February 20, 2019

The Challenge of the Middle

Orthodox, Conservative and Reform embrace the fundamental principle that Judaism is a work in progress. All three movements originated in Germany in the early 19th century as a response to the emancipation of the Jewish people in the Western world, and they differ only in how much or how little they are willing to change in Jewish belief and practice. Orthodoxy is generally perceived as having changed the least, Reform is perceived as having changed a lot, and Conservative Judaism, like Goldilocks, appears to prefer an approach that falls somewhere in between.

Yet, according to Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, Conservative Judaism is “rooted in and grow[s] from Jewish tradition, law, and moral values,” as he writes in “Modern Conservative Judaism: Evolving Thought and Practice” (University of Nebraska Press/Jewish Publication Society), a book that offers a commanding view of the history and destiny of the Conservative movement as explained to us by one of its leading lights.

“For those readers who grew up in the Conservative movement, this book may serve as an illuminating backstory you may have never known, explaining not only what the movement believes and practices but how and why it arrived at these conclusions,” Dorff explains. “For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.”

Dorff emphasizes the developments that have taken place over the last 50 years, but he uses a medieval Jewish credo to provide a path through the sprawling theological terrain: “Israel, Torah and God are one.” As Dorff points out, he has reversed the order of the triad. Thus, the first section of the book is theological, the second section focuses on how the Conservative movement understands and teaches the ancient Jewish texts, and the final section explains “why Conservative leaders today remain personally committed to Israel even when they may disagree with official Israeli policy.”

Dorff’s book is the latest title in the JPS Anthologies of Jewish Thought series, which is published by the University of Nebraska on behalf of the Jewish Publication Society and the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization whose membership consists of some 1,700 Conservative rabbis in North America, Israel and around the world. 

“Rabbi Dorff’s publications include more than two hundred articles on Jewish thought, law, and ethics, together with twelve books he wrote and another fourteen he edited or co-edited,” writes Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the first woman to serve as chief executive of the Rabbinical Assembly (or, for that matter, any major rabbinical organization), in her foreword to Dorff’s book. “We might suggest that Rabbi Dorff’s extensive teaching, speaking, and writing constitute a lifetime of preparation for this new book.”

“Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value.”

While “Modern Conservative Judaism” deserves to be described as Dorff’s magnum opus, he also serves as the curator of writings by other leading rabbis and scholars in the Conservative movement. The book includes selections from these men and women, living and dead, including the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Dorff’s fellow faculty member at the American Jewish University, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson.

Dorff brings a bracing intellectual honesty to his work. The Shema may be the credo of Judaism, but exactly what we mean when we refer to “the Lord Our God” is not prescribed by the Torah, which presents God in a great many different guises. While Dorff insists that “Judaism cannot be detached from belief in, or beliefs about God,” he also concedes that “God is also a source of great perplexities and confusions.” Above all, he reminds us that one can call himself or herself a Jew without believing in God at all.

“One cannot be a Christian without believing, in some manner, that Jesus is Christ, and one cannot be a Muslim without believing Muhammad is the primary prophet of God,” he explains. “Judaism, in contrast, defines a Jew through matrilineal descent or conversion. A Jew can therefore be an agnostic or atheist or believe all kinds of other things about God (except perhaps that God is more than one or incarnated in a particular person) and still be a Jew .”

“For those who grew up in other expressions of Judaism, I hope the book will deepen your understanding of Conservative Judaism beyond the one-dimensional ‘Orthodox Judaism watered down’ or ‘Reform Judaism beefed up’ and impel you to engage with its teachings on its own terms.” — Elliot N. Dorff   

On the questions of who is a Jew and who is a rabbi, we find one of the great heartbreaks in the Jewish world. Dorff affirms the fundamental importance of Zionism and the Jewish state in the Conservative movement — known as Masorti in Israel — but he cannot overlook the fact that the State of Israel engages in what he frankly calls religious discrimination against all Jewish denominations except Orthodoxy. “The Israeli government funds only secular and Orthodox schools and grants allocations solely to Orthodox congregations for their buildings, maintenance, and rabbis’ salaries,” he points out. “Furthermore, only Orthodox rabbis may officiate at a wedding of two Jews in Israel or process a divorce, and the Orthodox also control which conversions to Judaism count for eligibility to marry a Jew.”

Notably, Dorff refuses to apologize for the velocity or scope of change that the Conservative movement has brought to the Jewish world. Indeed, he celebrates innovation as an authentic and essential Jewish value. “In fact, Conservative rabbis and lay leaders reveled in the diversity of opinion and practice within the movement,” he insists. “They did not want to squelch its creativity and liveliness, and, furthermore, they believed it would be Jewishly inauthentic to adopt a rigid definition of what a Conservative Jew must believe or do.”

As someone who is both an activist and a dean in the Conservative movement, Dorff is not reluctant to serve as an advocate. “Conservative thinkers and leaders will affirm with some justification that the synthesis of tradition with modernity that Conservative Judaism represents is historically the most authentic form of Judaism and the he=althiest form of Judaism for the future,” he writes. “I believe readers of this book will learn why both of these claims are true.”

Authenticity, I fear, is a dangerous word when it comes to religion. All varieties of Judaism acknowledge, whether explicitly or implicitly, that there is some irreducible set of beliefs and practices that serves as a benchmark against which each expression of Judaism must be measured. All too often, they are quick to accuse one another of “inauthenticity.” The lesson that we learn in Dorff’s important book, however, is that respect, tolerance and inclusiveness are a crucial measure of what makes a movement Jewishly authentic.

Read excerpts from the book and Q+A with Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff here. 


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

Satirical Semite: Virtual Insanity

Photo from PxHere.

I love L.A. We have sun, sea and 24-hour traffic jams that offer slow scenic drives through the city and mountains, day and night. When I miss the gray skies of England, there is an easy solution: Go on Facebook, compare myself with more successful friends, and create an emotional storm of dark clouds. It is free and does not require air miles.

If you feel left out of the 13 percent of Americans taking antidepressants, social media helps you join the club. Why have self-worth and feel good with high self-esteem when you can begin each day with high anxiety like a good Jew? 

The clever thing about this addiction is that most people cannot see it. Adam Alter’s book, “Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked,” charts how social media companies hire psychologists who specialize in addiction so they can reverse-engineer things and get us hooked. Their parents must be proud. “My son the doctor created 2 million addicts!” 

Our dopamine receptors spike when we get approval from a total stranger who presses “Like.” Unlike proper recreational narcotics, this high only lasts a few seconds. At least a good cocaine rush lasts for a few hours. Apparently. 

Vacation photos are fabulous. A wealthy friend of mine says he won’t post family vacation photos out of sensitivity for other families who can’t afford such trips. His values are clearly antiquated in The Age of Human Dignity. What a loser.

“I was weird. I still am. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles.”

If I’m at home on a winter day and experiencing a financial squeeze while friends share tropical beach photos, there is solace in knowing they are unable to fully enjoy the moment because they are continually planning and then adding filters to their next “sunset #blessed” picture. 

One friend posted daily pregnancy photos showing everything except the conception and delivery. Clearly, nobody in the world had ever been pregnant before. It was so exciting I started lactating.

Someone I know bans online images of her children to protect their safety and allow them the freedom to choose what they will share when they are older. This backwards thinking is stuck in The Age of Respect for Your Children.

As for parents sharing vacation pictures of their children semi-naked, maybe they should receive an official thank-you from the Pedophiles of America who circulate similar photos among their sick networks. Seriously folks, stop doing this. It is dangerous. 

Last September, I wrote a song titled “Please Stop Posting Pictures of Your Kids on Facebook.” It hasn’t yet been released, so I can’t tell you what the song is about. 

To be fair, those endless first-day-of-school pictures from paparazzi parents are inspiring. They inspire me to join a lemming colony and leap off a cliff.

Perhaps we need a law firm to help photographically oppressed children sue their parents for breach of privacy. The only downside is that the money kids win will be deducted from their inheritance, but at least it will help two other oppressed groups: the IRS and litigation lawyers.

The No. 1 problem is internet bullying. Micro-aggressions appear to be part of the online zeitgeist, and the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label reports that 70 percent of “screenagers” admit to having been abusive to somebody online. Following the suicide of Molly Richards, 14, the BBC recently reported that material about depression and suicide were found on her Instagram. The company took control and hashtags like “suicide,” “cutting” and “self-harm” now lead to helplines. Is this the world of “social” media?

I am so glad this wasn’t around when I was a teen. It was horrible enough being called names by my entire class when I was 14. They bullied me for 12 months because they thought I was weird. Thank God there was no Facebook. In retrospect, they were correct. I was weird. I still am. That’s why I moved to Los Angeles.

One question I ask before sharing something online is whether it will contribute to others, be spiritually uplifting, or if I am just seeking attention and validation? Then my dopamine addiction kicks in, I forget everything, stand in front of the Hollywood sign and take a selfie wearing my tefillin and swimsuit. #LosAngelesForever.


Marcus J Freed is a Los Angeles-based actor.

Special D’var Torah: Mishpatim

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

If only the whole Jewish world knew, and lived by, this one comment of Rashi.  If only that…then the Jewish people would be kinder, more ethical and more dignified.

Let me rev this up by saying that one of my recent and current pet peeves (which is saying it lightly. What I am about to describe is a source of tremendous pain and anguish for me about Jewish living) is the discourteousness (again, to say it lightly) exhibited by some who are punctilious about ritual Jewish observance.  In my mind, I have thought of this as “ugly Judaism.”  A Judaism which valorizes, and pays attention to, halakhic/legal/ritual detail, while eschewing (sometimes simultaneously) basic politeness and rudimentary ethical comportment.  Myriad examples jump to mind.  Jews who are so careful about not touching a person of the opposite gender such that it impacts where they sit on an airplane, but seem to jettison all expressions of patient, flexible kindness when trying to meet those needs.  Jews who are careful and ubiquitous when it comes to regular, obligatory prayer, and who can recite the prayers fluently and fluidly…but then resort to lashon hara (gossip, damaging speech) as soon as there is a gap in the service.  Jews who are so set on venerating the Torah that they literally knock people over (and thus knock over the values of that very Torah) on the way to giving the Torah a kiss.  Some might call that last example as veneration-turned-idolatry, with frenzy having replaced honor.

(I am neither a perfect Jew nor a perfect human.  I try to name and efface as many of the flaws that I recognize within myself as possible. So I will accept “guilty as charged” for any of the ways in which I fall prey to the very phenomena discussed above.)

I muse about how we got to this place in Jewish sociology wherein the class of phenomena I named is so prevalent. Perhaps it should not be such a surprise. Human beings are complex and riddled with internal inconsistencies.  We undermine, and betray, our own values and principles all the time—sometimes unaware and unconscious, and sometimes quite aware, but as a result of some negotiation, or rationalization, with self.  But even if this is true, ought we not try to aspire to something better, something higher?

The commentary of Rashi I referenced above is his first on Parshat Mishpatim, and emerges from a pretty wonky and zoomed-in read of the text.  The parsha begins with the words ואלה משפטים / V’eleh hamishpatim / “And these are the laws/statues…”.  The parsha then continues with a litany of laws (making Mishpatim the parsha with the second-most number of mitzvot among all the 54 parashot, with only Ki Tetze having more). Most of those laws are related to civic life, business practices and ethical living, with rather few of them existing purely in the ritual realm. Rashi notes that all sorts of sentences in the Torah begin with the introduction of “אלה / Eleh / These…” And he notes, or suggests, a pattern: When the opening word is just Eleh, the word is meant to separate what is to come from what came before.  It would be read something like “Now that we have finished that topic, these are some other things, in another category.” But when the opening word is “V’eleh” (as it is in our verse), the opposite is true: The word connects the upcoming verse(s) and concept(s) with the antecedent, as if we should read it something like “And these things, as well!”

Rashi is highlighting the import of the slim, humble, almost indiscernible vov-letter that begins the word and the parsha.  Within that tiny letter is the following exhortation: lest you delude yourself into thinking that the laws about to be commanded are somehow other, or lesser, or disconnected from the “true revelation” we just had in Parshat Yitro…lest you erroneously think that all (any!) of the commandments after the initial 10 are secondary, the vov of “V’eleh” sets you straight.  You thought that the Sinai moment ended last week? Hardly.  It continues into Mishpatim, with no conceptual or hierarchical separation. So as you remember Shabbat and render it holy, and as you commit to monotheism and to not taking that one God’s name in vain, so too do you promise to act towards your servants with decency, and pay the damages of one you have injured, and guard your animals lest they create havoc, and ensure that your open pits do not pose a danger to unsuspecting wayfarers, and treat the stranger with empathy, and support the widow and orphan, and ease the burden of an overladen animal, and on and on and on.  They, too, are part of God’s revelation to us, and expectations of us.  While the latter category without the former category might be ethical humanism, I would say again that the former category without the latter is ugly Judaism.

Remember that vov, and act on it.  Connect your conception of Sinai to how you hold yourself, especially while you find yourself in the midst of a ritual act.  Make God’s name truly holy by having your very being be a conveyor of holiness, from the ritual to the civil, and back.

Shabbat Shalom


Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is the Senior Rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles. 

 

This Jewish Female-Owned Brand Inspires Freedom of Expression in Unique Way

May Katz has made it her mission to spread the gospel of love and positivity one T-shirt at a time.

As a graphic designer, she worked relentlessly on functional design for client logos, brochures and websites. But, she wanted to create something that would uplift, unify, and inspire.

She envisioned a life creating emotional design that would enable people to fully express their authentically pure and vulnerable selves by shining a light on the plethora of layers that make each of us uniquely special.

And so, WearBU was born to offer graphic T-shirts that help people speak their truth, show how they feel, and say who they are in an enriching way.  

I interviewed Katz (CEO of WearBU) to get the scoop on her journey through creating the graphic T-shirt brand.  

Jewish Journal: What compelled you to create WearBU?

May Katz: I was motivated to create design that has the power to inspire and touch people to their deepest core. Specifically, I gravitated towards design that captures emotion and will allow people to express themselves openly. What better way to do that than to design the clothes we wear?

I decided to start with graphic T-shirts but more will be added shortly, including bags, accessories, etc. I wanted to help people use their most valuable advertisement space, which is the clothes they wear, and to express their beliefs (no matter what they are as long as they are not offensive), their emotions, their relationships, and themselves in a valuable and positive way. There is so much negativity going on in this world nowadays so if designs with phrases like “let all that you do be done in love, “walk in love,” and “love never fails” help people spread the love, then I will feel like we succeeded.

JJ:  Explain the meaning and inspiration behind the name WearBU?

Katz: BU stands for Be Unique. One of our followers wrote to us on Instagram a few days ago and she really captured the true inspiration behind the brand. The follower said, “They are a company that stands for being unique. Being yourself. That’s why they are called Wear BU. Each one of you should own who you are because you are different and that’s what makes you beautiful! It would be awfully boring if we were all the same. Let people see the real, imperfect, flawed, quirky, weird, beautiful, and magical person that you are.”

Every shirt is a vivid journey, a captured experience of self-love and self-expression bottled and preserved in a cotton tee with designs separated into two main categories – Faith and Inspiration. The Bible inspires many of my designs. As a Jewish woman living in the center of the Bible Belt (Dallas, TX), I’m inspired by the Old and New Testament alike. I use a lot of Hebrew in many of my designs as a form of expression. All I want is to give people the opportunity to be proud by wearing their statement and sharing it with the world around them.

JJ: Describe your experience as the CEO of WearBU.  

Katz: I never really considered myself to be a CEO of a company. I guess I am in a way. Owning and managing a business as a woman, a mother, and a wife is not an easy task to say the least. WearBU is there. So are my husband and my girls. WearBU is actually another child for me. I view it as my baby, always waking me up at nights. No matter the time, I constantly feel like I have to go check up on it and see how it’s doing. It is more than a business to me. It is a huge piece of me. I was working in several businesses in the past. It was work nothing more and nothing less. With WearBU I’m blushing with every like on Facebook. Seeing a person that I do not know wearing my design on the street is like winning a Noble Prize for me. It means significantly more than any job I worked at and any degree I’ve earned.

I was born in Israel and lived there for many years. Israel is part of who I am even after living in the United States for many years. The challenges of living in such a small and multicultural country stays with me. The religious and cultural dilemmas are part of my identity. WearBU was established to spread a message. A message of love and co-existence. If my designs can make a tiny difference in this world, it will be worth it.

JJ: What role does your family play in launching WearBU?

Katz: My family is the center of my life. I have a loving husband and two adorable girls. I believe that family is the most important thing in life and should be cherished and expressed. My designs focus exactly on that our relationship with each other, with God, and with the world in a positive way. The goal is to show how powerful our love, sense of belonging, and relationships can be in spreading a joyful and optimistic future.

JJ: What makes WearBU different from other faith based T-shirt lines?

Katz: That’s actually a good question. At our core, we’re not a faith based t-shirt company. I’m trying to focus on self- expression. Showcasing our beliefs and sharing them in a positive way is an important layer of that as faith is a component to expressing who we are and what we believe in. We embrace it all (Jewish, Christian, Muslim, atheist..) and emphasize acceptance in the name of positivity.  For example, I’m Jewish and proud of it. I express it everyday even though I live in a very Christian society. At the same time, I also love learning about my neighbors’ beliefs. Diversity is fascinating to me. So, WearBU designs work towards helping people express themselves no matter who they are with faith as one of the many building blocks.

JJ: What role has Judaism played in your journey through creating WearBU?

Katz: I practice Judaism, even though I do not consider myself to be religious. I speak Hebrew and English at home and so do my kids. I am enchanted by the holiness attributed with the Hebrew language. It is such a beautiful and unique language. The Bible is the most beautiful love book of all times. The Song of Songs was relevant 2,000 years ago as it is relevant today. In my designs, I try to combine my Jewish roots and my Christian surroundings using Hebrew and English scriptures as one of the many forms of self-expression.

JJ: What’s your goal with WearBU?

Katz: I’m not looking to become a big brand. I am more interested in giving people the tools to articulate exactly who they are in a positive way. One of my most popular t-shirts is the Semite t-shirt.  Many of my buyers wrote to me that the word Semite is so deeply associated with the word anti-Semitism that that they felt that wearing the shirt gave them the opportunity to proudly express the fact that they are Jewish, that they are Semite, and that they are PROUD of it. I hope I’m not sounding like a Miss Universe competitor, but if I can contribute just a little bit to this world so that people would look at each other based on who they are and not based on what they are, I would be a very happy person.


BereniceFamili is the CEO and founder of the Jewish emoji app Shalomoji and a Los Angeles based writer who covers lifestyle, health, and entrepreneurship. 

Why I Will Walk With the Women’s March

Photo from Pinterest

For all the anti-Semitism-based controversy roiling the Women’s March, we in Los Angeles who took part last year should have no crisis of conscience about doing so again on Jan. 19. Women’s March Los Angeles is separate from the national group. Many participating Jews incorporate observing Shabbat around the march (booking rooms downtown, davening early).

But what is happening with the national march committee? Ominous conversations about anti-Semitism have gone public. Jewish women, including members of Bend the Arc and the National Council of Jewish Women continue to have urgent meetings with the national leadership team to address issues of anti-Semitism and racism, trying to call one another in (not call one another out). Linda Sarsour, a Women’s March board member, found it necessary to issue an apology, stating, “We should have been faster and clearer in helping people understand our values and our commitment to fighting anti-Semitism. We regret that. Every member of our movement matters to us — including our incredible Jewish and LGBTQ members. We are deeply sorry for the harm we have caused, but we see you, we love you, and we are fighting with you.”

The Unity Statement for the national march includes, “We must create a society in which all women — including Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Jewish women, Muslim women, Latinx women, Asian and Pacific Islander women, lesbian, bi, queer and trans women — are free …” Yet some are saying that this is not enough. What happened and how should we respond? No one ought to expect that members of a broad coalition agree about every issue. What lines should not be crossed?

One key point: My governing assumption here is that Jews necessarily have an interest in intersectional politics, because we live at intersections: We are Jews and women, Jews and queer, Jews and people of color and, yes, Jews and working class. Just as each woman is a woman. Intersectionality represents the principle that none of us is free unless each of us is free. We who annually celebrate our delivery from slavery and the command to love the stranger are bound by that.

We must never forget that those movements intersect in the bodies of Jews of color for whom we are obliged to stand.

Two key issues around the march have been crystalized in conflicts with personalities, that of Sarsour and National Co-Chair Tamika Mallory. Sarsour is adamantly opposed to Israeli government policies and supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. She also has raised thousands of dollars to aid American-Jewish communities whose cemeteries have been desecrated, and built strong personal friendships with Jewish women. 

Regarding Sarsour, either one agrees with her that it is possible to support the BDS movement while not being anti-Semitic, or one does not. (I believe that it is possible.) If one believes that anti-Zionism necessarily equals anti-Semitism, then either it is acceptable to participate in a march with a leading organizer who holds an unconscious bias against oneself, as long as that the organizer commits to dialogue with Jewish people — or it is not. (I believe that it is.)

The conversations with Mallory that have emerged raise crucial issues about racism and anti-Semitism; about where movements on behalf of people of color, black people specifically, and Jews ought to intersect. Above all, we must never forget that those movements intersect in the bodies of Jews of color for whom we are obliged to stand.

The problem is that Mallory, a Christian, has a longstanding relationship with the Nation of Islam (NOI), whose leader Louis Farrakhan stands firm in his ideologically driven hatred of Jews, lesbians, gays and gender non-conforming people. This puts Farrakhan at odds with most of the march’s Principles of Unity. Yet Mallory won’t disavow her working relationship with Farrakhan or the NOI, which practices an adulterated Islam, unacceptable to mainstream Muslim thinkers. 

Adam Serwer, a biracial, black Jewish man has written an indispensable article for The Atlantic on this question. As “unworthy” of Mallory’s loyalty as he finds Farrakhan to be, Serwer points out that, for serious organizers within black communities, the NOI is impossible to dismiss. “But many black people come into contact with the Nation of Islam as a force in impoverished black communities — not simply as a champion of the black poor or working class, but of the black underclass: black people, especially men, who have been written off or abandoned by white society. They’ve seen the Fruit of Islam patrol rough neighborhoods and run off drug dealers, or they have a family member who went to prison and came out reformed, preaching a kind of pride, self-sufficiency, and entrepreneurship that, with a few adjustments, wouldn’t sound out of place coming from a conservative Republican. The self-respect, inner strength, and self-reliance reflected in the polished image of the men in suits and bow ties can be a powerful sight.”

Farrakhan also has indicated that he regards Jews to be a demonic force, the masterminds behind the social transformation of sexuality and gender in our world. This means that we should not mistake Farrakhan’s ravings for “anti-Semitism of the left.” Farrakhan is a deeply conservative demagogue who advocates male supremacy and retains a touching faith in unregulated capitalism despite what it never did for his people. (Think of him as a black Jordan Peterson, and it all snaps into place.)

The generation that created Black Lives Matter, a movement led by queer, black women articulating an intersectional politics that speaks to race, class, sexuality and gender, will render Farrakhan irrelevant soon enough — if that generation takes up the work of connecting with prisoners, addicts and other marginalized people. This applies to religious progressives of all traditions — including Jews.

Interestingly, Farrakhan’s fantasy of powerful Jews pulling invisible strings echoes a trope that drives today’s white nationalist movement. As Erik K. Ward writes in his insightful article “Skin in the Game,” “Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of White nationalism.” When white nationalists chant “Jews will not replace us,” they mean that, just as Farrakhan believes that LGBTQ people are being secretly manipulated by a Jewish cabal, so, too, are people of color and immigrants who, the racists believe, could never organize to defend their interests on their own and are being driven by Jews into “replacing” white people within job markets and neighborhoods from which they’ve been previously excluded.

So Jews have a stake in intersectional politics. Who benefits if the Women’s March, a key site of the anti-Trumpism, pro-democracy resistance, is fractured? What would be the point of turning away from urgent conversations among people who wish to build a world in which we are all free to practice our traditions, earn a living and breath clean air?

As my friend and teacher, Rabbi Rachel Adler says, “I’ve had lectures from many Jewish men about boycotting the Women’s March. They seem oblivious that Jewish women share the gender oppressions the Women’s March protests, even the privileged segment of Jewish women who are heterosexual and white. None of the men who demand that we boycott the march have pledged to help us eradicate sexual harassment and assault, pay inequities or glass ceilings in Jewish camps, schools, synagogues and communal institutions — or volunteered to examine their own disrespectful gender practices: interrupting women while they speak, appropriating women’s words and ideas, [making] intrusive comments on appearance and clothing or unwanted touching. I will go to the Women’s March as the Jewish woman I am with my kippah on my head. Possibly I’ll get ignored or disrespected or tossed out. But I’ve a lifetime of practice dealing with all that with Jewish men.”


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland, and blogs at jewishjournal.com/erevrav

Making Loss Matter

Photo from Wikimedia

On April 10, 1995 — at the height of the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process,” a year after Nobel Prizes had been awarded to Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat — Alisa Flatow, a Brandeis honors student spending her junior year in Israel, boarded a public bus for a brief vacation in Gaza at Gush Katif. 

As the bus entered Gaza, a Palestinian terrorist rammed it with a van filled with explosives. Flatow and seven others died. Later, in federal court in Washington, D.C., it was proved that a faction controlled, financed, and directed at the highest levels of Iran’s government had carried out the attack. In a 35-page opinion, Judge Royce C. Lamberth awarded the Flatow family $20 million in compensatory damages and $225 million in punitive damages.

The lawsuit was the result of the indefatigable efforts of Alisa’s father, Stephen M. Flatow. In the moving memoir “A Father’s Story: My Fight for Justice Against Iranian Terror” (Devon Square Press), he writes that he believed his obligations to his daughter continued after her death. Asked in court whether he had been Alisa’s father, he answered, “No – I am Alisa’s father.” In testimony before Congress he said, “A father’s responsibility to his child does not end with her murder.”

Flatow lobbied Congress to pass what became known as the “Flatow Amendment,” allowing victims of terror to sue the state sponsors of it. Then he found a lawyer to take his case (Steven Perles), and a witness (Patrick Crawford of the Washington Institute) to provide expert testimony. He eventually collected a portion of the damages (roughly $25 million) through intricate legal proceedings he describes in this book, and he used the money to fund the Alisa Flatow international programs at Nishmat in Jerusalem, which enables others to follow in Alisa’s footsteps in Jewish studies.

“Stephen M. Flatow lobbied Congress to pass what became known as the “Flatow Amendment,” allowing victims of terror to sue the state sponsors of it. “

Flatow’s memoir covers conversations with former President Bill Clinton and various senators during the legislative process, court proceedings that were alternately empowering and frustrating, as the Clinton administration suddenly backed Iran against his efforts to levy upon its property in the United States (imagine, Flatow writes, if Nazi Germany had financed terrorist operations against Americans and the U.S. had tried to prevent families from being compensated from German assets), and the search for Iranian assets to pay his judgment. Barack Obama’s administration eventually returned $400 million plus interest to Iran from a blocked Iranian account in the United States that Congress had intended to be used to cover judgments such as Flatow’s.

The most moving parts of the memoir, however, are those that cover his relationship with his daughter. It had been Alisa who had introduced the Flatow family to Judaism, when she had insisted at age 4 that she go to a Jewish school with her friend. From his studies of Torah and Talmud and books about them, Flatow learned to love a religion about which he writes in engagingly straightforward terms. Here is how he describes his fascination with Judaism:

In how many other religions do you see your heroes do bad things and then have them tell you about it? So many want to have a perfect religion, to be able to say “My God is the best.” That attitude is what destroyed the Roman gods, because they were held to be above all others — until people realized they didn’t exist. Judaism endures in part because it acknowledges imperfection. What bends is much harder to break.

In her short life, Alisa visited Israel six times, the first at the age of 11. 

As a little girl, she had a bike accident that severely injured one of her toes, requiring surgery that had left two toes permanently sewn together. On the car ride to the hospital, she had asked her father, “Daddy, why do these things happen to me?” He had explained to her that things happen we don’t understand, and she had simply been in the wrong place at the right time. 

A decade later, when Flatow rushed from the U.S. to the hospital in Israel to identify his daughter, he did so by lifting the part of the sheet covering her feet, saw her toes, and knew it was she. Years later, as he thinks back on what happened to her, he says to her in his mind: “This time, Alisa, you were in the land you loved, among the people you loved, studying the religion you love, you were in the right place.”

Then he ends his memoir, a story of a continuing effort now in its third decade, with this: “I can only hope that I will find my right place.”


Rick Richman is the author of “Racing Against History: The 1940 Campaign for a Jewish Army to Fight Hitler” (Encounter Books, 2018)

Jews and Intermarriage: A Love-Fate Relationship

It’s becoming the great unspoken yet perennial source of anguish haunting the Jewish world. It’s that nerve pressing on the blue-and-white or red-white-and-blue spine, inflaming the anguish fueling most Jewish arguments today. It’s American Jewry’s great divider, pitting the Orthodox and a dwindling handful of conservative Conservatives against everyone else while distinguishing most Israelis from most American Jews. It used to be considered a threat. Now, some are trying to give it a makeover as an “opportunity” — even a pluralistic, humanistic, universalizing blessing — as we evolve beyond our “racist,” particularist sins. “It” is intermarriage.

Think about it. No Jewish community could ever survive a 70-percent intermarriage rate (higher if you only count non-Orthodox marriages). No community can sustain itself with negative population growth. And no community, theoretically or practically, can exist without red lines: A community needs unity about something.

Yet, every intermarriage is a love story. In a broken world where so many are so lonely, who dares mourn when people find caring partners for life? Every intermarriage is a success story — only in America would Jews emerge as the most admired religious community. Only in America and some other Americanized democracies could we coin that deliciously neurotic, oh-so-Jewish lament: “Once they killed us with their hate; now they’re killing us with their love.” And every intermarriage is a story making the American dream come true. From “The Jazz Singer” to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” to “Today’s Special,” Hollywood treats parents who oppose intermarriage as the heavies, who usually see the red-white-and-blue light by the time the story reaches its happy ending.

In today’s overheated politics, as he’s doing with nationalism, President Donald Trump is giving the notion of any borders a bad name. But boundaries don’t just keep people out. They also build meaning, solidarity and pride inside. For states, nations, communities and families, lines separating those from within and without foster internal bonds. True, rigid boundaries can become nooses, choking off the oxygen flow that healthy groups need to grow and thrive; but no community can survive without some frameworks. As Momma Troy warned, if you’re too open-minded, your brains fall out.

Intermarriage looms underneath all the Jewish identity-building, educating, Birthrighting and Hebrew schooling. Intermarriage shrinks the Jewish-peoplehood power that needs Israel, relies on Israel and loves Israel. Most Israelis can’t understand this modern Masada, this mass act of communal suicide. As one nonreligious Israeli friend said: “We do everything — we take out the Jewish people’s garbage. We fight. We pay taxes. We sacrifice sometimes with our lives. American Jews just have to do one thing — stay Jewish. But they can’t even do that right.”

Clearly, this hair-trigger issue requires more conversation, not less; less political correctness, not more; braver thinkers, not cowards. Yet, intermarriage has become the third rail of Jewish politics. Non-Orthodox rabbis risk repudiation from colleagues if they endorse it; non-Orthodox non-rabbis risk ostracism if they oppose it — condemned as racist, judgmental or mean.

This issue of issues is so complex, the stakes so high, that we need capacious, creative and courageous thinkers to help.

Fortunately, one ace thinker has arrived — Robert Mnookin. He has a superlawyer’s parsing skills and elegance. He has a mediator’s decency and out-of-the-box insights. And he need not be brave: He has tenure at Harvard Law School, a position guaranteed to intimidate most Jewish American success junkies.

In his ambitious, thought-provoking, dazzling and, yes, sometimes frustrating book — “The Jewish American Paradox: Embracing Choice in a Changing World” — Mnookin deftly tackles this volatile intermarriage issue. The Samuel Williston Professor of Law, the chair of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, and the director of the Harvard Negotiation Research Project, Mnookin finds Jews’ traditional matrilineal standard too exclusive yet too inclusive. Why should someone who wants to be Jewish not be welcomed? he wonders. And why should somebody who doesn’t care, yet has a Jewish mother, merit lifetime membership?

This question is not simply theoretical for him. In this deeply personal book, Mnookin tells his family’s story as a modern Jewish American parable. Raised as assimilated Reform Jews in the 1940s and ’50s, he and his wife were thoroughly ambivalent, take-it-for-granted Jews. “The idea wasn’t to deny being Jewish,” he recalls, “but rather to fit in.” They mimicked many other successful Jews, “accepting my Jewish heritage, if not exactly embracing it, and then thinking about it as little as possible.” Then, while Mnookin was on an Oxford sabbatical, their 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer, asked, “When are we actually going to become Jewish?” She also demanded a bat mitzvah.

Jennifer’s challenge jump-started a process that accelerated decades later when Mnookin became Grandpa Mnookin. “Continuity suddenly mattered to me,” he writes.Today, he’s activated his Jewish identity and he laments that some of his grandchildren are dismissed as “half-Jewish” because one of his two daughters intermarried, even though all his grandchildren are halachically Jewish.

Such bizarre, seemingly arbitrary categorizing offends his legal and liberal sense of fairness. The result is his thoughtful compromise rejecting the traditional approaches of matrilineal descent or Orthodox conversion as the only two entrees into Judaism. If you want to call yourself Jewish, you’re Jewish, he insists, embracing a big-tent approach. But let each institution and each denomination define its own membership rules, he says. Belonging to the Jewish people should have a low, voluntary bar, while belonging to an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue could still follow tradition.

Mnookin’s proposal is genuinely lovely, acknowledging the pain people feel when rejected. It expresses a welcoming spirit difficult to dislike. And to a people so obsessed with our fate that the scholar Simon Rawidowicz, a half-century ago, christened Jews “the ever-dying people,” it says, logically: Let ’em in!

The modern me, the American me, the academic me, the liberal me and especially the nice-guy me want to high-five Mnookin and thank him for solving this painful dilemma. Yet, the Jewish, Zionist and Israeli in me resist — especially because I just finished reading Jonathan Haidt’s majestic “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” Haidt recalls living in India, where he learned to appreciate other values beyond his, ahem, orthodox liberalism, individualism and openness. Beyond liberal “autonomy,” he discovered what his fellow cultural psychologist Richard Shweder calls “community” and “divinity,” let alone authority.

“Liberals hate the idea of exclusion,” Haidt writes, as if he were writing a memo to Mnookin — but then notes how inconsistent that perspective is. When one of his students condemned Catholics for rejecting doctrinal rebels, Haidt noted how many applicants are rejected by their own University of Virginia department (let alone Harvard Law). Haidt urges liberals to appreciate values such as community, authority and sanctity (he urges conservatives to respect liberals’ commitment to caring and fairness, too). 

Mnookin’s openness sacrifices the authority, the sanctity and the mystical powers that sustain Judaism. The moats the rabbis dug around Judaism worked. And they reflected sincere beliefs, not just anthropological appreciation, for cultural props. Such faith can bring out the best in people, speaking to their most spiritual, altruistic and communal selves.

Mnookin’s welcome mat invites the critique that the feminist writer Anne Roiphe offered of her similarly universalist parenting in her 1981 book, “Generation Without Memory.”

“Judaism and Jewishness in America (with some exceptions) appear to be thinning,” Roiphe wrote. “I appreciate our Thanksgiving and Christmas. I know that I will make beautiful weddings for our daughters and that our funerals will serve well enough. But I do believe that the tensions of the ancient ways, the closeness of primitive magic, the patina of the ages and the sense of connection to past and future that are lacking in our lives are serious losses.”

Mnookin’s criteria lack the “primitive magic, the patina of the ages” that reinforce much of Jewish tradition. Tolerating it on denominational sublevels isn’t enough.

Moreover, as a Zionist, while loving his outreach, I fear the fragmentation occurring as boundaries collapse and demarcations of Jewish peoplehood proliferate. Clearly, Mnookin is not responsible for this condition and is trying to help Jews cope. But we need more centripetal forces — pushing us inward toward one another, not centrifugal forces flinging us outward in multiple directions.

Finally, as an Israeli, I appreciate the need for uniformity. While cheering Mnookin’s marvelously crisp, clear chapter about Israel’s “who is a Jew” controversy, I believe states need consistent rules. A Jewish state defined aptly by the novelist A.B. Yehoshua as a state for all its citizens as well as for the Jewish people needs certain standards for determining who can immigrate under the Law of Return.

My skepticism about his proposal didn’t detract from my delight in reading this wonderful book. Mnookin jumps off the pages as a master teacher, a charming intellectual companion. He knows how to challenge substantively, disagree agreeably and spark discussion amicably.

His book beautifully summarizes modern Judaism — and the modern Jewish American condition. He identifies four causes of modern Jewish American drift: Most American Jews don’t practice the religion; Jews aren’t persecuted in America; Israeli policies cause bitter conflict instead of unity; and intermarriage. He addresses the anomaly — still true after the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting — that anti-Semitism rarely occurs yet constantly dominates the Jewish American psyche. He writes passionately about the “Jewish spark” that his Americanizing, assimilating, globetrotting and career-ladder climbing couldn’t extinguish. He identifies many Jewish American challenges, including how to fit in yet stand out; how to navigate the slipperiness of individual identity and the solidity of collective loyalty; how to explain this shared sense of destiny; and the need so many of his peers have to see their grandchildren somehow stay Jewish.

And he’s practical, not just theoretical. A chapter on raising a Jewish child offers valuable relationship advice on how intermarried parents should navigate their differences and nurture their children’s Jewish identities. He identifies four critical elements: Jewish activities in the home, Jewish education, Jewish social networks and exposure to Israel. He coaches grandparents on how to help. And in the spirit of his core belief — that being Jewish should be a choice, a mission, not merely a “status” — he identifies three categories of activities he integrates into his week, which others can follow: study, have a Jewish experience, and engage communally with other Jews.

Most profoundly, his book will help non-Jewish readers explore their own values and identities — or lack thereof — while Jewish readers consider his core areas of concern: “Why I am choosing to be Jewish, why being a part of our diverse tribe is meaningful for me, and how being Jewish does make a difference in how I am living my life.”

Unfortunately, this clearly thoughtful guy doesn’t fully appreciate Judaism’s metaphysical depth or countercultural power. His graceful summary of the “smorgasbord of Jewish values, music, food, traditions, rituals, spirituality, language, philanthropic causes and connections with Israel” needed to add that enchanting, weighty word — philosophy.

But even where I disagree, or feel he fell short, I remain grateful for the categories he developed and the tone he set.

I recently met a proper British Jewish banker, who every Monday unintentionally makes his non-Jewish colleagues envious. He simply describes all his weekend Jewish communal and spiritual activities, from Shabbat dinners to charity events. Mnookin’s book reminded me of my friend. None of us would be arrogant enough to brand Judaism the best way or the only way. But we all value Judaism as our way. To anyone, Jewish or non-Jewish, who can’t imagine “why bother,” this book is a must read.

Ultimately, even those of us skeptical about Mnookin’s anti-matrilinealism can appreciate his celebration of his “re-Jew-venation” as his even greater contribution to the intermarriage debate. “Thou shalt nots” won’t prevent intermarriage or assimilation. Only smart, compelling and welcoming visions of what Judaism was, is and can be — like his — will work. And the more Jews are challenged and charmed by Mnookin’s excellent primer, the more likely they will be to make an “I” statement, namely, “I choose to be Jewish, not because it’s important to my parents or grandparents but because it’s important to me.” 

That renewed Jewish journey, not some hoary guilt trip, is the key to a dynamic Jewish future — and the reason to hail publication of this important, accessible, stimulating contribution to our 3,500-year-old debate about who we are, who we have been, and who we can be.


Gil Troy, a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, is the author of “The Zionist Ideas: Visions for the Jewish Homeland — Then, Now, Tomorrow.”

Hanukkah Is Not Christmas. This Year, Let’s Embrace That

It’s that time of year again when American Jews bask in the wintertime flavor of Christmas — when we teach our children that the Jewish version of Christmas is called Hanukkah, that the equivalent of the Christmas tree is the menorah, that while Christians have a big gift-giving blowout, we have eight crazy nights (in Adam Sandler’s iteration). The prominence of Christmas in America means that American Jews often attempt to ride the Christmas coattails, to get into the “holiday spirit” — or, more cynically, to compete with Christmas in order to prevent our children from falling for the romance of Christmas. 

To that end, we elevate Hanukkah as a holiday, treating it as more sacred than actual sacred days. A 2010 study published in The Economic Journal by Ran Abramitzky, Liran Einav and Oren Rigby found that while 38 percent of Jewish Tel Aviv University economics undergraduate students ranked Hanukkah among the three most important Jewish holidays, 68 percent of Jewish economics undergrads at Stanford University did so. Orthodox Jews celebrated Hanukkah whether they had young children in the home, but Reform Jews tended to celebrate the holiday only if they had young children in the home as a counterbalance to Christmas. As the study stated, “Jewish individuals may be more responsive to Christmas if their children are at a higher ‘risk’ of intermarriage, conversion, or feeling envy and left out during Christmas.”

This is a problem.

Hanukkah ought to be celebrated in its own right. And failure to see Hanukkah for what it truly it means that our children will be far more likely to abandon Judaism than to embrace it, no matter how many Lego sets we buy them to outdo Santa Claus.

The message of Hanukkah is precisely the opposite of what more secularized Jews believe it is. Hanukkah isn’t just a wintertime festival rife with consumerism and kitschy lights. It’s about the requirement for a fulsome Jewish lifestyle that infuses our entire being, that motivates us all year, that gives us something to live and die for. Hanukkah reminds us that Judaism cannot survive by outcompeting other religions, but by focusing inward — by creating a profound sense of Jewish identity. 

Hanukkah, after all, is about a war: a war against Hellenism, the attempt by Greek forces to force a pagan vision upon the Jews. Hellenism offered a rich philosophic and aesthetic culture, a vision of the universe free of the burdens of the Torah. The Jews rebelled against that vision, refusing to allow our Temple to be defiled. Jews even fought other Jews who wished to join in the Hellenization, refusing to allow the land to be governed by the rule of foreign gods. In the vision of the Maccabees, Judaism was a lifelong commitment worth defending and protecting. The miracle was a result of that commitment.

This authentic view of Hanukkah enables Jews to see Christmas in a different light: not as a competing holiday, but as a ritual complete with aesthetic beauty but lacking any Jewish spiritual relevance. Thank God that America welcomes Jewishness; Christmas isn’t a threat. We can enjoy Irving Berlin songs and smile at Santa with children on his knee confident that our spiritual heritage isn’t threatened by the “fun” of the season. After all, we offer more than fun to our children. We offer a light we shine before the world proudly, unwaveringly and with a spirit of confidence, rather than in a spirit of nervous competition. If we fail to commit to Judaism more broadly but think that a few presents and some over-oiled hash browns will keep our kids Jewish, we’ve missed the message of Hanukkah entirely.


Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.

Chief Rabbinate’s List Has Glaring Omissions

This week, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, for the first time in its history, published an official list of non-Israeli rabbinical courts whose authority it accepts for the purposes of conversion to Judaism and divorce. The list’s publication resulted from a near-daily battle waged by the organization I founded and direct — ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center. In the past six years, ITIM has held meetings, filed legal petitions, initiated Knesset hearings and more to pressure the Chief Rabbinate to make its decision-making — which affects the lives of thousands of Jews in Israel and around the world — transparent to the public it is supposed to serve.

I welcomed news of the list’s publication. But within moments of reviewing it, I was hit with the reality: Yes, there is now a list, but it again shows the Chief Rabbinate’s incompetency, even as it tries to be more transparent.

The list of 70 Orthodox rabbinical courts approved for conversion and 80 approved for divorce is out of date and inconsistent. Some of the rabbis listed no longer reside in the communities they are meant to serve. Others appear twice. Although the list purports to be comprehensive, there are major American rabbinical courts that have been omitted.

But the real flaw isn’t about who is or isn’t on the list. Rather, it is the glaring lack of concern that the list demonstrates for the tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of Jews whose rabbis “don’t make the cut,” according to the Chief Rabbinate. Rather than embracing Jews — particularly Jews by Choice — the Chief Rabbinate is dismissing and excluding them. This is a biblical prohibition: Our tradition teaches us to love the convert, certainly not to persecute him or her. 

As I write this, my inbox is teeming with emails from people around the world who converted through rabbis not on the list. “Where does this leave me?” they are asking.  I don’t yet know how to answer.

And what about Los Angeles? The Chief Rabbinate’s list of approved rabbis consists of four rabbinical court directors in Los Angeles: Rabbis Avraham Teichman, Avrohom Union, Shmuel Ohana and Nissim Davidi. And although another seven rabbis are included, it is unclear whether their conversions will be accepted without approval of one of the four directors.

Moreover, there are prominent Los Angeles Orthodox rabbinical courts that have been operating for decades but have been left off the list. Who will speak up for their hundreds of converts? What about the hundreds of conversions that took place more than two decades ago, when virtually none of the rabbis on the list was performing conversions?

“Our tradition teaches us to love the convert, certainly not to persecute him or her.” 

The list makes a travesty of halachic [Jewish legal] thinking and drives a further wedge between Jews in Israel and around the world. The Chief Rabbinate’s deliberate politicization of conversion — by choosing some rabbis and not others — highlights its attempt to extend its monopoly on Jewish life beyond the borders of Israel into the rest of the Jewish world, where, frankly, it isn’t wanted or needed. With both intermarriage rates and religious extremism on the rise, the Rabbinate ought to be a body that promotes moderation and diversity rather than one that espouses fundamentalism and exclusion — the very things the list demonstrates.

In the coming weeks, ITIM will take every possible step to rectify the situation. It will file petitions on behalf of rabbinical courts that wish to be included on the list, and will assist individuals concerned about their official Jewish status in Israel. As ITIM does this, I will be thinking back to January 2016, when I stood in a Jerusalem municipal court as Justice Naava Bar Or demanded the Chief Rabbinate make a list of acceptable rabbinical courts available to the public. She concluded by dressing down the director of the Chief Rabbinate’s Personal Status Division. “Your office is acting with no moral or Jewish values,” Bar Or told him.

And I will be thinking back to July 3, 1950, when Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion spoke in the Knesset on the issue of “Who is a Jew?” He said, “The State of Israel is not a Jewish state merely because the majority of its inhabitants are Jews. … It is a state for all the Jews wherever they may be and for every Jew who so desires.”


Rabbi Seth (Shaul) Farber is the director of ITIM: The Jewish Advocacy Center. He lives in Raanana, Israel, with his wife, Michelle, and their five children.

Summer Camps After Woolsey: What Is This Place?

Photo by Eric Thayer / REUTERS

I am the grandchild of Shoah survivors. Until my bar mitzvah, I did not have the faintest understanding of what that truly meant. Around that time, I began to understand the gravity of the Shoah, but prior to that, my experience and understanding of being Jewish had only the vaguest notion of tragedy.

For me, however, defining Jewish identity in response to the Shoah would never work. I formed my Jewish identity at 9 years old when I began to attend summer camp in Malibu — Camp Sholom (later Camp JCA Shalom, and now part of the Shalom Institute). Because of summer camp, I rooted my Jewish identity in positive experiences. Rooting Judaism in Maccabiah, and mud gaga, and song sessions, and the ropes course, and arts and crafts — summer camp’s immersive Jewish experience — made and makes Judaism positive first and entirely about experiences in community. After years as a camper, I worked as a counselor and spent one summer as the counselor-in-training director.

Summer camp has always allowed me to put my grandmother’s survival in perspective. Instead of informing my life and my Judaism, I see her survival in the context of the entire history of the Jewish people. This requires me to join in the building and sustaining of our Jewish community, not as a response to the Shoah, but as something transcendent and positive.

“Summer camp has always allowed me to put my grandmother’s survival in perspective.”

About 12 years ago, I joined the Shalom Institute’s board of directors. Within three years (at 33 or 34), I started a two-year term as the president of the board, overseeing a $3 million annual budget and a staff of over 20.

When I got married at 38, I convinced my now wife and her children (my stepsons) that our wedding should be a family-camp weekend at my childhood camp, my treasured JCA Shalom. In 2016, we hosted 150 friends and family (including two cabins of kids, with counselors, of course) for a weekend and an additional 250 for our wedding itself. Rabbi Bill Kaplan, executive director of the Shalom Institute, performed our ceremony.

Over the last 12 years, I have been involved in almost every major decision related to our campus and our institute. I have recruited board members, raised untold sums of money and, along with my wife, personally donated to projects throughout the camp. One such project was a cabin in memory of my grandmother in which each of her grandchildren participated.

Because of this gift, the Shalom Institute became more than a camp and philanthropy. After that gift, the Shalom Institute became the place where I honored my grandmother’s memory, not as a survivor but as a part of the Jewish people. Camp became a place where my grandmother’s survival would forever be about sustaining and growing the Jewish people through making Judaism positive.

So when the Woolsey fire ravaged Southern California and burned the camp, including my grandmother’s cabin, one would think I would be more devastated, more heartbroken than I am. Again, my grandmother guides me.

In 1995, my grandparents took our family to what is now Uzhgorod, Ukraine (formerly Ungvar, Hungary). This is the town where my grandmother grew up, and where, after World War II, she decided to marry my grandfather. We went to my grandmother’s childhood home on a scorching August afternoon. The house still stood, now behind a locked gate. Hot and sweaty, we rang the bell and rattled the gate but no one came. Standing outside in the sun, we could not see anything but a few branches of the tree on which her father once put a swing. Through the space between the gate and the wall, we caught the smallest glimpse of the garden where she and her entire family spent Shabbat afternoons. Though visibly upset that we could not get in, Grandma looked at me and said something like, “It is just a house.”

The structure of a few walls, a roof, windows and trees was just a house. The people who lived there were not her parents. Her childhood bedroom, though likely still there, did not hold her childhood, the kitchen where her mother made dinner no longer carried the scent of her mother’s cooking. The den where her father would read the paper no longer had her father’s heavy coat slung over a chair, or her father’s newspaper on the table. It was just a house. The memories of her parents, of her siblings and her entire family were with her, in the stories she told us, and the way she loved us, tucked us in and cooked for us.

“Camp has never been about the cabin, the bunk bed or the ropes course. For each of us, camp is about the people, the feelings and the memorable moments that change lives forever.”

This past week, as I saw the first photos from the devastating fire that leveled my camp — the fire that took out the dining hall, the amphitheater and my grandmother’s cabin — I recalled my grandmother standing outside her childhood home: “It is just a house.”

The remaining piles of rubble where the dining hall once stood, where my grandma’s cabin once housed children, is not camp. The ash heaps where buildings once stood hold no stories of the people who fell in love there, or got married there, or had their first kiss while their counselors were not looking. The buildings never held the Jewish future, or even the Jewish past.

Whatever decisions the Shalom Institute’s board and executive team make about the physical place will be guided, I am certain, by the truth that these buildings are just walls and wood, and pipes and plaster and windows — they are not “camp.” For every one of us involved with camp, we know the truth: Camp has never been about the cabin, the bunk bed or the ropes course. For each of us, camp is about the people, the feelings and the memorable moments, whether a Shabbat song session or a lazy Saturday afternoon hanging out, waiting for Havdalah and the weekly all-camp dance, or any of the seemingly innocent moments that change lives forever. This is the secret to the past, present and future of the Jewish people.

Ours is a history of dislocation. While wandering in the desert, we became a people. The desert mountain, at which revelation occurred, is no more or less sacred than a Shabbat table, or a summer camp dining hall. We lost our home and our Temple (twice) and still were able to remain Jewish for close to 2,000 years. What keeps us this way? Not places, but our ability to build, in time, moments where with our community we can experience something sacred, something transcendent, something positive and life-affirming.

Now, as the Shalom Institute looks toward the future, we are mindful of who we Jews have been and will always be — a people not fixed to location but to one another and infused with the ability to make any moment holy and any place sacred.


Ari Moss is on the board of directors and is a past president of the Shalom Institute.

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.

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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.

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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.