Posted by Mark Paredes
At a briefing for Jewish leaders (and honorary Jews) in Los Angeles held earlier this week, the Israeli Consul General led a spirited discussion of recent events with an audience of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, religious, gay, straight, Republican, Democratic, Persian, Ashkenazi, and Sephardic Jews. Only one issue can unite these communities within a community. By way of example, I saw very few non-Orthodox Jews at the memorial service held in Los Angeles for the Chabad rabbi and his wife who were gunned down in Mumbai, India. Straight Jews at the service for the gay Israeli teens shot to death in Tel Aviv were few and far between. However, Jews from all walks of life will attend the massive pro-Israel rally scheduled for this Sunday at 2:00 p.m. The largest gathering of Jews in the city since 2006 should be a sight to see, and I know several Mormons who will be there.
As inspiring as the rally is sure to be, it is useful to think about what to do after the event’s glow has faded. How can Jews make their case to the world? What if anything can be learned from the Mormon community about promoting one’s values? Different approaches taken by prominent Jews on two continents have helped to frame my thinking on this subject.
During a meeting with a Jewish leader in Amsterdam, I asked him what he thought of Geerd Wilders, the controversial pro-Israel Dutch politician. “We could listen to him speak all day—on Israel,” replied my host. “The Jewish community in Holland is genuinely grateful to a prominent politician who openly speaks of his love for Jews and Israel.” However, Mr. Wilders’ extreme anti-Islam statements (he has called for a ban on the Koran, the “Islamic Mein Kampf”) and intolerance of Muslim beliefs and practices are hurting Jews more than most people realize. In an egalitarian society like Holland’s, a politician who promotes the closing of Islamic schools and the banning of halal ritual slaughter does so with the knowledge that Jewish schools and kosher slaughter will disappear as well. My Dutch friend pointed to positive relations between the Jewish community and the Muslim mayor of Rotterdam, the country’s second-largest city, and claimed that Muslim and Jewish leaders were actively working together to preserve their schools and religious practices. Relations between the two communities are not perfect, he said, but Islamophobia is not the solution.
I’d like to bring him to LA to speak. I can think of several speakers (all non-Jews) who have made careers out of publicly denouncing Islam at every turn in order to cash checks from Jewish patrons (though it must be emphasized that the overwhelming majority of Jews do not support their efforts). I’ve sat through many of their speeches and read some of their books, but have yet to see how the Jewish cause can be made by criticizing the faith of 1.5 billion people. Case in point: while working at the Israeli Consulate, I was asked to organize a meeting of a dozen prominent pastors and two Mormon representatives with several consulate officials. Although we had a full agenda of interfaith items to discuss, we never made it to item #1. The pastors spent thirty minutes denouncing Mohammed, Islam, and Muslims in very un-Christian ways. The Israeli consuls reminded the pastors that many Israeli citizens are Muslims, while I tried in vain to remind everyone that we had an agenda to follow. However, nothing could dissuade the pastors from slamming Islam, and the visibly frustrated consul general was forced to call an early end to the useless meeting. The two Mormon representatives could not believe what they had heard, and the senior leader pulled me aside afterwards to ask how Jewish-Christian relations could be strengthened by denouncing another religion. All I could do was apologize for wasting his time and reiterate that the views expressed were not those of the consulate or its staff. Everyone who can read a newspaper recognizes that the Bin Laden brand of radical Islam needs to be defeated. Do we really need to pay speakers, sponsor conferences, and fund organizations to repeat this refrain? Seems like a colossal waste of money to me.
Where the money should be directed was made clear this week. A rabbi who oversees a large Introduction to Judaism program told a synagogue audience that whenever students considering conversion ask him to make the case for Judaism, he always declines. With all due respect, I believe that he is wrong not to do so. The world would be a better place if there were more Jews in it. I love to see media figures like Michael Medved and Dennis Prager promote Jewish values. More synagogues are actively looking for ways to promote Judaism to unaffiliated non-Jews and interfaith couples. Prominent rabbis like Joseph Telushkin and Harold Schulweis are leading advocates for promoting Jewish values to the world. In the case of Rabbi Schulweis, his values led to the creation of Jewish World Watch, which has cared for thousands of refugees in Darfur and the Congo. Rabbi Schulweis doesn’t help these people just because he is a kind man; he helps them because he is a kind Jewish man. If the promotion of Judaism and Jewish values to non-Jews received as much funding as the anti-jihadist/Wahhabist/radical Islam crowd, we would see miracles happen. As a former Mormon missionary who currently serves on a church public affairs council, I have seen how effective this approach can be. If you define your values clearly, articulate them in the public square, and share them with all who will listen, good people will rally to your cause. Fourteen million Mormons in 176 countries can testify to this, and I travel at my expense around the world to remind them of the history and theology we share with Jews. In this week’s Torah portion we read of the ancient Canaanites who knew this about the Israelites: “they have heard that thou Lord art among this people, that thou Lord art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night” (Numbers 14:14). If only the inhabitants of this and other lands could hear modern-day Israelites proclaim similar tidings on a regular basis. Shabbat shalom.
12.3.13 at 12:19 am | It's a bad idea because Judaism is important
11.21.13 at 11:23 pm | While everyone knows that Jews can say who's a. . .
11.4.13 at 10:43 pm | Greater expectations need to be placed on Jews,. . .
10.18.13 at 11:26 pm | My friend Brian offers an eloquent explanation of. . .
10.13.13 at 11:28 pm | The title says it all
9.30.13 at 11:32 pm | The Santa Monica Daily Press missed the mark in. . .
12.3.13 at 12:19 am | It's a bad idea because Judaism is important (250)
6.5.12 at 11:26 pm | Marlena Tanya Muchnick, a Jewish convert to. . . (55)
9.9.12 at 9:30 pm | When it comes to the Book of Mormon, I'll stick. . . (40)
June 2, 2010 | 1:26 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
As I was preparing a blog post on a dialogue between two Conservative rabbis on process theology and Judaism, I received an urgent phone call from the Israeli Prime Minister’s office asking me to prepare a statement to be read by Mr. Netanyahu at a press conference tomorrow morning. Here is the final draft:
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Before I take your questions, I would like to make a statement that is long overdue from this office and this country. The Armenian Genocide is a historical fact. Nearly a century ago, the Ottoman Turkish government organized and carried out massacres, rapes, deportations, and forced marches that took the lives of 1.5 million Armenians. Even as I speak, Knesset members are preparing to pass a resolution that will make Israel the 21st country to officially recognize the Armenian Genocide. The world should expect no less from a nation founded on the ashes of the Holocaust.
In our desire to create a strategic alliance with Turkey, we have sacrificed our moral authority. For too long we have pretended that the genocide issue had two legitimate sides in order to avoid offending our thin-skinned ally. We even dishonored the memories of the dead by suggesting that a panel of historians be assembled to debate whether a genocide occurred. As recent events have shown, this moral obfuscation has been self-defeating: we now have no strategic ally and diminished moral authority. No sane person believes that Turkey will side with Israel if it clashes with any other nation in the region. The much-touted “strategic partnership” has been reduced to sporadic joint military exercises and arms purchases. We are willing to continue this military relationship, but not if it involves deception and lying. From this day forward, the Government of Israel will equate denial of the Armenian Genocide with denial of the Holocaust.
We have cast our lot in the Middle East with a people that has massacred Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks, brutally oppressed Kurds, fought with Greece, invaded Cyprus, and persecuted Orthodox Christians. Moreover, it refuses to acknowledge and take responsibility for any of these actions. I cannot think of a nation in greater need of serious introspection. It’s no wonder the EU is increasingly reluctant to extend membership to a country with such a huge chip on its shoulder. As I viewed a video of the stone-throwing mob attempting to storm the Israeli Consulate in Istanbul, I realized that any conspicuous Jew who crossed its path stood a good chance of being lynched on the spot.
Israelis can hold their heads higher today knowing that their government has righted a historical wrong by acknowledging the first Holocaust of the twentieth century. If this results in fewer drones sold to Turkey, so be it. If Ankara throws a tantrum, we’ll live with it. After all, Jews have endured much worse. As have the Armenians.
I will now take your questions.”
May 31, 2010 | 1:51 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Who is not a Jew? That was the question on my mind last week as I reflected on the legacy of Moishe Rosen, a man who brought more heartache to Jewish parents than anyone in a generation. Few Jews lamented the passing of the Jew by birth who became a Baptist minister and subsequently founded Jews for Jesus, an organization that targets Jews for conversion to Christianity. Since Jews who convert to other faiths are no longer accepted as Jews by their former coreligionists, the 600,000 American Jews who have left Judaism through conversion represent an incalculable loss to a faith community that is also witnessing an increase in interfaith marriages and decrease in synagogue involvement. I applaud Jewish leaders’ efforts to make Judaism more attractive and relevant to Jews, and share their concern over the efforts of over 1,000 groups to convert Jews to (non-LDS) Christianity. I certainly hold no brief for Jews for Jesus, which attacks Mormon beliefs as well as Jewish ones (Rosen noted in his farewell letter that “Judaism never saved anybody no matter how sincere,” while his organization’s website inexplicably calls Mormons “non-believers in Jesus”). Unlike Jews for Jesus, the LDS Church does not target Jews (or members of other faiths, for that matter) for conversion. As I thought more about the who’s-not-a-Jew debate, I realized that history often plays a larger role than theology in the drawing of red lines.
For Latter-day Saints, it’s fairly easy to determine who’s a Mormon. Once you’re baptized, you’re a member unless you are excommunicated or request in writing that your name be removed from the Church’s membership records (thankfully, both are relatively rare actions). Even if you join another faith, your name will remain on the records until the Church receives your written request to leave. Excommunication has not been a feature of mainstream Jewish life since the Enlightenment, and there is no central Jewish authority authorized to exclude people from the worldwide Jewish community. Nevertheless, certain beliefs are universally regarded as incompatible with Rabbinic Judaism to such a degree that their adoption places a person outside the bounds of the faith. The most well-known is the Christian belief concerning the Messiah.
Contrary to popular opinion, belief in a Messiah who has already come is possible for Jews. For example, the late Lubavitcher “Rebbe,” Menachem Mendel Schneerson, is considered by many of his followers to have been the Messiah. Their status as Jews is unquestioned. However, there is one big difference between the Christian Messiah and the Lubavitcher one: no Jew believes that the Rebbe was divine, let alone the Son of God. It is the belief in a divine Messiah, not one who has already lived on earth, that is ultimately unacceptable to Jews. In addition, it hasn’t escaped their notice that many followers of the divine Messiah have persecuted and killed Jews for centuries.
The Trinitarian notion of God is problematic for Jews (Mormons, like Jews, not only reject the concept of the Trinity but generally find it incomprehensible). For them, there is one incorporeal God, the God of Israel. For believers in the Trinity, there is one incorporeal God, the God of Israel, who has three manifestations. Some Jews have suggested that Trinitarian Christians actually worship three gods, though they claim to worship one. Mormons believe that the three members of the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) are separate divine beings joined in purpose, not in substance. Given the importance of ethical monotheism in Jewish thought, the acceptance of Jewish atheists has always puzzled me. Are Christian ideas about God more objectionable than the belief that God did not create the world, reveal the Torah to Moses, covenant with Abraham, or lead the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land? Again, it would seem that the linkage of Christian views of God to Jewish persecution by Christians throughout the centuries is their fatal flaw. Atheist governments persecuted Jews in the 20th century, but not before. Also, no one gets too excited if a Jew adopts a (Messiah-free) Buddhist view of deity; few if any Jews have died at the hands of practicing Buddhists.
Several Jewish friends have told me that what they find most objectionable about organizations like Jews for Jesus is their insistence that one can be a Christian yet remain a Jew. Jewish leaders like Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism have devoted decades to countering this assertion, which they claim is deceptive. I wanted the perspective of a Jewish convert to Mormonism, so I turned to my friend Marlena Baker, who blogs at Marlena’s Musings. Her take? “I consider that Jews who are baptized as [Latter-day] Saints become completed Jews.” This sentiment is not uncommon among Jewish converts to Christianity, though it is obviously offensive to Jews. I agree with the rabbis that the Christian belief about Jesus cannot be reconciled with that of Rabbinic Judaism. One cannot believe that Jesus was and was not the Savior. However, Mormons who agree with Marlena almost always reference the pre-Rabbinic Judaism of the Hebrew Bible, which was based on prophets, revealed scripture, temples, and priesthood. In their view, a Jew who joins a restored religion with prophets, revealed scripture, temples and priesthood is becoming a more complete Jew, since he is returning to Judaism’s biblical roots.
Jews have every right to decide who is a member of their community. In terms of theological diversity, they have done an admirable job of balancing inclusivity with self-preservation. I do not believe that Jews should be targeted for conversion; moreover, I have never participated in proselytizing efforts involving Jews. According to the Book of Mormon, God’s relationship with Jews is pretty important to Him: “O ye Gentiles, have ye remembered the Jews, mine ancient covenant people? Nay; but ye have cursed them, and have hated them, and have not sought to recover them. But behold, I will return all these things upon your own heads; for I the Lord have not forgotten my people” (2 Nephi 29:5). I recently came across an Evangelical organization, “Ex-Mormons for Jesus,” whose title makes as much sense as “Jews for Jesus.” If there’s one thing that honest people should be able to agree on, it’s that the English language has a precise word for a Jew who accepts Jesus as his Savior: “Christian.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
May 28, 2010 | 12:44 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
While standing outside the Grdešić family homestead in Golek, Slovenia last fall, I reflected on my great-grandmother’s departure from the six-family village more than a century ago on a one-way journey that would take her and her husband-to-be to the small Slovenian community in Calumet, Michigan. Like most American families, mine is full of immigrant stories. I am here today because hardy Slovenes, Germans, Chileans, African-Americans, and Québécois endured slavery, long ocean crossings with spoiled beef, toil in copper mines, and the inevitable immigration hassles in order to create a new life for themselves and their families in the United States. As I listen to voices on all sides of the current immigration debate, I have struggled to stake out a position that incorporates the sacrifices of my immigrant forebears, my religious values, my diplomatic background, and my experience as an illegal worker in Italy.
Both the Jewish and Mormon communities have been heavily influenced by immigration. Thousands of Mormon converts from England, Scandinavia, and other European countries flocked to Mormon communities in the 19th century at the request of church leaders, and many of their descendants have held prominent church positions. Today the LDS Church’s policy is to encourage members around the world (we’re in 176 countries and territories) to build up the church in their own countries; the decision to immigrate is theirs alone. A good example is Mexico, where the church has constructed 12 temples (where sacred ceremonies are performed) and nearly 1,000 chapels (places for weekly worship) and other buildings to meet the spiritual needs of over 1 million Mexican Mormons. In this country, Mormons on both sides of the immigration debate invoke religious principles to buttress their case. Nevertheless, the LDS Church has repeatedly stated its neutrality on this subject, most recently in 2008 when it encouraged Utah legislators debating an immigration bill to do so with “humanity and compassion.” It also had this pointed response to former CNN commentator Lou Dobbs’ allegation that the Church was encouraging Mexican members to come to Utah in any way possible: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has over a million members in Mexico. It does not encourage them to move to Utah or anywhere else. The Church, in fact, has made no comment so far on the immigration debate.”
One of my church assignments is to serve as the advisor for a Spanish-speaking ward (congregation) in Santa Monica. It is by far the most spiritual ward in our stake (= diocese), and many of its leaders are currently undocumented. However, whatever their legal status may be, their status in the church is clearly defined in the New Testament: “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19). There is no distinction made between members who hold green cards and those who don’t; both are called to serve in the church.
I spent two years enforcing U.S. immigration law as a U.S. diplomat in the consular section of the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara, Mexico. I issued (and denied) tens of thousands of visas as I developed a great deal of love and compassion for Mexicans. I still regard Mexico as my second home (though the worsening security situation makes it less likely that I will be going home in the near future). After visiting dozens of small towns whose young men are all in the States, you can’t help but develop a there-but-for-the-grace-of-God outlook on things. If I had been born in Yahualica, Jalisco, I would probably be in the U.S. right now looking for opportunities, regardless of my legal status. If 110 million Slovenes had lived south of our border and 10 million north of it in 1908, my great-grandmother would have done the same thing.
I believe that discussion of this issue by Latter-day Saints and Jews should avoid extremist positions on either side. Words have meanings: people who come to this country to work hard and improve their lot in life are not “criminals” for breaking an immigration law. Unless illegal immigrants are committing serious crimes, they are not criminals, and we would do well to avoid demonizing them. An oft-repeated Jewish theme is the religious obligation to show kindness to strangers: “Thou shalt not vex a stranger, nor oppress him, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Ex. 22:21), “Love ye therefore the stranger” (Lev. 10:19). On the other hand, Latter-day Saints definitely believe in the rule of law: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land” (D&C 58:21), “We believe in…obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Twelfth Article of Faith). A Jewish equivalent would be the Talmudic principle of dina d’malchuta dina (“the law of the kingdom is the law”). It is obscene to label those who support
stronger immigration enforcement at a state level as racists, Nazis, or advocates of apartheid (charges that have been leveled by public figures in recent days). The recently-passed Arizona immigration law (sponsored by a Mormon legislator) targets people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants, not citizens or legal residents. By way of contrast, the Nazis threw millions of their citizens into ghettos, concentration camps, gas chambers, and crematoria. Apartheid stripped millions of black South Africans of their citizenship, confined them to “homelands” in their own country, and required them to have special passes to live and work among
whites. There is no comparison whatsoever between any immigration law in this country and Nazism or apartheid, and advocates of increased immigration enforcement deserve to have their concerns addressed in a respectful manner. I was glad to see the Simon Wiesenthal Center and ADL publicly denounce these ill-considered Holocaust references, which have no place in this debate.
In the “true confessions” department, I must admit to having walked in the illegals’ shoes, at least for a summer. Following a study-abroad semester in Moscow, Russia, I arrived in Gorizia, Italy, eager to start a promised summer internship at a local bank. However, I soon found out that the slot had been given to a local business student whose father had leaned on the bank president. My visa was canceled and I suddenly had no way to earn the money necessary to purchase my flight home. I made my way to Milan, where I frantically looked for work. By the grace of God and with the help of friends I knew from my prior missionary service in Italy, I landed a job at a Milanese trade journal whose kind owner, Ercole Ciaglia, let me stay in one of his apartments during the summer and paid me enough money for the ticket to Detroit. Needless to say, I worked for three months illegally. Had I been caught, I would have been deported. Was I a “criminal” for doing this? Hardly. Would the Italian police have been justified in asking me for ID if they had stopped me for another infraction and suspected that I was in the country illegally (à la the Arizona law)? You betcha.
Based on my life experiences so far, I have a sneaking suspicion that the Father of us all probably cares less about where His children live than how they treat each other. Shabbat shalom.
May 26, 2010 | 1:46 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel
After speaking to a bright, enthusiastic group of Mormon college students last year in Oslo, Norway, I visited one of the many cafés on Karl Johans Street near the Parliament building. There were few seats available, and before long a trio of comely Oslovians asked if they could sit with me. This was not a terribly hard decision to make. After we placed our orders, I asked them about their lives in Norway. When it was my turn to share, I told them that I worked for a Jewish organization. When they asked which one, I answered “Zionist Organization of America.” Judging from their expressions, you’d have thought that I strangled puppies for a living. One of them moved her chair back a few inches. When I asked her what was wrong, she stammered, “You’re actually a…Zionist?!?!” I said I was, and then asked her what she knew about Zionism. Her answer floored me: “I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it’s bad.” Drawing on my experience as a press attaché at an Israeli consulate, I led them in a discussion of Zionism, Israel, and the media in Scandinavia. By the time we said our goodbyes, two of them had declared themselves to be Zionists, and the chair-mover had acknowledged that Zionists were not as bad as she had thought. [I try to avoid shameless plugs on this blog, but if the Government of Israel should ever need a PR person to speak to Scandinavian women about Zionism and Israel, I have experience and am willing to sacrifice for the cause].
Of course, Norwegians are not the only ones who ask Mormons about Zionism. Israel is central to Judaism in a way that makes the two inseparable. Sooner or later, Jews will ask their non-Jewish friends what they think about Israel. Regardless of how much you love and appreciate Jewish culture, values, food, delis, music, or liturgy, Jews do not fully understand how you feel about them and their faith until they know how you feel about the Jewish state. Avoiding the question is like answering an expectant son who wants to know what you think of his new fiancée by telling him that she has nice hair, dresses well, has a lovely voice, etc. Until he knows what you think of her as a person, he can’t know how you really feel about her.
Mormons should certainly welcome this question. The modern incarnation of our Church has been on the earth for 180 years; no other church that has been around at least that long has a comparable record of continuous support for the Jewish people. Indeed, Israel is the only country in the world whose creation was officially supported by the LDS Church. From its earliest days, the Church has called on Jews to gather to Palestine and form a state. The first edition of the first Church newspaper announced that it “comes to bring good tidings of great joy to all people, but more especially to the House of Israel scattered abroad, for the Lord hath set His hand again the second time to restore them to the lands of their inheritance.” In response to an article entitled “What Do Mormons Believe?” written by a newspaper editor, an 1834 article in a Church newspaper stated: “We believe that God has set His hand to recover the remnant of His people, Israel; and that the time is near when He will bring them from the four winds and reinstate them upon their own lands which He gave their fathers by covenant.” Orson Hyde, a prominent early apostle, traveled to Europe in 1841 to warn European Jewish leaders to flee to Palestine in order to escape an inevitable catastrophe (unfortunately, they ignored his warnings). He then went to Palestine, which he dedicated for the gathering of the Jews. In his dedicatory prayer (the first of at least 11 recorded apostolic blessings given in the Holy Land), Elder Hyde made the following request of God for the scattered children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: “Let the land become abundantly fruitful when possessed by its rightful heirs.” At the dedication of our first temple in 1836, the President of the Church asked that “the children of Judah may begin to return to the lands which thou didst give to Abraham, their father.” Following the establishment of Israel, the Church purchased thousands of dollars of Israel bonds. Church President David O.McKay clarified that the purchase was made “to show our sympathy with the effort being made to establish the Jews in their homeland.” The Church has maintained cordial relations with the Government of Israel since 1948, and the Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles regularly meets with Church leaders in Salt Lake City.
When asked about Israel, many Mormons immediately volunteer that their Church is “neutral” when it comes to the Jewish state (and all other countries, for that matter). This answer is half-right. To be sure, the LDS Church does not take positions on political conflicts anywhere in the world, including the Middle East, and Mormons are free to support or oppose any countries, political parties or candidates they choose. I fully support this policy of neutrality, which I believe to be inspired. However, history unequivocally shows that the LDS Church was NOT neutral on the question of whether there should be a Jewish state in Palestine: it supported what became “Zionism” decades before Theodore Herzl drew his first breath. Any discussion of Israel between Mormons and Jews is incomplete without this acknowledgment.
The active LDS outreach to Muslims worldwide is laudable, and has nothing to do with this discussion. After all, one can love Muslims, respect Islam, support the creation of a Palestinian state, criticize Israel, and still be an ardent Zionist. As every Jew knows, there are many Israelis who do all of those things. Any Mormon who feels uncomfortable describing himself as a Zionist probably does not use the classical, historical, dictionary definition that appears above. He may believe (incorrectly) that Zionists can’t criticize Israel (in which case, there would be no Zionists in Israel!), hate Arabs, want to expel Palestinians from the West Bank, etc. People can define Zionism any way they wish, but I prefer to keep the historical definition, the one that moved Herzl and other European Jewish leaders to embark on an experiment that has changed the world for the better. As Mormon-Jewish friendships continue to blossom, I anticipate that more people will become aware of our Zionist history. As my friends in Oslo would say, that’s not such a bad thing after all.
May 24, 2010 | 11:57 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
While shopping for gifts at the Mitzvah Store a few months ago, I had the good fortune to run into Elaine Hall, the bubbly, charming director of Nes Gadol (“Great Miracle”), an innovative program at Vista Del Mar that provides religious education for autistic children. As the proud uncle of a wonderful autistic boy, my admiration for the Elaine Halls of the world is unbounded. After helping me to pick out the perfect gift for a naming ceremony, she invited me to attend “The Moses-Aaron Cooperative,” a Shavuot-themed program that allows five children to share Torah insights with the help of “Aarons,” named after the brother and spokesman of Moses. I learned long ago to follow inspired women, and knew I had to go.
Yesterday my search for spirituality in Judaism reached a new level. I was simply overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and acceptance in Vista Del Mar’s synagogue. Under the direction of charismatic Rabbi Jackie Redner, the program began with two songs by the multiethnic choir of Vista Del Mar, followed by an enlightening video on the use of assisted communication with the students. This method involves having the student either point to a letter board or type the words on a computer in order to communicate. I was especially touched by a video clip that showed the teachers’ efforts to help one of the students pronounce the first sentence of the Torah—in Hebrew.
Now that the stage was set, the stars made their entrance. The first student was Ido Kedar, who is currently preparing for his bar mitzvah. I hope he becomes a rabbi someday. I wanted to stand and cheer aftrer reading these pearls from his teaching: “...our suffering leads to calming hope through our love in God” and “The truth is that much of what people say is meaningless.” Ido then answered questions with the help of a letter board. Ido was followed by Neal Katz, whose insightful teaching should be framed and hung in every Jewish home: “To be Jewish is to take the Torah as the word of G-d and live your life as G-d has said. The people of G-d live by the Torah.” Amen to that.
My tear ducts opened up when I read the writings of student Dov Shestack: “My dream is to talk” and “I think I please God the way I am.” Fellow student Carly Fleischmann touched on the role of religion by asking, “Shouldn’t religion be meaningful in our daily lives?” She ended her teaching with this powerful statement: “My name is Carly Fleischmann and I’m proud to be a Jew.” Carly, I’m proud that you’re a Jew, too.
Last—but certainly not least—was Jacob Artson, who plans to become a writer and teacher. His twin sister Shira served as his “Myriam,” and through her mouth we learned from Jacob that “Our lives are not determined by where we start” and “Being aware of God’s presence in our lives means being aware of God’s abundant blessings.” I’ve sat through many synagogue sermons, and have yet to hear one that was as motivating and enlightening as the teachings of these inspiring young people. It was a great blessing for me to hear their messages, and as I drove away from Vista Del Mar I meditated on these sobering words from the Mormon hymn “Count Your Blessings”:
So, amid the conflict,
Whether great or small,
Do not be discouraged,
God is over all;
Count your many blessings,
Angels will attend,
Help and comfort give you
To your journey’s end.
Count your blessings,
Name them one by one;
Count your blessings,
See what God hath done.
May 21, 2010 | 10:31 am
Posted by Mark Paredes
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s royalty checks are about to get bigger. He invited me to speak with him at his Synagogue for the Performing Arts a few years ago, and I’ve been a big fan ever since. His books “Words That Hurt, Words That Heal” and “Why the Jews?” (co-authored with Dennis Prager) should be in every LDS bookstore. I’m currently devouring the first volume of “A Code of Jewish Ethics,” which explains in a comprehensive way why Judaism is such a beautiful, compassionate religion. What’s not to like about a faith that views wasting other people’s time as a serious ethical offense? There’s material for 1,000 sermons in the book, and I’m going to give it to everyone on my holiday gift list.
However, as much as I enjoy exploring Jewish ethical codes with a master teacher, what I like best about Judaism involves the hands, not the head. As I read this week’s Torah portion (Naso), which includes the priestly blessing (Birkat Kohanim) given to the children of Israel, I was reminded of my ongoing search for spirituality in Judaism. Invariably, it leads me to the sabbath table. The most tender moments I have witnessed involve the blessing of children by their father. I have to stop myself from tearing up, in a way that perhaps only the childless can appreciate, when I see a father call his children to him, lay his hands on their heads, and pronounce upon them the blessings of biblical patriarchs and matriarchs before kissing them. Sometimes the prayers are rushed, other times they are slowly enunciated, but they’re always beautiful. I will never forget the act of kindness recently extended to me by Michael Naim, an architect and prominent member of LA’s Persian Orthodox community. After blessing his daughter, he called me over and gave me a blessing as well! If I am ever fortunate enough to become a father, I plan to join hundreds of thousands of Jewish households worldwide in invoking God’s blessings on my children every week.
I am also moved by the semicha ceremony for graduating rabbis, especially when the tallit (prayer shawl) is draped over the rabbi’s shoulders by his teacher. In the ceremony for Reform rabbis at Hebrew Union College, the teacher then places his hands on the new rabbi and pronounces a personal blessing upon him. The Conservative American Jewish University performs the blessings in a private ceremony. I can’t think of a better way to begin a lifetime of service to the Jewish community than with a personal laying on of hands by inspired teachers.
For me, the blessing of babies in the LDS Church provides the most spirit-filled moments in our worship. Fathers who hold the higher priesthood (named after Melchizedek, the ancient King of Salem who blessed Abraham - Genesis 14:18-20, Psalms 110:4), together with other invited priesthood holders, form a circle in front of the congregation and place their hands underneath the baby as the father gives him a name and invokes God’s blessings upon him. Additional father’s blessings can be given to children at any time (in private, usually at home), and are often sought at the beginning of a school year and prior to embarking on major life journeys (e.g., college, marriage, employment). Hands are also used to heal the sick, bless members who are called to serve in callings (volunteer positions) in their congregations, and ordain worthy men to the priesthood. Indeed, one point of commonality in our two faiths is the importance of lines of authority for the laying on of hands. For semicha, the line of ordination is traced back to Moses; in the LDS Church, the priesthood line of authority is traced back to God through Jesus or John the Baptist, depending on which order of priesthood one bears.
If you’re looking for a topic for a Jewish-LDS theological dialogue, the role of the hands in worship is a no-brainer. Priesthood, authority, semicha, kohanim, blessings—it’s all there. Try to imagine a Birkat Kohanim without outstretched arms and separated fingers and you’ll realize how inextricably linked the hands are to blessings. A good scripture to frame the discussion might be “And Israel stretched out his right hand, and laid it upon Ephraim’s head” (Gen. 48:14). If you know anything about Mormon theology, that sentence alone could launch a whole series of Jewish-LDS dialogues.
Be sure to bless your children this evening. Shabbat shalom.
In the spirit of promoting mutual understanding through dialogue, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and I will hold a discussion this evening at the shabbat service of Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, CA. Knowing Rabbi Jeret, his questions will be both thoughtful and direct. The public is invited. Time: 6:15 p.m. Address: 5721 Crestridge Road. Phone: 310-377-6986.
May 18, 2010 | 4:42 pm
Posted by Mark Paredes
I don’t know how many non-Jewish organizations at Columbia held a Passover seder this year, but the
LDS Institute did. With Israel Apartheid Weeks observed amid calls for boycotts, sanctions,
and divestment targeting the Jewish state, it’s increasingly difficult to be a Jewish student on major college
campuses today. Having spoken at universities in several states, I’m as concerned as anyone over the
rise in anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the world of academia. It took Yoram Gutman, the
Executive Director of LA’s Israel Festival, to help me realize that a great outreach stone for
Jewish students has been left largely unturned.
Although I have emceed the festival’s VIP ceremony for three years, Yoram somehow just found
out last month that I was a Mormon. During our phone conversation, he recalled that the Mormon
students at UC Berkeley, his alma mater, were the only ones who supported the Jewish students on
campus when they were attacked. Thanks to the kindness of those students, Yoram has
retained a positive image of Mormons to this day and graciously invited the Church to
set up a booth at this year’s festival.
The LDS Church has hundreds of Institutes, or Mormon Hillels, around
the world. Institute directors are either professional teachers within
the Church Educational System or retired couples who are asked to
volunteer their time. Almost all of the Institutes offer Old
Testament, Comparative Religions, and/or other classes with Jewish
content. Rabbis have lectured in Institute classes, and some
Institutes hold Passover seders. I recall a memorable lecture by the
Institute director at the University of Texas, where I attended law
school. Randal Wright began an Old Testament lesson by stating that
Jews were God’s covenant people, and ended by saying “we stand with
Institute directors around the world express similar sentiments. Knut
and Hilde Rade are a wonderful couple from Hamburg, Germany, who
are the Institute directors in Lund, Sweden. I met them during a
speaking tour last year that took me to Malmö, a city whose council infamously banned
spectators at last year’s Davis Cup tennis match between Israel and
Sweden. Following my speech, the Rades contacted the local
Jewish community. After several visits, the couple and their students
received permission to work in the local Jewish cemetery. They have
taken the students to clear away weeds on several occasions, and have two more visits scheduled
before they return home in July. Knut told me that one of the highlights of their
stay in Sweden was a visit to the synagogue for an evening of kosher
food and Israeli folk dancing.
Closer to home, the lucky Institute students at Santa Monica College are taught by Dr. Gary P. McBride
and his lovely wife Leisel. Dr. McBride has a Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Counseling,
while Leisel obtained an M.A. in Near Eastern Studies with an emphasis
in Biblical Hebrew while raising their six children. The Arizona
natives’ love affair with Israel began in 1975, when they were invited
by the Church to tour the Holy Land. They both said that landing in
Israel was like coming home. Since the Church required teachers who led student groups to
Israel to have some expertise in the Middle East, the McBrides
enrolled in an Arabic class. Leisel also enrolled in two intensive
Hebrew classes, both of which involved an 80-mile daily commute. In
1983 their family was invited by the Church to live on the Ramat
Rachel kibbutz for 6 months. Following their stay in
Israel, the McBrides began leading yearly tours to the country
(their last one was in 2008). Hundreds of students benefited from
their wisdom during the two years they spent serving as Assistant
Directors of BYU’s Jerusalem Center on Mt. Scopus (1998-2000). In
their free time, the McBrides give lectures on the Holy Land. When I
left their office, they were considering which photo book of Jerusalem
to buy as a farewell gift for their Institute volunteer, Beverly
Eastland, a woman who hosts annual seders for hundreds of LDS students and young singles.
Hillel directors would do well to actively seek out the Randall
Wrights, Rades, and McBrides on campus. While
Institute directors cannot involve
themselves in political disputes, they can help to strengthen ties
between our two communities and lessen the isolation Jewish students
sometimes feel on campus. Does your Hillel rabbi lecture at Institute
classes? Does your Hillel invite Institute students to your Passover
seders? How about a lively Jewish-Mormon Purim party? Could your
synagogue invite the McBrides to speak at a luncheon? With any luck,
hundreds of Yoram Gutmans will be populating Jewish communities of the
future because wise Hillel directors forged ties with their Institute colleagues.
Hag sameach to all of my Jewish friends who are celebrating Shavuot.