November 19, 2018

News unfolds at a fever pitch

Volunteers search for evacuees through flood waters caused by Tropical Storm Harvey in Northwest Houston on Aug. 30. Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that a disaster or tragedy strikes so often just before the High Holy Days. The Munich massacre, 9/11, Katrina, now Harvey — is that the Universe’s way of driving home the words of the Unetanah Tokef prayer?   

On Rosh Hashanah it will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed —
how many will pass from the earth
and how many will be created;
who will live and who will die;
who will die at his predestined time and who before his time;
who by water and who by fire,
who by sword and who by beast,
who by famine and who by thirst,
who by war and who by plague,
who by strangling and who by stoning.
Who will rest and who will wander,
who will live in harmony and who will be harried,
who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer,
who will be impoverished and who will be enriched,
who will be degraded and who will be exalted.
But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity annul the severe Decree.

It could be that August and September were as tough on our ancestors as on us: months when the earth burns under unrelenting sun or floods in Noah-like storms. So they figured God was telling them it was time to think existential thoughts.

This year, I was laid low in August. I went home after work on Aug. 22 feeling a bit off, and woke up the next day as if I had just gone 10 rounds with McGregor and Mayweather. Not one or the other — both. Every year I get a flu shot, so it’s been years since I experienced a full viral knockout. This one caught me with my guard down and laid me out for a week.

I was still able to read, keep up with work via email, catch up on shows I’d been missing (“Red Oaks,” “Fleabag” — both engaging, almost flu-worthy), and, of course — of course — keep up on the news. Because I rarely left our spare bedroom for fear of being Patient Zero to the rest of the household, I subjected myself to an unhealthy amount of news.

On the night of Aug. 25, before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Hurricane Trump pardoned former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The 85-year-old disgraced convict was one of those people I always suspected karma or the law would catch up with, and it was a good day when he was found guilty. Not for abusing and humiliating prisoners, targeting random Latinos for arrest, or trafficking in racist lies against a sitting president — Arpaio was convicted of contempt of court. Just like many gangsters, it was the stuff he never thought twice about that took him down.

The lesson of the High Holy Days is that redemption can come with repentance. But President Donald Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe not because he showed remorse or repentance, but precisely because he didn’t. By standing up to minorities, courts and critics of the left and right, Arpaio made himself a hero to Trump. If he had apologized, he’d be doing time.

Repentance, says the High Holy Day prayer, can save our souls. How sad we have a president who last week taught this lesson to our children: Repentance is for losers.

Then came the flood. CNN told the story of a couple who slept on their car roof for two nights in the pouring rain, inches above the floodwaters, until rescuers arrived. The rescuers were volunteers who had towed their boat from two hours away just to help out. President Trump’s response was helpful and efficient. The flood was unrelenting, but so was the relief.

Nothing can stop Americans from springing into action to help or donate to those in immediate need. But that same wondrous empathy goes dormant if the emergency is less than in our face. We’ll carry a cold baby over our heads to safety, but vote for the guy who wants to take health care away from that baby’s mom. We’ll dive into floodwaters for search and rescue, but refuse to fund the science showing the link between a 1-in-500-year flood and climate change. We’ll donate blankets and food to a teenager in a relief center, then support the guy who wants to deport him.

Charity, says the Unetanah Tokef, can avert the severe decree, but how do we get people to expand their idea of charity?

I’m not neglecting the other news — Jared Kushner took a field trip to the Middle East; the Israel Defense Forces demolished two Palestinian schools on the eve of the new school year, alleging they lacked permits; there was some boxing match. Then, just as my fever broke and the flu rented an Airbnb inside my lungs, North Korea shot a missile over Japan and North Korean President Kim Jong Un promised the next one would be in the direction of the U.S. territory of Guam. After that, your guess is as good as mine. What can be done?

Prayer, says the Unetanah Tokef, will “avert the severe decree.” Come the High Holy Days, I recommend it. And a flu shot.

ROB ESHMAN is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. Email
him at You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter @foodaism
and @RobEshman.

Tree felled by Sandy kills Jewish teacher, college student

Two young Jews were killed in Brooklyn by a falling tree during superstorm Sandy.

The pair were out walking a dog Monday night in the storm's high winds.

The dead were identified by The New York Observer as Jessie Streich-Kest, 24, who worked as a high school teacher in the city, and Jacob Vogelman, a student at Brooklyn College. The two had been friends since middle school, according to the Observer.

They were discovered dead Monday, crushed by the fallen tree. The dog was taken to an emergency veterinary clinic.

At least 45 people in the United States and 68 outside of the U.S. have been killed in the one-of-a-kind storm, and more than 7 million people in 13 states were without power.

Meanwhile, Jewish institutions on the East Coast began to open up again. The UJA-Federation of New York announced on its website that its offices in Manhattan and Westchester would reopen, though its Long Island office would remain closed.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark International Airport in New Jersey were scheduled to reopen at 7 a.m. Wednesday with limited service, though New York's LaGuardia Airport remained closed.

Thousands of Israeli airline passengers and Americans in Israel trying to return home had their flights to the U.S. canceled on Monday and Tuesday. Israelis trying to get home also remained stranded in New York, New Jersey and the D.C. area. In all  more than 14,000 flights reportedly were canceled due to Sandy.

The greater New York area, home to the largest population of Jews in North America, was hit hard as severe winds and flooding toppled trees, knocked out electricity and flooded public transportation systems.

Jewish institutions throughout the eastern U.S. remained closed Tuesday.

Destroyed New Orleans synagogue to break ground

A New Orleans synagogue destroyed by Hurricane Katrina will break ground on a new building.

Congregation Beth Israel, a century-old congregation destroyed by the 2005 storm, will mark the occasion on Sunday at a new location five miles from its former home.

“Since Katrina, our job has been to rebuild a sense of community within our congregation,” said Rabbi Uri Topolosky in a news release. “Now we have to build a building and give our family a home.”

Beth Israel’s old building absorbed ten feet of water during the 2005 hurricane which destroyed vast swaths of New Orleans. Its contents, including thousands of prayer books and seven Torah scrolls, were also lost.

The land for the new synagogue was purchased from a nearby Reform congregation, Gates of Prayer.

Once in a lifetime

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it up to here with once-in-a-lifetime events.

Katrina was once in a lifetime. The 2004 tsunami was once in a lifetime. This past year’s wildfires were the worst blazes in living memory. Every other month seems to bring an epic rain or snow that is said to be the storm of the century. And don’t get me started on the polar ice cap.

George W. Bush, the worst president in American history, will turn out to be, God willing, once in a lifetime, as will the officially sanctioned use of torture by American interrogators, the subjugation of the Justice Department by a bunch of right-wing 20-something hacks, and the grotesque intervention of Congress into the Terry Schiavo case. If Dick Cheney isn’t once in a lifetime, there is reason to doubt the existence of divine mercy.

The depth of the unfolding recession, for those who did not experience the Great Depression, is now forecast to be once in a lifetime. Bernie Madoff’s breathtaking Ponzi scheme is — one can only hope — once in a lifetime. The demise of Lehman Brothers, founded in 1850, is once in a lifetime, as will be the extinction of Levitz, the 97-year-old furniture chain, and (as is plausible) of Dodge (b. 1914) and Kmart (b. 1962).

Until this recession, India and China were poised to overtake the U.S. economy, which would surely constitute a once-in-a-lifetime development, like the fall of communism, tobacco, butter, girdles and Esperanto.

The impending deaths of the print newspaper, the network evening news and the television networks themselves — like the prior deaths of the buggy, vaudeville and silent movies — are bound to be experienced as once in a lifetime. The demises of slide rules, typewriters, Polaroid instant cameras and VHS tapes each marked the end of an era. TV Guide is going the route of Colliers, The Saturday Evening Post, Look and Life; when either Time or Newsweek folds, its surviving competitor will doubtless send it off with a once-in-a-lifetime obit.

Sept. 11 was once in a lifetime, unless you lived through Pearl Harbor. It is wishful thinking to imagine that the malicious explosion of a nuclear device is not in the world’s foreseeable future, and if, keinahora, that happens, it will surely be labeled — optimistically — once in a lifetime.

On the upside, the election of a black American president is totally without precedent, and it is not inconceivable that a woman will eventually follow him to the White House, though if it’s Sarah Palin, she stands a decent chance of wresting worst-ever laurels from Bush.

My discomfort at being crowded by this surfeit of once-in-a-lifetime happenings is partly about hype, and mostly about mental hygiene.

The mainstream news media have no vested interest in proportionality. With so many things competing for our attention, the only way for media-owning corporations to capture our eyeballs is to inflate everything to Armageddon dimensions. Every lurid local crime becomes a national melodrama; every flare-up on the planet is depicted as a precursor to World War III; every scandal is Watergate, or something-else-gate. We are inundated with the Ten Worst This and Ten Best That, while long-simmering atrocities truly deserving of notice, like Darfur or the tuberculosis pandemic, barely make it onto the radar screen.

No wonder the world has the jitters. We are daily assaulted by so much hyperbole that it is nearly impossible to know what is important any more. It is undeniable that we live in a time of big change, but if we did not also live in a time of big media, I am not convinced that we would experience our lives as a relentless onslaught of cliffhangers, crises and catastrophes.

To every thing, Ecclesiastes tells us, there is a season, but you wouldn’t know it from the media, which know only one season, which is BREAKING NEWS. Real life has natural rhythms; it plays out on many stages, from the personal and private to the public and historical. But the culture of THIS JUST IN homogenizes those differences. Its imperative is to monetize our attention, and the easiest way to do that is to see as much as possible through once-in-a-lifetime lenses.

I don’t mean to diminish the pain of the economic meltdown, or the significance of climate change, or the symbolic breakthrough of the Obama inauguration or the dizzying transformations being wrought by technology. But it does no good for us as citizens if everything is as screamingly urgent as everything else, and it does no good for us as people if our nervous systems are constantly being bombarded by superlatives. How can our leaders set priorities, how will we ever agree on trade-offs, if public discourse only consists of capital letters? How can we linger in the intimacies and mysteries of existence, how will we truly know what’s worth caring about, if shock and rupture is the only language our culture knows how to speak?

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at

Realities of poverty and devastation in the Katrina-affected Gulf are still unchanged

It’s a long way from the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills to the Mount Olive Baptist Church in Plaquemines Parish, La., and the divide is more than geographic.

Having participated in the Milken Conference in April and traveled to Plaquemines two weeks later, I was struck by the chasm between the viewpoints expressed in these two locales, a divide that I believe underscores one of the most significant challenges to full and meaningful recovery for the Gulf region.

While businesspeople and politicians tout the resurrection of tourism, as well as the strong Gulf business climate and plans for cutting-edge educational reform, families like those who worship at the Mount Olive Baptist Church confront a stunning failure to rebuild the low-income residential communities wiped out by the storms.

The utter devastation that still exists in the low-income neighborhoods of New Orleans and the surrounding rural areas stands in marked contrast to the revitalization discussed in boardrooms: In these poor areas it looks as if the storms just hit, and the vast majority of the families who lived in them are no closer to coming home than they were immediately following the disaster. The policy leaders paint an optimistic picture.

It was tempting to leave the late-April Milken Conference panel on “Rebuilding After Katrina” with a genuine sense of encouragement. In the midst of this conference of Nobel laureates, business titans and national political figures, the loftiness of the credentials of this panel were rivaled only by that of their optimism about the future of the Gulf region.

Scott Cowen, president of Tulane University, described New Orleans’ schools as being in the midst of the most significant and exciting educational transformation in the United States. Andrew Young, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Mitch Landrieu, Louisiana lieutenant governor, agreed that nearly 90 percent of the businesses in the region are doing the same or better than before the storms. And everyone was excited about a plan to turn the New Orleans’ waterfront into a modern, world-class center of culture and commerce.

Yet, alarmingly, the rebuilding of residential communities in the Gulf region seemed to be entirely off their radar screens. When repeatedly questioned about this, they did not identify any plan for repairing or replacing housing and could not describe any progress to date. Eventually, they mustered a vague response calling for a new federal “Marshall Plan” for the Gulf, Plaquemines Parish and New Orleans’ “Lower Nine.”

Beginning in September 2005, Bet Tzedek Legal Services helped spearhead a major initiative to assist evacuees from the Gulf region. More than 2,500 families came to Southern California after the storms, yet many seemed to leave as quickly as they arrived, often without any forwarding address or phone number.

As we read reports of local government permitting people to return to previously sealed areas, we assumed that many of the families we helped had gone home.

In fact, the stark reality is that less than half of New Orleans’ low-income families and fewer than 25 percent of rural Louisianans are back in their homes.

People like Mt. Olive Pastor Ted Turner (not to be confused with media mogul Ted Turner who spoke at the Milken Conference) are still waiting in cramped FEMA trailers or with extended family and friends miles away from their homes and communities. Many homes remain uninhabitable but undemolished, while others like Turner’s have nothing left but the foundation.

Two weeks after the Milken Conference, I traveled with Reboot and Jewish Funds for Justice to Louisiana. We started the trip in Plaquemines Parish, the southernmost tip of Louisiana, a peninsula barely a mile wide between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico.

We stayed for two nights with Turner at his church and strapped on safety glasses and masks to help rebuild a congregant’s house. We toured neighborhoods utterly leveled by the storms and saw schools and supermarkets whose frames remained standing but whose interiors were torn to shreds. We saw giant shrimp boats sitting on top of each other on dry land hundreds of yards from their moorings.

It was a very different picture than the one described by the panel at the Milken Conference.

Turner told us that the parish is a wonderful place to live. His great-grandfather was a slave in Plaquemines, and he himself was born there.

It’s a place where people stop their cars to say “hi,” with an active oil refinery that still employs many parish residents. Turner had managed to rebuild his church, but, like many others we met, his insurance has refused to pay to rebuild his home, and he is faced with the threat of foreclosure. We couldn’t help but note that the lender would be foreclosing on a slab of concrete where the pastor’s family home once stood.

We also traveled to the Lower Nine, where the devastation was similarly vast.

On blocks that were not wiped entirely clean, crumbling houses leaned against each other and awaited demolition. Aside from the 10 or so new, pastel-colored homes in Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village, it seemed like nothing had happened since the storm, aside from the partial removal of the debris that once coated the streets, sidewalks and roofs.

In Plaquemines, the failure to rebuild could be based on benign neglect; worse still, in the Lower Nine, the lack of restoration seems to have been by design: Until late March, just a month before our visit, the recovery manager of New Orleans had slated this historically residential area to be returned to wetlands. Only after significant pressure from community organizers and residents did he announce his intention to rebuild this area. The plan has not yet been specified.

Where is the leadership?

The Book of Jonah: when doves call

It’s time for Jonah again. I cherish this prophet, whose Hebrew name, “Yonah” means “dove,” the bird of peace. I consider him a member of the family.

Shortly after the deaths
of my mother and sister in 1971, the rabbi of New Orleans’ synagogue, Shir Chadash, gave my dad, Mike Brener (z’l), the honor of reading the Book of Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon. The rabbi hoped this would engage my father in the community and deliver him from the waters of grief.

My father embraced the invitation. Like Jonah he escaped drowning.

I wrote this prayer several years ago. I read it to a congregation for the first time last year in New Orleans:

Unatana Tokef

We now confront the meaning of this day
As we stare into the face of our own mortality.
We form a circle.
Hands and souls linked,
We stand as community.
Together we contemplate
The Yomim Noraim.
The days of awe,
The days of trembling.

Our eyes scan the room
And lock with the eyes of others,
As we consider the year just begun.

As we cross the threshold of a New Year,
We are not so foolish
As to think that it will be
A year unblemished by tears.

Give us the strength to stand as a circle,
When the year is touched by anguish and pain.
When injustice, illness, and death,
Enter the circle,
Give us the compassion not to avert our gaze.

Only You know what the year will bring.
Who will live and who will die.
Who will face cancer or depression
Or the other maladies of flesh and soul.

Job loss, addiction, infertility, heartbreak,
Temptations to stray from vows to family and community.
Impoverishment, earthquake, hurricanes, acts of terror,
We are vulnerable creatures subject to Your grace.

We do not ask to be exempt from the afflictions of being human.
We only ask that you be with us in the peaks and in the valleys,
That you help us to stand with each other in good times and in bad.
And that the circle of witness and consolation
Remains unbroken
In the coming year.


— Anne Brener

In gratitude, my dad framed a wooden structure in the synagogue courtyard to be outfitted each year as a sukkah and used for celebrations. His gift captured the exquisite paradox affirmed after Yom Kippur when we build sukkot: Life is fragile, like these huts, but despite our vulnerability we celebrate zman simchatanu, “The Time of Our Joy.” My father continued to chant Jonah until his death in 1995. He and Jonah became so closely linked that the year after he died, only the rabbi would step up to the bimah on Yom Kippur afternoon to fill his shoes.

Jonah is so human. This prophet, who hears God’s call and runs in the opposite direction, speaks for the part of all of us that would rather sit, like Jonah, in the shade, drink cool drinks, and mutter about evil, rather than arm ourselves with righteousness and set upon the overwhelming wrongs we are called to confront.

While I am no prophet, in the last year I have had the sense of being called. Like Jonah, I would not have chosen my missions. As the Days of Awe approach, I realize that it has been a Year of Awe. The Hebrew word for awe, “yirah,” is variously translated as awe, fear, reverence, terror, and horror. It describes our shock when we come toe-to-toe with the great mysteries of life and death and cannot absorb them. Our spiritual imperative is to traverse the narrow bridge from the awe of fear and trembling to the awe that represents a renewal of reverence and love.

This year, with Jonah as my companion, I have taken two journeys on that bridge. These excursions have given me a frightening view of what Al Gore might call “An Inconvenient Promised Land.” I have visited the Land of Mass Environmental Disaster and the Land of Cancer. I fear these might be waiting for all of us, if we remain mired in fear and denial and do not find a way to steer our community to align with the Yom Kippur biblical call to “choose life.”

My call came three days before Rosh Hashanah last year. It came, not from heaven, but on my cellphone, through God’s representative: the current rabbi of Shir Chadash. I was in New York, after working with the Red Cross in Mississippi. I had intended to go to Baton Rouge where the relief efforts of the New Orleans Jewish agencies were regrouping. But Hurricane Rita was approaching. I headed East instead of West and waited out the storm.

I e-mailed the rabbi to ask if I could help, thinking he would ask me to make pastoral visits to congregants remaining in Louisiana. Within an hour, he called. Most of the congregation was in Houston. He was going there to lead Rosh Hashanah services for them. There was a small group left in New Orleans. They wanted a service. Would I lead?

Like Jonah, I was afraid. In the seconds between his question and my response, I reminded myself that I had only three days to learn an unfamiliar machzor, write sermons and review Torah portions. I had never led High Holiday services without a cantor. I blow shofar poorly. Then I thought of Jonah who ran away when he was called. I said, “Yes.”

A few frantic days later, I was on a plane, headed, not to Nineveh, but to New Orleans.

A flight into New Orleans used to have a party atmosphere. But on the day before the Yomim Noraim, my fellow travelers and I descended with mouths agape in horror. We looked down at the swamps that had reclaimed the Crescent City. My fellow travelers were in two categories. There were the relief workers: FEMA, the Corps of Engineers, Red Cross, Salvation Army and others from around the world on missions of mercy and repair. And there were the returnees: people coming home from exile, having fled to havens across the Southern states and further. I was in both categories.

I was coming to bring relief, and I was coming home. I fled New Orleans years ago, not because of a hurricane, but after the deaths of my mother and my sister. So in a sense, though I have spent much time in New Orleans in the ensuing years, I was also returning from exile. I was making the journey on the day before Rosh Hashanah, the day that had sent me running from the city in 1971. For it was on the day before Rosh Hashanah in 1971 that my mother killed herself.

As I headed to New Orleans, my early losses, my efforts at healing, first for myself and then through my writing and work as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, and, now my rabbinical studies, all of this seemed to be part of some mysterious curriculum that had been preparing me for this for my entire life. My teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man, used to ask, “What is the question for which your life is the answer?”

My question had to have been, “Will you come to help after Katrina?”

And there was more. Thirty-five years ago, before the deaths of my mother and sister, I worked for the Ecology Center of Louisiana. I bicycled from the Garden District to the French Quarter each weekday to present a five-minute radio segment. We hoped to alert residents of the Gulf South to the dangers of the chemical by-products of the oil industry; the toxins in our food chain, water and air; global warming; the erosion of the coastal wetlands, and the potential for disaster when the Army Corps of Engineers tries to out-engineer God and nature.

That was in 1970 and 1971.

And when I returned to New Orleans, that day before the Birthday of the World, I witnessed the fulfillment of the environmental nightmare we forecast all those years ago. I visited homes weeks awash in the Katrina flotsam, reeking of mold and chemicals, penetrating every material thing that denoted daily life. Nearly every refrigerator in town was covered with the spores of long-decayed food, and set out on the sidewalk awaiting removal and disposal.

By whom? To where? I smelled the smells. In New Orleans they still smell the smells.

Now, late at night, as I begin to fall asleep, I return to New Orleans. I see the houses that are still stained with waterlines above their doorways and smell the mold that remains in many places more than a year later. I remember the gray of seemingly nuclear winter that covered the foliage, leeched by the fetid water of its verdant semitropical green. I feel the nausea that rose in me as I drove through the debris-filled streets around my father’s flooded and looted store in the Ninth Ward and saw not one other human being.

But that’s not the only nausea I have felt this year. Nausea has been an occasional side-effect of the treatment for the cancer found in my body shortly after I returned from my three months in the Gulf South. During these Days of Awe, I weigh these back-to-back catastrophes to see if there is a relationship between them. I try to find some meaning that will allow me to better align myself with the Holy Call to Heal the World.

As a child in Louisiana, I can remember the black skies of summer. Darkened, not by clouds prophesying rain, but by mosquitoes flocked so thickly they blocked the sun. Clouds of white followed them. Again, not the lamby clouds of impending precipitation, but of DDT belching into the sky to kill the insects. Did this give me cancer?

Or was it the secondhand smoke from my mother’s Salems as I rode in the passenger seat through the streets of New Orleans, stopping periodically at the gas station, where I inhaled the sweet fumes of refined Louisiana crude? Or was it swimming in Lake Pontchatrain before it became illegal?

Or maybe the birth-control pills or the diet sodas or the hormones or the toxins in hair products and cosmetics or the fact that I did not eat enough organic? Overeating? The L.A. air? My laptop sitting on top of the womb where the tumor was found?

During these Days of Awe, we contemplate what we must do to align ourselves with the Holy Call. What better way to observe the days between the Birthday of the World and the Day of Atonement than to ponder our connection to the planet?

When Dana Reeve died, the tender eulogies remembered her grace, courage and kindness. Commentators committed to fighting the disease, finding a cure and wiping the scourge of cancer off the face of the earth. No one mentioned the earth itself.

We early environmentalists made a public relations blunder that weighs heavily on me on these Days of Awe. Instead of “Earth Day … Friends of the Earth … Save the Earth,” we should have appealed to human narcissism, crying out, like Jonah in Nineveh, “Repent … save yourself … your days are numbered…” How grotesque would it have to be to be as effective as Jonah and rouse the community to break through denial and honor the sacred call of tikkun olam? And do we have time? The earth will take the time it needs to recover itself. It is human beings who are in urgent danger.

I was the first one to arrive last year at Shir Chadash on my mother’s yahrzeit to prepare for the next day’s service. Waiting, breathing New Orleans, I pressed my nose to the window, looking past the mud and mold, trying to see if the sukkah was still standing.

In the silence, I heard the cooing of a dove, a yonah. I followed it around the back of the synagogue. It led me over a fence toppled by Katrina, to my father’s sukkah. The sukkah was standing in the courtyard, not a splinter taken by the storm.

The next day, the congregation (100 for the evening service and 170 in the morning) gathered in the small chapel, stripped of its carpet, smelling slightly of mold. Present were Jews from every denomination, from unaffiliated to Chabad. At one point a group of men from Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue destroyed by Katrina, shared the bimah with me. There are some fences that Katrina toppled for which we can feel grateful.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Polish the Soul for Elul

I spent the first three days of Elul polishing a lamp that has hung in the upstairs stairwell of my home for 80 years. I thought that the lamp was made out of cast iron,
but discovered after applying a mixture of abrasive compounds and elbow grease, that it was crafted of shiny brass.

Only after finishing the project did I catch the appropriateness of the endeavor. For Elul is traditionally a month for polishing the soul. During this time, we search ourselves for blemishes. Then, through the process of teshuvah, we polish and refine ourselves. The culmination of this refinement is the fast of Yom Kippur, from which we hope to emerge as shining and radiant as my restored lamp.

The word “teshuvah,” heard so often during the month of Elul and the first 10 days of Tishre, is unfortunately translated as “repentance.” Thus, the word carries a harshness that can lead us to feel shame about ways we may have blown it during the previous year.

Teshuvah, however, is more about cultivating compassion than about being held in judgment. Legend tells us that teshuvah was created even before the creation of the world.

This suggests that built into the structure of the universe is the understanding that mistakes will be made, as well as the consolation that there is always the opportunity to begin again. Judaism provides a spiritual technology for continually acknowledging both that to err is human and that we can repair our mistakes.

The first mechanism for this process of renewal (perhaps a more apt translation of the word “teshuvah”) is to cultivate compassion. Compassion is the theme of the chant that we sing over and over during the High Holidays:


Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other

One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

Power of Vows

I have twins who are almost 5 years old. One of the things that my wife and I are trying to teach them is the power of words, both for the positive and the negative.

They are learning that words can inspire, motivate and excite a situation, as they discover new and innovative ways to talk to each other, to us as parents and to the people with whom they interact. They are also learning the harder lesson that words can just as easily hurt, insult and change a situation for the worse in just a matter of moments. It is a lesson that we all learn; yet, how we carry forth these critical childhood moments of language education and speech management can determine the kinds of lives we lead, and the kinds of interactions we have with one another.

Parshat Matot opens with a lesson in the power of words. God commands Moshe to speak to the leaders of the tribes, saying, “If a person makes a vow to Adonai or takes an oath imposing an obligation on him/herself, he/she shall not break that pledge; he/she must carry out all that has crossed his/her lips” (Numbers 30:3). I am leaving aside the sexist language of this parsha, where women cannot make vows, and am operating with the knowledge that we have moved past the ancient subjugation of women. Having said that, the power of the word is what matters here.

Our ancestors understood that when we make a vow, promising to give something to God, or take an oath regarding our own actions, this was the highest and most serious endeavor, as the power of speech is what separates us most critically from the animal world. “Baruch She’amar V’hayah Ha’olam, God spoke and the world came into being.”

In the first of his two important comments on this section of Torah, the Chatam Sofer, 19th century sage and scholar, teaches that “the entire Torah is dependent on this matter of vows, for it is the foundation of foundations, for if we don’t keep our word through the vows we make, then there is no foundation for our receiving Torah in the first place” (Iturei Torah).

How many of us say things that we don’t mean? How many of us use words or phrases like, “I swear…”or “I promise…”or “You have my word…” in a colloquial or trivial fashion? I catch myself doing that all the time. Our society has lost the power of our word and that is a detriment to our ethical composure. With all of the scandals that have rocked us, from Enron on down, we know that our capitalist nature has in some ways affected our ability to be honest; making the most money at any cost drives people to make false promises or lie about the situation. That is why Torah is so important and the cycle of our religious life is so necessary in today’s world; we must all work hard to ensure that we are all leading lives founded in truth, dedication to keeping our word and thinking before we speak.

In noticing that the Torah calls on Moshe to speak to the “heads of the tribes,” the Chatam Sofer says, “People in high public office are more often tempted to make promises that they cannot keep. Their behavior could lessen the respect others have for the spoken word.”

Our public figures, to a large extent, operate on saying things in order to keep power. While this is not true for all leaders, too many have been found guilty of lying, misrepresenting the facts, making empty promises and not keeping their word. Of all the terrible things happening in the world today, two stand out in this regard.

First, the war in Iraq — which has taken 2,500 American lives and tens thousands of Iraqi lives, and cost us our reputation in the world through Abu Ghraib — was based on false premises and lies. How can we trust a leader who lies in regard to the highest level of commitment, war and peace? The amount of misconception in this war, and in the whole “war on terror,” speaks volumes to what the Chatam Sofer was warning leaders against.

Second, the response to Hurricane Katrina. After failing to adequately respond to the crisis while it was happening, the federal government made promise after promise to the recovery and rebuilding of the devastated Gulfport region, only to renege or abandon most of those promises. Nearly a year after the hurricane, whole parts of the area still look like a war zone. There is no better illustration of false promises than what has not happened in New Orleans. Thankfully, religious groups, including our own Board of Rabbis of Southern California, and local synagogues have been partnering with other religious institutions to do our small part. But promises not kept are failing thousands of innocent and needy people.

As I try and teach my children to speak kindly and wisely, I am thankful for the words of the Torah and the comments of the Chatam Sofer, who guide me in offering a legacy of honesty and commitment to the value of integrity. May we all find ways to keep our word, imitating God, by whose word our entire existence was created.

Finding Tools That Give Life Meaning

In the Louisiana where I grew up, the Monday ritual involved a pot of red beans simmering on the stove and a washing machine chugging in the laundry room. On one of those wash days, circa 1965, our washing machine overflowed.

Hearing noises, I ran into the washroom to find my mother banging on appliances and crying to the heavens. Bellowing a phrase from the existential literature she was reading, she shouted, “Life is absurd. Life is absurd.”

“Yes,” I said, as I swooped in, “but that’s where you start.”

Having taken the existential leap into accepting life’s ambiguity has gotten me through a lot over the years, particularly this year, as the extremes of experience challenge any vestiges of hope I have held for things to have predictable outcomes. Say what you will about Katrina and cancer, they can be excellent teachers.

I think that Jews have an edge in holding what psychotherapist Marion Woodman calls “the tension of opposites.” The Torah gives us the Book of Deuteronomy, where we are carefully told that good will be rewarded and bad punished. Yet Torah also gives us the Book of Job, where those who assert the Deuteronomical truth are severely chastised by God for telling falsehood. We Jews break our brains early.

The very first chapters of the Book of Genesis tell us first that the human was created on the sixth day, yet a few lines down we get an entirely different human creation story. God scoops up earth, breathes into it and hiene Adam. Wait, which is right? The sixth day or the earthling? Just rewards or Job’s unfathomable universe? It’s like the Certs conundrum: Is it a candy mint or a breath mint? Wait, you are both right.

Paradox heals. How else would it be possible for me to assert that my experience returning as a volunteer post-Katrina to my childhood home in the Gulf South, in the midst of an unimaginably horrible human and environmental catastrophe, was one of the most professionally fulfilling experiences I have ever had? Or to claim that this time, now, when I am struggling with cancer, chemotherapy and severe limitations to my energy and activities, has afforded me immeasurable quality time with friends and an unexpected sense of peace and well-being?

I wonder if I am delusional or in denial. I certainly wouldn’t have chosen either of these trials. And while I am coping well with my current treatment, I make no assumptions about how I will manage what may be waiting for me down the line.

Still at this point, my sense is that in these challenges, there is the paradoxical embrace of both horror and beauty. Horror in the diagnosis and possible outcome, beauty in the treasure of each moment — an awareness that is somehow focused by the terrifying knowledge of what else might be possible.

I think my comfort with paradox stems from being prematurely eldered. It happened when I was in the third grade and my grandfather lay on his deathbed.

Grandpa Brener, who had come from Bialystok to New Orleans as a young man, was a pious Jew. He traveled the South raising money for Zionist organizations. His family, which included seven children, often went wanting as he sent whatever money he could to the Jewish National Fund to buy land to build the Jewish homeland.

As he lay dying in his bedroom, his right hand paralyzed and his mouth unable to speak, I sat at his bedside and was sometimes given the honor of feeding him through his IV tube.

One day when I left my post, I wandered from his bedroom into his study. I saw a plaque attached to the wall near his Hebrew books. It said, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, may my right hand fail and my tongue cleave to my mouth.” I knew that my frail and mute grandfather hadn’t forgotten Jerusalem.

At that moment, I was liberated from the clutches of fundamentalism. Confronting the fact that bad things happen to good people gave me tools to make my own meaning and look beyond black and white. It gave me a facility with paradox, a big advantage in confronting a nuanced world.

The result was a tolerance for irony, paradox and absurdity. I learned that I would have to create my own answers, and that ultimately, we all must care for each other in order to save ourselves. And that the process can even be fun.

The familiar words of Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav comfort without sounding like Pollyanna: “All the world is a narrow bridge. The most important thing is to not be afraid.”

The injustice of my grandfather’s suffering in light of the promise that was pinned to his wall, catapulted me into the awareness of life on the narrow bridge, where we cannot escape the fact that life is precarious and mysterious. To help others, we stand with them on bridge, offering witness, encouragement, soup and rides.

If we are to be helpful and not condescending, we should never forget that we, too, are vulnerable. And together we seek justice, courage and delight.

Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.


Building Homes, Building Hope

The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.


The Road to Mississippi

Driving through the deserted streets of New Orleans, we peered through the windows of our charter bus and watched as we drove past miles of destroyed homes. As we approached our destination, Waveland, Miss., the houses became increasingly tattered and decayed; on some lots, only kitchen floors remained. As we approached the shore and our worksite came into view, the entire bus was silenced by the broad stretches of land where only the scattered debris of homes remained.

We were 100 sophomores and juniors from Milken Community High School who traveled to the Gulf Coast April 2-6 to help rebuild areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina. We were sponsored by Milken’s Yozma (initiative) Leadership for Social Action program, which, every year, arranges a project to assist those in need.

Stepping off the bus in Waveland, we were handed shovels and gloves by volunteers for the Gulf Side Assembly of the United Methodist Church. For the next six hours, we submerged ourselves in strenuous physical labor, leaving our sheltered-life inhibitions on the air-conditioned bus. While clearing the site of destruction, we came across pieces of lives left behind. Our eyes lingered on purple Mardi Gras beads crusted with dirt, and dresses hanging on tree limbs. Instead of buildings there were scattered tiles, buried wires and remains of refrigerators and toilet seats.

Cleaning the site at Waveland was our first encounter with the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. In the next few days, we also were exposed to the aftermath of the hurricane in the small cities of Natchez and Utica in Mississippi. In those places, we undertook social action projects to support the Jewish and secular local communities both emotionally and financially.

Some in our group began by going to the local Wal-Mart and filling shopping carts with items requested by a shelter, while keeping within a $45 budget. The money we were spending was taken from the $15,000 Milken students had raised to help the citizens of Natchez, which we had adopted as our sister city.

In our short visit to Wal-Mart, we witnessed a culture drastically unlike our own. Many of the residents were poverty stricken, and we were surprised by their habit of counting every last penny of change. They in turn were surprised by our willingness to contribute our own time and money to help people whom we have never met.

Wal-Mart was not the last place we encountered poverty. On another day, we traveled to residential areas where we worked alongside volunteers of Habitat for Humanity to rebuild damaged homes. Families of at least five lived in houses that resembled shacks. The news became reality; we were finally seeing the destruction we were never able to picture.

Although residents of Natchez were affected by devastation and lack of supplies, they succeeded in maintaining faith and spirit. On a Tuesday night, we joined the AME Zion Chapel for a gospel service. We sang along with the gospel choir with the sense that religion and race were unimportant. We were unified by our past experiences of slavery and struggle. Seeing the grateful congregation inspired us to appreciate our own lives and to hope that soon, all of those affected by the hurricane would recover and restore their rich culture.

We have been repeatedly asked, “Why are you going all the way to Mississippi? If you want to help, why don’t you just donate money?”

The answer lies in the power of human connection. Our mere presence in Mississippi gave hope to the community there, which has been ignored by the media and fellow Americans. Money could never replace the relationship formed between Milken and the Natchez community. Not only did we each learn about Southern culture and get to know people there, but we discovered that we have the ability to overcome personal limits and fears. The trip to Mississippi opened our eyes to a culture unlike our own and pushed us out of our comfort zones. In the process we built a friendship with the grateful people of Natchez. It is an experience that will forever stay with us.

Sophia Kamran and Eve Arbel are 10th graders at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; Deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to


PASSOVER: 10 Contemporary Plagues

In the Passover haggadah, we read of the 10 Plagues that God sent to convince Pharoah to let the Hebrew slaves go free. The plagues — bloody, violent, magical — are a dramatic highpoint of the narrative. Mindful of the pain these plagues brought even to innocent Egyptians, Jews have traditionally spilled out a drop of their festive seder wine at the recitation of each plague.

We don’t suggest that these modern plagues are the work of a punitive God or punishment for society’s wrongdoing — we’ll leave that analysis to Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

But we recall that with the original plagues, the rabbis tell us, the purpose was to instruct the Israelites as much as to punish the Egyptians. In that light, we offer 10 contemporary plagues, named in Hebrew, as an opportunity to mourn their victims and discuss how we can prevent them and their like from plaguing us next year.

Spectator – Fiddle Dee Dee and Oy Vey!

Like any good Southerner, Brian Bain eats moon pies and punctuates his sentences with “y’all.” But Bain is also Jewish, which colors his experience as a third-generation Southerner in a unique way.

In his documentary film, “Shalom Y’all,” Bain set out to explore exactly what being both Jewish and Southern actually means. Bain travels through the buckle of the Bible Belt, stopping in small towns where once-thriving Jewish communities have now dwindled to single-digit populations, and he juxtaposes these with flourishing communities in places like Atlanta. He visits genteel mansions still occupied by aging Jewish Southern belles and explores the legacy and the part Jews played in historical Southern milestones, including the Civil War and the Civil Rights era.

“Truthfully, my grandfather really was the catalyst for the journey,” Bain said in a phone conversation from Dallas, where he relocated after his New Orleans home was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. He was referring to Leonard Bain, a retired traveling hat salesman and silent film editor who was 99, in 2002, when the film was made. The elder Bain has since died at the age of 101.

“Growing up, I remember him telling us stories about his travels through the South and spending the Sabbath away from home with Jewish merchants, and how he had this interesting connection with other Jews from the South. I really wanted to get my grandfather on film and just talking to him reminded me of the bigger story of the Jewish South.”

“Shalom Y’all” explores issues of identity and submersion into a larger culture. It is, in many respects, a quirky documentary filled with characters and incidents that might be at home in a Christopher Guest film. In Natchez, Miss., there is Zelda Millstein, who still dresses in Antebellum hoop skirts, and Jay Lehman, a grocery store owner who sells pickled pigs feet and who, as a younger man, participated proudly in the Natchez Confederate Pageant — a homage to the pre-Civil War era. Then there is the older Natchez couple whom Bain interviews sitting in the pews of their synagogue, which once boasted 200 families. Now they get five people for Friday night services.

“Except when the student rabbi comes,” says the husband. “Then we get eight.”

Bain hopes to return to New Orleans as soon as his home is habitable, and he says he has high hopes for the future of the Southern Jewish community.

“Young people have left and found new opportunities, and my parents’ generation is pushing toward retirement, but I think it is going to be interesting period of rebuilding for the Jewish community” in the South, he said. “I am optimistic because the community is strong and tight knit, so I have no doubt that it will persevere.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring is screening “Shalom Y’all” on Feb. 19 at 6:30 p.m. at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd. For more information, call (310) 552-2007, or visit


Hillel Students Help Rebuild Gulf Coast

Southern Mississippi’s Jewish population suddenly mushroomed — as 135 members of the campus organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life fan out through the area, repairing roofs of houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Hillel students, who wore distinctive orange T-shirts that read “Rebuild and Repair: Tzedek Means Justice,” arrived New Year’s Day and stayed until Jan. 15. They constituted the largest-single group of Jewish volunteers to visit the storm-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast since Katrina struck the area last August.

“We all hear about this and we feel sorry for the victims and send money, but so few people actually get up and do something about it,” said Jacob Leven, a UCLA sophomore who studies engineering.

In addition to Hillel, other Jewish groups were active in Mississippi relief work. Shortly after Katrina struck, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatched a group of emissaries to Biloxi to assist with emergency search-and-rescue efforts.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent its director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, to Biloxi to assess the progress of one of its affiliate organizations, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.

“We are a human-rights organization and disaster relief is not the focus of the work of our center,” Adlerstein told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “But it is the interfaith part that got us involved through a back-door channel, and who knows where it will lead us.”

The Hillel volunteers, each of whom paid $125 plus transportation, were split into various teams to replace the roofs on 16 houses, all of them belonging to non-Jews. At night, they slept on the floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.

The program was coordinated by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, a Washington-based international social-service initiative sponsored by Hillel, which received $108,000 in funding from United Jewish Communities.

“During the past few days, the destruction we have seen has been devastating,” University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker said. “Before coming down, I had no idea how bad the situation was, and after seeing it firsthand I realized how important it is that we are down here. The work we’re doing is a very small part of what needs to be done.”

One building Hillel couldn’t fix up was Beth Israel Synagogue, which was severely battered by the hurricane. That’s because the congregation’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to rebuild the shul at the current site or move to a new site entirely.

“If we make no improvement on it at all, it’ll cost $350,000, and that’s low-balling it,” said Stephen Richer, the congregation’s president. “But that’s probably not the best thing to do. We’ll probably redesign it so we don’t have a flat roof. For what we want to do, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”

Founded in 1958, Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Mississippi, had 60 member families before Katrina, representing about half the coastal region’s Jewish population.

“A few people have left, and some like me are waiting for their homes to be fixed,” said Richer, interviewed in the crowded 36-foot Coachman trailer that’s parked in his front yard.

Richer, who’s also executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, bought the trailer used for $50,000 and drove it up from Florida; he’s been living in it ever since because his own house is full of mold and uninhabitable.

So is Beth Israel, which sits on the corner of Southern Boulevard and Camelia Street, only a few blocks from U.S. 90, which parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction is everywhere along the coast, from the twisted remains of a local Waffle House to the floating Treasure Bay Casino barge that ended up on the beach, half a mile away from its moorings.

The synagogue’s administrator, Bonnie Kidd, said she was able to save the office computer, fax machine and important books. Mark Tabor, who lived in an apartment on top of the synagogue and was its caretaker, rescued the Torah scrolls just before Katrina hit.

“It looks as bad inside as it does outside,” said Tabor, a retired military officer who is temporarily living with his son in Mobile, Ala. “Eventually I will come back to Biloxi, as soon as they decide what we’re going to do.”

As bad as Beth Israel is — with its damaged roof, cracked wooden pews and mold — it’s nothing compared to the destruction elsewhere in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.

“We know about 15 Jewish families who lost everything. They have nothing except the clothes on their back,” Kidd said. “Some of them left, some of them are staying with family or friends, and some of them have been able to go through the ruins and see what they could salvage.”

Since the storm, the Conservative congregation has been holding Shabbat services regularly at Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi.

“Our particular congregation is very ecumenical. We’ve participated in Friday evening services” at Beth Israel “for over 20 years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to bring in a non-Christian group,” said the Rev. Marilyn Perrine of Beauvoir, which also hosted Hands On USA, a volunteer group that includes Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers. “My folks are very open and excited about having Beth Israel in our building.”

Local churches also offered to host Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the visiting rabbi and cantor that had been sent by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism keep Shabbat, and with most Biloxi-area hotels destroyed by Katrina, there was nowhere within walking distance for them to stay.

In the end, nearby Keesler Air Force Base invited the congregation to use its chapel, Richer said.

Wayne Lord, the commanding general at Keesler, “came to Kol Nidre services before we started and made the most gracious remarks about the role of the U.S. military in preserving religious freedom,” Richer said. “We had probably over 100 people there — not only our members but also FEMA workers and Red Cross volunteers. We had a national audience.”

In the meantime, members of Biloxi’s dwindling, older Jewish community wonder what the future holds in store for them.

Real estate broker Milt Grishman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Israel in 1963. When Katrina hit, Grishman was already at his brother’s house up in Jackson, Miss.

“This is the first storm I ever evacuated for, and I’m glad I left,” he said, estimating that between 10 percent to 15 percent of Beth Israel’s members won’t be coming back.

“We’re such a small congregation that just a few can be significant,” Grishman said. “We had a fair number of military retirees living on a pension, and I’m not as optimistic as some others on our board.”

That’s because local unemployment is now running close to 25 percent, and of the 17,500 hotel rooms along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast before Katrina, only 5,000 are now open, according to Richer. Of the 13 casinos that were either operating or about to open, only three have reopened — which could put a severe dent into Biloxi’s tourism-driven economy.

“Some companies are deciding this is not a good place to be and are leaving,” Grishman said. “There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and a condo boom, and all that’s encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”


Post-Katrina, Jews Raised Funds Fast

Major Jewish organizations have raised more than $30 million to house, feed, educate and relocate thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi.

The biggest chunk of money has come from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), which represents 155 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. As of Dec. 13, UJC said it had collected $25.5 million in Katrina disaster relief, of which $7.9 million already has been allocated to Jewish and non-Jewish hurricane victims.

The single largest beneficiary of UJC’s generosity has been the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, which received $4 million for programs ranging from emergency assistance for individual Jews to general funding for social services.

UJC funds also have gone to the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, as well as groups such as MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, to aid 13 food banks and other groups along the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast.

Smaller amounts have been allocated to groups such as the Dallas Mayor’s Housing Initiative, to provide housing assistance to evacuees ($250,000); the Jewish Federation of Northern Louisiana to provide Wal-Mart gift cards to evacuees in shelters ($153,900); and the Jewish community of Jackson, Miss., for emergency aid to evacuees ($50,000).

The American Jewish Committee also has been active. In mid-December, the group’s executive director, David Harris, visited New Orleans to present a total of $575,000 in hurricane relief funds to four institutions.

Dillard University, a predominantly black college, got $200,000 to help rebuild its Information Technology Center, while $125,000 each went to Clement of Rome, a Catholic church, and two synagogues — Congregation Gates of Prayer, a Reform synagogue next to St. Clement, and Congregation Beth Israel, an Orthodox shul in suburban Lakeview that was severely damaged by Katrina.

“Each of us is potentially vulnerable to the fury of Mother Nature, irrespective of where we live, the religion we practice, or the lifestyle we lead,” Harris said. “Responding to the needs of our fellow Americans in New Orleans was a moral imperative, and we are glad to be able to contribute significantly to the long-term rebuilding and recovery efforts.”

In addition, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), which represents more than 900 Reform congregations, has raised $3.4 million in general hurricane relief.

Rabbi Deborah Hirsch, director of regions at URJ, said about half of that is going to general assistance for both Jews and non-Jews, and the other half to Reform congregations throughout the Southeast that suffered damage this fall from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.

“Whenever there’s a disaster of this kind, there are often high uninsured losses. Obviously, the fund won’t be able to cover all those losses,” Hirsch said. “Between these three hurricanes, the losses are going to exceed whatever is in the fund.”

The URJ also has raised $225,000 for SOS New Orleans, a new fundraising campaign to help four New Orleans-area Reform congregations maintain their operations, programs and services: Gates of Prayer in Metairie; Temple Sinai and Touro Synagogue in New Orleans; and the Northshore Jewish Congregation of Mandeville.

According to a URJ press release, some 500 to 600 of the more than 2,000 families that belonged to these four synagogues before Katrina might not return. This puts an added burden on the synagogues’ fundraising efforts at a time when they need money more desperately than ever.

“Never in our modern Jewish history have we witnessed such a dramatic displacement of a Jewish community in North America: so many people displaced, for who knows how long a time,” said Robert Heller, chairman of URJ’s board of trustees. “Those who want to return need to know their congregations will be there for them. The buildings can and will be repaired, but souls and spirits do not mend so easily.”

Eric Stillman, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans, said that besides the institutional grants, his federation has received over $100,000 in private, individual donations from outside the New Orleans area since the hurricane.

“We’re tremendously grateful to the American Jewish community for the way they’ve stepped forward and provided financial support,” Stillman said. “I don’t know where we’d be otherwise.”



Katrina Efforts

Since my return from Mississippi, I have been told that as a community we have done all there is to be done by offering new beginnings to evacuees who have left their homes in New Orleans (“Going in After Katrina,” Sept. 16). We have sent lots of money to the ravaged communities and to charitable organizations, such as the Red Cross, that are engaged in providing first responders. We have sent funds to the Jewish federations in the affected communities. In doing all of that we have discharged our responsibilities, or have we?

Have we truly discharged our duties by sending monies? What about offering to send some of our Hebrew School teachers to take over the classes for the teachers who need to reconstruct their lives? How about offering to restock the libraries of the synagogues, Hebrew schools and Jewish centers that have lost everything? How about encouraging our bar and bat mitzvah students to twin with their peers in the affected communities? How about sending volunteers to help the nursing home residents?

Gila Katz
Executive Director
Klein Chaplaincy Service

Where’s Rabin?

As I entered synagogue last Shabbat morning, several of my friends commented to me on the extensive Page 1 article, complete with color picture, in that morning’s Los Angeles Times on the 10th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination and its implication for Israeli society. Most of us agreed that the Rabin assassination was surely one of the most important moments in Jewish history in our lifetime.

Imagine my surprise when I returned home after services and looked at The Jewish Journal that had arrived. The cover was about the upcoming California elections (Cover, Nov. 4).

I am an avid consumer of much of news available in the general media and look to The Jewish Journal for news on the Jewish world. Increasingly the Journal is not providing that.

Perhaps you should reexamine your editorial policies.

Mara Levy
Santa Monica

Rabbinical Commentary

I would also love to see a haftarah commentary in addition to the Torah commentary (Letters, Nov. 4). However, I do not think having commentary from the three major movements would be beneficial. I like the way that you have different rabbis write the commentaries, and in this way you can give us the perspectives of the different movements.

Thank you for all you do to produce this wonderful newspaper!

Cathy O’Krent
Via e-mail

Making History

Mazel tov to Steven Spielberg and to USC for creating a permanent home for the Shoah Visual History Foundation (“Shoah Foundation Makes USC Its Home,” Oct. 28). Spielberg’s 10 years dedicated to creating a lasting tribute to those who survived the Holocaust will help ensure that the world will never forget. We all share responsibility to play a role in this effort.

To that end, Beth Chayim Chadashim ( is proud to host a communitywide commemoration of Kristallnacht, the infamous Nights of Broken Glass, precursor of the Shoah. We will honor Holocaust survivor Olga Grilli, born in Chotebor, Czechoslovakia, who gave her testimony to the Shoah Foundation several years ago. Grilli was rescued on a Kindertransport at age 11 and survived the war in England, ultimately immigrating to the United States.

Our discovery of that testimony at the Shoah Foundation set in motion a series of events that will culminate Friday, Nov. 11, in reuniting Grilli with a Torah scroll from her hometown — a Torah that her uncle and grandfather once held.

We are grateful to Spielberg, the Shoah Foundation and USC for preserving and helping us to bring to life this important part of Jewish and world history.

Rabbi Lisa Edwards
Beth Chayim Chadashim
Stephen Sass
Sylvia Sukop
Event co-chairs

Shul Attraction

David Suissa’s opinion piece, suggesting that cantors surprise congregants by mixing up melodies is a wonderful idea and, though not new, is a suggestion that I, and no doubt most my colleagues, have been doing week in and week out, for many years (“A Surprise Might Attract More to Shuls,” Nov. 4). There are two questions, however, that I would ask regarding this suggestion: a) is this what our members want and b) would this, in fact, draw more people to synagogue?

The answer to the first question is maybe. In a recent survey of my congregation, over half the respondents stated that they prefer when the chazzan, “sings the traditional melodies.” While what is traditional for one Jew is not necessarily traditional for another, clearly when people do come to synagogue, they like to participate in the liturgy, singing a prayer to a musical setting to which they are familiar.

The second question is one that cannot be answered in one Jewish Journal article, or even 100. Suissa is correct — liberal synagogues today compete with Starbucks to attract attendees. We also compete with soccer games, a sale at the mall and general Jewish apathy. Some Jews are attracted to synagogues that offer a niche service on a monthly basis; no doubt participation at these services would drop precipitously if they occurred each and every Shabbat.

When the celebration of Shabbat on a weekly basis becomes a priority for members of the non-Orthodox Jewish community (the community to which I proudly belong) the struggle to attract more people to synagogue will finally conclude.

Chazzan Keith Miller
Kehillat Ma’arav-The Westside Congregation
Santa Monica

Still Smarting

Don’t despair, Amy (“Still Smarting,” Nov. 4). There are men, such as myself, who prefer strong, intelligent women.

David Wincelberg
Beverly Hills

Still Silent

I, too, lament the changes on Fairfax Avenue (“Fairfax Shops Feel the Squeeze,” Oct. 21). But I’ve heard nothing about the famed Silent Movie Theatre, as prominent a landmark on Fairfax Avenue since 1942 as Canter’s and the Farmers Market, and the only theater of its kind in America!

Eddie Cress

Wrong Conclusion

I fail to see the logical link in Leonard Fein’s “Rosa Parks’ Message for Today” (Nov. 4). Parks and Southern blacks of her time faced massive injustice of all types based on racist laws and customs. From this undeniable fact Fein jumps to the “persistent, grinding poverty that still exists in our country….” Is he suggesting that poverty is state sanctioned, or that “ignoring” poverty is the same as the official discrimination, the lynchings, denial of education, segregation and disenfranchisement that were characteristic of the pre-civil rights era?

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

Too Far Left?

I was just wondering if you ever got tired of (or actually, had even noticed) that reading The Jewish Journal is like reading the talking points of the Democratic National Committee. You and others who write in these pages are always lamenting the low affiliation rates among American Jews and are brainstorming about how to increase it. I’d like to suggest you consider taking the politics out of Judaism.

It is a fundamental reality of modern American Jewish life that becoming involved in any Jewish organization is tantamount to joining the left-wing of the Democrat Party. I challenge anyone who seriously disagrees with this statement to come up with even one issue on which any major Jewish organization and the Democrat Party disagree. Furthermore, the vast majority of liberal Jews who are actually proud of these positions (of which, I freely concede, there are many) are, at heart, secular humanists, who truly believe religion is the opiate of the masses and that it is the root of much evil in the world. It should not surprise anyone that recruiting people from this group to join religious organizations is difficult at best. Judaism does not equal the Democrat Party, and I’d like to provide two brief examples to illustrate my point.

1) Tzedakah. While we can all agree that tzedakah is a prime Jewish value, everyone reading this letter should be aware that Maimonides elucidated eight levels of tzedakah. The lowest form is a handout (welfare, food stamps) while the highest form is teaching someone a trade so that they don’t need tzedakah. This approach is exemplified by (Women’s American) ORT, which raises money to build schools to teach people a trade.

2) Abortion. The halacha is clear that abortion is permissible to save the life or health of the mother. A valid halachic argument can even be made that psychological distress counts as harm. But how in the heck did we get from the halacha to being against parental notification when a minor child wants an abortion? I would like to suggest that the entire point of knowing that a minor child is having high-risk unprotected sex is precisely so that the grown-ups can intervene and change the behavior, not keep it secret. The tiresome argument about rape or incest is a red herring; I am a practicing pediatrician who has to deal with far-too-many teen and preteen pregnancies (and sexually transmitted diseases), and I can literally count on one hand the number of times rape or incest were involved. Besides, if we even suspect the minor is being abused or will be abused, we immediately notify the police and the Department of Child and Family Services who intervene and, in loco parentis, represent and protect the child.

In conclusion, perhaps if Jewish clergy and Jewish organizations returned to teaching Jewish values and left how best to live those values in daily life up to individual Jews, perhaps you’d see an increase in affiliation rates and in your paper’s circulation.

Dr. Rabbi Andrew L. Teperson


Kids Page

Hey Kids! The Help Goes On

Los Angeles Jewish schools continue with their efforts to help the hurricane victims. The students from Temple Emanuel donated money, wrote letters, drew pictures and collected shoes for the victims.

This Sukkot, which begins at sundown, Monday, Oct. 17, think about shelter and shoes: What would it be like not to have either? How can we continue to be generous and loving, not only to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, but also to the people around us?

Look around your classroom. Is there someone new in your class? Walk over to him or her and introduce yourself. Who knows — you might make a new friend.

The Students of Emanuel Academy expressed their caring to children evacuees of Hurricane Katrina in words and drawings.



Balancing Tikkun Olam and Self-Interest

I’m reluctant to draw lessons from the hurricane, even if the High Holidays are a time of stock taking, and even if Jewish tradition suggests that calamities are “heavenly alarms” meant to arouse repentance. If God is speaking to us through Katrina, he might want to brush up on His communication skills.

Besides, there is a fine line between taking personal and communal lessons from calamity, and exploiting a tragedy to score political and theological points.

That being said, the hurricane and its aftermath afford a moment to consider Jewish communal priorities, and especially a moment to ask where our commitments to our own communities end and where our responsibilities to a wider world begin.

In Ian McEwan’s riveting new novel, “Saturday” (Nan A. Talese) a London brain surgeon is pondering how human beings give themselves license to kill and eat other animals, even as evidence mounts that they too feel pain.

“The key to human success and domination is to be selective in your mercies,” the surgeon concludes.

I don’t know about the success and domination part, but if it weren’t for our abilities to be selective in our mercies, I think we’d all go mad. The panorama of human suffering that followed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is almost too great to absorb.

We’ve all probably played out in our minds the dark fantasy of what we’d do if we had to start from scratch — no home, little money, plunked down in a far-off city. For most American Jews, the immigration era ended around 1925. For 12,000 New Orleans Jews, it began two weeks ago.

But there I go, being selective in my mercies. There’s no doubt that the human toll of the disaster fell most heavily on the poor, the black, the indigent elderly. The mostly middle-class Jews of the Gulf states fell back on friends and communities in Houston and Atlanta and Dallas, or made it to hotels where they could sit out the worst of the storm before returning to reclaim or rebuild their flooded homes.

To pity Chabad or the Jewish federations and synagogues seems almost indulgent when viewed this way, a real-life twist on the famous joke about the Jewish newspaper announcing the apocalypse: “World to end tomorrow; Jews to suffer the most.”

Tribalism does become obscene when carried to extremes. Take a recent decision by Israel’s Defense Ministry. After a Jewish gunman shot up a bus in the Galilee town of Shfaram, the Defense Ministry declared that the Israeli-Arab families of those killed were not considered terrorism victims under Israeli law. Why? Because their killer was Jewish.

Apparently, Israeli law defines terrorist acts as those carried out by “enemies of Israel.” That didn’t go down well with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who earlier had denounced the shootings in Shfaram as “a sinful act by a bloodthirsty terrorist.”

Sharon directed the Justice Ministry to amend the law so that the families could receive the same government aid accorded to victims of Palestinian violence. Call him a bleeding heart, but Sharon understands that to define terrorism as an attack by Arabs on Jews is to take tribalism to its extreme.

And yet, we need the tribal impulse if we are to cope with tragedies like Katrina, because it reduces a vast, impossible-to-grasp event to a human scale. As Primo Levi famously put it, a “single Anne Frank excites more emotion than the myriad who suffered as she did, but whose image has remained in the shadows. Perhaps it is necessary that it can be so. If we had to and were able to suffer the sufferings of everyone, we could not live.”

So we focus on the pain of those most like us, and trust that other communities of faith and feeling are doing the same for their own.

But if “we could not live” without a focus for our pain, we could not live with ourselves if we addressed only our own people’s suffering. So nearly all of the Jewish organizations accepting donations for hurricane relief — B’nai B’rith, United Jewish Communities, the Union for Reform Judaism, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, American Jewish Committee, Mazon — are also pledging to aid non-Jewish victims of the deluge, even as they help restore synagogues and other Jewish institutions lost under the waters.

A cynic will say we do this out of self-interest — that if gentiles see us supporting them in their time of need, they’ll also support us in ours. And community relations is a time-honored Jewish practice. But self-interest doesn’t account for an equally strong tradition of Jewish universalism, a strain that transformed the highly esoteric kabalistic concept of tikkun olam (heal the world) into a synonym for global action.

That impulse — particularizing the universal, universalizing the particular — is another gift of the Jews to the wider world. From our place as a tiny minority, we understand well what it means to be at the mercy of tragedies natural and man made. In lean times, we turn inward, emphasizing our tribal concerns over those of others. In times of plenty, we allow ourselves to reach out.

In times like these, the key to human success is remembering that we are all created in God’s image, and compelled to do the good and right thing.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.


Class Notes – Hurricane Heroes

Sarah Rose Isenberg had a sure-fire marketing plan and a product no one could object to. So the fact that she took in hundreds of dollars in a few hours wouldn’t be surprising — if she weren’t 7 years old.

In the days before her lemonade sale to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina, Isenberg went door to door in her Sherman Oaks neighborhood delivering hand-written letters inviting her neighbors to support those who lost their homes. On the letter she drew a picture of a hurricane.

On Sunday, Sept. 11, one neighbor who came with a $100 contribution said she’d put the letter up on the fridge. Another elderly woman came not only to drink lemonade, but to deliver a donation from another neighbor, who was too frail to come herself.

Isenberg donated her $609.97 to The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles’ hurricane relief fund.

Such kid-driven efforts have brought tears of pride to parents, educators and tzedakah recipients since Katrina struck.

At Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, kids filled 150 backpacks with new school supplies — and a small toy or candy — for children who had to settle in to new schools at a moment’s notice.

Kids at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles packed and sent 100 backpacks, while also donating 27 teddy bears they crafted at Build-a-Bear’s Westside Pavilion store, which discounted the donated bears. A schoolwide project at Pressman involved assembling and packing personal toiletry kits — a Ziploc bag with toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo and deodorant — to be sent to shelters.

Families absorbed locally at the Dream Center in Echo Park received welcome cards from students at Valley Beth Shalom day school. The student council also organized a walk-a-thon that raised $7,500 for Katrina victims.

Students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy have collected more than $5,000 for a Katrina relief fund, through a student council cookie sale in the carpool line, weekend lemonade stands and donated proceeds from bar and bat mitzvah gifts.

As for Isenberg, she proved to have a knack for courteous follow-through as well as fundraising. Within a week, she’d delivered hand-written thank you notes to all her customers.

Early Childhood at Kadima

With their new, permanent facility now in operation for a year, Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills initiated an early childhood program this fall. The new Early Childhood Center (ECC) serves children ages 2 and older. Previously, the school offered only a Pre-K class for 4-year-olds.

“This space enabled us to fulfill a vision we had all along of nurturing our future students and their families,” said Dr. Barbara Gereboff, head of school. “Research shows the importance of early-childhood education as pivotal to helping children.”

The center, which can accommodate 52 children, is fully enrolled.

The ECC facilities include an outdoor area where children can ride bikes, play on a jungle gym, plant in the garden or paint on easels.

“Kids learn all over,” said Hanna Livni, early childhood director, who described the space as an “outdoor classroom.” Inside, the rooms are filled with new furniture , toys and school supplies.

For more information, visit or call (818) 346-0849. — Nancy Sokoler Steiner, Contributing Writer

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.



I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request


What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington


Messages of Meaning on Rosh Hashanah

Southern California rabbis used their Rosh Hashanah pulpits to speak on globalization, Africa’s drought-ridden refugees and America’s hurricane-drenched evacuees as well as Israel’s Gaza pullout.

“This was a terrible year. 5765 was a terrible year!” said Rabbi Elazar Mushkin of the Orthodox shul Young Israel of Century City.

Mushkin’s Pico Boulevard shul had an LAPD patrol car stationed in front, with plainclothes police checking congregants entering the security-rich back door. Inside, toddlers ran to and from their parents sitting in separate sections; a small boy wearing an NBA kippa saw the ram’s horn being prepared, smiled and whispered to his father, “Shofar!”

Strong security was evident elsewhere, too, in the wake of an investigation into an alleged local terrorist cell. Police reported no Rosh Hashanah incidents.

Security also was tight further down Pico Boulevard at the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the adjacent Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school. In the school’s small, book-lined sanctuary, Wiesenthal Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper was part of a packed and solemn prayer service on Rosh Hashanah’s first day.

Another Jewish institution on Pico Boulevard, Rancho Park’s Reform shul Temple Isaiah, held its High Holiday services at the nearby Century Plaza Hotel, where hundreds of worshippers filled the Plaza’s downstairs ballroom.

Rabbi Zoe Klein spoke about Hurricane Katrina, gay marriage, the U.S. Supreme Court’s changing face and other tikkun olam matters close to this traditionally Democratic-leaning Westside shul.

“A flood emphasizes loneliness, it separates people,” said Klein, who talked of how life can collapse like a huppah.

“The collapsible huppah is ready to relocate, to evacuate at the threat of hurricane. To take your place in fifteen hours of traffic…before the water moves in,” said Klein, according to her sermon text.

She also spoke of Gaza: “To pack your home, pack your synagogues, and unbury your dead in your cemeteries in order to resettle outside of Gaza. Taking everything before the Arab neighbor moves in…The world is a shattered glass, and it is a holy obligation to piece it back together.”

In another part of town, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a non-entertainment industry congregation enjoyed a small post-service line-up of bread and sliced apples at the annual free High Holiday services at The Laugh Factory.

Sermons at other shuls emphasized traditional High Holiday themes such as charity and reaching out to the non-Jewish world. In separate sermons, rabbis at two Reform shuls — Wilshire Boulevard Temple near Koreatown and Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills — quoted from the Emma Lazarus poem “The New Colussus,” famed for its Statue of Liberty-inscribed words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

In the San Fernando Valley, Rabbi Steve Jacobs marked his final High Holiday services for Kol Tikvah worshippers, while Ed Feinstein presided over his first High Holidays as senior rabbi at Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

“When all is said from this pulpit over the next ten days, and in the remaining months until I retire on July 1,” Jacobs said. “I will finish my career grateful to you and the memories we have created together…I learned as a child that life is not only a puzzle to solve. but also a mystery to embrace.”

“At certain times in my 40 years as a rabbi, I frankly did not find much solace in hearing ‘God has his reasons,'” said Jacobs, according to the text of his Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon. “To be honest, faith is not an easy or steady possession. I am, even as a rabbi, assaulted by anguished doubt.”

At Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Feinstein focused on American power abroad and globalization.

“Globalization makes people feel powerless…and people who feel that way can be dangerous,” said Feinstein, according to a copy of his sermon. “Tribalism is one response to globalization. Terrorism is another. Society does not have to guarantee equality of income, or wealth, or even opportunity. Society must assure equality of dignity…

“God is the author of history. This was Isaiah’s most powerful idea,” Feinstein said. “Either we use our global power to construct a world of justice, or we face a future of never-ending warfare, and ultimately the destruction of our own civilization. Choose between the future prophesied by Isaiah, or the future predicted by Mohammed Atta and Osama bin Laden.”


Fundraiser to Benefit Storm Victims

This Sunday, September 18th!


Jewish Experience & The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles Present:

LA Jewish Katrina Benefit

All Proceeds To Benefit Jewish Federation’s Hurricane Relief Fund


The Moshav Band

Comic Relief by:

Edgar Fox
Avi Leiberman
Plus Special Guests

Silent Auction, Special Prize Drawing, Kosher Food, And More!

Sunday September 18th 2005
3:00 – 7:00 PM
Westside Jewish Community Center
5870 W Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles Ca, 90036

$25 Adults
$15 Students & Families
Space is Limited

For More information Contact:

Community Sponsors Include:

Anti-Defamation League
Aish Ha-Torah
Congregation Beth Jacob
Congregation B’nei David Judea
Congregation Mogen David
Jewish big brothers
Los Angeles Hillel Council
The Chai Center
The Westwood Kehilla
Young Israel of Century City
And Many More


7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, September 10

Party at tonight’s sixth annual Barbie and Ken Toy Drive and you’ll give the kids a reason to smile, too. Cover per person is one new unwrapped toy or combination of toys with a minimum $25 value, for which you get music, open bar and food till the wee hours, or as long as it lasts. Event title notwithstanding, anatomically correct toys are also accepted.

8:30 p.m.-1 a.m. Beverly Hills. R.S.V.P.,

Sunday, September 11

The Katrina devastation is worth your attention and donations, but take some time to think about Sept. 11 today, and while you’re at it, help out some other victims of terror. The Society of Young Philanthropists hosts a trunk sale, with 10 percent of proceeds going to OneFamily Solidarity Fund, an organization that provides assistance to terror victims in Israel. For a $5 donation at the door, you can shop their “Philanthroshop” for premium women and men’s denim brands and knits, plus names like T-Bags, Joyaan, Bijou Designs, Trisje Handbags and Christiano men’s shirts.

9 a.m.-9 p.m. $5. Beverly Hills residence, 1006 Elden Way. (310) 271-0060.

Monday, September 12

They say music can reach you where words fail, and so why not investigate the connection between song and soul? This evening, the Gal Einai Center of Los Angeles brings you Kabbalah master Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh in a discussion and exploration titled, “Wings of the Soul: Kabbalah and the Art of Music.” Ginsburgh will be accompanied by violinist Marc Brodsky.

8 p.m. $25. Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., Santa Monica. (310) 392-7327.

Tuesday, September 13

Depression-era Manhattan provides the backdrop for the first production of the Ahmanson’s 2005-2006 season. The play is “Dead End,” which preceded the 1937 Humphrey Bogart film. Written by Sidney Kingsley, it tells the story of a gang of poor teenagers being displaced by the wealthy tenants that threaten to move into their neighborhood. Expect stunning visuals with a set that includes a 40-foot-high New York City skyline and a simulation of the East River, accomplished by filling the playhouse’s orchestra pit with more than 10,000 gallons of water.

Runs through Oct. 16. 135 North Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 628-2772.

Wednesday, September 14

If you’ve missed seeing former Journal staff writer and gifted artist Michael Aushenker’s words and drawings in these here pages, we’ve got fix for ya, at least as far as the art is concerned. On display at Santa Monica’s Novel Cafe through the end of September are 13 of Aushenker’s vibrant paintings. For East Siders, he also has a painting on permanent display at Birds Cafe on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood.

Novel Cafe, 212 Pier Ave., Santa Monica. Birds Cafe, 5925 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Thursday, September 15

With a title as lovely as “Heir to the Glimmering World,” how can you resist? Especially when it comes from the celebrated literary mind of Cynthia Ozick. This evening, ALOUD at Central Library presents the author, in conversation with new Los Angeles Times book editor David L. Ulin on the subject of her new work based on the real-life Christopher Robin. (Ozick also appears at Dutton’s Beverly Hills on Wed., Sept. 14, at 7 p.m.)

7 p.m. Free. Central Library Mark Taper Auditorium, Fifth and Flower streets, downtown Los Angeles. (213) 228-7025. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Friday, September 16

In his latest off-Broadway comedy, actor and playwright Daniel Stern (“City Slickers”) explores the old cliché about keeping up with the Joneses, as it applies to one out-of-work television actor whose “Jones” happens to be a Streisand. “Barbra’s Wedding” opens the Falcon Theatre’s 2005-2006 series this week, and stars Stern as Babs’ neighbor, and Crystal Bernard (“Wings”) as his wife.

Runs through Oct. 9. $25-$37.50. 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. (818) 955-8101. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>


Nation & World Briefs

Federation Sets Up Hurricane Fund

The United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh (UJF) has established a mailbox to accept donations for humanitarian aid for members of the Jewish and general communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi and Western Florida.

Characterized by authorities as one of the most powerful hurricanes in U.S. history, Katrina battered Louisiana’s southeastern shore Monday morning, killing dozens, after first taking at least nine lives as it swept across South Florida on Thursday. Homes and businesses across the entire region have suffered massive damage.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), UJF’s national partner agency, is working with federations in the affected regions. These federations are unprepared to handle donations and request that money be sent instead to such organizations as the UJF.

These federations will assess damage and help coordinate relief; UJC will serve as the conduit for distributing all funds collected by the Pittsburgh federation.

“When natural disasters have hit, the Jewish community has always been at the forefront of responding,” said Jeff Finkelstein, UJF president and CEO.”Just as our community reacted with such generosity to the devastating tsunami in Southeast Asia last December, we anticipate an outpouring of concern once again from many in our community.

“Hurricane Katrina’s full impact is not yet fully realized,” he added, “and damages are already set in the billions. The emotional toll — and the damage to property and other tangibles — is likely to be well beyond anything we can imagine.”

For more information, visit

Terror Attack in Beersheba

After months of focusing on its withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, Israel returned to an all-too-familiar experience this week: Palestinian terror.

A suicide bomber wounded 20 people Sunday at the central bus station in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba, the first such attack since the just-completed evacuation of settlements from Gaza and the northern West Bank.

It could have been bloodier. The bomber was blocked from boarding a bus, thanks to the vigilance of two guards who chased him away. Both were seriously hurt.

P.A. to Rename Settlements

The Palestinian Authority plans to rename Gaza Strip settlements after Yasser Arafat and Sheik Ahmed Yassin. Palestinian officials said this week that Arafat, the late Palestinian Authority president, and Yassin, the late founder of Hamas, were among the “martyrs” who would be honored in renaming the 21 settlements, most of which Israel built on empty land and which therefore did not have prior Arabic names. The Palestinian Authority is divided on a proposal to rename some settlements after suicide bombers, fearing that doing so risks alienating world opinion.

Gaza Protester Dies

An Israeli woman who set herself alight to protest the Gaza Strip withdrawal died. The 54-year-old West Bank resident succumbed Friday to injuries sustained Aug. 7 when she doused herself with kerosene and lit it at a police checkpoint outside Gaza. Police described the incident as a protest suicide. The woman was to be buried in her home settlement of Kedumim. She was the only Israeli fatality linked to the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank, despite early predictions that the evacuation could spark bloodshed.

Kfar Darom Detainees Freed

Israel has freed scores of pro-settlement activists arrested during a violent Gaza Strip confrontation. A Beersheba court released the 175 detainees, almost a quarter of them minors, last week after they signed agreements not to take part in violent political protests. The decision to free the detainees, who were arrested after holing up on the roof of a synagogue in the Kfar Darom settlement last week as part of protests against the Gaza withdrawal, ran counter to earlier police pledges to see them prosecuted to the fullest extent.

Army to Eye Extremists

The Israeli army resolved to scrutinize extremists and potential terrorists among its conscripts. An internal military query into the Aug. 4 killing by an army deserter of four Israeli Arabs concluded Thursday that authorities failed to respond properly to warnings by the soldier’s family as well as an investigative reporter that he had become a right-wing extremist and was liable to resort to violence. Under the panel’s recommendations, which were accepted by top brass, the armed forces will work more closely with the Shin Bet’s Jewish Division, which monitors potential extremist threats. The army also will empower training officers to profile conscripts believed to have extremist political views and report them to higher authorities.

Briefs courtesy of Jewish Telegraphic Agency.