Calif. Democratic Party Chair Apologizes
On Sunday, Aug. 19, Jews around the world welcomed the month of Elul with a single blast of the shofar. At the kotel, women who gathered in honor of Rosh Hodesh Elul were arrested for wearing modest ritual garb. They were removed from this holy place before they could hear the shofar. Their arrest signified the state's denial of their right to practice their Judaism by welcoming the new month with prayer and song.
This week, Jews around the world read Parshah Ki Tetze. This compendium of civil, criminal and family laws complements the establishment of the judicial system outlined in the preceding portion, Shoftim. The opening verses of Ki Tetze introduce the case of a warrior who has taken captives, including "a beautiful woman … you desire … and would take … to wife."
The text directs the victor to give the captive time to mourn her family, and, should he "no longer want her," he must "release her outright." Although we may initially read these words as fair, our Torah assumes this captive as an "other," an object, first of desire and subsequently as potential inconvenience. The captive is subjugated to a system in which she has neither voice nor will.
The portion continues with regulations that, if followed, can create and sustain "a balanced society in which the poor and weak are legally protected from the rich and strong, in which both property and human lives are respected, and — most importantly — in which individuals are subject to the community and its laws," writes scholar Adele Berlin. This portion includes many injunctions that establish protection for the weak: "You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless … when you reap the harvest in your field … it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow."
Yet these attempts to create balance and fairness are built on a foundation of patriarchy, where men inherit the rights to subjugate and legislate the desires and freedoms of women. These laws underscore the discrepancies between the rights of women and men; women's sexuality is transgressive and punishable when beyond the confines of marriage, and, if a woman is raped, she can be killed for her failure to "cry out for help," or she can be forced to marry her rapist.
As we read, we are struck that the assumptions of privilege that depend upon an individual's gender continue to inform what is today considered "legal" at the Western Wall.
Before the portion comes to a close, there is a short paragraph on weights and measures: "You shall not have in your pouch alternate weights, larger and smaller … you must have completely honest weights and completely honest measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that your God is giving you." Did our ancestors somehow sense the limitations of their vision, sensing that every society in history has suffered from "blind spots"?
Ki Tetze challenges us to re-examine our understanding of fairness. The framers of Israel's Declaration of Independence understood that a modern state had to be built on a foundation of full equality of all citizens. Ki Tetze reminds us of the immorality of using different measures to judge. We blow the shofar every morning during the month of Elul to remind us that we all are created in God's image. Women are not second-class people. If we want to continue to endure, we must create paths to holiness that honor the rights of every human being. This is the challenge of this new month and this new year.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell serves as the rabbinic director of the East Geographic Congregational Network of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Who knew that exorcisms were an ecumeical affair? It turns out that Jews can be possessed by spirits just as easily as the faithful of other religions — a concept that audience members of The Possession, opening in area movie theaters this weekend, will soon discover.
Based on the true story of a wine cabinet-turned dybbuk box and the serial misfortunes that befell each successive person to purchase it after the box’s original owner died (and, against her wishes, was buried without it), The Possession is the first movie to explore the concept of the dybbuk since the 1937 all-Yiddish film, The Dybbuk. But, whereas The Dybbuk centered on a romantic version of possession, The Possession fully embraces the scarily supernatural aspects.
“The dybbuk is a spirit that possesses someone,” explains Itzik Gottesman, a New York-based professor of Jewish folklore. “In most cultures around the world, people who are possessed by spirits are acknowledged to have superior powers, but in Judaism, the spirits are a bad thing and need to be exorcised. The spirit is wandering, allowed no rest for the great sin he or she has committed and can only find rest in the body of another person.”
In The Possession, that body belongs to Em (Natasha Calis), the youngest daughter of Clyde and Stephanie Brenek (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick). Em finds the dybbuk box at a yard sale and convinces her father to buy it for her. Once she figures out how to open it, things take a turn for the horrifying, as the dybbuk begins to exert more and more control over her.
Husband-and-wife screenwriters Stiles White and Juliet Snowden, who also wrote the 2009 film Knowing, and are writing/ directing next year’s Ouija, knew as soon as they read about the original dybbuk box that it would make for a great movie.
“As screenwriters of horror films, you’re always checking the news for weird things. Your friends are always emailing you weird links and saying, ‘Wouldn’t this make a great horror film?’ ” White says. “Usually, they’re wrong. But, ironically, that’s how this came up. In 2004, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times called ‘Jinx in a Box’ ” that went into great detail about the history of the box, which became such an Internet sensation that it warranted its own website, www. dibbukbox. com.
White says that additional research by the pair showed “there are rituals and protocols to follow when you’re performing a dybbuk exorcism, and we incorporated all of those real elements into the story.”
To achieve the highest level of verisimilitude, they brought in a rabbi in Vancouver, Canada, where the movie was filmed, as technical adviser. “He would read every draft of the script to make sure we were being accurate to customs and practices,” recalls White.
And if they needed the input of someone else with intimate knowledge of Chasidic life and rituals, they were able to turn to the actor portraying Tzadok, the exorcist brought in to try to expel Em’s dybbuk — Matisyahu, the reggae/hip-hop star, in his first movie role.
“When Stiles and I were writing the script, we wanted to break away from the stereotype of the mentor being the older man in his 70s,” Snowden recalls. “So when we were writing it, we decided to make it a younger-generation Chasidic character, caught between two worlds. When we were talking to the producers, we said that we really saw this character as a Matisyahu type. A couple weeks passed, and we asked them, ‘Did you cast the Tzadok role?” And they said, ‘Yeah, we got Matisyahu!’ ”
So will truth be scarier than fiction? There is little doubt that the concept of the dybbuk would have faded into obscurity centuries ago if it didn’t carry a cautionary relevance. As Gottesman, who got his Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania and is associate editor of the Yiddish Forward, explains, after the first tales of dybbuks appeared in print in Europe in the early part of the 17th century, “they spread quite quickly. They’re not just legends. There were people who maintain spirits possessed them. They went to the rabbi to exorcise the spirit out of them. Whether or not there was a spirit in them — that’s hard to believe, but the fact that people came to rabbis to be exorcised is true.” And there are reports of dybbuks and exorcisms to this day, as a quick search of YouTube will show.
With its premise and production team, it seems a safe bet that The Possession will be one of the most popular horror films of the year. As Snowden says, “We love the idea that the innocent act of buying something at a yard sale can turn your world upside down.” At the very least, she adds, “this will be the scariest episode of Antiques Roadshow ever.”
The Possession opens Aug. 31 at area theaters.
Judith B. Ginsberg, chair of Women of Vision, The Jewish Women’s Foundation of Greater Philadelphia, has announced the recipients of its 2012-2013 grants. Each of the Foundation’s more than 424 members had a vote in the selection of these grant recipients — organizations that improve the lives of women and girls.
WePower, The Organization for the Advancement of Women’s Leadership in Israel
Recent events in Israel that demonstrate discrimination against women and exclusion of women from full participation in the public arena motivated Women of Vision members to award a $12,000 grant to WePower. These funds will help the organization to expand its “Young Women for Future Leadership” program, which trains and empowers young, motivated women to take leadership roles in the public arena and enhance female participation in their municipalities.
The training will focus on social and gender issues. Program graduates will have access to WePower’s extensive network of thousands of Israel’s most visible and respected women leaders and public activists.
Tribe 12 was awarded a two-year grant of $20,000 to enhance its PresenTense Fellowship program. This five-month fellowship experience currently helps young Jewish entrepreneurs to develop a business plan and launch their product or service. The Women of Vision grant will help provide seed funding and follow-up attention that can often ensure long-term success.
Grant proceeds will be split between continuing education and seed grants for women graduates of the program who show outstanding leadership potential and whose venture ideas show particular promise. These women are young entrepreneurs in the Greater Philadelphia area with a passion for solving social problems and building ventures that engage, leverage and inspire the Jewish community and the society around us.
Bringing Women to the Fore: A Feminist Partnership
Women of Vision is a member of the Jewish Women’s Collaborative International Fund, a coalition of 17 Jewish women’s foundations in the United States and Israel. Women of Vision contributed $10,000 toward a two-year $150,000 grant to effect social change for women and girls in Israel. The Feminist Partnership, a collaborative of nine Israeli organizations, will use the grant to promote gender equality and women’s rights through large scale social and media campaigns.
For more information about Women of Vision, call Susan Lundy at 215-832-0849 or email: [email protected]
Never underestimate the power of a pet to bring friendship and unconditional love to its owner. Numerous studies have documented the positive impact of pet ownership on the health of older adults. So it should come as no surprise that GenPhilly — a project of the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging that encourages young professionals to connect with older adults and to understand the nuances of the aging system — rallied behind a special event that provides support for senior pet owners.
The July Pet-Tastic Happy Hour, hosted at North Bowl by owner Oron Daskal, brought together members of GenPhilly and the Alzheimer’s Association Delaware Valley Chapter Junior Committee for a fun-filled evening of socializing, networking and bowling. “As a pet owner, hosting this event was a great opportunity to give back to our Jewish seniors and let our young professionals perform a mitzvah while enjoying themselves,” said Daskal.
Guests brought pet food or pet accessories for the pet companions of frail and isolated older adults. The toys were distributed by the Klein JCC to seniors who live alone with their feline or canine companions.
Brian Gralnick, director of Federation’s Center for Social Responsibility, organized the event. He commented that “the Jewish community is at the forefront of taking care of the whole family, including pets.” He added that “there is a growing interest in the community about more holistic approaches to caring for older adults whether it is Wii, yoga, gardening or pets.”
Projects like these are gaining in popularity. Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia has gained two new donors over the past couple of years who are passionate about maintaining the strong connections between seniors and their pets. Joanne Lippert, the co-director of adult and senior services at JFCS, explained that “we’ve provided support to our clients ranging anywhere from $25 pet food cards to $800 vet bills. We’ve served over 20 clients since the service began.”
Many of these programs are modeled after the Jewish Association Serving the Aging’s PETS Project, a program funded by the UJA-Federation of New York. PETS volunteers assist senior citizens living in Manhattan with tasks such as dog walking and cat care, shopping for pet supplies, transportation to veterinary appointments, shopping for pet supplies and pet boarding. Many of these tasks are too difficult for the older adult pet owners to perform.
Building upon the success of these and other programs that aid frail older adults and their furry friends, Federation will sponsor a project to help pets in need during its Mitzvah Mania community-wide day of social action on Sunday, Nov. 11, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Working in partnership with Animal Lifeline and RESCUE U — groups that transport animals from impoverished communities overrun with animals who cannot be adequately cared for and ultimately place them in loving homes — volunteers of all ages will help build raised beds for dogs and houses for feral cats, and collect both dog and cat toys.
These pet projects, the first in the five-year history of Mitzvah Mania, will be conducted at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley and at the Jewish Community Services Building in Center City. u
For more information about these and other Mitzvah Mania projects, call the hotline at 215-832-0557.
Paige Guber participated in the 2012 Franklin C. Ash summer internship program sponsored by JEVS Human Services.
Of all the unknowns being discussed as Hurricane Isaac approached New Orleans, members of Congregation Shir Chadash knew one thing for certain.
“Nobody wanted to be the person that said, ‘Oh let’s not move the Torahs this time,’ ” said Rabbi Ethan Linden. “We sort of went into our hurricane action mode and did the best we could.”
One of the iconic photographs of Hurricane Katrina, which struck the region exactly seven years ago, was of men waist deep in flood waters carrying Torahs from Congregation Beth Israel.
So prior to what became a Category 1 hurricane and has since been downgraded to Tropical Storm Isaac, members of Shir Chadash moved the scrolls to a higher location in the building. Fortunately, as waves of rain lashed the area this week, the synagogue sustained no damage other than one leaky door in the chapel and a knocked-down playground fence, according to Shir Cha-dash executive director Sandy Lassen.
And unlike tens of thousands of other structures in the region, the building still had electrical power. In fact, it was hosting in its freezers the food of the New Orleans Jewish Day School — all while preparing for a Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat. For its part, the caterer for the event, Kosher Cajun New York Deli, lost power and closed down.
“We have enough food here that I’ll cover with lox and bagels,” Lassen told JTA.
Isaac pummeled the region with winds up to 80 miles per hour and drove walls of water up to 11 feet high inland. On Aug. 29, 2005, the relentless rain of Katrina, by then a Category 3 hurricane, led to the breaching of levees in New Orleans, flooding it and destroying swaths of neighborhoods. In the years since the storm, $14.5 billion has been put into a new system of levees, walls, pumping stations and flood gates, almost all of which seem to have performed well in recent days.
“I’ve been checking and so far there’s no significant damage and we haven’t heard of any people who have anything untoward going on,” said Michael Weil, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans. “I peek out the window and the sun is shining with some clouds, but we’re expecting more rain.”
In an email he sent to community members on Wednesday, Weil wrote, “I think that the worst is over and now it’s just rain, lots of rain and more rain. By all accounts this massive 300-mile wide and deep storm is crawling its way up Louisiana. I think Isaac likes us more than we like him and he wants to stay.”
Jewish agencies remained closed Wednesday and Thursday. Weil emailed a list of emergency numbers and an emergency email address, [email protected] The federation voice mail will be updated with community information as needed, he said. “You are not alone,” he wrote in his email.
Alan Smason, editor of the local Jewish paper, the Crescent City Jewish News, said that like most people he was relieved when the winds began dying down Thursday morning.
“A few pieces of the soffit flew off my house, and whenever there’s a major storm I have some problems with my downstairs,” he said. “Surprisingly, we did not have any major flooding in my area.”
He spent Thursday morning touring the suburb of Metairie, what he called “the Jewish corridor,” and said he saw little damage to Jewish institutions. He did see the sign of Beth Israel — the only synagogue irreparably damaged by Katrina and which dedicated its new building on Sunday — barely attached to the sign frame, so he reattached it, he said.
This Friday evening will mark the last time this season that the community’s three Reform congregations will worship together —a summertime tradition. This week’s host, Gates of Prayer, has power and is welcoming the community for a “blue jeans” Shabbat.
One of Shir Chadash’s families did survive a dramatic rescue. With water rising, a husband and wife were waiting in their car for a National Guard boat. They called their daughter on their cell phone, who called Shir Chadash. From there, Lassen called the rabbi to alert him. The couple was rescued and are now okay.
Despite the coinciding dates of Katrina and Isaac, Linden said he did not necessarily see a heavenly hand in such matters.
“I don’t think of these things theologically,” he said. But, he added, “Ritual offers the restoration of normalcy and that’s part of what we can provide," he went on. “New Orleans is a great place. People came together and I know they’re now staying at each other’s houses and helping each other out and there’s something very powerful about that.”
When Congress declared Labor Day a public holiday in 1894, workers had more to lament than to celebrate: an economic depression, a growing concentration of corporate wealth and power, and the brutal suppression of their unions. A momentous national railroad strike to protest deep wage cuts — and the summary firing of workers who dared to voice their grievances — was ruthlessly broken with the help of the U.S. attorney general and federal troops, leaving more than 30 workers dead and the strike’s leader, Eugene Victor Debs, in jail.
Nevertheless, in those bleak times, there was something for workers in the United States to celebrate: A broad notion of solidarity had begun to take root, defining an injury to any one worker as an injury to all. That solidarity, directly countering the forces that divided working people, sustained and strengthened the labor movement in the years to come. A strong labor movement, in turn, worked to build the middle class and strengthen our democracy.
This resonated with the Jewish communities of the day, largely immigrants and children of immigrants who knew what communal solidarity and mutual aid were all about. It was no accident that Jewish workers were among the ranks of the U.S. labor movement, with Jews making a lasting impression at key labor unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the American Federation of Teachers.
On this Labor Day, U.S. workers once again face hard times: persistent high unemployment and a concentration of wealth and economic power not seen since the 19th century. The Jewish community, of course, is not immune to the toll it has taken — just ask anyone working at a Jewish Family Service or Jewish Vocational Service.
This growing inequality, not surprisingly, has coincided with organized labor’s decline. Today, the country’s union membership rate is under 12 percent, the lowest in more than 70 years. But that trend is not driven by the hostility of workers toward unions — in poll after poll, a majority of nonunion workers say they would like to join a union if they could — but rather by hostility of some employers and state and local governments.
Since the 2010 midterm elections, legislatures in dozens of states — including Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin — have moved to eviscerate collective bargaining rights, pass so-called “right-to-work” laws or make it more difficult for unions to collect dues. Anti-labor politicians, pundits, conservative foundations and other ideologues cynically use the economic downturn to scapegoat workers and their unions.
These attacks serve to reinforce the increasing concentration of wealth, diminish the flow of purchasing power needed to revive the economy, and deny workers a voice in their workplaces. As the unions are systematically crippled, the corporate money that has flowed untrammeled into American politics since the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision gives the wealthy more influence than ever over public policy and legislation.
This is not the country that most of us want, nor does it comport with the justice that our Jewish traditions teach us to pursue. That is why an overwhelming majority of delegates to this year’s annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs passed a resolution strongly supporting collective bargaining rights in the public as well as the private sector. As the resolution reminds us, “religious commandments in the Torah and Talmud relating to the employment of workers are imbued with respect for labor rights.”
Ki Tetze, the Torah portion read the Shabbat before Labor Day this year, commands employers to be fair and honest in their dealings with employees (Deuteronomy 24:14-15). On this Labor Day, let us rededicate ourselves to rebuilding the solidarity that has always been the foundation for a fair, decent and strong society.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Jewish Labor Committee, is also the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, representing workers in the United States and Canada.
What does it mean to be faced with an existential threat? It means you, your family, your city, your country — an entire nation — could cease to exist at any moment based on the decision of another actor, over whom you have no control.
Add to this that this other actor tells you at every opportunity that he lusts to destroy you, and you begin to understand the predicament facing Israel.
It’s hard for Americans to comprehend. We haven’t faced such a threat for decades, since the height of the Cold War. But some still remember the civil defense drills of the 1950s. In the event of an atomic attack, people were taught to take cover under a table or next to a wall and to cover exposed skin.
As David Rothkopf, CEO and editor-at-large of Foreign Policy, wrote recently: That “is exactly the threat that Israelis face from even a ‘limited’ Iranian nuclear attack.” From the Israeli perspective, given Iranian threats and actions, “the risks of guessing wrong about the intent of the leaders in Tehran are so high that inaction could easily be seen to be the imprudent path.”
Some argue that a nuclear-armed Iran would be crazy to attack Israel, knowing that the response would be immediate and catastrophic.
Bernard Avishai in The Daily Beast wrote: “Yes, a bomb in Tel Aviv would arguably be the end of Israel, while retaliation would destroy ‘only’ 20 million Iranians … But then, the very apocalyptic nature of the attack on Tel Aviv is what makes the threat of retaliation credible.”
But what if he’s wrong? What if there’s a 5 percent chance that some Iranian leader at some point in the future could pull the trigger? Is a 5 percent possibility of utter annihilation acceptable for any Israeli leader?
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have embarked on an almost unprecedented orgy of hate speech. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamanei referred to Israel as representing a “cancerous tumor of Zionism in heart of Muslim world.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed that Israel’s existence is an “insult to all of humanity” and earlier he told a gathering of Muslim diplomats that “anyone who loves freedom and justice must strive for the annihilation of the Zionist regime.”
For much of the world, the Holocaust has now faded into history. But for Israelis, it is still all too real. Many Israelis have or had parents and grandparents who survived — and many others who did not. It remains living history.
What makes it worse is the sight of world leaders cozying up to Ahmadinejad. Dozens — including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — attended a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement in Tehran this week. Their attendance sends the message that this kind of hatred is acceptable, and that threatening genocide against Israel is not serious enough for them to stay away.
As Rabbi David Wolpe wrote in The Washington Post: “Do you suppose the world community will stir at this outrage? When ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,’ the world’s most notorious anti-Semitic forgery, is available in hotels in Jordan and on TV serials in Egypt, are there rounds of condemnations at the United Nations? Will Ahmadinejad no more be invited to international gatherings and symposia? Will the Muslim nations arise and say as one that we do not speak of people and nations in this manner? Will the world recognize that the Iranian leadership dreams of combining the two great warning signs of history, Hiroshima and Auschwitz?
“No, this is what will happen: The furor will abate, the world will persuade itself that he doesn’t really mean it, or he doesn’t really have power. He will be applauded on the streets of Arab capitals, and the nations will swallow a sleeping draught composed of complacency, indifference, foolishness and a pinch of anti-Semitism.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now faces one of the toughest decisions any Israeli leader has ever faced. He knows the great cost — economic, diplomatic and, not least, in human life of an attack on Iran. But he simply cannot take the risk of allowing the Iranians to acquire the means to end the existence of Israel — which would condemn the Jewish people to two Holocausts in the space of 80 years.
Alan Elsner is the executive director of The Israel Project.