December 14, 2018

In Search of a Prayer During a Trying Time

Photo from Max Pixel.

Last Wednesday I had anterior cervical discectomy and fusion surgery done on my neck. Two of my discs were bulging so badly they were pushing on my spine. My arm had been numb for several months and even though I did physical therapy for over a year in an attempt to avoid the surgery, I could longer wait and the procedure was finally scheduled. Four hours and six screws later, I am recuperating nicely and the benefits of the surgery were instantly felt. I woke up with no numbness or tingling in my arm, and am thrilled with the results.

My procedure was done at Providence Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank. When I checked in for surgery I immediately asked if I could see the rabbi from the Spiritual Care department for a prayer. I clarified that if a rabbi was not available, I would happily pray with any member of the clergy. I simply wanted to pray with someone dedicated to God, and the religious affiliation was not that important. As I sat with my son and told him how much I wanted for the rabbi to come and say a prayer, and he assured me it would be fine and we could pray on our own, but not to worry because someone was coming.

I was waiting for the nurse to arrive to insert an IV when Chaplain Phil Kiehl walked in. He introduced himself and said he stopped by as he had heard I wanted to pray with him. I almost started to cry I was so happy to see him. He sat with me and my son and took time to get to know us. He asked about the operation, who the surgeon was, who the anesthesiologist was, what my pain was, and what the goal was. After we chatted for a few minutes he joined hands with me and my son and gave what can only be described as a perfect prayer.

It was kind and honest and made me feel very safe in my faith. It was a prayer of compassion and blessings. When Phil left the room, me and my son turned to each other and both said it was the most wonderful prayer and had left us feeling happy and at peace. I went into surgery feeling comfortable with my medical team and embraced by God. The following day as I rested and waited for the doctor to give permission for me to leave the hospital, a woman from the clergy office stopped by. Her name was Rebecca Stringer and she was paying me an unexpected visit to check in on me as she heard I was leaving.

She had a beautiful smile and a warmth I could feel. Her soul was visible and I was profoundly moved by her. We spoke about prayer and the importance it has in both of our lives. We spoke about our children and she shared she had lost a child to cancer. Her beloved little boy had passed away and she spoke of him in a way that painted a picture of love. This angel has a remarkable mother who is rooted in prayer and faith. She helped me more than she could ever know. We did not share the same religion, but we shared a life of faith which was respectful and embracing in a way that I wish it could be for everyone.

She held my hand and said a prayer that made me cry. I will forever remember her generosity of spirit and the feeling it gave me. Her words brought me real healing. We may practice different religions, but we pray to the same God and our exchange was special. I am a woman of faith and have experienced many blessings, but this was a rare moment of an authentic spiritual connection to another human being. We were sisters in prayer and I felt God holding onto us. When you can connect through God, without the judgment of religion, it is remarkable.

When Rebecca left my room I had a feeling of gratitude in the wake of her grace. My surgery was a success and I thank Phil and Rebecca for their kindness. Prayer is personal and mine is generally private, but my prayer this week had company and it was lovely. There is power in prayer and when voices join together it is wonderful. I feel great and am getting stronger each day. I was terrified going into the surgery and am relieved it is over and went so well. Life is good and good health is a blessing. I am grateful, happy, healthy, and keeping the faith.

Ilana Angel writes the Keeping the Faith blog at

Dems use speeches to hit GOP on Israel

DENVER (JTA)—President Bush and John McCain backed policies that have endangered Israel, Democrats argued during their convention speeches Wednesday night.

In a night dedicated largely to foreign policy and national security issues, several speakers at the Pepsi Center argued that Israel’s enemies have been emboldened by Republican mishaps. The strategy reflected an increased willingness of Democrats to go on the attack against the Bush administration over Israel, after years of simply insisting both sides of the aisle were equally supportive of the Jewish state.

Alan Solomont, a top fund raiser for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) this time around, told JTA that four years ago it was the “belief of the Kerry campaign that [Israel] was not a point of differentiation therefore the campaign did focus on other issues.”

Not this year. Among those who used their speeches to hammer home the new talking points were:

* Kerry: “George Bush, with John McCain at his side, promised to spread freedom but delivered the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. They misread the threat and misled the country. Instead of freedom, it’s Hamas, Hezbollah, the Taliban and dictators everywhere that are on the march. North Korea has more bombs, and Iran is defiantly chasing one.”

* Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.): “Under George Bush, the Middle East has become more troubled. That hurts America and endangers our ally, Israel, which has been forced to confront a resurgent Hamas, an emboldened Hezbollah and an Iran determined to get nuclear weapons. That is not the change we need.”

* Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.): “We entered into an unnecessary war and remain bogged down in Iraq as Afghanistan backslides and the architects of Sept. 11 remain free. On Bush and McCain’s watch, we have witnessed the growing influence of a belligerent Iran that has destabilized the Middle East and threatens our ally, Israel.”

During their respective speeches, President Clinton and Obama’s running mate, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), focused on the harm done by what they described as the Bush administration’s failure to utilize diplomacy.

Clinton argued that America’s “position in the world has been weakened by,” among other things, a failure to consistently use the power of diplomacy, from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America to Center and Eastern Europe.” As for Biden, he pointed to Iran as a hot spot where the United States has failed diplomatically.

“Should we trust John McCain’s judgment when he rejected talking with Iran and then asked: What is there to talk about? Or Barack Obama, who said we must talk and make it clear to Iran that its conduct must change,” Biden said. “Now, after seven years of denial, even the Bush administration recognizes that we should talk to Iran, because that’s the best way to advance our security. Again, John McCain was wrong. Barack Obama was right.”

Obama drew criticism from his onetime primary opponent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and from Republicans for his statement last year that he would be willing to meet with the president of Iran; he and Biden were two of just two dozen senators to oppose an amendment urging the declaration of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist group.

The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee has since said that he supported the Bush administration’s ultimate decision to take such a step, but objected to the amendment out of fear that the Bush administration would unduly treat it as an approval for attacking Iran. In general, the Obama campaign has argued that its ticket would adopt a tougher and smarter approach to isolating Iran in an effort to short circuit its nuclear pursuits.

Republicans, including former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani earlier this week, have been painting Obama as naive and undependable when it comes to safeguarding Israel. And, in recent days, they have also attempted to challenge Biden’s pro-Israel bona fides. The Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement Wednesday citing a 1982 clash that Biden had with Israel’s then-prime minister, Menachem Begin, in which the Delaware senator criticized Israeli settlement expansion and reportedly raised the possibility of cutting U.S. aid to Israel over the issue. In addition, the RJC cited several pro-Israel congressional letters and resolution that Biden did not sign on to.

Biden, who has worked closely with Israel and Jewish groups on many issues, was praised by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee upon being tapped by Obama.

During his speech, Wexler—who boasts of being the first Jewish congressman to back Obama’s presidential bid—described the nominee as a staunch supporter of Israel.

“In his heart, in his gut, Barack Obama stands with Israel,” Wexler said, adding that the candidate “understands the threats Israel faces from Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran. And as President, Barack Obama will strongly support Israel’s right and capability to defend itself, and finally make progress toward the goal of a two-state solution that preserves Israel’s security as a Jewish state.”

The unlikely candidate

I’ve always admired investment banker/doctor/accountant/lawyer/teacher/artist-types those who’d set their paths out early on and pursued their objectives outright
I, on the other hand, have had a seemingly somewhat … unexpected career path.

Since graduating college (with an English degree) I’ve changed jobs on average every two years. I’ve worked in media, nonprofit, consulting and even finance. I’ve considered an MBA, an MSW, the LSATs; I’ve been a junior this, a senior that, a teammate, a leader, a student, a freelancer, a mentor, a consultant and a peon. I’ve bookmarked and, and my resume is typically updated.

And at each point that I’ve begun a new job — and new job search — I grieve, I deny, I regret, I celebrate, I cling and, eventually, I let go. Then, I chalk it up to life experience.

The process is at once thrilling as it is exhausting. It’s also strangely familiar.

See, my love life has followed a somewhat parallel track.

By the time I started dating, most of my peers were also already well into their relationships. So while they were eventually settling down, I was first learning how to be a girlfriend.

I’ve been exploring my opportunities ever since.

Problem is: Unlike prepping for eventual retirement, at some point, we stop being too green.

Sometimes — like when I’m juggling too many half-committed plans, and I really just want to go home — I’ll reflect on some peers, and I’ll envy their peace of mind and seeming satisfaction.

It’s never been intentional, but I’ve dated assorted beaus for weeks, months even years. I’ve had heartbreaks and have broken hearts. I could go months alone or date constantly; I’d stay focused for periods, but experience life’s inevitable blips, followed by the required recovery period.

To me, mere satisfaction — in job or life — has always meant stagnancy. But, as we all know, the interview process is exhausting. Besides being on your best behavior, you’re subject to constant judgment. Confidence is imperative, and things are often not as they seem.

Plus, while what’s up-front might rock your world, it may be only part of what you’re seeking; a person may seem ideal, but the timing isn’t right; you might be willing to “compromise” (or sacrifice) some characteristics but not others. You may, simply, not be in love.
And so on.

“Mere” satisfaction seems increasingly appealing.

But I wonder if and when the interviews will really end?

True, most candidates eventually land some kind of job. They’re typically imperfect, but some just enjoy the steady income/benefits until something better comes along; others will be satisfied — awaiting vesting and plaques and anniversaries. Many do it for their family. For some candidates, the search concluded years ago. For others, it lasts years.

And the more baby announcements I get, the more I’m reminded that I’m still in the early rounds. For now, my family still consists of … myself.

I’ll admit that as I get older, spending weekends in Home Depot and on play-dates seems less appealing. But that’s not to say that spending my time arranging my own play-dates (and writing these articles) are my end-goals.

I still go home not to change diapers, but rather to obsess about my too many plans for the week. I can be lazy or hyper. I can date or be single. I can grab last minute drinks or hit the gym. It’s my choice.
With this admirable freedom, however, come shackles of the unknown — from which I may never break free.

Yes, each of my breakups has engendered more self-sufficiency and direction. It’s also made me increasingly both selective and open-minded. I can more easily identify what I do and don’t want and remain willing to explore.

A few years ago — after over-working as an underling, I took a position with more reasonable hours. I soon outgrew my position, but the job market bubble had burst. I started stressing about wasting my time, wanting to know exactly where I’d be in five years.

At some point I, too, would like to know the joys of marital spats and family vacations. I’d like to experience why people get wedding-obsessed. I want to use my vacation days for a vacation with someone special.

More than ever, I envied my directed peers.

I wanted a life-plan.

Ultimately, I followed my heart, using my spare time to pursue my hobbies, volunteer and write. I also had my longest relationship to-date.

And when we broke up, I found a job I finally adored, but not before considering moving abroad, joining four sports leagues and tearing a ligament.

Alas, seems to me, my life plan is not having one.

From a romantic standpoint, I have opportune experiences that inspire and educate.

But the blips all too often throw off even my unplanned plan. (Luckily, details like this don’t typically show up on resumes.)

So years after my first peon job, and at the wings of an overwhelming yet rewarding new one, I am finally perfectly more-than-merely satisfied.

Sure, I wake up earlier than I’d like, but I get to travel and love what I do. Plus, I finally have my very own office.

The notion of a long-term stint is both thrilling and unnerving, and it’s hard to say whether this will be the last place I’ll ever work.
But while I’m fairly certain I’ll always go for the brass ring; it’s the platinum one I’m really waiting to be sure about.

D. Lehon is a freelance writer living in New York City. She can be reached at

Wanted: 20-something year-old JJ seeks SJF or SJM (20s-120s) for romantic, funny or poignant columns about finding -- and losing -- love in L.A. and environs. Open to all ages and interests. If you can wow me with your story, insight and writing, send your column (850 words), name and contact info to; put SINGLES in subject line. No Phone Calls Please.

Courage Under Fire

Tziporah enjoyed extraordinary social status within her native land. But after Yitro, the priest of Midian, gave his precious daughter as a wife for Moshe, she was the
subject of gossip among a new people (Bamidbar 12:1). Hakodesh Barukh Hu intervened on Tziporah’s behalf, but there is no record that anyone else spoke up for her.

It is particularly painful to think that slander and other such defamation might arise, however infrequently, amid a people whose rituals call for covering the challah to spare its feelings when the wine is blessed first. Likewise, the Kohen is commanded not to ascend the altar on steps — rather, he must walk gingerly up a ramp — because his garment might expose some of his private parts, thus embarrassing the stones.

Notwithstanding these sensitivities, slander exists in the world, and our rabbis endeavored to confront its challenges long before defamation and libel cases like New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and its progeny wound its way through America’s secular courts.

The laws of lashon hara, or evil speech, are numerous. For example, within certain rubrics it is not necessarily lashon hara during an Israeli election to remind people of how Israel fared the last time a particular candidate unsuccessfully led the Jewish state. It is not lashon hara to denigrate Neturei Karta, the anti-Zionist Charedim who attended Fatah events and Holocaust denial conferences. It is not lashon hara to refer to former President Jimmy “Karta,” Holocaust denier David Irving or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with the utmost contempt.

When someone inquires whether someone is suitable as a pending wedding match or as a business partner, halacha permits and requires candor.

However, in a different context, a roll of the eyes, a smirk or a snicker can be a grave sin. When the intention is to reduce a person by conveying a negative meaning that has no independent halachic justification, the conveyor of the lashon hara can forfeit rewards in the world to come for all eternity.

Perhaps the challenge that is most difficult is how to respond when, unexpectedly — sometimes amid friends — we find ourselves caught in a lashon hara environment.

Lashon hara can sneak into a conversation at the Shabbat table, introduced cleverly and surreptitiously by someone whose agenda manipulates the discussion in that direction.

Suddenly, you’re caught off guard. What do you do? Make a scene? Ruin dessert? Emerge déclassé? To remain silent is tantamount to tacit agreement, which emboldens a character assassin to believe he or she is making inroads and winning allies.

“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to your enemies,” says professor Albus Dumbledore in J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.” And that indeed is the only prescriptive: to show courage, even at the cost of friendship. To speak up — because silence is not an option. To risk losing a friend — because losing a portion of paradise is not an option. To realize that someone willing to stain your soul at his or her Shabbat table may not be the best friend in your Rolodex.

In a memorable scene in the Oscar-winning 1947 film, “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Dorothy McGuire’s Kathy Lacey recounts to John Garfield’s Dave Goldman her fury after encountering an anti-Semite at a dinner party.

He asks, “What did you do?”

She responds that she sat there silently, allowing the slurs to continue flowing unimpeded. She did not have the courage to speak out.

Lashon hara is the ultimate anti-Semitism, a violation of the essence of Torah values that, if our guard is lowered, could emanate against Jews even from within the Jewish community, derogating one or more Jewish souls, assassinating an innocent Jew’s character, causing pain and suffering to its victims and targets, to family and friends. It threatens to tarnish and stain bystanders drawn within its ambit, often innocent bystanders — or bysitters — caught unexpectedly in the oral terrorist’s crossfire.

The only way to respond when unexpectedly finding oneself caught in a lashon hara environment is to speak out with bravery. To say, “My spouse and I did not come here to listen to this. Nor do we want our children exposed to this poisonous environment. We reject what is being said. We are here to talk about ideas. If need be, perhaps we can abide discussions about things. But if the conversation turns again to people, we will leave this environment and not return.”

That is courage under fire, Jewish style.

Rabbi Dov Fischer is rav of Beth Jacob Congregation of Irvine and is adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles.

Sympathy for the Devil?

A rule in Jewish law holds that when all the judges on the Jewish high court unanimously condemned an accused criminal, he must be set free. The very unanimity was suspicious and called into question the justice of the proceedings.

Talk about unanimity. By now thousands of published articles, ranging from critical to hateful, have appeared about the famous Jack Abramoff — Orthodox Jew, former Washington super-lobbyist, product of an affluent Beverly Hills upbringing and future inmate of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion and conspiracy.

As Abramoff told The Jewish Journal in a series of phone interviews earlier this month, “I had lost a sense of proportion and judgment. God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing. But I didn’t listen, so He set off a nuclear bomb.”

In such a case, can there be room for giving the universally condemned man the benefit of the doubt?

“What hurts the most is the way my co-religionists want to cut my head off,” Abramoff says.

Predictably, he has been excoriated by some Jews who seem transparently thrilled to point to an Orthodox Jew with failings. The response from the Orthodox community is more aptly described as shock and frequently expressions of shame at the thought that Abramoff, a Jew, did what he did.

But the story has another side.

In presenting this alternate view, I don’t pretend to be disinterested. I have met Abramoff twice, and 10 years ago I enjoyed spending the first two festival days of Sukkot in his home. His fundraising efforts, related in his plea agreement, supported many Republican and Jewish causes including an organization I admire and once worked for — Toward Tradition.

But those who so entirely condemn Abramoff are not all disinterested either. Many are eager to see the humiliation of Republican congressmen who received gifts and favors from the lobbyist. Others find in him confirmation of dearly held but more idiosyncratic beliefs, biases and bugbears.

So having admitted biases all around, let’s try to understand Jack Abramoff and his Jewish journey.

From an early age he was a religious rebel and an ardent idealist. His story is in many ways that of many other ba’alei teshuvah, Jews who returned to tradition. I, too, am in that group.

Now age 46, he was born in Atlantic City, N.J. His father, Frank Abramoff, a Diners Club executive, moved the family to Beverly Hills in 1969. The family’s home was in the tree-lined flats north of Santa Monica Boulevard on Elm Drive. His early religious education was at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation in Beverly Hills. However by the time of his bar mitzvah he was fed up with what he felt was a Judaism devoid of meaning.

“I quickly came to the conclusion that what they were saying was gibberish,” Jack Abramoff says.

Frank Abramoff remembers, “He said ‘That’s the last time I’ll be involved with that sort of tradition.’ I said, ‘That’s your decision.'”

His only exposure to traditional Judaism was from watching “Fiddler on the Roof,” a movie he found inspiring. Abramoff had no idea there was an Orthodox community in Los Angeles and was stunned in 1972 when he met a boy his own age wearing a kippah in La Cienega Park.

Jack started attending a Conservative synagogue, Sinai Temple, on his own. He taught himself Hebrew and read Judaica, notably Hayim Halevy Donin’s “To Be a Jew,” first published in 1972.

“I read that book cover to cover several times over and decided that if I was going to be a Jew, that’s the kind of Jew I was going to be.”

Many ba’alei teshuvah (including myself) have been strongly influenced by Donin’s powerful and dignified-yet-simple summary of Jewish practice, which has no equal even today among the new books for Jewish beginners.

Donin wrote of the Jewish idea of holiness, which he defined as “Developing one’s sense of discernment as to be able to distinguish and choose the right from the wrong, the true from the false, the good from the bad, the sacred from the profane, the pure from the impure, and the clean from the unclean. The greater the sense of ethical-moral-religious discrimination, the greater the holiness of the individual.”

For all his study of Donin, the young Abramoff remained remarkably innocent about the realities of a traditional Jewish life. When he decided to observe Tisha B’Av for the first time at age 13, he became confused about the rule against wearing leather shoes on that holy day. He thought all shoes were forbidden on Tisha B’Av, and he assumed too that it was a rest day, like the Sabbath, and thus riding in a car was forbidden.

“So I walked to Temple Sinai, 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard, night and day, in my socks. Somebody at the temple asked me if I wanted a ride. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with these guys?'”

For college in 1977, Abramoff chose Brandeis University in Massachusetts because he’d read it had a kosher kitchen. There he first came into personal contact with Orthodox Rabbi Rod Glogower.

“We learned Gemara [Talmud] together. There was a Mishnah shiur [class],” Abramoff recalls. “He bore himself in such a dignified way, an elegant way. Just seeing him inspired me.”

Rabbi Glogower, now spiritual leader of the Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyan, remembers the college-age Jack fondly.

“My wife and I lived in a tough neighborhood, and when we would walk to and from the campus, I often got anti-Semitic comments from passing cars. Windows would roll down,” he said. “When Jack heard about it he was extremely upset and protective of me. I have never forgotten the sense that he was a guy who would be in the trenches with me.”

After graduating in 1981, Abramoff got into the political trenches as chairman of College Republicans, later as a producer of admittedly cheesy anti-Communist action movies. Work on one of those took him to South Africa, where he met the man who became his “rav,” or rabbi: David Lapin, now a business consultant and rabbi emeritus at the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice.

That was in 1983. Again what impressed Abramoff immediately was a certain regal bearing in Lapin, not so different from Glogower. After listening to thousands of hours of taped lectures over the years by Rabbi Lapin, Abramoff said, “His is the voice in my ear, the voice of Torah, that I hear the most. He is so erudite, such a mensch. His teaching is outside the box, it’s in the box, it’s all around the box.”

So one turns to Rabbi Lapin himself for an insight about Abramoff — especially since Lapin, along with his brother Daniel in Seattle, president of Toward Tradition, the nonprofit, conservative, Judeo-Christian foundation, were both initially drawn into the Abramoff affair in different business-related ways, which by now have blown over.

Daniel Lapin was interviewed by the FBI which, he said, found that Toward Tradition had innocently accepted money from an Abramoff client. David Lapin was negatively and misleadingly portrayed in The New York Times — and by The Jewish Journal, which carried a JTA article drawing from the Times story — on the topic of consulting his company did for the Northern Mariana Islands. The Times subsequently printed a correction of a key detail, which it said was “erroneously omitted.”

What, I asked David Lapin, does religious observance do if it doesn’t keep a man out of prison?

“Studying Torah refines the character,” he said, “It doesn’t artificially transform it. So I usually assume that when one who has studied Torah does wrong, he or she would have done much worse without the refining and restraining influence of Torah knowledge and practice.” And now that his student is in trouble, Lapin said, “I think the Torah he has learned helps him to internalize the tragic events of the past two years in his life and use them for personal transformation.”

What leads a religiously committed Jew to go down a wrong path? Liberal Jews and some Christians point to what they see as Orthodoxy’s over-emphasis on minutiae which, so goes this line of analysis, may result in a Jew who is fervent about what is picayune (for example, the details of Sabbath observance) but lax about greater matters (like bribing congressmen). There are two problems with this strategy for maligning traditional Judaism.

First, taking seriously the Torah’s commandments inherently necessitates a care for details. God cares to see that we care.

Second, while the mitzvot are not magic, if done right they create a heightened mindfulness about matters great and small, including moral matters. But the key phrase is “done right.” In our conversations, Abramoff repeatedly berated himself for allowing his Jewish observance to become mechanized, an afterthought.

“How many times did I take 60 seconds to say Birkat Ha’Mazon [the grace after meals]?” he asked. “How many times did I say the Shemoneh Esrei [Judaism’s central prayer] without thinking about what I was saying?”

Obviously, if you are not mindful about the so-called “ritual” commandments, they will produce few beneficial effects in other areas of your life.

Alternatively, could Abramoff’s problem be classic compartmentalization: cares about mitzvahs, doesn’t care about mail fraud?

In the end, to ask such a question, thinking you can imagine the mind of another person, is to mislead yourself.

“God created us as infinitely complex creatures,” Daniel Lapin said in a public statement released after Abramoff’s plea. “We are capable of both evil actions and good ones — very often on the same day.”

Jack Abramoff is undoubtedly a complex creature. The same man who wrote crudely insulting e-mails about Indian gambling moguls plowed the money he made not into a second home, a yacht or mistresses, but into expensive Jewish enterprises of benefit to others: two idealistic religious schools in the Washington, D.C., suburbs; two money-losing kosher restaurants, intended both as a lobbying venue and as a boon to kosher diners and other Jewish businessmen; and private gifts to needy Jews who came to him with broken hearts and empty wallets. In the early 1990s, he put his work on pause to oversee the creation of the Torah School of Greater Washington, now 12 years in operation and thriving. The high school he started, Eshkol Academy, failed amid acrimony over unpaid salaries as Abramoff’s legal troubles deepened. Abramoff himself told The Journal he saved nothing and supported himself, his wife and five children from check to check.

Although Jewish law asks us to give between 10 percent and 20 percent of net income to charity, Abramoff says, “I incorrectly didn’t follow the mitzvah of giving away at most 20 percent. I gave away everything. I was the softest touch in town.”

Or are we soft to believe him about this? The Jewish newspaper in Abramoff’s area, the Washington Jewish Week, deserves credit for bothering to look beyond the negatives. A Jan. 11 article quoted a range of community members who personally witnessed the effects of Abramoff’s generosity, testifying with comments like: “Hundreds of kids in this area owe their Jewish day school education to Jack,” “We remain indebted to him,” and “How many Jews make millions of dollars in this town and don’t give … anything” back?

The Abramoff family lives in the same house in mostly drab Silver Spring, Md., that Abramoff bought in 1999 for $1.03 million. While far from a shack, such a house is equally far from a mansion by today’s standards. Clearly, his crimes weren’t committed to fund some ridiculously lavish lifestyle.

“He has always been a good child,” says his father, Frank Abramoff, who sounded a heartbreakingly plaintive note, describing Jack Abramoff’s moral qualities as if his son were still that boy walking 5 miles down Wilshire Boulevard in the dark, in his socks.

Now that Abramoff’s personal fate for the next decade or so has been sealed with the plea agreement, the Jewish community must decide whether to give him the benefit of the doubt about his charitable works and contrition, or persist in thinking we’ve got him figured out, and in announcing to the world how embarrassed of him we are.

Some apparently believe it’s almost a mitzvah to say you’re embarrassed. When Abramoff famously appeared in public wearing what looked like a “religious”-style black hat, of the kind favored by some Orthodox Jews, the story caught the attention of Los Angeles’ Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein. In his online journal, Cross-Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein speculated that Abramoff meant to conceal a yarmulke and thus avoid making his chilul Hashem (a public “desecration” of God’s Name) worse.

The rabbi, who is Orthodox himself and directs Project Next Step at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, then chided me for, as I’d written elsewhere, not being embarrassed of Abramoff: “I am embarrassed that he [Klinghoffer] is not embarrassed.”

Rabbi Adlerstein also discovered in Abramoff an occasion for some patronizing thoughts about ba’alei teshuvah. He was pretty sure that Abramoff is a ba’al teshuvah, or BT. Thus the rabbi compared the character of “BTs” with Orthodox Jews who are religious or “frum”-from-birth: “FFBs,” who because of their superior schooling would know better about ethical matters than a BT like Abramoff.

Adlerstein, an incisive thinker and a caring person, nonetheless typifies a certain Jewish response to Abramoff, speculating from a position of ignorance about the man. As it happens, his interpretation of the hat was flat wrong.

“That was between me and God,” said Abramoff of the hat, “not between me and anyone else. I was sick and tired of not wearing a head-covering in business. I no longer care what others think of me. I care what God thinks of me.” Contrary to press reports, it wasn’t a “frum” Borsalino, either. “You know what it was?” he said. “It was a crushable rain hat.”

Other reactions to Abramoff have been more hurtful than Adlerstein’s. One thinks of Orthodox Jewish columnist Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe defining the term chilul Hashem for his readers: “Within the Jewish community whose values he so dishonored, there is little sympathy for Abramoff, who is likely to receive a prison sentence of 10 or 11 years.”

The column was posted by the Aish HaTorah Web site, which led with these harsh conclusions: “Instead of upholding the Torah’s ethical standards, Jack Abramoff trampled on them, desecrating God’s name.” (For whatever reason, it’s since been taken down.)

Other Jews, too, rushed to decry Abramoff without grasping the facts or the character of the man.

In an op-ed distributed by the liberal Orthodox group Edah and picked up by The Jerusalem Post, Rabbi Eliyahu Stern, of New York tony’s Park East Synagogue, castigates me for preferring not to denounce Abramoff: “I am sorry Mr. Klinghoffer, if using an Orthodox yeshiva to launder ill-begotten [sic] money does not embarrass you, then what does?”

Abramoff did not use the Orthodox high school he supported to launder funds, although the school was the recipient of money he raised, reportedly without telling lobbying clients where it was going.

He did set up an entity purportedly to help inner-city youths, The Capital Athletic Foundation — which did serve as a conduit for other causes.

Again, Abramoff has admitted that his business was shot through with illegalities.

But in light of his plea agreement, what purpose is served by his fellow Jews, including rabbis, continuing to flog him so publicly?

While not making oneself into a chilul Hashem is an undoubted Jewish value, I’m still searching for the Torah source obligating us to publicly denounce the chilul Hashem of others where the offender has already admitted his offense, even if under the pressure of potentially decades in prison, abased himself in public and faces heavy secular penalties.

Please, give me sources to match in clarity and authority those that advise us, as the Talmud does: “He who judges his fellow man favorably is himself judged favorably [by God]” (Shabbat 127b); “In the measure with which a man measures, so is he measured” (Sotah 8b).

Or this: “With righteousness shall you judge your fellow” (Leviticus 19:15), by which the classical interpreter Rashi says we’re meant to understand that when there is a doubt about our fellow’s good intentions, we must be “dan l’kaf zechut”: Judge on the side of merit.

We circle back to the question of motivation. What was Abramoff’s motivation? To be a player? To prove himself? To be a macher? Personally, I would not dismiss out of hand his assertion that he acted to help others — even though it probably strikes most as self-serving. Someday, I will want God to measure my misdeeds in a forgiving fashion, and judge me on the side of merit.

In this context one must also open up the possibility that what is in his plea agreement represents not a stark and true representation of crimes committed, but rather a confession “squeezed” (in Time magazine’s word) out of him by the threat of harsher punishments.

The day he wore the notorious black hat to appear in federal court, he said, “Your Honor, words will not be able to ever express how sorry I am for this, and I have profound regret and sorrow for the multitude of mistakes and harm I have caused. All of my remaining days, I will feel tremendous sadness and regret for my conduct and for what I have done. I only hope that I can merit forgiveness from the Almighty and from those I have wronged or caused to suffer.”

These are only two logical possibilities. Either a) Abramoff was squeezed into giving false testimony about himself, or b) he is a repentant sinner. Since a) can’t be supported from any known evidence, we’re left with b). Which, then, is the greater chilul Hashem? A Jew who admittedly committed crimes and will be performing teshuvah (repentance) for years to come? Or Jews lining up to kick such a person now that he’s been defeated and humiliated?

O n Cross Currents, Rabbi Adlerstein is posting a three-part exploration of Jewish law as it pertains to hurtful speech and judging charitably. As of this writing, he had reached the conclusion that “there is no … legal obligation — only a praiseworthy character trait — in judging a stranger favorably.” I am waiting to see what he’ll do with the clear and unambiguous halachah in the most authoritative of law codes, the Shulchan Aruch, which forbids reminding a penitent of his now-repented sins (Choshen Mishpat 228:4) — much less publicly putting such a person in the category of “evildoers.” (Abramoff said he happens to be a regular reader of Rabbi Adlerstein’s journal.)

Abramoff told me, “What astonishes me is the unqualified support and outpouring of love I’ve received from the religious Christian world.” Now that should embarrass us.

In recounting the lives of the Hebrew patriarchs, the Torah suggests some relevant models of behavior toward the erring Jew.

One of these models is our forefather Jacob and how he handled the transgression of Reuben, his first-born, who grieved him by seducing Jacob’s concubine Bilhah. When Jacob was preparing to die, he blessed his sons, and reminded Reuben of his “impetuosity” and the “desecration” (Genesis 49:4) he committed. But at the time of Reuben’s deed, decades earlier, the Torah writes only that Jacob “heard” (35:22). He said not even a word about it. The classical commentator Nachmanides credits this to Jacob’s “humility.”

Abramoff attributes his downfall, in part, to “zealousness for finding funds for the charities I supported.” Like Reuben, he was certainly impetuous — impetuous enough to believe that the causes he supported merited committing fraud against others.

After Jacob died, Joseph forgave his brothers for selling him as a slave. He told them: “Fear not, for am I instead of God?” And “Thus he comforted them and spoke to their heart” (50:19, 21). As Egypt’s viceroy, he could do to them what will soon be done to Jack Abramoff, or worse. He chose to follow the humble path of his father Jacob. Granted Abarmoff deserves a prison sentence, the question for us is what our attitude toward him should be as a fellow Jews.

What will be done to Abramoff? I asked Chaplain Gary Friedman, chairman of Jewish Prisoner Services International. If Abramoff is sent to a minimum-security prison, at least personal safety won’t be a major concern.

“He’ll have nothing to worry about,” Friedman says. “He’ll be a high-profile case. Still, my recommendation to him would be: don’t bring attention to yourself.”

Kosher food won’t be a problem either: “Everything is hekshered” — that is, there’s kosher-certified food available.

“Everything that’s heated is pre-packaged. That helps insure the kosher integrity,” says Chaplain Friedman, who incidentally puts to rest Rabbi’s Adlerstein’s idealization of FFBs at the expense of BTs. The BT and FFB prison populations are, in relative numbers, “perfectly consistent with community demographics,” he said.

Consistency and inconsistency are the principal themes of this story. One may say in the final analysis that Jack Abramoff, Orthodox Jew and admitted sinner, is consistent with the norms of humanity. Sincerely repentant yet amazed at the “lack of proportionality” of his crimes to his punishment, he remains infinitely complex. I wouldn’t pretend to know what criminal punishment he deserves or doesn’t. However the injustice of continuing to condemn him, now that it’s been resolved that he will take his licks, seems obvious.

Undoubtedly there are others in prison who are like him; that is, better than society has judged them to be. Meanwhile there are many walking the street who have not aspired to deeds of charity or been called to account for their missteps. When Jack Abramoff gets out, I suspect he’ll continue to repair his life by pursuing the good acts that he never, in fact, abandoned. Without calling attention to himself, he may well put to shame others who now sit in judgment of him.

David Klinghoffer (


Crime and Punishment

It’s time that the American Jewish community wascalled to account. One of its number is languishing in the jaws ofthe criminal justice system, suffering for a mistake — a gravemistake, admittedly — to which the system has responded far, far outof proportion to the deed.

This is a Jew who, though publicly regretful,faces what some might consider a very high price. The reason?Possibly because, in this mostly Christian society, the Jewish way ofseeing things doesn’t count for much when society sits in judgment.In a way, Jews have a permanent disadvantage. That’s supposed to beone reason Jewish organizations exist. But in this case, theorganizations and their leaders have been woefully silent.

We are speaking, of course, about Amy Grossberg,the New Jersey teen-ager accused of murdering her newborn son in aDelaware motel room in 1996.

Did you think this was about someone else?Jonathan Pollard, perhaps? Hold that thought.

Delaware police say that Grossberg, then 18, gavebirth in a motel room on Nov. 12, 1996, with the help of boyfriendBrian Peterson. The remains were left in a nearby Dumpster. She wasarrested the next day in a hospital room while being treated forlife-threatening complications from childbirth. Peterson turnedhimself in a week later. Both were charged with first-degree murder.Prosecutors have threatened to seek the death penalty.

Grossberg’s lawyers have submitted documents thatindicate she was not fully alert at the time of birth, thought thebaby was stillborn, and let Peterson dispose of it. Also submittedwas medical evidence of a rare fetal disease. Peterson, fearing asetup, agreed last month to testify against her in exchange for areduced charge of manslaughter. She goes on trial May 4.

The case has aroused vast national interest, withpundits wondering endlessly why the affluent, privileged teens failedto seek abortion or adoption. There’s been far less attention to themystery of the prosecutors’ unprecedented harshness.

Infanticide, killing a newborn baby, is a rare andlittle-understood crime. Patchy statistics suggest that it occursperhaps 600 times yearly in America, generally involving singlemothers, mostly young, poor and psychologically ill-equipped for thestresses of motherhood. Most cases end in manslaughter convictionsand prison terms up to four years, often suspended. In England, whereit’s been studied, courts usually mandate psychotherapy rather thanprison.

Delaware, by contrast, threatens lethal injection.What’s behind this fantastic overreaction? No one knows for sure.Some informed commentators call it a grandstanding prosecutor’sappeal for the influential right-to-life vote. You can’t prosecutemothers who kill babies before birth, but this comes close. Themessage: We defend babies.

Judaism, of course, insists that abortion is nothomicide. In Judaism, a fetus is not a person but, at most, apotential person. Its rights cannot outweigh the mother’s. Even afterbirth, rights accrue developmentally. An infant that dies beforeeight days is not named. One that dies within 30 days cannot receivea funeral. The idea of lodging capital murder charges against asemiconscious mother just after labor should be repellent bytraditional Jewish standards.

What does all this have to do with the Jewishcommunity? Not much, unless you believe the community is obliged todefend Jews whose mistreatment by the courts offends Jewishvalues.

Most of us don’t think so. American Jews tend tothink our best protection as a minority lies in demanding we betreated the same as everyone else, not differently. Unless there’s alegal attack on Judaism — denying inmates kosher food, for example– Jews who fall afoul of the law are on their own.

In recent years, however, a bold few have comeforward to advocate just that: defending Jews hurt by the judicialsystem. Their rallying cry is freedom for Jonathan Pollard, anAmerican Jew arrested in 1986 on charges of spying for Israel.

Pollard, a former U.S. Navy intelligence analyst,was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison — despite having spied foran ally, and despite a plea bargain promising a lesser sentence. Hisadvocates argue that the organized Jewish community has an obligationto demand his freedom.

The claim is not that Jews should be allowed tospy for Israel. No, advocates say that Pollard’s sentence wasexcessive, and that the community should protest because it wasIsrael he spied for.

Not that he’s innocent, but that his crime has adifferent meaning to Jews.

Pollard’s advocates, then, should be the first tospring to Amy Grossberg’s defense. Curiously, the suggestioninvariably prompts horrified protests: “The cases have nothing to dowith each other.” “Judaism doesn’t support killing babies.”

Well, does Judaism support spying for foreigncountries? Here’s where it gets messy. Pollardistas insist that theydon’t mean that. But it’s not clear they’re being frank.

The most vocal advocates tend to speak heatedlyabout Pollard’s violated plea bargain, in which he expressed remorseand was promised leniency. In the same breath, they often note theimportance of the information he supplied to Israel. Unfortunately,one claim undercuts the other. If he stands by the information hepassed on, how remorseful is he?

The discrepancy hasn’t gone unnoticed at thePentagon. High-ranking sources say that it was the Joint Chiefs ofStaff who urged the judge, through then-Defense Secretary CasparWeinberger, to ignore the plea agreement and throw the book atPollard. The reason was their fear of thousands more Pollards insidethe defense establishment. They wanted to send a message: This isn’tacceptable.

Pollard is still in jail, these sources say, notbecause his crime merits his lengthy sentence — it doesn’t — butbecause too many American Jews still haven’t gotten the message. IfPollard is a hero, if spying for Israel is defensible, then all thosedecades of Jews protesting their loyalty to America must be a joke.That can’t be.

Thus, these sources say, every time Jews rallyagain to call Pollard a hero, every time another Israeli leader treksto North Carolina to greet this loyal soldier of Israel, it adds amonth to his sentence.

Let’s be clear: Pollard should not be in jailanymore. He’s arguably done more time already than spies whose crimeswere greater. And there’s a strong case to be made that AmericanJewry should demand his release.

But not because he was working for our team. Hewas not. If the Jewish community should speak up for Pollard, it’sfor the same reason the community should speak up for Amy Grossberg:because the punishment is supposed to fit the crime.

J.J. Goldberg is the author of “Jewish Power:Inside the Amercan Jewish Establishment.” He writes from regularlyfor The Jewish Journal.