February 20, 2019

Rabbis speak out against Trump tweets at interfaith event

Rabbi Sharon Brous speaks at an interfaith press conference at the Islamic Center of Southern California. Photo by Ryan Torok

Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders used a Dec. 1 press conference at the Islamic Center of Southern California to denounce President Donald Trump for tweeting videos this week purporting to show Muslims engaging in acts of violence and breaking a statue of the Virgin Mary.

“I speak to you today as a rabbi and as a Jew,” said IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous. “My people know all too well the dangers of fascists regimes that rise to power through stigmatization and the scapegoating of vulnerable minority populations. We will not shrug this off as yet another reckless act from a reckless administration.”

Brous was one of three Jewish clergy members to participate in the press conference. Beth Shir Shalom Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels and Wilshire Boulevard Temple Rabbi Susan Goldberg —who said she was representing herself and not her congregation — also were among the interfaith leaders at the event.

“The hatred that was spewed out by the president earlier this week can only be combated with this kind of love,” Comess-Daniels said.

This past Wednesday, Trump retweeted three videos that had been shared by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the far-right group Britain First.

Critics of the tweets have said Trump was sharing the videos without offering any context for the content in the videos, fomenting hate against Muslims and spreading propaganda of a hate organization.

“And now, just like after Charlottesville here in the United States, a hate group that has operated on the fringes of society has now been promoted and given credibility by the president of the United States of America,” Brous said. “We must not downplay the recklessness and the danger of this act.”

Goldberg expressed the importance of the Jewish community standing with the Muslim community at this time.

“As a Jewish person there is no question where we need to be right now. We need to be standing with our Muslim sisters and brothers and comforting you and letting you know that though there is so much care and love and protection for you,” she said.

Bishop Steve Gilliland, director of Muslim relations at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council; Daniel Tamm, the Westside area representative of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti; Islamic Center of Southern California chairwoman Hedab Tarifi and Islamic Center spokesperson Omar Ricci also participated.

“It is a sad day when European leaders are teaching the American president about tolerance,” Al-Marayati said, referring to British Prime Minster Theresa May, who criticized Trump for sharing content tweeted by Britain Frist.

Tarifi expressed disappointment in the president for the tweets.

“For us to get together to condemn our own president is really very painful.”

Enough with your thoughts and prayers. People are dying.

FBI agents ride an armored vehicle to a staging area on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 2. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

As of the most recent count, 58 people were senselessly murdered in Las Vegas last night, and more than 500 wounded. Another horrific mass shooting tragedy on American soil. This is a sad day for our country—and I am heartbroken for the many families whose lives have been irrevocably upended by this act of terror. But for all of those thinking and praying for the souls of the dead and their bereaved families, think and pray on this: we, as a nation, have once again failed to protect our citizens from preventable tragedy.

There is so much we don’t yet know about this shooting. What does seem clear is that the gunman used at least one fully automatic assault weapon and had ten rifles in his hotel room. These are weapons of war, easily accessible in America. There have been 1,400 mass shootings since Sandy Hook, and yet we have failed to think or pray up a way to pass legislation that would change this reality. And even worse, after highly publicized mass shootings, there tends to be a loosening of gun laws. Right now, Congress is considering legislation that would make it easier to obtain silencers. Just imagine the increased scope of the carnage last night had the shooter possessed a silencer. It is criminal that Congress has failed to act in the face of the epidemic of mass shootings over the past many years; it is obscene that they are considering legislation that will exacerbate the problem.

This is not rocket science. A ban on weapons designed for battlefield use and a ban on high capacity magazines. Universal background checks for all gun buyers. Expanded mental health treatment. Restricted gun sales to anyone with a history of violence—especially a history of domestic violence—or mental illness. The overwhelming majority of Americans support these measures. So what exactly are we waiting for? Maybe we should pray on it?

Charles Clymer wrote this morning: “Being in this country, right now, is living in a terrible lottery. At anytime, at any place—a church, a school, a concert, at work, on a random street—we are at risk of being in a massacre. And our Congress continues to do nothing. They have failed us.”

One of these days, our nation will hit a tipping point. I dread the calamity that finally awakens us to the need to extricate our political system from the craven grip of the NRA and take real action to protect people from weapons of war. In the meantime, shame on us for not mustering the political will and the moral outrage to effectively address this crisis. Shame on us for letting our elected officials off the hook.

The news cycle will move on from this in a couple of days. It always does. And the only ones left to dwell in the tragedy will be those who lost loved ones or whose lives are forever altered by injury and trauma.

I am a person of faith, someone with a real prayer life. But I also know the limits of prayer: we cannot pray our way out of this endless loop of devastation and distraction. The only way out is collective spiritual and political action. That means saying NO to the diversionary tactics, NO to the empty excuses, NO to the bald-faced lies that will inevitably follow on the heels of this tragedy, as they always do. We have to use our voices, our resources, our connections, whatever public platform and political capital we have to call out the insanity of easy access to deadly weapons. This will not end until we end it.


Enough with your thoughts and prayers. TAKE ACTION: Call your members of congress.
Tell your House Member to oppose the Sportsmen Heritage and Recreational Enhancement Act (SHARE Act) which would deregulate gun silencers.
Tell your Senators to oppose Senate Bill 446, the concealed carry reciprocity bill.
Learn more here: https://everytown.org/act/
Find your rep here: https://www.house.gov/htbin/findrep


Sharon Brous is senior rabbi and founder of IKAR.

Why some rabbis used their High Holy Days sermons to bash Trump – and others demurred

Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, an independent congregation, delivering an invocation at the inauguration of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti in July 2017. Photo courtesy of Ikar

As spiritual leader of one of the most widely known Reform synagogues in America, Rabbi Joshua Davidson tries not to be divisive on the holiest days of the year.

So on the High Holy Days of years past, when he stood before thousands of congregants at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, Davidson stuck to universal and uncontroversial topics. In 2015, he spoke about the synagogue’s history and mission. A year ago, in the heat of an acrimonious election, he talked about civic duty and the value of political participation.

But this year, Davidson criticized President Donald Trump.

His Rosh Hashanah sermon last week was on “trying to lift ourselves above the dishonesty, the incivility, the indecency which so many feel has become the societal norm,” he said. One of the hallmarks of that indecency, according to Davidson, was Trump’s response to the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

“I certainly mentioned the president in certain contexts,” he told JTA. “I mentioned his response to Charlottesville and condemned it. We have to condemn any sort of equivocation when it comes to bigotry in the strongest terms. His response was an affront to decency.”

Whether or not to use the bimah as a bully pulpit has become a particularly burning issue in the first year of the Trump presidency, which even his supporters acknowledge has been unusually divisive. Non-Orthodox Jews, who make up the vast majority of American Jewry, voted against Trump in wide margins. According to a recent poll, a majority of Orthodox Jews voted for him and approve of his performance.

But rabbis disagree when it comes to talking politics from the pulpit, especially when more Jews attend their synagogues than at any other time of the year. For every rabbi who insists on taking clear stands, others worry about alienating congregants who may disagree.

Rabbi Shalom Baum advocated policies as a past president of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America. But he avoids discussing politics from his pulpit at Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck, New Jersey. The High Holy Days, he said, are a time to rediscover the good in other people, not to find more reasons to disagree.

“It’s a time for spiritual growth which increases both our connection to God and our connection to people,” he told JTA. “When it comes to the way we view other people I try to focus, on the High Holy Days, on what’s right with other people, as opposed to the things that divide us.”

Rabbi Joshua Davidson delivering a High Holidays sermon at Temple Emanu-El in New York City, September 2017. (Courtesy of Temple Emanu-El)

Other politically active rabbis agree that partisan political opinions don’t belong in a sermon — and especially not on the holiest days of the year.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom-The National Synagogue in Washington, D.C., protested Trump’s 2016 speech at the AIPAC conference while wearing a prayer shawl. But he studiously avoids talking politics in synagogue.

Herzfeld’s first sermon focused on his experience volunteering to clean up Houston following Hurricane Harvey. His Yom Kippur sermon will be about the Charlottesville rally, but it won’t mention Trump. And though he has titled the sermon “Removing Our Walls,” Herzfeld insisted to JTA that he is not alluding to the border wall with Mexico that Trump has proposed.

“This group of Nazis was trying to put up walls between different communities,” he plans to say in the Yom Kippur sermon, referring to the marchers in Charlottesville. “If we are an ‘us against them’ world, an ‘us against them country’ and an ‘us against them community,’ then we are all in big trouble.”

Davidson is one of several prominent rabbis who used their pulpit on the holiest days of the year to criticize the president. Some are open about their politics and said opposition to Trump was either a matter of consensus in the congregation, or his actions have been too egregious to ignore.

“This isn’t a time for us to be silent or to be too careful not to offend anybody,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar, an independent congregation in Los Angeles. “But instead, it’s a time for us to speak as clearly as we possibly can about the dangers we are facing as a community and a nation.”

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Brous in her sermon accused Trump of making America “a place in which anti-Semitism is condoned by the state.” She also criticized establishment Jewish organizations for not speaking out enough against Trump for what she said are rhetoric and actions condoning the white supremacists.

Brous has opined publicly about her politics in the past and delivered an invocation at President Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration. Her second-day Rosh Hashanah sermon this year advocated reparations for African-Americans.

“Many of our Jewish institutions failed to find the words to condemn the spike in anti-Semitic attacks that coincided with the 2016 presidential campaign,” Brous said in the first-day sermon, adding that they “failed to speak out against white nationalist sympathizers — men who have trafficked in anti-Semitism and racism for years — becoming senior White House officials.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor speaking to his Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, Calif. (Courtesy of Creditor)

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, an LGBT synagogue in Manhattan, likewise accused Trump of cozying up to anti-Semites. Her whole congregation opposes the president, she said, so calling him out was not a risk.

“I don’t think everyone agrees with me on everything, but overall our congregation is horrified at what’s happening in our country,” Kleinbaum said. “As Jews who are all immigrants, we’re horrified. As gay people, we’re horrified at the gender violence.”

In May, Trump signed an executive order allowing clergy to endorse or oppose candidates from the pulpit. The order effectively repealed the Johnson Amendment, which threatened the tax-exempt status of religious institutions if they appeared partisan.

While a range of Jewish groups criticized the order as eroding the separation of church and state, Trump characterized it as an expansion of freedom of religion.

Another rabbi unafraid to get political, Menachem Creditor of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, California, sermonized about not becoming ensnared in the now-endless stream of headlines and presidential tweets. While he stressed that his point was not to be consumed by any one issue, his sermon did criticize Trump’s policies on immigration and climate change.

He also spoke about the virtue of mixing religion and politics, which has been a hallmark of his career. An outspoken advocate for immigrant rights and gun control, Creditor announced recently that he would be leaving his pulpit to become a full-time activist.

“I think the posture of religion has always been within the world,” he told JTA. “Even the most devout of religious communities all band together to vote in certain patterns, act in certain patterns to influence the world. To abdicate that responsibility is to become islands and ultimately self-idolize.”

Moving & Shaking: Garcetti inauguration, LAMOTH vigil, AFMDA gala

IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous delivers the invocation at the inauguration ceremony for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. The gathering at Los Angeles City Hall marked the start of Garcetti’s second mayoral term. Photo by the Office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti

IKAR Senior Rabbi Sharon Brous delivered the invocation at the inauguration ceremony for Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s second term.

“Holy One, protect and strengthen our mayor, who wears the clothes of a politician but has the heart of a prophet,” Brous said on July 1 at Los Angeles City Hall.

Garcetti, 46, the city’s first elected Jewish mayor, took office in 2013. He was re-elected in June. Because of a shift in the city’s election calendar, Garcetti’s second term will last 5 1/2 years instead of the standard four-year term.

Garcetti’s father, former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, is Mexican American with Spanish, Native-American and Italian ancestry. His mother, Sukey Roth, is the granddaughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants.

Garcetti regularly studies Torah with Brous. The two co-starred in a comedy sketch titled “Clergy in Cars Getting Coffee” — a takeoff on a similar Jerry Seinfeld internet video series — for the 2016 IKAR Purim spiel.

The inauguration ceremony also featured the swearing-in of newly elected and re-elected L.A. City Councilmembers, including L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz, whose district includes the heavily Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Brous highlighted how local elected officials have fostered religious unity during polarizing times:

“Our mayor and our city leaders have turned this city into a holy hot spot, an oasis of love and justice, a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims and Sikhs and Buddhists and Hindus and Catholics and atheists stand together against hate crimes, form holy alliances to fight homelessness and combat racism, work side-by-side to strengthen and support our immigrant communities, declare our commitment to protecting one another and our fragile planet.”


From left: Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, AJC Los Angeles Director Dan Schnur and Consul General of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev commemorate 25 years of friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan. Photo by Anna Rubin

Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg and the Consulate General of the Republic of Azerbaijan in Los Angeles Nasimi Aghayev commemorated 25 years of friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan on June 7 at Sinai Temple.

The event featured Grundwerg and Aghayev in a conversation moderated by Dan Schnur, director of the L.A. office of American Jewish Committee, a global advocacy organization.

Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe opened the event by recalling his trip to Azerbaijan in 2015 with 50 members of his congregation, which sponsored and delivered a Torah to the mountain Jews of Baku.

Grundwerg and Aghayev discussed their backgrounds, their respect for each other and the friendship between their two countries. “Israel was one of the first countries that recognized Azerbaijan following its independence in 1991,” Grundwerg said. The two countries have been diplomatic partners ever since.

Aghayev highlighted his Muslim-majority country’s history with the Jewish people. “The Jewish people have been in Azerbaijan for more than 2,000 years,” he said, adding: “The Jewish people have been safer in Azerbaijan than anywhere else in the Middle East.”

Chinedu Nwogu, a Nigerian foreign exchange student at Cal State Northridge, attended the event and said he found the discussion encouraging. “It was inspirational to attend this event and see the strong friendship between Israel and Azerbaijan, despite the country’s Muslim majority, and it gives me hope that one day such a friendship will exist between Israel and Nigeria,” Nwogu said.

Additional attendees included philanthropists Naty and Debbie Saidoff; former Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy Delshad; Consul General of Japan in Los Angeles Akira Chiba and Consul General of Germany in Los Angeles Hans Jörg Neumann.

The Shalhevet High School choir sang a rendition of “Jerusalem of Gold,” recognizing the 50-year anniversary of Jerusalem’s 1967 liberation in the Six-Day War.

Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer


CNN International anchor Isha Sesay. Photo courtesy of CNN

CNN International anchor Isha Sesay spoke about her experiences reporting on women’s rights violations, particularly the terrorist group Boko Haram’s April 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls from the Chibok region of Nigeria, when she addressed a group of about 50 people after the Beverly Hills Jewish Community’s June 24 Shabbat services at the Beverly Hills Hotel. She emphasized the moral imperative to mobilize against such global atrocities.

Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, a member of the World Economic Forum’s Civil Society, introduced Sesay and described his own activism against the torture of Yazidi women and girls by ISIS in Iraq. Berkowitz has worked with Chaldean Christian groups to advocate for the Yazidi girls to the United Nations and the White House. He said he became passionate about the cause after he learned of it from the news and, as the father of four girls, felt he could not stand idly by.

“I recalled the phrase from Psalms: ‘Karati, v’ein oneh’ — ‘I called, and there was no answer,’ ” Berkowitz said. “It seemed that the world heard the Yazidi girls and did not answer. We as a Jewish community have an obligation not only to help our own, but wherever and whenever there’s injustice and suffering.”

Sesay related her passion for international women’s rights to her upbringing in Sierra Leone, where she said 90 percent of women are subject to genital mutilation. She said she hoped to balance journalistic objectivity in her news reports with her personal commitment to human rights activism.

“It is not enough as a journalist to sit at the desk and read a prompter,” Sesay said. “Some stories cannot be left at the studio door. You must use every tool at your disposal to keep the story alive.”

Sesay, who currently is writing a book about the Boko Haram kidnappings, urged congregants to be “upstanders” rather than bystanders, and to engage with nonprofit organizations already working to empower women in developing countries.

Sesay’s appearance was sponsored by the Jewish Journal and organized by the Jewish Platform for Advocacy and Community Engagement, and the Beverly Hills Jewish Community’s speaker initiative.

— Gabriella Kamran, Contributing Writer


Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz appears at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust for a vigil commemorating the refugees aboard the MS St. Louis in 1939. Photo by Jill Brown/Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust

The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) held a community vigil to commemorate the refugees aboard the ocean liner St. Louis in 1939. The St. Louis was full of Jewish refugees when it was turned away by the United States after leaving Nazi Germany.

At the June 11 event, the 85 attendees remembered those who were killed after being sent back to Europe, while LAMOTH highlighted the importance of helping present-day refugees. Those who attended came from various synagogues and organizations, including University Synagogue, Cool Shul, Temple Sinai of Glendale, Kehillat Israel, Leo Baeck Temple, USC, HIAS (formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society), IKAR, the Anti-Defamation League, Temple Beth Am and Temple Isaiah.

LAMOTH Director of Education Jordanna Gessler said it was important for the museum to hold the event because lessons of the Holocaust are relevant today, and important for members of the Jewish community to come together to “learn about the past, reflect on the present and change the future.”

LAMOTH was founded in 1961 by a group of Holocaust survivors whose narratives are at the core of the museum’s galleries and education.

Henry Slucki, a Holocaust survivor, was a participant at the commemoration who spoke about his experiences of being a refugee. Slucki said his family was assisted by HIAS, which for 130 years has protected refugees and helped them rebuild their lives.

L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz also spoke at the event about his father’s experiences as a Holocaust survivor and refugee.

Beth Kean, LAMOTH executive director and a grandchild of Holocaust survivors and refugees, discussed honoring the memory of those who died as a result of the events surrounding the St. Louis.

— Caitlin Cohen, Contributing Writer


From left: Actress and activist Sharon Stone, Magen David Adom (MDA) Chief Operations Officer Ori Shacham, new MDA Chairman of the Board Rabbi Avraham Manela, MDA paramedic Naty Regev and American Friends of MDA Western Region President Dina Leeds. Photo by Orly Halevy

American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA) held a June 21 luncheon at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills to mark the launch of its Iron Dome Protectors of Israel Women’s Division for Magen David Adom (MDA) in L.A.

The event featured a discussion with actress and peace activist Sharon Stone and philanthropist and businessman Michael Milken.

Organized by AFMDA Western regional chair Dina Leeds, the Jewish National Fund and Israel Bonds, the event drew more than 200 women in support of the Eshkol region of Israel, which has been a target of terrorist groups’ rocket and mortar attacks in recent years, and is not protected by Israel’s Iron Dome.

“We want to offer love and resources to our brothers and sisters in Israel who need it most due to the high-risk parts of the country they live in,” Leeds said. “Where there is no literal Iron Dome anti-missile system, we will be their ‘Iron Dome’ of emotional and lifesaving support.”

The event also raised funds to purchase two ambulances for the emergency-response efforts MDA performs in Israel and around the world.

“We unite people of Israel, of all ethnicities, backgrounds and religions,” Leeds said. “We have paramedics who are Jewish, Christian and Muslim, all serving the singular task of saving lives.”

Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse participated in the event via video.

“I commend each and every one of you for being such strong and determined women, each of you leading by example and making a difference,” Bosse told the attendees.

Carolyn Ben Natan, director of public affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, also attended.

“We stand on the shoulders of those righteous and fearless biblical women of the Exodus,” Natan said, “and now we have modern Israeli women on the world stage, and there is a direct line from Golda Meir to Gal Gadot.”

Other attendees included Beny Alagem, owner of the recently opened Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills; David Suissa, president of TRIBE Media/Jewish Journal; philanthropist Gina Rafael; Susan Azizzadeh, president of the Iranian American Jewish Federation; Jodi Marcus, associate director of the Jewish National Fund in Los Angeles; Yossi Mentz, AFMDA Western region director of major gifts; and Gadi Yarkoni, mayor of the Eshkol region.

— Mati Geula Cohen, Contributing Writer


With this issue, the Jewish Journal is proud to announce our newest columnist, Ben Shapiro.

Ben Shapiro. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund

Shapiro, 33, was born and raised in Los Angeles, where he attended Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School. He went on to UCLA, where he graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa at age 20, with a bachelor of arts degree in political science.

He graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 2007 and subsequently practiced law at Goodwin Procter LLP. Today, he runs a Los Angeles independent legal consultancy firm, Benjamin Shapiro Legal Consulting.

Shapiro, who lectures widely on college campuses across the United States, has written seven books, including 2004’s “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth.” He currently writes a column for Creators Syndicate and is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire. He is the co-founder and former editor-in-chief of the media watchdog group Truth Revolt and former editor-at-large of Breitbart News. He resigned from Breitbart after what he felt was the website’s insufficient support of its reporter Michelle Fields after she was allegedly assaulted by Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager.

In a March 1, 2016, cover story for the Jewish Journal, “Why the Republican Party Is Dying,” Shapiro decried the candidacy of now-President Trump.

Shapiro’s other books include “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV” and “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences Americans,” which appeared on The New York Times’ best-seller list.   

He married Mor Toledano, an Israeli citizen of Jewish-Moroccan descent, and lives in Los Angeles. They have two children and belong to an Orthodox congregation.

Shapiro’s column will appear in the Journal twice monthly, alternating with Marty Kaplan.

The Journal is devoted to presenting a pluralistic forum for the many strong, divergent voices in the community, and we are thrilled that Shapiro’s voice now will be among them.

We also want to thank Dennis Prager, who contributed loyally to this publication over the years. He will continue to contribute occasional columns as his time and schedule permit.

— Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief


Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com. 

Etgar Keret’s voice carries beyond Israel’s borders

Etgar Keret. Photo courtesy of The Lion House Agency

Most of us understand the value of words. And those of us who may have forgotten their power have no doubt been reminded of it over the past few months as the new administration in Washington routinely comes under fire for words said and words omitted. It goes without saying that writers, especially fiction writers, have a special proclivity for language — a gift for transforming ideas and emotions into textual images that, hopefully, remain with us.

This is a trait shared universally by writers from around the world, with culture and geography generally playing a large role in the way a person writes. Place gives stories their unique character, though good writers know how to ensure that their work is universal despite its particular elements. Israel has given us many great men and women of letters, including writer Etgar Keret.

Born in Ramat Gan in 1967, Keret is known for his short stories, graphic novels and scriptwriting for film and television. He is married to Shira Geffen, an actress and writer with whom he often collaborates on various projects, and together they have a son, Lev.

The popularity of Keret’s work has spilled far beyond Israel’s borders. He has appeared frequently on National Public Radio’s “This American Life” and is credited by many as having helped to revive appreciation for the short-story genre, which many literary critics at least a decade ago suggested was coming to a close.

I discovered Keret 10 years ago after falling in love with other Israeli writers, such as David Grossman, Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, among many others. I already was familiar with Jewish-American literature, but I found there was something unique about Israeli writing, and within that genre I discovered there was something even more distinctive about Keret, who will discuss his writing in a dialogue with Rabbi Sharon Brous on May 10 at American Jewish University. Sponsored by the university’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education and IKAR, the event also will include a dramatic reading of Keret’s stories by actress Lisa Edelstein.

Israeli fiction is heavy and haunted. Despite the young age of the country, the novels produced by its writers are often long, sweeping and epic in nature. It’s as if all of the oldest souls in the world ended up in one place and decided to write. While the region is small, its stories are grand and perhaps unparalleled in their tendency to tease out the nuances of living in a land of ethical and geographic quandaries, always pushing us not toward what is simple, but what is just.

Israeli fiction is almost never not politically aware or engaged with current events either subtly or explicitly. Yet while the work of 20th- and 21st-century Jewish-American writers often demonstrates a meaningful struggle of identity — in many cases what it means to be both American and Jewish, observant or secular — the work of Jewish-Israeli writers reminds us that such struggles are perhaps a luxury.

When you live in a place where nearly everyone knows someone, or someone who knows someone, who was a victim of a suicide bombing or stabbing, you don’t always have time to reflect on the nature of identity. It becomes even more incidental when that place is the most criticized and scrutinized nation in the world, always the eye of some international storm and an enduring subject of heated conversation from the U.N. to the Shabbat dinner table. Instead, you must speak frankly and articulately about what matters now.

Every word counts in such an environment, and reading the heavy-hitting fiction writers of Israel, one gets the sense that there is nothing more critical, now, than understanding our responsibility as Jews and acting on it. And this is no laughing matter.

Israeli fiction is heavy and haunted. Despite the young age of the country, the novels produced by its writers are often long, sweeping and epic in nature. It’s as if all of the oldest souls in the world ended up in one place and decided to write.

But then there’s Keret, the 2016 recipient of the Charles Bronfman Prize, awarded in recognition for conveying Jewish values across cultures in his work. For Keret, this sense of urgency materializes in a different way — most notably in that he is funny. Darkly funny, that is, sometimes achingly and startlingly so. For example, in this excerpt from a 2012 piece for Tablet magazine called “School Isn’t (Always) Jail,” Keret reflects on his anxiety about his son starting elementary school in Tel Aviv:

“The entire week before that, Lev’s mom kept asking his dad to stop watching reruns of “Oz,” claiming that it was having a bad effect on him. And now, as Lev’s dad follows his son down those dark hallways and sees the second-graders, lollipops protruding like toothpicks from the corners of their mouths, eyes arrogantly inspecting the new first-graders as if they were a shipment of fresh meat, he thinks that … there’s no denying that something about schools is reminiscent of prisons. The long corridors. The square, asphalt-paved yard into which the small prisoners are released a few times a day. The unpleasant crowding, the uniforms. And as Lev finds himself a seat in the classroom next to a fat, red-faced boy who looks like a Bavarian farmer who turned in Jews during the Holocaust, his dad is praying that this first day will end peacefully: no solitary and no shanks in the schoolyard.”

One can’t help but laugh at the idea of school as a small replica of prison. But not far beneath the humor, we discover the real and raw fear that a parent can feel when his child enters school. This fear becomes even more deep-seated given Keret’s personal history as the son of Holocaust survivors.

In Keret’s work, the idea that every word counts is taken literally. Living in Israel can be intense. It’s a place that is exhilarating and alive in every sense. It’s no wonder that much of Keret’s work falls into the category of flash fiction, stories that are exceptionally short, sometimes no more than half a page. Consider his story “Asthma Attack,” only one paragraph long, from his 1992 collection “The Girl on the Fridge”:

“When you have an asthma attack, you can’t breathe. When you can’t breathe, you can hardly talk. To make a sentence all you get is the air in your lungs. Which isn’t much. Three to six words, if that. You learn the value of words. You rummage through the jumble in your head. Choose the crucial ones — those cost you too. Let healthy people toss out whatever comes to mind, the way you throw out the garbage. When an asthmatic says ‘I love you,’ and when an asthmatic says ‘I love you madly,’ there’s a difference. The difference of a word. A word’s a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance.”

Writing short stories in general is a profoundly difficult task. There is only so much space, so much time to say what needs to be said. Less is more, and it’s not always easy to do that in a way that works. But this skill is one of the characteristics of Keret’s writing that sets it apart from other Israeli writers.

Despite his fame as a fiction writer, my first encounter with his work was a film called “Jellyfish” he made with his wife. It’s a beautiful and well-written film, and one moment has never left me. Near the end, one woman tells another that her parents were Holocaust survivors. The second woman responds: “You’re second generation?” The first woman shrugs and says, “We’re all second generation of something.”

While the work of many second-generation writers suggests that the inheritance of trauma is the center of their world, Keret’s work transcends such literary blind spots. It’s not that the Holocaust isn’t present in his work. It is, certainly, as we see in his piece about sending his son to school. Some might argue that it haunts all of his writing. But it is simply one of many lenses through which he understands the world.

Humor is another — something we don’t often see from Israeli writers — and yet humor is not disconnected from struggle and tragedy. In fact, the need to laugh is often connected directly to the experience or inheritance of trauma. Given that Keret’s work is often tinged with the presence of something tragic, I asked him to what degree he connects humor to darkness, and whether the Holocaust is the only darkness that impacts his writing.

“Being funny, for me it’s never a goal,” he said, during a recent conversation by phone. “I think it’s always an effect of trying to say something else. We have this expression that my son uses: tickle-funny. When someone tickles you, you laugh. You don’t feel any emotion, you just laugh … [but real] humor is always a side effect of acknowledging some other emotion.”

Keret believes that his cynicism makes him funny, that it enables him to find an outlet, or a release valve, as I put it. Anger, fear, frustration and stress: they all need somewhere to go or we risk implosion. Humor can help manage these sensations. Keret, who grew up on “Monty Python,” described how it provided an incredible release for him. When I asked about contemporary comedians to whom he is drawn, he cited Louis C.K. for “the dialogue that [he] offers,” suggesting that Louis C.K. resolves himself to do “not just what works,” but what he finds “important at the risk of people not getting it.”

But laughter does not come cheaply. There’s a difference between simply being a funny guy who laughs a lot and being someone for whom comedy is a necessary function of survival. Keret described an instance when his young son asked him to “be funny.” He recounted not being able to supply what his son asked for because “I need some kind of catastrophe; there should be some obstacle for humor to present itself.”

An expression of humor is not so different from storytelling. Both are always responses to something else. It’s “always an attempt to complete something that isn’t completed,” he said, reminding me that writing is always only an approximate response, little more than a trace of what we want to communicate.

Despite the numerous books and countless stories and essays Keret has written, including his latest, a memoir called “The Seven Good Years,” the period between the birth of his son and the death of his father, he said he still finds it difficult when it comes to saying that he is a writer.

“When I would fly to the U.S. and fill out those immigration cards, I would always write ‘lecturer’ or ‘professor,’ ” he said. “I would never write ‘writer.’ I always had a problem with this because I think that for someone to say he is a writer is like saying he is lovable or cute … because anybody can write words on a page, but the only person who can say [whether this is] writing or not or that the writing means something is the reader.”

And yet, the fact remains that Keret is indeed a writer — a good one. But in true Keret comedic fashion, he said of finally having to accept the title: “It’s kind of like when you have this mole on your face and … you get used to it.”

“Humor is very much like story,” he continued. “Let’s say you’re living in a 3-D world and you need to get somewhere so you get there, but if this place is also [haunted by war] then you need to go through a fourth dimension to be able to get there. Going there is basically a place where fiction or humor function for me, kind of like using a hammer or can opener.”

I couldn’t help but think of how, much like these common tools of everyday use, humor is for some a basic tenet of survival.

Courtesy of The Lion House Press Agency

Courtesy of The Lion House Press Agency

And speaking of survival, it’s become culturally hip, at least in America, to question the parameters of comedy in the context of the Holocaust and other tragedies — a natural segue into the issue of anti-Semitism today, which various news outlets say is on the rise.

In Keret’s “Defender of the People,” found in “The Seven Good Years,” the first line reads: “There’s nothing like a few days in eastern Europe to bring out the Jew in you.” The sarcasm of this statement struck me as terrifyingly funny. I remember reading it on a flight to Israel when the memoir came out and knowing exactly what he meant. And laughing. The story describes a misunderstanding he experiences when a German-speaking man drunkenly enters the restaurant where Keret is dining and yells, “Juden raus!” (Jews out!) Keret confronts the man and reveals his Jewish identity before the man is thrown out of the restaurant.

It turns out that the man had actually been yelling “Jeden raus,” which means something along the lines of “everyone out.” The drunk was complaining that a diner’s car was blocking his. But “what can I do?” asks Keret in the story, “Even today, every other word of the German language puts me on the defensive.”

In the same story, Keret talks about how he had come to acquire “superhuman powers when it comes to detecting swastikas” and how he’s experienced a number of anti-Semitic incidents that, unlike the one above, “can’t be explained away by a mistake in understanding.”

I was curious about how someone with such a heightened sensitivity to anti-Semitism views an increase in hate crimes against Jews. Is anti-Semitism really growing, I asked, or is that just an idea peddled by those who enjoy fear-mongering?

In Keret’s view, it can be difficult parsing the differences between a crime and a hate crime. “I’ve been told anti-Semitic jokes because people didn’t know I was a Jew. It’s not discernible,” he said. Jewishness is more mysterious, I suggested, and therefore more threatening or frightening for some people. A Jew is “someone who is different but who looks the same,” he said.

Keret also drew a parallel between anti-Semitism and homophobia: “You can tell a joke about someone who is a homosexual and not know he was a homosexual. So I think this kind of obscureness about identity … that is, the difficulty [in identifying] Jews, is one of the sources of anti-Semitism.”

Keret struggles with the idea that Jews should unconditionally support all policies of the Israeli government. Like most deep thinkers, he understands the nuances and complexities that accompany this scenario.

“It’s tough for me to figure,” he told me. “Many times when I talk with American Jews, I say that I don’t really accept that Israel should be supported unconditionally. … I think that if my brother starts using crack, I wouldn’t say, ‘He’s my brother’ and, ‘Here’s some money [to buy more drugs]’ since he is family.”

As a fierce lover of Israel and its right to exist as a Jewish state, I found what Keret said deeply resonant. I love Israel as I love my friends and family, always poised to give Israel the benefit of the doubt before launching into criticism. But I also have witnessed the destructive effects of disguising, ignoring or enabling bad behavior in a loved one. It doesn’t do that loved one any good. It doesn’t do any of us any good. The issue, of course, is one of balance, which Keret gets intuitively, even if it often seems absent from political discourses.

“Being funny, for me it’s never a goal. I think it’s always an effect of trying to say something else. We have this expression that my son uses: tickle-funny. When someone tickles you, you laugh. You don’t feel any emotion, you just laugh … [but real] humor is always a side effect of acknowledging some other emotion.”

-Etgar Keret

I was curious about how Keret sees himself fitting into the cast of literary greats in Israel. While he is an enormous fan of Oz, he often feels closer to Jewish Diaspora writers such as Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer than to his peers — if for no other reason than the ease with which he transitions between comedy and tragedy.

“Israeli humor is not distinct or special in any way,” he said. “I don’t think for Israeli humor, the foundation is different from Italian humor, for example. … I think [for] many Jewish Diaspora writers and stand-up comedians, it has to do with some kind of complexity or obstacle that doesn’t really exist in the Israeli context. Jewish humor came from a position of weakness.

“Diaspora Jews,” he continued, “being oppressed in many ways, needed humor. We were so weak. We needed that, but when we came to Israel, we became strong enough.”

And now that Israel’s default mode, as we know, is not one of weakness, humor has become an option rather than a necessity.

The dual identity of Diaspora Jews is also a factor in the use of humor in a way it could be and is not used in Israel. As Keret explained, an American Jew has the ability as a Jew to criticize Americans and as an American to criticize Jews. “You can always be inside and outside the community,” he said. “You can always have some kind of exterior perspective.”

Given that humor is almost always a result of some kind of tension, it makes sense that American Jewish writers have a long history of resorting to humor. But “in Israel,” he said, “I don’t think we need [it] anymore.”

Of course, none of these theories explains why Keret, an Israeli Jewish writer, is so comfortable using humor. But it’s a fortunate mystery for readers that distinguishes him from his contemporaries. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether his impulse to blaze his own trail among Israeli fiction writers has something to do with the bedtime stories his father used to tell him, stories he recounts in the short story, “Long View.”

Recalling the plots as an adult, he realizes they were supposed to teach him something “about the almost desperate human need to find good in the least likely places. Something about the desire not to beautify reality but to persist in searching for an angle that would put ugliness in a better light and create affection and empathy for every wart and wrinkle on its scarred face.”

I’d say Keret has found his angle.


Monica Osborne is a writer and scholar of Jewish literature and culture. Her book “The Midrashic Impulse and the Contemporary Literary Response to Trauma” is forthcoming later this year.

Time to end ‘Top Rabbis’ list

Kudos to the Jewish Journal and writer Danielle Berrin for a fair and balanced article about Newsweek magazine’s “America’s Top 50 Rabbis” list. Given the prominence of Los Angeles rabbis at the top of the list, one might have expected the article to cheerlead on its behalf. But the article was not only balanced; it probably left most readers with a negative view of the list.

Kudos as well to the rabbis who made the list yet were quoted as being critical of it, such as Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein, whose critiques of the list were scathing.

The list actually accomplishes something very rare: it has no redeeming values, yet does great damage. It weakens an already somewhat fragile institution: the rabbinate. And it applies Hollywood values to a profession that least needs them — religion. Rabbis should not be regarded as stars.

This is no reflection on the rabbis who made the list. On the contrary, my beloved friend since high school, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, with whom I wrote my first two books, was on the list five times. And I am honored to count some of the Los Angeles rabbis in the top tier as friends for decades. Rabbi David Wolpe was one of the few non-family members in my home 20 years ago for my second son’s bris. I delight in his well-deserved success. So, too, I have often worked with Rabbi Marvin Hier since he came to Los Angeles; and I’ve known his colleague on the list, Rabbi Abraham Cooper, since we were both children in Brooklyn. As a member of a boys choir that sang at my parents’ Orthodox synagogue on the High Holy Days, he slept in our home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

But as much as some of the rabbis on the list deserve being so honored, the list is degrading to the rabbinate. It is nothing more than a function of the contemporary preoccupation with celebrity over substance, of fame over significance.

Its destructive effects are legion.

It inevitably pits rabbis against one another.

It makes big synagogues similar to big film companies — looking to sign up big names.

It will surely affect at least some rabbis’ work by having them think about how they will make next year’s list rather than how to touch Jews’ lives.

It inflicts something Judaism prohibits inflicting even on animals — gratuitous pain — on almost all American rabbis. As the article notes, Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah on the Westside of Los Angeles, “has never appeared on the Newsweek list, which she said, can sting. ‘I would love to be in such a place of holiness that things like that [list] didn’t bother me,’ she said. ‘But it’s only human to want to be recognized, and when a list like that comes out, it does make you question yourself.’ ”

The list also places a premium on “social activism” and on “innovation” — rather than on doing the far less glamorous things that rabbis should be doing. Will there be a list of the rabbis who visited the greatest numbers of sick Jews in hospitals? Who sat the longest with grieving widows? Who brought the most joy to Jews in nursing homes? Who blew shofar on Rosh Hashanah in the most homes of Jews shut in by illness? Or, for that matter, gotten the most Jews to take God and Torah seriously? Of course not. Those things are a) immeasurable, and b) of no concern to the makers of the list.

The list Hollywood-izes a sacred profession (just as, to be fair, American Jewish University’s [AJU] foolish program “Dancing With the Rabbis” did the same thing); sets at least some rabbis’ sights on fame; puts at least some rabbis in competition with another; distorts at least some rabbinic salaries; and tells at least some young Jews that in religion, like Hollywood, fame is what really matters. (Other than her fame, is there is a reason the AJU has invited Joan Rivers to lecture there?)

Even one of the list’s compilers acknowledges that some rabbis lobby to get on it. Isn’t that enough proof of the list’s insidiousness?

The most dynamic movement in Judaism today is Chabad. Yet, other than the movement’s head, not one of the thousands of Chabad rabbis (or their equally important wives) who live their entire lives far away from every one of their relatives and friends to serve Jews and on behalf of Jews (often as the only representative of Judaism to non-Jews in a city or even a country) is on the list. If you visit Cambodia, as I did a couple of years ago, you won’t find any famous activist rabbi in the capital, Phnom Penh. But you will find a Chabad rabbi. As you will in Katmandu, Nepal; Kinshasa, Congo; Lagos, Nigeria; not to mention Madison, Ala.; Bozeman, Mont., and hundreds of other cities in every one of the other U.S. states.

But not one rabbi running a Chabad House anywhere in the world made the Newsweek list. Why would they? They are neither “social activists” nor sufficiently “innovative” to make the list.

The damage having been done, it is now time to end this list. It would be a Kiddush Hashem, a loving act to fellow rabbis, and a lesson to young Jews about what matters, if every rabbi on the list publicly demanded that the list no longer be compiled. 

Finally, to the many rabbis not on the list who have done more good than many of the rabbis on the list, I offer this rule of life derived from a lifetime in public life: 

The famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous. 

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of PragerUniversity.com. His latest book is the New York Times best-seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012).

Rabbi Sharon Brous named top U.S. rabbi

Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR, a nine-year-old independent congregation in Los Angeles, was named America’s Top Rabbi for 2013 by The Daily Beast.

Brous has been on the list of America’s 50 Top Rabbis , previously published by the now-defunct Newsweek, every year since 2008; in 2012 she became the first female rabbi to break into the top 10. Brous is the first woman rabbi to top the list and, at 39, is also the youngest to hold the top spot. Calling her a “magnet” for younger, unaffiliated Jews, the Daily Beast said: “Brous shows that reaching this coveted cohort doesn’t mean skimping on substance.”

Reached by phone soon after the list was released on Thursday, March 21, Brous deflected attention from herself, saying that this list illustrates why she is optimistic about the Jewish future: “I see a number of people on the list, in this iteration, who are fiercely imaginative and willing to take risks to engage Jews deeply and meaningfully — people who are creating new models and reinvigorating old ones.

“So much of the time we worry about the declining trend, but there is also a feverish return to Jewish engagement.  There is a lot of great work being done around the country – in big institutions and scrappy start-ups – to counter the disengagement, to bring boldness and creativity into our community’s conversation.”

The list is now in its seventh year, and most of the rabbis included among the top 10 this year occupied similarly high-ranking positions last year.

Only two rabbis moved up from lower on the list to the top 10 for the first time this year: Rabbi Julie Schonfeld (No. 9), who leads the Rabbinical Assembly, a national umbrella group for Conservative rabbis, and Rabbi Avi Weiss (No. 10), a long-time pulpit rabbi who founded two seminaries associated with his “Open Orthodoxy movement,” including Yeshivat Maharat, which is set to ordain its first class of female Orthodox spiritual leaders later this year.

The list also has been a target of criticism, as described in a recent cover story in The Jewish Journal. It has also sparked more such lists, including one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis,” released earlier this week by The Forward.

“Of course none of these lists are scientific,” Brous said.  “But this one, in some ways, has the power to give broad, public recognition to the work of some interesting efforts that are less mainstream, less institutional, less well-funded, and yet still helping to inspire great change in the community.  For all the criticism, the list shines a light on some of these more alternative voices – many dedicated to spiritual revitalization, to human rights, equality and justice; many run by women – and acknowledges that they are having a reverberative, if not direct, effect on the broader community.  That, I believe, is a good thing for our community.”

Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and, before that, a co-creator of the list, spoke of it this week at  the Jewish Funders Network’s annual conference in Beverly Hills. “The first year that the Newsweek rabbis list came out, the number one complaint was there were too many rabbis from Los Angeles on the list,” he said. “But we have some of the greatest rabbis in America in this city.”

Sanderson originated the list in 2007 with Gary Ginsberg, an executive vice president at Time Warner, and Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton. Author Abigail Pogrebin, a former producer on 60 Minutes, wrote the list in 2011 and 2012; Gabrielle Birkner formerly of The Forward, wrote this year’s list.

Angelenos are represented in significant numbers on the 2013 list. Making their seventh straight appearances on the list are Rabbi David Wolpe (No. 3) of Sinai Temple, Rabbi Robert Wexler (No. 7), president of American Jewish University, and Rabbi Naomi Levy (No. 28), founder and spiritual leader of Nashuva, an independent congregation.

Two other L.A.-based  rabbis who are perennially included on the list, Simon Wiesenthal Center Dean and Founder Rabbi Marvin Hier and Associate Dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper, were listed jointly this year (No. 19). This year marked the first time that Hier, named the country’s most influential rabbi in 2007 and 2008, did not appear in the top 10.

Rabbi Steven Leder (No. 12), senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, made his fourth straight appearance on the list. Rabbi Elliot Dorff (No. 38), a professor at American Jewish University, was returned to the list for the first time since 2010.

The list included a handful of new faces, including Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon (No. 41), an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Lakewood, N.J., who helped organize an anti-Internet rally at a baseball stadium in New York last year, and Rabbi Menachem Creditor (No. 49), a Conservative rabbi from Berkeley, Calif., who has actively fought to push for tighter regulations on guns. For the first time this year, The Daily Beast published a list of 10 “Rabbis to Watch” along with the original list.

In a poignant selection, Rabbi Shaul Praver, who leads the Conservative Congregation Adath Israel in Newtown, Conn., was named number 50 on the 2013 list. The list-makers cited his efforts to console his city and the country in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of last year, which claimed the life of one of his congregants, 6-year-old Noah Pozner.

Is the Newsweek rabbis list good for the Jews?

One night some years ago, two powerful Jewish men in media, one from New York and one from Los Angeles, were walking together through the streets of Jerusalem when they hatched a little idea. 

Michael Lynton, then CEO and co-chair of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and his longtime friend Gary Ginsberg, who served as a lawyer in the Clinton White House before becoming a vice president of News Corp. (and, consequently, a close personal adviser to Rupert Murdoch), were strolling around outside the King David Hotel when they noticed all “these little plaques” on the various buildings identifying the institution inside. “I remember talking to Gary about the fact that in certain other religions — most notably the Roman Catholic Church — there’s a central authority that determines doctrine, theology and policy,” Lynton recalled. But Jewish religious authority in the United States, he realized, “It’s a little bit of a mystery. Who are the people who determine these things? And then we thought: Wouldn’t it be fun, and a little bit mischievous, to put together a list of who these people are and rank order them?”

When the men returned from Israel, they decided to enlist some help. Since Lynton, now CEO of Sony Corporation of America and Sony Entertainment, Inc., considered himself something of an outsider in the Jewish community, he sought an additional partner who knew the community more intimately. He called Jay Sanderson, who at the time was president of the Jewish Television Network (JTN) in Los Angeles and whom Lynton had known for many years. The timing proved propitious. Sanderson had been intensifying his involvement in Jewish communal life and, aware of Lynton’s power in Hollywood, had been industriously trying to engage him in Jewish causes. “So Michael calls me, and he says, ‘You know the Vanity Fair list of the most powerful people in Hollywood?’ ” Sanderson recalled in a recent interview. “ ‘What do you think about us doing a rabbis list?’ ”

[Related: Is it time to end ‘Top Rabbis’ list?]

Sanderson was intrigued, but also thought the idea was a little nuts. “He had this notion we’d do a list and it’d be in U.S. News & World Report,” Sanderson said. “I think it’s crazy, but I’m willing to entertain it, because it’s using the lens of rabbis to talk about Jewish issues and start a series of conversations.”

Over the next weeks and months, Sanderson, Lynton and Ginsberg began brainstorming over The List. “We were kind of like guys talking about World Series baseball. Like, who can name the most dead rock stars?” Sanderson said. “And I’m introducing them, I’m contextualizing rabbis — if you have a rabbi like Marvin Hier who literally can get the president of the United States on the telephone, as well as numbers of world leaders, and has a mailing list of over 100,000 and is winning Academy Awards — that defines a rabbi differently than the rabbis we grew up with.”

Sanderson proceeded to pull “three all-nighters” trying to develop criteria for evaluating rabbis. He came up with a point system, “some way to figure out who was No. 1 and who was No. 2,” and in doing so, began to reflect on the highly idiosyncratic role of rabbis in the 21st century. “I’m thinking to myself, if the role of rabbis has changed and it’s reflective of change in the Jewish world, imagine what a thought-provoking piece this could be if we did rank them. I drank the Kool-Aid. I still think there’s no way anyone’s going to print this list.”

But a short while later, Ginsberg invited Sanderson to his office in New York. When he arrived, Lynton was already on the phone and a stately mystery woman with lightning-colored hair inquired about the rabbis list. “Who are you?” Sanderson recalled asking. “I’m Lisa Miller, the religion editor of Newsweek, and I want to print the list.”

One year later, Miller would recount for Newsweek the thrill that followed that meeting: “The list ran the week before Passover, and before it came out, the machers” — as she called Lynton, Ginsberg and Sanderson — “conceded that they were having more than a little bit of wicked fun imagining the kind of storm that was about to rain down like so many frogs or locusts.”

And rain it did. 

“That list is about penis size,” one Reform rabbi from Los Angeles complained. 

“They’re looking at who’s famous, who’s a celebrity, and that’s not what being a rabbi is about,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein added. 

“The essence of the rabbinate is in the intangibles and you can’t measure the intangibles,” another said.

This spring’s list, dubbed the “Newsweek and The Daily Beast’s Top 50 Rabbis” since the demise of Newsweek magazine’s print edition, is due out soon and by now has become a tradition — albeit a highly controversial one. “To reduce a calling like the rabbinate to this Americanized competitive reality binge diminishes its whole purpose,” Rabbi Zoë Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Los Angeles, said. Critics find it odd that the subjective assessment of no more than three or four people in any given year — none of them with ecclesiastical experience  — has become the prevailing barometer of rabbinic achievement. “That list isn’t significant,” said Rabbi Paul Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas. “The most important rabbi on that list is No. 51.” 

Nevertheless, being on the list is now one of the most cited accomplishments for the rabbis it names — inscribed at the top of Wikipedia pages and proudly pronounced in bios and speaking introductions, even as it has alienated some colleagues. For those fortunate enough to make the list, the acknowledgment is flattering and can be professionally beneficial: “It grants you a certain public recognition and credibility, and, most important, if you have something to say, it makes your voice louder,” one top-ranked rabbi said.

 

But for the vast array of rabbis left out, the list can have a pernicious downside. “They’re looking for influential people, which means celebrated, not sanctified; celebrated, not compassionate; celebrated, not deeply spiritual,” said Feinstein, who has been on the list four times. “Now why a rabbi would use that as a criteria is beyond me. I think it’s sheer foolishness.”

While critics claim that the list promotes secular values over spiritual ones, the list’s makers claim it offers a map of the Jewish-American landscape. It also seems to encourage the idea that a rabbi matters more if he or she pursues public attention. By rewarding so-called newsmakers, “the list itself actually redefines the goals of the rabbinate,” Klein said. Stardom has become the new standard. But how did a measure that many think is arbitrary, inappropriate and misunderstood manage to impose a Hollywood-style hierarchy onto a holy calling?

“I’m the first person to acknowledge that it’s extremely problematic to rank clergy,” admitted Abigail Pogrebin, who has worked on the list since 2011; this year, since the addition of a professional reporter, she is one of four people involved in the selection process. “You could even say it’s un-Jewish to give people numbers, as if there’s any real meaning to them. I can’t really defend that.”

Pogrebin is a New York-based journalist and television producer of some prominence, with credits on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” and is also the author of the 2005 book “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.” Her book, also an exercise in distinction, profiles 62 of “the most accomplished Jews in America,” according to a blurb on Pogrebin’s Web site, and its acclaim is what brought her into the orbit of the organized Jewish community. Her discernment of Jewish “stars” elicited speaking invitations from synagogues across the country, and consequently sparked her interest in the purview of the religious world. “I became a little bit of a rabbi groupie,” she admitted.

Pogrebin caught the attention of Lynton and Ginsberg, who recruited her to do the list (she is also a longtime close friend of Lynton’s wife, Jamie). At the time, after four annual lists, another big change was afoot: Sanderson was pursuing the top post at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles (to which he was later named), and needed to bow out. Suddenly, he aspired to the “community-building business” and the divisive ranking of rabbis didn’t quite jibe with his new mission. “I thought the list had run its course,” Sanderson said recently, brushing it off like a bad habit. “I don’t want anything negative now. I’m in a different role.”

But though it was Lynton and Ginsberg who conceived the list and whose names are most closely associated with it, they vested the bulk of the work it required with Sanderson and then Pogrebin. And from the first list, in 2007, they introduced a broad set of criteria by which they measured rabbinic influence: Is the rabbi a leader within his or her community or denomination? Has he or she made an impact on the Jewish community? Are they nationally renown? Do they have a strong media presence or political connections?

Sanderson and Pogrebin both claim they approached the task with sincerity and seriousness, though when asked about the specifics of their system, both replied with some ambivalence and were, at times, defensive. For example, how did they decide which rabbis to consider? How did they measure the precise “impact” of one’s influence? And what metrics were used to justify ranking one rabbi over another?

To be fair, the list makers have never called their process a science. To the contrary, they have been exceedingly transparent about the list’s subjectivity from the start and never made claims about methodical integrity. Both in Newsweek and during subsequent interviews, they have insisted their system is “unscientific,” “arbitrary,” “subjective” and “inexact.” And they openly state that their interest is more in showmanship than spiritual virtuosity. As religion editor Miller wrote in the preamble to the second list, in 2008: The makers “ranked rabbis according to their ability to raise money, publicize causes, sell books or chat on television news shows — not according to their ability to lead, inspire, teach or console.”

But even when questioned about their methods, a confusing portrait emerged. Sanderson said he compiled “thick, thick binders” of research on the rabbis, “some done informally, some formally.” For the first list, Sanderson said he did not consult with any rabbis, though that process would eventually change. Did he read every book that rabbis under consideration had written? “No, but I found them; I researched how many copies sold; I read reviews; I saw whoever was on television.” And since his own criteria cited the size of a congregation, did he call every congregation of every rabbi on the list to compare? “I randomly called most of them,” Sanderson said. 

In 2008, when Newsweek wanted to freshen up the list, Ginsberg suggested they create a list of “Top Pulpit Rabbis” as a companion list to the influentials. “That was a much harder thing,” Sanderson admitted. “You can’t do that without knowing these rabbis.” Sanderson said he visited, or had visited in the past, every congregation of every rabbi who appeared on the pulpit list (Lynton and Ginsberg did not). Did he retain notes or have receipts from these visits? “No, they’re probably in my garage or something.” Did he hear every rabbi on the list give a sermon? “Most of them I heard. Actually, I think almost all of them; I didn’t see all of them in person, but I went on Web sites and watched sermons online.”

“I would never say that I did this journalistically,” Sanderson said. “I tried to be responsible.”

 

So, in the end it comes to a contradiction: the list should be authoritative enough to justify its existence, but subjective enough that its creators should not be held accountable for what it means. After Sanderson left, Lynton and Ginsberg hoped Pogrebin would add some journalistic heft to the process. If the original list came together based on Sanderson’s instincts, Pogrebin said she wanted to vet those instincts.

But, she confessed, it was a daunting task. “I was inheriting a list that I took seriously,” Pogrebin said. “I was asking all the questions one asks as a reporter who is trying to gauge impact and influence, but I was doing that knowing that we have no scientific, survey-like standard that we’re holding people to. I’d be lying to you if I said there was anything exact about this process. There are no charts; there are no measures.”

Ginsberg, now communications chief for Time Warner, said: “Over time, as [the list] has become more institutionalized, I think we’ve become better at it.” Early on, he noted, “We were a little too New York-L.A. centric, too skewed toward traditional pulpits, it was probably overly male-dominated. [But] you learn from your mistakes. You become more thorough. We have a better database of rabbis now; we’ve increased our geographical reach, and our sensibilities have become more refined and sophisticated.”

For the first time this year, Lynton and Ginsberg hired Gabrielle Birkner, a former reporter from The Forward and The New York Jewish Week, to serve as a researcher. Asked what qualified her to evaluate rabbis, Birkner replied in an e-mail: “What qualifies a food critic to review a restaurant?”

Despite the originators’ desire to evolve, however, Pogrebin said her freedom to shape the list has always been restricted. Although she made her mark by adding written capsules explaining why each rabbi was chosen, Lynton and Ginsberg maintained that there should be some consistency to the list, in order to lend integrity to past decisions. To change it too much might cast doubt on previous choices.

At the same time, it had to be kept “fresh” enough to justify issuing a new one each year. Ginsberg pointed out: “As the country has moved rather dramatically toward greater acceptance of gay marriage and gay rights has become a much more mainstream issue than it was, somebody like Steve Greenberg” — who became the country’s first openly gay Modern Orthodox rabbi — “should be recognized for some of the groundbreaking work that he’s doing.” So, is Greenberg being recognized for the work that he’s doing — or because he fills some zeitgeist-y niche?

“I think both,” Ginsberg said.

In the beginning, the list makers chose to honor rabbinic legacies that helped shape American Judaism — like Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, for example, whose books on Jewish literacy, wisdom and values are the go-to tomes on the subject for much of American Jewry. For five years, the list reflected his enduring achievement — 2007 (No. 21); 2008 (No. 21); 2009 (No. 15); 2010 (No. 15); 2011 (No. 15) – but in 2012, Telushkin lost his place.

“Sometimes someone goes off not because they’re not important anymore, but because we want to be able to show some new blood,” Pogrebin said. “What’s tricky is to start saying why someone’s 35 or 29.”

Even with their populist tweaks, the list has remained more or less static. For example, of the top 10 rabbis listed in 2012, seven have appeared on the list every year since 2007. What’s changed most is how the list’s impact has affected the list itself — now that it’s a thing, people lobby to be a part of it.

“One of the dirty little secrets,” one of the list makers said, requesting anonymity, “is how effective it is to lobby, because you feel badly. If someone is really begging, I just kind of put him or her on. Like, if it means that much, I don’t want to be the person that denies you.” 

 

Almost all of the list makers had stories about rabbis vying for a spot on the list. Sometimes the rabbis lobbied for themselves (Pogrebin recalled one heart-wrenching three-page letter); sometimes a member of a congregation would make an appeal (Sanderson recalled being approached in public), other times a highly ranked rabbi would put in a good word, or even, Ginsberg said, an influential congressman.

“We’re always looking for data,” Ginsberg said. “So we’re gonna take it seriously if a political leader writes to us and says, ‘You need to consider X rabbi who is one of my constituents and here are the five reasons why.’ It won’t be dispositive to our decision, but it’s something we’ll obviously evaluate. Now, I don’t want to invite hundreds of politicians to start inundating us with recommendations,” he joked.

Pogrebin explained that, in the end, it has been her personal experience of Judaism and of these various rabbis that has informed her decisions the most.

“Not to say I’m some Super Jew at all, ’cause I’m like a neophyte,” she said of attending Bronfman conferences, LimmudLA and studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary and Mechon Hadar. “But I’ve seen a lot of these people. I’m not just relying on what I get on the Web.”

Lynton’s rabbi, Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation in Los Angeles, has appeared on the list once (“I thought it was interesting that I found myself on it, and that I found myself not on it, but it didn’t really mean much either way,” Finley said). Ginsberg’s rabbi, with whom he is close but did not name, is not on the list. Yet Ginsberg described him as “beloved.”

“I am entirely aware that there are incredible rabbis in small synagogues everywhere who are doing exactly what a rabbi should be doing,” Pogrebin said, “which is preaching, offering pastoral care and attentiveness, and counseling and teaching, and those things should not feel unsung because they haven’t been in the newspaper.

“That is absolutely a flaw of this construct,” she added, “that someone who hasn’t been in the media somehow isn’t going to be on our radar unless someone mentions them to us.”

Maybe the integrity of the list-making process wouldn’t matter as much if it hadn’t been published in a prominent publication like Newsweek — now absorbed into The Daily Beast Web site, but which had once had a reputation for serious journalism. According to Miller, though, the list was simply “a fun idea.” “We knew it was going to be provocative. We knew it was going to generate a lot of conversation in the Jewish world about what’s important, like: What matters? Is it money? Is it spirituality? Is it power? Is it number of people who follow you? Number of books you sell? Is it political power?”

Although Miller is no longer an editor with Newsweek-The Daily Beast (she now contributes to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” column and is a contributing editor for New York Magazine), she said, “Newsweek at the time was definitely a place for serious journalism, but it was not above having a little bit of fun. And I think [the list offered] an important set of questions in that sort of delectable package. I don’t think every serious journalist thinks stories need to be either important or delectable — I think they can be both.”

Asked whether she felt the Newsweek imprimatur lent authority to the list, even though no one on the magazine’s staff took part in its selection, Miller said, “I was concerned that we be extremely clear about how the list was arrived at, and very clear about its methodology.”

So what, in the end, does it truly mean when rabbis claim the status of being on the list? “That’s their problem,” Miller said. 

Sanderson put it this way: “When I see ads that say, ‘Newsweek’s number whatever rabbi,’ it makes me laugh. It makes me feel like, ‘I guess I’m Newsweek,’ because Newsweek didn’t vet this list.”

Yet each year the list continues to create waves in the Jewish world, making headlines both in the United States and in Israel. And even while many rabbis who make the list like to pretend that they don’t care, or that it’s all so very silly, they still like to remind us that it’s there: IKAR members mocked their own Rabbi Sharon Brous during a “Star Wars”-themed Purim shpiel last month, when a video skit declared Brous (costumed as Princess Leia) “indeed very powerful — at least according to Newsweek and her mother.”

But there are many rabbis — on and off the list — who don’t find it very funny.

“I hate that list,” Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein said during an interview. “I’ve had friends who are really, really good rabbis hurt by that list,” he said. “I know people whose jobs were threatened because they didn’t make the list and that meant they weren’t as important as the synagogue wanted them to be.”

But despite his powerful feelings on the subject, Feinstein initially resisted talking about it, fearing doing so might seem an endorsement of some kind, or bring the list further attention. It took several attempts to persuade him to talk. “Most of what happens in the rabbinate is private,” Feinstein said. “What makes a rabbi a good rabbi is that he or she is willing to get up in the middle of the night and go to the hospital and sit with a family and help a loved one die.” Of the many rabbis I spoke to, Feinstein is the only one I found to have made the list who refuses to celebrate it in any way. There is no mention of it in his bio, and he has instructed his staff not to promote it on the synagogue’s Web site.

“For some reason, we Americans have this love of contests, so we turn politics into sport, and we like to run races, and now you’re running rabbis against each other? On what basis does one judge a rabbi? The most important rabbi in the world is the one who is with you on the night your mother dies and holds you while you cry. Nothing else matters. Nothing,” he said.

Another highly ranked rabbi who requested anonymity so as not to appear “ungrateful” suggested that the list has little more than a shallow upside, while its drawbacks can be severe. “Inasmuch as the list encourages achievement and creates pride in congregations and rabbis, it’s good; inasmuch as it encourages competition, envy, invidious comparisons, hurt feelings and unfair measuring of one spiritual leader to another, it’s not good. And there’s something essentially antithetical about ranking people whose principal calling is supposed to be a spiritual one.”

Klein, senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah on the Westside of Los Angeles, might be described as one of Jewish Los Angeles’ more unsung heroes. She runs a large Reform congregation, which she has helped to revitalize, and is also a published novelist. She has never appeared on the Newsweek list, which she said, can sting. “I would love to be in such a place of holiness that things like that [list] didn’t bother me,” she said. “But it’s only human to want to be recognized, and when a list like that comes out, it does make you question yourself.” She explained, “I write fiction and poetry, and I know that my medium for expressing my beliefs is cherished by the people it touches, but it’s not the same as being on talk shows or on the news. I’m not a politico rabbi. But a list like that makes me pause and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t be writing poetry; maybe I shouldn’t be working on my next novel,’ because maybe what’s valuable is not that.”

The degree to which various rabbis take the list seriously varies, often according to whether or not they are on it or how highly they are ranked. One rabbi consistently ranked among the top 10 said, “People who have either appeared on list and or done well on the list, it certainly helps their careers: The ability to put it on your resume makes a tremendous difference, and it gets you noticed in other places.”

It can also help during an introduction, he said. “When someone says, ‘He was ranked by Newsweek as one of America’s most influential rabbis,’ that sounds better than, ‘This is the rabbi of such and such temple.’ Think of what it did for Sharon Brous to be the highest woman on the list. Any distinction like that is professionally helpful, and sometimes, professionally very helpful because people don’t know how to evaluate rabbis, and this now becomes a calling card.”

Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, has appeared on the list twice, but said it hasn’t advanced her career “one iota.” Before she appeared on the list for the first time in 2011, she wrote a critique of it on the Huffington Post, calling it “hierarchical and gendered.” “It’s lovely to be noticed and be on it, but it doesn’t change the fact that the list is a problem. No matter who’s on or who’s off, it’s bad for rabbinate, because it sets up competition between and among rabbis.”

Geller, of course, is widely recognized as a pioneer: She was the third woman to be ordained as a Reform rabbi in the United States and the first female to lead a major metropolitan synagogue. Geller is aware that her path has been an inspiration to many, but she stops short of extrapolating her power into any general prominence. “You might argue that I’m influential simply because I was ordained in 1976,” she said modestly. “It doesn’t mean that I’m a great rabbi. It simply means that I’m old.” And anyway, she added, “The only list that really matters is God’s list.”

“Frankly what’s wrong with the list is that people who have lower profile positions go unrecognized precisely because their congregants are not connected to the people making these decisions,” said Rabbi Jack Moline of Congregation Agudas Achim in Alexandria, Va. He was ranked the third best pulpit rabbi in the country in 2008 before his influence was deemed to have waned and he fell to No. 26 in 2010, No. 35 in 2011, until finally, in 2012, he got the boot. He claims the list is only good for bragging rights and said it hasn’t helped him professionally (“People offered me congratulations, nobody offered me a raise”).

“One of the things I love about being a rabbi, particularly in a city like Los Angeles,” Klein said, “is that I know that when people come into my doors that they need what we’re offering — a respite from the plastic, fast-paced world that they live in, a palace in time built on moments and sacred encounters — so to try and quantify all of that?”

The idealized conversations the list makers ardently hoped for now seem to revolve around trends in the rabbinate, such as the increased use of social media, the rise of female rabbis and interfaith work. And, at least since Pogrebin added her written explanations, it does seem to communicate the diverse makeup of a 21st century rabbinate. The makers suggest that this gives the list an inspirational quality, providing young rabbis or aspiring rabbis with the dream dust to realize their wildest ambitions. But beyond that, what good does it do?

“What I did begin to really believe in is the sense that we’re telling people what’s going on in the Jewish world, because the average Jew has no idea,” Pogrebin said. The problem though, as Geller pointed out, is that recognizing only rabbis does a supreme disservice to the rest of the Jewish community — the cantors, administrators, educators, lay leaders and more — whom the list patently ignores.

Still, the list makers insist they are well intentioned. “I may be Pollyanna-ish about this, but I was kind of hoping it would spur people to have the same kind of Jewish awakening I did,” Pogrebin said. But when Lynton and Ginsberg were asked whether the list it had done anything to enrich their own Jewish lives, their answers were disappointing. Lynton said, “I looked at [David] Wolpe’s lectures and debates online as a result of this, and read his books; [Yehuda] Krinsky I met as a result of this — but he came to visit me, I didn’t reach out to him.

“It’s like I’m living in a vacuum,” Lynton added. “I’m not even aware of how the list does affect the Jewish community. I got what I wanted done probably three or four years into the process, and there were frequent moments when Gary and I said, ‘Maybe we should stop, because now we know.’ And it doesn’t move around that much. But at this point, more than anything else, it’s being done because people have said to Abby [Pogrebin], and she has told us, that this is important to that world, or at least people think that it’s something that should continue, so we keep it going.”

By the end of multiple interviews with the list makers, however, I still was not clear what their non-methodical, “exhaustive and very thorough,” seriously considered but really made-up, impossible-to-measure-metrics were telling them about rabbis. There seemed so much equivocation: They’re not qualified, but they’re not flip. The list is subjective, but they research in order to “discover.” The list is objective, because the makers have no agenda. They get “almost zero reaction,” but they’re proud that it’s valued. It matters, but it doesn’t. It’s served its purpose, but they continue.

“Here’s what I want to know,” one highly ranked rabbi said to me. “What I really care about, honestly, like deep down, if you asked me what do I care about on the list, is I want to know how other rabbis feel. That’s what matters to me.”

In the end, it seems even those who make the list feel insecure about what it means. Do their colleagues believe they deserve to be there? Rabbis, after all, are partly performers, and just like the rest of us have the need to be recognized for their gifts.

But Feinstein believes the presence of the list makes the rabbinate harder. For those who work devotedly and go unrecognized, he said, it “threatens their spirit and enthusiasm and strength.” And for those who are idolized as stars, “it steals their hearts away.”

“I wish this thing would die a quiet death,” Feinstein said, sounding melancholy and resigned. “It’s hurting my colleagues, it’s hurting my friends; it’s hurting the community. If you can make it go away, you’ll do the Jewish people a favor. I think the community owes its rabbis something better.”

Rabbi Sharon Brous blesses inauguration

Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR offered blessings on Jan. 22 at the Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which traditionally is held the day following the official inauguration.

“Elohei ha-ahavah, God of Love,” Brous began, addressing more than 2,000 attendees, including President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and their wives, First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden. “Help us widen the boundaries of our hearts.”

Brous, who founded IKAR in Los Angeles in 2004, was one of three rabbis among the clergy from numerous faiths who participated in Tuesday morning’s ceremony. Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, led a responsive reading from Psalm 116, and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, joined a Muslim leader in a responsive recitation of the priestly blessing found in the book of Numbers.

[Watch the entire Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service]

“Give depth to our faith,” said Brous. “Let our actions bear witness to the expansiveness of your mercy. Grant us the grace to love our neighbors and to love ourselves.”

Rabbis have been involved in the four most recent inaugural prayer services, according to a list on Wikipedia. In 2009, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox Synagogue in New York City, took part in the service held following Obama’s first inauguration. The move provoked criticism from the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America, which objected to Lookstein’s participation in an interfaith service held in the sanctuary of a church.

Brous, who was one of hundreds of American rabbis to publicly support Obama’s reelection bid last year, has made social justice and activism a centerpiece of her rabbinate, and those themes recurred throughout Tuesday morning’s 90-minute service.

Many who spoke invoked the memory of Rev. Martin Luther King, including Rev. Dr. Raphael Gamaliel Warnock, senior pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., the congregation that King and his father both led. Warnock concluded the service with a prayer that the country’s leaders recommit to building what King called “the beloved community.”

“Transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of the human family,” Warnock said. “And through us, may the earth and all of the families of the earth be blessed.”

Full Text of Brous’s Prayer:

“Elohei ha-ahavah, God of Love. Help us widen the boundaries of our hearts. You know us better than we know ourselves: the distinctions we make, the biases we hold, the ways in which we fail to manifest our greatest potential as we diminish ourselves and others with our impatience, lack of compassion and vision, lack of hope. Give depth to our faith; let our actions bear witness to the expansiveness of your mercy. Grant us the grace to love our neighbors and to love ourselves. We pray that you bring your presence among us, as light, as life and as holy inspiration.”

Letters to the Editor: Gordis, Brous, Fiscal Cliff

Seeking Balance

I think that the strongest refutation of Rabbi Daniel Gordis (“When Balance Becomes Betrayal,” Nov. 30) and also of David Suissa (“War and Bickering,” Nov. 30) came from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), who brilliantly used impressive intelligence gathering and precision bombing to minimize civilian casualties and thus avoided what most often happens with Israel in asymmetrical warfare — namely that Israel wins the military battle and loses the political war.

Ambassador Michael Oren represented Israel effectively in the international media by recognizing the humanity of the Palestinians and brutality of their leaders who used women and children, mosques and hospitals, as shields for their rockets and their fighting personnel. Had the IDF or the Israeli ambassador given in to Suissa’s absolutism or Gordis’ angst and anger, the outcome would have been far less impressive morally, politically and Jewishly.

We might be most wise to recall’s the Patriarch Isaac’s observation in the Torah that was read that week: “The Voice was the Voice of Jacob, the hands were the hands of Esau.” Even as we don the cloth of Esau, our voice — and our values — must be the voice of Jacob.

Michael Berenbaum
Los Angeles

Assuring Our Jewish Future

Avoiding the ‘Jewish Fiscal Cliff’ ” (Nov. 30) is an excellent examination of the fundraising and volunteer issues, problems and ideas facing the Jewish community today.  Congratulations to Mark Pearlman on a thoughtful and thorough look at questions we must all face. We would add only a couple of additional ideas.

Effective fundraising requires many arrows be carried in the fundraising quiver. A community with diverse interests and varied philanthropic organizations such as ours requires that we be prepared to appeal to those many different constituencies. The most important of those constituencies for whom we need an approach focused on their particular passions is the 20- and 30-somethings who represent our future. To establish them as generational leaders and givers, we need to provide two things:

The first: Service opportunities, the chance to roll up their sleeves and be involved in an intimate and focused way. General appeals based on our need to support Israel and our commandment to heal the world are wonderful, but with this generation we need to give them volunteer opportunities to exercise their passion and be active personally and in specific ways for specific causes that fulfill their particular passions.

The second: Be less insular. Most of our Jewish communal organizations serve Jews first but serve the larger community with open arms, believing it to be our duty to help the widow, orphan and stranger. Many young people today feel less connected to Jewish life because Jewish life is less connected to the larger community. We all need to embrace the notion that healing the world, tikkun olam, means embracing the world through a Jewish prism that brings healing to all. Tapping into the passion and commitment of young people means doing things a little differently than we have done in the past. Today we have to provide outlets for that passion and look at a world that grows flatter and more interconnected each day, giving younger donors the chance, through their Jewish passion, to help, through volunteer service, other communities in need.

David A. Lash, Former executive director, Bet Tzedek
Mitchell A. Kamin, Former president and CEO, Bet Tzedek

 

 

Last week, Mark Pearlman wrote an erudite proposal for minding the Jewish communal coffers. He asks how we can adequately fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community. Eight causes are given for the fiscal deterioration of the community. Unfortunately, he missed entirely the main and intractable cause: not enough Jewish children.

To illustrate this case, please look at the weekly obituary pages of the Jewish Journal. It’s actually very much the same story each week; one that’s almost unnoticed, while it screams about our Jewish demographic crisis.

The Nov. 23 issue, for example, reported 30 Jewish deceased over the age of 70 with a total of 99 reported grandchildren. That’s 3.03 grandchildren per person. Remember, though, that the numbers surely include some Orthodox families, bringing up the grandchild total significantly. Now, those 99 not only represent one decedent’s grandchildren, but two grandparents. So the news is this: Jewish L.A. now seems to average about three grandchildren per Jewish couple.

What is the solution? The fact that this might sound crazy to most further reveals the problem, but there is like 3,400 years of experience with this: Let every Jew turn Saturday into Shabbat. Then, as surely as spring follows the winter, more babies and funding will follow, naturally. Simple. Right?

Gary Dalin
Former director, Jewish Federation, Metro Division

Rabbi Wolpe on Gordis vs. Brous: Don’t judge the rabbis’ Torah

Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Rabbi Sharon Brous are both friends of mine, good friends, long time friends.  I have studied with them and debated with them and treasure their character and commitment.  So it was with dismay that I read Mark Parades, a Mormon with close ties to our community and a genuine love of Israel, devote his column to belittling Rabbi Brous’ Jewish teaching.  Mark has spoken at Sinai; I know him to be articulate, sincere and well meaning.  But by what stretch of the imagination does he believe it helpful to judge the Torah of another Rabbi, particularly one so impactful and eminent as Rabbi Brous?

I have watched this debate with increasing dismay.  I will share my thoughts with my two friends.  But to all who do not know, or who doubt, I want to say this clearly: both of these Rabbis are important, learned and sincere teachers and preachers in Israel.  Both love our people, our heritage—and our land. Those who disparage or diminish either should be ashamed of themselves and we should close our ears to the accusations, insinuations and feckless name calling.

Enough.

Rabbi David Wolpe

Letter to the Editor: Rabbi Sharon Brous vs. Rabbi Daniel Gordis: Betrayal or compassion?

To the editor,

Equating Rabbi Brous with Rabbi Gordis is almost laughable – if it weren't so sad.

Brous is soft on Israel. Read her LAJJ article after the pro-Israel (Flotilla) rally organized by the Israeli Consulate a few years ago, where she equated the rally with a Lakers rally, and expresses her sympathy for the 'Peace Now' speaker. She is quick to criticize Israel from her comfortable and secure rocking chair here in the States.

Jeffrey Goldberg put it best when he tweeted, “Rabbi Daniel Gordis asks Rabbi Sharon Brous to love Jews a little more than she loves Palestinians.” That was the point, plain and simple.

On the other hand, Rabbi Gordis is a true lover of Israel, a true role model. When he criticizes Israel (and he does – often) he has the moral right (unlike Brous) and his criticism is credible (unlike Brous).

If Brous wants to criticize the way Israel handles the Palestinian situation, she needs to follow Gordis' example – make aliyah,  pay Israeli taxes, send her kids to serve in the IDF. Until she does she needs to understand that her criticism is meaningless, and worse, it only strengthens those trying to deligitimize and destroy Israel.

Paul Jeser

Heartache: an email from Rabbi Sharon Brous

It has been a devastating couple of days in Israel and Gaza. 

I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives. And I happen to agree with the editors of The New York Times that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas — which poses a genuine threat to Israel — is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. 

But most critically at this hour, I believe that there is a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace. Take a breath. We are deeply entrenched in our narratives of good and evil, victim and perpetrator — and we are scared. Over 1 million Israelis will sleep in bomb shelters tonight and rockets have nearly reached Tel Aviv. So it’s tempting to dig in our heels, to diminish the loss on the other side of the border, even to gloat. This is not the Jewish way. However you feel about the wisdom and timing of Israel’s response to the Hamas threat, the people of Israel need our strong support and solidarity. At the same time, supporting Israel’s right to protect and defend itself does not diminish the reality that the Palestinian people are also children of God, whose suffering is real and undeniable. 

Let us pray that this conflict comes to an end quickly, and that we soon see a return to negotiations and a real, viable and sustainable peace.

L’shalom,
Rabbi Sharon Brous


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.


More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Daniel Gordis: When balance becomes betrayal

Universalism, Cynthia Ozick once noted, has become the particularism of the Jews. Increasingly, our most fundamental belief about ourselves is that we dare not care about ourselves any more than we can about others. Noble Jews have moved beyond difference.

This inability to distinguish ourselves from the mass of humanity, this inability to celebrate our own origins, our own People and our own homeland, I argue in my latest book, “The Promise of Israel,” is dysfunctional. Do we not care about our own children more than we care about other people’s children? And shouldn’t we? Are our own parents not our responsibility in a way that other people’s parents are not? The same is true of nations and ethnicities. The French care about the French more than they do about others. So do the Italians. So do the Spanish. It’s only this new, re-imagined Jew who is constantly seeking to transcend origins which actually make us who we are and enable us to leave our distinct fingerprints on the world.

Read the rest of the story on timesofisrael.com.


More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Sharon Brous: Lowering the bar

Rabbi Danny Gordis brought the discourse on Israel to a new low this week. In a missive against me in the Times of Israel, Gordis, a former teacher and friend, a person for whom I have for years had deep affection and respect, accuses me of betrayal against both the State of Israel and his family. One might wonder what treasonous words one needs to utter these days to provoke such a serious accusation. Here’s what I did not say: I did not challenge Israel’s right to respond to Hamas rockets; on the contrary I said that Israel had not only a right but an obligation to defend its people. Nor did I suggest a moral equivalency between Hamas operatives targeting Jewish civilians and Israeli soldiers targeting Hamas operatives but inadvertently hitting Palestinian civilians.

My act of betrayal: the fairly unremarkable call to those who care deeply about Israel and bear witness to the fighting from across the Ocean to remember as the battle intensifies that war is never to be celebrated and that loss of human life is tragic.

Read the rest of the story at timesofisrael.com.


More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: All the families of the Earth

A living Judaism demands an exquisite balance between inside and outside, concern for our own and concern for the other, particularism and universalism. From era to era and generation to generation, the balance point shifts. But as long as Jewish life holds fast to both, it thrives. In our time, the balance has broken. Perhaps this is the residual effect of living in the shadow of the Holocaust — a symptom of our collective PTSD. Instead of an active tension, we are left with severe polarization. Jews today turn inward and resent the suggestion that they are responsible for the world. Or they turn outward and reject the value of Jewish identification. One side interprets Judaism exclusively in universalist terms; for them, tikkun olam — repairing the world — is the only mitzvah. The other holds that Jewish concern is entirely internal; for them the only world, and the only repair, is mitzvah. Such polarization will suffocate Judaism.

Rabbis Daniel Gordis and Sharon Brous are among the contemporary Jewish intellectual heroes struggling to resuscitate contemporary Judaism by reviving the balance. That is what makes their controversy so painful to witness. Gordis inveighs against Brous’ concern for the other, and charges that her loyalty to her own is insufficient. In his eyes, her sensitivity to the suffering of Palestinian children somehow displaces her commitment to his own children and the children of Israel. This attack only deepens the polarization.

Read the rest of the story at timesofisrael.com.


Rabbi Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.


More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Sharon Brous vs. Rabbi Daniel Gordis: Betrayal or compassion?

When Rabbi Sharon Brous first read an essay by Rabbi Daniel Gordis, a colleague and former teacher, accusing her of betraying Israel, she was shocked and angry, she said. Nevertheless, her initial instinct was to refrain from feeding the publicity machine.

Gordis’ article, ” target=”_blank”>e-mail Brous had sent to IKAR, the Los Angeles spiritual and social justice community she founded and leads. In her three-paragraph e-mail, Brous stated that Israel had a right to defend itself against rocket attacks targeting innocent civilians and designed to create terror. She also urged people to retain their humanity and empathize with the Palestinian victims.

Gordis, executive vice president of the Shalem Center think tank in Jerusalem and winner of a National Jewish Book Award, wrote that Brous’ “radical universalism” and extreme balancing of the Arab and Jewish narratives left him to conclude that “her Jewish world and mine simply no longer inhabit overlapping universes.” 

“Why can we not simply say that at this moment, Israel’s enemies are evil? That they’re wrong?” he wrote.

A day later, Brous decided to respond when the hate mail began to pile up — profanity-laced letters, e-mails and Facebook posts calling her a Nazi, a terrorist sympathizer, a self-hating Jew. 

“Danny essentially gave people permission to believe that I was an enemy of the State of Israel. Not that Hamas rockets were the danger, but the danger was American rabbis who have compassion on Palestinian children,” Brous said in an interview this week.

Gordis then posted another column in rebuttal on Nov. 26, reiterating his ideas and offering some points of remorse.

“I understand that Rabbi Brous has received no small amount of hate mail following that first column; my disgust for anyone who would do that knows no bounds,” he wrote.

Other leaders, many from Los Angeles, weighed in with articles. The exchange, much of it reprinted in these pages, with more on jewishjournal.com, has garnered hundreds of comments. 

Gordis declined to be interviewed for this article, saying his columns expressed his thoughts.

Brous and Gordis have known each other for more than 15 years. Brous said Gordis inspired her as a Talmud teacher in her first year at the Zeigler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), where Gordis was a founding dean. After Gordis moved to Israel in 1998, Brous said she has visited him whenever she traveled there.

Gordis, in his essay, spoke of the great respect he holds for Brous and said he e-mailed Brous before publishing his essay. 

Brous said Gordis ignored who he knows her to be.

“My sense was that Danny knows me well; he knows how much I love Israel; he knows the character of my Judaism, and for him to write something so outrageous, he must be very scared and very concerned about his own safety and his family’s safety,” she said. 

Since moving to Israel, Gordis has written several articles that provoked confrontations with other rabbis. In 2003, he launched an attack on Jill Jacobs, then a rabbinic student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, for her criticism of Israeli policies. In the past two years, he has enraged many young rabbis by accusing seminaries and rabbinic students of losing a sense of belonging to the Jewish people and Israel. 

Those confrontations have often taken a personal tone, as did this one.

Gordis wrote that Brous’ words left him feeling that she had abandoned his children — his son is currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces. He parenthetically added that Brous used to babysit for his children — a remark with implications of gender, age and authority differences.

“In hindsight, there are phrases I should have worded differently. I should have said that as the father of a son on the border, her column ‘felt like a betrayal,’ ” he wrote in his Nov. 26 rebuttal. 

“It was Rabbi Ed Feinstein’s More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Mordecai Finley: Peace and protection

I have tried to figure out why Rabbi Sharon Brous’ thoughts left me empty when I read them. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis has written, there is nothing objectionable in them. In fact, as I read her e-mail word-for-word many times, I found that I agreed with her completely regarding empathy for Palestinians. I have uttered nearly those precise words, word-for-word. 

I think what disturbed me was what she left out, her exhortation on what to feel, and her timing. 

Here is a small example of the first: “I believe that the Israeli people, who have for years endured a barrage of rocket attacks targeting innocents and designed to create terror, instability and havoc, have the right and the obligation to defend themselves. I also believe that the Palestinian people, both in Gaza and the West Bank, have suffered terribly and deserve to live full and dignified lives.”

This seems to be a nuanced expression of two sides of an issue — on one hand, on the other — but what exactly is the issue, at least in passing? There is no ethical statement here. I know that my friends on the  left are not reticent to offer ethical critique when it is due, but why not here? These words make it sound as if two groups of people have suffered from a natural disaster, unnamed. 

What is left out is the ultimate source of Israeli and Palestinian suffering. Many of us believe that while various Israeli governments have made mistakes, some of them wretched, the ultimate source of Palestinian suffering, since the attempt to eradicate the Jewish state in 1948, has been implacable hatred. 

Another example of what is left out:  The idea “that the best way for Israel to diminish the potency of Hamas — which poses a genuine threat to Israel — is to engage earnestly and immediately in peace negotiations with the Palestinian Authority” is a strategy that is at least questionable. 

This seems to imply that success of the negotiations, which would supposedly diminish the potency of Hamas, is entirely up to Israel. What if the Palestinian Authority (PA) refuses to negotiate earnestly? And what if the PA does sincerely give up the right to return, does agree to border adjustments, etc., and this does not diminish the potency of Hamas, but rather strengthens Hamas (as it likely will, in my opinion)? Those who call for the eradication of the Zionist Entity enjoy a great popularity. What if Hamas wins the next round of elections in the West Bank?

I would agree that a long-term strategy is to engage in earnest and immediate peace negotiations, realizing that the PA must also negotiate earnestly (why is the condition that PA must negotiate in earnest left out?). And we must realize that even earnest bilateral negotiations with the PA might not bring around Hamas, and its supporters — the Muslim Brotherhood and the theocratic thugs in Tehran, to name a couple. 

My second problem with the words of Rabbi Brous is her exhortation on what to feel. We are told that it is critical to witness with empathy and grace. By implication, we are told to escape our “deeply entrenched narrative” and not diminish the losses on the other side, and not to gloat. 

This is not moral advice on what to do; this is advice on how to feel, on what attitude to have. We asked to be balanced in our feelings, to see things from a universalist approach, as Rabbi Gordis has described it. To paraphrase a recent post by Rabbi Michele Sullum in support of Rabbi Brous, the universalist approach is the perspective required of the angels. When the Egyptians are drowning at the Sea of Reeds, God rebukes the rejoicing angels, saying that the Egyptians are God’s children, too. 

I don’t have children in Tsahal, as does Rabbi Gordis, but our daughter lives on a moshav — a cooperative agricultural settlement — about seven miles from the border of Gaza, in the hard-hit Eshkol region (she will be inducted into the Israeli army soon). She was on the moshav until the last day of shelling, when she took the bus up to Tel Aviv to military headquarters for further classification. The bus blown up by Hamas was only about 10 blocks from her.  

When they are trying to kill my daughter (really, and as a symbol for all Israelis), I wish for our leaders to acknowledge our dread, the crushing fear in the core of our being that one of those mortar shells will land on one of our children. When they are shooting at the children of Israel, I need a Miriam, a Moses to address my emotions, not God’s recommendation to the angels. Remember: God does not rebuke Miriam and Moses for rejoicing that God has destroyed the Egyptian army. God did it for them. That rejoicing is enshrined in our daily liturgy. Universalism has its honored place in our tradition. So does attachment and concern for one’s people. There is a time for each. 

There is no joy or gloating in Zion, no dancing in the streets, or in any part of the Jewish world that I can see, at the death of Palestinians. There is the simple relief that many of those who have been trying to kill Israelis have been killed themselves.

There is a resolute will to fight terror and not tolerate Israeli citizens living under the threat of terror. Here is how I feel:  I am enormously grateful to and proud of the bravery, skill and conscience of the Israeli military forces, air, sea and ground, who have dealt a heavy blow to Hamas in defense of our people, all the while trying as much as is humanly possible to minimize civilian casualties 

Third:  The timing of the exhortation on how to feel, for empathy and grace, made me cringe. I will tell you what is obvious:  There were people trying, God forbid, to kill our daughter. It felt horrible. Our nephew is in Tsahal; he was on the border. They were trying to kill him, too. And Tsahal was trying to kill those who were trying to kill our daughter. Those who were trying to kill our daughter often place their rocket launchers among civilians. I feel sorry, very sorry, for those civilians.

My sadness for them is not greater than the dread that they would kill our daughter. Those innocent Palestinians should blame Hamas, not Israel, for placing their rocket launchers in civilian areas and shooting them at my daughter (my daughter here symbolizing all my people in Israel. They are my family). I wanted to kill those firing mortars at our daughter with my bare hands. I was ripped with dread and anger. During the bombings, I was nowhere near able to witness with empathy and grace. Was I really supposed to?

Now that there is a cease-fire, I feel deep empathy for the suffering of innocent Palestinians (though the celebrating and gloating sicken me). They are victims of Hamas, too. But while the rockets were being fired, that instruction for empathy left me empty.


Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr HaTorah and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.


More on the compassion controversy: 

Rabbi Sharon Brous vs. Rabbi Daniel Gordis: War and bickering

As the missiles were flying last week between Israel and Gaza, verbal missiles were flying between two prominent Jews: Rabbi Sharon Brous in Los Angeles and Rabbi Daniel Gordis in Jerusalem. 

The crux of their dispute: What is the appropriate Jewish response when the Jewish state is at war? 

Gordis kicked off the brouhaha with a piece on the Times of Israel Web site titled, “When Balance Becomes Betrayal,” castigating Brous for her statement about the war in an e-mail she sent to her congregation. 

Evidently, he was so offended by Brous’ attempt to “balance” her support for Israel with her humanitarian concern for the welfare of innocent Palestinians that he characterized it as a form of “betrayal” or abandonment.

His accusation was clearly incendiary, and by making it so personal and public, he risked undermining his own message of Jewish solidarity in times of crisis. But if Gordis went too far with his charge of betrayal, Brous, in my view, didn’t go far enough by failing to condemn the evil of our Hamas enemy.

I’m friendly with both rabbis and understand where they’re coming from. Gordis feels that, especially during times of war, supporters of Israel are not duty-bound to show empathy for those who attack the Jewish state. 

Brous doesn’t see the two impulses as mutually exclusive. She strongly supports Israel’s right and obligation to defend itself, but also sees “a real and profound need for all of us to witness with empathy and grace.” 

There’s something compelling in each of these views. Gordis appeals to a type of familial loyalty that one feels especially when under threat. If Jews are like family, he seems to be saying, isn’t it OK to be a little overprotective? Can you blame him for not mustering any empathy for an enemy who’s bombing children’s bedrooms or trying to kill them on the battlefield?

At the same time, Brous has a big enough heart to remember, even in times of war, the suffering of innocent civilians in the enemy zone and the need to seek peace, no matter how hopeless the situation.

So, while Gordis leans tribal and Brous leans global, which way do I lean?

When I see Jews under attack, I lean toward knowing my enemy.

My personal views — the fact, for example, that I’m a peace-lover who loves interfaith dialogue and who prays for world peace — are secondary.

It is the nature of the enemy that shapes my view of the conflict — in particular, the extent of their Jew-hatred.

Am I being myopic and absolutist? Well, let’s see.

The Hamas charter calls for eliminating the Jews and destroying the Jewish state. Is it myopic and absolutist of me to believe that Hamas really means it?  

When I see a Hamas member on YouTube proudly proclaim that Hamas uses women and children as human shields when they send missiles into Israel, is it myopic of me to call that evil?

Or when I hear a Hamas spokesman “bless” the bombing attack on a civilian bus in Tel Aviv, is it absolutist of me to believe in his absolute hatred of Jews?

This is the belief that trumps all others: I believe with perfect faith that jihadist terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah really mean it when they say they want to destroy Israel — and that if they could, they would. 

It’s a belief that is terribly inconvenient and unattractive. It forces me to use words like “evil” and “hate” rather than words like “hope” and “love.”

But it has one redeeming feature: It concentrates the mind on the Jew-hatred that’s at the root of the conflict.

Why is this important? Because, as the great sage Maimonides taught, evil and ignorance go hand in hand. The hatred of Jews is an evil rooted in ignorance.

Even if it takes a hundred years — and so far it has — Israel’s Arab neighbors need to learn that Jews are not their enemies. Their real enemies are the jihadist leaders who’d rather kill Jews than build decent societies for their people.

The simple truth is that it is in their interest — economically, culturally and spiritually — to be friendly with Israel and seek peace with the Jews.  

The appropriate Jewish response to war? To fight when we have to. To pursue peace when there is a real opportunity. To educate ourselves and the world about the true nature of our enemies. And, long term, to build cultural bridges with our Arab neighbors who seek the same. 

The inappropriate response? To bicker with one another while others are shooting at us.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com


More on the compassion controversy: 

High Holy Days: In the rabbis’ words

5772Conscience 

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

Civilization depends on conscience. Conscience is the mark of a free people. You and I were born in slavery, so we know what it means to be a slave. We are not slaves. A slave does not ask questions. A slave bites his tongue, shuts his mouth, kneels before power and grovels before the power of authoritarianism. But the God of Israel is not an intractable, implacable authoritarian. He listens, hears and responds to the cries of conscience.

A Jew questions. There is a quip that when the rabbi was asked a question by a stranger, “Why do Jews always answer a question with another question?” the rabbi replied, “Why not?” The question is a profound answer. What makes you think that an answer, no matter how dogmatically given with thunder and lightning, is not itself subject to question? Dogma is corrigible. Everything is subject to critique and correction.

So, no excuses. You and me! Clergy and congregants and disciples of all faiths — you cannot shrug your shoulders and say, “What can I do? It’s found in the Holy Scriptures. It is so written.” No. No. When the Koran or the New Testament or the Hebrew scriptures say something that debases humanity, that calls for tortured confession or genocide, your Jewish conscience must respond as did the Prophet and the rabbis — “This will not stand.”

So, preachers, whatever your denomination, cannot say “Do this because I am God’s spokesman and messenger.” You cannot stand idly by the imams’ fatwa to behead the infidel, or evangelical arrogance to consign to hell those who do not accept his orthodoxy, his revelation. You cannot hide behind scriptures. We are human beings and we see with human eyes. There is no infallible perception.

On Rosh Hashanah, Judaism speaks to the world. Do you want a world drenched in conformity that deifies authoritarianism and excuses holocausts, or do you believe that church, mosque and synagogue must develop a community of conscience?

Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation. This is excerpted from a Rosh Hashanah Can we be optimistic about the coming new year?

by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

As we carry on our annual tradition to wish each other a happy new year before this Rosh Hashanah, we have to stop and wonder whether this time the greeting is unrealistic. Can we, should we, really expect happy times ahead? In times such as these, is it rational to still be optimistic?

The answer, I believe, is that it isn’t simply permissible to be an optimist, it’s a mitzvah and it’s mandatory!

Which of the two is the Creator of the universe — an optimist or a pessimist? If we believe the words of the Bible, all we have to do is look at the opening chapter. Every day God created something different and then He figuratively stepped back to evaluate what He had brought into being. What He saw pleased Him greatly, and from day to day he gave His verdict that “it was good.” Then, when He finally completed His work with the creation of Adam and Eve, the Bible tells us, “And God saw everything that He had made, and, behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

That’s why William James, the American psychologist and philosopher, was right when he said that, “Pessimism is essentially a religious disease.” A pessimist disagrees with divine judgment. A pessimist believes that we live in the worst of all possible worlds. Too bad he doesn’t take seriously the opinion of the One who made it!

Rabbi and author Benjamin Blech is serving as guest rabbi at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills for this year’s High Holy Days. This excerpt is from a Return 

by Rabbi Zoë Klein

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Where’s the struggle?

I feel cheated. I’ve always been told that Judaism is all about the struggle — the struggle with God, with ourselves, with ideas.

I’ve been told that Judaism embraces the tension between opposing views; that a key part of being Jewish is the ability to hold onto, even nurture, this tension as a way of refining our character.

So, what happened?

When I see the coarse arguments currently raging over the issue of same-sex marriage, I don’t see any thoughtful or fascinating debates or any embracing of tension. I see two armies shooting at each other.

These two armies have one thing in common: They’re both absolutely sure they have the truth on their side.

Many proponents of same-sex marriage are so sure of themselves that they’ll accuse the other side of “hatred, discrimination and bigotry.” When I saw a neighbor a few weeks ago put up a sign that said, “No to Hate, No to 8,” the first thing that crossed my mind was: If these people can go so far as to accuse the neighbors who disagree with them of hatred, well, they must be incredibly sure of themselves. No inner turmoil there.

I can’t say I’ve reached that state of blissful certitude. That’s because for every heartfelt, passionate argument I hear in favor of same-sex marriage, I’ll hear something that complicates the argument, such as this from Carol A. Corrigan:

“If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among the people of our state and find its expression at the ballot box.”

Corrigan is not a Mormon missionary. She’s a justice of the California Supreme Court. She was one of three dissenters in the decision last May to overturn the result of Proposition 22 from March 2000, when 61 percent of Californians who cast ballots voted that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Corrigan also happens to be a lesbian, who would personally like to see same-sex marriage become the law of the land. But as she wrote in her dissent:

“We are in the midst of a major social change. Societies seldom make such changes smoothly. For some, the process is frustratingly slow. For others it is jarringly fast. In a democracy the people should be given a fair chance to set the pace of change without judicial interference. That is the way democracies work.

“Ideas are proposed, debated, tested. Often new ideas are initially resisted, only to be ultimately embraced. But when ideas are imposed, opposition hardens and progress may be hampered.”

Does that sound like someone who’s full of hatred, discrimination and bigotry?

Similarly, I came across a scholarly and respectful essay from professor Margaret Somerville of McGill University titled, “The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage.” The Bible is never mentioned. Instead, strictly from a secular and ethical viewpoint, Somerville delves into the many layers of the issue, always recognizing the opposing viewpoint. And without a trace of self-righteousness, she advances, slowly and carefully, her belief that “society needs an institution that represents, symbolizes and protects the inherently reproductive relationship.”

I would love to see all proponents of Proposition 8 show the same appreciation for the complexity of this issue.

As I see it, the key point is not whether one agrees or disagrees with Corrigan and Somerville, but rather, recognizing that there’s a lot more thoughtful debate on this issue than meets the eye.

Frankly, when I see the increasingly vitriolic attacks being launched against people who exercised their democratic right to vote on a proposition, all I’m thinking is: They’re losing me.

One person who certainly didn’t lose me was Rabbi Sharon Brous, the spiritual leader of the IKAR community. Over coffee at Delice Bakery the other day, she made arguments in favor of same-sex marriage that were compelling and genuinely moving.

What moved me the most was the way she made her arguments — without any hint of anger or condescension, but with kindness, reason and heartfelt anecdotes. She didn’t feel the need to use scare tactics. She was against using words like “hate” to characterize the opposition, because, as she said, that kind of language doesn’t “open the heart.”

My conversation with Brous made me reflect on my own approach. Because I’m driven by curiosity as much as ideology, I have a tendency to immerse myself in both sides of an issue — even if I usually lean one way or the other.

I admit that I’m often tempted to just go over to my side, pick up a gun and start shooting. And sometimes I do. But then I ask myself, does the community need another partisan shooter, or does it need someone who can encourage all shooters to put down their guns and try to speak with the calmness and sensitivity of a Carole Corrigan, a Margaret Somerville or a Sharon Brous?

Maybe that’s the real struggle. Instead of trying to “convert” other people to our beliefs, we should struggle to convey those beliefs in a way that won’t alienate, demean or patronize the other side.

Even when — especially when — we’re absolutely sure that we are right and they are wrong.

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

David Light: ‘It’s a tricky balancing act’

It’s Friday night at IKAR, and David Light can’t pray.

On this hot and sticky Shabbat, a few hundred people pack the Westside Jewish Community Center auditorium, davening with fierce intensity to the deep patter of drumbeats. Light sits in the second row, watching his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, welcome the Sabbath with a chant from Psalms.

“Lechu neranena l’Adonai, Naria letzur yisheinu (come let us sing to God, let us call out to the rock of our redemption)…” she sings.

Light scans the room, smiling and nodding in various degrees of delight to the inner circle who regularly come to pray here each Shabbat, a carefree contrast to his rabbi wife’s dignified solemnity.

By the third verse of the prayer, however, Light has disappeared. When he returns to his seat, he has his arm wrapped around his 2 year-old daughter, Sami, her blond, curly hair bobbing as she gently strokes his face. It’s an adorable post-feminist moment, but it makes davening difficult for him. Before he can say, “Amen,” the child wriggles from his grasp and runs up to the podium, where her mother is leading prayer. Light again abandons his prayer book, retrieves his daughter from the pulpit and carries her outside.

As the husband of a groundbreaking female rabbi who earlier this year was named among the most influential rabbis in the country by Newsweek, Light isn’t threatened by reverse gender roles. His wife is the primary breadwinner, and he the primary caregiver. On any given Shabbat, he is never far from a stroller or a child. And while his wife waxes poetic on social justice, he can be found kibitzing at the back of the room. But he’s also an aspiring Hollywood writer, with a sense of humor about his unusual circumstances. As he puts it, “Sharon was going to save the soul of the Jewish world, and I was bent on corrupting it.”

They weren’t always on such divergent paths. Light was admitted to the rabbinic program at the Jewish Theological Seminary alongside his wife — “the one girl in college who found my knowing all the words to the kiddush incredibly sexy,” he said — but he chose not to go when he realized he’d been more excited by the process of applying to the school than by becoming a rabbi, or even marrying one, though he said it wasn’t that she would become a rabbi that bothered him: “My real doubts were that I didn’t plan on falling in love with the woman I would marry so young.”

Because Brous and her community have created IKAR from the ground up, she had to invest her rabbinate with just about everything she had to give. Her husband, however, despite his strong Judaic background, opted to stay somewhat out of the fray. Present, but not a presence.

“My success or failure as a rebbetzin all rests on whether my kids can break free of my iron-clad grasp and run up to Sharon and yell something inappropriate into the microphone,” he said wryly.

It’s true that their two daughters, Eva, 4, and Sami, are fond of approaching their mother when she’s on the pulpit. And although Brous has fostered a kid-friendly community and welcomes the affection, she has a role that won’t allow for many such distractions. So Light is responsible for making sure they’re disciplined.

“Really truly for me, as a male, we’re lucky that what we do is viewed as additive. We don’t have as many pressures,” he said, extolling the virtue of IKAR as a place that is less rigid and formal than many synagogues. He celebrates the fact that his daughters can pray next to their mother at the podium, but said, “There’s always that moment in services when one of my kids is throwing a tantrum, and I have to eject them from the service.”

Throughout IKAR’s four-year history, Brous has rarely taken a day off.

“It was hard for Sharon when she started,” Light said of the tug between work and family. “It’s a thoroughly exhausting job, and it never ends. There’s always more to do.”

As he talks about it, he vacillates between showing pride at what she’s accomplished and regret at the challenges they face as a result of her successes. Especially when, even after selling a few pilot scripts to major networks, Light is still waiting to see his own career come to fruition on screen.

“I feel like I’m at the beginning of [my career], and Sharon is closer to realizing her goals,” he said.

He gushes over Brous’ achievements and lauds her for creating the kind of community he wants to be a part of. But still, “It’s hard in terms of self-actualization. I love what I do,” he says “but would like to be doing it on a high level.”

As do many writers, Light likes to draw on personal experience, but he has to temper that urge to protect the public side of his family’s position. “I’m drawing on my personal experience and some of the randomness and quirky things that happen in our lives. And I have to be conscious more and more that we’re no longer just a scrappy start-up, and my most inappropriate stories are not appropriate anymore. There has to be a filter.”

As his wife’s accomplishments continue to rise, Light says it has also become more and more difficult to carve out private family time. It’s harder still to nurture their marriage. There’s no “date night” yet, he said, not to mention Brous’s strict adherence to kashrut prohibits much dining out. At least for now, it’s once-a-year vacations and Shabbat afternoons.

“It’s hard — it’s a tricky balancing act. Shabbat is amazing time with family. It’s just that Sharon is also working so it’s not…” he stops himself. “Because we love IKAR, it makes the longing less desperate, I guess.”

And he says that every now and then they enjoy a “sabbatical Shabbat.”

“We wish we had more time with Sharon, and yet we know she’s doing great work, bringing more people to Judaism and making their Jewish lives more meaningful,” he said. “People find my being a comedy writer infinitely boring, but the fact that I’m married to a rabbi — that’s juicy — that has legs to it.”



All the rabbi spouse stories on one page