February 27, 2020

Weekly Parsha: Noach

One verse, five voices. Edited by Salvador Litvak, Accidental Talmudist

And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make ourselves a name, lest we be scattered upon the face of the entire earth.” Genesis 11:4


Rabbi Amy Bernstein
Senior Rabbi, Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation

The people in our story build a tower whose top is in the sky. It was common to build large temples (representing where the human and the divine realms meet) in ancient Mesopotamia. We know that the earliest of these structures appears as part of the move to urbanization in the ancient Near East. What may seem like a unifying communal building project is clearly problematic in our story. 

Perhaps Torah is telling us that not all great technical achievements are positive. Just because they have the resources to build such a monumental structure doesn’t necessarily mean that they should. With the move to cities and a focus on material achievement comes a move away from the notion that all resources are shared by the community. Inequity is a by-product of the accumulation of wealth and ideas like ownership of land. They had enough brick to build a daunting tower but did they use their supply of brick to build housing for every family that needed it? They had enough human resources to design and implement this project but did they allow for those resources to be spent on other things that might benefit both the contributor and the community? Our story suggests that it is problematic to over-occupy ourselves with impressive representations of the human relationship with the Divine. Better to manifest the relationship between us and God by living out the demands of holiness and building a society based on them.

David Porush
Student, teacher and author 

Before the Flood, the Sages say, nature was so corrupted that humans and animals preferred abominable practices to reproducing. Thus Noah, despite his flaws, was the right man to ensure the biome’s survival. He’s a patient zoologist, entomologist, herpetologist, ornithologist, botanist, veterinarian … even oenologist! As God’s chosen natural philosopher and intimate, he knows firsthand that the natural world is not merely mechanistic and physical, it is metaphysical. 

After the Flood, united by their common tongue, people gather in Babel to “make a name” for themselves. They build a tower so grand, it will have its “head in Heaven.” Ramban suggests that they’re after the Tetragrammaton — the name of God associated with Creation — but that only students of the kabbalah will fully understand the mystical hubris of their ambition. We can guess though: Humans hoped to dominate the universe by challenging God and replacing His vital role with their own grandiose engineering. Why does the Torah focus on the bricks they made that “served them as stone”? Perhaps it is reminding us of Egypt. Folks are now enslaved to their delusion of a merely materialistic cosmos, bereft of transcendence, a form of idolatry. Fittingly, God scatters them in a flood of confusion. 

In our scientific age, the rainbow still reminds us of the pact between God and humanity: Yes, the world is indestructible. But nature will fully yield its treasures to our ambitions only when we acknowledge that it is continuously vitalized by Divine attention.

Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Interfaith chaplain

We righteous clods contain multitudes; unrelenting and resourceful — a smorgasbord erupting with holy potential. Commanding atop mountains real and ersatz, we are tempests of invention and revolution. Spontaneously manipulating Divine treasures to untold ends, we dream up fresh ways to both decipher and gerrymander creation. These truths do not preclude our capacity for excess and arrogance. 

God partnered with us in Her work, endowing us with abundant latitude. Perfection approaches at a severe cost. Even the Holy One strives through trial and error, no? First attempts yield mixed results. Insatiable, we plow our hands into Eden’s cookie jar and are summarily dismissed from God’s kitchen. In time, She washed away almost everything, to give it another whirl. 

On that account, who could blame us if sometimes we push the boundaries. God named the rooster to signify day from night, but goodness, it sure has lovely feathers to garland a fancy hat! God created clay and fire, so naturally we fabricated bricks, even if Cain found sufficient novelty in a plain old rock. So relieved that God furnished us with Her sense of humor also. 

Does the Torah imply that HaShem evolved over time as we did? Hasty as toddlers, we push as if there are no boundaries, noticing, eventually, how very good it is that there are others in the room. We needn’t constantly go it alone. Our collaborations bear fruits and suits, tables and gables, kin and sin. Shabbat Shalom.

David Sacks
Torah podcaster, TorahoniTunes.com

Did you know that you are taller than the highest skyscraper? We think that we end at the top of our heads, but nothing could be further from the truth. Every person is like a tower that stretches from the heavens to the earth. 

The Zohar teaches that the body is the shoe of the soul. This means that just like your shoe covers a very small part of your body, so too, your body covers only a tiny percentage of your soul. 

Our holy Torah teaches that there are five levels to the soul. Three of those levels exist inside your body, while the other two transcend your physical self and go all the way up to the heavenly Throne of Glory. 

In other words, we start on earth and stretch to the heavens. Or put another way, every person straddles the universe. That means that every good thing you do impacts and reverberates throughout creation. Even the coin you put into a tzedakah box when you’re all alone. 

But there’s another side to the picture. When we only channel our greatness to make a name for ourselves, we become scattered, and everything falls apart.

That’s because our expansive being longs to express itself expansively. So, the next time you look in the mirror, know that you’re bigger than you think. And since we know now that everything you’re doing is already changing the world … how do you want to change the world? 

Judy Gruen
Author, “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith”

“When human beings try to become more than human, they quickly become less than human,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on Parashat Noah in his book  “Covenant & Conversation: Genesis: The Book of Beginnings.” After the triumph of learning how to make bricks in a region where there were no construction materials at all, people felt that “the sky was the limit” in their building potential. With egos swollen from their technological feat, the race was on to build the Tower of Babel. 

Although the aspiration to build was not wrong, the pretension to become God-like was not only absurd, but dangerous. They tried to reach the heavens (shamayim) only in order to make a name (shem) for themselves. It was pure self-aggrandizement. The Torah brilliantly underscores this point by the double use of the root word — shem — meaning both “heavens” and “name.” The people wanted nothing less than to override God’s dominion of the earth. 

In discovering their own power to create, they became materialistic, cold and calculating. When a newly formed brick fell and broke, they cried, but when a worker fell and died, they felt nothing. God’s morality endows each individual with inherent dignity and worth. This was the morality they felt they had outgrown. As Sacks concludes, “Only a respect for the integrity of creation stops human beings [from] destroying themselves.” 

The shape of things to come: Jewish L.A. in 30 years

In commemoration of the Jewish Journal’s 30th anniversary, Jewish leaders discuss their hopes and predictions for the next 30 years of L.A. Jewish life.


Melissa Balaban

Executive director of IKAR

balabanMy greatest hope for the Jewish community in Los Angeles in the next 30 years is that we come together to rededicate ourselves to finding areas of commonality, rather than focusing on our divisions. We are at our best when we work toward common goals, using the wisdom of our tradition toward achieving a shared vision of the world. I would love to see an end to the divisiveness surrounding Israel, as we all work toward ensuring that Israel is a thriving Jewish, democratic and secure state, which reflects its highest Zionist ideals.


Rabbi Amy Bernstein

Kehillat Israel

When I spoke with KI congregants who have lived here for 30 years about what they hope the Jewish community will be like in the next 30 years, they said that they hope it will be a community that is warm, close, inclusive, vibrant, prosperous and safe. They hope that it will be a community that is socially engaged, as well as engaged with the larger community—where all factions get along, where there are no “others,” and where we can truly celebrate the diversity of the Los Angeles Jewish community.


Mayim Bialik

Actress and scientist

I cannot even imagine personally what 30 years from now will look like but I guess I would like to see Los Angeles Jews continue to be what I see as an example of the openness and the inquisitiveness and the beauty that Judaism really models and provide for us as a guide – I would hope that in 30 years no matter what happens politically or globally that L.A Jews continue to lead the way as part of a very significant and thriving community that we always have been.


Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Pico Shul

Most of the growth in the community, as it has been for the past 10 years, is going to be within what is called the more traditional side of the equation on the spiritual, cultural and religious continuum. … I do have a fear that we will lose a substantial portion of millennial Jews to assimilation … but I also feel like we have the ability to do a lot to prevent that from happening. But it’s going to require a lot of dedication on the part of the community and to approach it with multiple means.


Rabbi Noah Farkas

Valley Beth Shalom

I wish day school tuition wasn’t a hindrance for people going to school.


Jesse Gabriel

Attorney and Jewish community leader

The energy, idealism, and optimism of young Jews is going to reinvigorate our communal institutions and enable us to be guided by our hopes rather than our fears. Their embrace of diversity, commitment to pluralism and inclusion, and willingness to move beyond past divisions will allow us to navigate the inevitable challenges and build a stronger and more deeply engaged community. We have much to be optimistic about!


Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills

geller2

[I predict] there will be fewer synagogues because the current funding model will no longer work. … Instead of membership in a particular synagogue many people will join a “kehilla” which would be a collaboration of many different synagogues that would hire clergy and teachers. … The large and growing cohort of older Jews will create alternative housing arrangements, including new ways to age in place. … What I hope will also happen is that our community becomes more inclusive, welcoming all kinds of Jews, and that we will have learned to talk to each other about difficult issues with civility and respect, including what it means to love Israel, which has remained Jewish and democratic.


Arya Marvazy

Assistant director of JQ International

aryaMy sincere hope and prediction is that these next few decades will encompass a greater wave toward radical inclusion – embracing others and their unique differences, understanding that at our core, we are all carbon copies of one another. What we express and how we identify with respect to race, religion, sexual orientation and lifestyle will serve far less to divide us, and we will truly focus on those elements of our humanity that make us one gigantic global family.


Patricia Glaser

Attorney and Jewish community leader

glaser-patty-hi-res

Over the next 30 years, I expect the Jewish community to continue to make a substantial contribution to the culture, business and very fabric of Los Angeles. Within the Jewish community, I hope that there is a conscious effort to better understand each other; that a movement emerges to bring together the disparate views and various religious groupings within Judaism in order for an intrafaith dialogue to develop that helps all of us to better understand our community and each other. I hope that younger Jews learn to understand the significance of being a Jew in America and support the State of Israel and to understand that –  whether it is $50, $500, $500 – giving is not a choice; we all must give.


Brian Greene

Executive director of the Westside Jewish Community Center

brian-greene

My hope is that in 30 years – if not sooner – Jewish communal life in L.A. will be inclusive and collaborative. Cultural and denominational divisions between Jews will feel so “ancient.” Our strength will be our commitment to being a unified community that is open and welcoming to all.


Sam Grundwerg

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles

Given the fact that the Jewish people make up only less than half of 1 percent of the world’s population, it is nothing short than a miracle that we are able to contribute to the world in so many ways, from lifesaving discoveries to high-tech innovation and medical advances. In the next 30 years, may we see Jewish L.A. become more unified, spreading that spirit and passion. When we work together as a community we grow together and we are able to better serve the incredible Los Angeles community. Just like Israel, L.A. is truly a melting pot, and provides us all an opportunity to build stronger bonds with the communities around us.


Aaron Henne

Artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk

Jewish L.A. will be the fertile soil from which provocative, challenging and adventurous artistic work from a Jewish perspective grows. We will be rich in diverse viewpoints, expressed through a variety of forms and techniques, colliding, collaborating, and contradicting each other.  We will dive deep into our Jewish narratives in order to then turn our gaze outward, engaging in the world in humane, empathetic, and mindful ways.


Samara Hutman

Executive director of Remember Us

Marie Kaufman

President emeritus of the Child Survivors of the Holocaust, Los Angeles

hutman

Our hope for them [this generation of young adults] and for all of us is that we honor all communities, that we remember our roots and how we all got here and bring that to our daily work, our lives and our community.


Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky

B’nai David-Judea

kanefskyI hope that the next 30 years bring a more affordable cost of Jewish living to Los Angeles, so that the exodus of our children to other cities might slow down. I also hope that we make the effort to really listen to each other, and learn that right and left both love Israel, that traditional and liberal both love Judaism, and that in the long run, we will pay a bitter price for the momentary pleasure we receive from screaming at each other.


Jessie Kornberg

President and CEO of Bet Tzedek

jessica-kornberg-special-to-the-daily-journal-4At Bet Tzedek, as in so much of L.A.’s Jewish community, our identity has been indelibly shaped by our commitment to meet the needs of aging Holocaust survivors. Our identity for the next 30 years will similarly reflect how we respond to the needs of new populations seeking refuge in our city from violence, war, and persecution.


Kosha Dillz

Rapper

kosha-dillzThe next 30 years of Jewish L.A. are quite vibrant. I predict that … more and more Jews from around the world will migrate to our beloved, sunny Los Angeles. Tech, music and film will continue to thrive and grow to the forefront of their respective industries. We will continue to be unapologetic in our support for Israel, yet continue to engage in our criticism to be better at it, and always engage in conversations with those most critical in an educational way.


Esther Kustanowitz

Jewish Journal contributing writer and editorial director at Groknation.com

esther

I hope that Jewish L.A. will comprise and embody the best that both terms – “Jewish” and “L.A.” –  have to offer; that it will continue to be a bright example of creativity, innovation, diversity and community, and that the geography of this place continues to inspire and reflect the potential that we all have.


Shawn Landres

Co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, senior fellow at UCLA Luskin, and chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission and the city of Santa Monica Social Services Commission

shawn-landresHere in Los Angeles, our continuing mandate will be to connect our core values with the aspirations and needs of our neighbors of all backgrounds and creeds, especially the most vulnerable. No doubt, individual Jewish Angelenos will continue to contribute across all sectors of our vibrant region. Our broader task is to deepen our  relationships – as a Jewish community and as stewards of Jewish tradition – with everyone in the L.A. mosaic. In 2017, too few Jewish communal leaders (and not only in Los Angeles) are willing to say “Black lives matter” or “Muslim and immigrant lives matter” without qualification or apology. Whether more of us can do so in 2047 – with whoever may need our solidarity – will define L.A. Jewry’s significance in this century.


Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz

Adat Shalom

I pray that our community plays a greater role in modeling how we can love Torah, love Israel, love one another and love our greater community without conflicting values.  


Adam Milstein

Philanthropist and Israeli American Council board chair

milsteinThe Israeli-American community will be an integral part of Jewish Los Angeles for the next three decades. It will serve as an important connector to the State of Israel, as a vibrant home for pro-Israel advocates, and as a source of strength for the broader Jewish community in our great city.


Moishe House Residents

Downtown Los Angeles

moishe-house-residentsMoishe House DTLA hopes the next 30 years will bring greater unity to the Jewish L.A. community, allowing our community to be a symbol of hope and acceptance for others in the L.A. area.


Ayana Morse

Executive Director of Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center

In 30 years, I see a Jewish L.A. that is a model for the best in local engagement, innovation and creativity. Let’s open our city’s metaphorical gates to each other and delight in the knowledge and mastery that emerges.


David N. Myers

Professor at UCLA

myers

 

I think the next 30 years will bring an intensification of two noticeable trends in L.A. Jewish life: more drift away from institutional affiliation for the majority of L.A.’s Jews, and growing prominence and market share for the Orthodox population in town. In between, we may well see a blurring of the boundary between Reform and Conservative institutions. In this way, L.A. will be like the rest of the country, except more.


Sharon Nazarian

President of the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation

nazarianJewish L.A. will mirror our great city of Los Angeles, a city reflecting reflecting the richness of its immigrant communities. When we refer to the Jewish Community of Los Angeles, we will be referring not only to European Jews, but also Russian Jews, Persian Jews, Israeli Jews, Iraqi Jews, Syrian Jews, Argentine Jews, Mexican Jews, Ethiopian Jews. While we will continue to celebrate the strength of our cultural uniqueness, we will have consolidated our Jewishness and our cohesion as one community.


Julie Platt

Board chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

plattOver the next 30 years, The Jewish Federation will continue to be a convener for the Los Angeles Jewish community, bringing us together from every spiritual region and every geographic region, casting as wide a net as is necessary. Our Federation will continue to strategically impact this community, informed by our Jewish values and with clear and nimble focus and mission. We will always continue to work together to care for Jews in need, ensure the Jewish future and engage positively with our broader community.


Bruce Powell

Head of school at de Toledo High School

My hope and prediction for the Jewish future of Los Angeles in 2047 is simple: I believe that the thousands of students now in our Jewish day schools will become the leaders of our community and thereby create a vibrant and even more brilliant L.A. Jewish life and vision.


Jay Sanderson

President and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles

As the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, I live with every day with the question of where we will be over the next 30 years. We are focusing on looking at the greatest challenges and the greatest opportunities facing our community and the Jewish people. And the greatest challenge and the greatest opportunity facing the Jewish people is how do we connect to the next generation of Jews? How do we connect to millennials? How do we make Judaism relevant, and how do we make the Jewish community open and accessible to all Jews?


Rabbi Lori Shapiro

The Open Temple

lori-shapiroWe are going through a Jewish renaissance in Los Angeles and these seeds will proliferate. Los Angeles will become a center of Jewish spiritual creativity and art, and our ritual practice will include film and new media. I predict that our spiritual communities will have not only rabbis on staff but universalist ministers as well as artists and media producers.


Rachel Sumekh

Founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger 

I predict that over the next 30 years, L.A. will see the peak of its burgeoning cultural renaissance and there will be a beautiful Jewish component to it –– and one thing I know won’t change is that, Persian Jews will hold the title for greatest Shabbat dinner parties.


Amanda Susskind

Anti-Defamation League regional director 

So for the next 30 years of Jewish L.A., my hope is that we will continue to work in coalition with other minority communities as the city continues to thrive as one of the major diverse communities in the world. But my fear is there will be so many issues to deal with around the world, from climate change to hate to nuclear proliferation, that we will have very, very big challenges to stand up to injustice, and that’s why I think the work of the ADL is going to be so critical, because we do build those coalitions and bridges to other communities.


Craig Taubman

Founder of the Pico Union Project

craigtaubman-2The future of the L.A. Jewish community will bring to us what we bring to it. Rabbi Harold Schulweis said it best: “Think ought. Not what is a Jew, but what ought a Jew to be?” This could be the anthem for our children who, unlike us or our parents, don’t determine their future on what was done in the past. They ought to be inspired by the City of Angels they live in, and like angels strive to be messengers of goodness, kindness, righteousness and beauty. This is the Jewish community I aspire to build.


Rabbi David Wolpe

Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple

Today we will play prophets
Tomorrow, we’ll be fools:
Who will and won’t belong?
We’re certain to be wrong.
Whose words will never fade?
Predict, and be betrayed.
Triumphs may bring tears
‘Lasting’ disappears.
Who knows in thirty years?


Sam Yebri

Attorney and Jewish community leader

When I think of the next 30 years of Jewish Los Angeles, I think of my own daughters and look at that question through their lens. What I hope for in Jewish Los Angeles is there to be a Jewish community that represents the best of our values as Iranian-American Jews – love of family, tradition, and of Israel – as well as the best of our American-Jewish experience –  a community that is progress-oriented and open-minded, that is engaged civically, Jewishly and philanthropically – and also that cares deeply about the greater community and the greater world.


Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback

Stephen Wise Temple

Jewish life 30 years from now? Well, in addition to colonizing space, I have two words for you: rabbi robots. I’m joking, of course, that would be awful for me, personally. What I really see happening over the next 30 years is growth. I think our Los Angeles Jewish community, given its diversity and creativity, is going to grow, both in terms of the number of Jews engaged in Jewish life and in terms of how deeply they are engaging in Jewish life. Because actually now, more than ever before, people need meaning and purpose and that’s what Judaism offers. I’m very excited to be part of that story.

What the Beverly Hills Hotel boycott says about where we draw our lines in a global economy

If you walk up the red carpet and into the Beverly Hills Hotel on a Friday evening or Saturday morning, at the left side of the lobby, inside the Sunset Room, you’ll find an Orthodox Jewish prayer service.

You’ll see the standard mechitzah dividing male and female worshippers, and you’ll hear tunes that you may never have heard before, music introduced by the congregation’s late cantor, Andre (Tuvia) Winkler. 

Anywhere from 70 to 100 people participate in Shabbat services any given week, almost all residents of the community surrounding the majestic hotel. 

The congregation is led by Rabbi Yossi Cunin, who dresses in the standard black coat, white dress shirt and slacks, but with a sharp-looking bowtie. A Chabad rabbi, Cunin founded the Beverly Hills Jewish Community in 1997 at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a presence that is remarkable not just because it is harbored in a hotel that has made its name by lodging, wining and dining the biggest names in entertainment, business and politics, but also because the owner of the hotel is Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei and dictator of an oil-rich country approximately the size of Delaware located next to Malaysia and bordering the Indian Ocean. 

The sultan does not recognize Israel, has publicly supported Iran’s nuclear program and has just instituted the harshest aspects of Sharia, Islamic law, in his nation of 400,000, 80 percent of whom are Muslim. 

Nevertheless, for the past 17 years this Jewish congregation has felt very welcome at his hotel. 

But in recent weeks, the Beverly Hills Hotel has been the target of a boycott and public protests over the sultan’s institution, on May 1, of the first of three phases of Sharia law in Brunei, the first one including fines and jail terms for pregnancy outside marriage, for abortions and for failure to attend Friday prayers. 

In just a year from now, crimes committed by Muslims such as theft and alcohol consumption will be punishable by whipping and amputation. And in two years, acts of adultery, homosexuality and heresy against Islam will be punishable by death.

Since May 1, prompted in large part by protests and criticism from numerous celebrities, more than $2 million worth of events have been cancelled at the Beverly Hills Hotel by dozens of groups, from the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which pulled its annual pre-Oscars fundraiser, “Night Before the Oscars,” to Kehillat Israel, a Los Angeles Reconstructionist synagogue, which decided to move a dinner celebration to another venue. 

Protesters picket on May 5 outside the Beverly Hills Hotel — which is owned by the Sultan of Brunei — over Brunei’s strict Sharia law penal code.  Photo by Jonathan Alcorn/ Reuters

For many L.A. celebrities and power players, including many Jews, what was the place to be seen has quickly become the one place you don’t want to be seen.

And yet, the feeling is not unanimous among the Jewish community. And so, on a recent Shabbat, the synagogue’s lay leader addressed the congregation on the issue of its involvement with the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Dorchester Collection, the London-based luxury hotel operator owned by the sultan, which operates both the Beverly Hills Hotel and the nearby Hotel Bel-Air. 

Cunin and the synagogue’s president told the gathering of about 80 people — most middle-aged and older — that the congregation has no plans to switch locations or to join the boycott.

After services — over sushi, vegetables, snacks and drinks — Cunin’s congregants debated and discussed the implications of remaining connected to the hotel. Most seemed comfortable staying put.

In an interview a few days later, Cunin emphasized that he stands 100 percent behind the hotel that has given his synagogue a home. Even when he first started the Beverly Hills Jewish Community, some Jewish groups objected, he said, arguing that he shouldn’t associate a synagogue with a business owned by the head of a government that opposes Israel. 

The sultan’s position on Israel has never been a deal-breaker for Cunin. The rabbi shrugged it off as an inevitable policy of a dictator of a Muslim country that doesn’t even have a military to defend its vast natural resources — what friends in the Muslim world would the sultan have, Cunin asked, if it normalized relations with Israel? 

“When they brought me downstairs and offered me a room in the hotel where we could begin to pray Friday night,” Cunin said, “They didn’t say, ‘Stop, let me ask the sultan if that’s all right to have a Jewish group here.”

Hassanal Bolkiah, the Sultan of Brunei. Photo by Lynn Bobo via Newscom

Cunin described the lengths to which the hotel’s management and staff have gone to welcome and accommodate a house of prayer for the hundreds of Jewish families who live within walking distance — the hotel charges the congregation only $250 per weekend, and even during the Academy Awards, when the hotel’s resources are stretched thin, his congregation is given preference to use the Sunset Room.

“It’s the workers of the hotel that I’m defending, not the policies of Brunei,” Cunin said. “It’s easy to be a good friend when people’s chips are high. But can you stick it through for people who put themselves out for you?”

But, for the rest of us — the individuals, businesses, nonprofits, tourists and residents who use the hotel — this episode offers, in its essence, a case study in both the good and bad of economic globalization. 

These days, it’s more difficult than ever to draw a moral line about what and where we consume, because so many goods we purchase and services we use are partially or wholly owned by people and governments whose values we may not share. From the gasoline we buy, to the phones we use, or the hotels we stay at, there likely are partners — hidden or obvious — who are helping fund governments whose human-rights track records we abhor — including China, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and Brunei.

Where is our line? Employees such as the ones at the Beverly Hills Hotel, who have been directly impacted by boycotts, have their answer. Activists have another. The synagogue has its own. And Jewish legal experts may have even more. For while the Torah and Jewish law are not silent on the issue of when it is permissible, or obligatory, to boycott a business, the complexity of modern economics can make finding the moral line a tricky business — how much will the employees be harmed? Can a boycott be effective in reaching its goal? Is it OK to deprive a store of business simply out of moral protest, even if without practical results?

Practicalities vs. principles

Anna Romer doesn’t understand why this is happening. For her, the moral protest behind the boycott is endangering her financial security.

Romer is a server at the Beverly Hills Hotel’s famed Polo Lounge, and one day last week she was sitting on a red sofa in the hotel’s posh Bar Nineteen12, so-named for the year this landmark social epicenter opened. She was wearing her standard uniform — a white jacket and shirt with a black tie and black skirt. Her hair is short and her cat’s-eye glasses are rimmed in neon blue.

She said she feels “isolated” and “dismissed,” personally betrayed by her city and the celebrity industry she’s worked so hard to please. Four years of serving lunch to some of Los Angeles’ biggest names in politics, business and entertainment, and this is what she gets? Stars like Jay Leno and Ellen DeGeneres telling everyone to stay away from the hotel until there’s an ownership change?

That Romer even has time for a 15-minute interview right before the Wednesday lunch rush is “unheard of,” she said. A “slow” Wednesday should see 115 reservations. Today, there are 59.

According to Romer and Polo Lounge server Alec Torrance, as well as a number of other employees who agreed to interviews with the Journal, the staff, like the protesters, strongly opposes the sultan’s new laws. What’s on their mind, though, is they feel they are the ones being punished for laws enacted 8,000 miles away.

Hotel server Anna Romer, center, and other Beverly Hills Hotel employees stand to be recognized at a May 6 public hearing during which the Beverly Hills City Council voted on a resolution to pressure the government of Brunei to divest itself of the hotel.  Photo by David McNew/Reuters

The dramatic loss of business caused by the boycott already has led to an alarming reduction in gratuities. And, in their eyes, the effort will have no impact on the sultan; they believe he won’t let Hollywood’s cause-of-the-month force him to sell “one of his trophies,” as Cabana Café server Paul Sturgulewski characterized the hotel.

Hotel spokeswoman Leslie Lefkowitz wrote as much in an email to the Journal, saying that it is “highly unlikely” that this boycott will force a sale.

Nevertheless, activist groups such as the Feminist Majority Foundation — which helped make this a cause célèbre with prominent assistance from Leno and his wife, Mavis, a board member — protesting the business enterprise of a ruler who would criminalize abortions and stone those who engage in homosexuality is of utmost importance.

We are all sultans now

Everyone knows that very few of the goods and services we enjoy in today’s marketplace are truly “made in America.” Everything comes from everywhere, meaning that tens of millions of Americans every day are helping line the pockets of people and governments whose values differ from ours.

Ever tweeted? In 2011, Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal invested $300 million in Twitter via the Kingdom Holding Co., the sovereign wealth fund of the Saudi Arabian government, which beheads and stones citizens who commit adultery, false prophecy and apostasy. 

Who’s your cable service provider? If it’s Time Warner, Prince Al-Waleed thanks you again. In 1997, he invested $145 million in Netscape, which was sold to AOL, which later merged with Time Warner.

If you bank with Citigroup, you’re not only helping out the Saudis’ sovereign wealth fund, but also that of the United Arab Emirates, whose government criminalizes homosexuality and considers the testimony of a female less valid than that of a male in criminal cases. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority took a $7.5 billion stake in Citigroup shortly before the 2008 economic crisis.

Who really gets hurt?

The collateral damage in these boycotts, Freixes said, is always the employees — always. For better or worse, activists who believe the “short-term pain is worth the long-term gain” have to accept that laborers are going to lose money and, possibly, their jobs.

This was the case during the boycott against South Africa’s apartheid government, when Nelson Mandela was willing to accept hurting black workers in the short term to help the black citizenry in the long run. And it was the case when Cesar Chavez led the Delano Grape Boycott in the 1960s. 

Sturgulewski, the Cabana Café server, has seen his tips fall from about $300 on a normal day to less than $100 since May 5, when the boycott began. Although he said he has enough money in his savings to last him for six months, he’s worried he’ll have to dip into that if things don’t turn around. His message for boycotters: “What you are doing is only hurting people in the United States, not 8,000 miles away.”

Leaders of this boycott, though, aren’t so sure.

Cleve Jones works with Unite Here, a North American hospitality workers union that has been trying for years to unionize the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air, both Dorchester properties. The latter was unionized until 2009, when it closed down for two years of renovations after its union contract expired, reopening with a non-union workforce. 

Once an intern for the late Harvey Milk — the gay rights pioneer assassinated while serving on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — Jones is probably best-known for starting the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

“This guy [the sultan] is a real player in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations,” Jones said in a recent phone interview, discussing the economic pact among Brunei, Malaysia, Indonesia and other nations in the region. In fact, the Obama administration has been pushing a trade deal — the Trans-Pacific Partnership — to increase trade and investment with a number of South Asian countries, including Brunei. 

Jones also pointed out, however, that many economists are warning that Brunei could run out of its oil reserves within the next few decades. If that were to happen, the sultan’s assets around the world might no longer just be business dalliances, but actual investments, which, in Jones’ analysis, could make boycotts like these impactful, and not merely symbolic. Furthermore, there are some indications that word of the boycott has made its way into the news in Brunei’s neighboring Malaysia, where Sharia law already has a limited place in society parallel to common law, but could very well become more prominent.

“The boycott is being used now by moderate forces within Malaysia as an argument,” Jones said. “Look at the punishment that is being inflicted on Brunei. Maybe we don’t want to go down this route.”

The case for consistency

Jones doesn’t accept the argument made by many opponents of the boycott that singling out the Beverly Hills Hotel is illegitimate because protesters are inconsistent about which businesses they target.

“We do whatever we can with whatever we have wherever we are,” Jones said. “Whenever somebody says to me, ‘Well, why aren’t you concerned about this or this or this?’ What I’m hearing is, ‘Don’t you do anything.’ ”

Still, the question remains: Where do you draw the line?

“We are buffeted as Americans by lots and lots and lots of demands on our conscience,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s director of interfaith affairs and adjunct chair of Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School. 

“We are told, ‘Unless you do X, you are complicit in Y.’ Many people simply tune out, because there are too many of these competing demands,” Adlerstein said. “Can I indeed be complicit in so much of the evil of the world?”

And, he said, agreeing with the concerns of the Beverly Hills Hotel workers, if the motives of groups shunning the hotel really are to advance human rights and oppose Sharia, they should at least grapple with the inconsistency of their moral protest, which begins and ends with the hotel.

“A lot of the protesters, if you shake their closet, a lot of Chanel and Valentino [jewelry] falls out,” Romer said. “Richard Branson [founder of the Virgin Group] says that he will never set foot in a Dorchester property until this human rights issue is resolved. Unless he sold it recently, you can see on the Internet that he owns an island in Dubai.” That island is the “Great Britain” part of Dubai’s World Islands, an artificial construct of small islands roughly modeled off the world map.

Two organizations that joined the boycott after the Lenos and the Feminist Majority Foundation succeeded in making it a media issue — Kehillat Israel synagogue and Aviva Family & Children’s Services — have both moved their planned major events from the Beverly Hills Hotel to a venue just a few miles away — the Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons hotel.

The Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

When the Journal pointed out to each that Al-Waleed bin Talal holds a 45 percent stake in Four Seasons, spokespeople for both nonprofits expressed surprise — the groups had not vetted the ownership of the Beverly Wilshire, even after pulling their events from the sultan’s venue out of moral protest.

How to explain the selective moral outrage, whether it’s the willingness to do business with Four Seasons but not Dorchester, or Hollywood’s comfort with filming in Dubai while fearing being sighted in the Polo Lounge? 

In Romer’s view, her employer represents low-hanging fruit — it is convenient to boycott the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air. But boycotting every Four Seasons property, or every Chanel, or every company or brand that does business with governments that enforce Sharia or other immoral legal systems would be difficult. 

“Apparently, their righteous indignation has limits,” said Steven Boggs, the hotel’s head of guest relations. Boggs, showing off his wealth of knowledge about the hotel’s history, checked off the list of its social landmark credentials — one of the first hotels in Los Angeles from which blacks and Jews were not restricted, and a prominent venue in California for same-sex weddings.

He also pointed out that no one is really sure how the new laws will be enforced — since 1957, Brunei has effectively had a moratorium on its death penalty.

Boggs said being affiliated with a boycott target has changed his own view of them. Boggs, who is gay, once vowed to stay away from Target after a controversy erupted around its former CEO, Gregg Steinhafel, when the company donated $150,000 in 2010 to support a Minnesota politician opposed to same-sex marriage. Boggs now feels the pain a boycott can cause employees 

Asked whether someone can be part of the modern economy without somehow supporting oppressive governments, much less policies of executives with which they disagree, UCLA's Gonzalo Freixes responded:

“The Chinese own Marriotts in downtown L.A. You couldn’t buy most of the clothes sold at Macy’s or all these department stores. I suppose it’s possible, but it would be very difficult.”

Judaism and commercial boycotts

Although Jewish law is not silent on the issue of boycotts, and Jewish history has a few significant examples — the 1555 boycott of the Port of Ancona and the 1933 boycott of German goods — where Jewish law draws the line is not black-and-white.

Cunin worries that a Jewish-supported boycott of the Beverly Hills Hotel could backfire on supporters of Israel, who have vigorously defended the Jewish state in recent months against the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting companies that do business in the West Bank. His line, he told the Journal, depends on United States law.

“If we feel they are out of character, create laws that don’t allow them to invest here,” he said. “Put his [the sultan’s] name on the list of those who cannot travel here.”

But, according to Rabbi Elchonon Tauber, one of the West Coast’s leading halachic authorities, the Torah allows boycotts under certain circumstances, even when the ripple effects hurt innocent people.

“We punish criminals even though the children will suffer terribly,” Tauber said. “If something is evil, then people will have a right to boycott.”

[Related: ‘We’ll survive this’

Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Photo by Kirby Lee/USA Today Sports

Sturgulewski can’t help but reference disgraced Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who has been an object of disdain since getting caught on tape making racist remarks to his girlfriend. Until Sterling was sanctioned by the NBA, there were even some initial calls to boycott Clippers games.

“It’s like boycotting [Clippers star] Blake Griffin because of what Sterling said,” Sturgulewski said. “What he [Sterling] said is irrelevant — he’s just some rich guy with money. The sultan is just some rich guy with money.”

Indeed, it is the sultan’s wealth, and that of the Dorchester Collection, that may be instrumental in helping the hotel’s employees weather this storm.

Lefkowitz, the hotel’s spokeswoman, wrote in an email to the Journal that while the Beverly Hills Hotel has seen a major drop in revenue this month, largely from event and meeting cancellations, its employees’ jobs are secure and “their wages (including service charges, gratuities and benefits) would be maintained despite the decline in business.”

Although Boggs said he is “very concerned” that business won’t pick up soon, his knowledge of the hotel’s long history gives him confidence in getting through this storm.

“We have survived, in order, World War I, Prohibition, the Depression, World War II, a cornucopia of civil rights, race riots, earthquakes, recessions,” Boggs said. “We’ll survive this as well.”

So far, there have been no documented cases of Brunei’s government using its new punitive privileges. But Boggs expressed sensitivity to the protesters’ concerns: “We should honor the things the hotel has done for women, for gays, for African-Americans, for Jews, for everybody — for the community, while at the same time finding a way to fight this horrific law,” Boggs said.

“Now, the minute I wake up and someone has actually been stoned to death, I [will] have to rethink that.”

How to make b’nai mitzvah meaningful

I was meeting with an upcoming bat mitzvah girl the other day and talking with her about the Torah (what else?). I pointed out all the books that surrounded us in my study and mentioned that as someone who has published five books myself, how thrilled I would be if people were still reading even one of my books 20 years from now. 

Then we talked about what it would mean to imagine writing a book that was still being read even 50 years later, and how few books there are in the world — all of them now called “classics” — that are still around and read 100 years after they are written. 

She was listening intently and looking at all the books on my shelf as I was talking. Then I said quietly, “In a few weeks you will be standing at the podium in the sanctuary, you will unroll a Torah scroll and then read from a book that isn’t 20 years or 50 years or 100 years old, but more than 3,000 years old. Just think about how unbelievable that really is  — reading from a book that is literally more than 3,000 years old.”  

With that she looked up at me with eyes wide and blurted out, “That’s so awesome!”

For that young girl about to become a Jewish woman, “awesome” was exactly the word that expressed everything she felt about her upcoming bat mitzvah. That feeling of excitement and anticipation of being part of an ancient tradition that reaches back literally thousands of years into the Jewish past is one of the key reasons that our kids find their b’nai mitzvah experiences so meaningful. It is that sense of deep connection with the rituals and traditions, sacred texts and ethical values of our ancestors that should be one of the primary goals of our educational programs.  

At my Reconstructionist congregation, Kehillat Israel, the process of inculcating that deep emotional connection begins more than a year in advance of each bar and bat mitzvah with family days in which the clergy and educational professionals collaborate in our Jewish Experience Center (formally known as “religious school”). Creating an opportunity for young boys and girls to experience their bar or bat mitzvah as a true rite of passage from childhood to a more profound stage of personal responsibility for making their own unique contribution to the evolution of Jewish civilization is what the experience is all about for those of us who are privileged to work with our students and their families.

There are a few simple things that any parent can do as well to help make this same connection between their children and Torah in advance of the bar or bat mitzvah itself. First and foremost is for parents to actually be involved with their child in Torah study. Take the time to read through the entire portion for your child’s Shabbat together at home. Make it a family experience. Read several commentaries on the portion from different sources (easily found on the Internet) to understand how Jews over the years have approached this particular portion, and find at least two different ways that something in the portion can relate to your own lives. Making a personal connection between the stories of the Torah and your own lives as parents helps to make the connection even deeper for your children.

Second, if parents have had their own bar or bat mitzvah, they should take the time to share their personal stories and memories with their children. What was the best part for you? What was the most challenging part? What lasting memories do you have from your own childhood that inspired you to want your own child to have a bar or bat mitzvah as well?

Virtually every week at Kehillat Israel we have the pleasure of hearing visitors and guests who have come to share the bar or bat mitzvah experience with families and friends exuberantly telling us how much they loved the service, that they have “never experienced something so warm and personal and intimate.”  

This success, however, comes with a price. The price we pay is that the bar or bat mitzvah isn’t simply part of the service; rather, it’s the service itself that is part of the bar or bat mitzvah. The intensely personal and child-centered nature of our b’nai mitzvah experiences makes for a powerful, transformative moment for the child and his or her parents, but results in 99 percent of those who attend the service itself being those who were specifically invited by the family. 

It is powerful for our kids precisely because of the intensely personal nature of the training and tutoring that leads up to the service, the one-on-one relationships that Rabbi Amy Bernstein, Cantor Chayim Frenkel and I nurture with each and every child, and the emphasis we put on the feeling of accomplishment they have from the personalized tikkun olam mitzvah projects that every child undertakes as part of his or her bar or bat mitzvah experience .

We celebrate 80 to 90 b’nai mitzvah a year at Kehillat Israel and made the decision years ago that every child would have his or her own service. The result of that decision to personalize every bar and bat mitzvah experience is that virtually every Shabbat morning and every Shabbat afternoon except during the month of July there is a bar or bat mitzvah service taking place.  

The good news for us is that, week after week, when each child stands in our sanctuary and chants “veshinantam levaneha vedebarta bam,” (“Teach them intently to your children and speak of them …”) we take pride in the knowledge that the meaning our students experience from their bar or bat mitzvah is in large part due to the certainty they have that each and every one of the them matters, and we take the mitzvah of this challenge as one of the highest priorities of synagogue life. 

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation of Pacific Palisades.

Rabbi Sheryl Lewart dies at 65

Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, who served as associate rabbi at Kehillat Israel (KI) in Pacific Palisades, died Nov. 30 at the age 65 after a second battle with breast cancer. 

Lewart was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and had a recurrence as she was about to retire from KI in 2009. 

Lewart was a soulful, nonjudgmental teacher who helped others find spiritual meaning in deep, intellectual Torah study, said Steven Carr Reuben, rabbi of KI, a 1,000-family Reconstructionist congregation.

“She had this gentleness and tenderness in how she taught and led services that was her own unique magic,” Reuben said. “She was able to tap into emotional places that connected people in a serious way to Jewish life. It was about feeling part of something bigger than yourself, something authentic and grounded in thousands of years of what Jewish civilization is all about.” 

Lewart founded KI’s Jewish Learning Initiative, an adult-education program, and she created the congregation’s adult b’nai mitzvah program. Students would often start with her at a basic level and then continue on to long-term, deeper study with her, Reuben said.

Born and raised Conservative in New York, Lewart came to the rabbinate as a third career. She ran a school for gifted children in Pennsylvania and then was an antiques dealer. Her love for Jewish texts and traditions brought her to the rabbinate, and she was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in 1994. She taught for four years at the RRC and edited its basic Judaism curriculum, “Jewish, Alive & American.”

Her first book, “Change Happens: Owning the Jewish Holidays in a Reconstructionist Tradition” (Cherbo Publishing Group: 2009), offered new perspectives and practices for Jewish holidays.

She was a founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York.

Lewart built strong friendships with other women rabbis.  Every year after the High Holy Days, Lewart, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue’s Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Karen Fox and Academy for Jewish Religion, California’s Rabbi Toba August made a pilgrimage to a Desert Hot Springs spa to debrief, decompress and study Torah.

Along with Lewart’s intellectual and interpersonal gifts, she appreciated things beautiful and fun and brought a lightness to an intense vocation, Fox said. 

HaLevy said Lewart faced her illness with bravery and grace. She traveled with her husband, Bob Auerbach, until she no longer could, going to Israel often to visit her daughter and her family, and to Northern California to see her son and his family. She created a garden haven in her home, with a hot tub, fountains, wind chimes and hidden good luck charms. She continued teaching at KI until just recently and had a rotation of daily Torah study with HaLevy, Fox and August. 

She spent her last months completing a book of blessings based on the weekly Torah portions. KI is collecting donations in Lewart’s memory to complete publication of the book. 

Lewart’s family and a cadre of women were with her when she died. As Lewart had requested, HaLevy and Rabbi Anne Brenner prepared her body for burial, as Cantor Julie Silver sang psalms. At first the women at the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary were surprised by the singing, HaLevy said.

“And at the end, they said, ‘This women must have been an amazing soul.’ Even after her life, she continued to teach,” HaLevy said.

Lewart was buried in a family plot at Hunter Gardens in New York, and 300 people attended a Dec. 2 memorial at KI. 

Lewart is survived by her husband Bob Auerbach; children Judy (Boaz) Amidor and Mark (Sarah) Shulewitz; five grandchildren; and mother, Mickey. 

To read Lewart’s weekly blessings, visit ourki.org/rabbi-sheryl-lewarts-blessings. To write an online tribute or to make a donation, visit ourki.org. 

Prop. 34: Repeal the death penalty

Jewish tradition has always championed the idea that justice is a fundamental necessity. When the Torah commands us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the repetition is to teach that not only we must have just ends, our means to those ends must be equally just.

Our commitment to that core Jewish teaching will be tested on Nov. 6 by our community’s response to Proposition 34, which would replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without parole, save $130 million each year, devote $30 million per year for three years to help solve unsolved murders and rapes, and require those convicted of murder to devote prison earnings to pay restitution to the families of their victims.

During Yom Kippur, congregants at Kehillat Israel had the profound privilege of hearing Franky Carrillo, a remarkable young man who was released from prison after serving 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The stark reality of how unjust his fate could have been while we still have the death penalty couldn’t help but send shivers down the spines of the congregation.

Knowing that more than 140 innocent and wrongfully convicted people have been released from prisons in recent years should alone be enough to convince us of the necessity to protect the sanctity of justice and eliminate the death penalty.

Religious leaders, civil-rights advocates, human-rights organizations and others for years have been calling for an end to the death penalty, which has been banned in most democratic nations. But now, death-penalty opponents have been joined by a chorus of unlikely allies, including victims’ rights advocates, prison wardens and law-enforcement officials. Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw executions as warden at San Quentin State Prison, now runs the state’s largest anti-death penalty organization. Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti is a leader on the Proposition 34 campaign. Even Don Heller, who wrote the ballot initiative reinstating the death penalty in 1978, now says doing so “was a terrible mistake.”

These leaders cite the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that the death penalty is used predominantly against the poor and people of color, and that the high cost of the death penalty (including trials, special prison housing, constitutionally required appeals, extra security and administrative costs) is far more expensive than permanent incarceration. As proposed by Proposition 34, the funds saved by eliminating the death penalty could instead go to law enforcement, crime prevention and other public safety priorities.

Proposition 34 would convert death sentences into sentences of permanent incarceration, effectively replacing death in the execution chamber with death in prison. It enables the state to still mete out the punishment deserved to the most heinous criminals but in a way that does not run the risk of killing the innocent, wasting money, distorting our criminal-justice system and needlessly bloodying our hands any further.

As responsible citizens, and as Jews responsive to the ethical insights that have shaped our tradition, there are compelling reasons to support Proposition 34. Some may object, however, that the Bible endorses capital punishment. Indeed, capital punishment is prescribed in a number of cases, including for offenses ranging from murder to gathering sticks on Shabbat. But from the earliest times, our rabbis understood that the ultimate judgment — who shall live and who shall die — should not be left in the hands of flawed people capable of error, bias or passion. And unlike other mistakes, no amount of teshuvah can ever undo a wrongful execution.

Therefore, the rabbis enacted numerous obstacles to implementing the death penalty, including the requirement that multiple eyewitnesses must have been present at the time of a murder, warned the offender of the punishment of death and heard him acknowledge the consequences before the murder was committed. So opposed to the death penalty were the rabbis that the Talmud records the following conversation: A Sanhedrin (High Court) that executes a person once in seven years is a murderous one (hovlanit). Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: “Once in seventy years.” Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva said: “If we were members of the Sanhedrin, nobody would ever be put to death.” (Mishnah: Makkot 1:10) Support for the death penalty remained a minority and rejected opinion in Jewish life. This is still the case today — every major Jewish denomination has come out in favor of ending the death penalty or imposing a moratorium on state-run executions.

The rabbis could not have envisioned the cruel and tragic system of state execution that we have today. It is a patchwork system that struggles to find attorneys competent to defend death cases. It costs more than $130 million more per year than life in prison. And, as the Sacramento Bee pointed out in reversing its 155-year-old editorial policy by endorsing Proposition 34, one’s chances of getting the death penalty arbitrarily vary according to what county you live in. And yet even without such a system corrupted by such overwhelming injustice, the rabbis had the wisdom to reject the death penalty. So, although the death penalty remained in Jewish texts, it did not gain acceptance in Jewish communities.

The instincts of those early Jewish leaders seem even wiser now. On Election Day, we would be wise to follow their lead.


Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades. Steve Rohde is a constitutional lawyer and vice chair of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

Red String

I wear a piece of red string around my right wrist, a talisman for healing.

Since receiving a diagnosis of lung cancer a year ago, my life has continued in a relatively "normal" vein, recognizable to secular Jewish Westerners like myself. I meet with the best oncologists and take advantage of the extraordinary medical advances of our day.

But when Rabbi Sheryl Lewart of Kehillat Israel offered me a length of string, I did not resist. I became excited, my heart racing. As a patient, I was entering a world where logic was obscure. More would be revealed.

As it turned out, Lewart left the string with her colleague, Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, when she visited Israel, where she promised to put prayers for my health in the Western Wall. One Shabbat, Reuben took the length of string and tied it on me, making a gentle series of knots. "There," he pronounced with a sweet smile, when the wristlet was neat. "Go."

One day about a month ago, I saw another woman with a red string bracelet. I chased her down the hall.

"Your string," I muttered.

"What of it," she said. She did not open up, and my search for a sister sufferer ended.

I have been asked to speak next weekend on the topic, "The Spiritual Challenge of Cancer," at Wilshire Boulevard Temple. I hope to explore not only this specific affliction, but also the relationship between disease and morality, health and faith — the challenge of living as experienced by most of us, the well and the ill. It is the challenge of the red string.

Though our tradition decries it, Jews are no strangers to magic. Like advocates of feng shui, American tribal healing or any superstitious band of cult followers, in times of pain we go occult, putting faith in colors, mascots, stars — silent prayers for survival. In the end, my doctors would be happy if magic worked, as would I.

I do draw the line. On the Web, recently, I came across an entire Jewish site devoted to superficial guidance that illness is a distortion of "energy fields." Even my acupuncturist knows better. He would not offer me a piece of blind Torah text and claim that the healing power of Hebrew letters would clear the body.

Yet, the red string does me some good, or else I wouldn’t wear it. When I’m washing dishes, the warm water slips over the thread, quickening my pulse. I am reminded, in an intimate way, that my body is leading me toward healing.

Somehow, the simple decision to keep my kitchen clean is connected with the idea of God. God is the action that transports me from cause to effect, from waiting for others to take care of me to willingness to do my part.

It transforms me from a cancer victim, passive recipient of pathetic wishful thinking, to a person in service, engaged in my own salvation.

Salvation is at the heart of the matter. The ill and the well alike have limited time. We inevitably, constantly, ask ourselves, what is it we are doing with what we have left, with the life we have been granted?

As it turns out, the red string comes from the Torah discussion of leprosy, a topic filled with moral confusion. Leprosy is one of the few medical conditions given full biblical analysis.

Like cancer, leprosy provides a "moral warning" that time is at hand. We are not to punish ourselves for our affliction, but ask what to do now. I am not being punished with cancer, but rather I am demanded to take what time I have left seriously, and to resist the inclination toward self-absorption that, sadly, is the homeland of the ill.

The red string reminds me that this struggle, between my body and my purpose, is of utter urgency. It is anything but an exercise in blind faith. It asserts that salvation is larger than what the doctors can do. Unbreakable filament, it provides connection that is direct, strong, true.