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A view from the pew

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Interfaith work at the Episcopal church’s triennial

Last week I spent three days in Salt Lake City, Utah, attending the Episcopal church’s triennial convention, as a representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, where I am honored to sit as a national board member.

While visiting Salt Lake City I also had the opportunity to attend Shabbat morning services at Kol Ami, the local synagogue, and interact with members of the local Jewish community. My “View from the Pew” at both the convention itself, and from Kol Ami, left me inspired by both the challenges and opportunities that we have, in both the areas of intra-Jewish and interfaith relationships.

At the Episcopal church convention, I was welcomed with warmth and appreciation. This church has a strong and sincere commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. The JCPA and the office of the presiding bishop have a longstanding and strong working relationship in confronting issues of social justice, nationally and internationally, as well as a strong commitment to mutual respect. One of the many moving moments for me at this convention was seeing an exhibit of a U.N. refugee tent along with a 3D video of a young Syrian girl who lives in such a tent in a refugee camp in Jordan. My suggestion to church leaders that the Episcopal and Jewish communities, hopefully with other faith community partners, could jointly sponsor the display of this tent this fall at the U.N. was met with enthusiasm. This church is deeply committed to both social justice and the interfaith partnership.

The Episcopal church, whose roots in America go back to colonial days, is part of the worldwide Anglican Church Federation. It is facing many of the same challenges that our Jewish community is confronting in the rapidly changing ways that 21st century Americans relate to and interact with one another. In my three days in Salt Lake City I experienced some truly transformative worship and listened as priests and laity wrestled with issues of liturgical change and questioned their church’s ability to reach their next generation. Their debates sounded strikingly familiar to me, similar to our own internal Jewish struggles.

I also witnessed and shared with them sorrow over Charleston and joy over the Supreme Court decision on marriage equality. I was privileged to be a dinner guest at a gathering of 16 religious leaders on Friday night of the church’s presiding bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori. She began the dinner by saying Shabbat shalom to the assembled interfaith representatives from across America and around the world, and then turned to me and asked me to recite the Sabbath kiddush. During her nine-year tenure, Bishop Katherine has been a strong opponent of using BDS to express concern over Israeli policy, and she has led multiple Episcopal and interfaith missions to Israel and the Palestinian territories. Her election was a breakthrough for Episcopalians, whose leaders had been white males for more than two centuries. Last Saturday afternoon, I was present when Bishop Michael Curry, an African American, was elected as the next presiding bishop. After centuries of white male leadership, this church is re-creating itself to reflect the diversity of Christian America.

In addition to its deliberation on internal issues, and its welcoming of interfaith guests, the weeklong convocation was dealing with a large agenda of social concerns, both domestic and international. Irrespective of the warmth and respect with which the representative of the American Jewish Committee and I — and also an amazing young Israeli social entrepreneur — were received, there definitely was a full spectrum of views on the Middle East. Among the seven resolutions that dealt with Israel and Palestine that were up for consideration, one included language calling for divestment from companies that do business in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Along with two young men who lead a program called Shades, which has undertaken a unique dialogue program between Israeli and Palestinian foreign service personal, I had the chance to participate in the church’s social justice and international concerns committee debate on Israel Palestine issue.

This is what I shared with our friends in the church:

“Thank you for the opportunity to sit in on your committee’s discussions this afternoon.

“I want to commend members of this for the civility of your discussion. I also was most impressed by the depth of understanding of the complexity of the Israel-Palestinian conflict that your multiple resolutions under consideration reflect. The contemporary Middle East lives under the clouds of intra-Islamic struggles as well as conflicts between Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, that date to the Middle Ages, as well political conflict between Israel and her Arab nation-state neighbors that are a result of the still unsettled issues of WWI.

“As your committee heard from the young Palestinian and Israeli leaders of Shades, a new initiative that promotes dialogue among Israeli and Palestinian young diplomats, there are some very positive though not yet fully illuminated, sparks of hope for intergroup dialogue cooperation, and ultimately mutual acceptance, that is arising among a new generation of Israelis and Palestinians.

“Coupled with the very positive report I heard today, regarding your community’s investment in the Bank of Palestine over the past few years, I would hope that the resolution(s) that ultimately emerge from your deliberations will be positive and proactive and not include divestment language.

“Both from listening to your deliberations today, and to the many one-on-one conversations I have had with delegates, in the hallways, I know that the Episcopal Church community, similar to the majority of the Jewish community believes that ‘two States for two Peoples’ is the only workable solution to the century-long conflict. I want to thank the Episcopal Church for its continuing constructive role in working toward this goal.”

As I write this column the convention is still in session and the committee was in closed session, seeking to rewrite a resolution. Therefore I cannot tell you what resolutions on the Middle East, if any, ultimately will emerge before the conference ends on July 2. I can say that I heard true expressions of support for Israel and for concern for the plight of Palestinians.

I cannot end this column without a word about my Shabbat morning experience.

In my last column I wrote of the need for us to rethink our communal delivery system. In Salt Lake City, Kol Ami is a synagogue that is both Reform and Conservative, and holds parallel services every Shabbat, where both communities come together for the conclusion of the service,  including their rabbi’s sermon, Kaddish, and a kiddish lunch. The synagogue is led by a dynamic young rabbi, who is the daughter of a contemporary of mine, an inspirational cantor, and a large cadre of dedicated and liturgically skilled lay leaders. Last Saturday, like many colleagues across the country, the rabbi spoke about Charleston and its implications. She made the challenging claim that Americans must not use the issue of the Confederate flag as a diversion from facing the real issue of racism that permeates our society and our own communities. She called upon her congregants to join her in outreach to the African American, Native American, and Muslim communities in Salt Lake City.

The lessons I learned in three days in Salt Lake City were that that we are blessed to live in a time and place where Jews and Judaism are far more accepted by our Christian neighbors and their churches than ever before in American history. Interfaith understanding that leads to mutual respect and interfaith action that can lead us to real social change are, as the events in Charleston reminded us all, challenged by the fear of the stranger. In conversation with one of my new Christian friends, a bishop from Maryland, we agreed that our mutual responsibility is to teach and model for others. We realized that the command in Leviticus 19, “love your neighbor as yourself,” must be taken as a serious challenge, not a platitude.

As I look back on last weekend and look forward to July 4th, our American Independence Day , when we coincidentally will read Parshat Balak, where curses are turned into blessings, I see a challenge to both appreciate our blessings as American Jews in the 21st century, and to work together with our fellow Jews, and with our fellow Americans of other faiths, to continue to repair the tears in the fabric of our world.


In favor of belly dancing

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There was always something searching in me, something sensual and needful that pushed me from religious prayer and meditation towards dance.

Maybe it was simply the music — the music of the Mediterranean and the Middle East that got under my skin. As a child, ballet did not move me, despite many years of trying to prove I was graceful and swanlike. It was the music of the Middle East, particularly that of my deepest roots in Israel, that spoke to me as a young woman. It drew me inadvertently to a studio in New York City, where I learned to belly dance many uncountable years ago. (The term belly dance does not refer to the belly, by the way. It refers to a form of this dance called “beladi.”) No one is undulating, shaking, and gyrating with abandon. It is a sedate, beautiful, and life affirming dance. It is an art. Not a fad. Not a bunch of hussies looking for sex.

My original teacher and mentor was called Serena, a Jewish woman who had given up ballet and then modern dance for belly dance. I went reluctantly to the first class on the suggestion of a friend. Suddenly, the music took over, my body moved from its inertia, and I began the road to learn this art.

It was not so dissimilar from the Israeli dances I had learned before. With joy I continued, having found something that took me above my self, my consciousness, and my melancholy. It brought out such wonderful things in me. The music, the drums, the sensuality, all became a part of who I was. I loved to dance to Israeli music particularly, because that was what called to me.

Sephardic Jews would not find it unusual at all. It is a part of the Arab-Jewish culture, just as much as of the Ashkenazi or European culture.

This dance form, though thought to be exhibitionist and vulgar, is not at all that. This interpretation is a misrepresentation of a very ancient dance form. Mideastern or Oriental dance, began in all of the Arabic lands. During the flux and flow of Jews to Israel, much of this came to Israel, and fused with the Israeli dance that had only of late become the dance of our country.

The fusion of music and dance from various cultures are not new to the world today. In Israel, Sephardic Jews dance at weddings to the sounds of their original lands and the new sounds of the country within which they now reside.

Originally, mideastern dance was a dance of women for women. It was not meant to be for performing. It was a preparation for childbirth and marriage. Women danced for women. The whole concept of belly dance as cabaret is not really what is taught today.

Women learn belly dance to connect with their womanliness, to exercise, and to find an outlet to a life force. More than anything, it brings women out of themselves, into a higher state of awareness in the relaxing atmosphere of women. Often it is used in preparation for childbirth, and in the same vein for the restoration of the body after childbirth. There is no age limit for belly dance. It can be started at any time in life, and is not stressful to the older body or to someone who has never danced.

Oriental dance, mideastern dance, belly dance, or Sephardic Israeli dance is taught for the most part as exercise and movement. It is a form of empowerment that allows you to reach inside yourself and bring forth calm, peace, and most of all joy. This is a calming of the spirit.

We often seek too much from the power of prayer and not nearly enough from within the strength of the female body There is absolutely nothing in Judaism that prohibits dancing among women, and it is not the lascivious dance that is portrayed by old stereotypical notions of what is lewd. Belly dance has no ties to religion and has originated all over the Middle East and Mediterranean, having fused into what is now most popular amongst the secular and religious of Jewish women.



Against Shulem Deen

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I wish to take exception to your article regarding Shulem Deen for several reasons (“Leaving New Square,” June 19).

First of all, while Mr. Deen has a perfect right to leave his chasidic community, he does not have the right to return and trash said community. There ought to be a sense of loyalty to the community that reared him and to which his daughters still belong.

While he may make valid points as to the sustainability of the chasidic communities without basic skills, these points should be made by someone else, someone who does not have an animus toward Orthodox Judaism.

Secondly, there are not large numbers of Jews from Skvare, Satmar or any other chasidic community who are waiting for Mr. Deen or Footsteps to rescue them. To imply that is insulting to all Orthodox Jews who are not necessarily chasidic. Furthermore, there are institutions such as Touro College and Makom who provide chasidic and charedi Jews with employable skills.

Thirdly, the goal of Mr. Deen’s organization, Footsteps, is not merely a path from the chasidic world but is to strip the individual involved with it with any religious observance at all. Why then does the organization insist that its members not associate with any Orthodox Jews at all and learn to eat non-kosher? One has to wonder what effect this may have for the families of its members who remain in these communities and their ties with family members.

Fourthly, I find it a bit disingenuous for Mr. Deen to claim he wants contact with his daughters. Why then does he insist on attacking the community that means everything to them?

Finally, because of their different clothing, language, and beliefs, these communities face hostility and discrimination from the general community, both Jewish and non-Jewish. People who leave these communities ought to be sensitive to that . Unfortunately, writers such as Shulem Deen and Debra Feldman are not.

Editor’s Note:

Footsteps, an organization that helps formerly chasidic Jews who are leaving or have left their communities make the transition to life in the outside world, does not insist that the people it helps drop all associations with Orthodox Jews, and it does not make them eat treif. To learn about Footsteps, go to

I am sorry that as a writer I was not able to get across Mr. Deen’s heartbreak over the loss of both his daughters and his sons; certainly he made his longing and his pain clear to me, both in his book and in conversation. It is hard to classify that burning pain as “disingenuous.”–JP


Korean dance in Israel

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I was very interested to read the article about Korean Christians showing their love for Israel and the Jewish people (“Korean Christians reach out to Jewish neighbors,” June 19). This past April I was visiting my daughter in Israel. During my visit, we spent time in Beit She’an, where my daughter lived for the past 10 months.

While touring the Beit She’an National Park, I looked out across the ruins from the amphitheater and spotted a group of women, in traditional Korean dress, dancing among the columns. They were filming at the park! Living in a town with quite a large Korean population, I immediately recognized their bright dresses.

Imagine my surprise seeing this in Israel. It was unexpected to be sure. Had I read this article before my trip, perhaps I would not have been surprised at all! I would love to see the film, as the park is a beautiful setting for the colorful dancers. Unfortunately they did not speak English or Hebrew, so I could not find out what type of filming they were doing.



The trauma of privilege

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I have been in the center of the swirl of awareness about the unintended consequences of affluence and privilege on our children.

I meet these youngsters and their families when crisis penetrates their denial system and they arrive at Beit T’Shuvah, the recovery community I founded in Los Angeles 30 years ago. I have listened to their baffled, bewildered parents, who “gave them everything” only to have it thrown in their faces. I coined the family dynamic: “I hate you; send money.” At Beit T’Shuvah, we have been essentially “re-parenting” these children of all ages, allowing them to experience “all the disadvantages of success,” in the words of Larry Ellison.

A recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds a direct correlation between parents who overvalue their children and children who are narcissistic. Researchers found that while parental warmth was associated with high self-esteem in kids, that parental over-evaluation was not. Or, as Madeline Levine put it: “Praise is not warmth pumped in; self-esteem is not self-efficacy.” I have heard from many recovering addicts that when they feel undeserving, praise exacerbates their self-loathing and sense of fraudulence.



What we have to pay for

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Toilet paper . . .

This scroll endowed by . . .

With 2+ decades spent working in the Jewish world, I’ve seen a lot of things come and go. Ideas that were considered the epitome of best practice come into vogue, run their course, and become passé.

Agencies and innovative think tanks slip away due to failure to create, implement, and execute strategic sustainability plans. Iconic thought leaders tire and fail to notice that the landscape is changing and passing them by. Then what? Now what?



The lion and the compass

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Untangling medieval science from modern halacha

Maimonides and Nahmanides had their differences.

Maimonides (d. 1204) tolerated no idea that failed the test of reason. An ancient and robust tradition of superstition among the Jews did not deter him. Maimonides either ignored or rationalized scores of Talmudic halachot based on astrology, demonology, and magic.

Maimonides denounced astrology passionately, despite its popularity, calling the belief “stupidity” and its practitioners “fools.” His argument bears emphasis: Maimonides opposed astrology primarily on scientific rather than religious grounds. The Torah prohibits divination from the sky, he ruled, not because it displays a lack of faith in God, but simply because it is false.


Truth regardless of consequences

Time to let the Confederacy finally die

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On Palm Sunday in 1865 — that was April 9, just five days before Abraham Lincoln’s assassination — the formerly invincible Confederate general Robert E. Lee sat in the small house of a slave-owner named Wilmer McLean in the little town of Appomattox Court House, Virginia.

Earlier that day, Lee had tried and failed to battle his way into the city, which held vital supplies for his armies. He was quickly surrounded and outnumbered, and realizing it would be a losing battle, he’d agreed to meet with General Ulysses S. Grant to negotiate his surrender. Now, dressed in an immaculate uniform, he waited for Grant to arrive. As soon as Grant got there, Lee, the great terror of the Union armies, would surrender his own, the much-feared and renowned Army of Northern Virginia.


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