September 28, 2011
Ani Ma’amin, I believe
I was raised in a world of great Jewish ideas. At our seder table, everyone’s questions were welcome. No one was labeled “wicked” or “simple,” and no one was silenced. My atheist brother, my socialist aunt, my Orthodox cousin, my Labor Zionist parents, even our Catholic neighbors — all had a voice at the table. It was noisy, but it was vital. There were arguments, but there was dialogue and listening. It was passionate, and it was loving. That’s the kind of Jewish community I cherish.
Ours has always been a culture of ideas, big ideas. But today, we find ourselves so immersed in the issues and calamities of the moment, so preoccupied with the community, the State of Israel, the direction of America, the condition of the world, we never have a moment to ask, What for? Because of this, we share a deep sense of crisis, but little collective direction. We have great energy but little shared vision. We are a community yearning for great ideas.
In the 1950s, the renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow solicited brief statements from people across America, great and ordinary alike, in a project called, “This I Believe.” Murrow believed there was no greater need in the America of his time than for assertions of principle and conviction. Recently, NPR renewed Murrow’s project. Our Jewish community shares the same predicament. So I suggested to The Jewish Journal editors that they initiate a project called “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe.” Together we have invited a number of Jews from the community to share a statement of their core beliefs. And we invite you to join them.
A few are printed here. We want to publish more on a regular basis in The Journal and online at jewishjournal.com. Instructions on our format and how to submit are on that Web site. For now, immerse yourself in your neighbors’ core beliefs.
Welcome to “Ani Ma’amin, I Believe”! I’m glad you can join us at this noisy, vital, loving Jewish table!
— Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Valley Beth Shalom
Click here to find out how to submit to our Ani Ma’amin collection.
by Adlai Wertman
“What’s the matter, Adlai – did someone, somewhere, tell you that life was supposed to be fair?” That is what my investment-banking boss said to me in 1986 after we just lost a deal to a competitor who I didn’t think earned it. Over the next 25 years – and through two major career shifts into nonprofit work and academia – that line always stayed with me. Because I actually do believe that life should be fair – but it really isn’t. For the past decade, I have devoted my career to making the world a little bit fairer – not for investment bankers (life is quite fair for them) – but for the poorest people in our society. For them, life is not in any way fair.
Tzedek, tzedek tirdof. Justice, justice you shall pursue. The imperative is clear to me – but in real life, the notion of pursuing justice is quite challenging. In my mind, the call for justice reaches outside the courtroom and into society at large. So what, then, does it mean to create a just and fair society?
The injustice that seems the most glaring to me is poverty. We live in a world where there is an ever-growing chasm between the wealthy and the poor. All statistics show that the rich continue to get richer as the poor get poorer. This can’t be just and truly isn’t fair. And, very important for me, it runs afoul of a multitude of Jewish (and general moral) tenets — too numerous to cite. I believe that narrowing this divide is an important way of pursuing justice — and charity isn’t the only way.
Don’t get me wrong — I believe in capitalism. I had my undergraduate degree in economics, an MBA in finance and 18 years of experience as an investment banker before I began spending my life in the pursuit of “economic justice.” The free capitalist system is theoretically inherently fair. Anybody has the ability to succeed. All it takes is hard work, ingenuity and perseverance. Capitalism depends on free markets – the market for labor, the stock market and consumer markets, to name a few. If our economic system offers equal access to these markets, it is hard to argue that any results aren’t fair.
Unfortunately, we don’t all have equal access – which results in poverty for too many members of our society without it. The possible barriers are numerous and include lack of a stable family growing up, race or gender prejudice, health challenges or, unfortunately, poverty itself. In fact, growing up poor is, in itself, the greatest cause of being poor as an adult. This is most evident in education – those students attending schools in the poorest neighborhoods have little to no chance of getting an education that would allow them equal access to capitalism as an adult. This endless cycle of poverty cannot under any definition be fair.
I believe that it is incumbent upon me — whether following biblical and talmudic prompts or simply out of secular morality — to work to create a society where everyone truly has equal access to economic success. That success would, in and of itself, lead to better education, stronger families and a narrowing of our country’s growing divide. That would be fair, and that is my personal pursuit of tzedek.
Adlai Wertman is professor of clinical management and organization, and founding director of the Society and Business Lab at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business.
by Zane Buzby
My grandfather promised me a pony. Poppy (my grandfather, not the pony) arrived in the United States in 1907, running from the czarist regime, dreaming of America with its endless possibilities. He was from Odessa, a city of humor and storytelling, so it was only natural that he was gut-bustingly funny and a master storyteller. He had seven grandchildren and was a larger-than-life presence to all of us. He smoked cigars and married us repeatedly with cigar bands he saved on the rabbit ears of his console TV, in a ceremony he conducted in Russian gibberish. He worked hard, laughed hard and taught us that the best laugh was one that left you gasping for breath. He played a mandolin festooned with ribbons, believed that everyone should play a musical instrument, go to college and eat ice cream every day exactly at 3 p.m. He proved that one could be unconventional and unique in an age of conformity.
This was the man who promised me a pony.
On the day that the pony was to arrive, Poppy announced that he had just come from the train station, but the pony was nowhere to be found. We’d have to wait for the next train, or the next. Months passed. The train station was “called,” freight cars “checked.” No pony.
Eventually came the good news: The pony would arrive tomorrow! Poppy said the coming day would be so wonderful that we had better “sleep fast” in order to get up quicker and experience it all. Life was not to be missed. Who but my grandfather could get away with telling little children: “You’ll sleep when you’re dead”?
That morning, we rushed to the station to pick up the pony, but the train car was empty. Pointing to bits of hay and a broken rope that he had somehow planted, it was “clear” that the pony had been there, but had gotten loose and run away. We’d have to find another one. And the process would start again. This would go on for weeks, years, generations.
For me and my father before me, and probably all my cousins, waiting for the pony taught us that the best was always ahead of us, and anything was possible if we stayed optimistic and enthusiastic. It meant there was always hope, and so our days came alive with excitement and anticipation of a wonderful thing just about to happen. We came to have an unshakable belief in an extraordinary and bright future, where next time the pony will come.
Poppy was a shining example of someone living his dream — in this New World that he had so longed for and struggled so hard to reach. Where disappointment or discouragement never meant “game over” or “stop trying.” Where the challenge was always to find another way when the road ahead was blocked. He infused me with excitement, energy, enthusiasm and, above all, an insatiable appetite for life. He sent me on my way with my head full of dreams and the ability to make those dreams come true.
This is his legacy to me: this positive frame, through which I learned to view the world and my own life experiences. I believe this is a key element of who I am.
There are those who wait for Godot and those who wait for the Messiah. Me, I happily wait for the pony.
Zane Buzby is a television director and co-founder of The Survivor Mitzvah Project.
by Dr. Bruce Powell
In July 1960, while attending Camp Alonim, I heard Shlomo Bardin talk about his life in Zhitomer, Russia. He told us of a community of Jews within a large city who “cared.” He talked about how the community ensured that everyone who wished to marry was able to do so. He explained how the Jewish burial society (chevrah kadishah) handled each body as a sacred vessel, with dignity, with an understanding that that person had made a contribution to God’s world in some profound way, and how the community could now honor that contribution with the ultimate mitzvah of a dignified burial.
And Bardin told us the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.”
In those moments at Camp Alonim, sitting in a barn-like room on Shabbat where Bardin explained that it was “we” who make the barn holy, that it is our obligation to “care,” to build our nation through Jewish values, my 12-year-old soul was shaken to its core.
It was in that “barn” that the seeds of my beliefs, and my entire career in Jewish education, took root. It was in the summer of 1960, where, to a 12-year-old, all was possible, that my current work at New Community Jewish High School was born.
As I grew and ventured into my career, I was almost possessed by Bardin’s vision. I wondered if it were really possible to create a community where the core ideals centered on “caring,” “active kindness,” “contribution” and the fulfillment of American ideals through a Jewish values lens.
Upon finishing my doctoral work, my belief in Bardin’s vision was not only complete, but fully supported by empirical data. One could actually build a school based not upon “measuring,” but upon “meaning and values and contribution.” We could be better Americans by being better Jews. We could create a community where two core Jewish values might meet: being an or l’goyim (light unto the nations); and b’tzelem elohim, where every person regards one another as if he or she were created in the image of God.
And, perhaps most importantly, and personally, I came to believe that one could build a life upon these values and visions. It wasn’t easy to really understand what it meant to serve as a role model, or to treat every person as if they carried the spark of Godliness. Could one’s values at work and at home become seamless? Could one find a life partner and raise children based upon these core beliefs and ideals? Was I a raving idealist?
Thirty-seven years into our marriage, four adult children raised, having helped to establish Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, this I now believe:
I believe that I must strive at being a role model (often failing); I believe I must regard each person as divinely created (often failing); and I believe that God demands of me contribution to our community and to our nation.
Dr. Bruce Powell is head of school at New Community Jewish High School.
by Harriet Rossetto
This belief liberated me from shame, freed me from the seesaw of hope and despair, grandiosity and self-loathing that kept me stuck. I had inherited a polarized consciousness. You are good or bad, right or wrong, winner or loser. I struggled to be perfect, to fit the script I was handed. Brené Brown once said in a lecture, “The difference between fitting in and belonging is that fitting in requires you to become who others want you to be; belonging is bringing your whole self and being accepted as you — the divine spark that is your essence.” I wanted to fit. I hid the parts of me that didn’t “fit” the group that I wanted to belong to. I couldn’t keep up the act for long, the “real,” authentic, unappreciated me would leak out, confirming my worst fears about myself, sending me back to bed. I believed I was inherently defective. I thought I was the only one.
My 25 years living and working with addicts, the families of addicts and the many pre-addicted families I know has convinced me that the source of our collective discomfort is shame and the facades of perfection we construct to defend against the shame of our imperfections. The majority of people I meet are addicted to appearances, the family photo albums of every event, which project the family we want others to see, concealing the family we are. Unfortunately, protecting ourselves from shame also “protects” us from connection and intimacy. Intimacy requires vulnerability, transparency and authenticity. We can only connect in truth.
Shame, not disobedience, was the original sin of Adam and Eve. When God called, “Where are you?” they hid and blamed each other. Had they not been taught about teshuvah? Did they not understand that their disobedience was also Divine?
I’ve often wondered if the story had told of Adam and Eve owning up to their “sin” (missing the mark) and making amends and growing from their experience, would we have developed without shame?
I still struggle with the opposing twosomes inside of me … yes, I can/no, you can’t … judgment/acceptance; blame/responsibility; compassion/vengeance; fear/love; blessing/curse; life/death.
At Beit T’Shuvah, the path to wholeness is one of struggle. We struggle out loud, revealing our “shadow” selves, practicing acceptance, connecting through our brokenness. We struggle to take the next right action, no matter what we feel, strengthening our spiritual muscles, moving closer to “walking in God’s ways.”
Harriet Rossetto is the CEO, founder and clinical director of Beit T’Shuvah.
by Gershom (Rob Spruijt)
I am a painter — I paint still life in the Dutch tradition I grew up with. I love detail, and a certain obsessiveness is part of my painterly process. When I came to the United States, I learned the expression, “The devil is in the details.” In Holland we say, “God is in the details.” I always thought that was a nice metaphor for my Dutch obsession with detail. But I gradually discovered that, at least for me, it is more than metaphor.
I often struggle with prayer. I struggle with various kinds of theology, and I would like to get it right, down to the last detail. As if I would insult the Divine by being sloppy in my understanding of how to pray, what to say. Prayer is language, but I am not a native speaker. After more than a dozen years living in the United States, I have become effectively bilingual, yet all too often I find myself struggling with words. When everything depends on what is said, I am stumbling over my words.
Then I came across a poem by Abraham Joshua Heschel, which opens: “To pray is to take notice of the wonder.” Heschel suggests I shouldn’t be asking, pleading, praising, begging, etc.
Rather, he invited me to stop talking and to become aware of God in the world around me — to be in awe of the mystery. I had been looking at the wonders around me, and I had been trying to paint these for some time. And if I replaced “to pray” in Heschel’s poem with “to paint,” it made as much sense, or even more. I realized I had been praying all along.
So I paint. I also teach and I go to synagogue, and I do all the other things people do. But I mostly love to paint. I spend entire days staring at a single tulip. I do not suffer from the endless details that my eye can see and that my hands struggle to record. Rather, I enjoy discovering yet more facets of creation in something this small. I plead with the flower to yield to my longing to see more. I beg it to reveal the mysteries of being in this light or that. I don’t often stop to smell the roses; they don’t smell like much. But to sit, just for one day in my life, and really look at one.
Spending this time with even a single flower is very much like having a conversation with God. It is a gradual getting to know each other, a gradual revealing of just the tiniest part of creation. There is no doubt that I can discover only the most superficial parts, but that is all I can handle. I believe prayer does not have to be encyclopedic; it is about this awesome encounter with the source of my soul. And with every brushstroke, I invite others to look as well, to share this experience of awe around us, so we can find it in us. I actually found God in the details.
Gershom (Rob Spruijt), is a Los Angeles artist. His flower paintings will be exhibited Oct. 29-Dec. 3 at the Lora Schlesinger Gallery in Santa Monica.
by Miriam Prum Hess
For more than five years, my husband, Mark, and I tried to conceive a child. We consulted with many medical specialists, and after five in-vitro fertilizations and numerous other medical procedures, we were told that we could not get pregnant. We decided to adopt a child and, through an attorney, connected with “Heather,” a 17-year-old living in Nebraska. Mark and I supported her through the last six months of her pregnancy and flew out to be present at the delivery. After the birth, Heather handed the baby girl to us so we could spend some “bonding time.” Our dream was becoming a reality and we planned to name our daughter Eliana (Eli – my God, ana – answered me).
As we sat in the hospital nursery rocking the baby, I turned to Mark and told him that Eliana was the wrong name for this baby and we needed to find a new name. I felt that it just did not fit the child I was holding. As we spent the next day pondering other names, the birth mother changed her mind and decided to keep the child. We were devastated!
We packed our bags and returned home with our dream again shattered.
Several days later, we contacted the attorney to restart the adoption process, and a month later we were connected with “Kara,” an 18-year-old living in Texas. We had numerous conversations with Kara over several weeks as she was choosing between several potential adoptive parents. During these devastating months, I did not feel well and assumed I had the flu or food poisoning. I kept wondering why I felt so awful, but did not seem to be spreading my illness to my husband. The night that Kara was going to inform us whether she had chosen us as the adoptive parents for her child, I felt the need to stop at a drug store and buy a pregnancy test. My gut told me that what I was feeling might be pregnancy rather than flu or food poisoning.
Mark was concerned that we would just be disappointed again. I took the test, and it instantly turned blue. Mark doubted the reliability of the test and made me take another, with the same results. The next day, my pregnancy was confirmed by my obstetrician and Kara chose another couple.
Our daughter, Eliana Simcha, just turned 16 in July. God truly answered and guided us with simcha = joy.
Miriam Prum Hess is director of the Centers for Excellence in Day School Education and Jewish Educational Engagement at BJE.
by Rabbi Anne Brener
In August, I juggled three seemingly unrelated events, all taking place within three freeway exits of one another in Northern California. I took part in a weeklong Jewish meditation retreat. Before and after the retreat, I visited the community where I am officiating for the High Holy Days to prepare with them spiritually and logistically for the month of Elul and the observances of Tishrei. And I sat at the bedside of my cousin’s dying husband. None of the people or places in these events had anything to do with the others. Yet there I was, experiencing all three of them simultaneously. Three freeway exits apart.
Dare I believe that these coincidences of time and geography are the work of some Divine unfolding, perhaps even a call from some Holy force that moves the universe (aka God)? Or are they merely another of the various and unexplainable coincidences that frequent my life?
I don’t know. The mystery of the way the universe works is something that I will never understand. I’m all right with that.
Judaism schools us in the lesson of paradox, encouraging us to hold what Jungian psychoanalyst Marion Woodman calls the tension of opposites. While we are expected to behave ethically and minimize suffering in the world, we are not meant to take things too literally or constellate too tightly around a truth. The Torah gives us two different stories to baffle our understanding of the mystery of creation. Take that, fundamentalists! You think you are so certain about how the human came into being, just keep reading a few lines in the early chapters of Genesis; there is a completely different story.
The Torah is filled with such contradictions. God, especially, confuses us, and the confusion is front and center during this High Holy Days season. God of judgment? God of compassion? The often-perplexing multiplicity of attributes ascribed to the Deity discourages us from pinpointing a definition of God in a particular and finite way. With closer and closer scrutiny, any tangible definition of God dissolves and we are left with our awe at the holy mystery. Yet so many people use the word “God” in anthropomorphic ways — trying to make sense of a God created in our image, who often fails to meet our expectations of a supreme being. No wonder so many people have a hard time coming up with a concept of God that works for them. They are searching for something they can understand, instead of just standing in awe at the mystery at the core of the universe that even the most sophisticated scientists would not endeavor to define.
This leads me to believe that what I believe doesn’t matter (a self-imposed paradox). What matters is that I show up. I left the retreat to sit at a bedside and chant familiar prayers to ease my cousin’s husband’s passage. I listened to the concerns of my High Holy Days congregants, trying to allow their needs to override some of my own ideas about the “perfect” services. I paid attention to the teachers at the retreat and to my own breath as I experienced visceral gratitude for the gifts of their words and the exquisite landscape. Overwhelmed with appreciation for so much that I do not understand, I invoke the spirit of the season, as I say “hineni” (I am here) to another year of awe.
Rabbi Anne Brener, a psychotherapist and spiritual counselor, is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001). She is on the faculty of The Academy for Jewish Religion, California.
by Jay Sanderson
A short time ago, our community lost one of its most committed, most genuine leaders, Sam Rosenwald. Sam cared deeply about his family, his friends and the Jewish people.
Weeks before he passed, we had lunch together. Sam had been fighting stage-four esophageal cancer and he knew that his fight was almost over.
While I felt very sad, Sam was strong and optimistic. That day, we discussed our teenage children, their futures and the Jewish community that they would raise their children in.
Sam looked at me and said, “The Future Is Now.”
It was a line that I had heard often in my life. In the past, it had sounded more like an advertising slogan — like “Just Do It!” — but coming out of the mouth of a man whose own future was slipping away, it felt like a prophecy.
I asked him what he meant, and he looked right at me, almost through me, and he didn’t answer.
I knew what he meant, even though I wanted him to say it. We never had the opportunity to talk again.
Sam knew my story. I never imagined that I would be the president of The Jewish Federation, but I had become increasingly concerned about our Jewish future.
I felt that standing on the sidelines was no longer an option. I had sat in too many conferences and meetings over the past two decades discussing Jewish identity and continuity with many of the same people.
It’s time to stop talking.
I know what has to be done. Engagement and education must become our top priority. Summer camps and trips to Israel for high-school students and young adults have proven to be extremely effective. I need to lead a communitywide effort to motivate and enable more young people to go to camp and Israel. Day-school education needs much more support and supplemental education needs real reimagining.
I believe that most of our disengaged want to be a part of the community, but they have different ideas, needs and visions. Our institutions need to be challenged and supported to be open to them, and new models must be developed. It is time for big ideas to be developed and implemented.
Sam didn’t want me to forget that we don’t have the time to wait.
The Future Is Now. It is time to take action.
Jay Sanderson is president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
by Abby J. Leibman
I’m not so naïve that I believe all people will help you all the time, but in my professional life and in my personal life, time and again, I have seen people step up in remarkable ways. People will help you without thought of compensation, without a sense of obligation — they will help you solely because you need the help, and you need it from them.
I believe this, and I see it in my professional life, of course — as I work to address hunger in America, and in the work I did to address discrimination. I see literally thousands of people donate time and money to those who are in need. It is a remarkable hallmark of American culture that we act on our compassion for others, and when we see a need, we respond.
It is no less true in my personal life. I believe that for those of us who are used to being oh-so-competent, strong and self-reliant, even acknowledging that we need help, let alone asking for it, can be a virtual impossibility. Perhaps that’s why so many people may find my belief so naïve. I understand that. I, too, was one of those people.
When you live in a city of the size and complexity of Los Angeles, it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. There is no shortage of “experts” who will tell us that Los Angeles is a place that is characterized by narcissism, self-importance and shallow relationships. They extol the virtues of small towns with neighbors who support one another through good and bad times and contrast that to their perception of Los Angeles as a place where such actions never take place, and how people would be ridiculed if they even dared to act with such compassion. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. That small-town experience is not based on the geographic size of a community; it’s built on relationships. And those relationships take root and flourish even in a large, busy metropolis like Los Angeles.
In 1995, when my twin sister, Nina, was murdered by her husband, and her two small children came to live with me, I saw the fruit of the relationships I had built. Not just my closest friends and family, as one might expect, but a remarkably diverse cross-section of business, professional and personal contacts. At that moment, I was far too vulnerable to have access to my typical response to a crisis: I can handle it. I couldn’t handle this. And people came to me and offered to help, and I said yes. Partners in law firms wrote thank-you notes to condolence cards, took my niece and nephew to Disneyland and took my place on panels; movie producers and business executives brought meals to my house and drove carpool for me, took my nephew to soccer games and comforted me. Some of them were people I counted among my friends, some were people with whom I had just a passing business acquaintance. No one asked anything of me — they all asked what they could do for me. It was not just the services they performed, although those were truly invaluable, it also was the message they brought: I was not alone, they were there for me and would be there for me whenever I needed them. I may not have known that before, but I know it now. And so I believe, I know, that when you are in need, people will help you.
Abby J. Leibman is president and CEO of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.