November 17, 2018

Get a Lot, Then Give It Away

Photo from PxHere

The Jewish Journal’s Oct. 19 edition seemed like a one-trick pony: On page after page, ads expressed the same beautiful sentiment: praise for Jack Nagel, a philanthropist who died Oct. 12 in Los Angeles at the age of 96.

Upon reading the first ad, I felt saddened because of his death. After reading the second ad, I felt proud of his indescribable generosity. And after reading the third ad, I began to feel ashamed that I don’t prioritize giving. The only building that would ever have my name on it would probably be called the Tabby Refael School of Passive-Aggressive Ranting … and Kabob Management. 

By the time I had read the Journal cover to cover, I wanted to be like Nagel. We all should have felt this way.

I have a certain vision of myself as a great-grandmother: There I am, seated in a rocking chair surrounded by many Jewish great-grandchildren, my loyal robot dog by my side, telling stories that impart the most important thing elders can teach youth: good values that are hard to argue against. 

As my drone butler brings me a cup of Persian tea (without spilling it on my head this time), my great-grandchildren, in all their glorious wisdom, ask me what my life can teach them. Hey, it’s my daydream, and I’m allowed to have unrealistically wise great-grandchildren. 

The stories I’ll recount, whether having endowed chairs in Israel studies in the United States; or having brought every remaining Jew out of Iran; or having lavished local Holocaust survivors with amazing accommodations; or having funded centers for education or rehab programs that now bear our family name — every story will exude the same theme: I didn’t keep; I gave.

“By the time I had read the Journal cover to cover, I wanted to be like Jack Nagel. We all should have felt this way.”

I want money. I want lots of it. I want it so I can give it away. 

Of course, I’ll put some of it aside for my kids’ (and their kids’) Jewish education, for trips to Israel to reunite with family, for tzedakah globally, and for an occasional, giant tub of saffron and rose water ice cream that I’ll devour in the comfort of my rocking chair and in the company of my robot dog.

Nagel’s great-grandchildren know about his philanthropy but what about every student at YULA in Los Angeles or Bar-Ilan University in Israel?

I’m not suggesting that everyone who has benefited from Jack and his wife Gitta’s generosity tattoo the name “Nagel” on their foreheads. In fact, Judaism reveres anonymous giving. But here’s the problem: Our eyes have become so accustomed to seeing family names on hospital or school buildings, that we seldom stop to really think about what they gave us, whether a good education at Bar-Ilan or access to life-saving care at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem.

At schools, I propose that during orientation or on the first day of the academic year, students are taught about the people, lives and legacies of those whose altruism often has provided the foundation on which they stand — and I’m referring to the literal foundation of the building. 

I’m sure that many schools already try to impart these values, but I guarantee that if I show up to a campus and ask students young and old to list even one philanthropic name who made the endeavor possible, there would be a cricket or two chirping. 

It’s not the students’ fault. It’s no one’s fault. We simply need to learn how to stop and pause in front of all those lovely, bronze plaques that adorn the walls of schools, hospitals and synagogues, even if the cynic in us wonders whether some well-endowed folks simply liked to see their names on plaques. 

I need to go back to thank some kind folks, and so do you, I’ll bet.

After reading through eight ads in the Journal that thanked Jack Nagel, I understood that he didn’t care about names and plaques, but I also got a glimpse of his story: a Holocaust survivor who lost everything and then spent the rest of his life giving everything. Now that is a story that should be taught on the first day of school.


Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer.

Drunk in Edinburgh

I love this city very much. We had a wonderful time in Scotland and while sad it was such a short stay, it was enough time to convince us to come back for a proper visit. The people were lovely, the weather was fantastic, the food was delicious, and the drinks flowed. There is a lot of drinking in Scotland and the mixologists here are impressive. Last night however, the people we came across were more of a beer drinking crowd and our introduction to being drunk in Edinburgh was fascinating.

 

We went to a local bar where the back room is full of musicians playing. Just a group of locals, hanging out, and anyone with a guitar or a fiddle can join in. They played classic Scottish music and it was fantastic. We stayed for an hour listening to the joyous music. Then as we made our way to the door, there was a woman sitting on the floor. By sitting of course I mean collapsed. She was completely passed out and unable to walk, talk, or stand. I was worried for her.

 

We waited outside for a couple minutes to make sure she was okay. A young man then appeared at the door holding the woman up. He was struggling to keep her from falling and a barman from the pub was telling him he needed to get her home. They brought a chair outside for her as I’m certain they thought she was going to have a massive hurl any second. The barman called them a cab and when it came he went to explain what was going on with the driver.

 

He told the cabbie he had a customer who was out with his mom and she had too much to drink. I’m sorry but I started to laugh she was his mother. I can’t imagine getting that drunk with my son. I could not stop laughing, which I know is wrong, but come on. She was sat on a chair, slumped onto her son, blacked out. The poor barman tried to convince 4 cabs to take them home, but they all refused.  We eventually left, but I wondered how it all ended.

 

We headed back to our hotel and went for a stroll thinking we might have a final drink. As we strolled we heard a commotion. A man was screaming profanities and it sounded aggressive, so we looked around to ensure we weren’t walking into something bad. That is when we saw a man who appeared to be in his early twenties, going off on two police officers. He was telling the officer he was a human being, and was demanding that he speak to him with respect.

 

Every other word began with an F, and he was screaming at the top of his lungs. The police stayed in the car while he lost his mind, then the officers got out of their car and calmly told him to stop shouting. He went off again. Seriously went off. He was screaming at one officer, with their faces an inch away from each other, and the officer just listened. He then told him to go home, the cops got back in their car, and the young drunk guy walked off, still shouting.

 

The officers showed heroic patience and kindness. In America he’d have been cuffed on the ground with a knee in his back. If he were white. If he were black, he’d be dead and we’d be hearing about how his yelling made the police feel threatened. In a country with breathtaking beauty, this exchange with police was perhaps the most beautiful thing we saw. Scotland is a wonderful and wondrous place. Mother nature was generous with Scotland, and in return her people are kind and keeping the faith.

A Helping Hand

Yesterday as my son was leaving the house, he noticed a small bee sitting on the wall by the door. He didn’t pay too much attention to it as he was heading out, but when he returned about 30 minutes later, he saw the bee was still there. He wondered if it was dead, and took a closer look. The poor thing was alive, but clinging to the wall and clearly in some kind of distress, so my son decided to help.

He came into the house, got a tablespoon, added sugar and water, and went back to the bee. The poor little thing got on the spoon and began to drink the sugar water. It was truly amazing. I stared at this wonderful little creature, and also at my remarkable son, with awe. He held the spoon steady as the bee drank, then slowly moved the spoon to the counter so it would be still and the bee could drink calmly.

Charlie then took the bee back outside, set it on the ground, and left it there.  When he went back a little while later, there was no bee on the spoon. A bee was buzzing around, and he couldn’t know if it was the same bee, but I’d like to think it was. He hung around to let my boy know he was alright and thank him for his kindness. It was a beautiful exchange between man and animal. I have attached a video of the sweet, little bee drinking below.

There are humans who are simply unworthy of animals, then there are people like my son, who are blessed with love and respect for animals. I am touched by the kindness my son shows to all living things. He is a good man and yesterday not only did I know it, but so did a lovely little bee. Have a great weekend everyone. Shabbat Shalom. Show kindness and know that animals are also just trying to keep the faith.

 

Recycling & Spaceships

Yesterday morning as I headed out to the farmer’s market, I came across a man rummaging through my garbage. He looked up as I approached, made direct eye contact, and said good morning. I said good morning in return, and kept walking. It was a little awkward and I wasn’t sure what to do, so I carried on. When I got in my car I noticed a water bottle in my cup holder, so I grabbed it and went back to the trash. I approached the man and gave him the bottle for his recycling.

He thanked me for the bottle, told me I was a nice lady, and said he hoped I had a good day. I felt an odd need to speak with him, so I asked if he was having a profitable morning. He explained he had been out collecting for a couple hours and was doing fine. He said he believed in recycling, but appreciated when people forgot to recycle and he came across a lot of bottles. He said he was surprised people don’t recycle better, seeing as we were in the state of California.

We ended up speaking for about ten minutes and it was really interesting. We talked about the weather, the president, cruelty to animals, and how important a good pillow is for your neck. It was a little strange, but also lovely. At the end of the day we were the same. Two people who work hard, have opinions, and have value. It was enlightening and I felt connected to a stranger, which doesn’t happen often, but is always a possibility. Our time together somehow felt important.

I told him it was nice speaking with him and asked if I could give him some money to get something to eat. The question immediately changed his demeanor and I felt that he was now irritated. I panicked a bit and told him I didn’t mean to offend him in any way, and was sorry. He looked confused and closed his eyes. I was now a little frightened and told him it was okay and de didn’t need to take the money. He then thanked me for the offer and asked if he could save the money.

I told him he could do whatever he wanted with it. I explained it was a gift and he could spend it, save it, or give it away, because it was his money. I reached out and passed him $10.00. He thanked me with sincerity, smiled, and was relaxed again. He then told me he would save it and eat on his next visit because he didn’t have time to eat as he was worried he would miss the spaceship that was coming to pick him up. I smiled in return and wished him well with his work and his travels.

I haven’t stopped thinking about him since we met. I’m glad we spoke and even though in retrospect it was perhaps dangerous to have engaged, if I’m scared to talk to strangers, my life would be very different. I like people. I particularly like people with stories, so I will always talk to strangers and always try to help those less fortunate. It is who I am, and who I have always been. We are all just one space ship ride away from crazy, so we should just be kind and keep the faith.

Weekend of Faith

This weekend marks an important time for people of many faiths.  It is Passover and also Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  I am someone whose life is made easier with faith. I’m also one that does not judge people based on faith. The way I see it, faith allows us to lean on something bigger than ourselves, and if it gives us peace, then how we view the higher power doesn’t matter. Faith is a beautiful and powerful thing. It does not need to always be about religion.

I hope those who celebrate the holidays of this weekend will find peace within their faith.  For me, the weekend is about prayer.  Prayers of thanks for my Jewish life, prayers of thanks for my blessed life, and prayers of thanks for the health and happiness of my family and friends. I’m counting my blessings, embracing the history of my people, and taking comfort in the power of so many human beings on the planet praying at the exact same time. It is quite beautiful.

Take time this weekend to be kind to a stranger. Share blessings with people in need and let your faith inspire you to bring light to someone in the dark. Listen to a child laugh, reach out to someone you miss, ease someone’s sorrow, know struggles will pass, make a new plan, love someone, be aware, be happy, be brave, cry tears of joy, hug like you mean it, and enjoy the delicious holiday food. Enjoy the weekend. Celebrate, reflect, and keep the faith.

 

Kindness to Animals

The other day we found this little fellow sitting in the driveway at work. He was not moving, breathing heavily, and clearly struggling. My heart just broke for him and I never once thought about his being a rat, just that he was an animal in trouble. I wanted to help him and wasn’t sure how. By help him of course I mean take him home, introduce him to the cats, teach him how to speak English, and have him cook ratatouille for me. He was a sweet boy and I was on a mission to help.

He was trying very hard to walk, but kept tipping over. Bless him. We put him into a box and gave him some seeds and fruit. He was weary, but started to eat and seemed to be quite happy with his meal. He slowly started to regulate his breathing and within a half hour was walking around the box. He may have simply been in shock and terrified, rather than seriously hurt. We thought perhaps he had fallen off of the driveway gate and broke something, but he was getting better.

While he was eating and catching his breath, I called my local vet to see what I should do. I was placed on hold and then told by the receptionist she had spoken to the vet and he said to bring it in and he would take care of it. I was thrilled, until she clarified that by taking care of it, he would be euthanized. Not on my watch he wouldn’t. I get he is a run of the mill rat, but his life has value. I sound like the bleeding heart, liberal, vegetarian that I am, but whatever. He mattered to me.

The beautiful little rat ate his seeds and chilled out, then became restless and was trying to get out of the box. He got his footing back and was ready to go home, so we took him away from the street, up into the canyon, and let him go. He was given a stockpile of food, and simply sat there and ate. I think he was appreciative and counting his blessings. He looked at us with gratitude and it was special. I thought about going to check on him later in the day, but decided against it.

Mother Nature is powerful and she needs to take care of things in her own way. My job was to give another living creature comfort during a trying time, and I would do the same for any creature. Except perhaps a roach. I would not give a roach comfort. I would also not kill it, just run away screaming. I love animals, don’t eat them, and my heart breaks when they suffer at the hands of a human. Mother Nature can do her thing, but we must be kind because we are all in this together.

When you see an animal in trouble, help it. When you want to get a dog or a cat, get one from a shelter and give an animal who is sad and lonely, joy and comfort. Animals are truly wonderful and I am grateful for the interaction I had this week with a rat. I never thought I would say such a thing, but that is the great thing about kindness. It comes up in unexpected ways and will bring you profound happiness if you are willing to pay attention and are keeping the faith.

 

Dating 101: Dinner at McDonalds

Yesterday I was running some errands and headed into a shop. I was on the phone and didn’t pay too much attention to my surroundings, but did see a homeless man sitting to the right of the door asking for money. Before I left the store, I looked in my wallet for a dollar to give him on my way out. I stopped to hand him the money, he said thank you, then asked if I wanted to go out for dinner. It made me laugh. I thanked him for the invitation, declined, and headed to my car.

As I was walking away I continued to laugh and realized this man had made my day. He was sweet to ask me out for dinner, and while I didn’t know if he was unwell and potentially dangerous, I knew I needed to go back. I approached the man and said that while I was not able to have dinner with him, could I buy him something to eat. He looked wary for a quick second, then said he would love some dinner. I asked him what he felt like eating. Without hesitation he said McDonalds.

I asked if he wanted to come with me, and he said he’d wait. I assured him he could come with me, but he said I’d be better off not talking him as people get nervous. That made me sad, then it didn’t because the truth is under different circumstances, he would make me nervous. So I went into McDonalds and bought him a Big Mac, fries, coke, water, apple pie, with a Quarter Pounder and some cookies as back up. When I got back he looked surprised to see me.

He said he didn’t think I was coming back and opened the bag with joy and relief. I told him to enjoy his dinner and stay safe. He looked me in the eye and locked my gaze. It was a lovely moment of thanks and compassion. I smiled and told him I needed to head home. He asked me what my name was, and when I told him he thanked me by name, introduced himself, then asked me out for dinner one more time. I laughed again, and without overthinking it, I told him I’d be right back.

I went back to McDonalds and got myself some fries and a drink. I then joined him for dinner. We sat at a bus stop and shared a meal. We chatted about the weather, and he told me about himself. It was lovely. I enjoyed talking with him and was happy about how happy he was with his dinner. He told me he knew we’d have a date. I assured him it wasn’t a date and just dinner because I would never go on a date to McDonalds. He laughed as he watched me eat the best fries ever.

I grabbed a blanket and umbrella out of my car and gave them to my new friend. He said it was his lucky day and I was an angel. It was all very sweet and I left him with a smile on my face. My goal for 2018 is to ask people to share their stories, and view everyone as a human being who shares the planet, not just people who are different. It is empowering and inspiring to look at all people with compassion. I am setting aside fear, making room for bravery, and keeping the faith.

Dating 101 – Bring on the rain

I started dating someone late last year and even though I totally thought we would be a thing, in the end we are not the thing I had hoped for. I really like him and we are friends, but it is a shame it didn’t become more. The simple truth is that at this stage of my life, I want to be with someone who is ready for a relationship. I have a wonderful life to share, and I am a wonderful human being, so there is no energy or point in spending time convincing someone to be brave.

If I don’t value myself, then how can I expect someone else to value me? I have had my heart broken, more than once, but I have never let that pain stop me from trying.  Love is grand and I am not going to let hurt influence my happiness. The memories of heartache certainly shape my heart, but they do not have the power to change what I want and what I believe I am worthy of. I hope this man gets to a place where he knows he is worthy of a good woman who values him.

Dating is not fun, but if you view it with the knowledge that even a misstep gets you one step closer to love, you’ll be okay. I had a date this weekend with a man a friend set me up with. I was told he would make me laugh, so we made a plan to meet for breakfast. He was handsome, on time, had a job, and fantastic green eyes. We said hello, settled in for the dance, and it was going well. Then he decided that he was going to call the waitress a bitch. Not once, but twice, to her face. We were done in just under ten minutes.

There is no world in which I am going to be okay with this behavior, so I went in. I started by apologizing to the waitress. She was lovely, which made his treatment of her even more disturbing. I told him he was rude and I was not only not interested in staying on our date, but he needed to apologize to the waitress. It was then that he told me I was, wait for it, a bitch. I got up, “accidentally” spilled my iced tea on his lap, and headed home.

I was sad for about five minutes, then it was just another step in my journey.  There is someone for everyone. The man I met for breakfast will meet a woman to spend his life with, and I’m hoping she ends being a total bitch. The man I was dating will also meet someone, and she will inspire him to risk getting his heart broken again. He will see her worth and that he is better beside her. I will be that woman for someone one day. Just not today, and that is okay.

It is Monday morning and raining in in Los Angeles, which is a great thing. The universe is washing away the weekend and allowing the week to begin fresh. I will keep trying because that is half the battle. You can’t be sad that you are alone if you are not trying to meet someone. How we try is not important, as long as we try. We are all worthy of love and if you want a relationship, you will have one. Be brave, take a risk, know your worth, believe in love, and keep the faith.

 

 

A Little Perspective

When I was driving to work yesterday I saw a car pulled over on the onramp to the freeway. I noticed the car as I started on the onramp because there was a lot of traffic and we were moving slowly. As I started on the loop I could see them at the other end right before the entrance to the 405 freeway. The man was in the driver’s seat and looking frantically from the freeway to the woman he was who was leaning out of the car to vomit.

I wasn’t sure what to do as I watched people looking and slowing down, but nobody stopped, until me. I made the decision to pull up behind them and see if I could help. I climbed out the passenger door of my car because I was scared of the cars on my side, and went to the woman. She was initially startled, then said she was fine and didn’t need help. I looked at her, looked at him, and told her I wasn’t there for her, but him.

She smiled, laughed for a second, and vomited. I rubbed her back as he said thank you and looked so tired. I simply smiled, told him it was going to be okay, and nothing else was said. The woman was better after a few minutes and when she was well enough to sit up and get settled back in the car, she introduced herself. She is 37 years old, has two kids, he is her wonderful husband, and she is having chemotherapy for breast cancer.

We chatted for a minute, exchanged information, and this weekend I am going to go visit her for a cup of tea. She and her husband are special people and I feel blessed to have crossed their path. I’m looking forward to spending time with them. Sometimes it takes a chance meeting with a stranger to give a little perspective. It is very important for us to not get so wound up in our own lives that we stop noticing the lives going on around us.

Interaction matters. We are all in this together and when you open your eyes and see people, rather than just glance past them, good things can happen and you can make a difference. Kindness matters and the simple acknowledgment of another human being can impact not only them, but you. I am looking forward to spending time with my new friends. It will be good to step out of my life to embrace new people and experiences.

I crave humanity and want to connect in different ways. I’ve been looking for something, and meeting these people makes me feel like I am on the path to finding it. They opened my eyes in a profound way, which is strange seeing as our interaction was brief, but I’m opening my eyes and my heart. I am open to love, purpose, kindness, and connection. We are surrounded by blessings and we owe it to ourselves to try and see them.

I am someone who is always searching for something. Not because I’m not satisfied, or need anything, but more because I like learning, and meeting new people. I like stories and when you are able to not only write your own, but be a part of someone else’s, that is very special. I am going to pay more attention to what is happening around me because when I do, I discover things about me that make it really easy to keep the faith.

Brother can you spare a dime?

I give money to homeless people who ask me for it. Always have. I figure if someone has the courage to ask a stranger for help, I will help them. I always keep cash in both my glove compartment and my wallet. A day does not pass where I do not help someone. Sometimes I buy people food, or toiletries. One time I bought a lovely man a pair of shoes. I think kindness matters and when I give someone money and they offer me a blessing, it makes me happy every single time.

Last week I was asked for some help from a man on the street. I gave him a dollar and wished him well. He looked at the dollar and asked me, “Is that all you’ve got?” I was startled for a second and didn’t understand what he was saying. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Is that it?”. I told him to have a good day and left as my chin started to quiver and I burst into tears. It hurt my feelings and made me sad. It was as though the man felt disrespected, which wasn’t my intention.

I have had people ask me why I give money to those who are going to use to get high or drunk, but I never wonder what they’re going to do with the money. I can’t give them money with restrictions on what they can do with it. It is not personal, political, or judgmental. It is simple kindness. Who am I to judge anyone? I help when and how I can, so when this man asked if that was all I could do, it made me wonder if I should maybe stop giving money and instead just look away.

My friend George deals with homelessness every day as he works in law enforcement in an area of the city where there are a lot of homeless people. He has seen it all and helps save a lot of people. Not give them a dollar save, but actually get them off the street save. He thinks it is sweet I give everyone money, but feels it is only a matter of time before someone responded like this man. He never tells me not to do it, just to be aware not all people will appreciate it.

We view homelessness very differently. When I see a kid asking for money I want to invite them over to have a shower, get some clean clothes, and feed them a home cooked meal. George wants to find out why they’re there, investigate if they can go home, then give them tools to get off the street. For me, I want to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to fix it, while he wants to perform emergency surgery to stop the source of the bleeding. Both ways are valid to me.

How do I not help someone who asks? Even the guy who sits at the freeway off ramp wearing Beats headphones gets a dollar from me on occasion. He sits for hours in temperatures over 100 degrees, so why not give him a dollar? I am angry this one person could make me rethink giving money. He shouldn’t have that power over me. In all the times I have given out money, this is the first time I can remember experiencing something unpleasant in response.

I will continue to give money to people who ask me for it. Whether they spend it on food, a bottle of water, or drugs, if whatever they buy brings them a moment of happiness, or comfort, or quiet, then God bless them. There but for the grace of God go I. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone can appreciate a Band-Aid when it is offered to them. To the man who was unhappy with my gesture, I hope someone else gave you a bigger Band-Aid and you are keeping the faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Madoff’s Redemption

If you’re an active member of the Jewish community — and perhaps even if you’re not — there’s almost no way to properly digest the Bernie Madoff scandal. It’slike a quadruple shot of cheap vodka that you drink quickly on an empty stomach. You feel disgusted and drunk at the same time.

First, of course, there’s the alleged scale of the swindle. Fifty billion? You can cut that by 80 percent and it would still be an obscene number.

More than dry numbers, though, there’s the sadness we all feel for the tens of thousands of disadvantaged people — Jews and non-Jews — who will now suffer because the organizations that usually help them have been ruined, not to mention the many individuals and families who have lost their life’s savings overnight.

Then there’s the fear of the uncertain — what all this will mean for the future of fundraising and Jewish philanthropy in an already depressed economy, and to what extent the scandal will fuel the fires of anti-Semitism, as well as turn off many Jews to their faith.

Finally, just to add a touch of the surreal, we have a suspect who apparently immediately confessed to his crime. How often does a white-collar criminal who can afford the best legal advice tell the authorities who have come to arrest him that his financial empire is all “one big lie” — and that he has been engaged for years in a fraudulent Ponzi scheme to the tune of $50 billion?

Well, never.

Put all this nasty brew together, and you have a Jewish community that’s reeling with anger, shock, sadness and shame. We can’t speak fast enough to catch up with our emotions. We almost wish the guy would have kept his mouth shut and had his $900-an-hour lawyer give us the usual “my client will vigorously defend himself from these outrageous charges” response — so that at least we would have been broken in gently.

Instead, we got mugged with a sledgehammer.

One of the dangers of being overwhelmed with so much criminal havoc is that we will lose all perspective when trying to draw conclusions. We may feel, for example, that because the crime is so big, our conclusions must also be big.

But let’s remember that there are many things in this story that are not so big.

Bernie Madoff, for one. Here is a gonif who preyed on the weaknesses of his own people and stole money not just from the wealthy, but from charitable organizations. How much smaller can you get?

How many Bernie Madoffs are there in the Jewish community? The truth is, for every Madoff we hear about, there are probably a million honest Jews we never hear about. Madoff may be a disease, but he’s not an epidemic.

Every day, thousands of deals are made in our community, one Jew trusting another Jew and no one getting ripped off. We don’t hear about these, precisely because no one gets ripped off. There’s no doubt we ought to do more due diligence at all levels of Jewish philanthropy, and I’m sure that as a result of this scandal, we will. But let’s not kid ourselves: For as long as there are human beings, trust will play a central role in the affairs of men.

Trust serves as a convenient shortcut for making decisions, but it also serves a deeper human purpose — it strengthens our emotional bonds. It gives us a chance to show loyalty and faith in other people, and when it is reciprocated, we feel a deeper connection.

Complete Madoff CoverageFrankly, what worries me most is not that we will see more Madoff-level crimes of betrayal in our community, but that we so easily ignore the millions of little offenses we regularly inflict on each other. Those little offenses may not rise to the level of illegal behavior, but they have the cumulative power to corrode the human bonds that tie our families and communities together.

I’m talking about the little lies, the hurtful gossip, the verbal abuse, the arrogant looks, the inconsiderate gestures. How many thousands of instances are there every day when one of us will hurt someone — maybe by using hurtful language or breaking a promise or giving a family member the silent treatment? How many numerous opportunities are missed every day to help another person — maybe by bringing soup to a sick neighbor or simply saying something nice to our mothers?

Madoff’s “swindle of the century” is a tragic ethical breakdown for our community, and we should all help to pick up the pieces. At the same time, the scandal can also serve as a wake-up call to remind us of the myriad ethical obligations we have in our own lives and within our own communities.

Our rabbis and educators can lead the way in answering this call. They can start by making it clear to their congregants and students — many of whom will become our future leaders and financiers — that nothing is more important in Judaism than the way we treat one another. Yes, God loves it when we go to shul or study the Talmud or have a “spiritual experience” or contribute to the shul’s building fund. But God loves it even more when we make it our priority to follow the Jewish laws and principles of how we should properly interact with other people.

This is the Judaism of ethics — the only Judaism that every Reform, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Humanist, Chasidic, Renewal, Egalitarian, Ultra-Orthodox and gay rabbi on the planet will unite behind.

It’s the Judaism that Bernie Madoff shunned, but that the aftermath of his scandal may reawaken.

Imagine that. Instead of the Messiah coming down to redeem us, a sleazy villain shows up on Chanukah and shocks us into reasserting that great Jewish ideal of learning how to live an ethical life.

If you ask me, that sounds a lot easier to digest.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Today’s Task: Be an Angel

We all have daily to-do lists.

So why shouldn’t God?

That’s the premise of Dr. Ron Wolfson’s new book, “God’s To-Do List: 103 Ways to Be an Angel and Do God’s Work on Earth” (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007).

“God has a to-do list for you,” the book opens. “You are God’s partner. God needs you to continue the ongoing creation of the world.”

Wolfson, the Fingerhut Professor of Education at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and cofounder of Synagogue 3000, taps into the latest best-selling trend: religious self-help. Like Pastor Rick Warren’s 20-million copy bestseller, “The Purpose Driven Life,” (which Wolfson quotes), “God’s To-Do List” anthropomorphizes the Deity with human properties, like Post-It Notes.

Indeed, the 122-page, soft-cover book features outtakes such as “Be Like God,” “Let God Be Your Role Model,” “Do One Small To-Do Every Day.” It’s broken down into chapters, such as Create, Bless, Rest, Call, Comfort, Care, Repair, Wrestle, Give and Forgive, which ostensibly make up the 103 ways to be an angel.

Wolfson’s other books include “The Spirituality of Welcoming,” “How to Transform Your Congregation Into a Sacred Community,” “A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement and Comfort” (all Jewish Lights), and here he uses two seemingly conflicting biblical statements to show how man should operate on earth: “I am but dust and ashes,” (Genesis, 18:27) and “For my sake the world was created,” (Sanhedrin, 37A).

The first is to remind you not to be too proud, that “like all humans, you have little time on this earth, and you will, no question about it, return to dust and ash.”

The second is to remind you, when you’re feeling down, “it makes you feel like the most important person in the world.”

God’s to-do list includes blessing your family, creating new relationships, practicing hearing, inviting newcomers into your neighborhood, performing random acts of kindness, contributing time and money to political organizations, practicing the art of compromise, giving to the needy, forgiving others and yourself — in other words, being a better, more engaged human being. Although Wolfson uses Jewish sources, the book presents “Jewish wisdom for people of all faiths.”

“Everyone has gifts to give and things to do. The world will be a better place because you are in it,” Wolfson writes in the conclusion. “The question is, are you ready to do the to-dos on your God’s to-do list? Are you ready to be an angel?”

Our first annual big list o’ mensches

To its detractors, Los Angeles seems very much like a modern-day Sodom or Gomorrah — besotting civilization with a trash culture of celebrity murder trials, reality TV and movies that trade on violence and superficiality. Even to Angelenos, the city can be trying and sometimes disheartening. Our metropolis seems almost biblically plagued with crawling traffic, battling gangs and stratospheric home prices; with a vast divide between rich and poor, between legal and under-the-table and between cycles of boom and bust — as well as with fires, earthquakes and mudslides. And yet, by the standard that should have saved Sodom — 10 righteous souls (we consider families as one) — Los Angeles’ future shines bright at the dawn of 2006 C.E. For Los Angeles is amply provided with tzadikim — good people who do good work in the community. The men and women featured here — beginning what we intend to make an annual list — are just a sampling of what is worth celebrating in our community.

MENSCHES

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Yeladim

 

The Ugly Bug Ball

In Parshat Shemini, we learn which animals are kosher. A young friend of mine asked: Why did God create both kosher and non-kosher animals? The sages of the Talmud ask the same question. They said there is something we can learn from every animal – kosher or not.

For example, the Sages say we can learn honesty and industriousness from an ant. Ants are hardworking, and they are “honest” in that they don’t steal from each other.

King David tried to uncover the meaning behind each animal and he succeeded – but he couldn’t figure out the spider. So, God showed King David how the spider could even save a life. When running for his life from King Saul, David hid in a cave. King Saul and his soldiers were searching everywhere. God sent a spider to spin a web over the opening of the cave in which David was hiding. When the soldiers came to his cave and saw it was covered with a spider’s web, they moved straight past, not realizing that the web was freshly made.

All Creatures Great and Small

Did You Know?

The word for “kindness” in Hebrew is chesed. In the Torah, the Hebrew word for stork is chasida. The rabbis say that the stork was given this name because this bird is very kind and generous with its food and shares with other birds.

1. Where are koala bears from?

a) United States

b) Russia

c) Australia

2. Whales and dolphins are large fish.

a) yes

b) no

c) both

3. What is the largest flying bird alive today?

a) Bald eagle

b) Penguin

c) Condor

d) Albatros

Answers From Last Week

Tell Me a Story: Hamantaschen

 

Yeladim

 

The Fire of Money

In Parshat Ki Tisa, each Israelite is instructed to give a half-shekel to the “temple fund” every year. There is a midrash – a story told by rabbis to teach a lesson – about this portion. Rabbis say that God took a fiery coin from under His heavenly throne, showed it to Moses and said: “Like this shall they give.”

What can we learn from the image of a fiery coin? The rabbis say that fire can be destructive if misused, but can be very useful and beneficial if used properly. And so it is with money. Perhaps money is – or can be – the “root of all evil,” but it can also be used for charity and acts of kindness.

Back Words

Solve the clues. The second answer is the first answer written backwards!

Give money

– – –

A high-pitch bark

– – –

A Yiddle Riddle

Turn the following description into two words.

A scratchy inflammation in the middle of your body.

Now, put the two together to get one Hebrew word and one big prize!

Being Jewish in America

Written by a fifth grade,

Emek Hebrew Academy

It is difficult sometimes to be one of a small number of Jews in America and in L.A., especially around Christmastime, when a lot of stores are sporting trees, lights, etc. Yet, somehow, my family manages to celebrate Shabbat, keep kosher and go to a Jewish school. There are lots of churches in L.A., but there are also a lot of shuls and Jewish organizations that make it easier and more fun to be a Jewish American!

 

The Greatest Good

The most exciting weeknight in our house is Thursday; our family eats a hasty dinner and I rush off, two or three children in tow, to Tomchei Shabbos. Every week, my children join me in packing and delivering “Shabbat packages” brought to those members of our community who need a little help just to “make Shabbat” — grape juice, challah, chicken, eggs, etc. Tomchei Shabbos delivers to more than 200 families every week, through the volunteer work of more than 50 people, young and old.

Every Thursday evening, as we are leaving the warehouse with our freshly packed boxes, each one of my children goes up to say thank you to Steve Berger, the tireless coordinator of Tomchei Shabbos. At each home where we stop to deliver, when the recipient comes out to greet us (as they always do) my children again say thank you — to the recipient of our Shabbat package.

They understand this powerful lesson: The greatest kindness you can do for someone is to make him/her feel worthwhile and to give him/her an avenue to make a difference. When these little children gather milk, challot, produce, etc. together to help pack a box, they feel at their best, because they understand that they are making a difference in someone else’s Shabbat, in someone else’s life. To invite someone to contribute — in an area where he or she is capable — is the greatest kindness you can bestow.

It seems that this is the gist of Moses’ oddly worded invitation to his father-in-law:

And Moses said to Hovav…. “We are journeying to the place about which Hashem said, I will give it you; come with us, and we will do you good; for Hashem has spoken good concerning Israel.”

And he said to him, “I will not go; but I will depart to my own land, and to my kindred.”

And he said, “Leave us not, I pray you; for you know how we are to camp in the wilderness, and you may be to us instead of eyes. And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you” (Numbers 10:29-32).

This conversation between Moses and his Midianite father-in-law took place at the foot of Sinai, just as the Israelites were about to depart on their triumphant march into Eretz Yisrael. Moses, in a statement of utter generosity, offers Hovav a place among the people, that he may benefit from the great goodness with which God blessed His people.

Rav Yosef Soloveitchik, z”l, once commented on this invitation:

“It was not an invitation that a son-in-law extended to his father-in-law. It was not an invitation extended by an individual to another human being to share the good things in life. It was more than that. It was an invitation extended by Moses, as a representative of Israel to all converts of all generations…. There is enough chesed [lovingkindness], goodness and happiness in the Torah to be transmitted to others and to be shared by others.”

What is this great goodness? What was the beneficence that Moses was offering to Hovav? Indeed, what is the generosity extended by the Torah to all of mankind?

Oddly enough, Moses does not offer Hovav land or a position of honor among the people; he asks him to “be our eyes in the desert” — to help lead the people through the wilderness, which he knows so well. What sort of beneficence is this on Moses’ part?

This is the same lesson as that all of the wonderful Tomchei packers and drivers know: There is no greater goodness than asking someone to contribute to the betterment of society and to the welfare of his fellow man.

In an age where deeds are vendible and kind acts are considered commodities, we would do well to listen to Moses’ invitation:

“And it shall be, if you go with us, it shall be, that whatever goodness Hashem shall do to us, the same will we do to you.”

For those who wish to contribute their time and/or energy to Tomchei Shabbos, call (323) 931-0224.


Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom is the associate director of Project Next Step.

A Jewish World Without Denominations

A new president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) was inaugurated in a moving ceremony held Oct. 13 in the ornate Plum Street Temple in downtown Cincinnati. Rabbi David Ellenson, a native of Newport News, Va., and a long-time resident of Los Angeles, spoke from the pulpit of this classic Moorish-style temple about the unique challenges of leading an American rabbinical seminary into the 21st century.

On one level, Ellenson seems to be an odd choice to lead the Reform rabbinical seminary. He is more a scholar than an administrator or fundraiser, more a teacher than a pulpit rabbi. But even more significantly, Ellenson defies denominational classification: born and raised in an Orthodox home, he has written extensively on Modern Orthodoxy, with particular interest in the role of halachic response in shaping its contours. Along with his wife, Jackie, who is also a rabbi, he spent many years in Los Angeles as a pillar of the Library Minyan of Conservative Temple Beth Am. And for nearly three decades, he has been a professor at the Reform HUC-JIR.

The audience assembled at the Plum Street Temple was unperturbed by Ellenson’s denominational eclecticism. Rather, they took ample note of the new president’s erudition, as well as his legendary kindness and compassion. A smaller number of cognoscenti also marveled at the historical journey of the Reform movement in the United States.

To illustrate the point, a brief digression to culinary history is in order. In 1883, the first class of rabbinical ordinees graduated from the HUC-JIR. The festive ceremony that marked the occasion, the first ordination of any rabbinical seminary in the United States, was held in the same Plum Street, or Bene Yeshurun, Temple.

Following the ceremony, a gala dinner was held that drew representatives from more than 100 synagogues across the country. Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, the founder of the 8-year-old Union of American Hebrew Congregations and president of its HUC-JIR, had hoped to forge a broad congregational association that would unite all of American Judaism under one roof, and indeed, more than half of the nation’s 200-odd synagogues were on board.

That dream ended with dinner. The meal commenced with half-shell clams, proceeded to soft-shell crabs and shrimp salad, as well as a number of kosher meats, before concluding with an ice cream dessert. Unprepared for such an "innovative menu," the more traditional rabbis abruptly fled from what has come to be known in the annals of American Jewish history as the "Treifa Banquet." The unintended legacy was the hardening of ideological divisions into denominational wings as we know them.

Nearly 120 years later, the invited guests of Ellenson’s inauguration party were treated to a thoroughly kosher dinner under strict rabbinical supervision. These two meals — the Treifa and the Kosher Banquets — stand as intriguing markers of the significant shifts that Reform — and American — Judaism have undergone.

Before the Treifa Banquet, the denominational boundaries of an emerging American Jewry were hardly visible. During the next century, these boundaries became reinforced as the four main denominations each built seminaries, synagogues, congregational organizations, youth movements and schools to embody their respective messages.

But today, these borders seem to be eroding. Ellenson symbolizes that erosion in his own varied Jewish biography. So, too, does the fact that his institution recently awarded honorary doctorates to Rabbi Ismar Schorsh, chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, and Rabbi Emanuel Rackman, former chancellor of the Orthodox-sponsored Bar-Ilan University. For many decades, it would have been unimaginable that an Orthodox rabbi like Rackman would have accepted a doctorate from HUC-JIR. But having reached more than four score and 10 years, Rackman is so distinguished, wise and courageous as to deliberately and openly rise above denominational differences.

His example suggests that there may well be more that unites than separates the various constituents of American Judaism. This is particularly true when we observe that American Jewry may be shrinking at a marked clip, at least according to the recent National Jewish Population Survey. This is also true when we notice the growing trend toward increased observance in all of the denominations, including the Reform movement. The Kosher Banquet of 2002 is but one link in a chain of growing traditionalism that defines American Jewish religious identity in the new century.

For some, this development is cause for joy. And yet, we must also recall that drift and alienation from organized Jewish life continue, in part because denominational packaging no longer appeals to a growing number of hungry, spiritual consumers.

The intriguing transformations of the Reform movement, as symbolized by the presidency of Ellenson, should prompt a probing debate about the role and relevance of denominations in American Judaism of the 21st century. So, too, should the current struggles to chart a coherent course for American Orthodoxy — as reflected in the difficulty in finding a successor to Yeshiva University’s long-time president, Rabbi Norman Lamm, who has skillfully mediated the demands of being a college president and rosh yeshiva. In fact, all the American Jewish denominations must now ask themselves whether their considerable, but ultimately limited, resources are better utilized in preserving their own institutions or joining forces to confront the challenging days ahead.

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism. David N. Myers is a professor of Jewish history at UCLA.