November 16, 2018

Letters to the Editor: Kotel Clash, Sprituality, Anti-Semitism and Rohingya


‘The Dazzling Idea of Hanukkah’ (Dec. 8)

If parents want children to believe in the Jewish religion, it must be made fun. The games, treats and gifts are all part of the holiday. They see Santa everywhere and fun and gifts for all the Christian children, so if they don’t get a celebration, they will end up leaving the religion.

Dani Lester

Happy Hanukkah to all. Light up the darkness and rejoice.

Lauri Garber

‘Stronger Together’ (Dec. 8)

I am not Jewish but I wish so strongly that I had been in that hotel lobby that night celebrating Hanukkah. I am moved by the sense of community shared. Thank you for making this story available to me. It lifts my spirit.

Anne Kelly

‘The Light We Create’ (Dec. 8)

I loved this piece. It costs us nothing to be kind. Thank you for the gentle reminder.

Deidre Duke

Kindness as an everyday reminder of holy light. Beautiful essay, Karen Lehrman Bloch. Your best yet for the Journal.

Harold Henkel

Clash at Kotel Was Misrepresented

I was disappointed to read Jay Geller’s account of the Nov. 16 protest at the Kotel, which we attended together as governors of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (“Are the Kotel Clashes Worth It?” Dec. 1).

Geller mischaracterized the event by alleging students were subjected to “physical violence” and that the protesters “risked bodily harm.” Yes, it was physical, and there was pushing, shoving, grabbing and an attempted theft (of a Torah scroll), but no one was hurt, no punches were thrown, and not once did I feel in any serious danger.

That’s in part because police arrived to protect us after a confrontation with ultra-Orthodox civilians. Thus the conflict was not, as alleged, between “our group and the police.” Geller is confusing the “police” with security guards employed by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.

I do not recall the guards confronting students. Physical contact was limited to individuals holding Torah scrolls, and those were Reform movement leaders in Israel and the United States. (This is confirmed by video I recorded during this event.) While the planning of the protest may have been “unbeknownst to [Geller],” the rest of the board was advised  in advance and that morning of the risks, and that it was entirely optional.

Matthew Louchheim via email

When Faced With Anti-Semitism, Take Action

Kylie Ora Lobell wrote a hair-raising description of an Uber ride with an anti-Semitic driver (“That Time My Uber Driver Was Anti-Semitic,” Dec. 8). She and her husband didn’t object to his hate-filled diatribe or reveal that they were Jewish. Lobell concluded: “Some part of me wishes I were fearless, that I would have spoken up from that backseat.” But she said she was “shocked” and scared that the driver would harm them.

My first encounter with anti-Semitism was shocking, too: I was one of only three Jewish children in an elementary school on the outskirts of Seattle in the ’50s. One afternoon as I was walking home with my best friend, Bonnie, she suddenly shoved me down to the ground and yelled, “My grandmother said you killed Christ!” When later I told my father, he explained the whole, “It was the Romans, not the Jews who killed Christ” thing, and said if anyone ever said something anti-Semitic around me, I should point out that I was Jewish and a good person, and that people shouldn’t say hateful and false things about Jews — or anyone.

If I had been in that Uber with Lobell, I would have said just that from the back seat — softly, not with any anger in my voice. Then I would have opened my Uber app and given that driver a “no-stars” rating, and checked the “the driver was unprofessional” box and explained why.

Sharon Boorstin via email

Reporter Too Quick to Judge Spiritual Seekers

Danielle Berrin’s column (“Spiritual, Not Religious,” Dec. 1) is rife with judgment — judgment about people and judgment about practice.

More than 20 years ago, I had the great good fortune to meet Rabbi Jonathan Omer-man, and to study with him. Of British descent, Rabbi Omer-man was brought to Los Angeles by Hillel to work with Jews who had joined cults — which was a serious issue at the time.

A brilliant scholar, mystic, teacher and pastoral guide, Rabbi Omer-man gained a following of hundreds of Jews. Many had been in cults, or practiced Hinduism or Buddhism or, like me, were drawn to his particular spiritual teaching. Bottom line: He illuminated Jewish theology, text and practice to help so many rediscover and enhance their Judaism and Jewish practice.

One of the core principles that I observed in his leadership was his nonjudgment. He gave everyone the space to explore and evolve as Jews, and as human beings searching for God.

Unfortunately, judgment is woven into our psyches, pretty much from birth. Judgment is born of fear, with the singular purpose of creating separation. The last thing we Jews need right now is more separation.

Evelyn Baran via email

Portrait of the Holy Land

I am a 15-year-old freshman at YULA Boys High School. I totally agree with “Israel Loved the Sinai That Is Now a Killing Field” (Dec. 1) because this is the same way I feel. When tourists visit the Holy Land, they don’t want to see a killing field. The author writes: “For some time, and especially now, the view from the Israeli side has been somber and painful.”  This hurts me to know that all the Jews — especially the people who live in Israel — have to live in a time surrounded by such darkness.

Adam Kirschenbaum via email

Why a Couple Made Aliyah

It’s been four months since Lida and I made aliyah to Jerusalem from Los Angeles. People ask either, “How is your aliyah going?” or “Why did you move to Israel?” I now have a new answer.

While riding the crowded No. 78 Jerusalem bus this morning, a partially sighted woman with a white and red cane exited the bus. She waited to cross the street. The bus driver asked a 12-year-old boy to help her. The boy got off the bus and helped the woman to cross the street. The bus driver waited for the boy to return to the bus.

Hanukkah sameach.

Pesach Nisenbaum and Lida Baker, Jerusalem

Muslim Wants to Dispel Distortions About Rohingya

I have been and am a regular and faithful reader of the Jewish Journal for more than a decade.

In the Dec. 8 issue, a Richard Friedman from Culver City wrote a letter commenting on Stephen D. Smith’s story, and then goes on talking about how Muslims have killed “80 million non-Muslims” in the past millennium, etc. (“Plight of the Rohingya Has Many Facets.”) He then lumps Nazis and Muslims in the same breath and, to top it off, he then cites a scholar named Andrew Bostom from Brown University as a history scholar and his subsequent writing as the historical truth.

I, Usman Madha, a native of Burma/Myanmar, present resident of 40-plus years in Culver City, a practicing non-Jihadist, pluralistic Muslim, would like to extend Mr. Friedman an open invitation to share (my treat) a kosher-halal meal where we can discuss and dispel the wrong information he has about the Rohingya situation (historical and present) in my old country, in particular, and Muslims, in general.

Furthermore, Mr. Friedman also can read “Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness Between Islam and Judaism” by Rabbi Allen Maller. He can order it from Amazon and MoreBooks. If he would like, I will gladly purchase this book for Mr. Friedman as a Hanukkah gift.


Usman Madha, Culver City

A Rabbi on Holy Isle

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld on Holy Isle, Scotland

I’m a rabbi. I have experienced hundreds of Shabbat celebrations with Jewish communities of all sorts, in synagogue,  at camp, as part of youth groups, leading youth groups, with my family.  So how did it come to be that the most unexpectedly joyful, meaningful and deeply spiritual one I ever experienced was with a Christian-born-and-raised Canadian at a Tibetan Buddhist retreat center on a Scottish island?

It is an amazing story.  And though I am a person of words, I am finding it hard to locate the right ones to describe how this transpired.

I write this article/journal entry sitting at the simple desk in my spartan room at the Centre for World Peace, on the Holy Isle, a mystical jut of an island just off the east coast of Arran, which itself is an island off of Scotland’s southwest coast.  This island has been considered holy for centuries. In the 6th century it was the home of a certain St. Molaise, who spent most of his time living in a small cave (which I visited) tucked into the mountainside. The entire island is about 2 miles long and a few hundred yards wide, with a camel-like set of high humps in the center with an apex of about 1200 feet—beautiful views from there. In 1992, the island was purchased by a Tibetan Buddhist organization called the Rokpa Trust. The Holy Isle Project is now directed by a Tibetan Buddhist Lama, named Yeshe Losal Rinpoche, who is committed to ensuring that the island itself, and its programs and retreats, provides a sustainable environment, where individuals of the Buddhist faith, of other faiths, and of no faith, can develop and experience inner peace.  It sounds lofty.  It is.  

I arrived here by plane, then train, transferred to ferry, and finally on to a dinghy.   The travel was interrupted for a day as a result of stormy weather that made the crossing from the bay of Lamlash, on Arran, over to the Holy Isle simply impossible.  As I write this, there is no way of knowing whether weather conditions will permit me to make it back to Arran in order to take dinghy to ferry to train to plane to return to the US.  I am here for a weeklong meditation retreat, combining with elements of Qi Gong (pronounced chi-gung) practice, which is an ancient Chinese/Buddhist approach to movement and life-centering in one’s body, as well as some sessions of shiatsu. 

I chose this retreat and this island somewhat by happenstance. Having dabbled recently in meditation—exclusively in Jewish settings with Jewish teachers and Jewish fellow meditators—and having brought some of that elemental practice to my spiritual work as a rabbi, and even to members of my professional team as we try to add some mindfulness to work that can become mind-numbing, I knew I wanted to immerse in it more deeply. I happened to have this particular week free on my personal, professional and familial calendar.  Add Google to the mix and, voila, I found this meditation retreat that happened to take place over the exact right dates, and in a location whose remote-ness and promise of always-changing Scottish weather drew me in like a magnet. So much of meditation, I am learning, is an acknowledgement and embrace of the ephemeral. Life. Our thoughts and moods.  And, yes, the weather.  Recognize that thought or feeling that is in your mind right this second. Nod to it. Accept it. Look at it. It will be gone before you know it, replaced by  a renewed spiritual landscape, a new emotional sky.

I hesitated before registering.  In a lengthy email exchange with Sue Weston, the leader of this particular retreat, I inquired what it would be like for an observant Jew and rabbi to come to such a retreat. Could I yield to the spiritual and cultural norms and expectations of this location and find the space to carry out my own personal observances? She assured me that my faith, and my personal prayers, would be welcome. And also that Shabbat would be no concern.  There would be no writing or travel at the retreat, or any other activity inherently at odds with my traditional Shabbat observance.  I would easily be able to take part in the retreat’s sessions, say my Shabbat prayers, and have plenty of time to read, rest and recuperate. 

So I signed up, quite reassured, and arrived with an open heart and a sense of burgeoning awe for what I was about to experience.  Nothing prepared me for the island’s beauty. Its rawness. And the liminal feeling of crossing the bay of Lamlash to an island that, in its entirety, is dedicated to serenity, openness, love and spiritual grounding. 

The first few days of the retreat passed momentously in their own right.  The Qi Gong was, and continues to be, revelatory for me. As someone who has struggled with a gimpy lower back for years, some of the exercises and movements were reminiscent of what this osteopath or that massage therapist or this chiropractor had offered me before during previous flare-ups.  But I soon realized I was learning a spiritual choreography. An ancient, grounded body-wisdom that re-integrates the natural awareness of the body we have when we are pre-sentient babies with the actual muddled and stressed and overly cerebral body with which most of us go through our adult lives.  I loved it all instantly. 

And the initial days of meditation brought me to an inner voice and body-based tranquility that cleared mental cobwebs, awakened aches for ways of living my life that had been hovering for years but hadn’t burst to the surface, and inspired my thinking regarding how I could bring some of this work and wisdom back to my community, and my family, and link it to the Jewish faith and tradition that so suffuses our lives.  

The connections between this far-eastern spiritual body-practice and the inherited layers of Jewish living are far more intimate and shared than one might initially think when considering, for instance, how far apart the life and culture of a Tibetan monk are from those of an observant Jew.  Some overlaps and nexuses:  The first Qi Gong move we began to master is called Wild Goose. It is an elaborate and incredibly hard-to-master set of moves, breaths and intentions.  And some of it is done in sweeping arm motions around the body.  Instantly, the move felt familiar, as I realized that how I put my tallit on in the morning, wrapping the woolen cloth around my upper body in a sweeping motion before pausing for a moment of reflection and centeredness and letting it rest on my shoulders, was evocative of this Qi Gong move.  Much of Qi Gong is focused on which “leg” you are in, using the hips, sacrum and pelvis to ground yourself and toggle from right to left and back.  We took hours to master the simplest shift from one leg to the next, and I realized I was ahead of the class because my own shuckling during davvening, which I learned through osmosis rather than from any one teacher. It closely resembles this shifting, through the midsection of the body, using subtle changes in weight and posture to create a dynamic within prayer.  

And then, the bowing.  We Jews have forgotten how to bow. Admit it.  You know that I am right, even if you are fighting back when reading these words.  I watch a Muslim bow, prostrate to the ground, and I am envious.  I go the distance during the Aleynu prayer during the High Holidays, and some in the congregation behind me do the same. But it is a bit ersatz.   We are fully aware that come the end of Yom Kippur we will return to the nearly knee-less and almost certainly waist-less half-gesticulation that constitutes a bow in most Jewish communities.  But in Qi Gong you must bow.  Not to a deity. But to open up your body, activate and release your core, and find ways to pour energetic Qi to as many parts of your body as possible.  These are bows and dips which are simultaneously painful (particularly for someone as non-limber as I) and cathartic. By day three, I could go deeper and breathe into it.  And among a cadre of fellow non-retreaters, not a single one of them Jewish, doing ancient Chinese body-meditation under the auspices of a Tibetan Buddhist holy order, I remembered my Shulhan Arukh, my close reading and study of the traditional code of Jewish law from the 16th century.  I remember how much detail went in to Rabbi Yosef Caro’s explanation of how to bow during prayer in such a way such that the soft material between each vertebra is exposed to the air, curving your back all the way over.  Was he writing with a sense of body-awareness like the spiritualists from the far east?  Or was this merely his translation of talmudic texts that were focused more on obeisance, modesty and utter insignificance relative to the presence of God? I’d like to think a bit of both. By the end of the second day I made a true and binding religious vow to myself never to bow again in prayer without being fully open to the experience.  

As hours passed, I became both more open to the practices and forms I was learning for the first time, and blessings and rituals I had done thousands of time but to which I was now returning as if for the first time.  For instance, for decades I have had the personal religious practice of saying the “asher yatzar” blessing after relieving myself. It began when I was in yeshiva, with a burst of both frumkeit and awareness/gratitude. But for as long as I can remember the prayer has turned into a mumble.  Said quickly and mindlessly on the way to the next meeting or appointment.  With no connection to the very body whose functioning I was supposed to be blessing.  This week, that blessing has become a symphony to me.  Because the meditative and Qi Gong practice is so grounded in the body, I have been reawakened to this blessing’s force.  And as I curve my mouth around the words, n’kavim n’kavim, halulim halulim, naming and thanking God for our openings which stay open and our closings which stay closed, I find myself profoundly connected to my intestines, my bowel, and the very miracle of my body’s healthy functioning.  

As another example, my blessings before and after meals have been revivified.  They, too, I have been saying dutifully for decades. Dutifully, but not always soulfully. It is, admittedly, hard to sustain any spiritual or religious or relational practice at a consistently high level.  But at least for this week, my food-gratitude blessings are alive again.  Some of our meals are taken in noble silence, within which I feel the crunch of each bite, taste the kaleidoscope of each organic green and grain I am consuming, and am a witness to the activity, often so mundane in our culture (even among those who regularly say blessings) and yet so elemental to our being alive and thus worthy of our continued awe: eating.  The meals on Holy Isle are unhurried.  What is important is the food, and the company, whether being shared in conversation or in silent presence.  And because I truly am grateful for the delicious all-vegetarian (and nearly all-vegan), all-natural meals I have been served, with the ingredients nearly all home-grown and home-cultivated on this island, I am experiencing birkat hamazon (which I have been singing to myself in my head, rather than just rushing through nearly inchoate) as a digestif, both a slow eruption of gratitude and one which in some psycho-spiritual-embodied way is actually aiding my digestion and thus the very miraculous process I am blessing.  After one meal I urged myself to conjure the faces of my immediate family as I blessed them in the harahaman section.  When my children’s faces emerged in my mind’s eye, a tear fell upon my cheek. When was the last time an oft-said blessing moved me so much? When did it last move you?  What would your reaction be if someone began to cry when saying birkat hamazon at a communal Shabbat dinner at your synagogue?

But all of what I just described is a mere prelude to the true and unexpected jolt I experienced on Holy Isle.  Let me explain what happened on Shabbat. 

I had planned to mark the beginning (and end) of Shabbat as inconspicuously as possible. I did not want to invade, or proselytize. I was a guest.  My hosts were Tibetan Buddhists.  My peers came for Sue Weston’s Qi Gong and meditation, not Rabbi Kligfeld’s Lecha Dodi.  They are very fire-conscious here, and so I asked if there might be a safe place where I could kindle two lights.  Oh, and might they have some juice for a special blessing?  The on-site director of the retreat center, a humble and gracious Buddhist nun, bowed towards me with her hands clasped at her chest when I made this request.  She thanked me for the opportunity to serve my spiritual needs.  She provided me two tea-lights, each within a little glass bowl, held in place by dry rice grains.  And she procured some sweet cinnamon-pear juice that had been prepared for a previous meal.  She bowed towards me again, and not only gave me permission to use them in the main meeting place—Peace Hall—but also asked if I wouldn’t mind doing my ritual in front of the whole retreat, as well as any part-time and long-term volunteers who make up the working staff of this island.  Sue, the leader of this retreat, thought the idea was fabulous.  I was humbled.  And felt a tiny wince of shame, wondering how many Jewish institutions, and retreat centers and synagogues—including my own—would be so tolerant, and even so proactively gracious and inviting, were visiting Buddhists to request the space and accoutrements to perform their religious practice.  

And this is how it came to be that at about 8:45 on Friday night on Holy Isle, this rabbi who came to meditate as a lay-person became the local teacher and dramaturg of the Friday night seder shabbat to a group of about 50 spiritual seekers in Peace Hall. 

I was not expecting this.  And I said as much as I began to talk, having no idea what I would say. I started with a niggun: the one referred to as Neshama’s Niggun, as it is one of the most beloved of all those written by Neshama Carlebach. (Seeing as how our entire week was focused on the breath and the spirit, I thought it appropriate to offer a tune written by a Neshama.)  And then I had an outer-body experience, watching myself describe the rationale behind all of our well-known, but also well-worn, Friday night rituals.  Waving the hands towards us as the Shabbat candles are kindled, one for zachor, to remember Shabbat, and one for shamor, to observe it; welcoming, inviting and receiving blessing from the Shabbat angels who escort us from services on Friday night and who are the subject/object of Shalom Aleichem; the sweetness of the kiddush juice or wine, including why I was saying a different blessing tonight than I would be had the substance been a grape-based juice or wine rather than the delicious cinnamon-pear juice they provided me; the eshet hayil poem with which I address and praise my wife every week, and then the proffering of a blessing upon the heads of my children, taking the original place of the priests in the desert. 

As I went through this litany, there was absolute silence in the group surrounding me. Not just silence.  Reverence.  I could feel it, palpably.  And then I ended with another niggun, explaining how wordless tune has become so central to modern Jewish practice, and how essentially ecumenical such tunes are.  For, after all, what tradition owns a particularly musical note, or even a string of them? The ones we generally sing sound Jewish to us.  But they aren’t on a categorical level.  They just have ascribed Jewish flavor to us. The one with which I ended is the most recent one I learned from Netanel Goldberg, an extraordinary Israeli composer/spiritualist.

Without my asking or inviting them, this group, none of whom expected any part of this week to be an exposure to Jewish music or ritual, started singing.  Maybe because their hearts and chests and whole bodies had been so opened by meditation and Qi gong, or maybe because non-Jews are a little less reticent to sing when a rabbi starts singing in front of them than many Jews are when being introduced to—gasp!—a new tune (you know who you are…), whatever the reason, they didn’t just sing.  They became an instantaneous choir.  The acoustics in Peace Hall are fabulous. The niggun rose and fell, swelled and waned, and ended on a a thoroughly unrehearsed and yet somehow fully harmonic, chord-like coda.  I use niggun all the time in my work. In the last few years, I believe we have introduced no fewer than 50 new tunes into our musical repertoire at Temple Beth Am. I love singing with my community.  And with my colleagues.  And yet I do not remember a more heart-filling and awakened musical or spiritual moment in my life.  

The moment ended.  People started filing out of Peace Hall, as they had been told (by the nun) that I had my own personal Sabbath prayers to add on to this ritual and they didn’t want to disturb.  Some could not help themselves, and came to me to tell me what this experience was like. I promise no embellishment as I convey what some of them said to me. 

One said she will remember this moment for the rest of her life.  One told me that the last tune, in particular, had helped heal a deeply-held wound in her soul.  Then one of them pointed to a large rock on the table that held the Shabbat candles and kiddush cup and asked the significance of the stone in the Jewish ritual practice.  We all had a cathartic laugh when I told them that the rock just happened to be on the table and I had decided not to move it.  A peer in the retreat suggested I go back to my community saying that I had uncovered an ancient Scottish Jewish rite, that had every Friday night dinner begin with a large, craggy rock smack in the middle of the table.

Eventually the room emptied, and I was left to davven Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv in the waning light, and digest what had just transpired.  This particular set of prayers, which I generally loathe to say by myself, were elevated, uplifted and infused with spirit.  I sang them all out loud, to myself, in Peace Hall.  I sang so full and so loud that at times I wasn’t even sure if my voice were the one making the sound.  And I had my childhood and adolescence, and college years, and the members of both congregations I have served in my rabbinate thus far, and the voices and tunes of countless artists and composers as my minyan as I went through the liturgy.  There, in Peace Hall, on Holy Isle, on an island with Tibetan Buddhists, and a whole sea of non-Jews, I had Nava Tehila from Jerusalem with me.  And Micah Shapiro, a recent graduate of Boston Hebrew College whose tunes for Kabbalat Shabbat have become part of the Beth Am experience.  He was there, as was my partner and cantor, Rabbi Hillary Chorny, as I sang her exquisite composition to Psalm 93.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was with me as well, of course. As were the anonymous (at least to me) composers of the traditional Ashkenazi Friday night nusah.  I had feared I would be alone on this isle for Shabbat.  I have never felt so un-alone in my Jewish practice.

If that were the end of the story, dayenu. It certainly would have been enough.  But it was not. 

My mini-Shabbat service, I had learned, had quickly become the topic of conversation and curiosity and awe among this sacred community.  Throughout the rest of the evening and into the next day, I kept hearing how the experience had moved people. I heard it from people who said it to my face, one of whom said she would only come back for Sue Weston’s retreat if Jewish chanting were a formal part of it.  And I heard it from people who were just talking to one another in a different room but within my earshot, explaining that they never understood how spiritual Jewish practice could be. “Do you believe that such love and tenderness is expressed between spouses as Sabbath begins?”  “When he blessed his children, in abstentia, I thought of my own children and tears welled up. I wish we had this in our religion.”  And I also heard it from another small but important subgroup of people who happened to be with me on this island for Shabbat.  

Let me go back a bit. When I had started to sing Shalom Aleichem in Peace Hall, I swore I heard some light singing of the tune, and the words, in the background. But how could that be?  When I said the “boreh pri ha’etz” over the pear juice, I almost certainly heard an unbidden “amen,” sung in tune.  And by the time I got to the second half of the longer kiddush paragraph, I heard two distinct and clear voices joining in with “ki vanu vaharta, v’otanu kidashta mikol ha’amim…”  Among the volunteers on the island and those here for just a getaway but not part of our retreat, were two Jews.  They had not previously identified themselves to me, despite my very obvious Jew-y kippah that I had been wearing all week.  But they were there.  Seeking. Searching.  Still, clearly, tune-connected to the religion and people of their origin, but on this island precisely because the Judaism they had fled had never filled their spirits adequately enough to keep them in the game, as it were. I found it a bittersweet irony that they “came out” as Jews, to me and to the rest of the group, by uttering the words of the kiddush that are some of the hardest words to say with a full and non-guilty heart when experiencing beautiful shared spirituality with non-Jews: “For God chose us, and sanctified us, among all the peoples…”  

Over the course of Shabbat, I spoke at length to these two Jews, both from Britain.  One thanked me for exposing the beauty and sweetness of Judaism in an era, and continent, of what she called rampant anti-Semitism, thus perhaps creating some subtle ambassadors as those on this retreat would go back to their homes and might speak about the nice Jew that they met and the nice rituals he led.  The other spoke about the pain of never feeling alive or soul-connected in her Jewish life and education.  She grew up in a pretty Jewish part of London.  She knew the words and the prayers. And she said hearing the kiddush was a surge of comforting nostalgia for her. But just that.  Maybe a hint of what spiritual power there could be in Judaism, but which she had never imbibed.  It was hard for her to believe that Judaism and Jewish practice, and particularly traditional Jewish observance could be non-fanatical, embodied, nourishing, intellectually honest, both particular in form and yet universal in aspiration.  Had she experienced all of that, she told me, she might never have felt the need to escape to Holy Isle. I told her that I did experience those very parts of Judaism, and try to teach, model and embody them, and I still came to Holy Isle to learn even more ways to animate the Judaism that I love so dearly, but which I know suffers through moribund stretches that call for re-awakening.

As the chatter about the Friday night experience in Peace Hall rose throughout Shabbat morning, there was a swell of curiosity and interest in more Jewish singing. What a nutty phenomenon: You had people who came to a Buddhist meditation and Qi Gong retreat for spiritual healing and centering clamoring for a Jewish rabbi to offer them more niggun sessions.  And it wasn’t taking away from the spiritual thrust of the retreat, or the place. It was purely additive.

By mid afternoon, the host Buddhist nun and Sue Weston both came to me, knowing that I would need to end my Sabbath with another short ritual later that night, and asked again whether the entire island could be invited to join.  I told them I would be honored, and asked what they thought if we met about 45 minutes before the time for Havdalah for an extended, fully ecumenical, wordless and contentless niggun circle.  Formal programming on the island ends at 8:30.  Havdalah was set for 9:45.  Meeting together in Peace Hall at 9 would not interfere with any of the retreat’s or the island’s volunteers’ normal activities. They were delighted with the idea. 

Aspects of this whole dynamic led to some moments that were both sweetly comical (sometimes to me, sometimes to others as well) and also painful (only to me).  Some examples.  I was struck by the incongruity of my finding a way to make tea on Shabbat afternoon at a Buddhist retreat center using a kli shlishi (“third vessel”), which is how many observant Jews make tea on Shabbat in such a way that does not, according to halakha/Jewish law, violate the obligation of cooking raw food.  I will always linger on the “who would have imagined it?” moment when a Buddhist nun asked whether leaning two birthday candles together would be sufficient for Havdalah.  Those were sweet.  And some painful and internally awkward moments as well.  For instance, how do I tell this loving and embracing Buddhist nun what my texts really tell me to say when she innocuously and generously asks whether she can take the extinguished tea-lights thad had served as Shabbat candles and add them to the devotional space in their Buddhist prayer room? By strange coincidence, my regular and rhythmic study of Talmud has me studying, right now, the tractate Avodah Zarah, dealing with the prohibitions of idolatry and of dealings with idolaters.  On that very day, I was studying the section that discussed how far away from idolaters’ holidays one must refrain from doing business with them, lest they use something they purchased from you in their practice or even bless you in gratitude in the name of their God(s). I do understand why the Talmud wrote those laws and restrictions. And I am not even convinced that the rabbis, if they really knew enough of Buddhist thought, would have considered practicing Buddhists to be idolaters. But that is sophistry.  At the core, I felt that my own tradition, in the midst of it being as welcomed and blessed as could be possible in another religious tradition’s holy place, was shouting out some of its xenophobia and blatant judgment of others’ religious forms.  When the nun did indeed ask me that question, I told her I would be honored. I do feel it was the right decision, even if there may be texts that question whether extinguished Shabbat candles ought to end up part of a Buddhist rite.  

And my very Shabbat prayers, which as I have said before were so awakened and alive for me, also caught me in some harsh ways.  Here I was, relishing in the rest of Shabbat, and utterly grateful for the womb of tranquility being offered to me by a community of non-Jews, hearing my mouth say these words from the Shabbat morning amidahv’lo n’atto adonai eloheynu l’goyei ha’aratzot.  “God, you did not give Shabbat to the nations of the world. Nor did our King bequeath it to idol-worshippers.  The uncircumcised will not dwell in its restful embrace.”  I believe that on some level. I believe that our Shabbat has unique qualities and characters to it. But it felt insulting, and inaccurate, to utter those words amidst a community of very holy people experiencing a very holy and restful Shabbat though they never uttered a single Hebrew prayer nor had taken upon them the yoke of the Jewish commandments. I felt guilty uttering those words just feet away from people without whose open and embracing hearts this Jew would never have experienced Shabbat’s rest this weekend.  

I said the Shabbat afternoon prayers right after a particularly meaningful meditation. My heart and soul were alive and open, and I thought of the wisdom of the Mishnah in tractate Brakhot, where it says that the early pious ones would meditate for a full hour before they would recite their prayers. (Nowadays in shuls if weekday prayer is not fully complete within an hour, someone’s job could be on the line).  I recited the Shabbat minhservice more awake to the meaning of the words than I have in a long time. That was mostly a blessing.  But it came with a wince as well, as when I uttered the self-referential words “mi k’amkha yisrael? Who is like your people Israel?” they sounded jingoistic to my ears.  What makes us so special?  And the following words in the liturgy took on a different contour than what I imagine is their original intent. “Goy ehad ba’aretz.  One nation upon the earth.”  The plain meaning is that we, Israel, are the singular nation on this planet.  This time, the words echoed for me as a prayer that, even with our disparate forms, languages, liturgies, rites and belief systems, the human community is—could be—one nation upon the earth. And religious communities could and should be leading the charge to that messianic possibility, rather than reinforcing only those boundaries that keep us separate.

If my afternoon of prayers and interactions included some internal hiccups, the end of Shabbat was all glory. All sweetness.  Some version of this experience, of course, is repeated and indulged in by Jewish communities—particularly at camp and at youth group retreats—all over the world. Who doesn’t like Havdalah?  But something made this Havdalah different than all other.  First, we sat in a circle in Peace Hall and we sang. I reinforced the two niggunim I had sung the previous night.  Then I introduced them to Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach’s “Rova Niggun,” one of his simplest yet least-known tunes.  They picked it up in a second and the room exploded with musical meaning. After that, I taught them Zusha’s “East Shtetl Niggun.”  Google it. It is out there, and wacky, and wonderful.  I think it was this group’s favorite.  I threw in a few more before teaching them the niggun I learned for Havdalah when I was at Yeshivat Hamivtar in 1994, and have been using and teaching ever since. (If my rebbes in yeshiva knew I was teaching their tune to non-Jews at a Buddhist retreat center on Holy Isle…!?).  They mastered the tune quickly. We sang it fast and energetic, and then slow and elegiac.  I explained how the rituals, and music, of Havdalah are caught in liminality, grateful for the Shabbat we just experienced and yet sad to release our extra soul, not to meet it again until the following Shabbat. I was singing, and explaining, not to proselytize.   Or to convert.  Or to make people more religious. Or to grow my community. But just to share my love and my spirit, and the sweetness of our notes.  Maybe the very absence of pressure or missionary posturing contributed to people’s openness to the notes, and the feeling, of the entire service.  I can’t explain the exact pathways, But this Havdalah was triumphant. And transcendent.  When we ended I did the simplest thing that Jewish camp counselors and youth leaders learn: grab hands and make a circle. For some reason, this tipped this group over the top. They simple sunk in to the embodied nature of a simple grasp of the hands.  Someone started a squeeze and sent it around the room. It wasn’t me, but I felt it come my way and I sent it to the next person.  When we were done, we were breathless and breath-full at the same time.  

And as a result of this unexpected weekend, there is now a group of 45-50 people, mostly British, but some Canadian, German, Polish, Brazilian, of all ages. Of all sizes.  Some seekers. Some in pain. Some committed meditators.  Some who had never met a Jew. All of whom who now know of Shlomo Carlebach, and why we look at our fingernails during Havdalah.  A group of people who are incredibly touched that a Jewish husband turns and praises his wife when Shabbat begins, and who are humming Zusha’s East Shtetl Niggun to themselves as they go about their work on the Holy Isle.  We have a collection of folks, mostly of originally Christian heritage but now on a search for deeper peace and meaning, who, before being serendipitously cloistered on this island with a rabbi from LA had never experienced a specifically Jewish moment, who now understood something that professional Jews like myself spend their time, and careers, trying to get Jews of all ages to understand and embrace: and that is that there is tremendous organic and embodied power to Jewish forms, rituals, music and ways.  One told me she felt it to be a true privilege to hear the sounds and be witness to the rituals of the Jewish Sabbath.  They understand this organic Jewish spirit so well that they want more of it.

Not of Judaism, per se.  They don’t want bar mitzvahs and lulavs.  Rather, they want the spiritual force that gushes forth from so many of our traditions, but which have been diluted by over-intellectualization, disconnect from the body, poor education, lack of commitment and raw ennui.  How do we get our shuls, and those within them and those who would never set foot in them, to rediscover this path?  If we cannot take them all to Holy Isle, how do we bring some of what Holy Isle stands for, and enables, to our established communities?  How do we re-open Jews to the treasure of their inheritance?  How do we take seriously our role as caretakers of the tradition and refuse to permit the rabbinate and cantorate to be mostly page-calling, stage-directing and expertise-exhibiting when services are on? How do we meet the needs of those who do fill the pews and who are not necessarily interested in having their familiar Judaism be broken down so it can be re-embodied and re-spiritualized…while also meeting the needs and wishes of the Jews who will never find home and retreat in Judaism unless that very surgery takes place?  How do we serve what we sense the universe needs from our Judaism and Jewish practice? Which is introducing soulfulness and an open heart, and gratitude, and connection to our bodies and, in the safest of ways, even to others’ bodies as we continue to cherish, observe and also reawaken the unique forms that make up Jewish practice and observance.

The retreat is not yet over.  As of writing this, there will be at least two more niggun sessions.  One was requested by a few who asked, almost with temerity, whether I would be comfortable if they recorded some of these tunes so that they could bring them back to their lives and families and communities. Would I be OK?  Can you imagine it?  Church groups in Wales singing the East Shtetl niggun?  A choir director in southern England using Calrebach’s Rova niggun as a warm-up for their practice? It is too wonderful to consider.  So that recording session will take place, with a room full of singing voices and iPhones set to capture the tunes.  And Sue has formally asked me to use niggun to end the retreat itself. As someone who puts an enormous amount of time into how I begin and end sessions that I lead, I am honored and touched to think that what I brought to this experience was sufficiently powerful that Sue, a master presenter and teacher, who I am sure planned exactly how she intended to close the experience, has considered that there would be no better way to end this week together than with my leading some singing.  I plan, at that closing session, to introduce words for the first time into our group singing. Not liturgical ones. That would violate the covenant we are all sharing.  But I do think that concluding with Od yavo shalom aleynu, v’al kulam would be most appropriate.  Indeed, let peace come upon not only us, but upon everyone.

I will, weather permitting, leave this island in a few days.  I will take away more that can be named.  Certainly, a re-attachment to the words of our prayers that become re-ignited in my consciousness.  Including those words said so early on a morning weekday or Shabbat service that sanctuaries are usually still empty by then, and which are usually raced through by those who are there: barukh she’amar v’haya olam: Blessed be the One who spoke, and there was a world.  Our words, like God’s in Genesis, can create worlds.  And sew worlds and people together.  Beyond words, I will leave Holy Isle with a renewed commitment to embodied religious life.  In Sue Weston’s words, to outrageous vitality and perkiness, and to being unashamed at having those stances be reflected in my Jewishness, in my rabbinate, in my soul.  Will we Jews permit ourselves to be ecstatic? Can we fully live in our bodies as we live our Judaism?  Can we accept our hands and feet and heart and chest and pelvis and ears and toes as instruments of our divine work?  I aim to try.  I aim to try to say “yes” to the nun’s extraordinary offer that I come back and lead a chanting retreat on this Holy Isle, and I hope that perhaps some from my community may join me if it comes to fruition.  I aim to accept the wonder that as this group of non-Jews became open to the spiritual power of Judaism and Jewish music, they re-opened me to my own embodied inheritance.  

I recited the Aleynu prayer many times this week.  I bowed deeply at the appropriate words.  But towards the end, in the paragraph almost always said silently in Jewish communities, a few words got caught in my throat.  Yakiru v’yed’u kol yoshvei tevel.  All the inhabitants of the earth will recognize and know.  Ki l’kha tikhra kol berekh.  That to You will bow every knee.  Tishava kol lashon.  That to you will swear every tongue.  L’fanekha adonai eloheinu yikhr’eu v’yipolu.  That before You, our God, all will prostrate, and all will bend.  All that bending before the Divine light.  And all that knowing the divine goodness. And all that committing to making that awareness be a spark for acceptance and beauty in the world. And all that permitting our entire bodies and beings be part of our religious practice.  All of that? It is happening, here, on Holy Isle.  This prayer has Jews being so very concerned that all the peoples of the world will learn this pose, this awareness, this craft. It is worth aspiring to. But when it comes to bowing. And awareness of God’s presence.  And fully embodying religious life…can we work on ourselves first?

Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.

Parashat Korach: Bring others up, not down

Reuters/David W Cerny

To raise or to lower? That is a crucial question for a person to consider regarding how one’s spiritual life impacts other people and the world itself.

Do I wield my Judaism, my Torah, my very being in a way that raises others up? Or pushes them down? And even when I am down, knocked to the floor by others, do I muster the character to help others soar? Or do I use my power, influence or rage in order to stomp?

Within a religious community for which the notion of aliyah is so ubiquitous and resonant — whether with respect to being called to the Torah, or moving to Israel, or even what one hopes for one’s soul after death — attuning our daily encounters toward contributing to others’ ascent needs to be a more prominent part of a Jew’s life.

We learn this message from Korach and his anti-heroism in this week’s parsha. Many have pointed out that the content of his complaint against Moshe has merit; after all, Moshe and Aharon seem to set themselves above the rest of the congregation. It appears that all Korach is trying to do is to democratize the spiritual and political life of ancient Israel, and have all be equal before God — not a terrible goal. And yet, how he goes about it reveals more venal motivations.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the 19th-century Chasidic master, makes this point in his Mei HaShiloach.  He quotes a midrash that imagines a circular geometry governing God’s relationship with all people; each of us is along the circumference, equidistant from God at the center. That, according to the Izhbitser Rebbe, is what Korach is claiming he envisions for Israel. And yet, when Korach and his fellow Levite clan members are themselves offered greater authority and access, they do not demur. Rather, they embrace the hierarchy. This suggests that Korach’s true intent was not to democratize or flatten hierarchy, but rather invert it. They didn’t just want themselves to rise. They wanted others to fall. They wanted to be at the peak, at the expense of others’ descent.

This is hinted at within the vocabulary of the opening lines of the drama. Korach accuses Moshe of lording over the congregation of Israel. The Hebrew is “titnas’eu,” from the root n-s-a, meaning to rise. Some translations have Korach complaining against Moshe’s “exalting himself” over the other Israelites. Is Korach recognizing something true about Moshe? Or is he perseverating upon rank and status because that is the only relational language he understands? 

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out that we are most able to identify, and be troubled by, the very flaws in others that we, perhaps unconsciously, struggle with ourselves. Korach notices Moshe’s communal stature and height because Korach wants to be high and of status. Korach critiques Moshe, though deep down he envies Moshe and determines the only way for him to rise is for Moshe to fall.

How tragic. And how common, in more than one sense of the word.

This stance is in contradistinction to Moshe’s own modeling. Just two weeks ago, within Parashat Beha’alotecha, Moshe is brought quite low by the people’s clamoring accusations and insults — even from his own siblings. Nevertheless, he uses his audience with God not to raise himself at others’ expense, but rather to argue on behalf of his constituents and then pray that Miriam be healed, that she be raised up.

Can we reach that level? Ought we not at least aspire to it? Perhaps this aspiration should be a daily meditation. An early version of the siddur, comprised by Rav Amram Gaon in the ninth century, includes something along those lines. “May it be your will, Adonai our God, that you grant us a good heart and a generous spirit, humility and modesty, and good companions.” The Hebrew I have translated as “humility and modesty” is ruach n’mukhah and ruach sh’falah, perhaps better rendered as a “short” and “low” spirit.

I don’t think Rav Amram was praying that Jews go through their days debased and humiliated, heads slung low. Rather, the prayer was that we resist the urge to constantly climb higher, particularly on the backs of others’ decline. Perhaps that is why “humility and modesty” are so closely associated with “good companions.” When we use our voice, words and spirit to bring others higher, rather than lower, we will grow in friendship, we will grow in the stature that matters most, and we will grow the community in which we live.

Our times are fraught. On issues domestic, geopolitical, religious, status-based, Israel-focused and beyond, people are taking sides and staking claims more vociferously than I can remember. Perhaps the era calls for particularly strong stances in defense of the just. But strength need not be exhibited only via stridency. Truth and goodness have their own power, without the aid of battering rams. We ought to articulate our convictions with both confidence and humility. In eschewing Korach and emulating Moshe, may our very beings be an aliyah and lead most pointedly to the rise of righteousness and the ascent of the others in our midst. 

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld is senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am (, a Conservative congregation in West Los Angeles.

For our faith to grow, we must celebrate its roots in nature

Photo from Pexels

When our ancestors received the Torah, they stood at a mountain. When we celebrate receiving the Torah on Shavuot, we will stand in the pews. They looked at the sky; we will look at the ceiling. They were warmed by the sun; we will be cooled by the air conditioning.

I am a rabbi in a synagogue. But before I am a rabbi in a synagogue, I am a rabbi in the world.

Increasingly, our Judaism is walled in, confined to the fixed seats in the standard rooms designed with vaulted ceilings and an elaborate ark. There are variations — some sanctuaries have windows of clear or stained glass, seats that move or are fixed and bolted, men and women sitting separately or together. Nonetheless, they are resolutely indoor spaces. We invoke the stars as we look up to the lighting fixtures. As Churchill said, we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.

But outside is the world. Essayist E.B. White once wrote that everything changed the day man walked on the moon because instead of going outside to see the moon, people watched it inside on their television sets. That peculiar reversal afflicts Jewish worship, as well. We bless the natural world without being in it. We praise God’s creation as we sit in concrete boxes fashioned by human beings.

For generations, this was accepted and understood. Today, I believe we will lose young Jews if we do not take Torah to the streets — and to the beaches, to the mountains and to the forests.

Nearly three centuries ago, Chasidism revitalized the spiritual life of Jewry. There is a reason Chasidism grew up in the forest, as there is a reason why Jewish camping is the most successful modern movement in Jewish life. If you live in a city, at night you see the magnificence of the lights — a testament to the grandeur of humanity. If you go to the country, you see the canopy of constellations — a testament to the grandeur of God.

Which is more likely to inspire the devotion that is the wellspring of Torah?

This is hardly a new idea. Judaism was born in the desert; we are a people of tents and star-sewn nights. Wandering by fire and smoke, we scraped manna from the ground. As we entered the Promised Land, crops and harvests shaped the cadences of life.

Today, numerous groups are recalling our origins, such as Wilderness Torah, synagogues that create trips and experiences, and groups like Chabad that consciously practice outdoor worship. In Los Angeles alone there is Nashuva in Temescal Canyon, Open Temple, the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue with beachside services, and others. And when at Sinai Temple we inaugurated our millennial initiative earlier this year, it was understood that it had to focus outside our walls. Inspiration lives more in clouds than in concrete.

As the rabbi of a mainstream congregation who understands all the challenges of parking and building maintenance, I want those of us comfortable in our seats to start pushing the walls outward. We have to send our clergy and train our laypeople to initiate prayer anywhere and everywhere. There should be minyanim at the mall, blessings in the bar and Torah under the trees. Even large synagogues must increasingly create small, organic experiences particularly focused on the outdoors: shabbatonim at camps and retreats, morning minyan hikes, Shabbat services in the park as we now do for families on Friday evenings. Grander possibilities, too, may take hold: worship cruises or Shabbat at the Hollywood Bowl.

Younger people are not drawn to the spaces their elders have created. They are drawn to the world — to the bustle of people in the market and the stillness of solitude on the mountaintop. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” as the Psalmist wrote. Our love of nature looks beyond the beauty to its Source. It is a therapeutic value and a spiritual imperative.

The Torah begins with human beings in a garden, and cultivating nature is part of our tradition, as well. Planting and reaping and sowing are the rhythms of the Jewish year. This holiday of Shavuot is the culmination of the harvest. This was the first day when Israelites would bring fruit from the “seven species” of the Land: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates (Deuteronomy 8:8). Having grown the food, offering it was a product of their labor and their love.

We are accustomed to study on the holiday, but surely we also should touch the soil and understand anew that the Torah began not in urban structures but on hills and pastures. On this holiday of Shavuot, we stood at Sinai, amid thunder and lightning. The power of the natural world enfolded Israel and prepared them for the spiritual peak of history. The Torah may be studied, cherished and taught indoors, but it was given in the immensity of open space.

The return to Eretz Yisrael, to the land of Israel, was a renewal of the Jewish connection to the earth. We in the Diaspora more fully embrace our tradition and our past when we cleanse our souls by dirtying our hands.

There are great advantages to buildings — the gathering together, the fixed place for community, the facilities and, of course, dryness and comfort. Many are artistically and sensitively rendered. No one would advocate abandoning our structured communities. The place of spaces for worship, as for all sorts of gatherings, is certain and secure. Buildings give us classrooms, opportunities to memorialize, a sense of fixed and settled places.

But we have to grow past the walls, to create flash mobs of Torah, where spontaneous and genuine learning happens.

When I first went to Camp Ramah as a child, I came home and asked my father, the rabbi of a large congregation in Philadelphia, why we needed a building. I had just prayed all summer long next to a tree, and it had a power beyond what I found in my home synagogue. My father told me that when he was growing up, neither he nor his friends felt as accepted as the Irish Catholics of Boston. The non-Jewish community worshipped in magnificent churches and the Jewish community believed, all across America, that if one day our synagogues could be as grand, we would be equal. So when his generation grew to adulthood, they wanted buildings as beautiful as the Christian churches, to show they had arrived. The fact that you don’t need them, my father said, means we succeeded.

Jews have long since arrived. The structures of modern Jewish life are stolid, imposing and sometimes genuinely magnificent. But we inhabit a rich, blooming garden of a world. To live in Los Angeles and never pray on the sand, or while hiking a trail, is to turn one’s back on so much that God has given.

When my niece, a rabbinical student, was married, we celebrated Kabbalat Shabbat in the forest. We sang “Lecha Dodi,” and it was possible to envision the mystics of Safed, where the prayer was written, watching the sun setting over the mountains. I saw the shadow tracery of the branches dance on the ground as the sky darkened. Shabbat did not come through the window; it came through the world.

I cannot move our Saturday morning service to the middle of Wilshire Boulevard or to Will Rogers State Historic Park. There is no place for a thousand congregants or the various accommodations that must be made in a modern city. But it is time to begin to think about when we can step out of our building. As we do taschlich by the ocean, we should create regular opportunities to touch the earth, to pray on a mountaintop or by a beach, to walk and learn, to remember that God’s first and greatest act is creation.

The story is told of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the great 19th century Jewish thinker and leader, that late in life he told his students he was off to hike in the Alps. When they asked him why, at his advanced age, he would undertake such a difficult trip, he answered: “Because I am soon to come before God. And when I do, I know God will say to me, ‘So, Shimshon, did you see My Alps?’ ”

When God asks if we offered praise in the beautiful corners of his world, let us be able to answer “yes.” Take your prayer to the park, your minyan to the mountain and your blessings to the beach.

Will returning to nature “save Judaism”? Who knows. But it will certainly save some Jews.

There is a blessing in our tradition for seeing natural wonders — oseh ma’aseh bereshit  the One who accomplished the work of creation. Let us step out from behind the walls, throw our arms and voices up to the sky, and bless God, whose miracles fill the earth. 

David Wolpe is the Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple. His most recent book is “David: The Divided Heart” (Yale University Press).

The value of voice

As we prepare for the High Holy Days, we often do not consider one aspect  of ourselves, our voice. I’m taking about our actual vocal cords; our means of producing sound. 

We use our voice to chant along with or respond to the cantor, but many of us will also use our voice minimally, as we let the cantor and choir fill our ears and hearts with deep meaning, letting us sit there and contemplate our lives, our loves and our transgressions.

Never before (most likely) has anyone said lift up your voice in song like your life depends on it! Even as cantors encourage you to sing, they don’t tell you that in doing so — by truly engaging your physical voice — you will create a physically healthy and rejuvenating experience. They also don’t tell you that psychosomatically engaging your voice will help you release fears and emotions stored in the voice and mind, and therefore help bring you to new levels of self-realization (what the High Holy Days are about).

It is true: Singing relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, simultaneously engages your left and right brain to build your intelligence and creates a vibration of your vocal cords that resonates throughout your entire body, that creates a positive, healing response in your mind, body and spirit. 

Not to mention, when a community sounds their voices together, the room shifts from a bunch of people with different lives and problems, to a kehillah (community) with a common intention for healing and peace. 

And here’s where I get personal: Having studied and taught voice for a decade, I know many of you believe “you can’t sing” or “you have a bad voice.” That’s OK. You can think that, but realize you’ve helped make the belief a reality by believing it. 

The ultimate truth is that you can sing. It is your birthright. Why do I know this? Simply because you have a voice. 

Cantor Neil Newman, my first cantorial mentor, reminded me to tell the congregation that it’s not singing we’re doing; it’s praying. This will make people more comfortable to join in the song. And while he is right, I cannot help but remember that singing and praying are often deeply connected. It often doesn’t matter if I’m singing an Italian aria, a Spanish rumba or the Avinu Malkeinu; to me, it’s all prayer.  

These High Holy Days, please give yourself permission to use your voice a little more assertively than you have in the past. I promise that the people sitting next to you won’t mind or judge you. It is most likely that you’ll motivate your neighbors to sing as well (they may be too nervous or uncomfortable to use their voices in the first place). 

It’s wonderful that your cantor has a great voice. But so do you. It’s yours!  

And as a cantorial soloist, sure, I love singing from my heart so that all can hear. But the magic truly happens when I succeed at leading the community in song; when they lift up my voice so I can continue to lift up theirs. 

We then become individual prayers as one voice. 

That, is ruach.

Ariella Forstein is a cantorial soloist, performer and vocal empowerment coach based in Los Angeles and in Minneapolis. Find out more about Forstein’s work at and about her performing at

Confessing our sins

Few prayers are as well known to Jews as Ashamnu (“We have sinned …”) and Al Chet (“For the sin …”), the twin confessions of Yom Kippur. Belief in human sinfulness is more central to Judaism than we think. Sin may not be “original,” as it is in Christianity — inherited from Adam, that is, as a sort of genetic endowment ever after. But it is at least primal: It is there, patent, indelible and unavoidable. We may not be utterly depraved — the teaching with which American Protestantism grew up — but we are indeed sinners.

Talmudic practice, therefore, was to say a confession every single day, a precedent that continued into the Middle Ages and still survives in Sephardi synagogues. Ashkenazi Jews also announce that sinfulness daily in a part of the service called Tachanun (“supplications”), which includes a line from Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King, be gracious and answer us, for we have no deeds.” 

That translation misses the theological point, however. Classical Christianity believed that we are too sinful to be of any merit on our own. We depend, therefore, on God’s “grace,” the love God gives even though we do not deserve it. Jews, by contrast, preach the value of good deeds, the mitzvot. But Avinu Malkeinu hedges that bet. At least in Tachanun, and certainly from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, we proclaim “we have no deeds” and rely on God’s “gracious” love instead.

Our two Yom Kippur confessions appeared in “Seder Rav Amram,” the first comprehensive Jewish prayer book (circa 860), and became standard thereafter.

But do Jews really believe we are as sinful as the confessions imply? Nineteenth century Jews, recently emancipated from medieval ghettos, doubted it. For well more than a century, philosophers had preached the primacy of reason as the cognitive capacity that makes all human beings equal. These two influences, political equality and the fresh air of reason, paved the way for a century when all things seemed possible. And indeed, scientific advances and the industrial revolution did seem to promise an end to human suffering just around the corner.

It wasn’t just Jews who felt that way. For Europeans in general, the notion of human sin, whether original (for Christians) or primal (for Jews), lost plausibility. Far from bemoaning human depravity, it seemed, religion should celebrate human nobility. Enlightenment rabbis began paring away Yom Kippur’s heavy accent on sin.

From then until now, new liturgies (usually Reform and Reconstructionist) have shortened the confessions, translated them to lessen their overall impact and created new ones that addressed more obvious shortcomings of human society. But traditionalist liturgies also tried to underscore human promise and explain away the aspects of the confessions that no one believed anymore. Al Chet “is an enumeration of all the sins and errors known to mankind,” said Samson Raphael Hirsch, the founder of Modern Orthodoxy. It is not as if we, personally, have done them, but some Jew somewhere has, and as the Talmud says, “All Israelites are responsible for one another.”

Some would say today that as much as the 19th century revealed the human capacity for progress, the 20th and 21st centuries have demonstrated the very opposite. Perhaps we really are as sinful as the traditional liturgy says. Religious “progressives” respond by saying that we suffer only from a failure of nerve and that more than ever, Yom Kippur should reaffirm the liberal faith in human dignity, nobility and virtue. At stake on Yom Kippur this year is not just one confession rather than another, but our faith in humankind and the kind of world we think we are still capable of building.

I am not yet ready to throw in the Enlightenment towel. Back in 1824, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon of Hamburg gave a sermon in which he said, “All of us feel, to one extent or other, that, in spirit and soul, we belong to a higher order than the ephemeral. We feel that we are human in the most noble sense of the word, that we are closely connected to the Father of all existence, and that we could have no higher purpose than to show ourselves worthy of this relationship.”

Those words ring true for us today. We have something to gain from the Enlightenment’s belief that acting for human betterment is the noble thing to do, and that acting nobly is still possible.

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, the Barbara and Stephen Friedman professor of liturgy, worship and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, is the author most recently of “We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism — Ashamnu and Al Chet” (Jewish Lights).

5 theories you meet in heaven

What is the singular essence of Rosh Hashanah?

The core meaning of Rosh Hashanah is the sovereignty of the divine. By sovereignty of the divine, I don’t mean any particular level of Jewish practice. Jewish pietistic literature is well aware that anyone can go through the motions of outward observance. By sovereignty of the divine, I mean finding a way to find a standard for the duties and habits of the inner life.

Our inner thoughts, feelings, emotions, imagination, drives, impulses, sensations, perceptions, judgments and intuitions can all be askew and can push us in various ways in life, often contradictory ways. We need some standard, some criterion by which to assess ourselves.
Saying that “God is sovereign” is just not enough. If the divine will in its moral concern is expressed through the conscience, and if the concerns of the conscience can be expressed in language, then we should be able to come up with the values that ought to guide our lives — for example, love, justice, truth and beauty.

Words such as “love, justice, truth and beauty” remain only lofty concepts until we allow them to actually shape the inner life. When I think of words that name ultimate values shaping our lives, I keep in mind the Hebrew phrase “ohl malkhut shamayim,” the “yoke of the sovereignty of the divine.” The word “yoke,” which comes from the same Sanskrit root as “yoga,” has the sense of joining together, harnessing or directing, whether it is breathing, posture or consciousness. It seems a stretch, but actually it is not much of a stretch to think of Rosh Hashanah in particular, and the Days of Awe in general, as focusing on the yoga of divine consciousness.

How does one, then, take these divine values (I call them the Garments of the Mind of God) and have them, in a practical way, shape the inner life? My most recent articulation of a response to this question has to do with my adaption of the thought of a very fine book by Thomas Sowell, “Knowledge and Decisions.” Sowell demonstrates that one can assess the world of ideas through their relationship to the process of authentication. A vision, for example, cannot be authenticated. A vision for oneself, for society, can be inspiring or foolish (or both), but cannot be rationally assessed, because visions are not arrived at through any systematic process. A vision can be assessed only when it reaches the realm of “theory,” which means at some level it can and must be authenticated by reason.

When people ask me what I mean by the “yoga of divine consciousness,” from a practical perspective,  I respond:  “Do you have theories about what will shape you into the person you want to be, for the way you want your life to be?” Here is what I have discovered. Most people do, indeed, have lofty values, usually having to do with some facet of love, justice, truth and beauty. They might even have a practical theory or two. These values and theories, however, often are pushed aside in moments of moral stress.

For example, when I ask a person what their vision is for their family, they may say “love, safety, respect, nurturing” and so forth. Their values are good. When there is conflict or stress, however, the behaviors don’t seem to coincide with the vision. In the language of Jewish spiritual psychology, we say that the “yetzer harah” (a shaping toward destructiveness) has taken over, and provided the inner life with bad theories.

Here is a tool:  Whenever you are contemplating or assessing some mode of thought, feeling, speech or behavior, ask yourself: “What’s the theory?” and “How does this relate to the values that I hold?” Rationally speaking, does the real theory guiding my behavior line up with my values?

The problem we find is that many of the theories that rule our lives hide in the shadow of the self. Sometimes when I counsel a person, and ask them to give me a theory that accounts for their behavior, they are blank. They can’t come up with the theory. We dig deeper. Theories that often pop out of the shadows are, “If I yell at my kid/spouse enough, they will change,” “If I avoid confrontation, I will get my way,” and “If I had been more loving, it would have worked out.” And so forth.  The theories don’t stand up to rational inquiry, meaning that they don’t match the facts or lead to the realization of the values we hold.

If one starts with a reasonable set of values or axioms, as they apply to given situations, and is willing to work things through rationally, we can begin to distinguish between theories that lead to misfortune and those that lead to blessing.

In years of my work and counseling others, I think that there are several theories that nearly always guide us toward restraining destructive behavior, ridding us of bad theories and helping live lives aligned with our highest values. I’ve tried to boil them down to a few essential guides, metaphorically, “The Five Theories You Meet in Heaven.” Here is one version:

Obligations have to be subjected to rational inquiry. Some people exhaust themselves serving others. Not only clergy, therapists and physicians burn out; in nearly every family there is someone fatigued by meeting the needs of others. A demanding aged parent. A struggling child. An unhappy spouse. When I counsel a person run ragged by the demands of other people, I have them assess those demands by a simple rational calculus. What exactly is the obligation? How did that precise obligation come upon you in particular? Can it actually be done (this is especially important regarding the person who says, “You must make me happy.”)? Are you the only one who can do it? Might it get done in some other way? What is the cost to you, compared to the benefit to the other? Will the other person really be better off if you do this, and for how long?  What I find is that needy people often have a peculiar talent for working guilt-prone people. A good theory can help.

Love is a discipline, not an emotion. I often hear in counseling, “If he/she loved me, I would feel better.” I just turn the tables. “And how is your love for him/ her making them feel?” For some people, when they fall in love with someone, their theory is, usually unconsciously, that love will heal their deepest wounds, make them feel safe and treasured and will be a guarantor for happiness, and if this does not happen, then the other person is doing something wrong.
I offer a different theory, paraphrasing Charles Bukowski: “Love unleashes the dogs of hell.” Love fills us with often wild and unspoken needs and demands. How do we restrain the dogs from hell? See love as discipline of service, whatever the emotions may be. If I love someone, my love should bless them. My love should make their life better.

If you are hurt, this does not mean you have been wronged. It is entirely natural to experience hurt as being wronged. Any hurt or great disappointment looks for a cause, usually outside the self. If we see that another person is the proximate cause of the hurt, we blame them for having wronged us.

Not so fast. To know if we have been wronged, first we have to detail, as dispassionately as possible, what actually happened and it what order. People who like to stay hurt and believe they have been wronged typically never want to examine what actually happened. Their feelings are primary.

Those who want to live within the “yoke of divine consciousness” care about the truth; at a simple level, as much as possible, determine what transpired. I call this in counseling “the police report” — “just the facts, ma’am.”

After one has adequately determined what happened (which often means reconstructing the record with the person who you think wronged you), ask: What moral rule was broken here? For example, if I am not invited to a gathering where I thought I would have been a guest, I may feel very hurt, but I have not been wronged, unless a clear moral rule was broken. When our needs, expectations, entitlements and demands are not met, we feel hurt. It is a great leap from there to say we have been wronged. “Being wronged” has to be demonstrated, not assumed.

If I want to be a just person, I will care primarily about the truth and moral code, not about my bruised feelings.

It is very tough to get to the truth and work out the moral issues, which is why some people prefer just to stay angry. Anger fills you with arrogance. Truth and justice can humble you.

There are better and worse states of the inner life. We are obligated to create inner lives of beauty. I often hear from the angry, the resentful, from those who hate, that they are entitled to their feelings and emotions. “It’s a free country,” I am informed.

The Jewish tradition holds, however, that we should not “hate our kinsman in our hearts” and that we should not “bear a grudge.” The tradition of Jewish moral psychology (Mussar) has long lists of inner states against which the tradition warns us.  Unruly feelings are inevitable; cultivating them and expressing them is quite another thing. Anger and hatred especially make us feel self-righteous, closed off to hearing the truth, from acting justly and lovingly, and from creating harmony and goodness in our lives. Feelings of fear, guilt, shame and resentment, for example, also cloud our vision and impede our well-being. Living in a free country and having inner freedom are two entirely different things. The yoga of divine consciousness requires that, in general, we cultivate inner lives free of toxicity (including whatever those demonic Democrats or reprobate Republicans say next).

Good moral judgment is not judgmentalism. I regret having to subject the English language to enhanced coercion and use the neologism “judgmentalism,” but I have to find a way to distinguish between “using good moral judgment” from “excessive condemnation.” Oftentimes in conducting rational-spiritual counseling, using, for example, the theories listed above, I will hear that I am being “judgmental.” How can one say what love is? What inner feelings are better than others? That what I am doing is wrong? “Isn’t it all subjective?”

All morality, ethics, social justice, etc., requires a judgment: some things are right and some things are wrong, or put more softly, some things are morally better than others. Often times I see in a person’s desire to be tolerant and understanding (of others or of themselves), an unwillingness to assess morally a behavior or an inner state. All concepts, such as love, justice, truth and beauty, can be rationally discussed and applied if we believe that they name real metaphysical phenomena, not just inner states.

This list of five theories is not exhaustive, but rather indicates a way of thinking toward higher consciousness. Within the admittedly wide bounds of human nature, there really are better ways to think and feel, standards of truth that can be discovered, though often with difficulty. There are better and worse ways to love. And we really can create lives of inner beauty, as beautiful as anything you have ever seen or heard.

I hope you find your way to the Jewish “yoga studio” that serves your soul the best, and that you use these Holy Days upon us to shape your inner lives toward your furthest spiritual reach.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley is the spiritual leader of Ohr Ha Torah in Mar Vista and Professor of Jewish Thought at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California Campus.

Resilience: We can learn from our trials

How life teaches us! We read the wisdom of books and study the lectures of professors and we think we are ready for what life brings us. Armed with our learning, we venture into the world and discover that the formulas of the brain don’t help bind the wounds of the heart.

I remember the first time I went into a hospital room to counsel someone who was dying of a terminal illness. I was accompanied by a wise chaplain with many years of experience. We stood by the patient’s bedside and I expected that we would commiserate with his plight. We would explain that this illness wasn’t a punishment from God, but that these tragedies are random. With the inexperience of youth, I believed that nothing good can ever come from pain, that suffering is but an enemy to be vanquished, never a teacher to be heeded.

Imagine my horror, then, when the chaplain turned to the patient and asked, “What has your cancer taught you?” And imagine my surprise when the patient responded by offering many valuable lessons that he derived from his illness: renewed love of life, better priorities, deeper love for his family. This man knew exactly what the chaplain was addressing, and he was able to share the precious insights  that he had gained at a very high price.

Another memory: When I was 14 I was diagnosed as having a terminal, inoperable cancer. Having endured two years of terrible pain, a pain so embarrassing that I hid it from my family throughout that period, I finally couldn’t take it anymore. After I revealed my suffering to my parents, they rushed me to a doctor, who promptly hospitalized me. There I was poked and prodded by countless experts, each trying to get a fix on my malady and to decide on a productive response. Thank God, one clever dermatologist noticed some bumps on my arm and connected that to my internal affliction. Within two weeks I was undergoing rounds of chemo and radiation therapy that lasted for several months. 

I’m pleased to tell you that the assessment that my cancer was terminal and inoperable turned out to be an exaggeration. But the pain and fear I felt were not. I would gladly never have confronted that trial, never have suffered that anguish. But I also know that I could not be the rabbi, counselor, husband, father or friend I am today were it not for the lessons I learned from my own brush with death and pain.

The truth is that we all suffer at different points in our lives. Each of us faces challenges and endures pain — both our own and that of our loved ones. As creatures who are finite, mortal and flawed, it is not ours to choose whether we suffer. But we do have the power to choose how to respond. We may not be the masters of our fate, but we are the captains of our souls.

It is now in this light that I would like us to think about the binding of Isaac. 

Whenever we encounter this story, it makes us profoundly uncomfortable. Part of our struggle, no doubt, is that we object to a God who demands the sacrifice of what we love most. We hate that Abraham is called to demonstrate faithfulness by offering up his beloved son. We resent the imposition of suffering in a world that is too filled with pain and sorrow. Abraham, as our tradition recognizes, is a stand-in for each one of us. As the Talmud notes, “Sound a ram’s horn before Me so that I remember in your behalf the binding of Isaac and count it to you as though you had bound yourselves before Me” (Rosh Hashanah 16a). The trial of Abraham tries us all. We can all perceive our pain in his silent anguish.

Just like Abraham, we, too, must concede that life puts us on trial. Much as we might wish to determine our destiny, such control is not in our hands. We cannot choose whether we will suffer or not, but we can decide what to do with our suffering.

Abraham, our father, also faced such a choice. The Bible records, “God put Abraham to the test” (Genesis 22:1). Abraham has no exemption from suffering; indeed, his righteousness makes him even more aware of his own pain. As the midrash notes, “God tests the faith of the righteous in that God reveals to them only at a later time the ultimate meaning of the trials to which the are subjected” (Bereshit Rabbah 55:7). Like the rest of us, all Abraham feels is anguish and sorrow. In the midst of his suffering, he cannot discern purpose or pattern. Only pain.

In his experience of pain, he is no different than any other human being. Indeed, the Zohar recognizes that to live is to lose, that to be is to suffer and to grieve: “Rabbi Shimon said: we have learned that the expression ‘And it came to pass in the days of’ denotes sorrow, while the expression ‘And it came to pass’ even without ‘in the days of’ is still tinged with sorrow” (Zohar I:119b).

“Tinged with sorrow.” I can’t think of a better description of what it feels like to be alive. We know that the dominant flavor of life is bittersweet — even in our moments of greatest joy, we recall our losses. Even in our greatest grief, we draw consolation from our love and our hope.

Yet this test need not shatter us; being tried doesn’t have to destroy us. Interestingly, the biblical word for test, nisayon, develops into a word which in modern Hebrew can mean “experience” or “experiment.” We alone can transform our test into an experience — something that provides an opportunity for new understandings and deeper connections. With the right attitude, our trials can transform us. The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Our father Abraham learned a similar lesson. I think he would have said, “What doesn’t kill me can make me wiser and more compassionate.”

Why is Abraham’s resilience tested? We are never told. One possibility, however, is that suffering was a necessary — if regrettable — spur to depth, caring and meaning. Throughout his life, Abraham had known only success: a beautiful and devoted wife, great wealth, prominence and intimacy with the Creator of the universe. With all that bounty, how could he learn to empathize with others? How could he not feel smug and superior to other people with their failures and their sorrows? How could he not blame them for their sorrow? Suffering taught Abraham what success could not. The Zohar notes this salutary function when it asks, “Why is it written that God tested Abraham and not Isaac? It had to be Abraham! He had to be crowned with rigor. … Abraham was not complete until now” (Zohar 119b).

Perhaps the worth of Abraham’s trial lay in adding a layer of depth to his faith. How easy it is — when all goes well — to put God in our pocket, to think of God as a big buddy, a Santa in the sky. How tempting it is to think of God as merely there to indulge our obsession with ourselves! Suffering makes such a narcissistic and arrogant faith impossible. By undergoing the ordeal of his trial, Abraham could transcend the bartering faith of his youth for the more nuanced trustfulness of mature faith. As the psalmist sings: “You Who have made me undergo many troubles and misfortunes will revive me again. … You will turn and comfort me” (Psalms 71:20-21). While faith doesn’t exempt us from tragedy, it does provide comfort even amid the pain. Abraham learns that faithfulness between God and humanity is not wish fulfillment. It is commitment, relationship and steadfastness.

The Bible records no reason for Abraham’s trial. And few of us ever know why we must endure suffering and sorrow. But we do know that how we respond to our suffering has the power to transform us, for good or for ill. As 20th century spiritual leader Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan notes, “According to Jewish traditional teaching, a person is not trapped but tested. Our vicissitudes should serve as a challenge to our faith. … To deny the worth of life and to fall into despair because the promise is slow of fulfillment is to fail the test (“Meaning of God in Modern Jewish Religion,” p. 68). How we cope with the trials of life spells the difference between renewal and resignation, between spiritual growth and spiritual stagnation.

Abraham’s greatness lies precisely in his determination to respond to his trial with resilience and resolve. God calls out the test, and Abraham does not evade the challenge. His immediate answer is Hineni, here I am. Abraham’s willingness to set out on this gruesome path is rooted in faithfulness — to Isaac, to himself and to his God. In the words of 20th century Bible scholar Rabbi Julian Morgenstern, “This is the true faith, which enables us to endure all trials and stand all tests, and prove ourselves fit and ready for the great work for which, sooner or later, God calls every one of us.”

Abraham passes the test because he faces the challenge that is posed to him. Rather than fleeing what lies ahead, rather than cowering and allowing its struggle to cripple him, Abraham moves forward to do whatever needs to be done, to go wherever it is that his path in life will lead.

Abraham learns that suffering — as painful as it is — can be a source of insight. It is in this spirit that the 13th century medieval Jewish scholar Rabbi Moses ben Nahman asserts, “All trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.” Not that pain is good — true faith doesn’t celebrate misery. We don’t seek out suffering, and we certainly don’t enjoy it. But neither do we refuse to learn from life’s challenges. In the words of the Jerusalem Talmud, “Why do you scorn suffering?”(Peah 8:9) The great men and women of the Torah were able use their trials to derive great lessons about life. They wrestled with their pain and emerged wiser and better because of how they responded to it. In that sense — and in that sense alone — their trials were for their benefit. They used those trials as occasions for deeper understanding and connection.

Abraham learned from his trial, and it became a source of personal growth and spiritual depth. The Zohar recognizes a hint of that growth from the way the angel calls out his name as Abraham is about to slaughter his son. At the moment when Isaac is bound to the altar, as Abraham raises the knife high in the air, “An angel of the Lord called to him from heaven: ‘Abraham! Abraham!’” 

Why does the angel say Abraham’s name twice? “Rebbe Hiyya said that the angel repeated Abraham’s name in order to animate him with a new spirit and to spur him to new activity with a new heart” (Zohar 119b). Having faced his suffering directly, having been willing to learn from his terrible trial, Abraham emerges with a new spirit and a new heart. Indeed, the Zohar claims that the angels shouted “Abraham! Abraham!” to show that “the latter Abraham was not like the former Abraham; the latter was the perfected Abraham while the former was still incomplete.” Out of the horror of his suffering, Abraham changed. Abraham grew.

“God tries everyone in some way. … The real test is the way we offer our sacrifice, the willingness with which we give up what is dear, the perfect faith in God which we still preserve, and which keeps from doubting God’s wisdom and goodness (‘The Book of Genesis,’ p. 148).” These words of Rabbi Morgenstern, written almost a century ago, translate the great lesson of the test of Abraham: We do not seek to suffer. We do not deify pain. But we know that suffering and pain are part of the journey we call life, and we know that we can learn, and grow, even from an encounter with tragedy, especially from the trials life brings.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson holds the Abner and Roslyn Goldstine Dean’s Chair of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and is vice president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. This is an excerpt from “Passing Life’s Tests: Spiritual Reflections on the Trial of Abraham, the Binding of Isaac” (Jewish Lights).

The Hollywood treatment

“Fundamentally, your job is not that different from my job,” screenwriter Alex Litvak told a room full of rabbis assembled at American Jewish University for the annual High Holy Days conference sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

While most of the 165 attendees were off attending sermon workshops on topics ranging from social media to Mussar, about 20 opted to touch-up their Torah with insights from film and TV. Rabbi Jon Hanish from Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills began the session by asking a panel of eight Hollywood writers what was on their minds this year.

“Why am I here?” one said. “Materialism,” another said. “Political and social divisiveness,” a third added. 

It was a fun but unorthodox match, bringing Hollywood currency to holy categories. 

“I’d want to know what King David’s approval rating would be in the digital age,” said Seth Kurland, a sitcom writer and producer best known for his work on “Friends.” “You think of him probably as courageous and compassionate, but he kills Bathsheba’s husband! Even he must have had a Yom Kippur day; he must have asked, ‘Do I want to define my life by moments of weakness or moments of strength?’ ”

This second annual Professional Writers Workshop, which paired some of Hollywood’s finest with the rabbinate’s most fastidious, looked like an episode of “In Treatment,” offering the best sermon therapy money can buy (and for the bargain conference price of $150). In cross-denominational groups of three, the questions ranged from the practical (“Should I start with a question, crack a joke or tell a story?”) to the philosophical (“What would you say you’re trying to say in this sermon?”) to the political (“This is the time to go for it — make the big point!”). It was classic Freudian role-reversal, with the rabbis in the hot seat and the writers going righteous.

“I don’t know if by the end [of this session] we’re gonna pitch you sermons or you’re gonna pitch us TV shows,” said David Kendall, creator of ABC Family’s “Melissa & Joey” who also worked on older hits like “Growing Pains” and “Boy Meets World.” 

In one group, Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Orange County puzzled over how to make a trite topic like tzedakah sexy. He worried about sounding “canned” and “predictable,” but even more so, Spitz said, “There is discomfort in asking for money on High Holy Days, when people want to be spiritual.” To which Kendall offered straightforward advice on the merits of truth: “Say, ‘It feels horrible to talk about this,’ ” Kendall said. “In writer’s terms we’d say, ‘Let’s hang a lantern on it,’ which means you’re going to do something obvious. If something is unavoidable in the plot or exposition, you ‘hang a lantern on it.’ ”

Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills’ Rabbi Laura Geller suggested that Spitz tell a story about an event that changed his relationship to money. “That takes people to very personal places,” she said.

But just how deep can you go, she wondered. “How personal can you get?” she asked Kendall. “My sermon is about growing older; about how we devote so much energy and resources to youth. Well, what about me? I’m not dead yet. How vulnerable do I get in speaking about my own fears about aging; how my mother’s getting older? How much do congregants really want their rabbi to reveal?”

Get intimate, he said. A message becomes more memorable if tied to a resonant or relatable story.

Things were less fraught for Rabbi Mark Kaiserman, who will serve this year as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley after the retirement of 36-year-veteran Rabbi Stephen Einstein. 

“Which gives me the luxury of reusing sermons,” Kaiserman joked to his Hollywood helper, Sam Baum, creator of Fox’s “Lie to Me.”  

“And,” Baum added guilefully, “you can swing for the fences.” 

Rabbi Daniel Feder was more interested in milking Baum for entertainment tips. “I always try to have one or two chuckle moments,” Feder said. “Maybe you could suggest, ‘Put Humor Here.’ ” 

Baum rejoined his request with plot-development 101: “I try to force myself to write a single sentence that gets at the core of the story,” he began. “The first couple of minutes are crucial to creating the feeling that there is a hand quietly guiding you.” And, as Hollywood proverbs go, action must follow inspiration. “It is crucial that in the last two minutes there is something actionable — you have to give the character something to do, not just something to think about.”

It is telling that the people who usually do the teaching were so willing to be taught. And perhaps a little bit ironic that those who often self-protect from congregants felt safe among storytellers with the world’s largest soapbox.

But as writer and producer David Sacks, known for shows “3rd Rock From the Sun” and “Malcolm in the Middle” encouraged, be fearless! Don’t be cowed into feel-good Torah. Although this hardly compelled Rabbi Miriam Hamrell of Ahavat Torah in Brentwood: “Last year I gave a sermon on Israel, and people had a hard time with it,” Hamrell said. “People said, ‘We’re not here to hear politics. We’re coming here to heal, to listen, to open our hearts.” In the wake of that, she said, she had to lead a decompressing discussion circle.

Monica Henderson Beletsky, a Harvard graduate who writes for NBC’s “Parenthood” got a kick out of the strange and wonderful convergence of Hollywood and holy themes. 

“It’s so funny,” she said, “one rabbi wrote about being in a personal prison and another wrote about happiness, and they both came to the same conclusion. And, you know, we’re working with a similar theme on our show, but I can’t tell you about it.”

Hanish, an organizer of the event, said the confluence of high-minded rabbis with highly accomplished writers is a good fit.

“Rabbis know a thing or two about writing, but rabbinic school is about academic writing, and we end up writing things that are too intellectual and not connecting on a human level. Film writers understand how to write to the general populace and get deep messages across.”

And, of course, Hollywood is always seeking good material, a plentiful resource in the life of a rabbi.

“The writers get just as much out of it as the rabbis,” Hanish said. “They come for fun, but they get rejuvenated. Afterward, they’ll say, ‘I was on the fringe of my Judaism, but these rabbis understand today’s world’ —and some consider returning to Judaism.”

For Dahvi Waller, who won an Emmy for her work on “Mad Men,” things got a little too close for comfort. Last year, after a Jewish Journal article covered her session at the workshop, she was bombarded by requests for help from rabbis all over the country. “I can’t say ‘no’!” she gushed, explaining why she didn’t want her session to be written up this year. “They wanted way more than an hour of my time.”

The business of spirituality

When Eric J. Diamond wants to understand something, he’s very methodical in how he goes about it. So when he was elected president of Sinai Temple in June, one of the first things Diamond did was to ask Howard Lesner, the synagogue’s executive director, to arrange for a tour of the building.

“I know the building very well. I’ve been in the building for 25 years,” Diamond, 50, said over a Friday morning breakfast in August. “But I don’t want to hear there’s a problem in a particular part of the building that I haven’t been to.”

So, Diamond said, he and Lesner and the building’s chief engineer will open every door and check every floor of the synagogue, from the roof to the sub-basement.

“Visualization is far better than hearing,” said Diamond, who works as chief operating officer of the real estate investment firm Hackman Capital Partners.

But make no mistake: This synagogue president, who wants to see every last square foot of a synagogue building that takes up a full city block, is no micromanager.

Diamond has ideas about how the synagogue can be run more efficiently and how vendor contracts might be renegotiated. He’s suggested that Sinai Temple up its membership recruitment efforts. But Diamond also insisted that he not have a mailbox in the synagogue office, because he doesn’t want anyone to expect that he’ll be there on a regular basis.

Brought up in Queens, N.Y., Diamond first came to Sinai Temple because an older fraternity brother got him a ticket there for the synagogue’s Rosh Hashanah student service. But it was the synagogue president at the time who got him to stick around.

In 1983, Diamond had just graduated from University of Virginia. He had been in Los Angeles for all of three weeks, living in the graduate-student dorms as a first-year law student at UCLA, when he headed to the gym inside Sinai Temple for the service.

“It came time for the sermon,” Diamond said, “and then-rabbinic student David Wolpe introduced Mr. Don Rickles, who was going to give the sermon on Rosh Hashanah.”

Rickles is best-known for the insults he used to hurl during his comedy acts — at audience members, hosts, anyone, really. But speaking to the student service in 1983, he wasn’t there to call anybody stupid (as he did when he roasted then-Gov. Ronald Reagan) or tell aging comedians how he never liked them (as he told Lucille Ball in 1974).

“He was charming without being funny,” Diamond said. “He was lighthearted, but his serious message was how excited he was to speak to a room of young Jews and how important it was for young Jews to remain involved in the community.”

The message resonated with Diamond: “I got involved in the Jewish community in part because of what Don Rickles had to say.”

And when Diamond became president, he wrote to Rickles, asking if he’d come and speak again on Rosh Hashanah, this time to Sinai’s ATID service, which is for young professionals.

Not too long afterward, “Mr. Warmth” called Diamond back.

“I said, Mr. Rickles, it’s so nice of you to call me,” Diamond recalled. “He says, ‘How could I not call you after that note you wrote me? It was like a haftarah, it was so beautiful.’ Those were his exact words.”

The occasional haftarah-quality note aside, Diamond knows that in a synagogue of nearly 2,000 member families, the feeling of belonging is, in part, the result of seemingly small touches.

“I hate getting letters that begin with ‘Dear Congregant,’ ” Diamond said. “I want a letter that says ‘Dear Eric,’ or ‘Dear Mr. and Mrs. Diamond.’ It’s part of being part of a community.”

And to facilitate that kind of personalization, Diamond said, Sinai Temple is in the process of collecting the information contained in seven different databases and integrating it into a single one.

“It’s very heavy in terms of when I talk about systems, procedures,” Diamond said, “but you can’t deliver the services that our members expect, that we want to provide, without an integrated database.”

But even as he pays attention to these operational details,  the business of keeping a synagogue running, Diamond remains focused on the big goal at Sinai Temple — providing a spiritual home for members of a community.

Which is why Diamond is so happy about the numbers of people who come to synagogue on otherwise ordinary Shabbat mornings — around 800 to 1,000 every week, by his count.

“Powerful is the word,” Diamond said. “It’s moving. It makes you feel part of a community. Standing in a three-quarters-empty room all by yourself doesn’t have that feeling.”

This article has been edited from the original version, which incorrectly stated that Don Rickles was the president of Sinai Temple in 1983. Aaron Fenton was president of the synagogue at the time.

Letters to the Editor: Paid Op/Ed, Spirituality, Pessimism, New Leaf, Circumcision

Guidelines for Writing an Op-Ed

Paul Jeser did the right thing in buying an ad in The Jewish Journal (“I am the Guy who has Been Sending the Mails Calling for a new Editor-in-Chief”, July 1). It is where his “comments” belonged. He could even have shortened the length of his words and sent them as a letter to the editor. The letters editor was absolutely correct to reject Jeser’s “op-ed.” In it, Jeser did not differentiate between opinion and an attack against a person. A review of the op-ed columns quickly establishes the following: Ideas and positions are discussed, debated and disputed. Individuals are not attacked, maligned or quoted out of context in order to demean them or, worse still, suggest they be fired. It is small wonder the “op-ed” was rejected.

Ultimately, Jeser has other choices of protesting: Contact the publisher and convince him and his board to accept the need to fire Rob Eshman. If the publisher supports the editor, Jeser can contact advertisers to boycott the paper and ask readers to do the same.

Rob Eshman needs no defense from anyone. The response to Paul Jeser’s position will confirm the fact that The Jewish Journal itself, through its columnists’ diverse positions, rightly provokes active and stimulating discussions and arguments. Rob Eshman deserves no small thanks and support for his work as editor.

Gerald Bubis
Los Angeles

Dear Paul Jeser,

Thank you so much for finding the way to bring criticism of Rob Eshman to Jewish Journal readers in the only format that was left available.

Just a few weeks ago, I wrote Eshman a letter that started with the sentence: “Rob, you just don’t get it.” A statement that you used as well and I think still holds today.

I personally like Eshman and didn’t call for a replacement, just a bit of reorientation, like the understanding that in focusing the debate on the Jewish divide, he is helping to enshrine the Palestinians and terrorists as the real victims in the minds of many of his readers.

If only The Journal and Eshman would remind readers what Hamas and the Palestinian Authority stand for, not just that out of desperation they have been firing thousands of missiles at Israel, there may come a small change in the discourse on Israel, and we might see some shift in the support of Israel in the Liberal mind set.

Not a full swing to the right, Rob, just a small morsel that may help some realize that what happened in Poland in 1946, and not only in Kielce, is happening again.

We, the Jewish people, have promised: Never Again. Let’s all ask Rob Eshman to keep his part of this covenant.

Ethan Teitler
via e-mail

Finding Spirituality

In his commentary on Parashat Chukat (“Real Spirituality,” July 1), Rabbi Muskin makes the profound point that by doing the mitzvot with consciousness, one can experience the Divine on a daily basis. He also says, “If you want spirituality, you don’t need … anyone teaching you mysticism.” Perhaps this is true for many Jews, but some Jews are drawn to mystical teachings as well, and the study of all the majestic teachings of Judaism are to be honored. After all, a myriad of esteemed sages such as R. Yosef Karo and the Vilna Gaon studied both the halachah and the mystical realm and regarded the latter with optimal veneration. Indeed, Rav Kook writes: ‘Whoever feels within himself that his inner being can find peace only in pursuing the secret teachings of the Torah must know with certainty that it is for this he was created.’ I know that Rabbi Muskin, a true Oheiv Yisrael, must believe it is wonderful to welcome all our people who endeavor to study different dimensions of Judaism as they are drawn to divine light in the halachah and in the mystical.

(In this way, we expand the community of Israel in all its diversity and beauty. By studying the Torah in its fullness we become a divine Clal and not just a nation of individual tzadikim.)

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb
President, AJRCA

Kaplan’s Take on Pessimistic Milieu

I appreciated Marty Kaplan’s analysis of where we are at (and are likely to stay) as a society (“Pessimism Is the Last Taboo,” July 1). I was reminded of a line from the old “That Was the Week That Was” show:

“A pessimist is one who says that there will be a World War III.

An optimist is one who says that there will be a World War IV.”

‘Twould seem to me, at times, that we are, today, in a race between the plutocrats and the oligarchs — or perhaps they are just one and the same. In any case, democracy aboundin’, it ain’t.

Bill Younglove
Long Beach 

National Bible Contest Winners

Many thanks for your splendid  coverage of the recent National Bible Contest held in New York (“Valley Student Headed for International Bible Contest,” June 24).  May I include another fine young scholar, Josh Silvera from Congregation Mogen David, who placed second to Andrew Sokoler, only a few points behind. It was my double pleasure to coach these talented teens. Not only did I study with Andrew’s mom, I also went to Fairfax High with Josh’s grandfather and great uncle.

We are looking forward to many more competitions.

Cantor Avrum Schwartz
via e-mail

Obama and Israel

David Suissa correctly and importantly highlights the stark departures from past U.S. policy toward Israel by President Obama in recent weeks that damage and weaken Israel’s negotiating position (“Obama’s Nightmare,” June 21).

Beyond the absolute veto power Obama handed the Palestinians even on Israel retaining the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, there is a further serious departure from past U.S. policy that was not noted: Obama is the first president to state that a future Palestinian state should border Jordan. This means Israel ceding the Jordan Valley, an area whose retention all Israeli governments have regarded as vital to Israeli defense. Obama ignores this, calling for a “full and phased Israeli withdrawal,” which entrusts Israeli security to those who have violated it over 17 years – the Palestinian Authority (PA). It also means all Jews living there must leave – a further endorsement of the Palestinian position.

Suissa rightly notes that Obama demands nothing of the PA. What is worse, not only has Obama not held the PA accountable on incitement to hatred and murder against Israel, as he claims he will “continue” [sic] to do, but he has munificently increased U.S. aid to the PA, up to almost $1 billion per year.

If Obama was genuine about holding the PA accountable, he would be demanding the disbanding of Fatah’s own Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a U.S. recognized terrorist group. He would demand the abrogation of the PA’s unity agreement with Hamas as a precondition of any future talks. He has done neither.

Morton A. Klein
National President, Zionist Organization of America

Reflections on Global Societies

Dennis Prager asserts that bigger government increases corruption and produces citizens who do less for one another, turning them into narcissists who disdain work and charitable giving (“Liberalism and the Decline of a Society’s Character,”  June 21). If big government invariably makes people worse, then the best society would be where there is the least government. But Prager’s premise is refuted by history: Somalia is not paradise. His other arguments similarly wither in the face of fact: He decries the selfishness of today’s students at public universities demanding free or inexpensive education, but they only want what earlier generations had. Somehow in the past, even archconservatives such as Milton Friedman could have college paid entirely by taxpayers, but if today’s students have a similar desire, they are guilty of “the selfish fruit of expecting something for nothing.”

Greg Davidson
via e-mail

Fallen Leaves

Congratulations, Mr. Eshman, on your new Nissan Leaf (“A New Leaf,” June 24). However, if you think by driving the Leaf you are reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, you are mistaken. You are just moving the consumption of the fossil fuel from three feet in front of you (in the car’s engine) to hundreds of miles away (to some electric power plant). Something has to turn those generators and it usually is a fossil fuel. Unless of course, you want to dam some more rivers to produce hydroelectric power or build more nuclear power plants, fossil fuels it is! And, please don’t tell me about wind and solar [power]. You will need an acre of photo cells to power that Leaf, and I’m sure your neighbor is real excited about that wind turbine that will turn over his head day and night.
Happy driving!

Glenn Roede
Los Angeles


Here are a few more arguments for circumcision “The Great California Foreskin Fight of 2011”  (June 24). Many others have already been promulgated.

As a dermatologist for the past 49 years. I have seen many cases of balanoposthitis, inflammation of the glans penis and foreskin. This is characterized by an uncomfortable, foul-smelling yellowish discharge laden with various bacteria, and often yeast. It can lead to adhesions, which prevent the foreskin from being retracted. This obviously does not happen in circumcised men. Maintaining cleanliness certainly helps diminish this, but I have even seen mild cases in men who try to maintain reasonable cleanliness.

Claims of diminished sexual sensation based around putative removal of sexual receptors is specious.  The receptors lie in the glans, mainly in the corona (ask any man), and not in the skin of the shaft, which the prepuce is part of. Therefore, removing a small part of that skin in no way removes sexual receptors.

Robert M. Miller, M.D.
West Hills

Remember the victims, hate their killers

All terrorism is monstrous, but the murder of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, by religious Islamic extremists stands out for its unspeakable infamy.

The deliberate targeting of a small Jewish center and its married young directors, whose only purpose it was to provide for the religious needs of a community and feed travelers, proves that those who perpetrated this crime are bereft not only of even a hint of humanity, but every shred of faith as well.

Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackThe world’s most aggressive atheists are more religious than these spiritual charlatans and pious frauds. When Osama bin Laden, whose beard masks the face of the ultimate religious hypocrite, attacked the World Trade Center in New York, the target was purportedly chosen as the very symbol of American materialism and excess.

But what could these “religious” people have been thinking in exterminating a twenty-something couple with two babies, who moved from the world’s richest country to India to provide religious services and faith to the poor and the needy? What blow against Western decadence were they striking by targeting a Chabad house, whose entire purpose it is to spread spirituality to people whose lives lack it?

Now is not only a time to remember the victims, but to hate their killers. One cannot love the innocent without simultaneously loathing those who orphan their children.

I know how uncomfortable people feel about hatred. It smacks of revenge. It poisons the heart of those who hate. But this is true only if we hate the good, the innocent or the neutral. Hating monsters, however, motivates us to fight them. Only if an act like this repulses us to our core will we summon the will to fight these devils, so that they can never murder again.

I am well aware that my hero, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., once said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” But surely, the great man never meant for this to apply to people like Hitler, who was never going to be stopped by love but only by an eloquent loathing as articulated by Winston Churchill, which summoned an allied campaign to carpet-bomb his war-making apparatus into oblivion.

Indeed, had King’s nonviolent movement not been protected at crucial times by federal marshals and the National Guard, the terrorist thugs of the Ku Klux Klan might have killed every last one of them.

As for my Christian brethren who regularly quote to me Jesus’ famous saying, “Love your enemies,” my response is that our enemies and God’s enemies are different parties altogether. Jesus meant to love those who steal your girlfriend, cut you off on the road or swindle you in a business deal.

But to love those who indiscriminately murder God’s children is an abomination against all that is sacred. Is there a man who is human whose heart is not filled with moral revulsion against terrorists who target a rabbi who feeds the hungry? Would God or Jesus ask me to extend even one morsel of my limited capacity for compassion to fiends, rather than saving every last particle for their victims instead?

Could God really be so unreasonable; could Jesus be so cruel as to ask me to love baby killers? And would such a God be moral if He did? Could I pray to a God who loves terrorists? Could I find comfort in Him knowing that He offers them comfort as well?

No. Such a god would be my enemy. He would abide in Hades rather than heaven. And I would be damned before I would worship him. I will accept an eternity in purgatory rather than a moment of celestial bliss shared with these beasts.

Now is the time for our Muslim cleric brethren to rise in chorus and condemn the repulsive assassins who use Islam to justify their hatred. One such courageous imam, and one of the North America’s most prominent, is my friend Imam Shabir Ali of Toronto, who courageously responded to my call with a public statement the day after the murders:

“Such terrorist attacks are not justifiable on any grounds. Islam cannot condone such murder of innocent civilians. From what you have described, Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg are of great service to humanity.

“Our knowledge of their service adds to our sense of loss and grief that such bad things can happen to such good people. Islam is built on the monotheist foundations which the Jewish people struggled for many centuries to maintain in the face of much severe opposition.

“Muslims and Jews should work together for a better world in which the terrorist acts we have seen in Mumbai … are a thing of the past. I pray that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, and that the Lord will compensate the victims with a handsome reward in this world and the next.”

But as the next world is reserved for God, who also has much to answer for as to how He can allow righteous people like the Holtzbergs and all the other Mumbai innocents to die, it is for us the living to recommit to their work. I suggest that best possible response by the world Jewish community to this travesty is to implement a program of a Jewish peace corps to Chabad houses the world over.

Young people, especially students ages 16 to 30, should offer to spend two weeks of each summer volunteering for a Chabad house somewhere in the world to help the emissaries with their very difficult and important work.

This past summer, three of my teen children volunteered to work for Chabad in Cordova, Argentina, and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of their lives as they shared in the isolation of a dedicated Chabad family, who have lived there for 20 years to cater to the spiritual needs of the local community.

Finally, the world witnessed how the Holtzberg’s non-Jewish nanny, Sandra Samuels, saved their 2-year-old Moshe’s life, running out with the child while risking being mowed down by machine-gun fire. In that instant, we saw how the religious differences among people pale beside the higher truth of us all being equally God’s children, Indian and Jew, Muslim and Christian, and how acts of courage and compassion are what unite us.

As I write these lines, the State of Israel is being lobbied by the Holtzbergs’ remaining family to grant Samuels immediate citizenship. A hero of her caliber would be an honor to the Jewish state and the request should not be delayed by even a single day.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Jewish Values Network. His upcoming book, “The Kosher Sutra,” will be published in January by HarperOne. His Web site is

A spiritual boost in Simi

Three-dozen rabbis and cantors are sitting in silent meditation in a sun-filled room at the Brandeis-Bardin Campus at American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

They open their eyes and Rabbi Sheila Weinberg guides them in a mindfulness exercise.

“Feel how much space there is in your body, how much aliveness,” she urges.

Later the clergy share deeply personal feelings about challenges they confront on the job.

One rabbi describes how vulnerable she feels when she wants to introduce a new melody to her worship service. Sometimes, the rabbi admits, she avoids doing so out of fear the congregation will protest.

Another rabbi says that when he comforts a grieving congregant he sometimes cries. He wonders if, as a professional, he should mask his emotion.

The others in the room nod sympathetically.

“If your heart is stirred, your heart is stirred,” Weinberg says.

These clergy members — many of them top rabbis and cantors in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal world — are spending five days at a contemplative practice retreat organized by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Since January 2000, the New York-based institute has run retreats for hundreds of rabbis, cantors and Jewish educators, bringing them together in cross-denominational cohorts that meet for four five-day sessions over an 18-month period.

This particular group is part of more than 200 alumni of earlier retreats. They again have taken five days away from their pulpits to meditate, do yoga, share their feelings about their work and study Chasidic texts on spirituality.

They come not to learn how to be better at their jobs — although that’s certainly part of it — but to recharge their spiritual batteries, renew their souls.

“What we’re trying to do, on one level, is renew rabbis, cantors and educators whose jobs just drain them,” says Rabbi Rachel Cowan, the institute’s director and one of the founders of the spiritual retreat program. “It gives them rest and companionship. They’re really quite lonely.”

In the process, Cowan says, retreat participants report back that they are better at their jobs.

“Rabbis need to be genuinely present in people’s lives at times of pain and joy, not coming in with a formula,” she says. “What blocks them from doing that is overwork and emotional burnout.”

Jews expect a lot from their clergy. They must be towers of spiritual and moral strength, compelling speakers, skilled administrators and creative innovators. They must be learned in Torah, kind to children, willing to leap tall boards of directors in a single bound.

Above all, they must have no personal needs.

“To a certain extent, congregations are still looking for that superhuman rabbi,” says Rabbi Levi Moreofsky, the director of rabbinic programming at Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future in New York. “There’s still the assumption that the rabbi knows everything, can do everything.”

That all-powerful image increasingly is coming under attack as rabbis, cantors, seminaries and other Jewish organizations begin to realize that clergy, too, need a place to renew their spirits. But it’s difficult to get past the stereotype.

“Burnout, job fatigue — clergy are totally subject to all of that,” says Rabbi Marc Margolius, who coordinates the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s alumni retreats. “But it doesn’t seem to register as a professional need.”

In recent years, however, rabbinical seminaries and some Jewish organizations have started to address the issue. They mainly run leadership-training courses for rabbis and, to a lesser extent, cantors. The courses are aimed at improving job skills, although some attention is given to meditation, one-on-one mentoring or discussion groups where clergy can air their grievances within the fold, far from the prying eyes of their congregations.

“It’s a relatively recent development,” says Rabbi Hayim Herring, the executive director of STAR/Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. “For a long time, congregations took it for granted. What needs does a rabbi have? He’s there for our needs.”

As part of its PEER program, STAR brings up to 20 younger rabbis a year to leadership development retreats that have a strong focus on self-care. Rabbis are notorious for neglecting their own health, Herring says, and those who attend these retreats must “publicly commit” to an ongoing program of exercise, yoga or the like.

Several have “changed their lives” because of the program, he says. One who pledged to run three times a week later called Herring to say he’d actually lowered his cholesterol.

The Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary has been running Rabbinic Training Institutes for 23 years. Each year the seminary brings 60 rabbis to a remote location for a week of professional and personal growth.

Rabbi Marc Rolf, who runs the program, says evenings are devoted to discussions of personal and spiritual needs in small groups, with conversation catalyzed either by text study or more experiential methods. Last year Rabbi Alan Lew, the author of “One God Clapping,” led the group in meditation and a discussion on anger.

“Rabbis suffer from compassion fatigue,” Rolf says. “They use the same faculties in their professional lives as in their personal life. This gives them a time to unplug from their congregational lives, to recharge their spiritual batteries and reconnect with colleagues.”

Two years ago, the Center for the Jewish Future took over a Yarchei Kallah program developed in Boston by Rabbi Jacob Schachter. Forty Orthodox rabbis under the age of 40 are invited to join a cohort that meets twice a year for two years and then once a year thereafter for two-day retreats focused on teaching, learning and bonding.

“The rabbinate is very lonely,” Moreofsky says. “They come together to share Torah and what they’re going through — what they enjoy in their work, what they see as a challenge.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel in Chicago says he “very much” enjoyed “the safe space and collegiality” he experienced at the kallah.

“The Orthodox world is waking up to this,” Lopatin says, adding that he and his younger colleagues are more willing to show their human side than their elders were.

Maybe it’s not so weird, after all

The first time I visited the Kabbalah Centre, I thought it was weird. The congregants all wore white; the man on the bimah called out letters of the Hebrew alphabet (“Alef to bet to taph!”); the letters themselves were displayed in massive typeface on posters around the sanctuary.

At certain moments in the Shabbat service, congregants circled their arms around their heads, like background dancers in a music video. And when the Torah came out, everybody held their hands out with their palms up, to, as the man standing next to me explained, “Receive the Light.”

My wife was there, too, upstairs in the women’s section. She whispered something to a friend during the rabbi’s sermon, and someone on the other side of her hissed, “Shh!” It was comedian Sandra Bernhard.

Weird? It all seemed to me a cross between Scientology and Hebrew school — full of glassy-eyed acolytes who knew more about multilevel marketing than Torah.

Two weeks ago, I went back. And what I found and what I felt shocked me: I liked it.

That’s right, I liked it.I had been reading Jody Myers’ (photo, left) just-released book, “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America” (Praeger, $49.95), and it is the book’s great strength that it forces a second and third look at a group that the great majority of mainstream Jewry finds suspicious, aberrant, fraudulent — even dangerous.

Myers is a professor of religious studies at Cal State Northridge. She is a scholar of orthodoxy and Zionism and a member of the Library Minyan at Temple Beth Am. In 1999, simply out of curiosity over the disdain her colleagues had leveled at the Centre, Myers walked for the first time into the Centre’s attractive mission revival building on Robertson Boulevard, just south of Olympic Boulevard. This slim, diminutive and energetic academic decided then and there to use her sabbatical leave to research the Centre.

She dug into archival, academic and religious research, interviewed numerous adherents and leaders and attended two 10-week courses the Centre offers, along with numerous Centre services and events. She devoted seven years to this work.

The result is a rare example of open-minded, fair inquiry on a highly charged subject. She tracks the origin of the kabbalah movement, examines its main teachings, looks at the particular way Kabbalah Centre founder Rabbi Phillip Berg adapted those teachings to the American spiritual seeker, and she profiles Centre participants. She rarely lets the curious down — though I suspect she will incense many readers who expect a mainstream indictment of this new form of Jewish expression.

Instead, what she offers is a dispassionate analysis of the Kabbalah Centre as one of many new religious communities that have sprung up to satisfy the spiritual needs of a new generation. While most Jews and their rabbis disparage it, the Centre has grown worldwide to attract tens of thousands of participants by appealing to a generation that is suspicious of religious authority but hungry for tangible spiritual benefits. At a time when mainstream Jewish life is struggling and often failing to reinvigorate itself, the Kabbalah Centre has successfully taken, in Myers words, “an elitist and highly complex religious tradition limited to Jews” and modified it to appeal to a large, universal audience.
It has done so without a dime of Jewish foundation grants or the benefit of focus groups, academic studies or any of the other hallmarks of 21st century institutional Jewish life, including membership dues or building campaigns.

What Myers teaches, and what my visit last month taught me, is that instead of shunning the Centre, we ought to at least be studying it.

The history of popular kabbalah in America doesn’t begin with the Kabbalah Centre. It begins with a poor Polish Russian-born rabbi named Levi Krakovsky.

As Myers tells it, Krakovsky followed his teacher, Yehuda Ashlag, to Palestine in 1922. Ashlag considered himself a disciple of the 16th-century kabbalistic master Isaac Luria, whose esoteric system of understanding the deeper, divine meanings of Torah influenced all future generations of Jewish and non-Jewish mystics. (In the age of “The Da Vinci Code,” it’s easy to see the appeal of a system of images and symbols that claims the Bible’s real, true essence is “a code that establishes correspondences between the divine realm and the earthly realm.”)

On the death of his wife, Krakovsky placed his five children in a Jerusalem orphanage and came to New York to bring kabbalah to American Jewry. He failed. In post-war America, Jews wanted their religion staid, rational and practically Protestant. After two more marriages and an itinerant life spent carrying a satchel full of his English-language kabbalah book from Jewish community to community, Krakovsky — a character in search of a Michael Chabon short story if ever there was one — died in 1966.

“Kabbalah destroys families,” his son, Shlomo, said by way of eulogy.

But before he died, Krakovsky met Shraga Feivel Gruberger in Brooklyn. Gruberger, born in Brooklyn in 1929, was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi at yeshiva TorahVaDat. Already successful in real estate and insurance, Gruberger decided to devote his life to spreading the understanding of Jewish mysticism he had received via the chain of Ashlag, Krakovsky and his colleague, Yehuda Brandwein — kabbalah means “that which is received.”

It was the 1960s. Gruberger — who by now went by the anglicized name of Phillip Berg — promoted kabbalah as a way to keep young Jews out of the cults and away from non-Jewish religions that were sweeping them up. One study at the time found that Jews, just 2 percent to 3 percent of the American population, constituted between 6 and 20 percent of the membership of radical new religions. Berg, Myers writes, wanted to “show alienated and spiritually hungry Jews that their own religious heritage contained everything they needed for fulfillment.”

Berg’s genius was in making something that was dense and esoteric into something highly accessible. What Ashlag wanted to teach to all Orthodox Jews, what his disciple Krakovsky wanted to teach to all Jews, Berg wanted to teach to all — period.

TV: Suze Orman isn’t all about the money — she has a spiritual side, too

Every morning in the shower, financial guru, TV personality and best-selling author Suze Orman says a prayer — “I ask for forgiveness and relief for all whom I did harm, and forgiveness and relief for all who harmed me” — and she has been doing so for as long as she can remember.

But it wasn’t until a few years ago, during a trip to Chicago for an appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” that Orman learned the provenance of the prayer. She happened to be in town during Yom Kippur and decided to join her mom for High Holy Day services.

“I realized it came from Yom Kippur,” she said. “I left the synagogue hyperventilating.”

Orman’s hands-on style and natural charisma have made her a favorite of many, particularly women, who used to avoid financial guidance. This is largely because Orman’s approach to handling finances, as seen in her best-selling books and in her popular TV program on CNBC TV, is part of a larger path to self-empowerment. There are also a few subtle spiritual elements in her road to stability and contentment.

After giving a recent talk at Manhattan’s 92 Street Y, Orman spoke to the Forward about her connection to Judaism. Though Orman is not a practicing Jew, her people-first attitude and spirituality have nonetheless been impacted by her Jewish roots.

“Growing up, I asked the questions nobody wanted to ask. I wanted to find the purpose,” Orman said. “It was the force of a Jewish household.”

She grew up on Chicago’s south side with a father who had come from Russia and a mother whose family had emigrated from Romania a generation before. Her father was a feather plucker of nonkosher chickens, and her mother worked for a rabbi at a local congregation. Occasionally the mother’s work, the rabbi, would stop by when her family was eating the father’s work, nonkosher chicken, and they would quickly scramble to hide the treif.

In 1971, during her sophomore year in college, Orman borrowed $400 from an aunt and then headed to Israel to work on a kibbutz.

“I was going to Israel to find God,” she said. “When I told Israelis this, they would spit on the ground and say, ‘The earth is God.'”

Orman was ultimately heartbroken by the trip. Unable to feel any closer to Judaism in Israel, she came back disheartened about the religion. Years later, after her interest in eastern spirituality was piqued, she made a similar quest to India, though she did not end up finding any answers there either.

Despite the fact that Orman has not been associated with Judaism in any traditional sense for decades, this search for purpose continues to inform her work. She says she is still a spiritually inquisitive person and that she has never stopped contemplating the concept of God.

“Faith plays a prominent role in my life,” she said. “Without faith, nothing matters.”

In fact, when Orman was in the process of writing her book “The Courage to Be Rich: Creating a Life of Material and Spiritual Abundance” (Riverhead Trade, 1999), one of six that have spent a considerable amount of time on the New York Times Bestseller List, she called upon her aunt’s rabbi for title ideas. She had been thinking about the haftorah portion she read at her bat mitzvah, and she wanted to be reminded of its significance.

“He started to explain, and I said, ‘Rabbi, I don’t have time for a sermon. Just tell me in one line,” Orman said. “He said, ‘Anything is possible with faith, integrity and courage.’ I thought, ‘Yes, it took courage to be this rich.'”

How rich? Orman’s net worth has been estimated at more than $25 million, with more coming in from her real estate investments, media appearances and books. (Her most recent book, “Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny,” was published in February by Spiegel & Grau.) As for Orman’s courage, it’s evident in both her approach to financial investment and her personal life: She caused a media stir — a risky move for such a high-profile media figure — when she came out as a lesbian last spring in a New York Times Magazine interview.

While Orman credits Judaism with some of the philosophical aspects of her advice, she doesn’t feel the same about her aptitude for managing money.

“I know there is this perception that Jews are really good with money. I don’t know if it is a reality,” she said.

In fact, she offered some specially tailored advice for the current generation of 20- and 30-somethings who — as a result of being raised by an overall successful group of second- and third-generation Americans — might not be so good with money.

“You better get a grip on reality,” Orman said in her typically frank manner. “The rich really are getting richer, and the poor really are getting poorer. Certain rights that you think are coming to you may not be there anymore. You will have it harder than any other generation I have seen.”

This article originally appeared in the


Color me spiritual

It’s another bright sunny day in Encino, but Deborah Gordon manages to almost outshine the sun. In her hot pink and purple ensemble — from ankle-length skirt to long-sleeved blouse topped by a fuchsia hat — this rebbetzin wasn’t kidding when she said she was all about colors.

Color therapy, if you will.

In this enlightened new age, therapy has expanded beyond Freud’s original “talking therapy.” Way beyond. Aside from what is now called “traditional” therapy (psychotherapy, behavioral, cognitive, gestalt, etc.), the healing of the soul has been pursued through other senses and arts: music therapy, art therapy, dance therapy, movement therapy — you name it. There’s even something called chromotherapy, or color therapy. Chromotherapy uses color to balance a person’s physical, emotional, spiritual or mental energies. On one end of the spectrum, it is used by alternative-health practitioners, and on the other by fashion consultants who help people find the colors that best suit them. Gordon — as the wife of Chabad of the Valley’s executive director Rabbi Joshua B. Gordon, and as a color analyst — does a little of both.

“I’m not just a rebbetzin, and I’m not just a color designer, but I decided to incorporate my Chabad work into the color work.”

For example, she has designed Chabad centers around the world, often via the Internet, using Web cams and photographs to case the joints. And as the president of the mikvah (ritual bath) in Tarzana, she has brides coming in to see her all the time.

“Let’s talk about my trousseau and my colors,” they say.

“First we’ll talk about Shabbos and kosher and family purity,” Gordon replies, “and then we’ll talk about colors.” Talking about colors is a complex process, for which her private clients — actors, writers, members of her community and others — pay $450 for a one-and-a-half hour consultation through her business, Flying Colors.

The name for the business came long before Gordon knew it would be a business. When she was 19, she and her new husband went to the Lubavitcher rebbe for a blessing. It was the early 1970s, a very idealistic time and “we knew we wanted to go out on shlichut and be part of his army,” she said about being an Chabad emissary, the tradition of sending couples to cities around the world to build Chabad centers and bring people closer to Judaism. Gordon says she asked the rebbe all sorts of questions — about her life, herself, her ambitions — and he said, “Whatever you do, you will pass with flying colors.”

For followers of the rebbe, who believe he never wasted a word, that was a unique sentence — although his forecast wouldn’t come to fruition for many years.

Gordon has been interested in color and design since she was young. Her father was a foreman for a paint company that specialized in mixing and matching for houses.

“It wasn’t like Home Depot, where they do it for you,” she said. She’d sit on his knee and tell him, “you have to add more pink” or “you have to add more brown.”

Gordon spent 10 years studying design and color with Suzanne Caygill, the originator of color design theory. Back in 1942, Caygill, a milliner and fashion designer, had an epiphany: that a person carries information about their personality and style in their skin, hair and eyes. Caygill developed a theory of personality and style based on the four seasons, creating 64 personality types. In 1980 Caygill wrote “Color: The Essence of You.” But the book stops at the physical.

Before Caygill died in 1994, she told Gordon that what she hadn’t brought to the work was spirituality.

“It was like a charge,” Gordon said. “I had to really step into big shoes.”

Gordon was licensed by Color Design International in 1993, and the next year she started Flying Colors, which incorporates design, analysis, healing, therapy and spirituality. And for the last 15 years Gordon has been studying what she calls “color kabbalah,” which correlates the kabbalistic spheres to color.

“God in his magnificence, when he created the world,” she said, put different energies into different seasons. “The energies that come into each season come into to play,” Gordon said. “When God’s energy was coming into the world, it would have been too much, so there are diffusions of this energy — different emotional and intellectual capabilities,” that can be understood through Chasidut (Chasidic philosophy), kabbalah and color. Just as a cardiologist may check a person’s blood pressure and heartbeat, color analysts take a look at the eyes, skin tone and hair color.

“As I’m doing this, I start understanding who you are. It’s spiritual and emotional,” she said.

Gordon’s work goes deeper than traditional color analysis, such as the work done by companies like Color Me Beautiful, which builds palates for people based on the four seasons.

Gordon shows a client dozens of swatch books, checking her client’s reaction to various colors. She starts building a palate for different occasions: work situations, personal situations, first dates, job interviews, etc.

For Rebbetzin Olivia Schwartz, who helps runs the Chai Center and hosts dozens of people in their home each week with her husband Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzie” Schwartz, Gordon designed an interior of warm tones, deep peaches and browns.

“There’s nothing more beautiful then opening up your home on Shabbos and the colors of the walls are bouncing off of you,” Schwartz said. “There’s also nothing like hearing about yourself from a perfect stranger, especially when that stranger knows things about you that you yourself don’t know.”

And when a perfect stranger tells you something about yourself that you might have always suspected but never heard spoken aloud, it can be jarring — but affirming.

“If I see a person with a green eye with brown around it, I see that, as a child, they need answers,” Gordon said, they wouldn’t be happy in a religious setting with pat explanations.

A Gift Ignored

The Master of the Universe has given us a gift that can connect us to the spiritual world, the one that exists beyond our physical reality. That gift is music, yet, sadly, most synagogues ignore the spiritual power of highly organized art music, the form many refer to as “classical music.”

For a people who have had no problem remembering an oral law handed down thousands of years ago, how is it possible that there is no knowledge of the music of the Temple period? Music is far easier for the mind to retain than text, so this is a great mystery. Text was remembered and music forgotten?

Notwithstanding the mystical kabbalistic tradition or the more recent (relatively speaking) Chasidic tradition, it seems traditional Judaism’s turning away from music as an active part of prayer is also a stepping away from the mystical and spiritual. Without the mystical and spiritual, there is no balance to the intellectual and analytical that have become the primary component of many peoples’ Judaism.

It is my belief that one evolves and gets closer to God when one has brought these polarities into balance. Mainstream Judaism talks about finding God but doesn’t try to get us there by balancing the spiritual with the intellectual.

We are told that in the days of the Temple, music was recognized as a powerful spiritual tool. The Temple services were punctuated by great orchestras and choruses that fulfilled the commandment to “make a joyful noise unto the Master of the Universe.”

Not only were there musical offerings unto Hashem, but new musical offerings. It wasn’t just Temple sacrifices that were called for on a regular basis, new musical compositions were also commanded in praise of Hashem and to elevate the souls of the Children of Israel.

The tradition has survived in Christianity, where great works by masters such as Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven still inspire and uplift all of us who come in contact with these great works. Bach was quite aware of his spiritual gift and signed and dedicated all of his compositions to the greater glory of God. Even Mozart, who wallowed when he could in the temporal pleasures of the physical life, was well aware of the source of his genius and believed he had a responsibility to the Supreme Master to create works of astounding spiritual power.

In today’s traditional Jewish service, the congregation is the choir. Everyone sings, creating moments that are spiritually connective. But another level of spiritual connectivity can happen through refined, complex musical work. Such music is thought to have existed in Temple days, was experimented with again in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and has been ignored for the most part in contemporary Jewish religious services.

Yes, there are those congregations that focus on music, usually in a highly accessible or folk form. There are also a handful of congregations that commission new works of a more complex nature. And even in the Orthodox world, there is one synagogue that maintains music as a spiritual tool: If you are in Jerusalem on the High Holy Days, visit Hechal Shlomo, where a large professional men’s choir sings real music that has the power to elevate and transform.

This is all very positive, but does it go far enough? Orthodoxy, which is generally acknowledged to be the keeper of the flame, acknowledges the power of music as a spiritual tool on the one hand but often minimizes its use on the other hand. Psalms 92 and 33 could not be more clear.

Psalm 92: It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord / and to sing praises unto Thy name, O Most High / With an instrument of ten strings, and with the psaltery; with a solemn sound upon the harp.

Psalm 33: Give thanks unto the Lord with harp, sing praises unto Him with the psaltery of ten strings. / Sing unto Him a new song; play skillfully amid shouts of joy.

These psalms are indicative of how even those Jews who observe the letter of the law most often pay no heed to the spirit of the Tehillim (Psalms), which make quite clear how we are expected to praise the Master of the Universe. As Jews disproportionately have excelled in so many fields, so it is true in music. Here is a partial honor roll: Felix Mendelsohn; Johann Strauss, who was a Jew from Hungary; Jacques Offenbach, a Jew from Germany. Camielle Saint-Saens, Gustav Mahler and Ernst Bloch.

Ravel’s mother was of Jewish origin, and he wrote a Kaddish. Arnold Schoenberg revolutionized 20th century music, as have Phillip Glass and Steven Reich.

Where would American music be without Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein? And where would Broadway be without Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe and Kurt Weil?

We are blessed with many gifted composers who have created works to honor and glorify the name of Hashem and to uplift the soul of our people. Yet how often are the works of the great 17th century Italian Jewish composer Solomone Rossi (1570-1628) performed? What about the works of Bloch, or Ravel’s Kaddish; or Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish or his Jeremiah Symphony or Chichester Psalms, all works of great spiritual vitality.

No major Jewish organization today commissions and performs art music created to glorify and elevate God. There are no synagogues that include such works of awe in their daily or weekly services, and while some attempt to elevate their High Holy Days services, this is not the norm.

We need to take the psalms literally. Their message could not be more clear: We should be utilizing the immense musical talent that the Master of the Universe has bestowed upon the Jewish people and commission composers to create music, utilizing real choirs and/or orchestras to create the kind of spiritual experience that today can be found in the secular world of the concert hall. If these works are performed on a regular basis, it will greatly increase our spiritual connectivity.

We live in a very complex world. The Master of the Universe constantly challenges us but also gives us the tools to deal with the seemingly impossible conflicts that make up the world we live in. We were given Torah. We were given music. We were given free will. We need to bring these gifts into balance and make a “Joyful noise unto the Lord.”

Agnon puts ‘awe’ in services with inspiring anthology

“Days of Awe: A Treasury of Jewish Wisdom for Reflection, Repentance, and Renewal on the High Holy Days” by S.Y. Agnon, (Schocken Books, 1995).

Is literature penned by a Nobel Prize-winning author appropriate reading material during High Holy Days services?

I am not sure how your rabbi would react if you sat in the pews reading T.S. Eliot or William Faulkner, but if you were found poring over the pages of 1966 Nobel Laureate S.Y. Agnon’s “Days of Awe,” originally published in Hebrew as “Yamim Noraim,” I trust most rabbis would happily approve. So would Agnon. In his introduction, Agnon states that he created this book so that one may read it “between prayers,” as a way of intensifying one’s spiritual experience during the High Holy Days.

Agnon’s “Days of Awe” is a rich anthology of biblical, talmudic, rabbinic, mystical, poetic and philosophical texts — all on the subject of the High Holy Days. The bibliography to “Days of Awe” lists more than 500 volumes from which Agnon culled this material, and Agnon tells us that he actually consulted “one thousand books and more” in preparing what amounts to a multi-generational conversation of sorts on the High Holy Days. I call it a “conversation,” because it differs from other encyclopedic anthologies in that the sources do not stand isolated from one another, rather they poetically flow one into the other. “Days of Awe” is an anthology compiled by a master novelist and storyteller, so it is not surprising that it can evoke an almost narrative-like aura and conjure up images in the reader’s mind that the average anthology simply cannot.

For example, in the section about the shofar, Agnon presents Avudraham’s list of Saadia Gaon’s 10 reasons why the shofar is blown, most of which are historical and nation oriented (e.g. binding of Isaac, revelation at Mt. Sinai, Destruction of the Temple). This is immediately followed by Maimonides’ more personal teaching that the shofar harkens the individual to “awake from your slumber, search your deeds, and turn in repentance towards God.”

This, in turn, is followed by a homily from the teachings of the Chasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, comparing the physical and spiritual aspects of “sound travel” as a lens through which one may understand the deeper meaning of the notes of the shofar. These three sources come from different geographical regions and historical eras (14th century Spain, 12th century North Africa and 18th century Eastern Europe, respectively), yet Agnon creatively juxtaposes them in a manner that gives the reader the feeling that Avudraham, Maimonides and Rav Nachman are in the same room having a conversation about the shofar.

Many have questioned why a writer whose creative genius lies in the domain of novels and short stories would spend, as Agnon himself stated, “Sixteen hours a day for two and a half years,” in composing an anthology of texts. The simple answer is that he was asked to create this book by his lifelong patron and publisher, Zalman S. Schocken, who wished to present to German Jewry a book through which they could understand the significance and meaning of the High Holy Days. But beyond this pragmatic answer lies a much deeper theological issue that serves as a window into the world of Agnon’s fiction.

Literary critic Malka Shaked devoted a lengthy article to the theme of Yom Kippur in Agnon’s writing, remarking that Agnon’s “deeply personal spiritual connection” to this subject is expressed through Yom Kippur serving as the setting or background to many of Agnon’s plots.

“In compiling ‘Days of Awe,’ Agnon virtually forgoes his own personal creative voice,” Shaked writes, “yet [the act of creating this volume] demonstrates Agnon’s deep interest in this theme.”

Is Agnon’s personal voice completely absent in “Days of Awe”?

Agnon admittedly massaged some of the texts, adding his own introductions and transitions to create the poetic flow to which I alluded earlier. Agnon compares his editorial activity here to “an artist who is handed fine silk from which to weave a garment, his only personal addition being the strings he uses in weaving.”

While this beautiful analogy does paint an accurate picture of Agnon’s role as editor, it is somewhat incomplete. In typical “Agnonic” fashion, Agnon masks his own voice, here in the guise of a peculiar bibliographic listing to which there is no description, author, place of origin or publication date, simply reading “Kol Dodi (in manuscript, in possession of the author).” In the section on “The Parent’s Blessing,” given on the eve of Yom Kippur, Agnon “quotes” from Kol Dodi that “when a man comes to bless his children, he ought to shut his eyes, so as not to see their flaws.”

What is this “Kol Dodi manuscript”?

In her personal memoir, Agnon’s daughter Emuna Yaron reveals that “Kol Dodi” (which means “My Beloved”) is actually a fictitious title used by her father when inserting his own ideas into this volume.

The High Holy Days are a time for deep thought and personal reflection. This brilliant volume is a direct interface with the struggles, traumas, hopes and aspirations that form the core of the High Holy Days experience. Bring it to synagogue, and, in addition to finding Agnon’s voice, you might find your own voice deeply embedded within the voices of our tradition’s greatest thinkers.

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Chart a new course with these spiritual guides for the New Year

As we think about rewriting our personal narratives in the New Year, adding new pages and chapters, several new books inspire new visions, renewed creativity and new relationships between the calendar and a sense of holiness.

Beautifully rendered in a poetic and sensitive translation, “The Book of Psalms: Translation With Commentaries,” by Robert Alter (Norton), is both a comfort to read for its remarkable content and an enlightening study. As Alter writes in the introduction, through the ages, “Psalms has been the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers.” These poems, he continues, “retain their eloquence and liveliness after two and a half millennia or more, for believers and simply for people who love poetry.”

Alter’s informed commentary will add much to readers’ understanding of what is “at least as a set of techniques and conventions, the most original literary creation of the biblical writers.”

In his translation of Psalm 27, read daily at this time of year, Alter notes that the line toward the end, “Though my father and mother forsook me, the Lord would gather me in,” is breathtaking and extravagant in its declaration of trust in God, “perhaps the most extreme in the whole Bible.”

“Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Fall Holidays,” by Rabbi Paul Steinberg (Jewish Publication Society), covers Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, guiding readers to go deeper into the themes of the holiday and find new meaning in their own observance and celebration. Organized with much thoughtfulness, he includes a richness of materials for each holiday: writings from some of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time reflecting on ideological aspect of the holiday; interpretations of sacred texts on the literal level, incorporating historical interpretations and personal perspectives; modern perspectives on the holiday by contemporary scholars and rabbis, and alternative meditations, including essays, poems and new rituals.

There’s much good and inspiring writing here. Included are the voices of Rachel Adler, S.Y. Agnon, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Rabbi Jill Hammer, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rav Kook, Elie Wiesel and others. The author is the rabbi and director of Jewish studies and Hebrew at the Levine Academy in Dallas.

“Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health,” edited by Rabbi William Cutter (Jewish Lights), is a collection of provocative essays delving into the relationship between classical Jewish texts and contemporary health issues, linking body, mind and spirit.

Contributors are a group of scholars, activists, rabbis, teachers and artists not directly involved in health care but deeply interested in the human dimensions, including Rachel Adler, Arnold Eisen, Eitan Fishbane, Rabbi Arthur Green, Rabbi David Ruderman and Albert J. Winn. Cutter is director of the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: A Spiritual Resource for Mentoring and Leadership,” by Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (Behrman House), is an uncommon spiritual how-to book. Artson guides readers to becoming mentors for others, learning to enrich others through sharing authentic experience, knowledge and a sense of holiness. Artson is dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and vice president of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter, performer and music producer Craig Taubman has put together a collection of brief essays, meditations and poems on the theme of hope and healing, “Jewels of Elul III” (Craig ‘n Co./American Committee for Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem), emphasizing the possibilities for change, growth and hope.

The pieces in this third edition are available online in a daily version or in a small pocket edition, compact enough to fit into a tallit bag. The 29 contributors include Rabbi Harold Kushner, Matisyahu, Dr. Jerome Groopman, Anita Diamant and Rabbi David Wolpe.

The Los Angeles Central Library’s ALOUD program will feature a discussion between Robert Alter and Jonathon Kirsch on Alter’s book, “The Book of Psalms: Translation With Commentaries,” moderated by David L. Ulin. The discussion will be held on Monday, Sept. 17, at 7 p.m. at the library.

For information on obtaining a free copies of “Jewels of Elul III” call (800) 707-9250 or visit

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

What will your rabbi be talking about?

“Too late. To be continued. Get over it.”

Rabbi Laurence Goldmark, of the Reform Temple Beth Ohr in La Mirada, can summarize his main High Holy Days sermon in just those eight words. After 29 years at the shul, he plans to retire next summer, and he wants to take this season to reinforce those three fundamental themes, which he believes define his rabbinate.

Rabbi Laura Geller, of Reform Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, will launch a Greening the Synagogue campaign in her Rosh Hashanah sermon, springboarding off a Judgment Day question posed by the fourth-century Babylonian sage Rava. While Rava inquired about involving ourselves in procreation, Geller plans to reframe the question, asking congregants to reflect upon the world we will leave for our children.

Rabbi Judith HaLevy, of the Reconstructionist Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue, spent nearly four weeks this summer in a rabbinic leadership program at Jerusalem’s Hartman Institute. On Rosh Hashanah, she will talk about Israel at age 60 — comparing the reality versus the dream. While her overall theme is to explore the notion of “one people,” she believes the relationship between Israel and America must be “a two-way street.”

In sermons on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur throughout Southern California this year, rabbis will continue to exhort their congregants to look inward and outward, to reflect upon and repair themselves, their families and communities, the nation and the world.

Almost every rabbi interviewed for this article said they will discuss the timeless High Holy Day theme of teshuvah (repentance), and examine American Jews’ ever-important relationship to Israel. Many will talk about global warming and the environmental consequences, and for some, though not an easy subject, the war in Iraq is on the agenda.

But it is often the case that the most successful sermons, the ones deemed most inspirational and most powerful, are those that emanate directly from the rabbi’s heart. “It has to be spoken from the truest place of a rabbi’s being,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Conservative Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Feinstein described the process of creating a sermon as “a profound work of teshuvah for the rabbi.” He said the process forces rabbis to sit down with himself or herself and really examine where they are this year, what matters to them and what motivates them.

Feinstein’s two sermons will focus on Israel and its 60th anniversary and on the question of power and powerlessness.

Feinstein worries that most Americans have given up on their ability to affect the condition of our national existence — and even our communal existence — and have become very private.

“This is a terrible sign for our democracy and a terrible spiritual disease,” he said. He wants his sermon to motivate people to engage in “significant acts of volunteerism,” which he believes is the remedy.

It isn’t easy to write these sermons, and to help facilitate the process, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California holds an annual High Holy Days seminar, which this year took place on Aug. 14 at Stephen S. Wise Temple. More than 100 rabbis from synagogues extending from San Luis Obispo to San Diego attended, as well as about 35 student rabbis from the three local seminaries.

This year’s seminar featured Valley Beth Shalom’s Feinstein as both morning and afternoon keynote speaker, talking about the Yamim Nora’im (Days of Awe) as a window to change our lives and our world and also discussing the challenges and opportunities of preaching and teaching about Israel at 60. The seminar also offered six different workshops, from Rabbi Richard Levy’s “Troubling Passages in the High Holy Day Machzor” to Rabbi Daniel Bouskila’s “Revolutionary Traditionalism: Reading Theology in S.Y Agnon” (for a review of the book by Bouskila, see p. 21). Each participant selected two sessions.

“[The purpose] is to spark interest in ideas they’ve been turning around, to provide stories for mini-sermons and divrei Torah and to debunk the popular myth out there that rabbis copy sermons lock, stock and barrel,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Diamond also added that the finest sermons combine some kind of serious engagement with Jewish text and Jewish tradition with a specific issue of the day or a personal issue that people are facing.

For veteran Rabbi Dov Gartenberg, returning to Southern California as the new rabbi of Conservative Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, the most pressing communal issue is Jewish hospitality and the tradition of welcoming the stranger. Gartenberg will devote his main Rosh Hashanah sermon to the subject, introducing hospitality as the synagogue’s yearlong theme. This is an extension of “Panim Hadashot: New Faces of Judaism,” the program of Shabbat-centered learning and outreach Gartenberg founded while serving as rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Seattle.

Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Orthodox Young Israel of Century City, will deliver four High Holy Days sermons: on hearing the cry from the shofar and recognizing the pain of other Jews; on parenting as the ultimate gauge of success in life; on the importance of community; and on caring for the poor.

But the sermon he finds most challenging — and the one on which he spends the most time pondering and preparing — is the one he’ll be giving on the afternoon of Shabbat Teshuvah, the Shabbat of Repentance, which this year immediately follows Rosh Hashanah. Hundreds of his congregants as well as others in the Pico-Robertson community will attend the hour-plus presentation, which he has titled “In Search of Spirituality.”

“Spirituality is the key word today, but what does it mean?” Muskin asked. “A lot of people think it just means warm and fuzzy, but it’s a question of really pursuing and trying to find a spiritual direction in one’s life.”

Rabbi Jan Goldstein is inaugurating a nondenominational High Holy Days experience this year, called “Bayit Shelanu,” or “Our House” with singer/composer Debbie Friedman. Their goal is to reach out to Los Angeles’ unaffiliated Jews. The services will be held at UCLA’s Ackerman Grand Ballroom.

12 thoughts on happiness for the 10 Days of Awe

“It’s a great mitzvah to always be happy.”
— Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

1. Happiness is not always easy: You work out to be fit, and you have to work to be happy. It’s also easier to be unhappy (stuck) than happy.

2. Happiness is a choice: Anyone, from prisoners to paraplegics, can become happy. It’s a state of mind, having a sense of mastery over your life.

3. Happiness has little to do with external factors: Money, power and fame rarely bring happiness. If you choose your goals based on internal values, not external, they can bring you happiness.

4. Happiness does not come from doing nothing: We all have control of our leisure time. Use it to engage in challenging things you love: gardening, creating, exercising, being with loved ones. Sloth usually brings unhappiness.

5. Happiness doesn’t mean avoidance of pain: Everyone in life will have pain. But, to quote the Dalai Lama, don’t add suffering to the pain.

6. Perspective is the key to happiness: Rabbi Nachman Gamzu said, “Gam zu l’tovah: “This is all for the best.” In the game of life, if you learn life lessons from painful situations, you get to move one step further.

7. Practice gratitude: It’s hard to be thankful and unhappy at the same time. “Abi gezunt,” is the Yiddish phrase of old: “At least you have your health.” Everyone has something to be grateful for.

8. Happiness doesn’t mean the end of achievement: You can be dissatisfied with somethin and not let it make you miserable. You can be happy and still want more. You will probably always want more.

9. Be engaged in the world: Relationships, true connectedness, bring lasting joy.

10. To thine own self be true: Our sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” Take care of yourself: your body, your health, your mind, your spirit.

11. Give to the world: “And If I am only for myself, what am I?” — that crucial component of Hillel’s famous three-part quote. President Bill Clinton, in his new book, “Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World,” presents many reasons to give, one of them being it is the best way to make yourself happy.

12. Decide to be happy now: As Hillel said, “If not now, then when?”

— AK

Music and religion reflect singer’s commitment to God

Talking with Dana Mase is like listening to her sing.Her gentle voice calms, even soothes, and you find yourself compelled to listen as she recounts experiences of her troubled childhood and her passionate faith.

“I didn’t like being Jewish,” the Orthodox singer said. “The school I went to was an all-girls prep school, it was WASPy, and I didn’t like being singled out as ‘the Jew.’ I didn’t like temple. There was nothing I liked about it. I was just so lost.”

Her openness is uncommonly direct and honest. She gets the messy stuff out of the way so she can talk about what really matters: music and God.

To Mase, art and religion are two streams of the same water, and both reflect her deep commitment to Hashem. Her recently released compilation album, “The Colors of Black and White,” is the culmination of her struggle to find an authentic Jewish place in the world — a place beyond a turbulent childhood, beyond a journey through evangelical Christianity that eventually led her back to her Jewish roots.

“Life is a big spectrum — things are not just black or white. Now I’m allowing my songwriting to cover the full spectrum of what that means, not that everything is all good and happy,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Monsey, N.Y.

Now a practicing ba’alat teshuvah, Mase feels she’s where she belongs — at home with her yeshiva-educated children and her husband, breaking the Orthodox mold by moonlighting as a soulful singer.

Her delicate voice croons with sexy, edgy lyrics. On the track “Stronger Than,” Mase sings, “There’s a place that’s deep inside my soul/ where I recognize you’re in control/… stronger than Wall Street/ stronger than the Internet/ stronger than money/ stronger than the best sex.”

Like her lyrics, her past is decidedly unorthodox. To escape the tension of a broken home, Mase hung out with a rough crowd of teens whose high school hobbies included sex, drugs and hatching plans to skip town.

“I was thought of as the goody two-shoes, so I had to prove them wrong,” she said, reflecting on her past. “I had to be tough and cool and do things that were self-destructive.”

Her parents divorced when she was 12, and her father subsequently abandoned the family. With very little money to live on, her mother couldn’t afford to pay membership dues at their temple. Mase remembers they were told not to return, and she interpreted the social and financial emphasis of her synagogue as an indication of spiritual vacuity.

The young Mase withdrew from her family, never feeling safe or sheltered. Years later, a spiritual epiphany transformed her life.

“I was at my friend’s house, and I got up to leave and started blacking out,” Mase recalled. “I was lying on the couch and … I just started thinking about my life and all of the sudden I thought, ‘What if there is a God?’ And in that moment, a whole new world burst open to me.”

A spiritual fervor reinvigorated her life and she set out searching for God.

“I started to ask friends if they believed in God, but my friends were drug addicts, so they didn’t know what they were talking about,” she said.

And then a Catholic friend invited her to a Christian coffee house.

“I told [them] that I was Jewish, and everybody loved that I was a Jew — their favorite person to get — I was a star,” Mase recalled.

Inspired by the positive strokes, she decided to attend Oral Roberts University, an evangelical Christian college in Oklahoma. Though musically gifted from an early age, it was during her studies that music became a conduit for her spiritual passion.

“The realization that God was in the world was when it all came together,” Mase said. “I had a deeper well to write from and a strong belief — a strong drive to make music.”

Creating rhythms and harmonies came naturally, but the Christian beliefs met with an internal spiritual discord.

“Being around Christians made it very obvious that I was a Jew,” Mase said. “I would hear anti-Semitic comments, and it stirred something inside of me — my Jewish neshama (soul) was bursting to come out.”

Mase began wearing a Jewish star, and her Orthodox sister encouraged her to move to New York. The sisters shared Shabbat dinners and engaged in ongoing dialogue about Jewish law, customs and theology.

One afternoon while walking in Central Park, the singer met her future husband, Jewish musician Barry Mase. The two started a band together called Puss and Boots, and although he wasn’t religious, his desire to learn impressed Mase, and she encouraged him to study Judaism and Torah.

“I was so burnt out, but I wanted to be with someone who had a spiritual backbone,” she said.

Mase has since found a home for herself in Monsey and isn’t concerned with how she’s perceived by the rest of the community.

“I don’t fit the Orthodox mold. I play music. I’m in a rock band. I teach handicapped children how to ride horses. This is who I am, and I can’t shut these pieces of me down,” she said.

After all she’s been through, Mase is not interested in pretense. For her, embracing the ba’alat teshuvah lifestyle invites spontaneity, and she is perfectly comfortable figuring it out as she grows.

Mase said her toughest struggles these days are carpooling and getting dinner prepared. She is focused on transmitting her love for Judaism to her children and channeling her spiritual growth into music people of any background can relate to and share.

“I don’t want to candy coat my music. If I’m feeling joy, I want that to come through; if I’m struggling, I want that to come through. I want my music to be authentic in terms of what life is about.”

Dana Mase — She Never Knew She Never Knew

Dana Mase — 1,000,000 Miles

For more visit

Not By Bread Alone

“Carb” is a four-letter curse word in the estimation of most L.A. residents. Its nasty connotation came by way of one Dr. Atkins, whose “Diet Revolution” became more widely read than the Bible among many a secular Jew. Seemingly overnight, Atkins’ “prophecy” became an orthodoxy for consumption of food for the grace of that most coveted status: beauty by way of slenderness.

Suddenly carbs were cursed, and pasta, potatoes and, of course, bread became the stuff of guilt and suffering to be avoided like menstruating women on the bimah. In revolutionary proportions, the most nonreligious unknowingly joined in collective affirmation of the words of Parshat Ekev: “Man does not live by bread alone.”

That man should live instead by an In-N-Out protein-style Double-Double, however, was not quite the message. Preceding Deuteronomy 8:3, God explained the suffering He caused the Israelites in wandering the wilderness as a 40-year test of faith. “[God] subjected you to the hardship of hunger and then gave you manna to eat … in order to teach you that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word that proceeds out of the mouth of God does man live.”

Perhaps today’s anti-bread movement is essentially spiritual: a collective desire of our souls for greater consciousness and empowerment from within the realm of Creator. To be sure, giving up bread is a subjugation of hardship; no amount of corned beef can satisfy hunger for a fresh slice of rye bread underneath. The triumph in overcoming such attachments for a higher life experience is indeed sacred; seeking a tighter tush rather than a firmer faith is profane. Even if the spark of God within us inspired this widespread affliction of culinary deprivation, our egos haven’t quite caught on.

Carbolyte is a poor substitute for manna from heaven (and a noxiously gaseous one), as are the other artificially flavored and sweetened things by which carb-counting eaters try to satiate. They only add to the diseases of materialism: feelings of inadequacy, of wanting more in a world where you can “never be too rich or too thin.” If only we would recite the words of Ekev, recognizing that “God is in [our] midst, a great and awesome God” (Deuteronomy 7:21), the experience of our own perfection in an abundant reality would be revealed.

The bread battle is spiritual. Long before Atkins or Weight Watchers subjected us to the proverbial wilderness of carblessness, Judaism instructed that we “cast our bread upon the water” as offerings of lowly attachment for the receiving of higher sustenance. So, too, it warned us to temper consumption of yeast, which, like the human ego, causes physical and emotional turmoil when disproportionately swollen. And then there is the connection between the words lechem (bread) and milchama (war) by sharing the same root — explaining the battle between a smaller waist and a chocolate rugelach.

Eliminating bread, according to Judaism, is an ego diet. It is infliction of measured suffering on the greedy, possessive, instantly gratified, animal part of oneself so as to realign with the Godly part. It exercises faith and determination, a return to the experience of blessing. It took 40 years for our ancestors to get this: that they need not struggle nor worry nor want food, or anything else, but rather infiltrate their beings with faith in the providence of their Creator and gratitude for His miraculous offerings.

His manna appeared such that there was never any more or less than what was needed for daily sustenance. Anything leftover rapidly infested with maggots; the only thing they could hold was conviction in God’s presence. When they finally understood that everything needed was imparted by — and only by — the power of the Divine word, they were delivered into a land flowing with milk, honey and fabulous pita.

The war on bread may allow a victory over dependency, but it is in learning to love the enemy after the battle that perfection is truly realized. Manna was never meant to take the place of the wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, dates and grapes growing in Israel. Once our ancestors were able to fully trust in the sustenance and abundance of an Infinite Source, It restored them to their natural right for physical pleasure. The intention was ultimately that we live our lives in the luxury of beautiful tastes and recognize the blessing of its energy flowing though us as sparks of creation in service of their Supplier.

Man should not avoid bread; quite the contrary: the parsha proceeds with God’s promising our life experience in “a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing.” It describes an abundant existence, in which “when you have eaten your fill” of Mrs. Fields cookies, you will recognize that you have had enough, and “give thanks to the Lord your God for the good … he has given.” Carb-free living encourages the power to transcend attachments to comfort, and strengthens the will to live consciously and intentionally: the Sinai Diet. But the greater test comes in our heeding God’s word, not Atkins’.

The milchama with lechem stops when we can eat it proportionately and spiritually. When we enjoy our fill — rather than demonizing, avoiding or sinfully binging on it — we are redeemed. By the mouth of God, bread was created, as was light, as were we, in His image. Our purest source of nourishment is Divine love, manifest in our capacity to lift up the vital force in all foods through our own utterances of gratitude. The war becomes love when we bless Adonai, who takes bread from out of the earth. With these words, hamotzi lechem min haaretz, we also praise the Creator for taking war out of the world. Ah, to eat a knish in peace.

Using both bread and body to service the Divine, lightness and purity from within their mundanity shine in vital beauty. By mimicking the word of God, we consume the blessing we offer; our souls are fed by sacred words and our bodies are sated and sustained. We remember that while “carb” may be a four-letter word, so, too, is the unutterable name of God, and that’s the furthest thing from a curse there is.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at

Books: Reimagining the future of the Jewish People

After the destruction of the Second Temple two millennia ago, a group of scholars came together to discuss the nature of Judaism in a post-Temple world.

Their discussions, which make up the Talmud, set forth a path for the future of Judaism to come.

“Now, once again, a group of gifted scholars gather to reinterpret the Jewish project, to reassert its meaning, re-envision its institutions and reimagine its future,” asserts the introduction of the new book: “Jews and Judaism in the 21st Century: Human Responsibility, the Presence of God and the Future of the Covenant,” edited by Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) Rabbi Edward Feinstein (Jewish Lights Publishing, $24.99).

The conversation of reimagining the Jewish people took place in March 2005 at VBS in Encino on the occasion of Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis’ 80th birthday, when five scholars gathered “to grapple with the deepest issues that face the Jewish people as we face the new century,” Feinstein wrote.

The book presents the best of the four days of lectures and dialogues by the Reform Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; two Modern Orthodox rabbis — professor David Hartman, founder and director of the Shalom Hartman Institute of Religion in Jerusalem; and Irving “Yitz” Greenberg, president of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, and two Conservative rabbis — Schulweis and Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

These learned rabbis together try to answer the question “How Have You Changed — How Have We changed?” using Jewish sources, personal anecdotes and Jewish history to discuss the next steps for the Jewish people.

If it’s true that Judaism had to be rethought after the destruction of the Second Temple so long ago, then it’s equally true that this new millennium — especially after the 20th century — demands a rethinking of the meaning of Judaism. Who is God? What is our relationship to God? How can we believe in the God after the Holocaust? What is the role of the Jewish people? How much should the Jewish people be engaged in the outside world?

These sometimes personal, sometimes lofty, sometimes didactic essays talk about subjects like globalization, pluralism, the Holocaust, the founding of the State of Israel, the Jewish conscience and responsibilities and, of course, God.

While there have been many, many books written about Jewish thought and Jewish life (especially by those present in the book), it is rare to find such great thinkers coming together and, more importantly, focused forward, rather than on the past.

“While history is irreversible, we have the power to decide what of our past belongs in our future,” Schulweis writes in “Globalism and the Jewish Conscience.” As founder of the Jewish World Watch, a response to genocide in the Sudan, the Jews’ past means also taking responsibility for what happens to the rest of the world, not just to ourselves.

“We gave the world conscience,” he writes, and that’s why we cannot close the newspaper, close our eyes, close our ears. With globalization comes global responsibility, a global God and a global conscience because “at stake is humanity.”

For Ellenson, pluralism is the key to dealing with the modern world.

“There is something of value in virtually every sector of the Jewish world — no group has the monopoly on truth,” he writes. “If a religion does not instruct you to embrace others, then it has to be, by definition, of limited or no utility.” Like Schulweis, he says the challenge of Judaism is action: “How do we treat our own people, and how do we treat others?”

Kushner provides a historical perspective on what has happened to Judaism in the last century. He wants to see assimilation “as a doorway into the Jewish community, not as a doorway out.”

The two Modern Orthodox rabbis have more nuanced approaches to modernity — which, Greenberg writes, brought on the Holocaust, which, he believes, taught Jews they cannot wait for God to save them.

“Taking power is the fundamental transformation of our religion now,” he writes. “God’s own message is that you have to take responsibility.”

Although all the rabbis discuss our relationship with God, in “A Covenant of Love,” Hartman investigates the changing relationship with God, from Abraham and the sacrifice, to his bargaining with God for Sodom to the talmudic era and Spinoza, till today. He sees the Jewish people in a partnership with God.

“God doesn’t bring about anything,” he writes. “What you seek from God now is not some teaching or some sort of liberation. What you seek from God is not that God will solve any problems, but that God should be with you.”

The essays, although sometimes erudite, counter many assumptions about Judaism, assumptions learned in childhood or study or more traditional sources — such as about a demanding, cruel God. The book’s discussions of the role of denominations, speaking to the non-Jewish community, the role of the synagogue and the rabbi all are rich catalysts for further thought.

Feinstein sums it all up in a sentence that gets to both the essence of the Jewish character, and the challenge facing the Jewish people: “We have this hope, a dream of a perfect world. But our hope is backed up by our commitment and our lives and our religions and our community and our desire to make it a reality.”

A physician examines his profession’s blind spots

Jerome Groopman is a physician and clinical scientist at Harvard University, a specialist in AIDS and cancer. He’s also a writer for The New Yorker, with a successful and thought-provoking series of books on such topics as the intersection of spirituality and medicine and the importance of a physician’s intuition. His new book, “How Doctors Think,” asks the question: Why do doctors make mistakes and how can we keep them from happening?

Zachary Sholem Berger: How can patient and doctor better understand each other?

Jerome Groopman: Language is still the bedrock of medicine, despite all the great technology we have. I have a great doctor who listens very carefully, lets me tell my story; sometimes he interrupts to guide me. He is an active listener, explaining how he understood what I said and then explaining his thinking to me.

I’ve tried to make myself a better doctor. Like most medical students, I was not educated in thinking about thinking. At least I’ve become much more self-aware. Hopefully through the process of writing this book, I’ll think better for my patients.

ZSB: How can a doctor retrain himself or herself in order to listen more, be open to more diagnostic possibilities?

JG: By and large, we do a good job as doctors. We’re right about 80 percent of the time — our misdiagnosis rate is 15 percent to 20 percent, which is remarkable. But in about half of misdiagnoses, there is serious harm to the patient. My hope is that people in charge of medical education will seriously look at this and ask how can we do better in terms of educating doctors to think about their thinking and avoiding pitfalls.

This concern comes out of the experience of the patient. Because we doctors see so many people, thinking in the moment, we have to use shortcuts. If lay people become educated about how we think, with a few appropriate and directed questions, they could help us think better.

They should ask, “Could this be anything else?” or “I’m worried this is something serious.”

That is the genuine partnership.

ZSB: Could it be that the issue is not only thinking, but that doctor and patient need to understand how the other feels?

JG: There’s an integration of thinking and feeling; our emotions color our thought processes. In the real world, pitfalls in thinking are also influenced by our emotions. So you have to recognize feelings — to be self-aware and know there are going to be patients that you adore. That can impair your judgment, as well. The flip side is there are patients we don’t like, that we find irritating or provocative.

ZSB: Do patients have to recognize feelings, as well?

JG: It’s much harder to be a patient than a doctor. Research I mention in the book shows that patients pick up accurately if doctors like them or don’t like them. Patients need to defuse such a situation or open it up. There are patients who have said to me, “I can feel how devoted you are to me. I don’t want you to hold back.” If [on the other hand] you feel like the doctor’s irritating you, as I experienced myself as a patient, that’s a red flag.

ZSB: What does the Jewish tradition mean to you?

JG: I feel its importance very deeply. There is room in it for doubt and skepticism and questioning, not a sense of infallibility. There’s also extraordinary psychological insight with regard to motivation and character. For example, Maimonides talks about magical thinking, and the Torah talks about not believing in sorcery — often patients do have magical thinking, believing that they will be saved.

ZSB: Doctors, too — magical thinking guards us against admitting our ignorance.

JG: That’s right! So we should be challenging ourselves. Judaism impels you to challenge yourself. In the greatest debates in Talmud, you are able to challenge the greatest authorities.

ZSB: Do you feel recourse to spirituality, to God?

JG: As much as I wish there were miracles — boom, my hand’s fixed — those are fantasies. What Judaism teaches us is the knowledge that we’re created with reservoirs of resilience. We are created with the capacity of wisdom, which means judgment — not just knowledge, but the ability to assess and weigh that knowledge to make choices. Very integral in Judaism is the sense of hope. There is capacity to improve. What it takes is drawing on gifts of science with mobilization of the spirit.

ZSB: How do you mobilize the patient’s spirit?

JG: I try to draw from them wellsprings of their resilience, to lift them up as best I can. The diseases I deal with are serious ones. The confrontation with those kinds of realities requires energy and commitment and determination on the part of a patient.

ZSB: Is the spirituality you’ve talked about just a fancy name for trying to inject religion?

JG: I don’t think you need to be religious to have a sense of awe or to look within yourself or around you for nonreligious sources of strength, whether they be family, friends or therapists. I care for many people who are atheist and agnostic, and I certainly don’t have the hubris of imposing any religious sensibility on them. My job as a physician is to help them find that core of strength and focus.

Zackary Sholem Berger, a frequent Forward contributor, is a medical resident in the primary care program at New York University.

Fiery holiday lights up Lag B’Omer spirit

The wind blew cold and fierce and the waves crashed onto the beach as the sun set pink behind the craggy Santa Monica Mountains and bonfires battled for their lives in pits carved into the sand.

It’s a scene that might well seem like any weekend at Dockweiler Beach in El Segundo, the only Los Angeles public shorefront where bonfires are legal. But last weekend, there was a different type of crowd, for a special type of celebration: Lag B’Omer.

Never heard of it?

Don’t worry, many Jews haven’t. Lag B’Omer, literally the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer — the period between Passover and Shavuot — is a relatively minor Jewish holiday that in recent years has become more popular among spiritually seeking Jews.

It marks the day that the plague that killed 24,000 of Rabbi Akiva’s students ended; it also marks the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who some think wrote the primary Kabbalistic text, the Zohar.

The holiday has always been observed by the Orthodox, and in Israel, it’s celebrated nationally and is a school holiday, but these days, some non-Orthodox synagogues, Jewish youth and singles groups and others have also taken to the beach to build fires, sing and revel in the fun.

“I’m really into how a lot more Jewish events have spread to non-Orthodox communities, like tashlich,” said Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant. On Tashlich, as part of the Rosh Hashana celebration, people throw bread into a body of water to symbolically wash away sins.

Like Lag B’Omer, the ritual often involves a trip to the beach and has become a festive community event, a way for Jews of all stripes to find new meaning and connections to Judaism outside the typical American “three-day-a-year” traditions.

“I think that’s a cool thing, and I wanted to support it,” said Bojarsky, one of 60 or so people who came to the bonfire of Nashuva, the spiritual community led by Rabbi Naomi Levy. A half-dozen or so bonfires from various Jewish organizations and groups of friends peppered the beach on both Saturday and Sunday nights this year. Many postponed the event from its actual night until Sunday because of the late hour of the Shabbat sunset.

The spirit of the holiday can be as different as the people celebrating it. At the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard, Saturday was an all-night learning, singing and dancing affair celebrating Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. In Israel, tens of thousands of people visit his grave to say special prayers, and upsherin, the first haircuts for 3-year-old boys, are also done there, and around the world, on this holiday. Picnics, outings, concerts and all types of celebrations mark the day, which breaks up the mourning period of the Omer.

“Legend has it that Shimon Bar Yochai hid in a cave for 12 years,” Rabbi Levy explained to the Nashuva participants. They were sitting bundled up against the wind on beach chairs and blankets, surrounding an array of drums about to be played. Levy told how a freshwater spring and a carob tree appeared near the rabbi’s cave, and he survived on those while he studied inside the cave. When he emerged, he could no longer understand regular life, because he was on such a high plane, and so Lag B’Omer became a celebration of the mystical Torah, the way that Shavuot is a celebration of the physical Torah. “Tonight, in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, we’re asking ourselves to take ourselves into a another world, a mystical world, and enter into a place of joy and insight,” Levy said.

Some groups had bonfires to celebrate Bar Yochai — and their identity.

“He’s Sephardic, a hero to Jews,” said Sandy Benchimol, director of the Sephardic Educational Center, an organization with branches around the United States, Canada and Israel. By the time the sun went down, SEC had the biggest bonfire on the beach and some 60 twenty-somethings.

For others, Lag B’Omer is not about anything religious at all.

“We’re here to pass on the tradition,” said Ayelet Sason, who sat at another bonfire with some 20 other Israelis. Like most of their countrymen, they mark holidays with barbecues and had brought supplies to make hot dogs and hamburgers to accompany the chips and marshmallows that were at every one of the Lag B’Omer tables. They also brought guitars and songbooks to sing traditional Hebrew songs like “Tumbalalaika” and “How Good It Is to Come Home.”

And for those involved in kiruv, or outreach bringing Jews closer to Judaism, Lag B’Omer is a way to bring it all together — identity, community, spirituality, religion and fun.

“They get Jewish identity by getting together for a Jewish festival,” said Rabbi Chaim Brooke, head of CSUN Hillel, at the fire for students from Chabad at Santa Monica College, Pierce and CSUN. “It inspires them to be better Jews and better people.”

Hybrid Jews

Jews are not a people suited for the status quo. We have a rebellious gene. We can’t stand still.

Look everywhere and you’ll see signs of our restlessness.

The Reform movement is debating whether it has gone too far in moving away from halacha (Jewish law). The Conservatives are always going through an identity crisis, so much so that sometimes I think they enjoy it. The Orthodox have so many variations that a neighbor of mine calls Pico-Robertson the Baskin-Robbins of frum neighborhoods — pick your flavor.

We’re a people of paradox: We love the safety and stability of permanence, but we’re always on edge — ready to take off, to break away, to declare our independence.

Often these breakaway dramas are small, local affairs — a few Jews get annoyed with a few other Jews; they meet, they eat, they scheme and another shul is born.

I’ve seen this as often with Ashkenazim as with Sephardic Jews. We love each other, but not enough to pray together if we get on each other’s nerves. But this getting on each other’s nerves has a wonderful side benefit: We get to experience this continuous influx of new shuls, new ideas and new movements.

One of the great movements in recent Jewish history is the Chasidic movement. Over two centuries ago, a revolutionary Jew called the Baal Shem Tov decided that Torah belonged to the masses, not just to the yeshivas, and it should be lived with deep joy, not just deep study. Within several decades, despite major opposition from mainstream Judaism, Chasidic offshoots were branching out in Eastern Europe and Russia, taking on local flavors and each having their own leader, or rebbe.

One of these Chasidic groups was called the Breslovers, originating in a little town in Ukraine called Breslev. Their leader was the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, known simply as Rebbe Nachman — an intense, charismatic mystic who died in his late 30s.

I got a taste of the Breslev world when I traveled in the early ’90s to the Ukrainian city of Uman, where many of Rebbe Nachman’s followers gathered at his gravesite during Rosh Hashanah, as was his wish.

When I visited, there must have been several hundred people at the gathering. Today, I hear the annual number has grown to well over 20,000, with Jews from all over the world and all walks of life coming to soak up the rebbe’s holy vibes.

Among the participants in this worldwide pilgrimage is a small contingent from the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, led by a French-speaking Algerian Jew in the garment business named Sylvain Sellam.

Sylvain runs a little Breslev shul in the hood, at the corner of Robertson and Cashio, called The Breslev Center. I was there on a recent Shabbat, and for a minute I thought I was in the middle of the desert hanging out with Israeli settlers. It was that laid back.

It’s OK at the Breslev shul to wear jeans and sneakers and not tuck in your shirt. You won’t see any sign of a rabbi, but you’ll see lots of men with one eyebrow. You see, the davening is Sephardic, and if you stick around for the Kiddush, you’ll get to taste what may be the only Kurdish cholent in town, a thick, dark concoction made by an elderly Israeli Kurd named Abe.

Now, you might ask, what is so Chasidic about a little shul that looks, smells, tastes and sounds so Sephardic? There are no black hats, no Chasidic melodies, no long beards — so what gives?

Have you heard of these new hybrid cars that combine the traditional engine with an electric one? Well, this is the equivalent phenomenon — hybrid Jews — Jews who embrace a new tradition, but keep a connection to their old one.

Sylvain Sellam is a hybrid Jew.

He is madly in love with Breslev and with Rebbe Nachman, but he hasn’t abandoned his Sephardic roots, which include a direct lineage to the revered mystics of North Africa. He was indeed skeptical when, several years ago, a Sephardic buddy told him about Rebbe Nachman and Breslev. It felt foreign and irrelevant. But he agreed to take a look at Rebbe Nachman’s major book (Likutey Moharan), and it changed his life.

But wait, it gets more interesting. While Sylvain is passionate about Breslev, and he maintains his Sephardic roots, he’s even more passionate about a renegade offshoot of Breslev loosely called the “Na Na Nachmans.” This is the Wild Wild West of Breslev.

They don’t believe in rabbis or any of the trappings of organized religion. They have only one rabbi, and he’s in the other world — Rebbe Nachman. Unlike the traditional mainstream of Breslev, they are not quiet and self-effacing. Their mission is to spread the words of Rebbe Nachman, especially the words of the “Petek.”

The Petek is a mysterious “letter from heaven” from Rebbe Nachman revealed to a righteous Breslev (Rav Israel) many decades ago that followers say holds the key to redemption. In practical terms, the key is the mantra “Na Nach Nachma Nachman Me’Uman,” a kabbalistic breakdown of Rebbe Nachman’s name that has become the movement’s cri de coeur.

The mainstream Breslovers, including the unofficial leadership in Safed, don’t know what to make of this vocal and free-spirited band of Breslev gypsies who travel around Israel in hippie-style vans playing loud “Na Na Nachman” music and handing out Rebbe Nachman literature. They are the rebels of Breslev — the rebels among the rebels.

The Breslev Center here in the hood is one of the few “Na Na Nachman” shuls outside Israel. If it were up to Sylvain, there’d be a lot more. His enthusiasm for the Petek is obvious and intense. He’ll tell you about miracles he has witnessed just from the act of meditating on the Petek.

What struck me when I was in his shul, though, was how familiar it all felt. Kids were running around making a lot of noise, grown-ups were schmoozing and everyone was reading the exact same Torah portion being read in every shul in the world.

Maybe that explains our rebellious gene — we’re comfortable breaking away because we know that deep down, we’ll never let go.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at


Breslovers gather in Ukraine. Click the BIG ARROW

Lawyer makes case for answering rabbinical school call

Kenneth Klee is living the American dream.

He is a nationally recognized bankruptcy lawyer, founding partner of Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern and was named one of the top 100 lawyers in California by the Los Angeles Daily Journal. A tenured law professor at UCLA, he lectures nationwide and has held a named professorship at Harvard Law School.

He is also writing a book on bankruptcy, due out in 2008, and he serves as an expert witness or consultant in such high-profile bankruptcy cases as Adelphia Communications and Enron.

And yet despite these avocations, the 40-something Klee said he felt there was something missing in his life. He’s now studying for his smicha, or ordination, as a rabbi, which he intends to compliment his sideline as a spiritual counselor.

Klee earned his law degree from Harvard University in 1974, and started teaching at UCLA as an adjunct professor in 1979. From 1995 to 1996, Klee taught at Harvard Law School as the Robert Braucher Visiting Professor From Practice, and then joined UCLA full time the following year.

In 1997, he also began studying energy healing techniques, like reiki and pranic. He soon formalized his efforts by establishing the Klee Ministry, a side business that offers a variety of meditative and energy healing treatments.

Energy healing doesn’t always sit well with medical professionals, but the practice is increasingly finding a place in the mainstream and some local hospitals, like UCLA’s Mattel Children’s Hospital, seek to compliment a traditional approach to medicine with one that some might brand New Age.

Energy healing has been around for thousands of years. Centered on the concept of a life force, known as chi in Chinese medicine or doshas in Ayurveda, healers claim they can change the direction of this energy to aid the body in healing.

In addition to his legal practice and teaching, Klee also counsels people who are in physical, mental or social pain, which he confessed seems “incongruous for a type-A lawyer/professor.”

Klee said that his wife, Doreen, “came along kicking and screaming as she saw the teacher/attorney she had married turn into a healer-minister” after helping her with health problems on three separate occasions. He added that his two computer programmer sons, ages 32 and 34, are very accepting, but they “think their father is strange.”

As he became more and more involved in his healing practice, Klee found he wanted to tap into the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah and learn more about spiritual counseling. Klee grew up in a secular Jewish family. While confirmed at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, he had never studied Hebrew nor became a bar mitzvah.

His quest brought him first to Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist congregation in Pacific Palisades, and eventually led him to enroll in the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR/CA), where he is now studying to become a rabbi.

Unlike traditional rabbinic seminaries, AJR/CA has attracted students like Klee who want to add a spiritual dimension to their careers. Although he has no ambition to become a pulpit rabbi, Klee is studying Hebrew in order to be able to read traditional texts in their original language. He is willing to do this because he believes that his rabbinic training and Jewish learning will make him a better counselor.

Among the 66 students currently enrolled in the school are lawyers, professors and even a screenwriter.

“Spirituality is an integral part of the AJR,” said Rabbi Stan Levy, the academy’s president, who added that the school is “the ultimate merger to bring spirituality into the day-to-day.”
Levy considers Klee “the perfect embodiment of two different dimensions,” he said.

Klee has since become a member of the Orthodox Westwood Village Shul and the Conservative congregation Adat Shalom, where his wife introduced him to Lev Eisha, Hebrew for Heart of a Woman, a women’s spiritual community that he says is filled with “so much spirituality, singing and dancing.”

Of the program at AJR/CA, Klee said that his rabbinic studies have given him “valuable insights” into his professional career as a lawyer and teacher. He has been deeply affected by his study of the prophets and the writings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he credits with having had a “very significant” impact on him.

In light of his otherwise busy schedule as an attorney, teacher and healer, Klee said he’s going to give his ordination plenty of time and attention.

“I don’t mind working hard and I think I have a lot of time,” he said. “I don’t expect to get my smicha for several years; I’m not in a hurry.”

Camp Ramah marks 50 years

As Camp Ramah celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, the list of camper and counselor alumni who once passed through its Ojai grounds grows ever more lengthy and impressive, becoming virtually a who’s who of Los Angeles machers.

Among the alumni: Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, Temple Beth Am’s Rabbi Perry Netter, Valley Beth Shalom’s (VBS) Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Temple Aliyah’s Rabbi Stewart Vogel, composer and Sinai Temple Friday Night Live impressario Craig Taubman and Bureau of Jewish Education Executive Director Gil Graff, just to name a few.

Having reached all of these future leaders in their formative years, Ramah can take some credit for the face of today’s L.A. Jewish leadership. Spiritual leaders, social justice advocates, educators and community board members all proudly trace their strong Jewish values and current commitment to Judaism to their summers at Ramah.

“Ramah is a place where campers and counselors have their first experience in not only participating in, but helping to form and lead the Jewish community in which they find themselves,” said Camp Ramah of California Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

As it has throughout its history, the camp’s programming team sees as its mission to create dynamic ways to blend recreational summertime fun with specifically Jewish lessons on values and life. The campers’ days are divided into seven time slots allowing time for electives like drama, soccer or photography, as well as required classes like Judaic studies, Jewish music and Israeli culture.

Some activities are more recreational, others are more clearly Jewish, but the goal is that every activity shares a little of both. Sports, for example, teaches the Jewish values of respect, community, and taking care of one’s body. Judaic studies classes offer campers concrete lessons in principles.

At Ramah, tefillah is also meant to strike a balance between inspiring kids to want to pray and giving them the skills and literacy they need to pray. Daily services take place outdoors and usually follow a traditional format. Once or twice a week, counselors design creative services meant to emphasize the inspirational side of prayer. These services might be held on a hike, as a scavenger hunt, or carried out as an art project. Ramah’s weekly Shabbat afternoon Mincha services also famously overflow with spirit and song.

It’s this brand of spirituality that inspired VBS’s Feinstein. Having served as camp counselor and division head in the ’70s and camp director in the 1990s, Feinstein believes a balance of fun and spirituality is key to the camp’s success. It’s also key to his work at VBS.

“I run the synagogue a lot like I used to run the camp,” he says. “It’s got to be a joyful community.”

He believes summer camp is the most powerful Jewish experience, next to visiting Israel.

“Too often we forget that joy is a constituent element to all Jewish life,” Feinstein said. “It’s just so important to make joy the central part of Jewish living. That’s the most important thing I got from Ramah.”

Steven Spiegel, UCLA professor of political science, relishes Ramah’s combined intellectual and social environments. One of 92 youths to participate in the 1955 Ramah pilot program, Spiegel returned as a camper, then counselor, program director, and ultimately teacher.

Ramah afforded Spiegel the opportunity to work and study in close proximity to Jewish teachers like David Lieber, Chaim Potok, Walter Ackerman and Jack Pressman. For him, Camp Ramah of California was an educational awakening.

“I couldn’t be the kind of professor I am and do the kind of things I do without the Ramah experience,” said Speigel, who acts as the director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA’s Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations. “Bringing people together and trying to resolve conflict, as well as working with students and colleagues, many of those patterns that I pursue I really first experienced at camp.”

Similarly, Ron Reynolds, a camper from 1959 to 1964 and a counselor from 1965 to 1967, credits Ramah with sparking his interest in education.

“At camp, I realized the incredible power of education in all its modalities. Not just formal studies, but experimental learning and informal education,” said Reynolds, who now acts as executive director of the California Association of Private School Organizations, an umbrella group that serves 1,750 private schools and 500,000 students,

Camp Ramah also emphasizes tikkun olam (heal the world) and engages campers and counselors in Jewish education. They are encouraged to debate, discuss and intellectually explore their Jewish world. They’re offered classes in topics like Israeli current events, social justice, the Holocaust, Jews in comedy and how to make choices guided by Jewish principles.

Throughout the years, Ramah has always encouraged campers to be aware of the world outside their Ojai utopia. Last summer, in association with Friends of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), Ramah hosted Israeli youths who had lost a family member in service to the IDF. In getting to know these youths, the camp community was able to personalize the current events in Israel. In association with The Jewish Federation, the camp also hosted several youths from bourgeoning Jewish communities in the Baltic area.

“When we’re in camp, we’re keeping an eye towards the outside world, and ask ourselves in what way can what happens at camp help the world and the Jewish community at large?” Greyber said.

Tzvia Schwartz-Getzug attended Ramah in the late ’70s and early ’80s and recalls a day when she and others brought residents from the Ojai Home for the Aging outside to watch a parade, enjoy the sunshine and be part of the festivities. It was something, she says, “which they never would have been able to do if we weren’t there to take responsibility for them.”

“That was definitely part of what I learned and what I began in my Ramah days,” Schwartz-Getzug said.

Kabbalah boom prompts meeting of mystical minds

In Maui, at a New Age gift shop, a woman in a sarong pays for a candle in the shape of the Buddha, a bundle of sage used in Native American ceremonies and a copy of “Becoming Like God: Kabbalah and Our Ultimate Destiny,” by Michael Berg.

At a Baltimore bookstore, a young man wearing a cross around his neck pours over a copy of “Kabbalah for Dummies,” as he sips his Starbucks.

In Lilongwe, Malawi, a white woman ties a red wool string around the thin brown wrist of a young boy.

And the Web site at the Bnei Baruch World Center for Kabbalah Studies gets 2.5 million views a month, translated into 22 languages.

What was once shrouded in mystery and the exclusive domain of educated Jewish males over the age of 40 is now as accessible as the King James Bible. At the same time that more and more non-Jews unite to study and engage in some of Judaism’s most sacred and intimate texts, the schisms among Jews who draw upon the same teachings grow ever wider.

In light of this, the ever-expanding world of Kabbalah scholars are increasingly asking: What are the ramifications of Kabbalah becoming a universal spiritual path? Is there a way to keep it authentic and anchored to its Jewish roots?

These were some of the concerns that compelled Rabbi Yakov Travis of Tiferet Institute in Cleveland to orchestrate an unprecedented forum of rabbis, professors, authors, scholars and spiritual seekers with radically different approaches to Jewish mysticism. Travis is the founder and director of Tiferet Institute’s two-year home-based study program via Web conferencing, “Kabbalistic Spirituality: Principles, Pathways and Practices,” which is designed to foster a serious and stimulating learning community of kindred spirits across the country.

The forum, “Kabbalah for the Masses? The Promise and Problems in Mainstreaming Jewish Mysticism,” was held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego at the tail end of the Association for Jewish Studies annual meeting on Dec. 18 and 19, the fourth and fifth days of Chanukah.

The forum’s goal was to begin a constructive conversation on the contemporary phenomenon of mainstream Jewish mysticism. In a structured format, presentations by panelists were followed by respondents from the academic community, as well as an open question-and-answer session.

Included in the lineup of presenters was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of the novel, “Kabbalah: A Love Story”; Rabbi Berg of Los Angeles, heir to the Kabbalah Centre dynasty; and Tamar Frankiel, dean of students and professor of comparative religion at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles and author of “Kabbalah: A Brief Introduction for Christians.”

Also included were Mark Elber, author of “The Everything Kabbalah Book”; Arthur Kurzweil, author of “Kabbalah for Dummies”; Rabbi Pinchas Giller, professor of Kabbalah at University of Judaism; Rabbi Moshe Genuth of the Baal Shem Tov Center in Toronto; and Rabbi Wayne Dosick of San Diego’s Elijah Minyan.

In the realm of Kabbalah, time and space take on a whole new meaning, so it was appropriate that two of contemporary mystical Judaism’s most beloved and vibrant teachers — Rebbe Zalman Schachter Shalomi, one of the major founders of the Jewish Renewal Movement, and Rabbi Arthur Green, rector of Hebrew College’s Rabbinical School — were beamed in via live, interactive audio-video Web conferencing.

At a panel discussion on “Kabballah for Non-Jews?” speakers represented a variety of viewpoints. Whereas Giller sees the Kabbalah Centre as an answer to the declaration, “I am not religious, I am spiritual,” Hava Tirosh-Samuelson, professor of Jewish intellectual history at Arizona State University, accused Berg and the center of hawking spiritual wares, hedonism, self-centeredness and material secularism.

Berg’s response was that the center was many things to many people — that it is up to the individual to choose how deeply he will immerse himself in what the center offers.

“We don’t have to study Kabbalah or understand the Zohar [the pivotal texts of Kabbalah] to become better people,” he said.

“I wanted this forum to be as inclusive as possible, to bring all Jews to the table,” Travis said in his opening remarks. Then he half joked, “Even those that are wrong. Even those that have ideas that are the opposite of mine.”

When the laughter died down, he looked around the room.

“Where is the vision?” he asked. “If we want to be a light to the nations, we need to talk.”

There was not only talk but deep listening. There was also storytelling, laughter and an abundance of metaphors. Sparks flew, too. Rabbi Elliott Ginsburg described the experience of such a meeting of minds and hearts as “cognitive whiplash.”

On the subject of Madonna, which was inevitably raised, Kurzweil came to her defense.

“I’d like to defend Madonna,” he said. “The media have made it all a joke. She’s an easy target. Doesn’t she have the right to her own spiritual journey?”

However, most present seemed to hold Frankiel’s view that “it’s intellectually dishonest if someone presents Kabbalah as simply a universal philosophy and not as something essentially Jewish.”

Many of the 102 people at the forum arrived holding strong opinions and concerns about the Kabbalah Centre, with its slick marketing strategies, pop-culture appeal and “mercantile dimension,” yet this was the first opportunity they had to listen to and question Berg.

“If ever there was an occasion to recite the ‘Shehecheyanu,'” said Rachel Miller of Los Angeles, as she glanced at the list of presenters, “this is it.”

Although all the presenters were united by their passion for the study and practice of Kabbalah, the most observable differences lay in their approaches as to how Judaism’s most sacred and intimate teachings should be disseminated.

“The Bnei Noah movement is going to explode in the next 10 to 20 years,” said Genuth, referring to the growing number of Christians who, disillusioned with their religion, have found their way to Kabbalah through the teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh and the new Ba’al Shem Tov Center in Toronto. Here, the “holiest of holies” is shared with non-Jews within the framework of the seven principles of the Covenant of Noah.

In the esoteric teachings of the Zohar, the work of Jewish mysticism, what you see is only a fraction of what really exists. And what exists at the Kabbalah Centre goes far beyond Madonna and the sale of red string, Berg said. His lineage dates back to Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag (1885-1954), who believed that only Kabbalah can save the world from disaster.