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  • Do Good: NFTY, Hollywood and Social Media

    Posted on January 23rd, 2013 Special Contributor No comments

    Last week was Josh Malina’s birthday. The Hollywood star of the West Wing and Scandal decided to ask his fans and social media to celebrate with him by giving a donation to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

    But it has gotten much bigger than that. Whereas Malina’s first hope was to raise $5,000, they’re now at $12,313. This illustrates the power of asking for small contributions from lots of people – they are able to illustrate support for someone whose work they appreciate, understanding that this person adds value to their lives, and they’re able to improve the lives of others as a tribute. This is wonderful.

    Secondly, what the Causes page doesn’t reflect is something else that happened on Twitter. NFTY (The National Federation of Temple Youth, the youth group for Reform Judaism) made Malina an offer:

    @NFTY@JoshMalina We’ll match your @causes campaign for@StopHunger up to $10,000 if you’ll join us in LA to pick up the check.#NFTYConvention

    Malina’s response:

    @JoshMalina: Seriously?! Done!!!

    Author: Esther D. Kustanowitz

    It’s not a surprise that this happened via social media organizing – Twitter has emerged for so many celebrities as just another PR engine, feeding the American hunger for information about the minutiae of celebrity existence and creating a perception of insiderness for pop culture consumers. But Malina gets it in a way that not all actors do – he shares authentic insights of intelligence and humor in a way that shows you it’s not his PR team doing the tweeting. (Or if it is, WOW. Great job.) On Facebook, he uses that medium to expand on the cleverness and to interact with people in the comments. Malina’s using social media to actually reach people. And that’s why a campaign like this is working – because he writes from a place of authenticity and value. People relate to that, and trust him for it.

    So this is how the world of fundraising can work today. Someone authentic with a large network (and loyal followers who relate to and feel connected to him) identifies a cause they’re passionate about, and a reason to ask people donate, and sets a decent, but modest goal. This person is not a celebrity spokesperson – this cause was their idea, emerged from their understanding of a need and their trust in a particular organization to achieve that need. People respond as generously as they want to, helping that person reach the goal and go beyond. Other people or organizations see the movement and are inspired, putting their own money up to match the cause.

    Now, because a celebrity is involved, NFTY realized it was an opportunity to do good, but also an opportunity for their organization, whether it is greater visibility for their programs or enhanced inspiration for their participants. Neither one of those is a bad thing. Although one could look at this as celebrity blackmail – we’ll give you a check, but you have to make a personal appearance to pick it up – the whole concept of a matching gift itself issues a challenge not unlike blackmail – we will do this, if you do that.

    In any case, Malina seems happy to submit to this specific kind of blackmail, which I described to someone else as “the good, mitzvah-laden kind of blackmail.” Being “ultimatum’d” into a public appearance in order to fight hunger isn’t the worst thing in the world. And maybe that’s the lesson – that when you’re passionate about a cause, you do what you need to do to get it done.

    Best of luck to Mr. Malina, wishing him much success, many happy returns of the day, and much nachas from the success of this campaign. (And in the 20 minutes it took me to write this post, donations have shot up – the total is now $13,597 and growing. Why not add a few bucks of your own to this cause? Donate here.)


    This week’s post was originally posted on My Urban Kvetch and was written by Esther D. Kustanowitz a Los Angeles-based writer, consultant and Jewish communal professional, who is also Program Coordinator for the NextGen Engagement Initiative at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a well known blogger.

  • A Rabbi Takes On the Fiscal Cliff

    Posted on December 27th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments

    Rabbi Elizabeth Wood and other faith leaders take their concern to the White House

    The week after Thanksgiving, I was blessed with the most wonderful opportunity.  I received a call from the Executive Director of Queens Congregations United for Action (QCUA), the faith-based community organizing group that I work with here in New York.  The Nathan Cummings Foundation was organizing a trip down to Washington, D.C. with several different community and socially focused organizations to talk to senior White House officials about the looming fiscal cliff and he wanted me to participate and help represent QCUA that day.  I was beyond stunned.  But I jumped at the opportunity to be able to help represent my community and to serve as a delegate for the state of New York on such an important issue.

    The day did not disappoint.  We began at 5:30 in the morning as we boarded a bus bound for D.C.  Along with other folks from QCUA (two baptist bishops, a monseigneur, a reverend, a pastor, and various others), I met all of the other participants from New York.  They ranged from people in the arts like the Foundry Theater, Arts and Democracy, and Urban Bush Women to Jewish social justice organizations like Uri L’tzedek, Bend the Arc, and Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.  I was able to connect with Lila Foldes, the co-director of Just Congregations, as well as Rabbi Jill Jacobs from Rabbis for Human Rights and Nigel Savage from Hazon.

    When we first arrived in Washington, we took a tour of the White House.  Normally, one is not allowed to photograph inside the White House, but because everything was decorated for Christmas, we were granted permission to snap as many photos as we liked. It was truly magical to see all of the rooms brightly lit and decorated accordingly.  While we were touring the rooms, a local youth gospel choir began singing carols in the main open lobby.  Their joyous sound filled the rooms and halls as we explored the diversity and the history of one of the most beautiful and notable houses in America.

    Author: Rabbi Elizabeth Wood

    After the tour, we were escorted to the AFL-CIO building for lunch. The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations is a national trade union center and the largest federation of unions in the United States. While we were there, we learned the background on the issues related to the fiscal cliff and how the results could affect our community in the coming years. It was eye-opening to understand these issues on a deeper level, to be briefed on possible outcomes, and to prepare ourselves to think about ways in which these issues could be solved.

    After lunch, we spent the majority of the afternoon at the EEOB – the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where the majority of decisions get made in D.C. (outside of the Oval office and Capitol Hill, of course). There, we met with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President and Michael Strautmanis, Deputy Assistant to the President.  We also met with Jon Carson, the Director of Public Engagement for the White House.  We shared ideas all afternoon on challenges within our communities and ways to overcome obstacles.  We also shared possible ideas and solutions regarding the financial crisis that is looming over our nation.  It was incredibly gratifying to see so many organizations and so many people who are focused and determined to help hard working families and individuals survive and succeed in this world.  While we didn’t come to any major solutions that day, we managed to get our voices heard and to represent our communities to people in the government.  And they really listened.

    My group slipped out a little early to go take a private meeting with our local congressman, Gregory Meeks.  After the devastation from hurricane Sandy a few months ago, we were eager to see what progress had been made and to lobby for more work to be done.  Even now, there are still people without power and heat and we seized the opportunity to make our voices heard even louder than before. All in all, it was a productive day.


    But more than that, it was an important day.  At the end of it all, I found myself exhausted but buzzing with excitement.  I realized that while many of my days are important, I could tangibly feel the difference I made for my community and my country.  Social action and social justice have ALWAYS been important to me.  As a rabbi, it guides so much of the work I do in my community.  But as a citizen, I don’t often get the chance to do the kind of work that I did or contribute to the politics of our nation as I was blessed to do, that day. My voice was heard.  And I spoke up – for you, for me, and for everyone.   I couldn’t have asked for anything more.


    Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, she’natan lanu hizdam’nut l’takein et ha-olam.

    Blessed are You, most glorious One, who has given us the opportunity to create harmony and repair our world.  Amen.

    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Elizabeth Wood of The Reform Temple of Forest Hills.

  • Hope at Hannukah: A Modern Tale

    Posted on December 10th, 2012 Special Contributor No comments

    It was Hannukah of 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina changed everything. A group of us were in New Orleans helping to restore the homes of four Jewish families that had been flooded with nearly eight feet of water. After five days of putting up sheetrock, spackling and taping, we were standing with Anne and Stan Levy outside their home.


    Anne Levy is a short woman. She is a survivor of the Holocaust, miraculously being smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto in January, 1943 and passing for Christian once on the outside. Eventually, some fifty years ago she had come to this house in New Orleans and has lived there ever since.  “Now we have to start all over,” she had said with tears in her eyes.


    She would never have asked for help with her home. “Others need it more.” It was her daughter who had told about their need, bringing us to their home. It wasn’t requested; it was offered.


    When we first entered her once beautiful home, we saw that the damage was total. It had been gutted to the studs. There was a hole in the living room floor and a coffee table with a waterlogged copy of Anne’s biography: “Troubled Memory,” sitting on it. It told of how in 1989 she had confronted David Duke at the State Capitol Holocaust exhibition and had told him, with her finger raised high, that this was not a place for a Holocaust denier. She hounded him throughout his run for Governor until he lost.


    So there we were with Anne and Stan on the fifth day of Hannukah. Each of the nineteen members of our group had written a special, personal blessing for them. We recited our words with tears in our eyes. Then we presented them with a mezuzah and a Hannukiah.


    Holding up the Hannukiah, Stan said words that I will never forget: “Here you are, Jews helping Jews. You have renewed my faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in G-d.” Regaining his composure he added, “I can see the light shining from your faces as you work on my home. I want to have that experience myself. So I will join you on your next building project.”


    Author: Rabbi Joel Soffin

    The following year we returned to New Orleans. Stan and Anne hosted all of us for dinner after a day of work. We studied Torah together. This November during Hurricane Sandy, Stan set me this email: “We hope you were out of the storm damage. Please let me know.”


    I found a copy of that Dedication Ceremony which began with this paragraph:


    The story is told of a family that left New Orleans for a time due to the hurricane and moved to Philadelphia. One member of the family, the mother, went back weeks later to see the extent of the damage to their home. She found that everything had been ruined and removed from the house except one thing, the menorah. As she sat holding that precious object, it seemed to light up in her hands and to ease her burden.


    Whenever I look at the lights of the Hanukiah, I think of Anne and Stan. I can hear Stan’s words. And I, too, feel a deeper faith in the Jewish people, in Judaism and in  G-d.


    This week’s post was contributed by Rabbi Joel Soffin founder of Jewish Helping Hands.


  • African Immigrants, the Bible and the Importance of Personal Narrative

    Posted on May 31st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    By Ruth Abusch-Magder

    When a good teaching session crosses over and becomes a good study session then it sticks with you.

    According to the description in the brochure, I was teaching about the ancient view of non-Jews, and I did. But it was also much more than that. With the caveat that recent scholarship has brought into question the theory that book Ruth was written as a counter polemic to the book of Ezra, I set out for the group the ways in which the books are both similar and different. Addressing the similar theme of exile and redemption, return to the land, geneology and proper inheritance there is much in common between the two.

    Yet stylistically they could not be more different. Ezra is a book of history, dry and systematic. Ruth is a family story that focuses primarily on the experiences of women.

    Making my theological point, that the choice to read Ruth on Shavuot, speaks to a welcoming vision of community that is not a modern Reform choice, but an ancient rabbinic one, was simple.

    But we did not stop there. Building on the comparison that I had introduced the group moved into a conversation about policy and personal experience. As, they saw it, Ezra portrays the reality he sees from a bird’s eye view. Not once does he stop to look at the effect his directives will have on individuals. Nowhere does he consider the emotional devastation that being sent back to their mother’s houses will have on the women he demands be divorced. He sees all the foreign women as one common threat, not as individual women with stories and varying degrees of commitment or connection to Judaism.

    By contrast the book of Ruth focuses on the personal, getting to know the real story and understanding the complexities that lie below the assumptions of the selfishness, debauchery, and malevolence associated in the Bible with the Moabites as people.

    In endorsing gay marriage, President Obama cited his personal relationships with LGBT couples as essential to helping him make the transition. As a rabbi working with an organization that celebrates racial and ethnic diversity in the Jewish community, I meet Jews have encountered Ezra’s approach when they attempt to access the Jewish community. But I also meet Jews, who have been seen by rabbis, educators, teachers and congregants as full people with complex stories and experiences. The former need much reassurance and often question their place as part of our people. The latter wear their Judaism with pride, often like Ruth, they become leaders and spokespeople for our community.

    As I write there are riots going on in Israel against African and foreign workers. In the United States there are still those fighting against gay marriage. Big ideas and policies are important, but listening to the stories of the individuals affected by those policies is important too. If we really listen, it will likely complicate our assumptions and challenge our hatreds.


  • Immigrants – The Challenge of Inclusivity

    Posted on August 17th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    This week, Professor David Levine,the  Sonabend Associate Professor of Talmud and Halakhah on the Jerusalem campus reminds us that the contemporary debates about immigration are not new. Indeed from ancient times, Jews have faced questions of how to deal with those who move from place to place. Drawing on his deep understanding of history and text, Levine explains what our tradition has to teach us for today.

    After the epoch-making generation of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch at the turn of the second and third centuries, rabbinic activity split between two geographic settings, Late Roman Palestine and Sassanian Babylonia. The reasons for this do not concern us here, but an important point to remember is that this development is not to be construed as reflecting a dwindling Jewish community in Israel. This community would continue to thrive demographically, economically and culturally for another four centuries. The novelty of two geographic locations was first-and-foremost internal to the world of the talmudic rabbis. The traditional hegemony of Eretz-Israel was not about to relinquish its established role, and a budding creativity from across the Euphrates would soon assert its confident self-perception.

    One result of this new configuration was the migration of students and scholars between the two locales. The Bavli expresses this phenomenon when it calls the migrants ‘nehotei’ (descend-ers) and identifies certain traditions as having been stated when a certain rabbi arrived (ki ata rabbi ‘peloni’ amar). Two anecdotes from the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) portray the towering figure of Rabbi Yohanan as having difficulty understanding and dealing with his Babylonian students. These traditions convey the hardship of emigrants in a new social-cultural context, with people around them often indifferent, sometimes unfriendly.

    In a thrice told tale (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:1 4b; Shekalim 2:7 47a; Mo’ed Katan 3:6 83c), Rabbi Yohanan (=RY) sees Elazar ben Pedat avoiding him and complains to another student Ya’akov bar Idi (in Shekalim: ‘Hiyyah bar Abba’), ‘These two practices of this Babylonian [are improper], one is that he does not greet me and the other is that he does not quote traditions in my name’. RY thinks that this type of behavior conveys disrespect, and he associates this disrespect with Elazar’s country of origin, Bavel. Ya’akov bar Idi is quick to correct this impression. In Bavel, students do not initiate a greeting to their masters: ‘The youth saw me and hid’ (Job 29:8) is a prescription for conduct. At worst there is a different cultural code at play, at best an acknowledgment of the esteem in which Elazar holds his master RY. The second correction that Ya’akov bar Idi offers, is instructive. When a student quotes his teacher’s opinion without attributing that opinion to the teacher, he is conveying dependence and intimacy. Everyone knows of the relationship between RY and Elazar, all are aware of the source of Elazar’s knowledge. The fact that this is assumed rather than stated, is a mark of intimacy. We can discern criticism of RY. Where he perceived alienation and repudiation there was actually a student in full recognition of all he owed his teacher, and who was acting with humility. RY is portrayed as being unable to transcend his own perspective. This anecdote challenges its audience to see situations through the eyes of others, empathizing with strangers whose experience is different and not easily accessible to others.

    This is not the only time we hear of inattentiveness to the hardship and the behavioral nuances of Babylonian disciples in Israel. Kahana came from Sura to Tiberias to study with the renowned RY (Yerushalmi Berakhot 2:8 5c). Probably dressed strangely, maybe with shoes instead of the usual sandals, the youth encountered an unfriendly reception from people on the street. ‘What voice [did you hear] in heaven?’ a ruffian threw out at him. Kahana retorted, ‘[I heard that] your verdict is sealed’. And indeed the ruffian died. It happened again, and Kahana thought to himself that this was not what he had bargained for: ‘Did I come to kill off the people of Eretz Israel? I will return to where I have come from’. However, one does not depart from his master without asking his permission. Kahana carefully formulated his request to RY, ‘If a person’s mother demeans him, but his stepmother respects him, where should he go?’. ‘One should go where he is respected’, was the unassuming reply. Kahana returned to Babylonia. Not realizing what he had sanctioned, RY asked why Kahana had departed without taking leave. The reply was ‘The conversation you had with him was his way of taking leave’. The master was unaware of what the young man had been going through, and even when Kahana expressed this hardship RY could not hear it. The parable of the mother and stepmother begs to be unraveled and understood on additional levels. The cry for protection of the parent-figure is almost explicit. It is lost on the rabbi. Mockery in the street is ironically paralleled by insensitivity in the study hall. One would have expected the beit midrash to provide this sense of safety. Not for Kahana. He is always alert, never able to trust his surroundings. The foreigner cannot find a place where he can feel protected and let his guard down. The ending is a pessimistic one, for the situation is not resolved.

    These two traditions – Elazar’s misunderstood behavior and Kahana’s unwelcoming reception – choose RY as the target of their implicit criticism. Like biblical narrative, talmudic stories have no problem casting their protagonists in uncomplimentary light. Unconcerned with historical accuracy, these rabbinic figures are employed to teach. Edifying behavior invites emulation, problematic conduct posts a warning sign. RY is a linchpin figure for the Amoraim of third and fourth century Palestine. Selecting him as the butt of this criticism raises the stakes. An indictment of RY stands for a condemnation of an entire community. The allegation is in the absence of a secure ambiance where a stranger might be included.

    In another context the Yerushalmi records a predicament of the small community of Cappadocian Jews in Sepphoris (Shevi’it 9:8 39a). Hailing from the Asia Minor these people did not seem to integrate easily into the social fabric of Sepphoris. The laws of Shevi’it – the agricultural sabbatical – require forfeiting ownership of produce (bi’ur) at a certain point during the year-long hiatus of work in the field. The produce would then become legally ownerless (hefker) with anyone permitted to gather it for themselves. A loop-hole was offered and a person could forfeit ownership of the produce in the presence of three trusted acquaintances, and immediately re-acquire this produce. In this way, a third party would not have the opportunity to act on the ownerless property and acquire it for himself. The ‘Cappadocians of Sepphoris’ asked Rabbi Ami how they could go about this particular detail of halakhic behavior. ‘Because there is no one who cares for us (literally: no one who loves us) and no one inquires about our well being, how are we to act?’ The technical solution which is offered should not mitigate this searing emotion of loneliness.

    Talmudic tradition challenges itself and its students to hear these voices, empathize with the feelings they express, and act to lessen the hardship. The biblical idiom of ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ (the foreigner, orphan and widow) is a trope for those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Who are the ‘ger yatom ve’almanah’ in our midst? Do we step up and assume responsibility for incorporating them in society?