December 13, 2018

Where ‘Social Justice’ and #MeToo Fall Short

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson/File Photo

We live in an era of “social justice.”

By “social justice,” people typically mean a panoply of left-leaning policy priorities. But the phrase itself is pernicious and anti-morality — justice requires no modifier. Justice is by nature individual — we punish those who are guilty, not those who are innocent; we don’t punish children for the sins of their parents. But social justice suggests that we should allow societal context to inform whether a result is just. Thus, a guilty man from a historically victimized group ought to be let off the hook; an innocent from a historically powerful group ought to be punished in order to provide restitution for historical injustices. 

Judaism fundamentally rejects this notion. In Leviticus, the Torah states, “Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly.” We naturally assume that the rich are more likely to get away with perverting justice, but the Torah reminds us that our natural sympathies may be just as likely to pervert justice on behalf of someone unfortunate. As the old legal aphorism goes, hard cases make bad law — if we follow our hearts, we almost invariably pursue injustice.

All of this comes up this week thanks to the controversy surrounding Asia Argento, one of the leading #MeToo icons. Argento publicly accused megaproducer Harvey Weinstein of rape just a few months ago; now it turns out that Argento, who touted “women everywhere” having the “courage to share their most painful private traumas in public,” allegedly sexually assaulted a 17-year-old boy back in 2013. According to The New York Times, former child actor Jimmy Bennett alleges that Argento invited him to a hotel room and sexually assaulted him when he was 17 and she was 37. The age of consent in California is 18. The documents reviewed by the Times included a selfie of the two in bed together dated May 9, 2013. 

Argento’s alleged gross misconduct doesn’t undermine her claims against Weinstein, of course. As it turns out in Hollywood, more than one person can be disgusting at one time. But it’s the reaction that’s been telling. Rose McGowan, another face of the #MeToo movement, tweeted, “None of us know the truth of the situation and I’m sure more will be revealed. Be gentle.” All of which would be fine, except that McGowan, along with many others in the #MeToo movement, have suggested that an allegation is tantamount to a conviction. Back in January, she tweeted, “Believe women,” and in November, she tweeted, “It’s quite simple, all who have worked with known predators should do 3 simple things. 1) Believe survivors 2) Apologize for putting your careers and wallets before what was right. 3) Grab a spine and denounce. If you do not do these things you are still moral cowards. #ROSEARMY.”

We all tend to lend credibility to those we like and to disparage the credibility of those we don’t. In reality, we ought to hold the same standards for everyone.

Now, this is a problem. There must be one standard by which we can adjudicate public accusations of sexual abuse. That standard should require some evidence, regardless of the alleged victim; it should at least require a careful weighing of the allegations themselves. Instead, we’ve been told for nearly a year that we must believe all allegations at face value, mainly because so many women have been wrongly ignored in the past. But past sins do not excuse current ones, nor do current virtues absolve past sins. McGowan should be holding Argento to the same standard she’d hold others, whether or not Argento is a woman or a #MeToo icon.

Unfortunately, we tend not to do this. We all tend to lend credibility to those we like and to disparage the credibility of those we don’t. If we’re Donald Trump fans, we defend him against allegations of abuse of women; if we’re Democrats, we defend Keith Ellison against the same. In reality, we ought to hold the same standards for everyone. That’s what morality demands. And it’s what justice demands, even if social justice suggests otherwise.


Ben Shapiro is editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire, host of the podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show” and author of The New York Times best-seller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear Silences Americans.”

Amanda Berman: Can progressives also be Zionists?

Amanda Berman, founder of the Zioness movement, discusses the opposition liberal Zionists have faced within the progressive movement, and how her new movement is working to change that.

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What Is the Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam?

Photo by REUTERS/David W Cerny

Rabbi Laura Geller:

My earliest Jewish memory was of our temple’s social action committee meeting at our home. I snuck downstairs and overheard the grown-ups talking about straws. The next morning, I asked my dad why. He explained that a straw was a white person who bought a home from another white person in order to sell it to a Black person, and that this was one strategy to desegregate neighborhoods. I remember asking, “But I thought it was a Jewish meeting. What does this have to do with being Jewish?” His response was quick and clear: “This is what it means to be Jewish.”

This was many years before I ever heard the phrase tikkun olam, which has come to mean social justice. But that isn’t how the term was understood throughout Jewish tradition. Among its traditional meanings: a legal process to correct an unfairness; the establishment of a world that is sustainable; the kabbalistic notion that what an individual can do not only has an impact on the world but also on God; and the vision of the Aleinu prayer that evil will be someday be eliminated and the world will be perfected under the Divine order.

But none of those concepts is what Reform Jews mean when they use the phrase. Nor are those meanings what more than half of American Jews mean when they report that “working for social justice and equality” is an essential part of “being Jewish,” while only 19 percent say ritual observance is essential.

For me, meaningful ritual observance — like Shabbat, kashrut, Torah study — and social justice go hand-in-hand.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn:

Thank you so much for sharing that early experience. It does reflect a social care, empathy and concern that is at the core of the Jewish faith. Rav Kook once wrote, “Love needs to fill up the heart — for ALL.” Do we disagree on the essential role of tikkun olam? I don’t think so. My community, a vibrant Orthodox one, does understand that being Jewish entails a heavy responsibility toward making this world better. However, two points must be clarified.

First, we very much adhere to the complete refrain: L’taken olam bamalchut Shaddai — “to repair the world under the kingdom of G-d.” Meaning, our definition of tikkun olam must emanate from the religious sphere. Social justice is considered social justice only so much as it adheres to principles in Torah and as understood by our tradition and sages. This means that what we fight for is not dictated by liberal or conservative values or whatever is the “hot” social justice issue of the time. Rather, we ought to fight for the pressing social issues of the generation that are congruent to the Torah’s understanding of morality.

Second, yes, we too appreciate the importance of social justice. Nevertheless, our work in the realm of social justice does not override our emphasis on religious practice development of the community and the individual. There is a tension here. On one hand the Talmud says, “adorn yourself and then adorn others” — I think the airplane-oxygen-mask analogy is appropriate here. And on the other hand, we could potentially wait our entire lifetime “perfecting” ourselves before concluding that “now we’re ready to help.”

How does your community view social justice issues that run against Torah values?

Rabbi Geller:

Reform Judaism discovers Torah values through the lens of essential principles, not through the halachic process (“principles in Torah as understood by our tradition and sages.”) We probably agree on the principles; where we disagree is the process by which decisions should be made.

For me, the essential principle of Torah is the one Ben Azzai articulates in his famous debate with Rabbi Akiva: that every human being — Jewish or not, like me or not, neighbor or not — is created in the image of God.

Tikkun olam means working to create a world where every human being can live as if he/she were created in God’s image. When I confront questions of social justice, I ask: What does it mean to respond in a way that acknowledges all human beings are created in the image of God? What other fundamental Jewish principles/values ought to illuminate a response?

An example: same-sex marriage. Halachah wrestles with the biblical prohibition against a man lying with a man as with a woman. Reform Judaism takes a different approach: If every person is created in the image of God, and if (here’s another principle) “it is not good for a person to be alone,” then our community ought to welcome committed partners of any gender to marry. So, I am delighted to officiate in an LGBTQ wedding.

Other issues? Immigration: Principles emerge from the many Torah verses reminding us that, because we were strangers in Egypt, we should not oppress a stranger, and the strangers residing with us should be like citizens. Principles also come from our history, like our families’ immigration stories.

Rabbi Einhorn:

Ideals, values and philosophy are truly understood when they are forced to enter the realm of the real. So that the reader can understand, our back-and-forth was interrupted by the horrific tragedy of the Las Vegas massacre. The religious and human sense of urgency to help in any way possible was, I suspect, no different between our communities. Lo saamod al dam re’echa (“do not stand by the blood of your friend”) compels us religiously to dedicate our mind, time and effort to helping in some way. But what if, G-d forbid, I feel nothing toward a certain cause? The religious mandate essentially says, “I could care less about your feeling, the world is on fire — go help!”

I know you look at Ben Azzai as the paradigm for our discussion. But I would actually look at Shamai. When the convert came to Shamai asking him to teach him the entire Torah on one foot, yes, Shamai was strict and asked him to leave. However, let us also acknowledge that Shamai is the one who taught “receive every person with a friendly countenance.” Even his embrace of the other is part of his understanding of din (law). In the same way, tikkun olam in the Orthodox community is as compelling as it is in your community. However, it is guided, defined and applied as per the historic rabbinic tradition and interpretation of the Torah. I will, perhaps, say it sharper: In my view, it is NOT a tikkun (rectification) for the olam (world) if we are involved in matters that run contrary to the Torah’s internal system, regardless of how sweet it may appear.


Rabbi Laura Geller is rabbi emerita at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn is the dean of Yeshivat Yavneh in Los Angeles.

What you call politics, we call Torah

Rabbi Sharon Brous. Photo by Donovan Marks/Washington National Cathedral

Editor’s note: This post first appeared at ikar-la.org. It has been reprinted here with permission.


Twelve leaders were sent to spy the land. Ten returned reporting fortified cities and giants. They warned that entering the land would be dangerous, even deadly. They spoke the truth, but they were punished severely, leading generations of Rabbis to try to determine where exactly they went wrong. Commentators claim they were tasked only with reporting, not editorializing, that their fault was in worrying how they were perceived by the inhabitants, that they should not have included any negative perceptions in their report, since the land was promised to the people as in inheritance by God. That they were driven by fear.

But Rabbi Jonathan Sacks brings a compelling read from the Lubavitcher Rebbe: The spies’ mistake was not that they were “afraid of failure. They were afraid of success.”

Very little time had passed since they left Egypt. These men held the immediate and recent memory of the plagues, of the miraculous split sea. God’s cloud of Glory protected them by day and they were guided by a pillar of fire at night. They ate manna from heaven. They embodied spiritual intimacy with God.

The spies knew what would happen if they entered the land. They’d be forced to fight battles, to sustain an army, to establish an economy and build out agricultural systems and establish rule of law. In Sacks’s words, they were afraid of what would happen were they confronted with the challenge of “mundane and material pursuits.” In the desert, “they could spend their entire lives learning Torah, lit by the radiance of the Divine. There they would be one more nation in a world of nations with the same kind of economic, social and political problems that every nation has to deal with” (Sacks, Covenant and Conversation: Numbers, 150).

This, then, is their crime: fear of success. They were holy men who didn’t want to get caught up in the affairs of marketplace.

I recall the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, who equates the Israelites’ kvetch for water just days after the majestic miracle of the split sea with the black community’s insistence on housing without vermin, adequate schools and decent jobs in the aftermath of the great achievements of the March on Washington and the Civil Rights Act: “[Those] prosaic demands… seem so trite, so drab, so banal, so devoid of magnificence.”

And yet:

The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. The Bible insists that God is concerned with everydayness, with the trivialities of life. The great challenge does not lie in organizing solemn demonstrations, but in how we manage the commonplace. The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity, but the blights of society, the affairs of the marketplace.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, from The White Man on Trial, February 1964

Throughout the Torah and the Prophets, God’s central preoccupation is the treatment of the poor and most vulnerable; it is honesty in business transactions and fairness in judgment. “The predominant feature of the biblical pattern of life,” according to Heschel, “is unassuming, unheroic, inconspicuous piety, the sanctification of trifles, attentiveness to details.”

This past week, a dispute erupted in the rabbinic community when a colleague of mine, a brilliant and respected friend, issued a public call for keeping politics from the pulpit: “All we hear all day long is politics. Can we not come to shul for something different, something deeper? I want to know what my rabbi thinks of Jacob and Rachel, not of Pence and Pelosi” (“Why I Keep Politics Off the Pulpit,” by Rabbi David Wolpe.)

Tell me this: can one really claim that Torah is not an inherently political document? This sacred scroll recounts the story of a band of slaves rising up before the most powerful and iconic ruler of the ancient world and demanding freedom and dignity. Is that not a political message? Four of the five books of Torah tell the story of the journey our people took from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity. And lest we think that is an abstract, theoretical or one-time journey, along the way, they are commanded to establish a society that would be the antithesis in social policy and political reality of Egypt. We are charged to build, in the Promised Land, what Michael Waltzer calls a counter Egypt. A place in which human beings are free and tasked to honor their neighbor’s dignity through impartial laws, fair judgment, and acts of compassion and love that reach above the letter of the law.

Why do we unroll the sefer Torah and parade around the sanctuary every week, reciting these words and repeating these stories? For nostalgia sake? To recall old family tales?

We read these sacred narratives to discern what it means to be Moses, Aaron and Miriam in a world of Pharaohs. What it means to be Tamar, when you are invisibilized by a misogynistic legal system that undermines your very humanity. How to hold grief and anguish, like Hannah; how to fight back against injustice like Abraham, even when you are but dust and ashes.

I understand why we might be supremely suspicious of religion on the public stage. For many years in this country and around the world, public discourse has been tainted by the most extreme and regressive version of religion. Religious leaders have used sacred texts and their understanding of the will of God to justify racism and white supremacy, environmental destruction, attacks on women’s bodies, women’s health, women’s rights and discrimination against LGBT people. The public face of religion has too often been hypocritical, exclusive and oppressive.

But we must not abdicate religion to religious extremists.

The answer is not to decouple religion and politics. To claim that the affairs of the market, the cost and nature of healthcare for the poor, the heartless treatment of the immigrant and refugee, the fact that yet another police officer who shot black man (this time Philando Castile) was found not guilty, the reality that thousands of mostly people of color are stuck in jail because of a broken and discriminatory cash-bail system, the fact that after a mass shooting, like the two this past week, gun laws are more likely to be loosened than tightened… to suggest that all of that is outside the scope of religion is to strip religion of its essence.

Instead, we must reclaim religious leadership as moral leadership. It is faith leaders who can bring inclusion, forgiveness, equity and equality, justice and love to the forefront of the national conversation.

A living wage? That is the business of the faith community. Mass incarceration? That’s our business too. State Legislatures disenfranchising black voters with “surgical precision?” That, too, is our business. The promise to strip twenty-four million people of their healthcare? Yes. That, too, is the business of people of faith.

Religion means nothing if not a response to the greatest moral crises and challenges of our day. As my friend, Rabbi Shai Held, wrote this week: “Demanding that politics be kept out of shul is like demanding that Torah be kept out of shul.”

Remember Dr. King’s piercing critique of the God-fearing ministers among whom he expected to find support for the civil rights struggle? Instead, he wrote: …Some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

Hear his words:

In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Rev. MLK, Jr., Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963

King spoke of the church: “archdefenders of the status quo.” We know the same is true of the synagogue– it was then, and it is now. For every rabbi who went down to Selma, hundreds more remained silent behind anesthetizing security of stained glass windows.

Perhaps some of us, and our leaders, would prefer the path of the ten spies, who would rather dwell in the desert than dirty our hands with the business of building a just society. Perhaps we’d rather ruminate on Jacob and Rachel than be distracted or burdened by gross abuses of power, systemic racism, misogyny, lies and hypocrisy emanating from the highest offices. Perhaps we’d rather not engage a growing authoritarianism that today threatens to undo our democracy.

But there is another way. Two spies, Caleb and Joshua, defied the majority. They saw exactly what the others saw, but called the Israelites to face the inevitable challenges of a complex society with the spiritual tools of faith, hope, and love. We honor them not by telling their stories as entertainment, but by letting their stories guide and strengthen our own resolve to fight for what is right today.

New Jewish group vows fight to uphold democratic principles

Panel discussion moderated by California State Sen. Ben Allen (far right), with (from left) L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis and L.A. Board of Police Commissioners Vice President Steve Soboroff. Photo by Andy Alt

new group called Jews United for Democracy and Justice (JUDJ) held its first meeting on May 21, as nearly 500 people, most of them Jewish, filled the pews of Leo Baeck Temple’s sanctuary for a day of activism, with a focus on opposing the Trump administration’s proposed immigration restrictions.

The event, called “Building Bridges–Building Movements: A Los Angeles Activist Summit” drew a broad coalition of participants committed to upholding the principles of democracy, justice and equality.

“Jews know what it’s like to be strangers in a strange land,” Leo Baeck Rabbi Ken Chasen said in his opening remarks. “Such is mentioned in the Torah 36 times.” He reminded the group that Jews have been at the forefront of social justice and civil rights issues in the United States for decades.

Chasen then recounted the genesis of the organization: At a Super Bowl party in early February at the Beverlywood home of UCLA Jewish History professor David Myers, more attention was paid to politics than the big game.

President Donald Trump’s two-week-old travel ban proposal and the ensuing chaos at airports was still in the day’s headlines. Chasen said everyone at the party viewed the executive action as an affront to “our American values and our Jewish traditions,” and they agreed they needed to respond in a way that went beyond an airing of grievances.

“We lamented the lack of a convening presence for Los Angeles’ Jews to act collectively under fundamental values,” Chasen said. “We felt the urgency to create that presence.”

Less than a month later, guests from Myers’ party, including Chasen, wrote a founding statement and put it online. The statement quickly drew more than 2,300 signatories and JUDJ was born. (The full text can be found on JUDJ’s website at judjla.org/action.)

At the May 21 summit, featured speaker Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles) praised organizations like JUDJ for their support of local governments’ efforts to resist cooperation with the Trump administration’s new immigration and deportation policies.

“I’m hopeful that Jews United for Democracy and Justice will be at the forefront of the wave that changes the power provision and bends the arc back toward justice and freedom for all,” Bass said.

Following her address, California State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), who represents much of the Westside and the South Bay, moderated a lively panel discussion with Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, City Councilmember Marqueece Harris-Dawson, L.A. County Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Hilda Solis, and L.A. Board of Police Commissioners Vice President Steve Soboroff. The conversation focused mainly on local police involvement with Trump’s deportation policies and the human narratives concerning deportation within the city’s Latino community.

Solis, who served as the nation’s first Latino Secretary of Labor under President Barack Obama, told the crowd that in parts of East Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and other areas with large Latino populations, parents routinely avoid grocery shopping during the daytime, fearing deportation forces. She said parents in these communities are taking precautions, such as leaving emergency contact information on the refrigerator in case their children return from school to an empty house.

“These are real people,” Solis said. “All I’m telling you is this is what I see and what I hear every day. I hope that all of you would understand that we’re here to find a solution. It doesn’t matter how we get it. Every little bit can help. That’s all I’m asking you to do, to listen to those voices you might not hear today, but they’re out there.”

Following the speeches, attendees were invited to participate in small groups focused on such activities as community organizing and a Jewish response to the Syrian refugee crisis. Rabbis met in a session called “Justice Beyond the Bima” and lawyer Randy Schoenberg led a lawyers-only strategizing and training session.

Danielle Berrin, a Jewish Journal columnist and senior writer, led a session called “The Fourth Column: How a Free Press Changes Everything.”

Participating organizations included Bend the Arc, the Anti-Defamation League, Bet Tzedek, Jewish World Watch, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Interfaith Refugee Project and NewGround: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change.

Allison Lee — who was at Myers’ Super Bowl party with her husband, Chasen, and who co-chaired the event and serves on JUDJ’s coalition committee — said she was impressed by the summit participants’ enthusiasm.

“To see so many Angelenos do a deeper dive, to understand how they can inform their own activism, to commit and recommit to the work is really rewarding and shows the tremendous need out there,” Lee said.

Hal Reichwald, 80, of Brentwood and a University Synagogue member, who participated in a session on a Jewish response to refugees, said he came to the event partly to stop throw-ing his shoe at the television.

“I think it’s a very good step to energize a group of people who perhaps have been on the sidelines a bit in the last eight years,” Reichwald said. “They see the need, they feel the need, and now they want to take the next steps to do something. I think this gives them a focus.”

Daf Yomi, justice, and the minimum wage

A recent living wage rally in New York. Photo by The All-Nite Images/via WikiCommons.

Those of us participating in Daf Yomi are now four and a half years into the current cycle, with three years to go. Studying a page of Talmud a day, we are combing the broad expanse of the ancient rabbinal discussions that make up the Mishnah and the Gemara. In our recent studies of tractate Bava Metzia, we delved into concepts that are relevant for controversial policy issues in the news today—one of them being the minimum wage.

The issue of the minimum wage—sometimes referred to as a living wage or a just wage — continues to be a contentious issue. Presumably, we as a society would like to ensure that those who work earn a reasonable wage, one that is, at a minimum, sufficient to cover one’s basic human needs. Surely, the thinking goes, any compassionate society would do no less. But the issue is not so straightforward, and our Jewish tradition, including the Talmud, provides some guidance.

Insisting that employers pay their employees a minimum amount undoubtedly helps those who’s wages will be higher—which seems beneficial in and of itself. But it will inevitably have unintended consequences. For example, how will it affect other workers? If employers decide to hire fewer workers, will some workers lose their jobs, or not be hired in the first place? Is this compassionate?

Economists have looked into this question, but there is as yet no consensus. Some cite statistics that show that there is no marked decline in employment. Others have data to prove that the imposition of higher wages does reduce employment. The American Enterprise Institute just came out with a 48-page paper on the subject, concluding that the minimum wage does appear to reduce employment, but they also called for more research.

There is another potential unintended consequence. Many teenagers and young adults are often looking just to get started in the job market. Many are thrilled to have a job, any job, even if it pays only $7.50 an hour, in order to get some experience—ultimately enabling them to eventually move on to jobs requiring more skills and experience which will pay more. Imposing a higher minimum wage may deprive young people of these initial jobs. Is this compassionate?

These social science questions are important, but there’s actually a deeper question. Is legislating a higher minimum wage even just? In mandating higher minimum wages, government is requiring that employers pay their lower-skilled workers more than they might otherwise pay them—and more than workers might actually be willing to accept. Is this consistent with our traditional notions of justice? This question is not a new one. It comes up in ancient Jewish texts—related to property rights, labor law and charity law—including Bava Metzia.

Property rights are usually considered to be sacrosanct. As Joseph Isaac Lifshitz explains in Judaism, Law & the Free Market: An Analysis, there are numerous prohibitions in the Bible relating to the property of others — against, for instance, stealing land and acquiring property through fraud. The Eighth Commandment prohibits stealing. The Tenth Commandment prohibits even the coveting of one’s neighbor’s property. As evidence of the importance of private property, Lifshitz notes, “punishments … are meted out in the Bible to those who undermine the social order through their flagrant disregard for it.”

This presumably entails not just the private property of individuals but also that of companies. One would assume that, absent some extraordinary public purpose, government should not have the authority to coerce companies to expend their own resources, their own private property, in certain mandated ways—like paying their employees more than they otherwise would. This kind of government mandate would seem to be a violation of companies’ property rights.

Some might say that the needs of employees, particularly poor employees, should take precedence over the rights of employers. However, one could ask the question—in a potential dispute between employees and employers, should not justice be blind? As it says in Leviticus 19:15, “You shall not commit a perversion of justice; you shall not favor the poor and you shall not honor the great.”

What about labor law? Should there not be some requirement for companies to pay their employees a living wage? According to our Jewish tradition, this is a little more complicated, requiring inferences from other law.

Dealing fairly in business, including pricing things fairly, is one of the cornerstones of the law, again going back to the Bible. As it says in Leviticus 25:14, “When you make a sale to your fellow or when you buy from the hand of your fellow, do not victimize one another.” This is called the law of ona’ah—“overreaching”—which is prominently discussed and debated in Bava Metzia.

 In his 2008 Tradition article “The Living Wage and Jewish Law,” Rabbi Aaron Levine, the late Yeshiva University economics professor, explains that “The law of ona’ah prohibits an individual from concluding a transaction at a price that is more favorable to himself than the competitive norm.”

The Talmud does not explicitly discuss the idea of the minimum wage, but, extrapolating the law of ona’ah to wages, one would conclude that the wages that a company pays should not be substantially below the going rate for comparable jobs. As Levine notes, “A worker who cannot command a living wage in the marketplace cannot claim a living wage based on ona’ah.” As one can see, according to the law of ona’ah, wages should not be based on an employee’s needs.

There have been challenges to this perspective, however. For example, Jewish law stipulates that judges are to be paid a living wage. But can the case of a judge, who’s hired by a community to devote himself exclusively to his or her judicial job, be extended to the private sector?

Levine speculates that “if [the private sector employer] offers the head of a household a full-time job and stipulates with him that he may not take on outside employment, [the employer] must pay [the employee] a ‘living wage.’” This, however, is not common, particularly for lower-skilled workers, so this challenge is not a compelling one.

Another challenge comes from the Biblical law of lo talin—also discussed in Bava Metzia—the prohibition against withholding a worker’s wages. As it says in Deuteronomy 24:14-15, “You must not withhold the wages of a poor or destitute hired worker … You must give him his wages on the day they are due, and not let the sun set upon him, for he is poor, and he depends on it.”

These Biblical verses can be interpreted to mean that, if a worker does receive payment on time, then he will be able to provide for his family—thereby implying that employers are required to pay their workers enough to provide for their families. However, as Levine shows, “The inference is unwarranted.” The verses are not meant to suggest that a violation of lo talon will literally endanger the employee’s life. They’re intended to underscore the employer’s moral obligation to pay one’s workers on time.

This brings us to the law of charity. Is there a basis for a higher minimum wage as an act of charity? What exactly is required of employers?

Helping someone get out of poverty is one of the highest levels of charity. As it says in Deuteronomy 15:7-8, “If there will be among you a needy person … you shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand to your needy brother. Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him, and you shall give him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”

Providing a needy person with a job—with a competitive wage—is one of the best examples of charity. At the same time, is it the employer’s responsibility to ensure that employees have enough to provide for themselves and their families?

If a young adult is having difficulty making ends meet, we would expect that his or her family, not the employer, would be first in line to help out. But what about the case of a needy employee who has primary responsibility for his or her family?

Deuteronomy 15:7-8 has been interpreted to mean that the community as a whole, not one individual nor one employer, has the moral responsibility to help those in need. Referring to the responsibility as dei mahsoro—“give him sufficient”—Levine notes that Jewish law “has interpreted the dei mahsoro mandate as a collective responsibility, rather than a duty for individuals to shoulder alone when they personally encounter charity cases. Because the ‘living wage’ mandate saddles employers alone with the burden of relieving poverty for the working poor, it does not follow from dei mahsoro.”

The idea of the minimum wage, while seemingly reasonable and compassionate, raises several difficult issues. From an economic perspective, it may actually reduce employment, which would not be compassionate for those struggling to find a job. It also raises important issues of justice. Based on property rights, labor law and charity law, as defined by many of our sacred texts and sages, the idea of the minimum wage is problematic. We may have a moral obligation to help those in need, but we also have a moral obligation to deal with each other justly.

The rabbi should speak out

Pexels

The question of whether and how rabbis should speak out on controversial issues of the day has been with us for many centuries. If the subject has become especially contentious in America of late, it is probably because American Jews in 2017 find ourselves in a situation utterly without precedent.

Technology and globalization have spurred change more rapid and far-reaching than at any time in human history. American society and culture are in flux. The health of the planet itself is threatened as never before. Anti-Semitism seems resurgent. And the relevant political divide in America today is arguably not only that between Democrat and Republican or liberal and conservative but between supporters and opponents of a president who has disavowed major elements of long-term bipartisan policy and major elements of the Jewish and Christian ethical traditions.

What should rabbis do in this situation? What should they say, on the pulpit or off? What alliances and marches should they join or lead? I believe that the lack of consensus on virtually every major issue we face makes it more imperative than ever that rabbis speak out loud and clear on moral and religious issues of the day. They must articulate the moral voice of Judaism, carefully yet boldly, with love for God and Israel and always from deep inside the teaching and practice of Torah. 

The rabbi’s role must include far more than announcing page numbers or directing ritual performances (as important as the latter task is). It takes all the knowledge and wisdom a rabbi commands, all the learning and people skills he or she brings to the task, an abundance of cognitive and emotional intelligence, to pronounce and preserve the difference between tamei and tahor, pure and impure — ever the vocation of Aaron and the priests who follow after him. The rabbis must do this while fulfilling Aaron’s priestly function as “pursuer of peace.”

Our rabbis have to build and grow holy communities, keep the peace in those communities, and make sure they are places that bring out the best in all their members. Divisions are rife in many congregations, schools and agencies. Civil discourse is harder and harder to achieve. That discord should not prevent rabbis from speaking out. Rabbis are most effective, in this matter as all others, when they bless the people of Israel with their words and their presence, teach via texts as well as personal example, invite God into Jewish lives, and help make us worthy of having God reside amongst us.

We also want our rabbis to be prophets of a sort, which means helping their communities to hear clearly what God wants of them, and helping our words reach God. Paraphrasing Abraham Joshua Heschel, we might say that the rabbi in his or her prophetic role helps the rest of us to keep God always in mind, and stops us from focusing only on our own needs and desires.

Heschel made that declaration about Israel’s prophets in his 1963 address on “Religion and Race,” and when he marched in Selma, Ala., he affirmed, as Martin Luther King Jr. did in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” that rabbis must call out injustice, call for compassion, and call lies, lies. They cannot teach the opening chapters of Genesis without reminding us that human beings are assigned to work and tend the garden of Earth; that all human beings are children of Adam and Eve created in God’s image; that this status carries with it a demand to protect human dignity always and everywhere.

Rabbis cannot teach the Exodus narrative without stressing over and over, as the Torah does, that we are obligated to take care of the stranger, free those enslaved, and not bow down to false gods. The Judge of all the Earth must be assisted in doing justice. YHWH must be helped in the work of redemption associated with God’s very name. 

This does not mean, I hasten to add, that the rabbi should tell people how to vote. The problem with rabbis giving such advice goes far beyond IRS regulations concerning the status of religious nonprofits. The complexity of the human situation on the one hand, and the nature of classical Jewish texts on the other, both militate against simple translation of biblical or rabbinic imperatives into endorsements of particular candidates or policies.

Love for the stranger is compatible with a variety of government directives. Widows and orphans must be clothed and fed — that demand is nonnegotiable — but multiple valid approaches to distributive justice have been articulated in Republican and Democratic platforms. Love of the Jewish people, love for the Land of Israel, and love of the stranger can be used to justify a whole range of positions on West Bank settlements. And — complicating matters still further — fulfillment of one mitzvah might clash with fulfillment of another. Sometimes the imperative to Jewish action is clear and unequivocal. Most of the time, however, hard choices must be made and difficult priorities determined.   

That is why a rabbi has to be extremely careful in the translation of timeless mitzvah to the partisan politics in the headlines on a given Shabbat. It would be a mistake for rabbis to get into the business of political campaigning for particular candidates or parties. A rabbi’s job is to teach Torah and to help Jews live Torah, not to be a political operative. Spiritual/moral leaders cannot fulfill that calling effectively if they routinely sound off on contemporary controversy rather than helping Jews listen week in and week out to the voice of Torah. The latter task requires listening to and respecting the diverse voices inside each community — just as the community, to be served by the rabbi who leads them, must be willing to listen to their rabbis, even and especially when challenged by disagreement. 

Bottom line: Rabbis and their communities need to trust each other’s dedication and integrity.

Some 45 years ago, as a student reporter with incredible chutzpah, I asked Heschel how he had the chutzpah to call the Vietnam War evil — not just wrong, but evil — and to write on the first page of his book “God in Search of Man” that religion had declined because it had become “irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” Heschel said to me, in these words or words close to them, “I am the heir to a great religious tradition, and as such it is not only my right but my duty to speak in its name as best I can, knowing that others will speak differently.”

It takes enormous courage to do that — and enormous humility to do it well.  You’ve got to know your Torah, and know your Jews, and love them both, and love God. We are living in a historic moment that may well test our patience and our courage. It may elicit every ounce of every skill we command, break our hearts over and over, and strain our capacity for hope. I pray that our rabbis, with the blessing of the communities they serve, will have the wisdom to exercise the right, and perform the duty, of speaking in the name of Torah — and will do so with the wisdom and skill needed right now throughout the tabernacles of the Children of Israel.

Arnold M. Eisen is chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS). He delivered these words at a recent JTS convocation honoring members of the Rabbinical Assembly for distinguished service.

Not just anti-Semitism: ADL boss seeks to broaden group’s reach

For more than a century, the Anti-Defamation League has been known as a group that combats anti-Semitism. But one year after taking the group’s helm, Jonathan Greenblatt wants it to focus on more than just the Jews.

Greenblatt’s predecessor as ADL national director, Abraham Foxman, became known during his decades at ADL’s helm as an arbiter of what was and was not anti-Semitic, as well as a pro-Israel advocate who did not hesitate to criticize Jewish groups he saw as damaging Israel. Upon his retirement in July 2015, some called him “The Jewish Pope.”

But to woo millennials to the ADL, Greenblatt wants to stress the group’s work among other minority communities, which has long been a part of its agenda. This emphasis comes as the Jewish community’s relations with minority groups has become strained by anti-Israel sentiment among many left-wing activists. Just this week, the main movement opposing police violence against black communities, Black Lives Matter, released a platform accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinians.

While the ADL focuses on many issues Black Lives Matter addresses, it has not collaborated with Black Lives Matter, and called the genocide accusation “repellent and completely inaccurate” in a blog post on Medium Thursday.

As part of its renewed outspokenness on issues beyond those directly impacting Jews, the ADL has emerged in the past year as the only legacy Jewish organization to consistently criticize Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump by name when he makes controversial statements about Mexicans, Muslims or other groups. And Greenblatt wants the ADL to take a leading role in addressing mass incarceration and police violence in black communities.

“By delivering great programs and making an impact in the communities that we serve, by speaking up and using our voice to call out intolerance in any form, I think those things, I hope, will appeal to younger people,” Greenblatt said in an interview in his Manhattan office Wednesday. “This is one of those institutions with the scale and the scope where you really, truly can make a dent in the universe.”

One issue the ADL is focusing on: using its bonds with both police and anti-racism activists to help stem the string of killings by police in black communities, as well as killings of police, and address mass incarceration. Along with educating against racism across the country, the ADL runs seminars for police officers on counterterrorism and combating violent extremists.

“We’ve been working around a civil rights agenda to help support marginalized communities,” Greenblatt said. “We believe black lives matter in the lowercase letters. We believe it’s fundamental to a 21st century civil rights agenda.”

But what about uppercase Black Lives Matter’s harsh rhetoric on Israel?

“These points are wrong on the facts and offensive in tone,” Greenblatt wrote. “Importantly, for ADL and many in the Jewish community, such false characterizations and misguided calls to action distract us from the task of addressing other, critically-important justice and equality priorities.”

The ADL has already fielded criticism from within the Jewish community due to its work against police violence. The Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing group that has criticized the ADL on a range of issues for two decades, has accused the ADL of promoting Black Lives Matter despite its anti-Israel statements.

But to Greenblatt, 45, widening the ADL’s reach is more important than an intra-Jewish flame war. In 2003 he co-founded Ethos Water, a bottled water company that funds clean water access in developing countries. He also founded All for Good, an open-source volunteering platform, and GOOD Magazine. Before taking the ADL job, Greenblatt served as director of the Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation in the White House.

“We’re a civil rights organization. The ZOA is not,” he said. “We’re an organization focused on combating anti-Semitism and bigotry. The ZOA is not. They’ve been doing this [criticizing us] for over 20 years so you can draw your own conclusions.”

The ADL’s highest profile issue this year, however, has probably been its criticism of Trump. Greenblatt has criticized Trump’s statements against Muslims and Mexicans, but sounded most concerned that Trump’s fellow travelers are sparking anti-Semitism’s return to American political discourse. He called attacks in social media on Jewish journalists “unprecedented,” and said Trump is not doing enough to disavow his anti-Semitic supporters.

The ADL, says Greenblatt, has reached out to the campaign directly several times.

“We think there have been opportunities when he could be doing a lot more to speak forcefully about why anti-Semitism and bigotry has no place in a political campaign,” Greenblatt told JTA. “What we can definitely say with a high degree of certainty is that we’ve seen a mainstreaming of intolerance, and many of the people who are bringing this into the public conversation are self-identified white nationalists and are trafficking in some of the worst anti-Semitic stereotypes.”

Other legacy Jewish organizations have criticized Trump’s controversial remarks against minorities, but have been more circumspect about calling him out directly. An August 3 statement from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs said the group was “dismayed at presidential candidates’ statements,” but didn’t say which candidates or which statements.

The ADL has no such qualms. Since Trump launched his campaign, the ADL has released at least a dozen statements criticizing him and urging him to distance himself from his racist supporters, including former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke. In March, due to what Greenblatt called Trump’s “penchant to slander minorities, slur refugees, dismiss First Amendment protections and cheer on violence,” the group redirected $56,000 in past donations from Trump to its anti-racism and anti-bullying programs.

This is not a first for the group. Greenblatt said the ADL criticized segregationist George Wallace’s 1968 campaign. This year, the group has also criticized Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ exaggerating the death toll in the 2014 Gaza war, and Republican candidate Mike Huckabee’s equating President Barack Obama to a Nazi. But Trump, more than anyone, has been the target of the ADL’s political statements.

“Over the years, if you look at the statements we’ve made, including this election, they’re very even-handed,” Greenblatt said. “We spoke out about these things because, again, bigotry in all forms, whether it’s directed against Latinos or immigrants or Muslims or refugees, we find it reprehensible.”

Even with the stirrings of white supremacism around Trump, Greenblatt stressed that overall, anti-Semitism in America is at historic lows. The group recorded 941 total anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. in 2015, a significant decline from only a decade ago: 2006 saw more than 1,500 incidents of anti-Semitism.

“American Jews have assimilated remarkably well,” he said. “We have tremendous privilege in this country. Not just one but two presidential candidates have grandchildren with a Jewish parent. That’s really a pretty remarkable thing. Across the board, in industry, in academia, in entertainment, let alone in politics, we’ve achieved at the highest levels.”

Jewish groups condemn anti-Semitic rhetoric in 2016 race

In light of Donald Trump’s Star of David “>doubled down on his justification for using what was perceived as anti-Semitic imagery in a tweet against Hillary Clinton. “It was a star. A star. Like, a star,” Trump said during a campaign rally in Cincinnati, Ohio. “It’s a star! Have you all seen this? It’s a star.”

The letter does not mention the presumptive Republican presidential nominee by name. However, it highlights past experiences of the Jewish community to illustrate the danger facing minority religious communities today as they continue to be targeted in the 2016 race.

“Now, more than ever, it is essential for the Jewish community to stand together to denounce hatred and bigotry,” ADL’s CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. “We know all too well the dangers of unchecked racism and anti-Semitism and must never let it go unchallenged. To be clear, this is not about left or right or liberal or conservative. It is about common sense and core American values of pluralism and tolerance. We have the highest expectations of both presumptive nominees and their political parties.”

Scroll down for the full letter and list of signatories

Meanwhile, Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a Jewish social justice organization also “>petition urging the Republican Jewish Coalition to rescind its endorsement of Trump. The petition calls on Matt Brooks, RJC’s executive director, to retract the group’s endorsement of Trump until his campaign denounces and cuts all ties with white supremacists, including anti-Semites.

“This isn’t about a single tweet. This is about a deplorable pattern of racist behavior that is fueling Donald Trump’s bid for the White House,” said Stosh Cotler, CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. “There should be no Jewish support for a presidential campaign that supports white supremacy and anti-Semitism. As long as Donald Trump remains a megaphone for hate, we’re calling on the Republican Jewish Coalition to stop backing his campaign.”

Read the full text of the letter below:

“We, the undersigned Jewish community organizations, stand together in denouncing racism and xenophobia in all circumstances. We share a belief that public figures, including those who aspire to hold elected office in service to people of all races and religions, have a responsibility to forcefully and unequivocally condemn these dangerous phenomena.

“The Jewish community knows all too well what can happen when particular religious or ethnic groups become the focus of invective. We have witnessed the dangerous acts that can follow verbal expressions of hate. Jews and members of other religious minorities have found safety in the United States, thanks to this nation’s commitment to religious freedom, civil rights, and refugee protection. Yet these values that are pillars of our nation’s strength cannot be taken for granted; rather, they must be renewed and protected in every generation.

“We are deeply concerned by suggestions that Muslim Americans should be targeted by law enforcement, simply because of their faith. We object to hurtful characterizations of entire ethnic groups as criminals. We are pained by anti-Semitic epithets hurled at Jewish Americans on social media.

“We are also disheartened that refugees, particularly Syrians and Muslims, have become targeted in recent months and years as subjects of xenophobia. These concerns are heightened by statements made in the wake of the tragedy in Orlando tying that act of horror to an entire faith tradition, rather than the vile actions of an evil individual. This inflammatory rhetoric does not make our communities safer—in fact, it exposes us to more violence and division. Policies targeted at restricting refugees are often steeped in suspicion, ignoring the many benefits refugees bring to our communities as well as overlooking the fact that refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals who enter the U.S.

“Judaism teaches us to see the value in every human being, as we are all created in the image of God. The normalization of hate speech cannot become a reality in the United States. It is vital that all people of goodwill stand in solidarity against bigotry and intolerance. Our Jewish values also teach us to “love the stranger” and welcome refugees and immigrants who arrive in the U.S. wanting the same things we all want—peace, safety, and opportunities for themselves and their children.

“We call on all Americans—in their communities and on the national stage—to refrain from and denounce all forms of hatred and extremism. We call on all Americans who support or endorse candidates for public office to loudly and clearly condemn any and all racist and xenophobic language and actions. Instead, we must demonstrate commitment to our proud American and Jewish values of religious freedom, civil rights, refugee protection, and equality for all.”

The full list of signers includes:

Anti-Defamation League

HIAS

Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism

Jewish Social Justice Roundtable

Ameinu

American Jewish World Service

AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice

Central Conference of American Rabbis

Challah for Hunger

Hazon

Jewish Alliance for Law & Social Action

Jewish Community Action

Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Jewish Council on Urban Affairs

Jews United for Justice

Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

JOIN for Justice

Keshet

MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

National Council of Jewish Women

New Israel Fund

Rabbinical Assembly

Reconstructionist Rabbinical College

Repair the World

T’ruah

Union for Reform Judaism

Workmen’s Circle

 

Judaism’s greatest lesson: Behavior matters most

If I were asked to identify the greatest Jewish teaching, the most important lesson to be learned from all of Judaism, I would argue that, aside from ethical monotheism, it is that behavior matters more than anything else, and certainly more than feelings.

As the Talmud tells us, “It is not the thought that counts, but the deed.”

This is truly a Jewish idea. I first realized this many years ago when a non-Jewish middle-aged caller to my radio show sorrowfully related to me that he thought he was a terrible son. He explained that for the previous 10 years he had been the sole financial and emotional support of his ailing mother — and sometimes, he confided to me, the burden was so heavy that he wished she would finally succumb to her illnesses.

When I told him that I thought he was one of the most wonderful sons I had ever had the honor of speaking to, he thought I was mocking him. He couldn’t believe that I was serious. But I was. I explained to him that it is completely irrelevant what he sometimes feels or wishes. What matters is how beautifully he has acted toward his mother all these years.

This should be the guiding principle of our views on virtually every subject.

Charity

The Torah commands us to tithe our income. Neither the Torah nor later Judaism ever cared whether our heart is in it. We are commanded to give whether or not we feel like giving. Tzedakah — which is translated as “charity,” but it is in fact the feminine form of “justice” — helps the needy. And people who are in need prefer to receive $100 from one who feels religiously obligated to give, rather than than $5 from one whose heart prompts him to give $5.

Self-Esteem 

The self-esteem movement has largely been a moral and emotional disaster. It was produced by people who, among other mistaken ideas, believed that feelings were more important than actions. Thus, no matter how little children may accomplish, they are still to be rewarded with medals, trophies, lavish praise, etc. The result is that they deem how they feel about themselves as being of greater importance than how they act. 

In a math competition with students from other industrialized democracies, American students came in last. But they came in first in self-esteem about their knowledge of math. And the prominent criminologist and professor of psychology, Roy Baumeister, has often noted that no group has higher self-esteem than violent criminals.

Social Justice

“Social justice” is a politically loaded term. Nevertheless, I will deal here only with the intent of those committed to “social justice” — to helping people who are less well-off than we are. 

We have here another prime example of the relevance of the Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters: Making social policies that work is what matters. Too often, social justice policies are enacted because they make their proponents feel good because they think they are doing good, not because they actually do good. To give but one of many examples, everything I have read confirms what common sense suggests: Lowering standards for college admission for blacks has done far more harm than good for black students. But proponents don’t seem to care about that; what they care about is feeling that they are helping a historically persecuted group.

Happiness

In decades of lecturing, writing and broadcasting on the subject of happiness, my two central premises have come from this Jewish teaching that behavior is what matters most. The first premise is that if we act happy, we are far more likely to feel happy. The second is that we all owe everyone in our lives not to inflict our unhappy feelings on them. With few exceptions, no matter how we feel, we have a moral obligation to act with a happy disposition.

Sex

The rule that one should not rely on feelings to determine one’s behavior even applies to sex with one’s spouse. That is why the Talmud actually lists the number of times per week/month/year a man owes his wife sex. The same holds true for wives. If a woman is married to a good man whom she loves, in general she shouldn’t allow her mood alone to be the sole determinant of whether she has sex with her husband. It is far better for her, for her husband and for their marriage to have sex even on some occasions when she is not in the mood. Of course, it is his obligation to then try to get her in the mood, but she should allow him to at least try to do so even on occasions when she is not in the mood.

Judaism 

Judaism itself is built on this behavioral paradigm. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur only if we are in the mood to do so. A Jew doesn’t observe Shabbat only if he is in the mood to do so at sunset on Friday. One simply does so, and if done well, religious feelings follow.

You want to raise good children? Communicate to them that how they feel is of no concern to almost anyone in the world. But how they act is of concern to everyone they will ever meet. 

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).

Social issues keep Jews from supporting the GOP

In the midst of the never-ending debate about whether this will be the election that moves Jews to the right, an intriguing new poll is just out from the Public Religion

Research Institute. Titled “Chosen for What? Jewish Values in 2012,” it found that 62 percent of Jews want to see President Barack Obama re-elected, compared to 30 percent who favor a Republican candidate.

Around 58 percent of American Jews approve of the president’s job performance, quite a bit higher than the electorate as a whole. Not so long ago, Jewish support for Obama had been falling, as the economy languished. Now, with the shoots of recovery growing, Jews are returning to where they were before the 2008 election.

A closer look at the poll highlights the wide divisions among white voters. On one end, you find Jewish voters leaning Democratic and supporting the president. At the other end are white Evangelicals leaning Republican and opposing the president. The biggest gaps between the two groups are not on the standard economic issues that have divided Democrats and Republicans. The gaps shown here are on the social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.

And therein lies the biggest problem for the Republican Party in reaching out to Jewish voters today. While Jews are somewhat to the left of Republicans on economic matters, they are far, far from the Republicans on the social issues that animate the party’s base. On economic issues, the gap is not quite as stark.

Put simply, to the extent that Republican candidates reflect the most socially conservative elements of the party, their prospects of winning Jewish support are dim to nonexistent. The real giveaway is on two issues: abortion and gay rights. On both of those, Jews are, by a large margin, the most liberal group in America.

A majority of Jews (51 percent) strongly support gay marriage, by far the largest support among religious groups. Only 24 percent of all Americans take the same position. Another 30 percent of Jews somewhat favor gay marriage, leading to 81 percent support overall, compared to 48 percent of the nation. Among white Evangelicals, by contrast, only 6 percent strongly and 14 percent somewhat favor gay marriage.

On abortion, nearly half of Jews (49 percent) support abortion being legal in all cases, compared to 21 percent of all Americans. Another 44 percent of Jews favor abortion rights in most cases, for a total of 93 percent support. Among all Americans, support for legal abortion is at 53 percent. Among white Evangelicals, only 11 percent think that abortion should be legal in all cases, and 21 percent in most cases.

The recent debates about contraception have driven the gender gap to a yawning chasm, particularly among well-educated middle-class women. Other polls have long shown Jewish women in particular to be pro-choice at very high levels. Laws being passed in a number of states to make abortion nearly impossible to obtain, as well as debates over the availability of contraception or funding for Planned Parenthood, are likely to alarm Jewish voters.

And yet these vast differences on social issues are not replicated to the same degree on traditional economic issues. While 24 percent of Jews strongly favor tougher environmental laws, so do 17 percent of all Americans and 11 percent of white Evangelicals. While 58 percent of Jews strongly favor raising taxes on those earning a million dollars or more, so do 43 percent of all Americans and 36 percent of white Evangelicals. While 43 percent of white Evangelicals strongly believe that poor people have become too dependent on government programs, so do 21 percent of Jews.

Put another way, in a political system that contrasted pro-government Democrats against free-market Republicans, moderate Republicans could do rather well with Jewish voters. Conversely, Democrats could do much better with white Evangelicals on strictly economic populist issues if the social issues were out of the way. But of course the social issues do not go away so easily. Each party derives some short-term benefits from keeping them alive. For Republicans, the social issues cause their party base to oppose economic policies that might benefit them, because they are proposed by the same party that is pro-choice and favors gay rights. For Democrats, the social issues prevent desertions by upscale liberals who might be drawn to a centrist Republican economic alternative.

The link between the Republican Party and its socially conservative base will be difficult to change. The energy of social conservatism is critical to the party’s competitiveness. Mitt Romney can only reach across the aisle to Jewish voters by moderating his positions on, for example, Planned Parenthood, or the availability of abortion. But suspicious social conservatives will be closely watching him for any signs of waffling. House Republicans are likely to put a lot of pressure on Romney to toe the party line. In fact, Romney’s image of moderation that might appeal to Jewish voters is the reason that conservatives are particularly watchful for any deviation.

Republicans continue to believe that Jewish voters will be in play because of concerns among Jews about the Obama administration and Israel. Polls have never shown this to be a winning strategy. Among Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly seen as a good representative of Jewish values (73 percent), but so is Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan (appointed by Obama, with 66 percent), and “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart checks in at 63 percent.

There are really only two ways that Republicans can break their contemporary isolation from Jewish voters. One is for the economy to drop back into recession. The other is for the Republicans to move to the center on social issues. The first would be a stroke of fortune politically for Republicans, while the second would require an internal battle that would cost them dearly but might be worth it nonetheless.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Israeli entrepreneurs are spending on social justice

Capitalism in pursuit of social justice.

The notion is becoming more common in Israel as a new generation of entrepreneurs and innovators in the fields of high-tech, industry and real estate is delving into philanthropy.

“The culture of venture capital and the start-up nation also transfers into innovation in the field of philanthropy,” Andres Spokoiny, president of the Jewish Funders Network, said in a telephone interview ahead of the Jewish Funders Network International Conference that was held here last week. “One of the goals of the conference is to foster networking among highly empowered, highly independent individuals.”

Cecile Blilious, who comes from the high-tech world, is a managing partner at Impact First Investments and one of the new philanthropists. Her company funds enterprises that are economically viable and have a positive social impact.

Blilious also helped found the Al-Bawader private equity fund, which invests exclusively in businesses in Arab-Israeli communities, and is a board member of Neurotech Solutions, which developed a test to screen for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

“This is a social business product that can be harnessed not just to make money but to make the world a better place,” Blilious said in an interview during a lunch break between sessions, “and it is coming out of Israel. That is the best hasbara [public relations] possible.”

Following a session titled “Developing a Social Capital Market in Israel,” Bank Hapoalim Chairman Yair Seroussi said in an interview that his bank spends about $13.4 million annually on philanthropic activities. They include sending a fleet of mobile libraries to poor neighborhoods, facilitating computer access in public schools and a nationwide program in which thousands of Bank Hapoalim employees volunteer every year to teach 11th-graders how to manage their personal finances.

“We are sensitive to what is happening in Israeli society, and we are reacting to it,” Seroussi said.

Particularly striking at the conference was the large contingent of Israeli entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and high-tech innovators focused on tikkun olam, repairing the world, using the same business know-how that got more than 60 Israeli companies listed on the Nasdaq — more than any country outside North America and China.

Chanoch Barkat, a former venture capitalist with Apax Partners Israel, is doing just that. His Dualis Social Venture Fund provides counseling and financing to a chain of five restaurants — two in Tel Aviv and one each in Ra’anana, Yahud and Beersheva — that employs high school dropouts.

In an interview, Barkat acknowledged the restaurants are not as profitable as other food establishments, but said they are self-sustaining. By teaching high-risk teenagers such basic business skills as punctuality and commitment, he said, the restaurants save the state millions of dollars in crime prevention, rehabilitation and welfare costs.

“I believe there is a growing opportunity for developing new models in the world of social change by adopting and implementing tools from the world of finance,” Barkat said.

Forbes magazine’s 2012 list of billionaires listed 13 Israelis, including Shari Arison, who owns a controlling share in Bank Hapoalim and Housing & Construction, one of Israel’s largest building firms; Nochi Dankner, who has holdings in some of Israel’s largest industries and financial institutions; and Idan Ofer, who owns the Zim shipping concern and has stakes in aviation, high-tech, private equity, real estate and media. All are members of a growing cadre of high-powered Israeli philanthropists.

Less prominent Israeli millionaires, who numbered more than 10,000 in 2010, according to a Merrill Lynch report, also are increasing their involvement in philanthropic pursuits.

Yet individuals and corporations in Israel still lag behind their counterparts in America. Israeli philanthropy constitutes about .74 percent of the GDP, compared to 2.1 percent in the United States, according to a recent study by Hillel Schmid, head of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the Hebrew University.

Schmid said that Israelis still tend to expect the state to solve social ills, while American philanthropists understand that one of the prices of smaller government is the need for more voluntary activity to fill the void. With Israelis paying higher taxes than Americans, serving in the Israel Defense Forces and doing reserve service, many believe they have “done enough” for their country, according to Schmid.

Corruption stories also have made Israelis suspicious of nonprofits, he added.

Also seen as dampening enthusiasm for Israeli philanthropy: The annual total for charitable donations eligible for a 35 percent tax deduction is a maximum of 4.5 million shekels ($1.2 million) a year. Plus, only some 4,000 of the country’s 30,000 nonprofits are recognized for tax-deduction purposes.

Despite the hurdles, Israeli philanthropy will continue to grow, predicts Ahuva Yanai, CEO of Matan — Investing in the Community.

“People are going to have to learn to cooperate and pool resources,” she said in an interview ahead of the conference. “And that means putting aside your ego, giving up control over every little aspect of the operation and not trying to reinvent the wheel.”

Israeli social justice protesters announce ‘nation’s strike’

Social justice protesters in Israel say they will hold a nation’s strike at the end of the month.

The strike announced late Monday night and set for Nov. 1, and mass rallies scheduled for Oct. 29, are being organized to express dissatisfaction with the report by the Trajtenberg Committee proposing solutions to Israel’s socioeconomic problems.

On Sunday, the Cabinet approved the Trajtenberg report by a vote of 21 to 8.

The 14-member committee of academics and economists, which was chaired by Manuel Trajtenberg of the Israel Council for Higher Education and a former Tel Aviv University economics professor, was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu following mass protests last summer to look at the problems facing Israel and come up with solutions.

The late October rally will be the first since a mass demonstration at the end of the summer that brought out some 400,000 people throughout Israel.

On Tuesday, Israel’s Labor Union chief announced a labor dispute, which will allow the union to launch a general strike in two weeks, coinciding with the social justice movement’s plan.

The strike would include airports, ports, train services, government ministries and local authorities, and also could include the national teacher’s union. The action is being called over the plight of contract workers, according to reports and has the support of social protest leader Dafni Leef.

The announcements come a day after hundreds of medical residents resigned in a labor dispute that has wreaked havoc on the nation’s medical system. The number of residents who did not show up for work Tuesday hovered near 500, according to reports. The residents are dissatisfied with a nine-year agreement signed recently between the government and the Israel Medical Association.

The national Labor Court was expected to make a decision late Tuesday on the previous day’s request by the state prosecutor to issue an injunction against the resignations and order the residents back to work as they negotiate for a solution.

Israeli social justice group gets Gruber prize

The Association for Civil Rights in Israel was awarded the 2011 Gruber Justice Prize.

Libby Lenkinski Friedlander, director of international relations for the organization, will accept the prize, along with the representatives of four other social justice organizations, on Thursday night at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The groups will share the $500,000 cash prize.

ACRI received the award for promoting and defending the rights of vulnerable communities in Israel and the occupied territories, according to the Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation.

This will be the final Justice Prize awarded by the Gruber Foundation. The mission of the prize will continue at Yale as part of the Gruber Program for Global Justice and Women’s Rights.

The program’s core components will be the Global Constitutionalism Seminar, the Gruber Distinguished Global Justice and Women’s Rights Lectures, and the Gruber Global Justice and Women’s Rights Fellowships. The foundation was established in 1993.

The other prize recipients are Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, for defending and promoting civil rights and gender equity throughout the U.S.; Morris Dees, for his work for racial equality, particularly in the southern United States; the Center for Legal and Social Studies, for documenting and litigating human rights violations by the military dictatorship in Argentina; and the Kurdish Human Rights Project, for protecting the civil and religious liberty of peoples in Kurdish regions, including in Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

Merged social justice group hires its first president

Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice has hired Alan van Capelle, the deputy comptroller for the City of New York, as its new president and CEO.

The announcement was made Oct. 3; van Capelle will take his post in January.

The organizations, which are focused on pursuing social and economic justice, merged at the beginning of June and will announce a new name soon.

Prior to working as deputy comptroller, van Capelle served as the executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda.

“Alan has exactly the right combination of skills, experience, values and personal attributes to guide our expansion into a national organization engaging and investing in communities all across the country,” said John Levhy, a board member of the merged organization who was on the search committee that brought in van Capelle.

U.S. Jews sign petition backing Israel’s social justice movement

Nearly 4,000 American Jews have signed a petition from the New Israel Fund in support of Israel’s social justice movement.

The petition was published Sept. 2 in the International Herald Tribune in advance of the movement’s major demonstration on Sept. 3, which brought out 400,000 Israelis in what some say was the largest protest in Israel’s history.

“We, friends of Israel from across the globe, are inspired by the Israeli public’s demand for social justice,” read the petition, addressed directly to Israelis. “We share your values. We long for the day that Israel will be a place where every Israeli can live with respect and dignity. Your protests demonstrate the depth of Israel’s potential to be a beacon for social justice and democracy throughout its region. We know that the values of social justice, of equality and of democracy are inextricably linked. Thank you for standing up and speaking out for a better Israel.”

The organization announced last month that it was financially supporting the movement.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks on Aug. 30 quoted former New Israel Fund’s associate director in Israel as saying that it would not be a tragedy if Israel disappeared as a Jewish state.

The cable sent from the U.S. Embassy in February 2010 said that Hedva Radovanitz told the embassy’s political officer “that she believed that in 100 years Israel would be majority Arab and that the disappearance of a Jewish state would not be the tragedy that Israelis fear since it would become more democratic.”

The organization said in a statement that the quotes attributed to Radovanitz do not reflect the position of the organization, which is a negotiated solution of two states for two people.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli demonstrate for social justice

More than 400,000 Israelis demonstrated in cities across the country under the banner of social justice in what some say was the largest protest in Israel’s history.

A crowd estimated at 300,000 showed up in Tel Aviv Saturday night for what organizers had billed as a nationwide “March of the Million.”

Israeli media reports variously put the number of protesters who gathered in Jerusalem at between 40,000 and 60,000. Tens of thousands more turned out in Haifa, and sizable demonstrations were also held in more than a dozen other Israeli cities, from Eilat in the south to Kiryat Shmona in the north.

“Mr. Prime Minister, take a good look at us: We’re the new Israelis. We want only one thing: To live in this country. We want not only to love the State of Israel, but also to exist here respectfully, and to live with dignity,” Itzik Shmueli, chairman of Israel’s National Student Union, said in his address to the main rally in Tel Aviv’s Hamedina Square, according to The Jerusalem Post.

“My generation always felt as though we were alone in this world, but now we feel the solidarity,” one of the protest movement’s young leaders, Daphni Leef, told the crowd, according to Haaretz. Leef’s decision this summer to pitch a tent in central Tel Aviv to protest the high cost of housing kicked off what has become a mass movement calling for change on a wide variety of issues.

While the demonstrations’ organizers have tried to keep politicians and political parties at a distance, Saturday’s ralies were embraced by a variety of Israeli politicians who are critical of the current government. Tzipi Livni, leader of the centrist Kadima Party, urged Israelis to attend the protests on her Facebook page.

Tisha B’Av Social Justice [VIDEO]

‘Warrior for social justice’ Alan Solomont plays key role in Obama campaign

If money is, as former California Treasurer Jesse Unruh said, the “mother’s milk of politics,” then Alan Solomont is one successful dairyman.

Solomont, a longtime leader in Jewish philanthropic and national Democratic political circles, is one of the go-to men when big money is needed.

Now, despite his longstanding ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton, he is applying his skills on behalf of the presidential campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

Solomont, however, approaches his work not as just helping a candidate but as
furthering a cause.

“This is a mission-driven, value-laden enterprise, and I am philosophical about it,” he said during an interview in the memorabilia-filled conference room of his office in a Boston suburb.

Throughout the conversation, Solomont emphasized that raising money is a means to an end: getting politicians who share his goals of a more economically and socially just country. He said his work is deeply driven by the Jewish teachings he learned growing up in an observant household in the nearby town of Brookline.

Solomont, 58, has chaired the board of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, where he helped raise money for a new senior citizens residence, among other projects.

“I departed a bit from my Jewish roots in the 1970s and 1980s, but as I have gotten older, more of what I do is informed by Jewish values and teachings,” the father of two daughters said. “It goes back to Genesis, when Abraham asked if ‘the God of justice will act in a just way.’

“We are judged by our level of concern for others and our willingness to do the right thing,” he said.

This morally driven approach has won Solomont admiration from the politicians he has helped, as well as those who support other candidates.

“He has a social conscience as deep and impressive as you’ll find,” said Michael Dukakis, a former Massachusetts governor and 1988 Democratic presidential nominee. “He is one of the most constructive and caring people I’ve ever worked with.”

Steve Grossman, a top fundraiser for Hillary Clinton and a former Democratic National Committee chairman, believes there is nothing phony or insincere about Solomont.

“He’s a warrior for social justice,” said Grossman, who has known Solomont and his wife, Susan, for 25 years. “He’s as honest as the sun about his causes and principles.”

Those principles were shaped in part by Solomont’s work during the early 1970s in Lowell, Mass., a once-prosperous textile manufacturing center that had been beset with an array of problems.

Solomont worked with immigrants in the city’s north end to persuade officials to enact rent control and led efforts to stop the expansion of a local highway into a residential neighborhood.

“The war on poverty created structures for citizen involvement, and my work centered on getting people empowered through collective action,” he said.

After working as a community organizer, Solomont, who has undergraduate degrees in nursing and political science, made his wealth in the nursing home and senior home health care businesses. He now devotes almost all his time to political and philanthropic work.

Solomont said working as an organizer helped him form an instant bond with Obama, who undertook similar efforts in Chicago in the 1980s.

“During our first conversation over dinner in Washington, D.C., we talked about our work in communities and how it shaped our views about affecting change,” Solomont recalled. “This election will be about change — change in government and the way politics is conducted. There is a connection between gridlock and the smallness of our politics. Barack Obama strikes me as a new voice who is able to speak in a new way.”

He said Obama’s approach to Middle East issues will serve him well on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office.

“He respects people, including the Jewish community, too much to tell them what they want to hear,” said Solomont, Obama’s Northeast finance chairman. “If elected, he would put the full weight of the presidency behind a search for Middle East peace.”

Solomont said the controversy over Obama’s recent statement that “nobody suffers more than the Palestinians” was blown out of proportion because it was taken out of context — Obama had noted that the Palestinians suffer from the failure of their leaders to recognize Israel.

For Obama to have the chance to transform politics, Solomont and his other fundraisers will have to sustain and build on the current momentum. During the first three months of 2007, Obama’s campaign raised $25 million, compared with $26 million raised by the Clinton campaign.

Solomont, who has worked on five previous presidential campaigns and was national finance chairman for the Democratic National Committee, once organized an event that raised $4 million for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign.

He uses a subtle but firm approach when asking for money. Speaking to a prospective donor who returned his phone call during the interview, Solomont said: “I hope you and your wife will be able to help out as we put together a smaller event for Barack. We have him for a few hours on a Saturday night, and this would be a good chance to introduce him to key people.”

But as a former member of the Clinton fundraising team, Solomont knows he is up against the political equivalent of the New York Yankees, the most financially successful franchise in baseball history.

His conference room contains a picture of the former president helping him with his golf swing. It also prominently displays a frame with 13 pictures of Hillary Clinton visiting a nursing home in Boston for which he helped raise money.

Solomont said Hillary Clinton would make a “fine president” — but Obama would make a better one. He knows his work for Obama means that his friendship with the Clintons, who place a premium on personal loyalty, won’t be the same.
“He thought about it and agonized about it because his relationship with the Clintons is important to him, but it took second place to what he saw as the promise of Obama,” Grossman said.

Seeking Holiness

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday!

Those lyrics, known for inspiring so many movements for justice and righteousness, are at the core of what I am thinking about these days. Is it truly possible to overcome?

From what great wellspring did this vision surge forth? In many ways, it came from the second half of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Kedoshim is a lofty and powerful parsha, known as the holiness code, which the Talmud and Midrash understood to be rav gufei Torah, or encompassing the majority of the Torah, namely that this chapter is a summation of the entire Torah itself.

“And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Great Holy One am holy'” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

For one of the greatest statements that God lays upon us, it is really not clear from these words alone exactly what we are supposed to do. How should we be holy? What can we do to imitate You, God, in order to emulate Your holiness?

However, what is clear at the outset is that we cannot be fully holy alone as individuals, but rather we must seek this goal as a community. That is why the Hebrew is in the plural, kedoshim t’heyu, you (plural) shall be holy. Holiness is not something that can be fully realized alone.

Nor is holiness an easily defined concept. However, the verses that follow instruct us as to what God thinks holiness is all about. Some of the highlights are that we should care for the poor, leave the corners of our fields for the needy and the stranger, not withhold the wages of a laborer until morning and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Next come some of the most challenging words of the Torah, which tell us that we should not hate our brother or sister in our hearts, even as we must rebuke each other for wrongs committed; not take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Wow, is that a daunting task!

The great commentator Rashi understood holiness to be “separating oneself” from sexual immorality, and the precepts that follow the call to be holy often involve separating oneself in some way.

In a broader context, kedusha, holiness, can be about separating ourselves from the many forms of immorality that we face — injustice, inequity, violence, ethnocentrism. The irony of kedusha is that while it sets one thing apart from another, the experience actually can serve to unify us.

As Martin Buber elucidated on this parsha, “God is the absolute authority over the world, because God is separate from it and transcends it, but God is not withdrawn from it. Israel must, in imitating God by being a holy nation, similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations, but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living.”

That is why Jews have always been strong proponents of social justice, and that is why, thankfully, we continue to be leaders in the cause of righteousness and justice for all people, not just our own.

I love this parsha because it reminds me of what we should all be striving for and what it will take to truly overcome. When I am criticized for being “too political” in my sermons or divrei Torah, it is this parsha that strengthens me in the face of that criticism.

Overcoming disparities in health care is not political, it is holy; overcoming war, genocide, hatred and vengeance is not political, it is holy; fighting for economic justice or immigration reform is not political, it is holy; greening our world is not political, it is holy.

Love and compassion for the other, be they gay or straight; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any religion; be they white, black or any race; male or female; young or old; rich or poor; Israeli or Palestinian — love and compassion for the other is not political. This love is holy; it is how we emulate God’s holiness, and it is taught to us directly in the Torah.

It is only as a community — local, national and global — that we can achieve these amazing goals; it is only as a plurality that we can overcome. When we wonder what needs to be done to make a world of our dreams, a world that some call the messianic time, we can look to this chapter of Torah for the first steps.

May the words of Kedoshim inspire each of us to live holy lives and find ways to imitate God by shining light and hope onto the dark corners of pain and suffering in our world. For the sake of our children, deep within my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive committee and is the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; is chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s Los Angeles chapter is and co-founder of an emerging group called Jews Against the War. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Social Justice gets new address on Pico

When Max Webb was interned at 18 different concentration camps during the Holocaust, he made a promise.

“If he survived, he would make sure he would contribute to the advancement of the Jewish people and Judaism in any way he could,” said his grandson, Greg Podell, the director of the Max Webb Family Foundation.

Webb has made good on that promise, donating to causes in Israel and to local Jewish charities, including The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. And now, as he’s about to turn 90, his foundation has purchased a plot of land for $3 million for a center to house two socially conscious Jewish organizations: Ikar, a Jewish spiritual community that “stands at the intersection of spirituality and social justice,” and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), which “connects Jews to critical social issues of the day.”

These two groups, which often work together, have until now had temporary homes at the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard, but in two years — the projected date for the project’s completion — they will share The Max and Sala Webb Center for Progressive Judaism, as it has been tentatively named. The 20,000 square-foot center — price tag unknown — will be located at Pico Boulevard and Alvira Street (between Crescent Heights and La Cienega boulevards), on the eastern edge of the Pico-Robertson religious community and, the organizations hope, will serve as a nexus for a spiritual, socially conscious community.

PJA’s founding executive director, Daniel Sokatch, loves the location of the new center, on the eastern border of where Pico- Robertson merges with Korean, Latino and African American Los Angeles.

“How appropriate it is for a building like this,” he said. “It nicely symbolizes the coalitional nature of our work, of being a Jewish voice in the progressive community and a progressive voice in the Jewish community.”

PJA was founded in 1999, and with the newly opened San Francisco branch, has a membership list of 4,000.

The donation came about after Podell attended Ikar and became involved in PJA; he introduced his grandfather to the leaders of both organizations.

“We’re inspired by the fact that they’re able to get both young people and grandparents interested, not only in Judaism but in social justice,” Podell said. “We decided we wanted to give them a home — we wanted them to have this space to have their visions and dreams.”

Those dreams include a center that’s “bigger than our individual organizations,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous of Ikar. “We want it to be about the vision.”

The vision is of a progressive Jewish spiritual outreach center.

“It will be a place where the spiritual, social, and political will intersect,” she said. “It will be a concrete spot on the map where we can engage ideas and people spiritually, politically and intellectually — not only impacting the Jewish community but playing a really significant role in the life of the city.”

Brous and Sokatch plan to use the center for many of the activities in which they are already engaged, from services on Shabbat and holidays, a beit midrash learning center, children’s education programs and lecture series, as well as community action programs, such as mediation training for PJA volunteers working with juvenile offenders, conducting Muslim Jewish Dialogue, hosting food drives and helping to organize low-wage workers.

“To have a physical space in which to educate and organize the community is beautiful thing,” said Sokatch, noting that one of their biggest challenges is explaining to the Jewish community “why we do the things we do.”

Brous, who founded Ikar in the spring of 2004, was completely taken off guard by the donation.

“I’m stunned by it,” she said. “We didn’t have anything when we started. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have a location. We just had this vision.”

That vision emerged from conversations Brous had in 2000 with young Jews around the country “who were expressing a profound lack of connection to synagogues and their modes of Jewish engagement,” she said.

Brous wanted to create a new model of a Jewish spiritual community (she doesn’t like Ikar to be referred to as a “synagogue”) “that would address the alienation and dissatisfaction and create opportunities for really rich, compelling Jewish experiences.”

From an initial Shabbat service with more than 100 people, Ikar today has 275 member-units, with about 900 people at their High Holiday services.

Ikar is one of a number of emerging “spiritual communities” — social action-oriented, nondenominational synagogues that are often “homeless,” i.e. without permanent facilities. But now that it’s about to get a permanent home, how will that change things for Ikar? Will the “community” become part of the very institutionalized system they were formed against?

“I’ve thought about that quite a lot,” Brous said. “We’re not going to be a scrappy startup forever. A deep commitment to innovation and creative risk-taking are much easier to do when you’re starting from scratch. But when you become a more substantial organization, it becomes harder to hold those values at the center, but it’s something we’re really committed to.”

The new space is wonderful, she said, but the challenge is not to value “form over substance.”

The Ikar community can rise to that challenge, Brous said.

“It’s not a community that emerged because we had a space and we wanted to fill the pews. It emerged because we had a vision of what it means to be a Jew, and we had a mission in the world and it resonates with people,” she said. “It becomes harder to hold those values, but it’s something we’re really committed to. Call me in five years and we’ll see if we’ve done it.”

A Chanukah for the party people

On the first night of Chanukah my true love gave to me…social justice?

That’s the theme of one of the hottest parties of the Chanukah season, “Vodka Latka: The Festival of Rights,” sponsored by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), JDub Records and Reboot on Dec. 13 at the El Rey Theatre in Mid-Wilshire.

PJA, the local social justice action committee, is partnering with the Jewish record company and the network for Jewish innovation to host their sixth annual “Festival of Rights” party, which last year garnered some 500 people — mostly singles — at the Knitting Factory.

PJA’s “Festival of Rights” merged last year with The Jewish Federation’s “Vodka Latka” holiday party celebrated for the last 10 years. The Federation supports “Vodka Latka: Festival of Rights” and will also have its own Young Leadership Chanukah Bash on Thursday, Dec. 14 at Smashbox Studios.

This year’s Festival of Rights at the El Rey features comedian/rapper Eric “Smooth-E” Schwartz, folk-punk rockers “Golem,” a Chanukah sketch comedy featuring Heaping Hannukah and Jill Soloway (executive producer and writer for “Six Feet Under”), and, as they do every year, a social justice candlelighting ceremony, where community leaders and activists light candles in honor of causes. Among those lighting this year are Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR;Maria Elena Durazo, Executive Secretary-Treasurer, Los Angeles County Federation of Labor;Michael John Garces, Artistic Director, Cornerstone Theatre;Eric Garcetti, President, Los Angeles City Council;Mitch Kamin, Executive Director, Bet Tzedek Legal Services;Edina Lekovic, Communications Director, MPAC;Mayor Antonio Villairagosa, Mayor of Los Angeles andKent Wong, Director, UCLA Labor Center; andDaniel Sokatch, Executive Director, Progressive Jewish Alliance (MC).

Is it too much of a buzz-kill to talk human rights at a party?

“There’s no reason why pop and politics, the serious and the inspirational, can’t mix,” Sokatch said. “The nexis of art and politics is always an area we’re fascinated in. It’s not just a tool to get people in the door — Jewish history and Jewish culture and Jewish politics are inseparable.”

Vodka Latka – Festival of Rights. Dec. 13. 8 p.m. The El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. $12 (in advance), $15 (at the door). www.theelrey.com.

The Federation Young Leadership Development party will be held Dec. 14 at 7 p.m., at Smashbox Studios, 8538 Warner Drive, Culver City. $36. Sign up before Dec. 11 and get drinks, food and valet parking free. Contact Lillie Perry at (323) 761-8372 or LPerry@Jewishla.org.

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Students remind General Assembly they’ve got a lot to give, too

In 1969, a group of college students staged a protest at the premiere gathering of the organized Jewish community, demanding more say and more attention to issues that mattered to them — such as Soviet Jewry, Jewish identity and culture. They also wanted a younger voice to be heard within Jewish power structures.
 
The demonstrations and vocal disruptions at the Boston General Assembly — an annual gathering of federation and other communal leaders — lead to the formation of the North American Jewish Students Appeal, which was funded by federations until 1995.
Ever since then, students have been a part of the GA, which this year is taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center Nov. 12-15.
 
As it has for many years, Hillel — the international student organization that is supported in part by federations — will host 300 student delegates, many of them leaders on their campuses.
 
The students, who registered at a reduced rate, will participate in regular conference sessions and a Monday night program of film and interactive activities that will expose students to new approaches to building Jewish communities.
 
But Hillel is trying something new to expose even more students to the organized Jewish community — and to demonstrate to the community that students care.
 
On Sunday, Nov. 12, 1,000 college students from Southern California schools and from universities across the country, including GA participants, will be deployed across Los Angeles to do social justice work. They will lend a hand at more than 20 community service projects, such as the Beit T’Shuvah rehab residence, the Venice Family Clinic, the Midnight Mission and Heal the Bay. The program, called “Just for a Day,” will end with an exclusive concert by GUSTER and the LeeVees at the Henry Fonda Theater.

“We know that community service and social justice are the best ways of engaging students, so by doing that in conjunction with the GA we are letting the students know about the larger Jewish community,” said David Levy, director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.

About 30 students are also participating through a journalism track called Do the Write Thing, sponsored by World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the American Jewish Press Association.

Student journalists get access to high-level politicians, publishers and editors, and this year will focus on Israel’s image in the media.
Many of the issues that faced students in 1969 still linger today — how to make the established community understand the desire for culture and identity, for spirituality, to get the oldsters to listen to the younger generation’s concerns.

And with today’s wired movers communicating and connecting in entirely different ways, cross-generational interface becomes even more challenging.

“This is a qualitatively different generation,” Levy said. “The whole way we organize is not the way they organize, and the pressures that used to be on students are not the same as they are now.”

Student identity has become more complex, as a generation raised by multitaskers comes of age.
 
“Students have multiple identities and multiple parts of their identities — like windows open on a computer screen. They have multiple windows open at one time — Israel, spirituality, social justice, being a sorority member. We need to give them an opportunity to connect through whichever window happens to be open at that moment, and working within one window can lead to others and strengthens them all,” Levy said.
 
That multipronged identity, and the desire for real-life community, carries through to college graduates as well, as young 20- and 30-somethings try to integrate into the Jewish community.
 
“The age of wine and cheese is over,” said Rhoda Weisman, director of Professional Leadership Project, which inspires and mentors young people for work in the Jewish community. “They are looking for a deep connection to the Jewish people — a meaningful connection. There is a search for spiritual depth and intellectual depth, and a very great need for community among them.”
 
About 100 competitively selected leaders in their 20s and 30s are part of Weisman’s Live Network, which every few weeks brings participants together at five regional hubs for seminars in leadership skills, Jewish content, case studies and personal development. The first cohort will soon begin year two, which will entail working with each other and experienced mentors to develop and follow through on a project.

At the GA, 10 participants in the Professional Leadership Project will be teamed up with seasoned Jewish communal leaders.
 
“The purpose is for them is to shadow some of the influential leaders, professional and volunteer, to learn about the inside workings of the Jewish community and to make connections for the future,” Weisman said.

The young leaders will also be filming a documentary, interviewing people of all ages at the GA about how the next generation of leaders can affect the community, and what sort of changes they can or should make. The film will be posted on the Web.

Mostly, Weisman hopes their presence will have an impact — both by allowing established leaders to dialogue with the up-and-comings, and by helping participants learn about existing organizations and structures to see where they can contribute.
 
“You can’t change things unless you already know what is happening,” Weisman said.
 
At the same time, she encourages the young leaders to integrate themselves into the existing community.
 
“Whether it’s by working with an established organization or creating a new one, you have to be connected to the greater Jewish community,” Weisman said.

For information, go to www.hillel.org, www.wzo.org.il/en/dtwt/ or www.jewishleaders.net
 

The Grit Behind the Glamour of L.A. Life

Despite having a population of far more than 3 million and a cultural and economic diversity rivaled by very few places, Los Angeles is not quite viewed as a real city by much of the outside world. Ever since large-scale irrigation and the movie business put the city on the map in the first decades of the 20th century, Los Angeles has been romanticized — and reviled — for its iconic lifestyle: sun, surf and the casual debauchery of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. It is a city that has always lived much more vividly in the imagination than on the ground, even to its natives, and the best-known pictures of it tend to reflect that eternal tension between aspiration and reality, dreams and dreck, shiny self-invention and tawdry self-destruction. That tension created the noir that Los Angeles is also known for, yet that element, too, quickly became as mythologized as the sun and surf, a comic-book approximation of Los Angeles’ darker side that was immortalized in stylish movies (of course) like “Blade Runner” and “L.A. Confidential.” Entertaining as those movies were, Los Angeles the city has pretty much gotten lost in so many translations. I gave up looking for a good one long ago.

Joe Schwartz’s photographs, on view at the Skirball Cultural Center, restored some of my faith that Los Angeles can be clearly seen. Schwartz is a self-described folk photographer who pointedly calls his exhibit “L.A. Unstaged” — that is, it looks at L.A. beyond the overly familiar, irony and Hollywood-ized images, and into the streets where people actually live. This retrospective spans 30 years, from the 1950s through the 70s, and through it Schwartz also gives a sense of local history that we almost never see. Interestingly, many of the 53 photos on display are set on the Westside — Venice, Santa Monica — but a wholly ordinary, blue-collar Westside well before it was established as a bastion of political elitism and beachside chic. That documentation alone is worth the price of admission (which, by the way, is nil — the exhibition is displayed on the walls outside the Skirball café, before you even get to the admissions desk. Nice touch.).

As you might suspect, Schwartz is a photographer with a bent for social justice; he was once a member of a photography collective that included luminaries such as Dorothea Lange and Weegee. But revealing the social and economic injustices of Los Angeles is a more nuanced matter than revealing those of the Dust Bowl Midwest or New York, where they were stark and longstanding. Los Angeles is relatively new, and its lines of fortune blurrier, especially 40 years ago. Schwartz wisely acknowledges this. He doesn’t try to create false divisions or over-sentimentalize the poor, ethnic and working class. He simply chooses his subjects and shoots them with care, allowing the larger context of Los Angles’ myths and contradictions to fall where they may.

Sometimes context and reality align, and the results — far from being noir — are buoyant, if only for a moment in time. In “Acting Out,” a shot from the 1960s, three young Latina girls in East Los Angeles strike a playful pose that can only be called movie star. “Synanon Rehabilitated Residents” is a generically titled shot, also from the 1960s, depicting a black man on the Santa Monica boardwalk cradling his infant child (Schwartz has several photos related to Synanon — it is this exhibition’s favorite motif of transformation).

Yet it’s the specifics, including the L.A. context, that make for contrasts and elevate a competent photo into an eloquent commentary: a black man battling drug addiction sitting at the white-sand beach with a few carefree sunbathers and the endless Pacific in the background. This photo reads as less tragic than hopeful: The man is nattily dressed, he is sitting upright, and it is a brilliantly sunny day, not foggy as Santa Monica is inclined to be; the ocean is close to him, not eternally beyond his reach. “Angeles Child” echoes that optimism with a portrait of a young black girl on a Watts schoolyard in the ’60s. The girl’s smile is as wide and inviting as any child’s — or movie star’s — and we get something very different from, and oddly complementary to, the racial isolation and urban grit that became almost synonymous with Watts even before the riots of ’65 put it on the map of L.A. imagination.

Schwartz is after inequality, but also humanity, and he captures both in most of the work here. He has the no-nonsense eye of a journalist and the inclinations of a poet, and in the end both things prove necessary to render L.A. fully, to show the glittering ounces of truth in the clichés and the pounds of truth everywhere else.

Schwartz also has a sense of humor, something no serious chronicler of this city should be without. “Only in L.A.: Stocking Factory” is an irresistible shot of a giant stocking atop a building, a little-seen example of the architectural kitsch that once existed all over town, not merely in the exclusive environs of the Brown Derby. Nor does Schwartz resist L.A. celebrity-ism, though he does it with a common touch: “Henry Miller and Friend” has the famous writer chatting with a young woman in a nondescript place in the 1970s; he looks tired and she looks half-bored, half-amused — noncommittal in an L.A. kind of way.

“Perfume Model” from the 1950s depicts a woman of no celebrity at all, a department-store working stiff who nonetheless projects an aura of glamour and possibility that is uniquely and stubbornly L.A. Ultimately, Schwartz finds our glamour useful, even in the smallest moments where his subjects are doing nothing more than hunting for their glasses, clambering atop street signs or moving their belongings on a makeshift dolly. “Thirty Years of Folk Photography” is a testament to the transcendent powers of dreams and of spirit that still make Los Angeles a destination for so many, a place to come to rather than simply be from. We have not lived up to that promise, Schwartz cautions, but the promise is here.

Still.

“L.A. Unstaged: Three Decades of Folk Photography by Joe Schwartz,” is at the Skirball through April 2: noon-5 p.m (Tuesdays-Saturdays); noon-9 p.m. (Thursdays); 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sundays); closed Monday. 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-4500.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Jewish Groups Stay Silent on Tax Cuts

 

For many Jewish activists, the dilemma is excruciating: Congress and the administration are debating a revolution in American life, but Jewish organizations, with rare exceptions, have been struck dumb.

For a variety of reasons, including a lack of consensus within key organizations, most Jewish groups are sitting out the battle over the big tax cuts that are already dramatically reshaping federal spending policies and priorities.

Jewish groups haven’t abandoned the fight for social justice, and they will lobby hard to retain funding for specific social, health and education programs as Congress launches a new crusade against runaway deficits. But that may be a case of fighting yesterday’s battles, as the politicians try to change the ability of the government to raise money tomorrow.

The tax debate has been going on since President Bush launched his first term four years ago with a full-court press for big tax cuts, which he said were urgently needed to spur a sagging economy.

Those cuts were enacted, and according to most measures, the economy has improved. That suggests, the GOP says, the need to make the old cuts permanent and enact new ones.

Economists are divided on the impact of these tax cuts in spurring growth, but one fact is hard to dispute: The federal deficit has ballooned, from the 2000 surplus to the $400 billion-plus deficit projected for the current fiscal year. About half the current deficit is the result of tax cuts, many analysts say, with the other half stemming from the costs of fighting two wars and a global battle against terrorism.

The questions facing lawmakers are these: Will reducing taxes, especially during a time of war, spur the economy enough to offset the loss in revenue? Will more tax cuts be a prudent investment in the American future, or will they cripple the government’s ability to meet the needs of its most vulnerable citizens?

Many Jewish leaders are deeply worried about the answers. With deficit pressure mounting, they fear that “discretionary” spending — including most health, welfare, education and social services programs — will be sliced to the bone in the next few budget cycles.

But even draconian cuts in discretionary spending won’t solve the deficit problem. The only answer, some conservatives believe, is to break into entitlements like Social Security and cut programs and benefits currently deemed untouchable.

That, some Democrats charge and some Republican leaders admit, is the underlying goal of enacting big tax cuts, despite escalating military costs: to use the deficit emergency to force cuts in entitlements that have previously been protected, and perhaps even eliminate programs conservatives have long despised.

Partial privatization of Social Security, many critics believe, is less an effort to save the venerable system for new generations than a ruse intended to undermine the concept of Social Security as an entitlement, the first step to opening it up for big cuts.

Republicans say more tax cuts and partial Social Security privatization will produce big economic gains and open the door to the “ownership society” advocated by the president. Democrats say it’s all a scheme to force the biggest-ever rollback in government social and health programs.

The stakes are enormous, but most Jewish groups won’t be part of the debate. Many Jewish leaders say the reason is simple: a lack of consensus within their organizations about the right course for the economy and the nation.

That answer is true, to a point, but it also is meant to blur what some activists say is a growing gap between the Jewish rank and file and its communal leaders — generally more affluent and more conservative.

There is also a political calculation; some Jewish leaders are worried about opposing a grudge-holding administration (actually, all administrations hold political grudges) on its top domestic priority.

Then there’s the Israel factor. If Jewish leaders oppose the administration’s tax cuts, will the White House punish Israel? The fear is probably unjustified, but it’s one of the excuses being given for inaction.

Whatever the reasons, this deafening communal silence means that as fundamental changes to American society are being debated, the Jewish community will not have much of a voice.

Many Jewish activists are already planning intensive campaigns to protect key government spending programs that Jewish groups around the country depend on to provide vital health and social services.

But a handful of leaders, including Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, argue that the changes under way in Washington today are so sweeping, that those targeted efforts will prove ineffective unless the Jewish community also addresses the issue of the big tax cuts that will dominate the budget mix.

Fighting to save individual programs without talking about the tax question may be too little, too late as the real fight shifts from the question of who gets what to the question of how much is left to give, Saperstein said.

The Jewish community will not be united on the answers. But if it isn’t involved in the debate, it will be in no position to complain about the results.

 

New Prayer Communities Seek Spiritual High

Don’t call them synagogues.

They are minyanim, or spiritual communities. They have evolved from shared and individual dreams and from serendipitous, profound and beshert connections. They are new, egalitarian, independent, warm, collaborative and vibrant.

And they are all led by female rabbis.

Ahavat Torah, with Rabbi Miriam Lefkovits-Hamrell, meets Saturday mornings in rented space at Adat Shalom in West Los Angeles.

Ikar, with Rabbi Sharon Brous, holds biweekly Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Roxbury Park Community Center in Beverly Hills.

And Nashuva, with Rabbi Naomi Levy, hosts a monthly Kabbalat Shabbat service at the Westwood Hills Congregational Church in Westwood.

Technically, a minyan is a quorum of 10 people, traditionally men, which is necessary for reciting certain prayers and performing certain rituals, according to the Mishnah.

In the United States, however, the minyan emerged as an independent prayer group created and led by lay leaders in the late ’60s and ’70s, an outgrowth of the havurah movement. An example is the Library Minyan, formed in 1971 and originally housed in Temple Beth Am’s library. A more recent example is Shtibl Minyan, founded in 2000, which meets in The Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles.

“A minyan is a natural answer to what many refer to as Judaism’s ‘edifice complex.’ It attracts Jews interested in praying, who can do that anywhere,” said Isa Aron, professor at Los Angeles’ Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and founding director of the Experiment in Congregational Education.

These new minyanim, however, attract not only practicing Jews but also what Dr. Ron Wolfson, vice president of University of Judaism and co-founder of Synagogue 2000, calls “spiritual seekers.”

“I think a lot of people are looking for that spiritual high and, guess what, these independent minyanim are actually offering it,” Wolfson said.

They’re also offering fellowship, a commitment to social action and a rabbi at the helm.

Ahavat Torah

“Right now I really consider myself living my dream,” said Lefkovits-Hamrell, who was ordained in May 2003 through the Academy of Jewish Religion and who became the spiritual leader of Ahavat Torah, meaning love of Torah, shortly thereafter.

As a child in Israel, the goal of becoming a congregational rabbi was unreachable. She would sit in shul, a mechitzah between her and her father, and ask why they had to be separated.

“On Simchat Torah I yearned to hold and dance with the Torah,” she said.

Finally, when Lefkovits-Hamrell and her family moved to Los Angeles in 1969, she was able to hold a Torah and later become a bat mitzvah. And while she married and raised three now-grown sons, she continued to pursue her dream, always studying and working as a Jewish educator. Along the way she even acquired her own Torah, which sits in a case in her living room.

Her dream became a reality when a friend introduced her to a group who had formed Ahavat Torah as a lay minyan a few months prior.

“We had been roaming around to different congregations to see if we fit,” founding member Blanche Moss said. “Finally we decided we fit together.”

And they decided Lefkovits-Hamrell fit with them.

She described her minyan, which recently celebrated its one-year anniversary, as “Conservative/Reform/Chasidic,” with lots of singing, clapping and even spontaneous dancing in the aisles. She and lay cantor Gary Levine, an executive at Showtime, lead it. Adhering to their motto “One Torah, Many Teachers, One Community,” it is participatory, with congregants reading Torah, presenting d’vrai Torah and leading discussions.

Following services, members share a potluck dairy lunch.

Learning continues during the week, with many taking part in one of three study groups that Lefkovits-Hamrell facilitates. They also observe holidays and socialize together. Ahavat Torah also boasts a strong program of gemilut chasadim — acts of lovingkindness.

“We give each other a lot of help, being there as family,” member Lois Miller-Nave said.

And Lefkovits-Hamrell remains in close and constant contact with her congregants.

Membership numbers about 70, with a goal of 120. Visitors are effusively welcomed, and dues are reasonable “so as not to exclude anyone,” said member Rick Nave. Most congregants are in their 50s and 60s, though the minyan has celebrated its first bar mitzvah, with a second one coming up.

And this year, Ahavat Torah will hold its first High Holiday services, at Congregation Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica.

But the Saturday morning minyan, which attracts between 40 and 70 people, remains the group’s focus.

“These people deeply care about Judaism and search for meaning and spirituality. That’s what unites us,” Lefkovits-Hamrell said.

For more information, call (310) 362-1111.

Ikar

“For the last couple of years, I’ve been dreaming about what kind of spiritual community I could help build,” said Sharon Brous, rabbi of Ikar, which means root or essence.

One force fueling this dream was her two-year stint as a rabbinic fellow at Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun — which she describes as “the country’s most vibrant, compelling Jewish community — following ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The other force is her continuing work as rabbi for Reboot, a network of 25- to 35-year-old Jews who are creative and intellectual trendsetters but don’t always resonate to traditional Jewish ways.

Additionally, she met parents and others who were “hungry for Jewish learning and real spiritual encounter.”

Brous’ dream began to materialize when a friend connected her with three couples desperately seeking to make Shabbat central in their lives.

“We sat on the verge of tears, feeling something of great importance was happening. It felt beshert,” Brous explained.

They held an experimental service in April, expecting 40; 135 showed up. The group then raised enough money to hire Brous full time.

Since June, services have been held biweekly, a family picnic followed by Kabbalat Shabbat. The service, led by Brous and second-year rabbinic student Andy Shugerman, is primarily in Hebrew, a combination of the Conservative siddur and Shlomo Carlebach melodies. Text study is incorporated into the service, and Brous’ d’var Torah weaves together congregants’ reflections.

More than 200 adults and children attend each service, clapping, swaying, dancing and holding babies. A few bring drums. The crowd is diverse, ranging from observant Jews to people like Reboot member Josh Kun, who admitted, “I don’t understand 80 percent of the service, but the intense mixture of connection and spiritual enthusiasm is incredibly appealing.”

Ikar is planning to hold High Holiday services at the Westside Jewish Community Center, and afterward will add a monthly Saturday minyan to the schedule.

Brous and the Ikar board work closely to create a community that reflects the group’s values in all areas, from the arrangement of chairs to the structuring of dues. In addition to money, members are asked to contribute toward community building, tikkun olam and learning.

Tikkun olam is especially critical to Brous. She wants people’s spiritual development to lead to transforming the world.

And the learning piece, which will include studies for children in kindergarten through bar and bat mitzvah, is important to many parents.

“We want the intellectual, spiritual and social justice values transmitted to our children,” founding parent Melissa Balaban said. “We want them to fall in love with Judaism.”

But the core values remain important to everyone.

“We want to do away with what’s orderly, precise and dignified and build a place where people have a spiritual encounter that’s profound and joyous and creative and transformative,” Brous said.

For more information, call (310) 450-9679 or visit www.Ikar-la.org .

Nashuva

“Naomi, it’s time.”

“Time for what?” Rabbi Naomi Levy asked two friends who had invited her to breakfast last April.

“Time to start a service.”

Levy knew from age 4 that she wanted to be a rabbi. She entered the Jewish Theological Seminary in the first class of women and spent seven years as rabbi of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. She has spent the last seven years writing the best-seller, “To Begin Again” (Ballantine, 1999) and “Talking to God” (Knopf, 2002).

Levy decided to act. Looking for an available location, she cold-called a church whose facade she often admired.

“Did you call me because you know my husband is Jewish?” the reverend asked.

“No,” Levy answered.

“Well, my husband is Jewish and there is nothing I would like more. It would be such an honor.”

Levy and the Rev. Kirsten Linford-Steinfeld met that afternoon.

“We both felt like we were led to each other, like we’d known each other our entire lives,” Levy said.

Things promptly fell into place. Levy knew the name would be Nashuva, meaning “we will return,” from the last line in Lamentations. She also knew prayer would be meaningless if not linked to social action, and immediately she and Linford-Steinfeld committed to joint monthly projects.

Levy also knew she would offer new translations of the Hebrew prayer book that would be “accessible, personal and soulful.” And she knew she wanted to work with musicians who could, “get congregants out of their seats and on their feet.”

Levy, who is married to Jewish Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman, met with 11 founding members around her dining room table to make this happen. She created a prayerbook with every Hebrew word transliterated and with accompanying English prayers in simple, poetic language. She also assembled a group of eight musicians and gathered music from Jewish Eastern European, Sephardic, African and other traditions.

Founding member Wanda Peretz handpainted and appliquéd a wall hanging for the bima, a Tree of Life with the words of Lamentations, “Turn us to you, O God, and we will return.”

Levy committed to one service each month, beginning last June. And each so far has overfilled the church, which seats 250. Nashuva is also planning a Tashlich service for Rosh Hashanah, with a drumming circle, shofar blowing and dancing on Venice Beach. Other High Holiday services will be announced on Nashuva’s Web site.

Last month, the standing-room-only crowd showed that Levy’s joyful and intimate approach has touched a chord among all types of Jews: young parents (Nashuva provides free child care and a children’s service), singles, seniors, interfaith couples, traditional affiliated Jews and adults whose last visit to shul was on their bar mitzvah.

They swing and sway to upbeat and moving melodies. They listen raptly to Levy’s engaging and insightful d’var Torah. “There’s a wonderful sense of community in the room, even if you don’t know anyone,” said Carol Taubman.

At this point, Nashuva is privately funded. Levy said she believes people who value the experience will make free-will offerings.

“When people come to Nashuva and feel elevated and [have] an honest communication with God, I feel blessed. When people come to Nashuva and then go and serve in the community, I feel overwhelmed,” Levy said.

For more information, visit www.nashuva.org .

Are these new minyanim a threat to established synagogues?

Ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., when Jewish life became cooperative rather than hierarchical, Jews have been forming, disbanding, merging and splitting prayer communities.

“This is an old tradition in the Jewish world,” Wolfson said.

To be fair, synagogues themselves are offering minyanim and alternative services, from Beth Jacob Congregation’s Happy Minyan to Adat Ari El’s One Shabbat Morning to University Synagogue’s Great Shabbos.

And, as Levy herself said, “Shuls in Los Angeles are doing incredible work.”

But in the meantime, as Aron points out, “The new minyanim are making more Jews more intensely Jewish, and that’s basically a good thing.”

Q & A With Rabbi Robert Gan

Rabbi Robert Gan, 63, has been senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah, an 850-family member Reform congregation on Pico Boulevard, for more than 30 years. At Temple Isaiah, Gan demonstrated his commitment to social justice, inviting such speakers as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to address his congregation. This year, Gan begins his newest role, as president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, an agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that brings together 250 rabbis from all denominations. Gan spoke to The Journal about his plans for his new position, and the problems facing the Jewish world today.

Jewish Journal: What is the role of the Board of Rabbis in the community?

Rabbi Gan: The Board of Rabbis represents all the different groups in the community. We provide chaplains for hospitals and prisons; we have a leadership-training program. We are, hopefully, a voice of conscience, a voice that gives some sense of priority to Jewish issues in our community.

JJ: What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure at the Board of Rabbis?

RG: Well, first of all, I think that the Board of Rabbis suffers from one of problems of the larger Jewish community, which is its general geography. The community is so large and so spread out, that it is difficult to create a sense of collegiality and inclusiveness among members of the Board of Rabbis, which is something I hope to do in the coming years. We are trying to meet every other month, and to also have programs that will bring everyone together.

The other hope that I have is to attempt to be the voice of the Jewish community when issues arise that need some kind of a rabbinic response. We represent the vast variety of Jews in Southern California, and hopefully we can have some kind of moral persuasion.

JJ: Can you give an example of the kind of issues that you will respond to?

RG: Right now we are submitting something for people look at regarding Proposition 54, which has to do with banning the gathering of data in ethnic and minority communities. We think that data-gathering is necessary to get a picture of the community, and it is important for education and health needs, and stopping the State’s ability to help the various ethnic and racial groups through collecting important and useful information and implementing programs to assist them is wrong.

JJ: Are you concerned that because the rabbis in the Board of Rabbis come from so many different denominations, that it will be difficult to create a consensus?

RG: I think we all have different positions on issues of religious expression, which is important and wonderful, but I think there are issues that are larger than individual denominations that we should be able to speak to.

JJ: What do you see as the main strengths of the Los Angeles Jewish community?

RG: Well, it has a lot of Jews. It’s the second-largest Jewish community in the country, so it has enormous potential for involvement and affiliation and giving support. There is a lot of untapped potential. We live in an area that is open to creativity and experimentation to Jewish life.

JJ: As a rabbi, what are you most passionate about, and why?

RG: When I first came here as a young rabbi, I was very much involved in Jewish family life, and created all kinds of programs for adults and children together. We still do that in our congregation — adults and children get together to learn and study.

I am also part of a congregation that has a long history of activity in the area of social action and social justice, which is a passion of mine as well. And I love to be involved with interfaith relations, I think that contact with one another and being able to learn from one another is very important.

JJ: What was your Rosh Hashanah sermon about?

RG: I am struggling with my sense that people seeing the world as being less secure, and perhaps less hopeful than they thought, even a sense of malaise on some level. I talked about the fact that we are part of a faith that affirms life, and in spite of all that we have endured as a people, we will continue to live and thrive. We have resources in Jewish life and the community that are life-affirming and important.

JJ: What do you think that the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox can all agree on, religiously speaking?

RG: I think that we all agree that we are committed to sustaining Jewish life and the Jewish people, and we all do so in our own particular ways.

JJ: And its weaknesses?

RG: I think the strengths become the weaknesses of the Jewish community, because we haven’t been able to mobilize and involve people in the way that we should.

JJ: What do you think the Jewish community should be most concerned about?

RG: I think we are always concerned about continuity and the continued vibrancy of Jewish life. All of us are concerned with bringing people to understand the beauty of the tradition that we are a part of, and how it speaks to issues of the larger world, in terms of tikkun olam.

Community Briefs

Prime Minister ToutsMuseum

If there was any doubt that the Polish government is takingseriously plans to build a Museum of Polish Jewish History in Warsaw, they wereput to rest Feb. 5 in Beverly Hills.

That’s when Leszek Miller, prime minister of Poland, metwith about 100 area Jews to reaffirm his commitment to the long-plannedproject. “We want to reach beyond the image of Poland as a place of martyrdomfor the Jews,” said Miller in his brief prepared remarks. “The museum will be agreat educational project, and a symbol of our new approach to the history ofthe Jews.”

Miller’s appearance before the gathering of Jewish religiousand communal leaders, including Holocaust survivors and elected officials, wasorganized by the Consulate General of Poland in cooperation with the AmericanJewish Committee (AJCommittee). It took place during the first visit by aPolish prime minister to the West Coast, according to Consul General KrzysztofW. Kasprzyk.

Miller announced the establishment of the Museum of theHistory of the Polish Jews in Warsaw last January. The multimedia museum, to bedesigned by Frank Gehry, is to be completed in 2006.

Polish officials, who say that as many as 80 percent of Jewsacross the world can trace their roots back to Poland, hope the museum willspur Jewish tourism to their country. They are also hoping that Jewish donorsabroad will help fund some of the museum’s estimated $63 million cost.

Among other exhibits, the museum will recreate the homes andstreets representing 1,000 years of Jewish civilization in Poland. The Naziinvasion and deportation to death camps claimed the lives of the majority of Poland’s3.5 million Jewish population, which had been the largest in Europe.

Miller said the museum is part of an agenda ofreconciliation between Poland and world Jewry that includes the restitution forJewish property, restoration of Jewish cemeteries, commemoration of victims atdeath camps throughout Poland, and increasing ties between young Jews and Poles,and between Polish and Jewish entrepreneurs. The museum itself will demonstrate”how important a place was occupied by Jews in the history of Poland,” saidMiller.

AJCommittee Los Angeles chapter President Peter Weil saidMiller’s appearance, amidst high level visits with high-tech entrepreneurs anda previous state visit with President George W. Bush, was a clear indication ofthe value the Polish government places on its relations with world Jewry.

Along with Miller and the consul general, guests heardremarks from Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, AJCommittee’s West Coast regional director;County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Adrien Brody, star of “The Pianist,” andmuseum director Jerzy Halberstadt. 

For more information the Museum ofPolish Jewish History in Warsaw, go to www.jewishmuseum.org.pl . — Staff Report

 

Media “Blitz”New Israel Fund Cuts Back

The New Israel Fund will centralize and scale back its U.S.offices in the hopes of pumping $1 million more toward peace and social justiceefforts in Israel. The Washington-based group, which promotes peace and civilrights programs in Israel, will close regional offices in Los Angeles, Bostonand Chicago, and expand hubs in New York and San Francisco, the group announcedFeb. 6.

For the three-person Los Angeles staff who will soon faceunemployment as a result of consolidation, the recent news brings mixedreactions.

“I still strongly believe in the importance of theorganization and the value of its work in Israel, and I understand that theinternational board that made the decision took a lot of issues intoconsideration in reaching its conclusions,” said Los Angeles New Israel FundDirector David Moses. “At the same time, I’m deeply disappointed in the closingof this office. We’ve had 4 years of continuous growth and increased visibilityin the Los Angeles Jewish community and I’m very proud of what we’veaccomplished here.”

The move was aimed at lowering the group’s overhead andconsolidating operations, and should largely fund the additional $1 million for Israel, officials said. The fund said it has awarded $120 million to 700Israeli groups since 1979. — Rachel Brand, Staff Writer

Eulogies:Rabbi Stanley F. Chyet

Rabbi Stanley F. Chyet, professor emeritus of American Jewish history at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) campus since 1976, and assistant to the president and secretary to the board of trustees of the Skirball Cultural Center since 1981, died at the age of 71 at his home in Sherman Oaks on Oct. 19, 2002, after a two-year battle with cancer.

Chyet was regarded internationally as a preeminent scholar of American Jewish history and a translator of 20th century Israeli poetry. He was a passionate advocate of social justice and a gifted poet.

Born in April 2, 1931 in Revere, Mass., Chyet attended Boston Latin School and was a member of the first graduating class of Brandeis University. He was ordained as a rabbi at HUC-JIR in 1957. In 1960, he earned both his doctorate and his appointment to the faculty of HUC-JIR.

From 1960 to 1978, Chyet served as associate director of the American Jewish Archives and editor of the Journal of the American Jewish Archives. From 1978 to 1997, he served as professor and director of the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies in Los Angeles.

In the early 1980s, he helped forge the vision for the Skirball Cultural Center. Chyet’s wisdom, warmth and passion for American Jewish history helped shape every aspect of the Skirball. The Skirball’s core exhibition, "Visions and Values: Jewish Life from Antiquity to America," is to a major degree the product of his scholarship and teaching brilliance, particularly sections that examine the immigration experience and Jewish life in America, according to Skirball officials

Chyet’s writings include a number of books, studies, encyclopedia articles, translations and reviews on various aspects of the modern and American Jewish experience. His translations of contemporary Hebrew poems have appeared in numerous publications and he has published hundreds of articles in scholarly journals.

He served on the executive boards of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Cincinnati’s Yavneh Day School and was involved with the Association for Jewish Studies, the American Jewish Historical Society, the Labor Zionist Alliance, the Jewish Publication Society of America, Americans for Peace Now, the NAACP and Amnesty International. He also served as chaplain in the United States Army Reserve.

He is survived by his wife, Geraldine; son, Michael; and daughter, Susan.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the John Wayne Cancer Institute, St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica or the Skirball Cultural Center.

Leading With His Left

Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman’s art-filled home on a quiet, verdant Brentwood street is a world away from the gritty industrial world in which he lived as a child during the Depression and again as a young man on the cusp of World War II. But it’s his experiences in that world of assembly-line workers that led him to the rabbinate and to his 52 years in Los Angeles.

Leo Baeck Temple will honor the man who became its first full-time rabbi in 1949 at Friday night services May 4, celebrating Beerman’s 80 years of life and his boundless commitment to social justice and liberal Judaism.

"We grew up together," Beerman said of the Reform synagogue, which had been founded the year before he arrived, newly ordained, from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It was the only congregation he served during the 37 years before his retirement in 1986.

Beerman was outspoken on issues such as civil rights, workers’ rights, the war in Vietnam and Mideast conflict. "Our synagogue became known as a place where these issues were engaged and openly discussed," inviting speakers that included Daniel Ellsberg and Cesar Chavez, Beerman said.

Under his leadership, the temple radiated "a wholesome atmosphere of ideas," he said. "Not everyone agreed with my views, but I think we established a relationship of basic trust."

"He was speaking against the Vietnam War before I even knew what the Vietnam War was," said John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up at Leo Baeck. When Rosove took positions that could be controversial, he said, "I knew [Rabbi Beerman] had stuck his neck out long before I did."

Beerman said his Jewish identity was "nurtured by my experiences, being a child of the Depression, seeing my father cut down by the Depression." He was also a witness to the struggle of local workers to unionize and improve their lot in life, and he came to see being a Jew as carrying a responsibility "to enhance life for the least of God’s children as well as the greatest."

Beerman spent most of his childhood in Owosso, Mich., about 20 miles west of Flint; his was one of seven Jewish families in town. Owosso had an active Ku Klux Klan — black folks couldn’t stay in town overnight — and, growing up, Beerman heard the occasional anti-Jewish epithet or remark.

But, he said, "growing up in a small town was a magical experience…. You felt yourself embraced, part of a definable community."

In 1941, several months before Pearl Harbor, Beerman took a break from his studies at Pennsylvania State University and returned to Michigan to work in an auto-parts factory that had been retooled to produce machine guns. That’s where he met up with a more virulent anti-Semitism: Some co-workers with whom he’d become friends dropped him when he mentioned that he was Jewish, and as word got out, other workers picked fights with him. "It was the experience of anti-Semitism that prompted me to think about the rabbinate as a place for me, because [prejudice] deprived me of this circle of friends," Beerman said in a television interview.

Curious about what caused hatred against Jews, Beerman began to read through the books on Jewish history and philosophy in the local public library; this research, in turn, sparked a desire for more formal Jewish study.

The current situation in Israel causes him great pain. "I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive to the rights of the Palestinians, [but] I have always believed that Israel accepted a basic contract, and the basic condition of that contract was that this land was meant to be shared," he said, calling Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories "destructive of the values that had gone into the making of Israel."

Nor does he sound particularly optimistic about how the conflicts will be resolved. "It’s tragic what these two peoples feel compelled to do to one another," he said. "It brings out the worst excesses of nationalist thinking on both sides. The only thing to hope for is that something is happening that none of us knows about."

But only an optimist signs up for as many causes as Beerman does. He’s involved with Jewish and interfaith organizations opposing the death penalty and supporting sweatshop workers, the anti-nuclear movement, medical ethics — and peace in the Middle East. He protested the Persian Gulf War and has fought for affordable housing and protection for the homeless.

Sanford Ragins, who was Beerman’s associate rabbi during the tumultuous 1960s and is now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck, told The Journal that Beerman’s passions informed Ragins’ own activism. "He knew Judaism was not something you kept locked up in the ark," Ragins said.

"At an early age, I remember being spellbound by his sermonizing," said Rabbi Carla Howard, who grew up at Leo Baeck and currently serves Metivta, a Jewish contemplative center on the Westside. "I was coming of age in the late ’60s, in the middle of this cultural explosion of values, and he was a voice that helped shape my values."

Beerman has known tragedy during his later years, having lost his first wife just after his retirement and an 8-year-old granddaughter to a sudden, undiagnosed ailment. But he says he looks forward to each new day with his second wife, Joan, and his children and grandchildren, with whom he regularly shares Shabbat.

And he still inspires congregations. "He is a rabbi’s rabbi," Rosove said. "[Listeners] melt under his words, even when they don’t agree with everything he says, because he speaks from a deep, prophetic place."

Leo Baeck Temple will honor Rabbi Leonard Beerman at services May 4, 7:30 p.m., 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.