried it on a whim, really enjoyed it right away and was the best one in the class, so I stuck with it.

JJ: How has your Jewish upbringing and heritage influenced your work and your life?

JR: Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA. Although my Judaism isn’t the main focus of my act, it’s a big part of my personality. I love families, food, fun, parties and busting chops. Love of life. L’chaim.

“Being Jewish makes you funny. It’s almost in our DNA.”

JJ: What qualities make a perfect roast joke?

JR: The best roast jokes are backhanded compliments, where the recipient not only laughs along with the audience but goes home and tells their family about it; jokes that they’re proud of. That’s the heart of the artichoke for me, that’s what makes me feel good, when the joke lives longer than the show.

JJ: Your process for creating roast material?

JR: I do research. I’m all in. I go to battle to prepare. I get in shape. I go to the gym. I hang up pictures all over the house of the target I’m roasting. I buy their books, watch their movies, listen to their music. It’s war — take no prisoners.

JJ: Any charities close to your heart?

JR: The USO and what they do for our troops stationed overseas. You can’t play that up enough because it’s so important. And Meals on Wheels. When I was a beginning comedian and my grandfather was dying of cancer, Meals on Wheels delivered kosher meals to him, checked on him to make sure he was OK and helped him and me get through the day.

JJ: Tell us about your new special, “Jeff Ross Roasts the Border: Live From Brownsville Texas.”

JR: I went down to the Mexican border and did a show in front of the border fence for the immigrant community down there. I worked a year on it. It’s a very complicated subject and the jokes as well as my emotions are deep and sometimes confusing. I learned a lot, including how lucky I am that I was born in America. One point I make in the show is that Jewish people tried to come to America at the beginning of World War II and we sent them away. Now, we’re saying the same thing to these other refugees from other countries. Maybe we should take a look at all that.

JJ: Have you retained your dancing skills from your appearances on “Dancing With the Stars”?

JR: Oh, I had those skills way before “Dancing With the Stars.” I won a dance class in summer camp when I was about 8 and never looked back since. Don’t even tell me I’m not great. [Laughs] My family was in the kosher catering business; I know every dance you can think of from the “Hustle” to the horah.

JJ: What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of comedy?

JR: Dancing, eating and looking for a wife.


Mark Miller is a humorist who has performed stand-up comedy in nightclubs and on TV, and has written on numerous sitcom staffs.

How Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin Transformed Jewish Education in Los Angeles

Photo from Facebook

Congregants at Stephen S. Wise Temple will remember Rabbi Isaiah Zeldin, who died last week at 97, as the rabbi who celebrated with them, mourned with them, officiated at their weddings, presided at b’nai mitzvah, and was present at countless moments in their religious lives. Indeed, he was a rabbi who was larger than life and whose generosity of spirit, time and love permeated his entire being. Family members will remember him as Grandpa Shy, the grandfather who lovingly listened, cared, gave sage advice, adored and was filled with pride. And many remember his legacy of Judaism and Jewish education.

I was neither a congregant nor a student. I may have been one of the few people at Zeldin’s funeral who was neither a relative, friend, nor someone with a personal connection to the glorious institutions he built.  I’m a historian and, for the past three years, have devoted my research to the history of Jewish education in Los Angeles. My doctoral dissertation focused on the development of day schools in Los Angeles. And in that story, Zeldin stands out as one of the greatest figures.

Many people are familiar with the almost mythical story of how Zeldin took 35 families from Temple Emanuel to form a new congregation. While people describe that journey in matter-of-fact terms — from first using space in a church, then eventually making their way to the hilltop where Stephen S. Wise Temple sits today.

But it wasn’t only a remarkable feat, but the manifestation of a vision. This new institution would bridge the city’s Jews by being a midway point between the city and the San Fernando Valley. It would offer much more than just prayer services. The “shul with a pool” would provide programming for the youngest children, the elderly, and every age group in between.

Perhaps most importantly to Zeldin, it educated thousands of students in its day schools (not to mention its religious schools and other educational programs) at a time when Reform day schools were just starting to emerge and few non-Orthodox day schools existed in Los Angeles. That the Reform movement did not officially support day schools until 1985 did not hinder Zeldin’s determination.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it. He had a conviction and he made it a reality. And yet Zeldin was no wizard. He did not hide behind curtains. He was present at the board meetings, the staff meetings, the dinner meetings and everything else. He delivered reports, shared his dreams and offered words of Torah. He lived and breathed not only his institution but everything he believed it stood for.

The grandeur that Zeldin built cannot be measured in acreage or in dollars raised. It cannot be understood even through the staff he hired or the educators he trained. Using the word visionary to describe him isn’t an exaggeration, nor is it cliché. And while there is plenty of evidence to describe Zeldin’s success, there is little evidence to aid in understanding it. As Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said in his eulogy, Zeldin simply willed institutions into being, whether it was his synagogue, the West Coast branch of Hebrew Union College or his many schools.

Zeldin was the last of a generation of giants — rabbis who transformed the face and the fate of the Los Angeles Jewish community and whose commitment to, and passion for, Jewish education drove their every move. These leaders — among them Rabbi Jacob Pressman and Rabbi Harold Schulweis — dismissed denominational differences in the interest of Jewish continuity. They collaborated on projects, sought advice from one another and built the institutions that anchor Los Angeles’ Jewish community today.

Zeldin was a pioneer, a social entrepreneur before the phrase even existed. He saw a need and he filled it.

In the late 1980s, one of the city’s two non-Orthodox Jewish high schools, Golda Meir Academy, was struggling. In contrast, Zeldin’s elementary and nursery schools had been flourishing for over ten years. When the Golda Meir board and the Bureau of Jewish Education brought Zeldin into the discussions about the future of the school, he became a partner in the communal effort, eventually bringing the school under the umbrella of Stephen S. Wise’s Temple, which even assumed its financial burden. Within a few years, he had turned around the fate of the school, today known as Milken Community Schools. The politics (denominational and otherwise) were almost irrelevant. He had secured his own dream of educating Jewish children in a day school from nursery through twelfth grade.

So while congregants and family will hold memories of Zeldin near, this historian will also remember Zeldin as larger than life. Truly, Zeldin was an institution builder, a risk taker and change maker, a giant with a prescient ability to understand a community.

Yehi Zichrono Baruch. May his memory be a blessing.


Sara Smith is Assistant Dean of the Graduate Center for Jewish Education at American Jewish University.

The Creativity of Doubt

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, it has been said.

My entire life is by all counts a visible rejection of this dictum, given that I have spent all of my adult years learning or, until recently, teaching in universities.

I suspect I have even at times become a little intoxicated with knowledge, taking it in until I feel larger than myself and those around me. There’s a certain comfort in believing one knows more about a particular subject than most people.

And, believe me, I will never be one to argue against education or the various processes by which we acquire knowledge. For even if a little knowledge is  dangerous, it is also a source of power. Think, for example, of Black slaves in the American past who were prevented from learning to read, or women in certain countries who are prohibited from getting an education. For those in power, keeping knowledge out of the hands of those who are being controlled is critical to maintaining power.

But like everything worth having, knowledge is not without its complexities. I thought about this last week after reading Nicole Krauss’ spectacular new novel, “Forest Dark.”

What Judaism implicitly makes clear
is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver.

Much like her other works, “Forest Dark” tells concurrently a few different stories that may or may not intersect. One thread, told from a first-person point of view, is the story of a woman who travels to Tel Aviv to find inspiration for her next novel. While there, she contemplates the familial obstacles that make it difficult for her to sink fully into her identity as a writer. Among those is her husband, a man who “prized facts above the impalpable, which he’d begun to collect and assemble around himself like a bulwark.”

Yes, I thought to myself, so many of us do this, don’t we? Perhaps especially in the age of easily accessible information, we use facts to erect fortresses around us, protecting us from what lies outside of the walls we build. We assume that the more we know, the less we will be tricked by lies and falsities. While this is obviously true to a degree, the price we pay for this “certainty” is rarely obvious.

A sense of certainty seals us off from the world outside our personal borders. The frenzied acquisition of what we believe to be knowledge causes us to hold more tightly to our own views and listen less to what others have to say.

These days, we read the news — typically from sources that confirm our views — all day, every day. We have, as Krauss puts it, “become drunk on our powers of knowing — having made a holiness out of knowing, and busying ourselves all day and night in our pursuit of it.” We have converted to “the practice of knowing everything, and believing that knowledge is concrete, and always arrived at through the faculties of the intellect.” And we are left with an illusion of the mastery of all things, rather than the mastery of anything at all.

We fear the possibility of diminishing certainty. But what Judaism implicitly makes clear is that it’s OK for our trust in certainty to waver, even to privilege doubt over certainty. Krauss reminds us that when God created light, he also created the absence of light. The world is, for Jews, “always both hidden and revealed.” And it is doubt, along with the questions that inevitably arise, that urges us to look for the hidden and sustain this beautiful tension.

Great novelists have always known this. E.L. Doctorow once suggested that doubt is the greatest civilizer of humanity. It’s what maintains a balance necessary for a life worth living — one composed of meaningful dialogue and real community.

I don’t generally make New Year’s resolutions, but if I were to make one this year, it would be a pledge to doubt a little more. I want to be a little less certain of what I hold to be true in some cases. I want to make way for more questions, even if they threaten to chip away at what I’ve built.

This uncertainty could be the beginning of a less dangerous world.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. She is the author of “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma.”