November 18, 2018

Richard Greene: How One or Two Words Can Change Your Life

One of the world’s leading experts on public speaking, Richard Greene, explains why people fear public speaking more than death, and discusses the abuse of language in the era of Trump. Visit his website.

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Rob Long: Hollywood Writer Talks Trump

Award-winning Hollywood showrunner Rob Long talks about happiness, craziness and, of course, Donald Trump.

Follow Rob and Ricochet on Twitter 

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Salvador Litvak: Can Talmud change your life?

Hollywood filmmaker and Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak recounts his journey of how one moment of learning Talmud led to a million followers on Facebook.

“What we learn from the students of Hillel is that you should be able to state the opinion of your opponent in a way your opponent will say, ‘yes, that is my opinion.’ When you do that, you are opening a door for him to say ‘I feel heard. Now I am willing to hear what you have to say.” -Salvador Litvak

Accidental Talmudist Salvador Litvak

From left: David Suissa and Salvador Litvak

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Rabbi Joseph Telushkin: curiosity and other values

Prolific author Joseph Telushkin discusses some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, including a need for more curiosity.

“If people are only going to read things that reinforce what they believe… they’re going to end up demonizing the people that disagree with them.” -Joseph Telushkin

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

From left: David Suissa and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin

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Dr. Micah Goodman: Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Israeli scholar Micah Goodman weighs in on the world’s most intractable conflict — and his ideas for a solution. He explains it all in his bestselling new book, Catch 67, which uses philosophical insights to tackle the Israel–Palestinian conflict.

“Everyone always talks about solving or not solving the conflict. What about shrinking the conflict?” -Dr. Micah Goodman


David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman in the studios

From left: David Suissa and Dr. Micah Goodman

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Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Varied community/congregation at the Western wall

Two Jews, Three Opinions by Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

There’s an old joke that underscores our almost impish impulse for our streams of Judaism to deviate no matter what: One pious Jew was stranded on a desert island and built two synagogues. When rescued, the crew members asked, “There was only you and your limited resources, so why two  places to worship?” The Jew answered, “One was for me to pray in. The other one I wouldn’t be caught dead in.” Hmm, maybe the “other congregation” had a different way of handling the Mourner’s Kaddish. I have been reciting it for my father who died last December. In some synagogues, only the mourners rise to recite it, while in others everyone stands and says it to support the mourners or to say it for those who passed but have no survivors to say it for them.

I have said this prayer in both kinds of congregations, and I have mixed feelings about each procedure. On the one hand, if a few other people and I rise to say it, I feel acknowledged that yes, I am stepping through the peculiar passage of my first year without my father. Anyone who still does not know I had lost an immediate family member can later ask who I am mourning for and potentially become an additional source of support. On the other hand, I feel self-conscious drawing such attention to myself, like a scarlet “M” has sprouted on my forehead.

In the “other” synagogue, I feel more protected and less vulnerable as mourners and non-mourners alike participate in this ritual. But I feel that this dilutes my feelings or minimizes them as they are “distributed” across the group. What do you non-mourners know about my feelings and those of the others grieving? The intention, of course, is fine, but it reduces the significance of the ritual for me. If everyone is carrying it out, then I am not doing anything special to mark my relationship with the deceased or to drive home yet again to myself the reality of the loss. I feel deprived of the power of this ritual.

If I and some other hapless survivors of another ship wreck had joined the Jew stranded on that desert isle, as a rabbi I would have instituted the following compromise: Everyone rises but only the mourners actually say the prayer.

But wait, I hear an objection from the Chair of the Board of Trustees: “That’s not the way to do it! Everyone recites, but only the mourners rise.” Alas, we will need two synagogues after all.

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan photo

Rabbi Karen B. Kaplan

Rabbi and board certified Chaplain Karen B. Kaplan is author of Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, 2014) a series of true anecdotes capped with the deeper reasons she chose her vocation. For more details including reviews, you can go to the publisher’s page or to There is also an audio version of Encountering the Edge: the Audiobook. Comments to the author are welcome by email or via her blog, Offbeat Compassion. She has recently authored a second book, Curiosity Seekers which is gentle science fiction about an endearing couple in the near future (Paperback or Kindle).




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 5, Chevrah Kadisha: Ritual, Liturgy, & Practice (Other than Taharah & Shmirah), online, afternoons/evenings, in the Winter semester, starting January, 2018. This is the core course focusing on ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means (for everything other than Taharah and Shmirah, which are covered in course 2).


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

Information on attending the course preview, the online orientation, and the course will be announced and sent to those registered. Register or contact us for more information.


You can register for any Gamliel Institute course online at A full description of all of the courses is found there.

For more information, visit the Gamliel Institute website, or at the Kavod v’Nichum website. Please contact us for information or assistance by email, or phone at 410-733-3700.


Gamliel Café

Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly. The next scheduled session of the Gamliel Café is October 18th.

If you are interested in teaching for a session, you can contact us at, or


Gamliel Graduate Courses

Graduates of the Gamliel Institute, and Gamliel students who have completed three or more Gamliel Institute courses should be on the lookout for information on a series of “Gamliel Graduate’ Courses, advanced sessions focusing in on different topics. These will be in groups of three sessions each quarter (three consecutive weeks), with different topics addressed in each series.  The goal is to look at these topics in more depth than possible during the core courses. We plan to begin this Fall, in October and November. The first series will be on Psalms. Registration will be required, and there will be a tuition charge of $72 for the three sessions. Heading this intiative is the dynamic duo of Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. Contact us –  register at, or email



Donations are always needed and most welcome to support the work of Kavod v’Nichum and the Gamliel Institute, helping us to bring you the conference, offer community trainings, provide scholarships to students, refurbish and update course materials, expand our teaching, support programs such as Taste of Gamliel, the Gamliel Café, and the Gamliel Gracuates courses, provide and add to online resources, encourage and support communities in establishing, training, and improving their Chevrah Kadisha, and assist with many other programs and activities.

You can donate online at or by snail mail to: either Kavod v’Nichum, or to The Gamliel Institute, both c/o David Zinner, Executive Director, Kavod v’Nichum, 8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD  21045. Kavod v’Nichum [and the Gamliel Institute] is a recognized and registered 501(c)(3) organization, and donations may be tax-deductible to the full extent provided by law. Call 410-733-3700 if you have any questions or want to know more about supporting Kavod v’Nichum or the Gamliel Institute.

You can also become a member (Individual or Group) of Kavod v’Nichum to help support our work. Click here (



If you would like to receive the periodic Kavod v’Nichum Newsletter by email, or be added to the Kavod v’Nichum Chevrah Kadisha & Jewish Cemetery email discussion list, please be in touch and let us know at

You can also be sent a regular email link to the Expired And Inspired blog by sending a message requesting to be added to the distribution list to

Be sure to check out the Kavod V’Nichum website at, and for information on the Gamliel Institute, courses planned, and student work in this field also visit the Gamliel.Institute website.


Sign up on our Facebook Group page: just search for and LIKE Chevra Kadisha sponsored by Kavod vNichum, or follow our Twitter feed @chevra_kadisha.



If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.


Letters to the Editor: Money & religion, comparing Trump with Obama

How Trump Is Judged, Compared With Obama

Rob Eshman’s last column was 100 percent on the mark (“The Double Standard,” July 28). Thank you for pointing out little-remembered but very important facts about the Barack Obama administration to Donald Trump supporters within and outside of the Jewish community.

Every ray of truth shines like a beacon in this dark night of Trump.

Myra Newman, via email

Money, Religion and the Alternatives

Enjoy your provocative columns!

Regarding Rob Eshman’s “Religion and Money” (Aug. 4): Why not set up some sort of program for the donation of previously used bar mitzvah suits for those parents and sons unable to afford a new form-fitted, expensive designer suit. This would truly be a blessing.

Joe Goldstein, via email

Many synagogues do allow people with financial difficulties to get reduced-price or free High Holy Days tickets, but it is difficult to get those tickets. Jewish families have been known to have to jump through multiple hoops, which include speaking with temple employees, showing tax returns, writing essays and more in order to get those discounted or free tickets to services that every Jew is entitled to.

“Progressive cost models” are attempts to maintain a balance between the financial needs of the temple and the cost of tickets and/or membership. But here again, these are models that do have heavily “suggested” donation amounts.

Many of us have been unaffiliated for years, and this has been a sticking point. We are bothered and offended that synagogues demand fees, rather than having faith that those of us who can give will support our communities.

The Chai Center in Los Angeles, and Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village operate without dues, membership or ticket fees. After 30 years, Chai Center is still open and inviting to everyone. Temple Ner Simcha switched to the no-dues/cost model last year. The Journal published a nice article about the motivations for the switch last year. 

As a donor and board member of Ner Simcha, I can vouch that there are significant financial challenges to creating and maintaining this model. I also can vouch for the positive feelings I have knowing that my support helps Jewish families.

I encourage every temple to examine this model.

Mark Mushkin, Westlake Village

A ‘Bold’ Choice to Become Orthodox

Columnist Gina Nahai’s shock over bumping into a childhood schoolmate, one she referred to as having been “least likely to become domesticated” but now bewigged, long-skirted and with several children in tow at the kosher supermarket, is utterly patronizing (“I’ve Seen This Woman Before,” Aug. 4).

Nahai assumes that the “boldness” she once knew in her former friend had been replaced by a “tamer, more rewarding connection to motherhood and religion.” As one who also traded some degree of social defiance for a similar path of Orthodoxy, I can tell you that choosing to become Orthodox, which went against the paths of all my friends and family, was the most daring and bold decision I ever could have made.

Judy Gruen, Los Angeles

Times Have Changed Since the Days of Leviticus

Dennis Prager is absolutely right that Muslim immigrants are causing Europe to go into a death spiral (“Wisdom vs. Compassion,” July 21). The Journal reader who invoked the line in Leviticus, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong,” conveniently forgets that in that time, the strangers did not assault, rape and kill their hosts.

Stephen Meyers, via email

Sumud Freedom Camp: A vision of peace in the Hebron Hills?

Sumud Freedom Camp in the South Hebron Hills is a physical space dedicated to nonviolent activism. Photo by Gilli Getz

There is something new under the unforgiving South Hebron sun.

A disparate group of Palestinians, Israelis and Diaspora Jews came together this spring to create Sumud (Steadfastness) Freedom Camp, an effort to show that a seemingly intractable conflict might yet be resolved through a grass-roots movement of people who refuse to be enemies.

Sumud campers from the Palestinian and Jewish worlds are making different political choices from many of their own community leaders. Sumud’s founding organizations include the Center for Jewish Nonviolence (CJNV), the Holy Land Trust (HLT), Youth Against Settlements (YAG), All That’s Left, Combatants for Peace, and the Popular Resistance Committee of the South Hebron Hills.

At the outset, two projects drive the mission: First, to exist as a “safe, nonviolent, unarmed space where all those who believe in a future founded on justice, freedom, and equality can come together to build a foundation that will sustain a just peace.” Second, to renovate housing at the site of Sarura, a village displaced by an Israeli military zone, hoping to return families to their homes.

The HLT, organized by Sami Awad in 1998, chooses to work with Israeli and Jewish activists in the context of extreme care taken by  Palestinian leaders to build any collaborations such that they do not normalize Israeli domination. While not a religious organization, HLT takes inspiration from the teachings of Jesus Christ as well as Mahatma Ghandi, embracing nonviolence as a guiding principle.

Awad calls Israel/Palestine a place of “many narratives.” Sumud includes people who regard 1948 as a miracle and others who see it as a naqba, a catastrophe. Rather than waiting for some magic day when everyone’s story collapses into a master narrative, Sumud campers are trying something new: creating a space where people can be together in their differences, joy, pride and pain to build relationships based on mutual respect.

Youth Against Settlements is a direct-action group committed to nonviolent civil disobedience, the right of each of its members to their own religious beliefs and women’s equality. A founder and leader of YAG, Issa Amro, who has led actions such as the creation of Cinema Hebron, a closed factory revitalized as a movie theater (which was shuttered by the Israeli military), faces prosecution in Israel for “assaulting a soldier” during a demonstration in which Amro was injured. He is accused of pushing and calling a soldier “stupid,” as though tactlessness could really be a crime in Israel.

Israeli authorities have ordered an August trial for Amro, who has been successful at turning young Palestinians away from violence and fundamentalism.

For its part, the Diaspora Jewish delegation, organized by CJNV, has gathered members of politically disparate organizations who do not always speak civilly, let alone work together at home, such as J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now.

The only agreements CJNV delegates had to commit to were the organization’s three guiding principles: opposition to the occupation, an unshakeable commitment to nonviolence and “belief in the shared humanity and full equality of Palestinians and Israelis alike.” This includes people who favor a one-state solution in Israel/Palestine, others who favor two states and people who don’t really believe there should be state power anywhere on earth.

The oldest Jewish camper, a man in his 80s, worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee fighting for African-American equality in the U.S. South. The youngest camper was 18. There were Jews of many colors, economic backgrounds and varieties of Judaism, from very observant to proudly atheist. Palestinian participants ranged from old to young, urban to rural, academic to working class, Muslim, Christian and none of the above.

Sumud Freedom Camp was created on the site of Sarura, a village located in Area C, the part of the occupied West Bank that is entirely under Israeli military control. Sarura and most Palestinian villages in Area C have been declared military zones, which means that whole communities live under constant threat of summary demolition. They are not allowed to file Master Plans with the Israeli authorities, but any construction made without a Master Plan is illegal. Hence, any improvement to a building, paved road, mosque, school, water tower or solar power plant can be, and often is, torn down — but not until its builders labor to its completion and are forced to watch the destruction.

The South Hebron Hills are a particularly challenging place to live when one is denied access to electrical power, filtered water and a sewage system — all of which are available to the Israeli settlements, including Sumud’s neighbor, Ma’on Settlement, which, in its founding, was illegal even under Israeli law.

Despite its beginnings, Ma’on enjoys water, power and green space sufficient to render it indistinguishable from a remote Southern California desert suburb. Its residents also, with impunity, engage in harassment of Sarura and other nearby villages. Even on Shabbat, settlers rode three-wheelers through the village close to the Sumud camp, scaring animals and taunting people.

Adjacent to prosperous (and younger) settlements, Har Hebron villages struggle to wrest a living based on herding and agriculture from the stingy, dusty soil. The residents live sustainably, micro-irrigating crops and allowing animals to roam free, which often results in confiscation by settler youth that goes uncompensated and unpunished.

Everything in the South Hebron Hills fights back: soil limned with sharp rocks and heavy stones, the scouring wind, the blazing heat of day, the frigid cold of night, even barbed and sticky weeds that compete with fragile crops for precious water. It is from this soil that the nonviolent youth movement, dedicated fiercely to education and self-improvement, is emerging.

Local Palestinians from neighboring villages such as Umm al-Khair and al-Tiwani have been supportive of Sumud, sheltering travelers on their way to the camp and spending the night themselves. Young men from the neighboring villages help renovate caves that have housed Palestinians for generations. The caves, naturally insulated from the heat and cold, are made livable by caulking the places where snakes and scorpions might hide, plastering the ground and installing doors and screens to make rooms.

Despite concerns that it might prove “triggering” for Palestinians to hear Jews praying in Hebrew, several Palestinians joined Shabbat celebrations, among them representatives from Roots/Shoreshim, a group founded by a self-defined “settler rabbi” and a Palestinian activist who had spent time in Israeli prison. Actual neighbors, they acknowledged that they had never spent time face-to-face with each other. They began to build friendships simply by introducing their children to one another and sharing personal histories.

During Kabbalat Shabbat, Shoreshim representatives shared their group’s vision of “a social and political reality that is founded on dignity, trust, and a mutual recognition and respect for both peoples’ historic belonging to the entire Land.”

The Israeli army continues to harass the Sumud camp, shoving people around and taking away tents, a generator, even a car. Most of the international campers have left, but the camp is being maintained by local Palestinian activists, Israeli Jews, and some Diaspora Jews who stayed.

Sumud Freedom Camp does not represent a retreat from politics. Rather, it is an experiment in building a political program from the grass roots up, based on real relationships and investments in one another’s well-being that cross national and religious divides.

Peace activists are often asked, “So where are all the nonviolent Palestinian activists?” Actually, they aren’t hard to find. A better question is, “Why isn’t the Israeli government acknowledging and trying to partner with such people instead of repressing them?”

Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches Jewish Thought at Cal State Long Beach and serves as affiliated clergy at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock.

The Israel I support

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

The first time I touched the Western Wall was on a Young Judea trip from Los Angeles to Israel back in 1997 — and can I just tell you? I felt … nothing.

Absolutely nothing. And, oh man, I wanted to feel something. Everyone said I would. From our rabbi in Culver City, to all my Sunday school teachers, to my friends who had been to Israel, to my mother and my grandmother who had touched the wall.

“It’s unlike anything else in the world,” they all said.

I felt like there was something wrong with me for feeling nothing when I touched it. So I nodded along with everyone else when they went on about how spiritual and meaningful it felt — but honestly? I can tell this now: I felt just a wall.

But I did feel other things that summer: Namely, a deep and abiding love of this little strip of land, this geographic fingernail that holds so much potential and so much promise. And more than that, I felt a powerful, permeating love of the people — all the people — living there.

Now, 20 years later, after immigrating to Israel nearly seven years ago, I have those feelings even more. I also feel that the wall matters to many of the people underneath this big huge tent with me. This little piece of wall is a symbol of how the Romans tried to crush us, and we survived. More than that: We thrived. We became bigger and more flexible. We became more diverse in our culture and religious experience. This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer

But then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reneged on a deal to create an egalitarian prayer space for Jews who are not Torah observant. And that makes me livid. Because in doing so, Netanyahu basically said, “Screw you” to our big, huge tent. He basically said, “Screw you” to Jews like me and Jews like many of you.

If you’re a Diaspora Jew who believes in pluralism, chances are you’re angry right now, and that’s good. And I’m glad you’re angry because we need you to be angry. But I need you to come with me a step further, and feel something even more meaningful: People.

Our government does not give a damn about certain people despite great protestations to the contrary. I’m just going to give you a few examples. Many Holocaust survivors are in abject poverty. One out of four, actually. We have a lovely ceremony every year on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, but our leaders basically do nothing to focus on the living who need help. And each year the number of survivors gets smaller and smaller, until — very soon — there will be no one left. And it really feels right now that despite the ceremony, despite ample reference to the Holocaust in political speeches abroad, that our government is just waiting for these people to die already. Because if that weren’t the case, wouldn’t we make sure that not a single Holocaust survivor was freezing in the winter, hungry all year round or alone? Is this an Israel you support?

In Israel, you can’t marry outside your own religious group or outside your own group’s strictest religious interpretation. Jews can marry only Jews. Christians can marry only Christians. Muslims can marry only Muslims. And if you’re Jewish and want to get married with a Reform rabbi in Israel, you can’t. Unless you go abroad and get married there, and then come back with a certified marriage license, and go through ridiculous legal and bureaucratic hoops and blah blah blah. This is unacceptable. Who we love and choose to make a life with is not anyone’s business but our own, and we shouldn’t have to jump through these hoops if we have enough faith to commit to someone for the rest of our lives. Is this an Israel you support?

Migrants and refugees are invisible to most Israelis — they work in the back of the kitchen, or they’re out there sorting garbage. They are poor and in need, and they are ignored. Or harassed. Or locked away. With the rare exception of people at such places as Terem Medical Center and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, no one looks after them. Because it’s easier to look away than face their pain and our moral shortcomings. Is this an Israel you support?

Arab citizens of Israel (sometimes referred to as Palestinian citizens of Israel) get racially profiled daily. They are humiliated. Daily. They are stopped and questioned and even searched. Daily. Mahmoud can’t get a building permit, but Moshe can. Their streets are not always paved, and trash builds up along their sidewalks. They’re told, “You have it better than you would in Syria” — a disgusting thing to hear because, despite being citizens, they are still not treated as equals of their Jewish neighbors. Is this an Israel you support?

Our child poverty rates are way too high. Our schools are de facto segregated into separate and not equal systems where basically zero effort is made by the government to help integrate communities in after-school programs. Our housing prices are way too high because so much of our money goes toward building settlements, further entrenching us in a conflict that gets harder and harder to end. Is this an Israel you support?

This little piece of wall symbolizes the journey we are still on as a people, honing our values — a small but mighty and insistently surviving people who disagree and come together. That means something to me.

I don’t support that Israel. But I do support Israel. I support the Israel that raises money to help a Palestinian guy pay a fine he got for wearing the wrong bathing suit on the beach — after 20 years of not seeing the shoreline because he lives behind a different wall.

I support the Israel made up of the civil rights workers and the human rights workers who are giving their lives — and in some cases, risking their lives — to defend the downtrodden and the disenfranchised.

I support the Israel whose citizens run toward a terror attack and not away from it because they want to help in any way they can.

I support the Israel whose citizens speak out against 50 years of occupation — an occupation that hasn’t made us any safer or any stronger, an occupation corroding us from within and teaching our children that some people are more equal than others.

I support the Israel whose citizens volunteer in South Tel Aviv with the migrant babies, who show up to help take care of impoverished Holocaust survivors, who send their kids to mixed schools between religious and secular Jews, and the Arabs and Jews who want their children to know their neighbors even when those neighbors come from different worlds.

I support the Israel whose citizens understand something fundamental: The Western Wall is a very important symbol of our faith and our strength as a people — but it is just a wall. Just a wall. It was the hands that placed those stones back in the day that were holy, and it is the hands that touch them today that are holy.

So, American Jews — and everyone else dismayed by the true face of our government that you are now seeing — please don’t give up on Israel. Speak out and vote with your wallets.  Don’t boycott us, because that will only make the extremists on all sides that much stronger. Support us by giving to organizations that support a just and equal Israel for all her holy people, such as Hiddush, New Israel Fund, Oasis of Peace: Wahat al-Salam––Neve Shalom, and Women Wage Peace.

The Israel I support and I love and I will give my life for understands that people are, above all, the most important — and treating people with dignity, respect and, yes, equality —  should be our holy mission on this earth.

I hope you will support that, too.

Sarah Tuttle-Singer is a writer in Jerusalem working on a book about the Old City. The Venice, Calif., native climbs on roofs and drinks scotch.

The summer our rainbow flag became a red flag

The flag in question looked like this. Via WikiCommons

The Jan. 31,1969, cover of Time magazine bore the headline “Black vs. Jew: A Tragic Confrontation.” Our rabbi brought a copy to our class of high school juniors and seniors, and used it as an opportunity to teach us a Latin expression.

Cui bono?” he asked. “ ‘Who benefits’ from a cover and a story like this?”

I walked away from our discussion that night with an understanding that has served me all these years. Of course there will be disagreements among friends and those with shared values and passions, but can we avoid letting those disagreements distract us from the causes and people most deserving of our attention?  

The disputes we’re encountering this summer stop us from working together and, more importantly, from sitting together and making a deliberate effort to understand where we are coming from and where we might go together.

My brother, Larry Edwards, is rabbi emeritus of the LGBT synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago. Long a participant in the Chicago queer Jewish community, he has been reflecting on the recent conflicts, especially the one that originated in Chicago last month.

He writes: “By now many are familiar with the controversy surrounding Chicago’s Dyke March on June 24. (And I want to clarify up front — because there does seem to be some confusion out there — that the event was not the Chicago Pride Parade. The Pride Parade, held the next day, has always been open to wide and diverse participation.) My friend Laurie Grauer, a longtime member of my former congregation and a long-time participant in Chicago Dyke Marches, was asked to leave because of a flag. Or perhaps not just because of the flag, but because she was closely questioned about her Zionist affiliation, and told that there was no space for a Zionist in this Dyke March.

“The flag in question was designed and produced by members of Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago during the time that I served as its rabbi. As far as I know, this was the first version of this flag, a Star of David on a Rainbow flag, though similar versions may have been produced elsewhere. It was a fundraiser, as well as a way to express — both playfully and seriously — queer Jewish identity. It was carried by us in numerous Pride Parades, typically to cheers from many in the crowd. So it was a bit surprising to hear that Laurie was harassed for carrying our flag, or that it was perceived by some in the crowd as a ‘trigger’ which made them feel threatened.”

My brother recommends a recent article in response to the Dyke March controversy by historian Judith Rosenbaum of the Jewish Women’s Archive, who offers some nuanced and historically informed insights into the current dilemma.

“Intersectionality,” she explains, “is not about enforcing alignment of identities and politics. In fact, by definition, ‘intersectionality’ is the opposite of alignment! Intersecting lines touch at only one point; everywhere else, they are heading in different directions. The purpose of intersectionality is to help us all realize that identities are complex and diverse and multi-faceted; that we can’t create simple equations to explain, describe, or prescribe them. …

“As a historian, I am keenly aware that social movements have often come undone over the attempt to enforce rigid ideological alignments. … In this historical moment, we do not have the luxury of splintering in pursuit of ideological purity.”

Rosenbaum, my brother and I join a growing number calling for real dialogue rather than absolutes, in the hopes, as my brother says, “such dialogue will lead to a stronger (if less pure) coalition — something sorely needed in a time when powerful forces are seeking to reverse the gains of recent decades.”

Indeed, in a decades-long struggle for queer rights, and in this time of angst, of threats real and perceived, none of us is lacking for examples of the way dismissals, quick judgments, assumptions and demands for apologies serve to alienate us from one another.

Cui bono?

Not our aching hearts nor our anxious minds, and not our community nor the people and causes we seek to support. We know it is easier asked for than accomplished, but we have some walls of our own to dismantle. Let’s talk.  

Rabbi Lisa Edwards is senior rabbi of Beth Chayim Chadashim (, an inclusive Los Angeles congregation founded in 1972 as the world’s first lesbian and gay
synagogue. This article was written in conversation with
Rabbi Larry Edwards, rabbi emeritus of the LGBTQ synagogue Congregation Or Chadash in Chicago.

There’s more to the story: Look beyond the wall

Members of activist group Women of the Wall speak to the media following the Israeli government's decision to create an egalitarian prayer plaza near Jerusalem's Western Wall, January 31, 2016. (Photo: Amir Cohen/Reuters)

I have been spat and yelled at (and worse) while davening at the Kotel. I stand behind the efforts to bring egalitarian services there. I am a supporter of Women of the Wall (WOW). And I am pained (but somehow not surprised) by the recent reversal by the government, which does feel like a betrayal, and which stymies admirable efforts to open the Kotel to the full array of Jewish religious expression.

And at the same time, I choose not to wring my hands or wallow today. I choose to celebrate, and thus identify with Rabbi Akiva in the famous story from the Talmud in which his rabbinic peers tore their garments upon seeing the ruins of Jerusalem. They see the moment frozen in time, a destruction prophesied by a particular biblical verse. Rabbi Akiva smiles, however, reminding them that the end of that very verse also prophesies redemption. Now that the nadir envisioned by the verse has come to pass, the eventual ascension/aliyah is also inevitable.

So why do I celebrate today? Because even though the Charedi hold on Israeli politics is at times painful and corrupt, as the Kotel fiasco attests, for me, redemption is not tied to a particular wall. I am sometimes bemused by the fact that so much focus is put on prayer at the ruin of the Temple by the very Jews who least ache for that spot to re-emerge as the center of Jewish spirituality. For the progressive-traditional Jew, who sees rebirth of meaningful and resonant Judaism within Israel as one of Zionism’s greatest contributions and challenges, what transpires at the Kotel may be symbolically important, but pales in comparison to the evolutions transpiring throughout the land — the mash-up of secular seekers and traditional liturgy at various Kabbalat Shabbat phenomena that are growing; the strength and vitality of Masorti and Progressive synagogues and communities despite the infrastructural challenges that inhibit them; the will exhibited by myriad Israelis to reject the authority and monopoly of the rabbanut by making decisions (which, yes, they ought not have to make) to marry creatively rather than under near-theocratic conditions.

Last summer, I attended a cousin’s wedding on an Orthodox kibbutz, where the officiant was female, and at which the hordes of sweaty, tzitzit-flying, tichel-wearing attendees saw no conflict between traditional Jewish rituals and practice on the one hand, and female religious leadership and party-style mixed-dancing on the other. This same cousin, who helped found yet another Orthodox/egalitarian minyan in the Katamon neighborhood of Jerusalem, recently posted on Facebook wishing a mazel tov on the recent wedding … of Moshe and Eran, two of his closest male friends and fellow B’nai Akiva alumni.

I’d tear a tiny thread in my clothes, as I really do wish that on my next visit to the Kotel, I and my daughters can pray in the manner we find sacred. But this symbolic setback is dwarfed by the extraordinary successes we see playing out in spots that are, indeed, more important to the Jewish future even than those venerable stones.

I honor the leaders of WOW and wish them strength. And yet I know we will not win every engagement. And the perfect is the enemy of the good. And Robinson’s Arch is a beautiful place to hold egalitarian prayer (and a bit shadier, too!). And if we scope out beyond those square meters, and if we are witness to (and financially contribute to) the efforts to egalitarian-ize and modernize and evolution-ize the many Judaisms of modern Israel, then we can stand with Rabbi Akiva, and celebrate the burgeoning redemptions.

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am.

Big, Beautiful Tents

Photo courtesy of Women of the Wall.

I remember the first time I saw you. It was the summer of 1978 and the whole family was traveling to Israel to celebrate the b’nai mitzvah of my older sister and brother. We’d only just met and I didn’t know your story yet, but I recall feeling impossibly small in your presence. Despite the heat, you were cool to the touch. I stood right next to you, holding my father’s hand as he gently rested his forehead against you, whispering a prayer.

Although both of my siblings had participated fully in the ceremony we’d celebrated at our synagogue in Omaha, Neb., a few months earlier, only my brother was given the honor of chanting Torah in your presence. My sister, my mom, my grandmother, my aunt and all of the other women stood on chairs on the other side of the divider as the men (and 8-year-old me) gathered around my brother to hear him recite the ancient blessings.

I don’t remember how I felt at the time about my mother having to stand on a chair to watch from a distance, but when I think about it now, almost four decades later, it makes me sad.

Over the years, I’ve visited you more times than I can count. I’ve stood before you with some of the people who matter to me most. I cried in your presence as I watched my grandfather lean against you to write a final letter to my deceased grandmother, telling her that he’d see her soon. I’ve introduced you to hundreds of people, from teenagers on summer tours to families on synagogue missions.

I’ll be with you again in just a few days. This time, I’ll bring two young women to stand beside you as they chant these words from our tradition: Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishk’notecha Yisrael!  How beautiful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel! (Numbers 24:5).

Parashat Balak is the perfect text for such a time as this. A prophet is sent by our enemy to curse Israel. He explains that he can say only the words that God puts into his mouth and out comes a blessing instead. It can be read as a prayer, too: “May it be Your will, O God, that we might have the courage and wisdom to pitch big, beautiful tents like Abraham and Sarah, open on all sides, welcoming all who would enter.”

We magnify and glorify our tradition when we find room in our hearts for our entire community: women and men; secular and religious; Orthodox and Reform; Ashkenazi and Sephardi; gay, straight, and transgender; Jews by birth and Jews by choice along with non-Jewish friends and family members who have cast their lots with our People. This week’s reversal by the Netanyahu government of its previous agreement to provide an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel and its views on conversion diminish our tradition and weaken our community.

There are congregations throughout Israel and the Diaspora that continue to support a broad, inclusive Judaism. Every day, I am grateful to be part of a synagogue that consciously and intentionally tries to celebrate the big, beautiful diversity of our contemporary Jewish community.

Next week, as I travel to Jerusalem and approach that ancient Wall, I won’t hear those young women chant Torah in the same place where my brother stood. Women’s voices still aren’t welcome there, so we’ll go a hundred yards farther south where, for now at least, we can join together as a community to worship, to give thanks, and to celebrate what it means to be part of a People called Israel.

And when those two young women raise their voices in prayer and song, proudly adding their links to our chain of tradition, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved to offer a simple prayer: “May all of Jacob’s descendants, all Israel, soon come to agree that each and every member of our diverse community deserves a place of honor within the tents of Israel.” 

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is senior rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple.

Can Nick Melvoin bring more Jews to LAUSD schools?

Nicholas Melvoin. Photo from

One of the many items on Nick Melvoin’s agenda as a new member of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board is whether he can help make the L.A. public schools more attractive to middle-class Jewish parents and their children.

As I prepared to interview him recently, I knew this might not be the most pressing issue facing an enormous, financially troubled school district confronted with the many problems of urban America. But I thought it was important given that this group’s support had been significant to the public schools before it started to desert them in recent years. I had discussed the matter often with the man Melvoin defeated at the polls in May, school board President Steve Zimmer, and I wanted to know his successor’s views.

But, like I said, there’s so much else at play. Melvoin and the other new school board member, Kelly Gonez, are committed to a larger remodeling of the district, which often has proved to be ungovernable. They were backed in the election by rich supporters of charter schools who long have criticized LAUSD. These contributors want more charter schools, which are public schools not bound by union contracts and other district rules and regulations. The charter school backers say they provide a better education for students.

The teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles, see the charters as a union-busting device. Complicating the matter, because of the intricacies of school finance, some state funds go to the charters, which reduces the money available to regular public schools.

Charter school supporters and their opponents, the unions, spent $15 million on the election between Melvoin and Zimmer, with the charter supporters donating twice as much as their foes. The result was the most expensive school board election in U.S. history.

No doubt, Melvoin, 31, and Gonez, 28, got an idea of how hard remaking the district would be when they were schooled in the district’s byzantine ways by veteran staff members at a three-day session from June 21-23. I met Melvoin in his campaign manager’s Mid-Wilshire office after one of the sessions. I could imagine the scene: Veteran educators, resistant to change, assuring the young newcomers, “Kids, listen to us. We know the ropes. This is how we’ve always done it.”

I could see that he needed a shot of energy, and he immediately steered me to a Starbucks, where we talked about the importance of keeping white, middle-class students in LAUSD, including Jews.

First, though, a bit of context: The district in 2015 reported that 74 percent of its students were Latino, 9.8 percent white, 8.8 percent African-American, 3.8 percent Asian and 3.5 percent Native American and other ethnicities. Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, along with USC’s Richard Flory and Diane Winston, found that about half of the white students in LAUSD are Jewish. That’s based on figures from 2000; Phillips said newer information is badly needed.

The school district reports that 84 percent of students attending the most recent academic year qualified for free and reduced-price lunch, the federal definition of poverty.

Melvoin said he thinks it’s important to increase the number of middle-class students in the Los Angeles schools. The additional middle-class parents, who vote more than the poor, would increase political influence on board members, maybe resulting in improved policies and administration. More middle-class students would make Los Angeles schools more economically and ethnically diverse, which studies show improves education and civic involvement. And more students would increase the amount of state aid — allocated by enrollment size — going to LAUSD.

Melvoin said he saw the importance of middle-class involvement in his campaign. “When you have a group of parent advocates engaged in a way that they haven’t been in the past, you have this advocacy base, this group of politically aware parents with political and social capital,” he said.

Melvoin said his involvement in the Jewish community and interaction with other young Jews showed that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience when Jews, Latinos, African-Americans and other ethnicities mingle in classrooms, the theater, bands and in social life.

“I’m on the board of the Union for Reform Judaism and involved with The Jewish Federation and some of the young professional cohorts, so I think having a diverse school setting is an important value. … For our community, being in integrated schools and having our kids being in school with kids from a lot of diverse communities will strengthen the education our kids will receive,” he said.

Melvoin said that more Jewish students would bring to the schools a more diverse cultural experience.

But Melvoin, who was a middle school teacher in Los Angeles for two years, conceded it will be a tough sell, especially at poor schools where many students have limited English skills and test scores are lower.

“Parents first look at test scores,” Melvoin said. “Until they see academic improvement, they won’t send their kids. … Until you improve the core instruction, I don’t think some of these middle-class parents will be interested.”

I asked him about what it will take to improve the schools. “Great teachers, great principals, engaged parents, rigorous curriculum, deeper dives into content,” he said.

I don’t think any of previous board members would disagree with those generalities. But his predecessors have been stymied by obstacles big and small of which Melvoin still is unaware.

He will have to deal with hostile unions, especially when the board tries to reduce pension and benefit costs that administrators have warned are driving the district into bankruptcy. Charter school advocates will demand action from Melvoin after they financed his campaign. Parents will besiege him with complaints.

All this for a salary of $45,637 a year.

Charles Taylor Kerchner, a professor and research scholar at Claremont Graduate University, described the new school board member’s challenge well on the Education Week website: “Remember the little dog you used to have: the one that chased cars but was smart enough not to ever catch one? Nick Melvoin caught the car. Now, he and his big money backers have to figure out what to do with the nation’s second largest school district.”

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Crafting political activism

People take part in an "I am Muslim Too" rally in Times Square on Feb. 19. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

“Protest is the new brunch,” says the new slogan. I certainly hope not.

Shortly before the inaugural, a friend posted a question on her Facebook page. She lives in Orange County and has a couple of small children. She asked if she should attend the Women’s March in Los Angeles, or go to a smaller one in the O.C.? It would be quite a hassle to bring her children, but she wanted to see her friends. What should she do?

I responded as follows: “Think about it this way. Resisting this Regime is not an exercise for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a year. It will be a marathon, not a sprint. It seems to me that doing that work means joining an activist community that you will be able to work with on an ongoing basis, developing ideas for what you want to accomplish, and then working together to accomplish them. You aren’t going to schlep up here regularly to do that. Moreover, maybe your kids will meet other kids from Orange County so it will be easier for you to involve them. So as much as I would like to see you, at least if you are trying to effect change, staying there might be better.”

She might have thought her question was about convenience, but it really concerned effectiveness. Did it matter where she protested?

We all have seen and I have participated in many of the now ubiquitous protests, marches, meetings, etc., that constitute the resistance to President Donald Trump. How do we assess them? If activism is supposed to accomplish something, it must be tethered to a clearly enumerated set of objectives — in other words, it needs a coherent theory of change. Put another way, how does activism get us from point A to point B? Answering this question is particularly necessary now, when marches, protests and actions are occurring throughout the country — and will continue for the foreseeable future.

Demand for a theory of change has dictated my own preferred activist course: voter registration. In Southern California alone, there are five congressional districts held by Republicans that Hillary Clinton won in 2016. Since I want to block President Donald Trump as much as possible, I would like to flip those districts to the Democrats. So I spend a good bit of my time going to these districts (in Santa Clarita and Orange County), trying to register more Democrats. If enough of these districts flip across the country, then the House will become Democratic. It’s a straightforward theory of change. That doesn’t mean that it will work or that it will be easy. A coherent theory of change doesn’t necessarily mean an effective one. But it cannot be effective unless it’s coherent.

Theories of change span the political spectrum, of course. Anti-abortion activists picket clinics because they hope to shame pregnant women into turning away — making it too emotionally difficult to end their pregnancy. Whatever you think of this tactic, it contains a coherent theory of change. Picketing leads to shame leads to emotional pain leads to turning away leads to preventing the abortion.

“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. chose to protest in Birmingham, Ala., precisely because he knew that the sheriff there, Eugene “Bull” Connor, would respond violently and brutally. The ensuing gruesome television images would, he hoped, catalyze complacent Northern opinion into seeing the ugliest face of Jim Crow and raise political pressure on Congress to act. It worked.

So I often get frustrated when activists say that they want to be a “voice” for change. What will that voice do? Simply being a voice can work only if the circumstances are right. A friend who organizes protests in Santa Clarita  explained her efforts to me this way: “This town has been Republican for so long that Democrats don’t think they have a chance. Protesting shows them that there are other Democrats here, and that we can win. So they will become more involved and get others involved in politics.” This is a coherent theory of change. 

“Raising consciousness” or “speaking out” can represent a coherent theory of change — but only if it is married to concrete ends.

You might be more of a change agent than you think. A few years ago, I read a master’s thesis that considered, among other things, what organizations can do to get more people to come to their meetings. That’s a very important question for any organizing. The answer? Not slick ad campaigns, nor charismatic leadership, nor lots of money, but rather providing food and child care. That’s common sense when you think of it. So, don’t want to knock on doors or give speeches or drive all over the place? Fine, can you watch the kids during the meetings or cook something? Then you are doing a lot.

I sometimes hear two primary objections to insisting on a theory of change that deserve answers.

Objection one: I’m not a social theorist!

Social change is hard and complicated. “I’m just a doctor/social worker/customer service rep/development officer/accountant/teacher, etc. How can you expect me to develop a whole theory of change?”

First, don’t sell yourself short; you’re a lot smarter than you think. You don’t need a fancy education or experience to figure out how to get from point A to point B. You probably do it in your life all the time.

Second, you don’t have to have a theory of change, but any organization that asks for your energy, your time, your resources or your support should be able to explain to you what its theory of change is. Ask the organization, “In 18 months, if you are successful, what has happened and how do you see it happening?” If it doesn’t make sense to you, it might not make sense to the organization either. Or it might not know. If it doesn’t, then maybe you should look elsewhere. The goal is to help you focus your energy on activism that can lead to real change.

Objection two: One person can’t change the world.

Many people engage in protest and activism not because they think they will change the world, but because they simply want to stand for what is right and lead an ethical life. Critics might call this “virtue-signaling,” but we also can see it as simple humility. I am doing what I think is right even though I don’t expect that I will change the world. Christians sometimes call this “witnessing”: just declaring your beliefs and values publicly without pretending that others will listen, although we can always hope for that.

This posture is attractive precisely because it combines modesty with realism. If you adopt this approach, however, be clear in your own mind that that is what you are doing. “I suppose I have joined the Resistance, but what I am really doing is connecting to God.” Be honest with yourself — and with others who are considering joining you. We always benefit from courageous and moral voices, but we must not allow developing such voices to become an excuse for inaction.

Protest, then, is not the new brunch. It is a particular tactic that (we hope) fits into a broader program of social change. What is that program? How does it work? We can’t answer that question unless we ask it. But now we have. Go and learn.

Jonathan Zasloff is professor of law at UCLA, where he teaches, among other things, property, international law and Pirkei Avot. He is also a rabbinical ordination candidate at the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

A Palestinian state: Like Gaza, only bigger

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem on March 13. Photo by Government Press Office

“Two-state” Middle East proposals are alluring given the prizes they offer each side: a Jewish, democratic Israel; and an independent Palestine. But any real two-state “solution” (and not just a two-state result) must improve the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians. For Palestinians, that’s unlikely.

Ten years ago this week, the radical terrorist group Hamas took control of the already-miserable Gaza Strip – and daily life in Gaza has only worsened in the decade since. Indeed, two million Gazans face massive unemployment and daily struggles to find adequate food, housing, electricity, clean water, and medical care. The United Nations predicts the area will be “unlivable” by 2020.

Gaza’s dire straits are usually blamed on the blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt, as well as other travel and economic restrictions that wouldn’t apply if Palestine were independent. But Palestinian structural, political, and cultural problems mean the Gaza script is all too likely to be replayed on the West Bank in the event of a two-state resolution. How long before the Palestinian residents of Nablus and Hebron begin pining for the good old days of Israeli presence?

With all the complaints about Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions, it’s easy to forget that Israel built the skeleton upon which Palestine has rested, for better or worse, for half a century.

I’m not sure Israel would simply hand over the infrastructure it created – let’s face it, mostly for its own citizens – in the event of a Palestinian state. Two states would not reflect a “divorce” as in Czechoslovakia in 1993, since the land for Palestine originally came from Jordan and Israel was never binational. If Palestine asks Israel to defer to its declaration of independence, it can’t reasonably expect to simply keep everything Israel built within its borders. The two states would have to negotiate the disposition of the West Bank’s water systems, telecommunications, transportation, electric grid, and more.

But even if Israel did abandon all claims to the foundation it built through massive investment in the West Bank, Palestinians have no experience administering and operating it efficiently. Over in Gaza, the technical problems are not solely due to Israeli interference; Hamas blunders also play a role.

The currency Palestinians use – even in Gaza – is the Israeli shekel. An independent Palestine would have its own currency, which – even if pegged to the dollar or the Euro – would be untested and a risky change from Israel’s currently robust shekel.

People often forget that Israel’s military presence in the West Bank modulates the territory’s internal conflicts. Palestinians are sharply divided, particularly regarding the religious and political shape of any future state. Israel’s army has kept those tensions from boiling over into civil war. Who will play that role if Israel withdraws?

And some of Gaza’s plight results from Palestinian cultural factors that would stymie a healthy democracy. (Indeed, the technically democratic Palestinian Authority hasn’t held an election in 11 years.) Notorious corruption on the West Bank combined with tribal and regional rivalries suggest a constantly destabilized Palestine, particularly after it can no longer (well, should no longer) unify its people by blaming its disarray on Israel.

Of course, one of the reasons for Gaza’s hardship is the three short but devastating wars it fought with Israel. Israel had to invade each time because of rockets being fired at its civilians – and not only by militants controlled by Hamas. An independent Palestine will be hard-pressed to prevent individuals and groups from launching missiles on Israel – this time from closer range to Ben Gurion Airport and Tel Aviv. Palestinians bemoan the deaths of Gaza residents from Israel’s “disproportionate response” to its defensive actions. Independence in the West Bank would double down on that problem.

Why are Palestinians even pushing for an independent state given its likely failure to improve their lives? It’s not like they are unaware of the obstacles. Well, for many of them, an independent Palestine is just one step toward the ultimate goal of a unified nation including all of their “heritage” – and that includes Tel Aviv and its suburbs as much as it does Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

Not every world problem has a solution. Korea remains divided and China still occupies Tibet. Many Israelis have welcomed he Trump Administration’s signals it is not wedded to the two-state approach. Perhaps Palestinians should also be heartened and eager to explore different strategies for easing the conflict, lest a two-state result produces a Palestinian state that is basically Gaza, only bigger.

David Benkof is a columnist for The Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and, or E-mail him

Oppose Charter Amendment C—and strengthen democracy

Congregation Mogen David, a polling station, on Election Day 2016. Photo by Ryan Torok

Did you know that there is an election on May 16? Don’t beat up on yourself if you didn’t, most of your fellow citizens do not know either. The problem is that the very “hiding in broad daylight” aspect of this election might allow some very bad law to be enacted. There is only one item on the ballot for most Angelenos, “Charter Amendment C.” The item has a reform sounding title: “Civilian Review of Police Disciplinary Matters.” Unfortunately, this amendement to the city charter is not a reform. It is an attempt by the Police Protective League (the police officers’ union) to undermine the current disciplinary mechanism.

Under the current system, enacted by Charter Amendment after the Rodney King uprising, there is a Board of Rights attached to and constituted by the Police Commission. In a case where the Chief of Police recommends suspension or demotion an officer may appeal to the Board of Rights. The Board of Rights is comprised of three people—two randomly chosen police officers, and a civilian from a pool handpicked by the executive director of the Police Commission. The Board of Rights cannot recommend a more severe punishment than the Chief, but can recommend a more lenient one.

Under the proposed Amendment, the Board of Rights’s composition will change so that it will be comprised of three civilians. An officer who has received a discipline recommendation from the Chief will be able to choose either the current Board (2 officers and 1 civilian) or the new Board. Neither Board may recommend a more severe punishment.

So why, one may ask, would the Police Protective League, fierce opponents of all manner of civilian oversight, first and foremost the establishment of the Police Commission in its current form itself (Amendment F), be the most vocal and lead supporters of Amendment C, labelling it “civilian oversight?” Why, on the other hand, are the most vocal supporters of police reform and civilian oversight opposed to this measure?

One answer might be that research has shown that over the last five years, civilians on the Board of Rights have overwhelmingly voted for more lenient disciplinary measures. Moreover, the civilians who make up the board are not randomly chosen, they have to go through an interview with the executive director. There is no guarantee (or even probability) that those chosen to be on the board would represent communities most impacted by interactions with LAPD. Under the current system, civilians who want to serve on the Board of Rights must have seven years’ experience with arbitration, mediation, or administrative hearings. Further, if these board members consistently vote against the officers, they can be removed from the pool since it is all at the discretion of the executive director of the Police Commission.

This is most definitely not enhancing civilian oversight despite what the expensive, glossy brochures supporting Amendment C say. This is the worst type of civic engagement—betting on the fact that after a brutal national election and a brutal local election Angelenos will be tired and will probably sit out another election in which there is only one measure up for vote. Then, if they do notice, use misleading advertising to make casual voters think that an unearned windfall for the police union is actually strengthening civilian oversight of the LAPD.

Beyond the fact that this amendment is bad for the residents of the city, the process is bad for democracy. In order for there to be a robust democratic conversation about the issues that impact our city, the residents of the city need to be convinced that the conversation matters, that things can change for the better. If instead of this, the ballot process is used in an underhanded and disingenuous way people—who in any event are working really hard to support themselves and their families, and do not have an abundance of leisure time—will be dissuaded from taking part in the process. Turnout for special elections is already low. We need to defeat this spurious measure so that special elections are no longer used to pass measures that otherwise would be debated and defeated.

Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn, an early twentieth century American Orthodox Rabbi with a strong love for democracy, argued that the laws in Deuteronomy 16 that are usually taken to be referring to the behavior of judges (“You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”) are actually referring to democratic elections—that the elections must be fair, that the voters must not bribed, and not so on. It is not a stretch to continue and say that the ballot process must not be abused by deceptive advertising, or scheduling a vote for a time when turnout will be low.

We must defeat Charter Amendment C, get back to the work of actually enhancing civilian oversight of the police department, and enhancing the democratic discourse in our city.

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, PhD is Professor of Rabbinic Literature at American Jewish University and Rabbi in Residence at Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

What’s wrong with Jews’ emphasis on intellect?

Photo courtesy of Facebook.

Question: In life, which is more overrated — looks or brains?

I would argue that it’s a tie.

But there is a difference. For better or for worse, valuing beauty is built-in to human nature. Notions of beauty may differ from culture to culture, but every culture values beauty. Tests done with infants show that even they are drawn to faces most adults deem beautiful.

But the valuing of intellect is much more of a cultural matter. And no culture values brain power more than Ashkenazi Jewish culture.

There certainly is anecdotal evidence to support this.

Take, for example, the famous Jewish joke about a birth notice: “Jacob and Sarah Birnbaum are proud to announce the birth of their son, Dr. David Birnbaum.”

Today, of course, the announcement would apply equally to a daughter.

Another example: I only exaggerate a bit when I tell audiences: “When you ask a Jew, ‘How are you?’ you will often receive this answer: ‘Great. My daughter is at Dartmouth.’ ”

Likewise, I tell audiences, “When a stranger recognizes me and approaches me — a somewhat frequent occurrence — unless the person is wearing a kippah, I have no way of knowing if the person is a Jew or a non-Jew. But there is often a giveaway: If the person tells me what college their son or daughter goes to, I know it’s a Jew.”

To demonstrate how cultural the Jewish preoccupation with the intellect is, the different reactions these lines receive from Jewish and non-Jewish audiences are telling. There is loud laughter in Jewish audiences but only a few chuckles from non-Jews.

Jews completely relate to what I said; to non-Jews it is just odd. Non-Jews rarely tell anyone, let alone a stranger, what college their kid goes to, no matter how prestigious. But for many American Jews, their meaning in life and social status are predicated on getting their child into a prestigious college.

Now, to be sure, this preoccupation with prestigious colleges is not only related to Jews’ valuing the intellect. It is at least as related to a preoccupation with professional success and the future earning power of their child. And, yes, ego. In Jewish life, what college one’s child attends is often seen as the single greatest proof of achievement as a parent.

This preoccupation begins at the birth of one’s children and grandchildren. Is there any Jew whose 2-year-old child or grandchild isn’t “brilliant”?

What’s wrong with all this preoccupation with brains?

First, it often overshadows the far more important trait of goodness. I am certain that for many Jewish (and, increasingly, non-Jewish) parents, their child’s brilliance is more important than his or her goodness. This is easily ascertainable: Compare how much time and effort parents spend working on their child’s moral character as opposed to their child’s intellect.

Here’s a test. Ask your child, no matter how young or how old, this question: What do you think I most want (or wanted) you to be — happy, smart, successful or good?

Here’s another test. Would you tell your high school-age son or daughter, “You need to know that I’d much rather have you attend a local state college than cheat on even one test and get into Stanford”?

And how many parents speak to others about their children’s intellectual achievements as compared with their goodness? Jewish parents who speak about how fine a person their child is usually are assumed to have a loser for a child.

The fact is, there is no correlation between intellect and goodness. In fact, a disproportionate number of intellectuals, in the 20th century and today, have been, to put it bluntly, moral idiots — and therefore disproportionately supported the greatest evils of their time. Almost all the support in the West for Soviet Communism came from intellectuals, not hard hats. Within Germany, the university was one of the most passionate pro-Nazi institutions. In America today, a Christian plumber is far more likely to support Israel than a Ph.D. in sociology, or in any other subject (including Judaic studies). And the number of bright, even “brilliant,” college students whose moral compass is broken is enormous.

Finally, intelligence not only is not as important as goodness, it is not nearly as important as common sense. A person of average intelligence with common sense will navigate life far better, by making far more intelligent decisions, than a brilliant person who lacks common sense. According to Satoshi Kanazawa, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics, in at least one important area — binge drinking and getting drunk — more intelligent people actually have less common sense. They do both more.

Parents who overemphasize brains to the detriment of other positive values, such as character, common sense and the ability to deal with life’s vicissitudes (think of all the bright college students who need “safe spaces” because they can’t deal with speakers with whom they disagree) are doing long-term damage to their child. And, to return to my opening question about looks and brains, they are not doing their daughter any favor if they neglect looks. In real life, they matter, too. But you need common sense to acknowledge that.

When will the UN Human Rights Council follow its own mission?

Delegates arrive for the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, February 27, 2017. Photo via REUTERS/Denis Balibouse.

Editor’s note: This opinion tackling the United Nations Human Rights Council is the “con” argument published in conjunction with the “pro” argument written by David Kaye, “Reform, but don’t leave UN Human Rights Council.

In a recent letter to a group of nine non-profit organizations, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a “biased agenda against Israel” and urged that “considerable reform” would be needed for the US to continue its involvement.

This was an important development, and one that echoes a growing chorus of voices who believe that the UNHRC must be pressured to change. As currently constituted, the Council discriminates against Israel and whitewashes oppression all over the world, violating its own mission and ultimately doing far more harm than good to the cause of human rights.

The UNHRC’s failure has been evident for many years now. In 2006, when the Council was founded, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was already expressing concerns about a “disproportionate focus on violations by Israel.” Unfortunately, Annan and his successor, Ban Ki Moon, were unable to hold the UNHRC accountable. According to UN Watch, between 2006 and 2015 the Council condemned Israel 62 times, compared with just 55 against all other countries combined.

The UNHRC’s discrimination and bigotry against Israel do not simply end at the disproportional condemnations. In 2008, the Council appointed extremist Richard Falk to a six-year term as “Special Rapporteur” on “human rights in the Palestinian territories.” Falk has publicly endorsed the “The Wandering Who?a book that has been widely condemned for anti-Semitism; praised leading 9/11 conspiracy theorist David Ray Griffin, and been accused of being “a partisan of Hamas” by the Palestinian Authority. The UNHRC has thoroughly discredited itself as a judge of right and wrong when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

While the UNHRC has criticized some human rights violations in Syria and elsewhere, it has also strenuously ignored the suffering of countless people living under some of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Women continue to suffer brutal oppression in Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are subjected to modern day slavery in Qatar, people are executed at a higher rate in China than in any other country, and political opponents in Venezuela face prosecution for merely criticizing the government.

Yet the UNHRC has not passed a single resolution condemning those responsible for these abuses. Far from facing criticism, these regimes and others like them have actually been rewarded with membership in the UNHRC again and again. The UNHRC has become a place where the worst human rights abusers go to shield themselves from accountability, in part by scapegoating the only liberal democracy in the Middle East.

In December, during one of his final statements as Secretary General, Moon summed up the situation well: “Over the last decade I have argued that we cannot have a bias against Israel at the UN. Decades of political maneuvering have created a disproportionate number of resolutions, reports and committees against Israel. In many cases, instead of helping the Palestinian issue, this reality has foiled the ability of the UN to fulfill its role effectively.”

These candid remarks were a step in the right direction, but they also served as a reminder of how unrealistic it is to expect the UN to fix its problems from within.

Indeed, history has shown that even such criticism from the UN’s own leading officials has not led to necessary changes in the UNHRC and other UN bodies that have been similarly compromised. While withdrawing from the Council may or may not be the answer, Secretary Tillerson’s demands for reform are clearly justified. Billions of US tax dollars are invested year after year as the UN continues to prove that it is incapable of self-improvement.

The US government is right to examine all options to ensure accountability, including cutting off its voluntary funding to the UNHRC and reducing its contributions to the UN’s overall budget. After over a decade of discriminating against Israel and undermining the cause of human rights around the world, it is clear that increased pressure is needed for the UNHRC to finally start following the mission it was created to fulfill.

Roz Rothstein, CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs
Max Samarov, Director of Research & Campus Strategy for StandWithUs

Hate crimes, bomb threats, anxiety and people with disabilities


As we all are aware, recently there has been a significant increase in hate crimes and bomb threats across the United States. Minorities, including people with disabilities, are especially at risk, not only for attacks and threats but also for the stress and anxiety that can result from seeing what is happening around us. People with multiple minority status (i.e. people of color + disability, LBGTQ + disability, Jewish or Muslim + disability, immigrant + disability) are particularly vulnerable.

Following more than 90 recent bomb threats and 140 separate recent incidents of anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has issued a security advisory. It is asking people to review the Bomb Threat Guidance provided by the FBI and U.S. Department of Homeland Security; refer to the chapter on Explosive Threat Response Planning in ADL’s Security Manual Protecting Your Jewish Institution, which assists institutions in creating welcoming environments while keeping them safe; and to refer to ADL’s list of 18 Best Practices for Jewish Institutional Security. However, while the ADL’s excellent guidance can be helpful to people of all faiths, it does not cover issues that are vital for the 56 million Americans who have a disability.

When Jewish institutions do not have inclusion committees or policies, issues of life and death that impact people with disabilities can be seriously neglected. Fully 1 in 5 Americans have a disability, and the Jewish community, due to genetic disorders and advanced paternal ages, is disproportionately impacted by disabilities.

Can you imagine if an alarm goes off at a Jewish community center or day school and someone cannot hear it and there is not a plan in place? Or if someone who is blind or has low vision isn’t properly helped when the alarms are simply flashing lights? Or if people who need to take medications at regular intervals are evacuated but their medicines are left behind? Or what happens to a child with autism or adult with mental health issues if the staff is not properly trained and no system is in place?

Every Jewish institution needs to take disability inclusion seriously. Our nonprofit organization, RespectAbility, has compiled the free tools and resources listed below to help.

The 1 in 5 people in America who have a disability need proactive and systematic planning in order to ensure they have the same safety and security as everyone else. Key issues and steps include:

Anxiety, Addiction and Emotional Health: Even for people who do not have ongoing mental health issues and who are located nowhere near bomb threats or hate crimes, the content of social and other media can be extremely frightening. Emotional reactions can include feeling physically and mentally drained, having difficulty making decisions or staying focused on topics, becoming easily frustrated on a more frequent basis, arguing more with family and friends, feeling tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried, and experiencing changes in appetite or sleep patterns. Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. It is important to try to accept whatever reactions you may have and to look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your needs and those of your family. Keep a particularly close eye on children and people with addiction issues (including internet addiction) who may need extra means of support.

Some of the things that can significantly help your mental health include limiting your exposure to the sights and sounds of stress, especially on television and radio, in newspapers and on social media, as well as to eat a healthy diet, get ample sleep and stay personally connected to family and friends. Stay positive. Remind yourself of how you’ve successfully gotten through difficult times in the past. Reach out when you need support and help others when they need it.

Most major cities have a Jewish social services agency, which will help people of all faiths. Additionally, the Red Cross Disaster Distress Helpline is free and available around the clock for counseling or support. You can call 1-800-985-5990, text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746 or utilize

Another resource is the American Counseling Association. It has fact sheets you can download on mental health services, including post-traumatic stress disorder and crisis counseling. Moreover, if you are feeling suicidal, you should go immediately to the website

Create Your Evacuation Plan and Support System: Have you been in touch with your local police station and fire department? If not, do it now. A part of the services they provide is to keep track of the needs of residents with disabilities in times of threat or disaster. For example, if you use a wheelchair and live or work in a high-rise building, the fire department will come out for free to meet with you and create an individual plan for you in the case of a fire or other emergency.

If you have sensory, cognitive or other issues, it is vital for the police and fire department to know how to support you in a time of crisis. Hundreds of Americans with disabilities are killed by police each year because the police have not been trained to recognize and address mental health or other disability issues. The time to have those conversations and training is before a disaster strikes. Because this issue is so important, RespectAbility has conducted a free webinar, which you can find on our website: Special Conversation with Special Olympics about Violence, Police Training and People with Disabilities.

When it comes to evacuating people with disabilities, you must plan in advance. See the National Fire Protection Association’s terrific Emergency Evacuation Planning for People with Disabilities (June 2016) at

Have a “To Go” Kit Ready: If your building is evacuated, you will want to have several things handy. For example, you will want to have any medications you may need to take as well as your phone and charger, glasses, hearing aids and extra batteries if you use them, supplies for a service animal you may have and more. You also will want to let your loved ones, who might worry if they see a threat on the news, know you are OK. You can do that through phone, email or social media. There are terrific resources available through FEMA at

If you use a communication device, mobility aid or service animal, what will you do if these are not available? If you require life-sustaining equipment or treatment such as a dialysis machine, map out the location and availability of more than one facility. For every aspect of your daily routine, plan an alternative procedure. Make a plan, write it down and print it out. Keep a copy of your plan in your emergency supply kit and put a list of important information and contacts in your wallet.

Create a Personal Support Network: If you anticipate needing assistance, make a list of family, friends and others who will be part of your plan. Talk to these people now and ask them to be part of your support network. Share each aspect of your crisis/emergency plan with everyone in your group, including a friend or relative in another area who would not be impacted by the same emergency who can help if necessary.

If you have a cognitive or intellectual disability, or are deaf of blind, be sure to work with your employer and other key contacts to determine how to best notify you of an emergency and what instruction methods are easiest for you to follow. Always participate in exercises, training sessions and emergency drills offered by your employer or landlord.

Our nation is at its best when we are welcoming, respectful and inclusive of all. As many people are, or feel, at risk, we must show exceptional love and friendship to those around us.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who has a disability and is the mother of a child with disabilities, is the president of, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. She can be reached at

Special thanks to Elliot Harkavy for ideas and contacts that were used in this piece. 

Stop celebrating Muslim decency

Local and national media report on more than 170 toppled Jewish headstones after a weekend vandalism attack on Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Feb. 21. Photo by Tom Gannam/REUTERS.

Being congratulated for basic civility is no compliment

Since the recent wave of anti-Semitic bomb threats, vandalism, and cemetery desecrations, journalistic and social media have vocally celebrated condemnations, fund-raising, and volunteer efforts by Muslim groups in an attempt to bolster interfaith cooperation and rehabilitate the reputation of the Islamic community precisely when its very welcome in America is being questioned like never before.

But nobody deserves congratulations for basic decency. Condemning bomb threats and making donations to repair damage from bias crimes is something good people of all backgrounds do. Liberal hoopla over proper Muslim responses to anti-Semitism is no more than a religious riff on the soft bigotry of low expectations. When Muslims go to extraordinary lengths to show they embrace their Jewish neighbors – and they sometimes do – public praise is appropriate. But headlines about Islamic press releases condemning cemetery vandalism send the opposite message – that in normal circumstances Muslims are callous and heartless.

Imagine these headlines:

  • Asian Driver Arrives At Work Without Incident
  • Jamaican Musician Passes Drug Test
  • Black Man Marries His Children’s Mother


While those headlines aim to challenge nasty stereotypes, they actually reinforce their legitimacy.

News stories about broad community efforts to help besieged Jews that contain a sentence “Even the local Muslim community turned out in force” are entirely appropriate. But special congratulations when Muslims act like, well, people are not compliments.

I know how it feels to have my own group celebrated for simple propriety.

As a Zionist, I am perpetually annoyed by hasbara (roughly, propaganda) that celebrates Israeli actions that are only minimally admirable – like an Israeli soldier who shares her sandwich with a starving Palestinian child or an Tel Aviv hospital that provides an impoverished dying Arab woman with free medical care. Yes, I understand that these examples are intended to debunk the idea that Israelis are not decent (although I have yet to see anti-Israel discourse accusing Israelis of withholding sandwiches from orphans). But the very act of highlighting basic decency legitimizes the slander, which is particularly offensive given the many good Israeli actions that are far from just minimally proper.

The people spotlighting Muslim attempts to repair desecrated cemeteries may think they’re rebutting negative stereotypes. But they aren’t. Sorry to say it, but Americans who fear or hate Muslims don’t do so because they think Muslims tolerate vandalism. They do so because they think Muslims tolerate terrorism. These stories will not dent that perception.

Americans are rightly proud of the way its citizens of many groups came together to help one group among them recover in a time of distress – and Muslims should be part of that celebration. But breathless reports that American Muslims aren’t jackasses after all help nobody – including American Muslims.

David Benkof is a columnist for the Daily Caller, where this essay first appeared. Follow him on Twitter (@DavidBenkof) and, or E-mail him at




The Pew Israel survey: A view from the margins

Just a month ago, two new reports cast light on the complex and contradictory nature of Israeli society.  The first was the Pew Research Center’s survey of Israel, which exposed “deep gulfs among Jews, as well as between Jews and Arabs, over political values and religion’s role in public life.”  The second was the World Happiness Report, which ranked Israel #11 in the world in terms of the level of contentment of its citizens.

To anyone who has spent time in Israel, the two reports capture the confounding nature of the country.  How can a place be so happy when its residents fiercely disagree on so many matters large and small?  Within the Jewish majority alone, the differences on core issues among the four groups surveyed– Charedi (ultra-Orthodox), Dati (Orthodox), Masorti (Traditional), and Hiloni (Secular)—are striking.  For example, the Pew survey revealed a wide chasm between Orthodox and non-Orthodox groups about whether Israel should be more Jewish or more democratic. 

It is this question of Jewish vs. democratic that will shape the contours of Israeli society over the next half-century.  And it is this question that pushes to the fore the status of Israel’s large Arab minority. 

Here the Pew results reveal rather disturbing trends among all sectors of the Jewish population.  The survey showed that a plurality of Israeli Jews support the proposition (48-46 percent) that “Arabs should be expelled or transferred from the country.”  A majority of Charedi, Dati, and Masorti Jews were in favor of this statement, while 36 percent of Hiloni Jews were, as well.  There has been much discussion around this conclusion, with one of Israel’s leading experts, sociologist Sammy Smooha, casting doubt on the validity of the figures.  Smooha, who has spent his entire career surveying Jewish and Arab attitudes toward the other, suggests that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of Israeli Jews oppose co-existence with Arabs or would like to see them leave the country. 

But even these lower rates raise alarm bells about growing intolerance. In light of this, I was interested to know how Palestinian Arab friends in Israel interpreted the Pew results.  What is it like when a high percentage of your fellow citizens regard you as unwelcome in your own country?  

I spoke first to a young friend, Nabeel Aboud Ashkar, who does extraordinary work as co-founder and artistic director of the Polyphony Foundation, which brings Jewish and Arab kids together through classical music.  When I asked Nabeel about the Pew survey, he admitted that his first response was to say to himself that he should just take leave of the country and go to a place where his talents are appreciated — such as Germany, where he has pursued his own musical training as a violinist.  Upon reflection, though, he reversed course and said to himself: “No, this is my country.  The country does not belong to the intolerant.  It belongs to those who believe in living together side by side respectfully.  If everyone who is intimidated by extremism decides to leave, then the extremists achieve what they want.  And that is not my vision of the future.”

I also spoke to Fathi Marshood, another friend and colleague, who runs the Haifa office of Shatil, one of Israel’s leading and most effective social justice organizations.  Fathi labors indefatigably to insure that all residents in Northern Israel — Jews and Arabs alike — receive equal access to state medical and welfare resources. When I asked Fathi about the Pew survey, he said that it made him feel deeply uncomfortable about his place in society.  The survey results reflected, he said, an unmistakable trend toward intolerance on the part of the “hostile majority.” The Pew survey made clear to him that his ideal polity was not a Jewish state or a state of the Jews, but a fully democratic state that grants equal rights to all of its citizens, without discrimination.

Notwithstanding the alarming currents in the Pew survey, Fathi vowed to continue his work.  He was not optimistic about significant structural change in the near or intermediate term, certainly not under a Netanyahu government.  But he did express appreciation for one political figure in Israel today, President Reuven Rivlin, who has been outspoken at every turn in condemning anti-Arab racism.

I look on with great admiration and empathy at my friends.  How would Jews feel if nearly half, or even a quarter, of America’s population favored our removal?  The response by Nabeel and Fathi to the Pew results is neither self-pity nor flight, but rather redoubled commitment to work for the betterment of all in peaceful and constructive ways.  Understandably, they are not going to be singing “Ha-Tikvah” any time soon.  They are, after all, both children of the land, whose ancestors lived on it just as Jews began to act on the desire to return after a 2,000-year hiatus.  And yet, remarkably, their “hope is not yet lost.”  Therein lies a glimmer of light in an otherwise dark tunnel. 

David N. Myers is the Sady and Ludwig Kahn Professor of Jewish History at UCLA.

One question for rabbis who perform same-sex weddings

For most supporters of same-sex marriage, the most persuasive, and certainly the most frequently offered, argument on behalf of same-sex marriage has been that homosexuals have no choice, that they could no more choose to be heterosexual than a heterosexual can choose to be a homosexual. 

Although the argument, as I will explain, is a non sequitur, it is true. Especially in the case of gay men, it is simply silly to say that they have “chosen” to be gay. I ask heterosexual men who make this argument: If you were threatened with death unless you stopped being attracted to women and started desiring men sexually, could you do so?

The answer, of course, is no. Even under threat of death, a heterosexual male could not choose to have a homosexual orientation. (I have referred to men specifically because women’s sexuality is considerably more complex. For many women, though certainly not all, there is an element of choice.)

So, now, given the power of the “gays have no choice” argument, I’d like to ask rabbis who perform religious Jewish same-sex weddings a question.

If a bisexual Jew came to you for religious advice, how would you counsel him or her? Let us imagine a bisexual man asked you, “Rabbi, I am capable of having a fulfilling sex life with either a man or a woman. Does Judaism have anything to say to me on this matter? Should I confine my sexual activity to women with the aim of eventually marrying a woman, or should I continue to have sexual relations with both sexes and marry whomever I fall in love with?”

If this rabbi responds to the bisexual by saying that Judaism has no preference for heterosexual relations and heterosexual marriage, then the argument that gays have no choice is, as I described above, a non sequitur. It is so because this rabbi is saying that even for those individuals who do have a choice, Judaism doesn’t care if a person has sex with the same sex or with the opposite sex, or whether he or she marries a member of the same sex or the opposite sex.

It seems pretty clear that rabbis who wish to be consistent with their argument that not allowing same-sex marriage is unfair to gays because they haven’t chosen to be gay would have to counsel a bisexual to confine his or her sexual activity to, and marry, the opposite sex. Bisexuals, after all, do have a choice.

The bisexual forces rabbis who support same-sex marriage in the name of Judaism to confront the most important question: Does Judaism have a heterosexual ideal or not? The “gays have no choice” argument strongly suggests that Judaism does have a heterosexual ideal, but that gays simply cannot meet it.

No one who has ever argued for black equality based their position on the argument that blacks have no choice, that no black has ever chosen to be black. Why not? Because the argument would clearly suggest that being black is an inferior state to being white. The only argument ever offered — and indeed the only correct one — was that there is no difference between a white human being and a black human being. 

Why then was this not the primary or even the only argument for same-sex marriage — that there is no difference between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage — instead of “gays have no choice”?

Because even most of those arguing on behalf of same-sex marriage believe that there is a difference between heterosexual and homosexual marriage — that, for example, at the very least, it is best for a child to have a loving mother and a loving father. Yes, there are some people who argue that if there are two loving fathers, never having a mother means nothing, and that having two loving mothers and never having a father means nothing. But do most people outside of academia really believe this? 

This in no way dismisses the love or the sincerity or the goodness of same-sex couples. It is only an acknowledgement of the obvious. 

The bisexual question posed here forces people — in this case rabbis who perform same-sex weddings — to confront the obvious: that, of course, there is a Jewish ideal — namely male-female sex and male-female marriage. That gay men and many gay women cannot — through absolutely no fault of their own — meet this ideal is truly unfair. Therefore, one can easily understand why many people will conclude that it is worth denying the Jewish heterosexual standard. 

I do not agree with denying this standard, but I can respect those who are preoccupied with fairness for gays. I cannot respect those who deny that Judaism has a male-female sexual and marital ideal. 

Every rabbi who performs same-sex weddings needs to answer the bisexual question. Then we can know whether they are animated exclusively by sympathy for gays or whether they also deny the Jewish male-female ideal. 

Why is this important? Because religion without ideals and standards is no longer religion. Compassion is a major personal virtue, but it is not a standard.

Our task in life is to maintain both compassion and standards. 

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles from 9 a.m. to noon on KRLA (AM 870). His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (

The University of California should stand for free speech

On the surface, the UC system adopting a definition of anti-Semitism seems like a no-brainer. After all, the University should oppose all forms of racism and discrimination, and have meaningful definitions to guide its policies of enforcement. However, the definition of anti-Semitism currently under consideration comes with political strings attached.

The definition under question is commonly called the “State Department definition” and is based off of a discredited European Union definition. Those who are advocating for its use at the UC level point out that as a government definition, it should have bearing on one of the United States’ largest public university systems. Yet as Kenneth Stern, the author of the aforementioned European Union definition, has stated, this use of the State Department definition “would do more harm than good.” In fact, he argues, “to enshrine such a definition on a college campus is an ill-advised idea that will make matters worse, and not only for Jewish students; it would also damage the university as a whole.”

A coordinated group of pro-Israel advocates, led by the AMCHA initiative, is behind this push for the UC system to adopt the definition. Despite their claims about advocating for Jewish students, these organizations see this definition as a way to stifle speech in support of Palestinian rights across the UC system. This definition includes clauses that define anti-Semitism as “demonizing, delegitimizing, and applying a double standard to Israel” – clauses that are unenforceable, and further, if used by the UC system would unconstitutionally limit political speech of students and faculty, and would dangerously conflate the identities of American Jewish students with the actions of the Israeli government.

As Stern points out, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, has stated clearly, “that advocacy in favor of Boycotts/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) against Israel would be classified as antisemitic, as would the erection of fake walls imitating Israel’s separation barrier. So if the definition is adopted, presumably administrators would be expected to label such political speech as antisemitic, or face challenges (political and perhaps legal) from AMCHA and its colleagues that they were not doing their jobs.”

The UC system should, rightly, stand up against racism in all of its forms, and work to create a university system that includes all of its students. Defining anti-Semitism in this way is a barrier towards that goal. I am not alone in thinking this; Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, one of the first 10 women rabbis in the US and long-time peace educator, notes that “the proposed definition of anti-Semitism does not reflect the understanding of tens of thousands of Jews who have adopted nonviolent direct action to challenge Israeli militarism.” Rabbi Gottleib further points out, “the emphasis [on the State of Israel] in this proposal will have a chilling impact on the work of justice. Noncooperation with militarism is not anti-semitic.” As many Jewish Studies scholars point out, critique is a part of the Jewish tradition, and as evidenced by the work of Palestine Legal, to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is to chill political speech and risk violating constitutional principles.

While I applaud Stern’s strong stance for free speech and academic freedom, I do take issue with several points in his articulation of anti-Semitism. For example, he states that “if a diplomat says that Israel – a member state of the United Nations – should not exist as the nation state of the Jewish people, it is appropriate for the Department to State to label that antisemitism.” I am curious about that phrase, “the nation state of the Jewish people.” Many citizens of Israel, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, have strong critiques of the ways Jewish religious law is applied in Israel, not to mention the 20-25% of Israeli citizens who are not Jewish, and are treated as second class citizens by the Jewish state. Is advocating for secular democracy then anti-Semitic? That question seems to be a rich one for discussion in a college classroom, or within a student organization. This definition would limit that possibility, and as a result, limit the possibilities of the university itself.

Instead of accepting this dangerous and unenforceable definition, the University of California should take a strong stance on academic freedom and free speech, and in particular, for a healthy and robust discussion of Israel and Palestine. Invite speakers from across the political spectrum, including those who advocate for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions. Support faculty who teach on and research Israel and Palestine. Protect students’ constitutional right to protest, which includes creative, performance-based, or other non-violent, if confrontational, methods designed to raise awareness.

The status quo in Palestine and Israel is unsustainable. Only by encouraging the full range of discussion on the subject will progress be made towards ensuring safety and freedom for all people in the region. The UC system has a chance to make that progress possible by rejecting this definition.

Tallie Ben Daniel received her BA at UC Santa Cruz and her PhD at UC Davis. She is currently the Academic Advisory Council Coordinator at Jewish Voice for Peace.

Cartoon: ISIS Wants YOU


What we are, and what we are not

I recently was delighted to meet a former Hebrew school student and his mother at the market.

The woman proudly shared that her son was active in combating anti-Semitism in his school, reporting swastikas on lockers and publicly condemning the hostility some of them were experiencing.

I congratulated the boy’s sense of justice and asked him my usual question about what his favorite mitzvah is.

“Fighting hate crimes. Making sure every person feels safe in my school and in my neighborhood.”

Anti-Semitism is undeniably on campuses — even at some elementary schools — and along with the subtle and not-so-subtle occurrences comes the obligation to stand up and condemn them, and prevent them from happening again.

I could give you a whole slew of examples, many of which you are likely to be somewhat familiar with, but this is the very problem in Jewish life today, particularly among young college students.

We understandably become so preoccupied with Jew hatred — preoccupying ourselves with proclaiming what we are not — that we’ve forgotten to explore what we actually are.

We are so involved in damage control that we’re failing to give ourselves and our children a positive Jewish identity.

I worry about a generation of Jews whose closest association with Judaism is fighting anti-Semitism. Although it is certainly a noble preoccupation, it’s hard to imagine taking Judaism into adulthood, cultivating good feelings — joyous feelings — of being a Jew if we are exploring only how terrible it is to be picked on.

Anyone in a thriving business knows that with all the PR in the world, and all the successful attempts to clean up Yelp pages from negative reviews, without a really good product, you have nothing.

So I suggest that this Friday evening, together with friends or family, let’s bask in the priceless product: what we are.

Let’s look at the values that Jews not only died for, but lived for.

Let’s bask in the knowledge that we are a vibrant nation; millions of Jews are learning about their Judaism today more than any other time in history.

Let’s experience the joys of Judaism — the glow of the Shabbat candles, the wine of the Kiddush, the crusty challah, the words of our timeless Torah to uplift and invigorate us all, and the prayers that connect us to our Creator … all in a tech-free zone, where we’re not just hearing each other, but really listening.

Let’s show the world not only our intolerance for racism, but that Jewish people love being Jewish.

Rebbetzin Shula Bryski is co-director of Chabad of Thousand Oaks and the founder of

Why does a Jew write for Atheists?

“Are you an atheist?”

No, I explained. I’m a Jew.

“Then why are you writing a book about atheists?”

I’ve run into this line of questioning a lot.

For the past several years, I’ve worked on What If I’m an Atheist?, a guidebook for teenagers who doubt or deny the existence of God. The book answers questions that teenagers have about unbelief (Are atheists immoral? How do I tell my parents I’m an atheist?) and tosses in atheist stuff both trivial (atheist jokes, lists of celebrity atheists) and serious (how to answer popular lies about atheists, where to turn if your parents kick you out).

Finally, the book has been published. But the question remains: Why does a Jew write a book about atheists?

Even worse, why does a Jew write a book for atheists? Worse yet, for young atheists? Am I trying to turn impressionable minds toward unbelief?

No, I’m not – but being Jewish has made me feel a kinship with atheists.

Jews were the original people who said, “No, we won’t believe in your god.” Kill us if you want, but the answer’s still no.

Like atheists, Jews know how it feels to have your viewpoint about religion ignored and slighted, even in Jew-friendly America. Every winter, it seems as if every store window, TV show, and public event is saying: Celebrate Christmas! Sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “O Holy Night”! Get a tree and a ham!

And like many young unbelievers, I spent much of my teens and twenties trying to determine if God exists and why he lets the world be as – there’s no more appropriate word for it – godawful as it sometimes gets. When young people described the path that they took toward atheism, I recognized some of the landmarks.

But that’s not why I wrote this book.

I wrote it because there weren’t any books like it. There were lots of books for young people of religious and spiritual leanings (mostly Christian) but no advice for teenage atheists and other unbelievers.

And a lot of them needed advice. In researching the book, I discovered first-person accounts of atheist and agnostic teenagers who were scared to tell their family and friends what they believed. Some parents yelled or wept. Some teachers and principals criticized and threatened atheist students. Some classmates shunned or insulted them.

I had written a lot of books that had entertained and informed people, but this one could genuinely help them.

So I knew the reasons why I wanted to write the book – but were there reasons why I shouldn’t write it? Was it wrong for a Jew, even (or especially) a secular Jew like me, to make a guidebook for young atheists?

I wasn’t worried about my soul or God’s judgment on it. I figured that if God exists and wants to blame me for being a bad Jew, he’d unspool a long rap sheet of my other sins before he’d get to “…and you wrote a book.”

But I did worry about hurting Jews. Would the book, in its tiny way, hurt Jews or Judaism? Specifically, would it encourage young Jews to reject their heritage?

I had been through something like this before. I had written a coffee-table book about the wild ways in which people light up their houses for the winter holidays. Since most of those people were decorating for Christmas, I wondered if I was doing wrong by, in essence, glorifying a Christian practice.

So I queried ask-a-rabbi websites. Most of the rabbis answered that I’d be doing wrong only if I were encouraging Jews to abandon Judaism. Since there’s nothing un-Jewish about lighting up in December – it’s the time of the Festival of Lights, after all – I reckoned that I was in the clear.

But hanging up lights is just decoration. Going atheist means abandoning religion, exactly the practice that the rabbis warned me about. And I was aiming this book at kids, a very touchy matter.

So I thought and wrote and deleted and rewrote and then rewrote again. The final, published book doesn’t encourage anyone to abandon his or her faith.

It does imply, though, that there’s nothing wrong with being atheist or agnostic. If that offends the Almighty or my fellow Jews, then so be it. Virtually every book offends someone. Some of the book’s toughest critics have griped that I didn’t go far enough – that the book should push young people to become atheists.

Why write about atheism? Because kids needed it. Because I’ve had doubts about God. Because I wanted to make something that would help its readers. Because of a lot of reasons.

The reasons don’t matter, really. Once a writer finishes writing a book, it’s on its own. It will offend or delight the readers no matter what the writer’s motives were. The writer can explain himself at endless length, but the readers will make up their own minds.

Which is what atheists and agnostics have always done. It’s just one more trait that they have in common with Jews.

Attacking the messenger and not the message

It is sad that Barbra Miner resorts to the old ploy of attacking the messenger and not the message.

Yes, I was upset and passionate about the presence of Jews for Jesus, Messianic Jews—also known as Hebrew Christians— and other missionaries at the Celebrate Israel Festival.

But Barbra failed to share the essence of our discussion.

When I asked Barbra if she had informed the Festival officials that her group believed in Jesus, she responded that she specifically told them they believed in the “Jewish Messiah.” This deflects the real issue. I am sure Barbra knew that if she had been honest and mentioned Jesus she would never have been given a booth. To make matters worse she expects us to believe that she was not required to make a full disclosure about Jesus to the Festival staff since they did not explicitly ask about Jesus. This is disingenuous and surreptitious.

In the interest of reaching out to her, I continued my conversation with Barbra and asked her if she believed Jesus is God. But once again she avoided the question and simply responded that she believes he is the Jewish Messiah. Barbra’s method of response is right out of a Jews for Jesus training manual that encourages Hebrew Christians to intentionally avoid mentioning the controversial issue of Jesus’ divinity.

It was at this point that I asked Barbra a hypothetical question. “If I believe Hercules is God incarnate in a body, and I am wrong, what sin have I committed?” She acknowledged that it would be idolatry.

I continued, “So if you are wrong about Jesus, there are serious consequences because you would be guilty of idolatry too.”

It is illogical to claim to be a “legitimate part of the Jewish community” when every other Jewish denomination is in agreement that the basis of your theology is idolatrous. Additionally, the State of Israel does not recognize Hebrew Christians as Jewish under the Law of Return, specifically because of their belief in Jesus’ divinity.

For 2,000 years Judaism has rejected the divinity of Jesus, and recognized that such a belief places believers in the Christian camp and not the Jewish camp.

I doubt Barbra would invite Mormons (who they consider to be an idolatrous cult) to have a booth at one of her Messianic conventions, even though Mormons claim to be both Christian and descendants from the Jewish tribe of Ephraim.

The difference for the Jewish community is that Mormon’s don’t misleadingly refer to themselves as “Jewish Mormons” and masquerade as observant Jews. It is important to point out that although Hebrew Christians reject rabbinical Judaism they conveniently—and deceptively— use rabbinical rituals and texts to lend credence to their Jewishness.

There is a time and a place for everything. I believe it is wrong and disrespectful for missionaries to share their propaganda at a Jewish Israeli Festival. However, I extend a genuine and warm invitation to Barbra to join my family for a Shabbat meal to discuss our beliefs and experience the beauty, warmth and spirituality of Judaism. Many, I am pleased to say, have already accepted this offer and are thankful they discovered something meaningful they never knew existed in Judaism.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz loves God and Judaism. He is the founder of Jews for Judaism, International and welcomes sincere searchers to dialogue with him.

President Obama vs. the LA Times on anti-Semitism

The Obama White House and the opinion page of the Los Angeles Times are usually in sync—but not always.  Take for example the recent conflict between President Obama and Palestinocentric UCLA Professor Saree Makdisi on anti-Semitism and how to combat it.

In a much-discussed recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, the President argued that his Iran policy was our best chance of curbing not only the Iranian nuclear threat, but the mullahs’ support of a global jihad preaching and practicing Jew hatred. Some of us were not convinced. However, when it came to recognizing the linkage between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel carried to the extreme of questioning the Jewish state’s right to exist, the President was right on. This is what he said:

“I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.”

Without using the term, President Obama was essentially embracing the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” The definition specifically includes as examples accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust, and  accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.

The State Department’s definition is currently in the news because University of California President Janet Napolitano gave it her personal endorsement, prior to a UC Regents Board meeting, scheduled for July, which will debate adopting the definition as a new guideline for U.C. campuses.

Here in the LA Times (May 26 issue) comes in Professor Makdisi who ignores President Obama but frontally assaults UC President Napolitano for the effrontery of disclosing that—like the U.S. State Department and the U.S. President—she believes there is an inherent linkage between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel’s right to exist: criticism which Makdisi considers a benign and sacrosanct form of “anti-Zionism.”

According to Makdisi, to call out anti-Zionists who urge the destruction of the Jewish state for “delegitimizing” and demonizing” Israel is an attempt to “stifle academic freedom and “pre­empt crit­i­cism of Is­raeli poli­cies.” This is patent nonsense. Criticize Israeli government policies—including settlement policies—all you want. Just don’t cross the line by demanding that Israel, a UN member state with six million Jewish and two million Arab citizens, commit national suicide because it “has no right to exist.”

Makdisi has no problem with shutting down forms of campus advocacy that threaten the status and self-esteem of students on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. Earlier this year in another LA Times’ op ed, he even questioned the right of Paris’ murdered Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to satirize the Prophet Mohammed.  But when it comes to campus advocacy—and actions—that marginalize Jewish students by charging them with “dual loyalties” and by tauntingly raising the specter of another Jewish genocide in the Middle East, Makdisi believes that “anything goes, and that free speech provides an impenetrable suit of armor to protect  toxic forms of speech and conduct on campus.

A case in point about the linkage between verbal incitement against Israel’s right to exist and actions meant to intimidate Jewish students is Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which Profess Makdisi endows with a halo as a hero of the academic free speech crusade. The real track record of the SJP and its campus bullies includes shouting down or disrupting pro-Israel speakers, beating up Jewish students who dare to speak up against anti-Israel incitement, presenting Jewish dorm residents with mock eviction notices because of Israeli policies, and demanding at UCLA that Jewish candidates for student body office sign “loyalty oaths” that they have never made a trip to Israel sponsored by a Jewish organization. 

The colleges and universities where the SJP, Makdisi’s folk heroes or martyrs for free speech, have been investigated or sanctioned for actions—not just words—verging over into anti-Semitism include Northeastern University, Vassar, and Loyola University-Chicago.

Makdisi also cites in support of his position the dismissal by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of complaints against Berkeley UC Irvine, and UC Irvine for allowing groups like the SJP to create a hostile learning environment for Jewish students, in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In fact, the UC Santa Cruz complaints—which were copiously documented—were dismissed by OCR higher ups against the advice of their own regional office and contrary to their own internal rules.  The anti-Zionist lobby’s “victories” at UC Berkeley and elsewhere were also hollow because the cases against them were largely dismissed on narrow procedural grounds, not because groups like the SJP were really vindicated.

President Napolitano and President Obama are on spot-on regarding the issue of when “Anti-Zionism” crosses the line into anti-Semitism.  And we applaud them for calling out anti-Semitism when it masquerades, with righteous indignation, as anything but.

Rabbi Meyer H. May is Executive Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; Historian Harold Brackman is a consultant to the Center.

Fifteen answers for Dennis Prager

All right, I’ll admit it. I believe I’m a progressive, and I’m proud of it. I define “progressive” as “advocating inclusivity and being ready to adapt to changing world conditions.” If that is different from the idea Dennis Prager had in mind, stop reading right now. From my point of view, being a progressive means following in the footsteps of Abraham Joshua Heschel and Harold Schulweis, to name two of the most recent proponents of that philosophy. With that said, I offer fifteen answers to Mr. Prager’s fourteen recent questions to progressives, whom I do not believe to be any more monolithic a group than Jews in general.

Number one: hatred from the left. Over the last couple of centuries, “the left” has come to mean “liberal” or “progressive” (as defined above), while “the right” has come to mean “conservative”. I apologize if I offend conservatives when I suggest that their basic philosophy is the protection of the status quo, if not the advocacy of a return to the conditions of some earlier time. These are relative terms, however. It might be useful to see how they might have applied in an earlier era.

Let’s think of the time of Roman domination of Israel. “The right” probably would have meant the Sadducees, who advocated the existing Temple cult. “The left” likely would have been the Pharisees. Our entire tradition was rescued and reshaped by Pharisee sages; the whole idea of reinterpreting the Torah to meet changing conditions comes from them. The funny thing about that is relativity. Our Christian neighbors give the Pharisees a pretty bad press; they think of them as “the right” and Jesus as “the left” – even though most of the teachings of Jesus strike me as thoroughly based on the earlier prophets and the Pharisee tradition.

When we return to the modern era, we might have questions about Mr. Prager’s facts. Although some of my Presbyterian clergy friends bravely spoke out against BDS, their Church – not renowned as a liberal organization – voted for it. Meanwhile, the presidents of several universities, including Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, have spoken forcefully and vociferously against BDS.

Number two: antipathy to Israel. ANY antipathy to Israel as a nation bothers me, but I do not agree with Mr. Prager’s premise that the preponderance of that antipathy comes from any particular side of the aisle.

Number three: where Judaism and I differ. Please note that Mr. Prager wrote “Judaism” as if there were universal agreement on the definition of that word. I generally follow Conservative practice, which began as the Conservative branch of Liberal or Reform Judaism. In other words, some people thought there might be such a thing as “too much reform”. There are ideas of Judaism to the left and to the right of me. I understand Mr. Prager to observe Orthodox practice, placing him on my right-hand side. If he means his choices when he uses the word “Judaism”, he has slanted the playing field in his direction. I like my Judaism and he likes his.

Perhaps we should be a little careful about the word “differ” as well. There are a few things in Conservative Judaism that I know perfectly well, but choose to ignore. Call me lazy – you wouldn’t be the first – but I could do better at my own practice. That’s not the same as taking actual exception to the tenets of my faith.

Number four: why bother with Judaism if you are a progressive? I offer a short answer to this question: for me, Judaism implies belief in G-d, while simply being a progressive does not require it. My particular belief structure includes working for the betterment of the community, which includes attendance at, leadership of, and student instruction in religious services. Gratitude to G-d is woven into the fabric of my life.

I am lucky to be employed by two congregations in various capacities, because I don’t have the money to be a member of either of them. “Opting out of synagogue and all other aspects of religious Jewish life” is a straightforward, if somewhat embarrassing, choice by families whose financial circumstances cause them to make difficult budget cuts. Yes, I am aware of committees at most synagogues that privately discuss these matters with such families. Let me suggest that we do not do as good a job in explaining how important Jewish communal life is for both adults and youth of families in any financial circumstances as we could. (If we did, there would be better Junior Congregation attendance and less soccer on Saturday morning!) I will go one more step to say that those explanations should have been made more clearly to the parents of the current parents.

Perhaps more importantly, I disagree with Mr. Prager’s notion that “progressives” who do not affiliate have ceased to be Jewish. All across America, in living rooms, in the back rooms of restaurants, and in backyards, chavurot of people who think of themselves as Jewish meet on a fairly regular basis. They are trying to do exactly what the Pharisees did nearly two thousand years ago: redefine their Judaism to meet changing conditions. Because they think of G-d and tradition differently than does Mr. Prager, he appears to write them off. I do not, although some sources of their “tradition” may not be as authentic as they could be.

In fact, here’s a question: does Mr. Prager consider “disassociation” peculiarly modern? This tension goes all the way back to Abraham’s departure from Haran. The warnings in the Torah against fraternizing with Canaanites were designed to prevent the Israelites from discovering the less savory aspects of “progressive” practice in their new land. Our Chanukah story glorifies the victory of the conservatives, who were the ones who “disassociated” at the time, over the “progressives”. Might Hellenists and Maccabees have found a middle ground without civil war? Would Mr. Prager equate Yigal Amir with Mattathias? (I’m sorry if that was an obnoxious question.)

Number five: “haters” and the definition of marriage. Look, Leviticus 18:22 is perfectly clear on how G-d feels about homosexual activity. Here, as in so many other places in the Torah, it is crucial to apply a more modern sensitivity to that issue. I do not understand homosexuality to be a pagan religious practice, nor do I see it as a disease that has to be cured. It’s just the way some people are. If such people want to contribute to the Jewish community, it is essential for us to open the doors and let them in, with all the benefits that accrue to traditional couples. Although it is not biologically possible for them to fulfill the very first commandment of the Torah, we should allow them to answer for that omission directly to the Almighty when their time comes. Separately, exclusion of faithful homosexual couples seems to be contrary to federal law, although I am no expert.

Number six: a rabbi’s “private” opinion about gay marriage. If those rabbis are willing to fulfill the tenets of their movement, who cares what they believe in private, but I would ask how those rabbis got that far in their training without realizing the problem.

Number seven: choice of marriage partner. Who cares what I want? My children have to live with their spouses. I have seen both. My elder daughter married into Orthodoxy and wholeheartedly adopted it. My son married a non-Jew long after becoming disaffected with religion in general. I care very much for both my son-in-law and my daughter-in-law because they make my own children happy.

Number eight: do I want my children fully Orthodox or fully secular? My answer is “neither”, but I don’t disown my children for their choices. “Fully orthodox” seems to me to be a little bit insular, while “fully secular” seems to me to ignore the work of G-d in the world. I’m sorry if I cannot meet Mr. Prager’s “black or white” choices.

Number nine: cross-dressing rabbi. Again, Deuteronomy 22:5 is clear about the Torah’s stance on this subject. My personal answer to Mr. Prager’s question is “yes”, but I consider it a very conditioned reflex.

Number ten: the danger of fundamentalism. I believe Moslem fundamentalism to be the most dangerous today because it has turned into extremism. I’ll have more to say about this subject in later questions. Let me be clear, however: ANY fundamentalism is a threat to my progressive leanings. Let me recommend that Mr. Prager and all who see this essay read The Ornament of the World by the late Professor Maria Rosa Menocal. The record of tolerance in medieval Spain led to advances in every area of human endeavor as well as prosperity and social status for Jews surpassed only by our lives in the United States. Only when that tolerance was replaced by the Inquisition – a form of Christian fundamentalism – did all the glory of Spain die out.

Number eleven: how often do I listen to conservative opinions? Daily. Some of my best friends espouse them, and they are still my friends. Many AM stations are filled with them – including your opinions, Mr. Prager – but because we live in the United States, we get to choose. An opinion without facts to back it up is nothing more than hot air. Honest disagreement over facts should not devolve into ad hominem attacks, but why should I choose to listen to opinions based on what I consider inaccurate “facts”?

Number twelve: pro-Israel events staged by conservative Christian groups. Yes. In fact, I attended and performed musically at such gatherings, because both the leadership of the particular group and a fair number of my congregants at the time spoke Spanish. I am extremely grateful for their friendship towards Israel. At the same time, I think it entirely appropriate to examine the motives for their friendship. Individuals may be altruistic, but it is not so easy for organizations.

Number fourteen: nuclear Iran vs. climate change. I know I went out of order. I might stay up because of the thing that might kill me tomorrow: Iran. Why must we compare these two severe situations, however? We first have to devote resources to prevent being killed tomorrow, but does that excuse us from taking action today to head off what most scientists consider a serious long-term threat?

Number thirteen: differences with the Torah. This question had to come last. I am not so bold as to suggest that I am “smarter” than the Torah. But seriously, people have been having differences with the Torah since we received it! Isn’t the Talmud a book of responses to situations where the Torah was too general, too harsh, or perhaps did not address the situation at all? Haven’t the famous commentators made their names for their willingness to address tough questions the Torah posed? Mr. Prager may have scored debating points over Professor Dershowitz for his announcement, but does he advocate all the severe physical punishments in the Torah, for example? I suspect that given the choice between the literal Torah and the rabbinic interpretation, he would go with the latter.

Here is my number fifteen: how does G-d test humanity? Start with number thirteen. Can Mr. Prager reconcile our idea of a universal G-d with the clear command of a “Canaanite genocide” mentioned in Deuteronomy 20:17? Can he see how Moses “took the fall” for the Almighty in the Deuteronomy story of the Spies when the text in Numbers says their mission was a commandment? Can he understand the nobility of a Jewish doctor, recently deceased, who was Chief Medical Officer at Spandau Prison?

All of these things were tests. Sometimes we passed, sometimes we failed. Our Bible is even-handed about recording both. I have lived a progressive line – inclusivity combined with love of G-d – because I think that is the best way to pass these tests. Mr. Prager, if your way works for you, great, but please do not disparage those of us who arrive at a different opinion honestly.

Jay Harwitt has served several Southland congregations in musical capacities.  He holds degrees from Yale College and Columbia Business School.

Why give Muslims a Pass?

If a Christian fundamentalist holds a provocative conference attacking abortion and two violent liberal protesters show up and start shooting, do we accuse the preacher of being too provocative and igniting the violence?

If a Muslim preacher gives a nasty public sermon calling for the killing of Jews and eradication of Israel, and two Jewish protesters show up and start shooting, do we accuse the preacher of being too provocative and igniting the violence? Of course not.

And yet, in the wake of the attempted shootings at a “Draw Muhammad” event May 3 in Texas, much of the media reaction centered on the anti-Islamic nature of the organizer, Pam Geller.

The media wanted to know: Was it really necessary for Geller to be so provocative and insensitive toward Muslims? Wasn’t she painting all Muslims with the same dark brush? Didn’t she know she’d risk attracting this kind of violent reaction — especially after the murders a few months ago at Charlie Hebdo?

In other words, the conversation was not so much about Geller’s freedom to offend, but about her obligation to show respect.

We saw a similar sensitivity toward Muslims last month from Gary Trudeau, creator of the satirical comic strip “Doonesbury,” when he received the George Polk Career Award.

Trudeau, whose brilliant career has been based on satire, eviscerated the French satirists of Charlie Hebdo, who were murdered in their office in Paris by Islamic gunmen, because of their mocking cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.

“By punching downward, by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, ‘Charlie’ wandered into the realm of hate speech,” Trudeau declared. “Well, voilà — the 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world.”

The two words here that especially bother me are “powerless” and “triggering.”

Seriously, where is it written that violent Muslims are powerless? Muslims in France or elsewhere may indeed feel part of a “powerless” minority, but do you know where real power comes from? It comes from the willingness to take a machine gun and shoot people who upset you.

“Trigger” is another word that triggers my outrage. It assumes a certain moronic quality in those being triggered, a lack of human agency or ability to think things through.

It’s the ultimate insult. When Trudeau says the cartoons “triggered” violent protests across the Muslim world, what he’s basically saying is that these violent protestors can’t think things through.

They can’t balance the feeling of being insulted with the devastation of extinguishing a human life. They can’t think through the lifelong pain they inflicted on the family members of the French cartoonists they murdered. You see, according to Trudeau’s way of thinking, these people can’t think things through — because they’ve been “triggered.”

When we use language like “powerless” and “triggered,” all we’re doing is pouring oil on the fire. When we walk on eggshells for fear of offending a bully, all we do is empower the bully.

The freedom to offend is the true test of freedom. The ability to swallow an offense in the interest of a higher value is a sign of human enlightenment.

When I see a cartoon that insults Jews, I have a choice: I can either take it personally and react violently, or I can see the insult as the price to pay to live in a free society. I always choose the latter. Most people do. We expect them to.

If one day we see an American Jew start shooting people at an anti-Israel rally, I can assure you the media reaction will be about the shooter. That is as it should be. It’s one thing to express outrage at offensive speech, it’s quite another to start killing people when you get offended.

But when it comes to Muslims, it’s a whole other ballgame. We see the same pattern each time. Offended Muslims get violent, the media get the obligatory caveat out of the way — “nothing justifies violence” — and then they proceed to attack the offensive speech that “triggered” the violence. We’ve all seen how well that’s worked.

The bottom line is this: If we don’t focus single-mindedly on the wrongness of the violent reaction, instead of the wrongness of the offensive speech, we invite more violence. And that goes for all offensive speech, whether from Pam Geller, Charlie Hebdo or any joker with bad taste.

It’s time to stop patronizing Muslims who react violently to insults. The new message must be: We expect the same from you that we expect of everyone else. In the same way that you have the right to offend non-Muslims without expecting violence, non-Muslims have the same right.

Do gooders such as Trudeau who single out Muslims for kid glove treatment are not doing anyone any favors. If the great satirist expects Jews or Christians not to be triggered into violence by offensive cartoons, he should extend the same respect toward Muslims.