November 18, 2018

WATCH: David Frum and Peter Beinart on the challenges in Trump’s America



Trump’s immigration order elicits action from Jewish community

President Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 8. Photo by Joshua Roberts/REUTERS

Jewish leaders around Los Angeles have begun speaking out —  some more forcefully than others — against President Donald Trump’s immigration ban. And many temple congregants are doing more than merely listening.

“People are stepping forward because they see a direct call to their Jewish values in this moment,” said Senior Rabbi Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple. “The values in the Torah and rabbinic literature are clear, and they are now being threatened. [Activism] feels like a very organic way to live out our Jewish values.” 

Trump’s effort to restrict entry to immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran and Iraq, has touched off protests around the country and a legal war that is likely headed to the Supreme Court to determine if the ban is constitutional. One protest in New York this week led to the arrests of about 20 rabbis affiliated with the liberal group T’ruah, according to The New York Times.

No arrests have occurred in Los Angeles, but the ban and other Trump actions have sparked outrage among many Jewish groups.

More than 200 Leo Baeck congregants participated in the Women’s March in Los Angeles the day after the inauguration, and large numbers attended a pro-immigrant demonstration at Los Angeles International Airport the following weekend. Chasen said he’s taking calls daily from people who ask what they can do to get involved.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills said 65 congregations participated in the Women’s March, and last week, the synagogue hosted a class on immigration and refugees from a Talmud and Torah perspective. An American Civil Liberties Union representative talked to the group as well.

Bassin said she encourages her members to speak up and participate, even if she personally doesn’t have the same political views.

“I just gave a sermon on how we’ve channeled our civic engagement into yelling on social media and how that’s not civic engagement,” she said. “I don’t care where people are on the political spectrum as long as they responsibly and thoughtfully lend their voice into the public sphere from a place that’s motivated by Jewish values.

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith,” she added. “It’s very important that people have a safe space to articulate their values.”

“I think Judaism has deeply woven into it the connection between politics and faith.” – Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbis Lisa Edwards and Heather Miller of Beth Chayim Chadashim are infusing their sermons and prayer commentaries with news and have added a weekly prayer for the country.

Edwards attended two meetings for interfaith clergy at the Islamic Center of Southern California, “aimed at what our communities can do in particular to help support Muslims and undocumented immigrants” and at the Holman Methodist Church, organized by Clergy & Laity United for Economic Justice-Los Angeles and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. She learned that, “People are afraid and anxious. Anxiety is the more operative word than fear. People feel very aware about possible deportations.”

IKAR’s founder and Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous is also collaborating with other faith communities. The weekend of the inauguration, she organized events involving congregants from her synagogue as well as those from the Islamic Center mosque and All Saints Church in Pasadena.

“We have very robust and growing multi-face community relationships we work on and continue to prioritize right now,” Brous said. “We’re much more effective when we join together with mosques and churches.”

Brous, who spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., said the history of Jews as immigrants should prompt action.

“Our sacred texts demand that we stand up and fight for the most vulnerable people in our midst,” she said. “This is not about political preference. This is about moral imperative.”

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, distributed a letter by email in which he did not take a position for or against the president’s executive order, but detailed Federation’s work with Jewish immigrants and refugees. The letter said that since 1973, Federation has helped more than 27,000 refugees.

Other Jewish leaders made their feelings known through letters to their congregants.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback and his fellow clergy at Stephen Wise Temple indicated that “… because our Torah calls upon our Jewish people to be a moral light unto the nations, we feel it necessary to voice our profound protest to the President’s recent executive order that has the effect of banning people from certain Muslim majority countries, as well as all refugees for a period of 120 days, from entry into this nation.”

They reminded members of the temple’s namesake and his work for compassion and social justice: “We proudly commit ourselves to advocating for a society that embodies the teaching of our Torah: ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love the stranger as yourself for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.’”

For the past year and a half, Temple Beth Am has had a refugee task force. In a letter to his congregants, Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld said Trump’s executive orders “trouble me, to say the least.” But he acknowledged the complexity of the issues: “No country willy-nilly flings its doors open to anyone who wants in. There are reasonable fears regarding how the wrong immigration policy could enable terrorism, as some recent events in Europe have sadly shown. We have to take it seriously. Deal with it in some meaningful way. But we cannot let it paralyze us.”

Senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom found inspiration for his letter by imagining his zayde confused, sitting in a detention cell at LAX. He called Trump’s order “destructive” and said we must be inclusive and “welcoming to those seeking the freedoms we cherish.”

Representatives of four religious groups — the Academy for Jewish Religion, California; Claremont School of Theology; University of the West; and Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school — collaborated on a statement, saying, “As interreligious partners, we live the dream of inclusion, understanding, and compassion. We know there is a better way — better than building walls and banning human beings based on religious beliefs or country of origin.”

Without addressing the ban or taking sides in his letter to congregants, Senior Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple encouraged people to volunteer with the Karsh Family Social Service Center and to help build houses for the poor.

“Although I will not assume the role of political pundit, upholding the extremely high value Jewish law places on Shalom Bayit — maintaining a peaceful home and community — is a role I cherish,” he wrote.

Conservative movement rolls out new Siddur

In Siddur Lev Shalem, the Conservative movement’s new prayer book released in February, the Rabbinical Assembly had a two-fold mission: Stay true to traditional Jewish roots, yet appeal to the diversity of how people today live their lives and understand their faith.

For the rabbi-editors tasked over the last five years with updating the siddur, the work included maintaining accuracy while retranslating ancient prayers and liturgy to make them more relatable for contemporary readers, and thinking of ways to include LGBT Jews (the movement approved of same-sex marriage in 2012) and non-Ashkenazi Jews who may have found themselves less represented in previous siddurim.

The word “sovereign” is now used for God instead of “king.” “Awesome” is now “awe-inspiring.” English translations sit side by side with Hebrew, with commentary and text from 500 sources, including 60 contemporary authors, throughout the 666-page prayer book that’s meant to be used for weekdays, Shabbat and festivals. The pages now incorporate traditions of North African, Italian, Sephardic and Middle Eastern Jews in addition to Ashkenazi Jewish traditions. New gender-neutral prayers offer guides for celebrating birthdays, adoptions and anniversaries, traveling to Israel and same-sex couples marking lifecycles in the synagogue.

“It’s very much a siddur that addresses the idea that we want everyone to find themselves on the page,” said Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. “For example, many siddurim have incorporated the prayer that people say on Shabbat after a harrowing or dangerous experience. This siddur also incorporates a prayer to say when you’ve had a great, wonderful experience.”

The Conservative movement, which is the second-largest denomination in the United States after the Reform movement and represents about 18 percent of American Jews, released its previous siddur, Siddur Sim Shalom, in 1985. Several updates were published along with commentaries through 2008. Schonfeld said the Rabbinical Assembly decided to fully update the siddur after the success of the Mahzor Lev Shalem, a prayer book for the High Holy Days, which it released in 2010 after editors took a similar approach to translation and Jewish prayer.

“I have enormous respect and admiration for the previous siddurim — we are standing on the shoulders of giants — and at the same time this is an enormous step forward,” said Rabbi Jan Uhrbach, associate editor of the Siddur Lev Shalem and rabbi at the Conservative Synagogue of the Hamptons in New York. “Just the presence of explanatory and historical commentary, for example … helps people who either know a lot, are excited to learn more and want the intellectual engagement; or people who are new to liturgy and want to learn what it’s saying and is about.” 

Uhrbach also emphasized the siddur’s focus on kavanot (intentionality in prayer), poetry and prose. “There are many inspirational readings which talk about what it means to pray, and teachings that can help us enter prayer a different way. You’ll find historical commentary on one side of the page, and poetry and alternative readings on another side of the page.”

Rabbi Edward Feld, the siddur’s senior editor, said in a statement that the book especially encourages “participation of those who are not able to read Hebrew,” adding that “language and the way we use language changes, so each generation needs its own translation.”

Conservative congregations are not required to purchase or use the new siddur, but the Rabbinical Assembly expects it will become the dominant prayer book over time. 

At Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, Rabbi Stewart Vogel said he’s ordered nearly 500 copies of the siddur for his congregation, which plans to start using it this month.

Vogel, who is an officer in the Rabbinical Assembly, praised the book for addressing “not just the translation of prayer or what we say or how we pray, but how to find meaning in it,” and said the siddur “captures the flow and experience of prayer more than any siddur before it.”

Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Bel Air, said the strongest points of the book may be its versatility and easy-to-read yet poetic language. “How do you get people to feel the excitement and beauty of Shakespeare in modern times? That’s what this siddur is doing with our classic traditions,” said Artson, who contributed a meditation on the Amidah (“The Standing Prayer”).

At least one rabbi has expressed some reservations.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino called the siddur “artful, deep and inspiring,” yet said in an email that the book may be “so good, it’s distracting. It draws us downward and inward into the text and into our own thoughts. It might keep us from rising up to join a community in collective devotion.”

Additionally, he said, “A bound, printed book freezes our prayer text at a moment in time. The book is finished. We can’t add to it. But prayer, in my mind, should be an ever-growing, ever-evolving expression of our reaching toward the divine. … I would prefer …  a format that inspires sensitive souls to create new expressions of prayer.”

Feinstein said that at $29.40 per copy for those associated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the book is too costly to buy for his congregation. Still, he added, “I will encourage my members to purchase a copy of the siddur. I think every family should own one.”

The tyranny of the normal

I grew up on 1950s television, and all I wanted in the world was to be the Cleavers. I wanted my dad to come home each evening in his neatly pressed suit, hang his fedora near the door and greet my mom, perpetually cheerful in her high heels and pearls. I wanted to sit down to dinner and talk enthusiastically (and one at a time) about football games, fixing cars and going to the prom. I wanted an older brother who wore a letterman’s jacket and who would teach me the manly arts.

I wanted to live in a family that never argued — where no voice was ever raised, where any existential problem could be solved by dad’s good-humored wisdom and mom’s freshly baked cookies. That was normal. Why couldn’t my family be normal, too? 

My family was nothing like the Cleavers. My dad never wore a tie (and doesn’t to this day). And mom never wore heels. We were loud and emotional. We loved intensely and we argued constantly. We had no time for football — the Vietnam War was fought over our table. The prom? We were too busy debating civil rights, the counterculture, the legacy of the Holocaust and Israel’s survival. 

We weren’t normal … and that hurt. I was sold an image of normal, a map for the right kind of life. The tyranny of the normal weighed on me, and each deviation brought pangs of shame. So I hid and split myself into two selves: inside/outside — a Jewish inner self and an outer American normal self. 

As I grew older, I made a marvelous discovery — the Cleavers were in black and white, emotionally colorless. My family was glorious, Jewish Technicolor! I came to love it. And my friends loved it. All of the Cleavers who lived in the neighborhood began showing up at our home on Friday nights to share challah and the boisterous philosophical-political-moral conversation that was our Friday night table. 

Who sells us this map called “normal”? Who sets the standard for the right home, the right family, the right life? Who produces the image of the right self that so tyrannizes?

We have pictures in our wallets of our kids. And on the back of each photo, we etch a map for their life. When the kid doesn’t keep to the map, we scream at the teachers, we shlep the kid to therapy, we demand the doctor prescribe medication. We turn on ourselves, and soon, we turn on the kid. My teacher, Rabbi Harold Schulweis, once noted that there is a particularly Jewish form of child abuse: It’s called disappointment.

All Jewish kids get A’s, right? They all go on to Stanford, Brown and Berkeley. They all are first violin in the orchestra, the lead in the play, the captain of the team. But is there pride for the kid who is different? Is there love for the one who doesn’t conform to our normal? Can we see the kid as he is, as she is, and appreciate a child’s unique gifts? Do we have a place for the child whose journey is off our map?

One thing a rabbi knows: No matter how put together we all appear on the outside, on the inside, everyone has burdens. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has shame. Everyone has moments when life drives us off our map. 

No matter how good we look on the outside, no one’s life is normal, not television normal. And no one’s life is perfect. We hide, we escape, we deny. Or worse, we cast out or destroy the one who has frustrated us. That’s the problem.

But God gives second chances. There is life after divorce. There is treatment for addiction. There are new career opportunities. We can love this kid. But only after we let go of the shame, acknowledge what’s before us, and forgive. This is the most profound form of forgiveness — to release ourselves and those we love from the dominion of expectation, the tyranny of the normal.

Yom Kippur is the holiest night of the year, and these are its holiest words: 

Kol nidrei ve’esarey va’charamey, v’konamey v’cheenuyey, v’keenusey ushvu’ot.

All of the oaths and vows and promises we could not fulfill are cancelled. All of the maps that designate what’s normal are torn up. All of the expectations that we held up — for ourselves, for our children, for those we love — are relinquished. 

V’nislach l’chol adat bnai yisrael.

We are released. We will not allow the tyranny of expectations to stand between us and those we love. We will not let someone’s idea of the normal torture and twist and steal away our life. Our failures are forgiven. Our shame is lifted. There is nothing that we must hide. We are released to write our own map, to seek our own way. Now, we are finally free. 

Vayomer Adonai, salachti kid’varecha.

This holiday, we will stand before family, friends and associates, and ask forgiveness for our transgressions, as they will stand before us. But before we can muster the courage to turn to anyone else in contrition, we must forgive ourselves. Before we can be open and ready to offer reconciliation to another, we must find release ourselves.

That is the sacred gift and task of these highest holidays. Shanah tovah. For a new year of blessing.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein is the senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Rabbis’ High Holy Days sermons to emphasize spirituality, not politics

Over the last several weeks, Rabbi Yonah Bookstein of Pico Shul and Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation have been gathering signatures from rabbis across the country opposed to the Iran nuclear agreement. So far, more than 1,200 have signed on. 

Bookstein has blogged about the deal, filled his Facebook followers’ news feeds with critiques and even hosted Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a fierce opponent of the agreement, at his synagogue to discuss it with his youthful congregation during a recent Shabbat service. 

When the High Holy Days arrive, however, the Orthodox rabbi said he will take a break from talking about the topic that has dominated conversations throughout the Jewish community. Instead, he plans to return to his principle of not mixing politics with preaching, discussing instead the broader issue of engaging in spiritual activism.

Bookstein said he will  address “the mandate to make the world a better place, help our fellow who is in need and stand up for the Jewish people — as opposed to just focusing on the current Iran situation.”

Rabbis across all denominations and political leanings have been wrestling with the question of whether — and how — to speak about the Iran nuclear deal as they prepare their High Holy Days sermons this year. The debate over the agreement, which was announced in July, has monopolized conversation in the Jewish world. As the Sept. 17 congressional deadline to vote draws close, rabbis who strongly oppose the agreement, and those strongly for it, have not been shy about making their opinions known. They have participated in rallies, lent their names to petitions and advertisements, held lectures and debates in their synagogues and sermonized on the deal from the pulpit.

Judging from interviews with numerous area rabbis, local clergy will be responding to the issue in a multiplicity of ways during the High Holy Days.

At Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, the leadership sent a mass email to congregants, letting them know that upcoming services will be an Iran-free zone, in an effort to avoid acrimony during this season of repentance and awe. “Looking forward to the High Holy Days, we know that this issue will still be looming large; yet, you will not be hearing about this issue from your clergy team on the bima,” it stated.

Senior Rabbi Laura Geller, who said she supports the deal, said the letter to her congregants was a way to set expectations for people in her community before they come to synagogue.

“The High Holy Days [are] a time for us to focus on our own spiritual work and yet to connect ourselves to the larger Jewish community,” she told the Journal. “It is not the time to take a stand about an issue like this that might be divisive. That’s not what the High Holy Days are for. The conversation needs to take place, but to take place in a multiplicity of voices. In a High Holy Days sermon, there is no multiplicity of voices.” 

By contrast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of Chabad West Coast, said he has no choice but to speak about the topic directly from the bimah. An opponent of the agreement, he plans to bring up Iran during the High Holy Days when he leads services at Chabad West Coast headquarters in Westwood. 

“It’s not politics, it’s [about] the life of our people,” Cunin said.

At Temple Israel of Hollywood, Senior Rabbi John Rosove, who has expressed support of the deal in these pages and elsewhere, plans to reiterate that support only briefly in a sermon he will deliver on Rosh Hashanah morning titled “Fighting for the Soul of the Jewish People.”

 “I’m not arguing the Iran deal; that’s not what my sermon is about. I am arguing the larger issue of the state of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the State of Israel and what we’re doing as a people, what the state of our people is vis-à-vis each other,” he said. 

Whether they feel the Iran deal represents an existential threat to Israel or the best agreement available, many rabbis are opting not to speak about it. Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah said doing so would only take away from the purpose of the occasion.

 “The main thing I talk about is moral and spiritual well-being, how to live well with others, how to solve struggles, spiritual wholeness,” said Finley, who opposes the deal. “If I start advocating positions, if I start saying positions, I alienate people who need to hear other things I want to say.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, one of the synagogues that has sponsored discussions about the Iran deal, said his sermon will express his dismay over the lack of respectful discourse in the community in the wake of the uproar over the agreement.

“What I am going to talk about on the holiday is how Jews argue,” said Feinstein, who has not taken a position on the deal. “What disturbs me the most about it is how divided and vicious this conversation has become, and I think the community has forgotten its core values — why community matters, why solidarity matters, and why you don’t sacrifice Jewish community solidarity and respect no matter how serious the issues we’re debating. That’s what I want to address.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous of the egalitarian spiritual community IKAR supports the deal, but she, like many other rabbis, will focus more on the community’s response to the proposed agreement. 

“I would be shocked if we don’t hear a lot of people in the community talking about growing divisiveness in the community and how dangerous that is,” Brous said.

Conservative Sinai Temple will hold breakout conversations on Yom Kippur, at one of which Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, will talk about how we disagree with one another, especially how we can do so without character assassination. Artson, who is leading services during the High Holy Days in Sinai Temple’s Barad Hall, said he is deeply concerned about the problem of discourse.

“As in a marriage, the important thing isn’t if you fight or not, but if you speak to each other during the fight in a way that makes it possible to hold each other after the fight is over,” he said. “I would like Jews to speak to each other in a way that they could embrace after the fight is over.”

Artson also said that it is difficult to imagine a political sermon about Iran having any of the “rabbinic value” that is essential for any High Holy Days sermon. 

“I have strong personal opinions, but there is nothing of rabbinic value in those, so what I try to do is mobilize Torah wisdom,” he said. “If there are things people can say that enhance people’s lives or help them develop questions for things they need to develop opinions about, I would focus on those.” 

Others concerned about the divide in the community — as evidenced, for example, by the backlash to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ July 21 statement of opposition to the deal, encouraging all in the community to lobby Congress against it — include Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger. She plans to lead a prayer of unity on Kol Nidre. 

“Mostly, we will be saying we have permission to pray together with those who support and those who oppose and to try to create one community. That is the only reference I will make to [Iran] during the holidays. It will not be in a sermon. It will be in a prayerful meditation at the beginning of worship on Kol Nidre,” said Eger, who, as president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the largest organization of Reform rabbis in North America, signed a letter that declined to take a position on the agreement. 

Stephen Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback said he will give a nod to people’s passion about the deal without offering his own opinions. (The Reform temple’s leadership issued a statement on Aug. 19 that declined to take a position.)

 “I think there is a difference between going into the nuts and bolts of the deal and mentioning that moment, and even praying for that moment. Whatever you feel about the deal, whether you are in favor or against or ambivalent, [saying], ‘We join in prayer, with hopes that our elected officials …’ — that kind of conversation — it is referencing the deal and talking about the deal without going into, [for example], the five reasons I am concerned,” Zweiback said. “Because I am going to address it, but not in an ‘I favor’ or ‘I am against, and here is what we should do’ fashion.”

Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said he understands rabbis’ obvious aversion to tackling the difficult topic head-on, but he said he thinks it is possible for a rabbi to deliver a sermon that addresses the issue without demonizing those who may disagree — as long as the rabbi knows the audience.

“I can absolutely see both sides of the argument, and I think rabbis need to know their communities, and they need to understand what their communities can tolerate in terms of discourse and have to really make a thoughtful judgment about that,” he said.

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, who spoke at a July 26 “Stop Iran” rally at the Federal Building in West Los Angeles, said he will not deliver a High Holy Days sermon about Iran because he has already made his feelings known in writings and during public appearances. 

“My position is already well known. I have spoken and written about it and … it’s the High Holy Days. It’s not a time, to me at least, for political mobilization [but a time] for people to learn Torah and understand their souls better,” he said. “As important as the issue is, I think both the synagogue, and also I, have done what we need to do, and these are the High Holy Days.”

Still, Wolpe said he is unable to resist discussing broader topics related to the controversial topic.

“Without giving you too much detail,” he said in a recent phone interview, “I am going to talk about the Jewish root of the way we talk about Israel and the debate about Israel. So it has implications for the discussion about Iran, but it’s going to be Torah, not nuclear throw-weight.”

In other words, he continued, “It’s not going to be about reactors. It’s going to be about Torah.”

The Jewish community remembers Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis – Rabbi David Wolpe, Brad Sherman and more

[Do you have a photo or memory of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis you'd like to share? Send an email here.]

An excerpt from the eulogy of Janice Kaminer-Reznik, president and co-founder with Rabbi Schulweis of Jewish World Watch:

Of all of the visits and conversations I have had with Rabbi Schulweis, it is our very last conversation less than two weeks ago that was perhaps the most profound. It will stay with me forever. Already in quite a weakened state, Rabbi Schulweis was notably agitated about the events that led to the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and the chokehold that killed Eric Garner in New York. He said that these police practices are intolerable and racially biased. He asked why he was not hearing a louder voice of protest from the American-Jewish community.  

Rabbi Schulweis was a man who simply could not tolerate injustice … even as his heart was fading — even as he knew his end was near … he would not give up his pursuit of and for justice. And his expectation of us was clear as well — to continue this sacred work. …

A while later that afternoon, Stan Zicklin; Rabbi Schulweis; his wife, Malkah; and I were visiting, and he posed a question. He asked, “How do you know if you have lived a good life? A worthwhile life?” After 40 years of being his student, I did a very Schulweisian thing: I turned it back on him. I asked him, “How would you evaluate whether you’ve lived a good life?”   

Without hesitation, he said, “A rabbi who has brought people together — people who were divergent in their views and practices, people who ordinarily would not have connected, people who were estranged, or even simply irrelevant to one another … I would say, that such a rabbi has lived a good life.”  

What a remarkable moment to experience … a man, near death, evaluating the essence of his life’s purpose as a rabbi.

An excerpt from the eulogy Rabbi Uri Herscher, founder of the Skirball Cultural Center,  delivered at the memorial service for Harold Schulweis:

Over 50 years of friendship, Harold and I shared countless conversations, and none are forgettable. I particularly think of the Thursday evening dinners in recent years, which Myna and I shared with Malkah and Harold, up to the end.  Harold’s voice was no longer as strong, but to cite the Torah he loved so much, his eye was undimmed. The Torah, said Harold, is all about character; and Harold, like the Torah, was character itself. A week prior to his death, Harold mentioned a liturgical passage to me, and when I didn’t recognize it, he took me to his home study, pulled out an old prayer book, and unerringly located the passage. It’s not a famous one, not at all. But he noted it, and remembered it, because it was about character. I share it with you now:

“May it be Thy will, O Lord my God and God of my fathers, to deliver me this day and every day from arrogance and from arrogant men, from every corrupt person, from every evil companion; from the dangers that lurk about me; from a harsh judgment and an implacable opponent, whether or not he be an adherent of our faith.”

What moves me so deeply about these words is not just what they say, but how Harold, to the very end of his life, took them so to heart, remembered them, spoke of them, lived them the full length of his days. In the end, character is what we have, and all we have, and there is nothing more precious we can bequeath. Harold taught me this. But even more, he showed me. 

Rabbi David Wolpe, Sinai Temple:

Harold Schulweis had a fertile mind and a capacious heart. His sympathies ranged as widely as his intellect. Every rabbi knew, coming to him for advice, that you would walk away with seven programmatic suggestions, 12 new sermon ideas and the sense of having encountered a unique human being. My father was a shrewd judge of people. When I first heard of Harold Schulweis, and asked my father what he thought of his former classmate, he answered: “Harold? He is the most talented man in the American rabbinate.” Indeed he was, and his loss is immeasurable.

Bruce Powell, head of school, New Community Jewish High School:

Living in the “Age of Schulweis” has been transformative for our community, our nation and the entire Jewish people. His teaching, writing and eloquence in speaking have inspired generations of Americans, presidents and Jewish leaders throughout the world.

On a personal note, I regard Rabbi Schulweis as one of my teachers and one of the people who helped to shape the moral vision of New Community Jewish High School. One of the powerful messages he taught was that “the best is often the enemy of the good.” This simple yet highly complex idea has helped to shape my thinking about moral vision and ethical action, and is a guide about how to determine what is truly important in our world.

Gerald Bubis, founder and professor emeritus of the School of Jewish Communal Service, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR):

We have known the Schulweises since 1953, when the rabbi was head of Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, and I was assistant director of the Jewish Community Center. We had joined Temple Beth Abraham, where I taught and had my first encounter with Rabbi Harold. I soon taught for the school, and we had also become friends. We got into a debate about the need for Jewish community centers and synagogues. We agreed to each write an article in Jewish Reconstructionist magazine. The subject was Synagogue and Centers. After the articles were available to both of us, I realized I had debated with a great mind and man. In turn, I resolved never to submit any article where I knew Rabbi Harold would be in print in the same magazine. Our two families became good friends. He and his wife, Malkah, and my wife, Ruby, were present at many simchas together.
We joined Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) after moving to Los Angeles in 1973. At our first service at VBS, Rabbi announced the beginning of the Yom Kippur War that changed Jewish history.
I went on to learn so much from him over the decades. May his memory be for a blessing. We have truly lost a giant.

From an essay by Steven Windmueller, Rabbi Albert Gottschalk Emeritus professor at HUC-JIR, on Rabbi Leonard Beerman and Rabbi Schulweis at

Rabbi Beerman and Rabbi Schulweis  would translate their Jewish passions into concrete actions. For Beerman, as an example, this would be reflected by his embracing the cause of economic justice for farm and hotel workers; for Schulweis it would be about transforming the Jewish story into a universal one by envisioning new ways to engage Jews in the task of healing the world.

Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Years ago, when Jewish World Watch (JWW) was still fairly new, I took my then-teenage son and daughter to a JWW event. There were presentations and speeches by several national political figures and community leaders. It was the role of Rabbi Schulweis to open the program, and the others spoke after him. Despite the fact that he only spoke for a few minutes, that his was not the keynote presentation, and that hours had passed between his remarks and the close of the evening — my children spent the entire drive home raving about him. How he had captured in just a few simple sentences what they had always felt it meant to be a Jew but had never heard anyone say before. He spoke to them, he spoke for them, he inspired them and gave them newfound pride in being a part of a community in which he, too, was a part.

I am grateful every day that I had the chance to know him, however briefly, and that I, too, was among the many he told “call me Harold” with his impish smile, and yet I could not — he was, and always will be Rabbi Schulweis, a visionary, a leader and a truly great man.

Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut Professor of Education at American Jewish University and author of “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights Publishing):

It was the summer of 1974 when I arrived in Los Angeles. A friend told me about a rabbi in the San Fernando Valley who was transforming his synagogue into one of the most dynamic congregations in the city, if not the country. “There are a thousand people every Friday night,” he said. When a thousand people were showing up for a worship service, I wanted to know what was happening.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was happening. On that Friday night at Valley Beth Shalom, I witnessed the future of synagogue life in America, shaped by a rabbi who had a clear vision of what a kehillah kedushah, a sacred community, could and should be. The sanctuary was packed to overflowing. The music was sensational. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was shaped with kavanot, short intentional comments that framed the meaning of the prayers. The sermon was spectacular, engaging, relevant, moving. After the service, there was a beautiful Kiddush and Israeli dancing. It was a happening.

More from the community:

Eich naflu ha-giborim – How the mighty has fallen!

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis was one of a kind, a truly great man, a great rabbi, a great scholar, a great thinker, a great model of activism. He was a rabbi's rabbi and through MAZON and Jewish World Watch, organizations he inspired and founded, he has saved many many lives and given meaning to the mitzvah l'fakeach nefesh. Harold will be remembered by all who knew him not only as one of our true g'dolei dor, but as a man who personified the station and mission of Rav!

It was a privilege to know him, to learn from him, and to be inspired by him.

Zichrono livracha,

– Rabbi John Rosove, Temple Israel of Hollywood

I am deeply saddened to learn of Rabbi Schulweis' passing.   I cherished his friendship, his warmth, his brilliance, his eloquence.  What I learned from him was crucial to my ability to explore rescuers during the Holocaust.  When I started what is now the Chambon Foundation to explore and communicate such lessons of hope, Rabbi Schulweis was the first person I invited to join its Board of Directors, where he honored me with his presence for over 30 years.

In 1983, Rabbi Schulweis invited me to address Valley Beth Shalom about what was then a neglected approach to the Holocaust.  I have just nostalgically located what I said at that time about Rabbi Schulweis, and it seems appropriate to recall it now:  “For decades, Rabbi Schulweis has been trying to get through to us that we must not waste the positive, useful, essential lessons still largely entombed with the six million: that we had friends, too, during the Holocaust, that both Jews and non-Jews need to learn about the goodness—need to learn from the goodness—that also occurred during the Nazi era.  Rabbi Schulweis' pioneering speeches on the subject, his creation of the Institute for the Righteous Acts while he was in Berkeley in the '60s, his dogged conviction about all this despite the deafening lack of support that he encountered in the '60s and '70s, his unique role in caring about and alerting us to righteous conduct during the Holocaust—all this has been, dare I say it, prophetic!”

My heart goes out to Malkah and to the family.  Prophets live on, of course, and so will Rabbi Schulweis as future generations continue to learn from him.

Pierre Sauvage, documenatary filmmaker

From the moment I first arrived in Los Angeles fourteen years ago, Rabbi Harold Schulweis has been a blessing and inspiration in my life.  What a joy it was to come to know Harold after three decades gleaning wisdom from his writings and serving Oakland’s Temple Beth Abraham, “his shul,” from 1991-2000 (thankfully with several rabbis in between our respective rabbinic appointments). 

During my tenure as Executive Vice President of the Board of Rabbis and as Regional Director of the American Jewish Committee, I turned to Rabbi Schulweis as a mentor, teacher and confidante.  Harold was always available to proffer sound advice and good counsel on a wide range of subjects, including theology and theodicy, spiritual activism, interreligious relations, and “speaking truth to power.”  I fondly recall a seminar featuring Rabbi Schulweis and a cohort of newly-minted rabbis.  I felt privileged to witness a master teacher gently and lovingly mentoring his eager students, the new faces of the Los Angeles rabbinate.

I also recall making a rookie mistake during my first meeting with Rabbi Schulweis in his study at Valley Beth Shalom.  I mentioned the dreaded “R” word, asking my distinguished colleague if he had any plans to retire.  Harold’s reply was forceful and unequivocal, arguably the most resounding “No” I had heard in my life.

As I left his study, I understood that Harold had Divine fire in his heart, mind and soul.  Rabbi Harold Schulweis lived and loved the rich tapestry of Torah with passion and conviction.    We give thanks for the life of Rabbi Harold Schulweis, one of God’s rare and priceless treasures.

– Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, American Jewish Committee (AJC)

Rabbi Harold Schulweis was a rabbi’s rabbi.  He was one of my rabbis.  I remember the first time I heard Rabbi Schulweis preach.  As a rabbinical student I attended Second Day Rosh HaShannah services at VBS in the early 1990’s.  I was young and green.  I watched his every move.  How he wove his sermons, his passion, his humility, his humor.  I drank up the experience.  Years later, as a young mother/wife and congregational rabbi, I was grappling with a very difficult professional rabbinic decision.  Though he hardly knew me, I picked up the phone and asked if he would meet with me.  I laid out all the sides of the issues with which I was struggling.  I will never forget his reaction.  He looked me straight in the eyes and lovingly screamed at me.  He urged me to have a backbone.  To stand tall for what I believed in.  To be kind but to be firm.  Since then, I’ve always thought of Rabbi Schulweis as the rabbi to go to when I need to be put in my place; when I need to be reminded of the right thing to do in our ever-changing and often morally ambiguous world.  Somehow he knew how to act with courage and with a conscience.

– Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh, Temple Israel of Hollywood

On behalf of the State of Israel, we offer our deepest condolences on the passing of Rabbi Harold Schulweis (z”l), one of the most influential and beloved rabbis of our time. His work with the Jewish World Watch and the Jewish Foundation of the Righteous, among many other admirable causes, reflected vision and compassion of the greatest of men. His loss will be deeply felt throughout the Jewish world and beyond.

– Consul General of Israel, David Siegel

Today we lost one of our Gedolei HaDor, one of the great leaders of our generation. Though his speaking, his writing, his warmth, and his visionary innovation, Rabbi Harold Schulweis touched the lives of countless Jews and influenced the direction of North American Judaism.

Rabbi Schulweis showed us that we do not have to choose between a particularist or universalist type of Judaism. He showed, rather, that Jewish practice, a love for Clal Yisrael, and a love of all people goes hand in glove with an imperative to stand up for social justice and to live a life of meaning and purpose. The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, Mazon, Jewish World Watch – all are organizations that exist because of Rabbi Schulweis’s passion to heal the world.

Rabbi Schulweis also understood better than anyone the needs of ordinary Jews, and taught many of us new ways to deeply engage the Jewish people. Finally, he was a social trailblazer, recognizing ahead of others that it was time to count women in the minyan, treat girls and boys equally in becoming b’nai mitzvah, embrace gay and lesbian Jews, or reach out to interfaith families.

We have lost a truly great person today, and we will miss him sorely. But the legacy of Rabbi Harold Schulweis will endure for years.”

– United Synagogue CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick and International President Richard Skolnik

Rabbi Schulweis was my first real teacher of Jewish philosophy when he taught a course at UC Berkeley around 1969 or 1970.  He is one of the main reasons I ended up doing what I do professionally since he was passionate and articulate teacher.  If he had been a Hasidic rebbe, I would have signed on as his Hasid.

A small anecdote.  I spent a half year in Israel working on kibbutzim in the 1970.  When I returned in September, 1970, I went for a Shabbat service at Temple Beth Abraham where Schulweis presided.  It was a hot day, so I went to the synagogue in shorts.  Schulweis called me up for an aliya.  One of the elders of the synagogue protested that I wasn’t dressed appropriately.  Schulweis waved him off and declared: “He’s just back from Israel and that’s how you dress there!”

– David Biale, Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor, Director, Davis Humanities Institute

Rabbi Schulweis met a young math student at Berkeley.  The family that rescued him and his brothers were Polish-Catholic.  The story culminated in the children's book “Jacob's Rescue” by Michael Halperin & Malka Drucker published by Random House

– Michael Halperin

I am deeply saddened by the loss of Rabbi Schulweis. He was my Rabbi and I’ve been a member of his congregation at Valley Beth Shalom since the mid-1990s. As a leader in the community for over 45 years, he was an innovator that transformed the synagogue beyond a place of worship into a true community that fostered activism, counseling, and charity.

My wife and I had the honor of listening to his sermons on many occasions; he was a moving speaker and constant inspiration. My mother, wife and I also had the privilege of joining him and his wife for dinner from time to time where he shared his insight and wisdom.

Rabbi Schulweis was one of the preeminent Jewish thinkers, scholars and intellectuals of our time and the author of many books including “For Those Who Can't Believe: Overcoming the Obstacles to Faith” and “Evil and the Morality of God.”

His leadership taught us the importance of reaching beyond our borders. Jewish World Watch, an organization he founded, brought schools, churches, and synagogues together to combat hunger and genocide across the globe. ‘Do not stand idly by’ was his frequent refrain – referring to the work we all must do together to overcome injustice.

He was also a reformer, who was among the first Conservative rabbis to welcome openly gay and lesbian Jews into his synagogue. His legacy and his writings leave a lasting impact here in Los Angeles and in communities everywhere. My wife Lisa and I send our sincerest condolences to his wife Malkah and his children Seth, Ethan, and Alyssa and the entire Schulweis family.”

— Congressman Brad Sherman


Rabbi Shulweis with my youngest son, Alex Abravanel at his Hebrew School graduation.  One of the many memorable moments with Rabbi Shulweis.

– Lisa Abravanel

He gave a sermon about problems of being a conservative Rabbi. As an example, he described converting a woman to Judaism, telling her that she was now favored in G-d's eyes because she chose to be Jewish. She asked him to marry her to her beloved and he had to tell her that a conservative rabbi may not marry a Kohen.

– Judy Salz

I remember Rabbi Schulweis coming to visit my philosophy of religion class as an undergraduate at The Ohio State University.  It was soon after his book “For Those Who Can't Believe” was published, and I was in awe of his revolutionary thinking. Years later as a rabbi myself, I have read and re-read his books, articles, and sermons, which have been an endless source of wisdom and inspiration.  May he rest in peace.

– Rabbi Adam J. Raskin, Congregation Har Shalom

There was no one like him. I attended Valley Beth Shalom Day School from 3rd grade through 6th. His door was always open. He was there for my parents and I every step of the way. Rabbi Schulweiss also conducted the service at my bat mitzvah. His words and mere presence kept everyone in awe. Several years later, in 1998, I called him to speak to him about my upcoming wedding (he always took calls personally. I always found this amazing given the importance of this man).  And he remembered me. By name. He remembered most everyone that he met. He told me that he did not do weddings that much anymore, but that he would do mine!! I was so very happy and touched. He shocked me when he said he would not charge for his service. A man of his caliber.  “Just make a donation to the temple”, he said. He also gave me other advice about mezuzahs and keeping kosher.  He shared stories about his father with me. He was so open, open-minded, and modern. So humble, gentle, and kind. I was concerned that my wedding was not going to be “glatt” kosher and other rabbis had a problem with that. He said that he didn't believe in this. And that it was ok. I asked him if every door in my home should have a mezuzah and he said only the front door that blesses the home. He made being Jewish easy and fun. “Do-able”!  My fiance (now husband) and I met with him in his humble office before the wedding. My husband had had bad experiences with Rabbis and Judaism in General. Rabbi Schulweiss changed his negative ideas around in that one meeting. My husband loved him and his teachings as much as I did! I can't say enough, how special this man was. To the world, to Judaism, to every family and every single individual he touched. After the wedding I gave Rabbi Schulweiss a meaningful Jewish tapestry (at the time I really didn't know what the scene depicted).  I went to visit him, some time after the gift and after the wedding.  To my surprise, he had proudly hung the tapestry right in his office. I thought to myself, this man must receive so many gifts, he must have so many nice, important possessions. And he hung mine up! In his small, private office. And,  in such a beautiful way. With a light shining just right on it, and a beautiful mount. He took the time to explain to me that it portrayed Aaron from the Torah. Well, my third child, who is now 4, is named Aaron. He has impacted my life in so many ways. I must also say, “behind every great man, there is a great woman.”  His wife is amazing, understanding, caring, strong, and loving as well. What a beautiful couple. G- d bless his soul and continue to bless his beautiful wife.

With Love and Gratitude.

– Elizabeth Ahdoot-Ebrahimian


Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis with other L.A. Conservative Rabbi's at the 2011 Masorti Foundation Dinner.

– Barbara Berci

I knew Rabbi Schulweis from the 1960s when he was a rabbi in oakland.  I was in my teens.  So sorry to hear he passed.  may the gates open wide for him.  Would be pleased to share my reflections. 

– Judith Bendor

I had the privilege of having Rabbi Harold Schulweis as my philosophy teacher at HUC-JIR LA. It was an amazing few months. The highlight, of course, was when he introduced his notion of “Predicate Theology”. His thinking and his social activism have been an inspiration ever since. We were fortunate to have him for so many years.

– Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels, Beth Shir Shalom

Seventeen years ago my daughter living in Sydney Australia at the time had a baby boy. The Brit was conducted by a physician and a rabbi. After my daughter said the required prayers in perfect Hebrew the rabbi turned to me and commented that my daughter had had a good Hebrew education and asked what synagogue did we belong to and who was the rabbi. When I told him Valley Beth Shalom and Rabbi Schulweis he was almost jumping up and down with excitement that we knew Rabbi Schulweis. Our beloved Rabbi Schulweis was a great influence even half a world away. May his name be a blessing for the whole world.

– Sharon Thompson Glass

While getting my hair done one day, I picked up a copy of the Heritage, an eight-page now-defunct Jewish newspaper and read that Rabbi Harold Schulweis was giving a lecture at 8 p.m. on Friday night on the subject of Kiruv, conversion to Judaism and I needed to be there. Raised Catholic, I rejected that philosophy in early adulthood, and here and there attended Jewish lectures, including one at the Jewish Federation by Valley Beth Shalom concerning Jewish acceptance of gays and lesbians. Someday, I would have to check out VBS, but had never got around to it.

I sat far back in the shul in case I might become uncomfortable and want to leave. As Rabbi Schulweis started to  speak, I was mesmerized by what he had to say and how eloquently he offered  the opportunity to be part of the Jewish people. Ten minutes into his talk, I understood that I was meant to be there, that I had found my people, that I had come home to my faith. Rabbi Schulweis was a masterful presenter of Judaism, what we Jews had done well, done badly but were meant to heal the world. He was an influence that stuck in your mind and is as clear today as it was the moment he spoke.

My life has forever been changed for the better, and for the people I have learned to help, because he had a vision of welcoming sincere people into the Jewish faith. I will miss his presence in this life, but Hashem has welcomed him to Gan Eden for the reward he justly deserves.

– Bracha Sarah Meyerowitcz

Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l and I began our San Fernando careers in 1970. I started at Los Angeles Valley College the first accredited Jewish Studies program at a public college in the State of California and he at Valley Beth Shalom set the standard of the ideal American Rabbi and why Shul matters. We shared Bronx birth and moxie, Yeshiva Rabbi Israel Salanter  musar (ethical teaching), and Yeshiva University contact (I at MTA High School and he at Teachers Institute). He spoke at LAVC and I spoke at VBS (Auschwitz Convent Controversy). In typical Salanter tradition we disagreed on what we disagreed. A Bronx tale. I was a guest at the Shulweis home on the first night of Passover 1975. Traditional readings, outstanding commentary,geschmaked pesachdik food, and all is well. Then the Open Door for Elijah and Shulweis proclaimed that he doesn't plead to the Almighty to pour out His wrath upon the nations  that know Him not for if they do they would not devour Jacob and laid waste his habitation. That night's additional Passover question asked by me, why not? The Rabbi responded that the “curse of nations” is medieval tradition and further not respecting the Other. Like hell it is not as I rushed to the open door and shreied in the Encino Hills the justice paragraph of the Haggadah.  Returning to the table of befuddled guests, I said, “Harold, a couple of months ago the United Nations declared “Zionism is Racism.” That is why the shefokh chamatkha is justified. This past summer's “Operation Protective Edge” and ant-Zionist and Jewish hatred related matters cement the importance of this charge. Barukh Dayyan Ha-Emet. May all be comforted in and by the legacy of Rabbi Harold Shulweis z'l.

– Prof. Zev Garber. Emeritus Professor and Chair Jewish Studies and Philosophy, LAVC

How does the voice of a man make the world a better place?  How can this man's dreams touch the poorest of souls on the other side of the world? How can a man live his life with Tikkun Olam as his goal and have this quest for world repair spur those around him into social action like ripples on water? The quiet voice that was yours, Rabbi, that I heard from the bimah and on your house phone when I called in need, was the voice that  gave sound to your strength, sound to your soul, and offered insight into the situation. You always had the wisest of answers to life's issues. Your quiet voice, your voice of strength, offered answers that brought quiet to my personal fears; your voice illuminated a paths of action for your congregation which melted problems into a road of just and righteous possibility. Your leadership was our synagogue's beacon; we understood by your voice which couched great wisdom what  needed to be done; your ideas then were brought into bloom and then flowered to benefit those in need. I will sadly miss your life which nourished my learning.

My deepest and life-long appreciation to Rabbi Schulweis, z'l.       Baruch Dyan haEmet.

– Marion (Manya) Phillips, Stamford, Connecticut.

What I learned from my Rabbi, makes me Jewish in the way that I am Jewish.

I learned to struggle with God and darkness in our world
That I needed to define my Judaism as the vehicle for those struggles
That when we bring good to the world through our actions
We bring God into this world
Darkness is the absence of God and Good
And it is our role to listen to our conscience to evoke goodness and struggle with the God within through that process
To embrace the “Isra” (struggle/fight) with “el” God in our daily thoughts and actions on earth

I learned that we are One

With everyone and everything
That we are connected through time and space
Not only to ourselves but to the stranger, and those injustices
Not only done to us and our ancestors but to those far away from where we are

This is poem inspired by what I learned from my Rabbi and how I aspire to live my life as a Jew due his teachings and lived “dugma” (example).  May his memory be blessed.


May we learn to see the sacred spark
in every person

May we learn to see that glowing warm light
in ourselves and
through the eye of
a stranger

May we become agents
in the ongoing creation
Bre-ayt Olam

May our day to day actions
the spread of a canopy of peace
That protectively hovers
over and within
you, your loved ones,
and those we’ll never meet

– Ron Avi Astor Ph.D., Lenore Stein-Wood and William S. Wood Professor of School Behavioral Health, University of Southern California

I have had the honor of being involved with Jewish World Watch and Rabbi Schulweis for the last 10 years. By allowing me to be part of his extraordinary vision, Rabbi Schulweis altered my view, not only of the world, but my place in it. By starting JWW, he challenged me and many others to leave our comfort zones and recognize that we can in fact DO something in places that seem so far away and remote. And he allowed me to connect with people in remote areas whose humanity touch me in a deep and profound way and whom I now carry in my heart always. I see the world and our interconnectivity differently because of Rabbi Schulweis.

But most of all, I have been so touched by his inclusiveness. I love that JWW embraces anyone who needs us and that while steeped in Jewish tradition, we welcome and embrace all faiths. It is a powerful message that the world needs more of.

— Diana Buckhantz, Board Member, Jewish World Watch

I am one of the fortunate thousands who had the privilege of learning from and being a friend of Rabbi Schulweis.

He listened, he heard, he understood, he inspired, he gave his heart and his mind.  He unwrapped my Jewish soul.

His soul lives on.

–Alice Greenfield

I came to celebrate the high holidays with a friend, and her family. I am not jewish, black, and born in England. The good Rabbi reached out to me, dressed me in the clothes worn at the ceremony, and welcomed me to the tribe. He was a wonderful man that had love in his heart for all. His sermon was inspirational, and though I met him only twice, was compelled to write to you when I learned of his passing.

I was deeply saddened for your/our loss of a great teacher. A man that truly walked the path of a loving God. He will live forever in my heart, as I am sure he will in that of his congregation.


–Stephen Ferrone

In Pirkai Avot, Ben Zoma asks: Who is wise? …and answers… One who learns from every man. Rabbi Schulweis derived meaningful lessons from wherever he could. How fortunate we are to have seen much of the world through his eyes, his mind and his heart.

It is rewarding and uplifting to sense the man he was through his words.

Here are some of them:

By reviewing the aftermath of the Korach rebellion, finding that the Lord commanded that the firepans of the rebels were to be made into beaten plates for a covering of the alter, he taught us that “something holy from something unholy – even sinful, could be created.”

“The objects of idolatrous adorations, the Rabbis warned, were not in themselves evil. Stars, moon, trees, sun are not unholy. It is the worship of portions of creation as if they were the whole of creation that eclipses the unity of God’s world and profanes it. When institutions or ideologies arrogate to themselves exclusive truth and dismiss all others as aberrations, the plentitude and grandeur of Judaism are impoverished.
(Moment magazine, September, 1985)

“Whoever glorifies himself by humiliating someone else has no share in the future world.”
(Quoting Maimonides, Moment magazine, December, 1985)

“In the first chapter of Genesis, God does not create something from nothing. His key contribution is dividing – setting up a value system.”
(Sermon – 11/1/86).

Ahavah = 13 (Numerology)
         13 x 2 = 26 = Yehovah
         “If you want to believe, then love.”
(Rabbi Schulweis quoting Martin Buber, 12/29/90)

“Science measures and weighs what is; faith is concerned with what ought to be.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis in VBS the Shalom 18 #7 March, 1991 p3).

“The word for miracle in Hebrew is Nes, a sign. Hence significant.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis, Friday, 12/9/1994 with Cardinal Mahoney)

“In her book, Today’s children and Yesterday’s Heritage, Sophia Fahs suggested a game to answer the “where” question. (Where is God?)  I decided to adopt her game with my daughter.  I asked her to touch my arms. She did. I asked her to touch my chest. She did. I asked her to touch my nose. She did. I then asked her to touch my love…she could not. She smiled. The exercise was an introduction to a deeper understanding of faith.”
(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994 p22)

“Godliness, like love, is located not ‘in me’ or ‘in you’ but between us. Love is not ‘on’ the object or ‘in’ the object but between them. Like the experience of Godliness, love points to a relationship with an ‘other’.

In Judaism, the importance of ‘betweeness is expressed in the high value that tradition places on community. Acts of holiness, such as the recitation of the mourners kaddish and the public reading of the Torah, require a minyan, the quorum of 10 representatives of the community.”

(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994 p24)

“A window shut open is as useless as a window shut closed. In either case, you’ve lost the use of the window.”
(Philopher Carlyle Marney quoted by Harold M. Schulweis: For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collns,          NY 1994 p27 (taken from Stages of Faith by James Fowler in Psychology Today 11/83).

“Where man ceases believing in something, it isn’t that he believes in nothing, but that he then believes in anything.”
(GK Chesterton quoted by Harold M. Schulweis –  For Those Who Can’t Believe;  Harper Collins, NY 1994 in Religious nature abhors a vacuum. P27)

“There is nothing that we can rightly pray for that does not make demands on us. The object of petition is to energize us to act outside the threshold of the sanctuary.”
(Harold M. Schulweis. For Those Who Can’t Believe. Harper Collins, NY, 1994.p39)

“True wisdom is the ability to act when it is necessary on the basis of incomplete information.”
(Robert Frost quoted by Harold Schulweis – VBS vol 23# Nov., 1995, mentioned in the Yom Kippur sermon).

“Shema is the central prayer of Judaism. It talks of God, not as all powerful or as all wise or as eternal – but as one. We are the witnesses of God’s existence, which is demonstrated by our actions.”
(Rabbi Harold Schulweis Rosh Hashana sermon 10/1/1997 on Echod: We are one with God and with each other.)

“To paraphrase George Santayana, the effort to embrace humanity in general is as foolhardy as the attempt ‘to speak in general without using any language in particular.’  Judaism is the particular language through which Jews address humanity.  Although the Bible originates out of the needs, intuitions, and revelations of a particular people, its wisdom and ethics burst into the public domain of humanity.”

“Sharansky cited Cynthia Ozick’s telling of the Jewish folk tale in which a naif asks the rabbi why one blows the shofar through the narrow side of the ram’s horn rather than through the wide side.  The rabbi answered, if you blow it into the wide end, no sound will be emitted.  But if you blow through the narrow side, it will reach into the outer limits.  Like charity, compassion begins at home, but it does not end there.”(Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis, From: I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl. Edited by Judea and Ruth Pearl. Jewish Lights Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont, 2004, pages 177-81)

“Whatever the situation under discussion, God is not to be found in the cause; God is found in the response.”
(Harold Schulweis, Jan 31, 2005 evening meeting about Darfur).

“The mark of a civilized human being is the ability to count…and to cry.”
(Harold Schulweis quoting Bertrand Russell…in the context of Darfur)

–Avrum Bluming

Jewish community remembers Sid Caesar

Responding to today’s news about the passing of comedy legend Sid Caesar, Los Angeles community members praised the veteran comic’s ability to win over an audience.

“He was an awfully funny guy,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) said, “and an awfully incredible convener of funny guys.”

Feinstein was not the only VBS clergyman to have a soft spot for Caesar.

“He was a great artist – not just a comedian. He made comedy into the highest elevated art,” Cantor Herschel Fox told the Journal.

Fox recalled seeing Caesar perform at a 1996 Hanukkah event in Orange County, where Caesar wowed audiences with his still finely-tuned chops.

“He did improvisational things on the spot. I think he did a wider range of characters and directions than anybody in his time,” Fox said.

Caesar made an impression on stage and off. As seen in the documentary “Lunch,” he was a regular at Factor’s Famous Deli, where he and group of showbiz pals ate lunch every Wednesday.

Caesar, who was born to Jewish immigrants in Yonkers, was 91.

A knack for physicality, as opposed to wordiness, distinguished Caesar from the prototypical Jewish comic.

“It's especially sad to lose Caesar because he's less quotable than most of his fellow comedy gods,” Josh Lambert, academic director of Tent: Encounters with Jewish Culture, told the Journal. “Words can't do justice to the faces he pulled or the gibberish he spouted. 

“But he'll live on forever for those who know where to look: in the traces of Catskills shtick still echoing in contemporary sketch comedy, and in any big comedian who still sells a joke with every muscle in his body,” he said.

Meanwhile, other Caesar fans, including Rabbi David Wolpe, tweeted a shout-out to the funnyman who was known for classic TV shows, “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour.”

“Sad to hear of the passing of the great Sid Caesar. May his memory be a legacy of laughter and blessing,” the Sinai Temple leader said.

Sid was a warm, kind, sweet man who loved his lunch buddies. A true brotherhood,” factors co-owner suzee markowitz said.

Finding God in neighborly kindness when disaster strikes

“The epicenter of the earthquake was under our kitchen. The house jumped 10 feet in the air, and my wife and I woke to the beautiful view of the San Fernando Valley,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein, 59, of  Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, recalled with dry humor.

Feinstein’s experience, as it was for many others who lived in his Granada Hills neighborhood, was traumatic. The back wall of his house, along with its windows, was smashed and destroyed, and its water heaters exploded. Feinstein and his family moved out of their home, which was uninhabitable, and eventually moved permanently into a new house in Encino.

Despite the similar trauma of many members of the Valley Beth Shalom community, synagogue leaders dove into action in the days after the earthquake. Leaders contacted every member of the synagogue and put together an emergency committee of lawyers, personal counselors and architects from the congregation who could help community members.

“We made sure everyone in the community who needed help was getting help,” said Feinstein, who was a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom at the time. “The physical shockwaves left people feeling emotionally shaky. At the same time, there was a tremendous sense of bonding together to help one another. It was very special.”

The synagogue’s Hebrew classes resumed a week after the earthquake, and a wedding ceremony interrupted by an aftershock was improvised in the synagogue’s parking lot.

Feinstein also recalls acts of support in his neighborhood. A policeman neighbor and his son guarded the cul-de-sac on their block, since there was no police protection. A man driving around in a big yellow truck sold cases of water for the same price they cost at Costco, despite the higher profits he could have made.

“What we saw was the best of human beings,” Feinstein said. “When I had to explain to my kids where is God, I said, ‘God is in the yellow truck. God is with all the people who help their neighbors and give them support, and our job is to be part of that, too.”

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words

From left: Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Laura Geller and Rabbi Ed Feinstein

For the High Holy Days this year, the Jewish Journal invited three rabbis — Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom — to respond to a series of questions related to teshuvah, the task of making amends during the High Holy Days. 

The questions were: What really is a sin? Can people change? How do we forgive? How do we make amends?

The three — no surprise here — offered three very different responses, each in their own style. Together, perhaps, their answers offer insights into how we might pursue this most difficult task.

Rabbi David Wolpe: A time of transformation

Rabbi Laura Geller: A difficult conversation

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: As the Jew Turns

Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Western Wall

“There are no villains in this story.”  Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.  Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall.  The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world. 

Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.

We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew.  We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.

[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]

Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity.  Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.

The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews.  But this Wall that has united people can also divide us.  Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation.  Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.

Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.

Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.  He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.

We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders

Q&A with Rabbi Ed Feinstein

On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.

Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?

Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)

JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?

EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.

JJ: And that’s when you came here.

EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.

JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…

EF: A million.


JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?

EF: About 1600.

JJ: That’s huge by many standards.

EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.

JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?

EF:  In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.

JJ: Can you define your theology?

EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.

JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?

EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound.  There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.

JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?

EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way.  My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.

JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.

EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.

JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?

Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.

JJ: And what did you say?

EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion.  Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.

JJ: So what’s the least fun?

EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.

The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.

JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?

EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.

JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.

EF: Absolutely.

JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?

EF: Only among Jews.  I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.  

At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.

JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?

Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.

JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?

EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters,  that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.

L.A. contingent has plenty to say at AIPAC Policy Conference

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the podium at the annual AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 5, it became clear why more than 13,000 Americans — most though not all of them Jews, and nearly 1,700 of them from Los Angeles — had come to attend the organization’s three-day conference. Although they would hear essentially the same pro-Israel messaging as in past years, one topic in particular was regarded with new exigency.

“Iran, Iran, Iran,” first-time attendee Jonathan Baruch, a founding partner of Rain Management Group, said, in describing the crux of this year’s conference. For AIPAC veterans, the laser-like focus on Iranian nuclear proliferation probably wasn’t a surprise, as the organization has been pressing the issue for more than a decade. But the urgency of the cry to confront Iran’s potential to develop nuclear weapons has reached fever pitch in recent months, as Israeli officials warn of an impending “point of no return,” saying soon will come a day when destroying the Iranian program could become impossible.

“I’d like to talk to you about a subject no one’s been talking about lately,” Netanyahu joked to a standing-room-only crowd of Israel supporters at the Washington Convention Center. Just hours after a closed-door meeting with President Barack Obama, the prime minister was unequivocal: “The Jewish state will not allow those that seek our destruction the means to achieve that goal,” he said, laying the foundation for what sounded like the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “As prime minister, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.”

That, too, seemed to be the message that this conference, the largest-ever assemblage of pro-Israel advocates, was aiming at U.S. policy makers. For a lobbying organization whose numbers are its most valuable asset — volume, after all, equals votes — AIPAC owes much to its Pacific Southwest Region, and especially to Los Angeles, which comprised the second largest regional delegation in the country, trailing only New York. Leading the L.A. charge was Sinai Temple in Westwood, whose 285 attendees made up the largest synagogue contingent in the country, though L.A.’s Valley Beth Shalom, Beth Jacob Congregation, Young Israel of Century City, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Am also were all well represented.

“This conference is like Yerushalayim,” said Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, who led one of the largest L.A. delegations for the fourth consecutive year. “If you sit here long enough, you’ll meet every Jew in the world.”

The impulse to compare the scene at AIPAC with the capital of Israel may sound like hyperbole, but it is, in fact, another reason why the Iranian threat loomed large: A danger to Israel is a danger to all Jews. The urgency of the Iran issue is what compelled many of the West Coast residents to travel more than 2,000 miles to hear, in person, President Obama address one of the most powerful and privileged voting constituencies in the nation. This is an election year, after all.

“This convention is unusual, because there’s a meeting going on right now between Netanyahu and the president, and the entire convention is aimed at that meeting,” Feinstein said, sitting in an enormous lounge at the AIPAC Village, where conference attendees mill about between sessions, eating, drinking and kibitzing. “The purpose of this conference is to change the atmosphere in which that meeting is taking place. People are here to tell the president to take great care in that meeting, so it gives the conference the sense of an impending historic decision.”

Feinstein said the conference offers an opportunity to exercise personal political will and engage in politics in a way not often experienced by Hollywood-dominated Los Angeles:  “There is a sense, particularly for those living in California, that there are events transpiring, and we can’t do anything about it. People call me all the time, saying, ‘I’m reading the paper — what can I do?’ I direct them here.”

Daniel Gryczman, 37, a real estate developer who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and is a member of Temple Beth Am, is a longtime AIPAC supporter. A member of its national council, congressional club (requiring a $3,600 annual donation) and new leadership network (a $10,000 commitment to pro-Israel politics outside of AIPAC each political cycle), Gryczman considers the conference’s exponential growth staggering. “Twelve years ago, this thing was at the Washington Hilton with 800 people,” Gryczman said. But he understands the attraction. “One person can actually make a difference,” Gryczman said. “Each member of Congress has a vote, and I do, too. And I can influence that vote and impact the U.S.- Israel relationship — which is probably the most powerful thing I’ve done. For me, this is the end-all, be-all.”

Actress, onetime supermodel, and design and marketing firm CEO Kathy Ireland called herself “a very proud pro-Israel American” during a speech at one session. The Los Angeles resident first visited Israel because of her Christian faith, but soon discovered shared values between the Holy Land and her own homeland. “I see in Israel what I see in our country,” she said: “The unrelenting pursuit of justice.” Ireland offered AIPAC’s answer for why non-Jews should care about Israel, delivering an impassioned speech about Israel’s wish for peace and the dangers posed by its “oil-rich neighbors.” 

For some, the oft-repeated tropes about a conflict-laden Israel in peril can seem a little dull.

“I think people are just nervous. What we’re so consumed with here,” Baruch said, pulling out his iPhone. “I just got an e-mail from a friend in Israel, and it was very funny — it was, like, ‘Oy vey, the Americans! There they go again. Boring.’ ”

“None of this is earth shattering,” Ron Alberts, executive vice president of Temple Beth Am, said. “When you do follow [the U.S.-Israel relationship] closely, you see the nuances a little better, but the overall message isn’t as exciting, because you know the message.” Still, veterans contend that much of the value of attending Policy Conference is in simply showing up.

“I don’t come because I find it so interesting,” Gryczman said. “I come because it’s about what we’re doing. And if we don’t come, we’re not doing the work we’re supposed to be doing. It’s not about receiving; it’s about giving.”

Mark Rohatiner, a member of Beth Jacob’s delegation, said he finds the repetition both comforting and inspirational. After Daniel Gordis, president of the Shalem Foundation in Jerusalem, delivered a conference address last year, Rohatiner’s 22-year-old daughter left NYU graduate school to make aliyah. “I jokingly told Elliot Brandt [AIPAC’s Pacific Northwest Regional Director], you saved me 50 grand,” Rohatiner said, adding, “Now I have to increase my contribution to AIPAC.”

Some Angelenos used the conference to explore the unpredictable San Fernando Valley congressional race between veteran Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman, both staunchly pro-Israel, Jewish Democrats who, because of redistricting, find themselves competing for the same seat. Following a breakout session in which Berman spoke on a panel about Iran, Sherman Oaks resident Megan Schnaid said she was convinced of Berman’s edge over his opponent.

“In my district, he’s commonly referred to as the Godfather,” said Schnaid, an executive with the Guardians of the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging. “What I like is that he has a good policy balance vbetween the local and the foreign. He understands the big picture,” she said, adding that locally Berman’s policy has made an impact. “I live in the Valley, and I drive over the hill every day, and he’s been instrumental in the expansion of the 405 [Freeway].”

Shai Kolodaro, another Sherman Oaks resident, had the opposite reaction to Berman’s panel. “After I heard him just now, I didn’t like his approach. His approach is too Obama-ish. Sherman has a harsher, more realistic approach,” she said.

Berman was among the many Angelenos expressing pride — and a touch of competitiveness — over L.A.’s large conference presence.

“Why don’t we have more people than New York?” he asked.

Maybe next year?

Debbie Friedman’s gift

One evening last February, 1,500 people poured into the vast sanctuary of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, filling every inch.

Rabbi Ed Feinstein stood on the bimah and addressed them: “With the ashes of Auschwitz in our throats, it was hard to sing,” he said. “With the death and darkness and destruction of Shoah, it was impossible to pray. And then God sent an angel, to teach us again how to sing.” That angel, the rabbi said, was Debbie Friedman.

Feinstein was speaking at a memorial concert staged at the end of a month of mourning Friedman’s sudden death at 59, an untimely death that shocked her vast cadre of loyal fans. At the event, just about every cantor and Jewish-music performer in town sang and recalled Friedman’s genius at putting prayer to music — some songs soft, others raucous, all of them offering solace and shared memory. At the end of the evening, just as the sadness seemed to have reached its peak, Julie Silver, an esteemed singer and songwriter in her own right, took the mike.

Silver opened with one more wistful Friedman song, then picked up the beat. “I know what you were waiting for,” she howled. And the dancing began.

Voices raised, hands linked, the mood rallied instantly as Silver belted out “Miriam’s Song,” just as Friedman had at innumerable concerts, campsites and simchas. It was a happy reminder that Friedman’s joyous legacy had not left the world with her passing.

It’s been a year since Friedman’s death, and another big memorial concert and study session in her honor is planned here for this weekend, titled “Songs of the Spirit: Debbie Friedman Remembered,” this one timed to Friedman’s first yahrzeit. On Jan. 22, Friedman’s friends Craig Taubman and Silver will join with members of her family as well as rabbis, cantors and the Temple Isaiah choir in a program at Isaiah sponsored by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Kalsman Institute.

With the image of Silver channeling her mentor still so vivid in my mind, I called Silver to ask how her own year has gone since losing Friedman. She sighed when I broached the question, and she told me she’d been memorializing her friend for the entire 12 months.

“It’s what I do when I’m in public — mourning her and singing about her. I sing her songs.” Silver said that through the many tribute concerts and memorial events, she’s come to a greater understanding of what it was that Friedman did for us.

“Debbie didn’t write about including the marginalized; she just did it,” Silver said. And she showed others how to do the same. We, her fans, celebrate the music that she left behind, most memorably her “Mi Shebeirach,” which is sung by every denomination as a prayer of healing. But what Friedman gave us actually goes much deeper.  She gave us all the ability to participate — not just listen — and it’s that shared experience of joining voices or being compelled to dance that is so valuable in keeping our liturgy alive.

“Debbie’s goal was always to get people to sing,” Silver said.

Silver is 45, a half-generation younger than Friedman, and says she was told from her earliest years growing up in Boston that she would be “the next Debbie Friedman,” long before they met.  When finally introduced, Silver said, they formed a “beautiful friendship with a common language.” Most importantly, Silver said, “I learned how to song-lead just by watching her on stage, by watching her interacting with people.”

Song leading is a very specific art, and Friedman took it very seriously. “Every breath she took was about making that connection,” Silver said. She kept at it until the end. A week ago, an article in The Forward revealed how just two weeks before Friedman became fatally ill, she was in New York and shared with a friend the melody for her new version of “Shalom Aleichem,” which she would never have the chance to formally record. Friedman told that friend she believed the new piece would become “my legacy. This is going to be bigger than ‘Mi Shebeirach,’ ” she reportedly said. You can see her sing it, too: See below for a very informal video of Friedman singing her “Shalom Aleichem” at a 60th birthday party for Los Angeles philanthropist Selwyn Gerber in 2010. And true to form, even as Friedman sings this new melody, she doesn’t just perform — she engages everyone there, calling out the words to encourage others to join her.

If, as Rabbi Feinstein suggested, Friedman was our angel, she also, as Silver recalled, compelled us all to “in Debbie’s words, ‘find the angel inside you and sing it.’ ” And that, above all else, may be why we love her so much. Her songs must be shared, and when our song leaders sing them today, they continue to ask the same of us, too — to experience what she wrote.

“This isn’t pop music,” Silver said. “It’s about faith. And it’s about keeping people alive and healthy.”