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backman-lg.jpgRabbi Backman is a participating columnist on the Glendale News Press, the La Cañada Valley Sun and the Burbank Leader weekly feature "In Theory". Below are some of his recent columns.

The above mentioned Times Community Papers are delivered daily with the Los Angeles Times. Copies can also be obtained free of charge at a number of newspaper stands throughout the city.



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April 15, 2012

Is Society Losing Its Manners?

Question:America is getting ruder. That's the opinion of several writers and bloggers, and they're backed up by a Rasmussen Report survey that says 76% of Americans believe the nation is becoming less civilized. A similar study by Weber Shandwick says 65% of respondents believe there is a major problem with civility in the U.S.

Writing on NPR.com, Linton Weeks berates the fact that fewer people seem to be using basic pleasantries such as "please" and "thank you," and say "no problem," "sure," or "you bet" instead of the traditional "you're welcome." Weeks quotes Lisa Gache, the co-founder of Beverley Hills Manners, who blames today's casual attitudes for the decrease in manners. "Casual conversation, casual dress and casual behavior have hijacked practically all areas of life, and I do not think it is doing anyone a service," says Gache.

Blogger Greg Smith, a psychiatrist, puts some of the blame on technology. "It has become easier to fire off a quick email... than to purposefully sit down and compose, pen and mail a thank-you note," he says as an example. He also cites the fact that many people are glued to their cell phones, MP3 players and tablets even while at work and seem to have no time to engage in conversation with a "real" person. Other suggested reasons include the stresses of modern life, the coarsening of political discourse, and TV and movies.

Is society losing its manners?

Answer:Few people would argue with the assertion that our society is noticeably losing its manners -- but I would not blame this trend on new technology, the stresses of modern life, or the acceptance of casual dress standards. In my view, those are all simply excuses for bad behavior that avoid its root cause. The truth is far more difficult to face, and hits home in a profound way: I believe America’s decline in manners is a direct result of our decreasing educational and parenting standards.

Education levels and behavior have a very strong correlation, and shortcomings in one sphere will certainly affect the other. It’s a well-documented fact that many public school systems across the nation are graduating students without a solid education (thankfully, Glendale and La Cañada Unified are exceptions). Many of today’s teachers and their union representatives frequently protest their pay scale; I have yet to see them demonstrate over the failing results and the appalling conditions of their schools.

Regarding parenting, the trend of avoiding any discipline and letting children “find their own way” seems to be gaining ground at an alarming rate. The fact is that children need to be instructed how to behave; they are not born with behavior manuals pinned to their backs. They need parents who are engaged and consistent in setting proper expectations.

The net result of these twin failings in our society is a generation of young people that contains many narcissists -- self-involved youths who think that everything will be served to them on a silver platter, and who don’t have the skills necessary to get ahead in life. We really should not be shocked when they don’t say “please,” “thank you,” or exhibit traditional manners.

It’s high time that we recognize our shortcomings and work together to create an environment where basic manners are emphasized. If we fail to reverse this trend, I fear it will have a strongly negative impact on the character of America. Once they are lost, courtesy and etiquette are hard to restore.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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April 1, 2012

Should marijuana be legalized?

Q. Televangelist Pat Robertson has raised some eyebrows recently by calling for marijuana to be legalized. In an interview, Robertson said, "I really believe we should treat marijuana the way we treat beverage alcohol... this war on drugs just hasn’t succeeded."

He argues that legalizing marijuana will reduce soaring jail numbers and reduce financial costs "Prisons are being overcrowded with juvenile offenders having to do with drugs. And the penalties, the maximums, some of them could get 10 years for possession of a joint of marijuana," he said. He also said he supports ballots in Colorado and Washington to legalize the drug.

Robertson has been attacked by William J. Bennett, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush. Writing for CNN, he said that legalizing pot will only mean that more people will use it, and that Robertson's comments on the jail population are wrong and ill-informed. Bennett also said that alcohol abuse among teens is a more pressing issue than marijuana because alcohol is legal and therefore easier to purchase.

Should marijuana be legalized?

Many studies over the years have shown that, especially among our youth, smoking marijuana often leads to experimentation with more potent drugs like heroin and cocaine. While pot in and of itself may seem harmless to some people, in reality it can serve as a gateway drug that introduces users to far more dangerous substances -- which in turn lead to serious struggles with abuse and addiction. As a nation, America is already grappling with a severe addiction problem, and therefore I believe we should be very wary of legalizing marijuana.

Other than for medical reasons and treating pain, I feel that mind-altering substances should be avoided. I can understand moderate drinking in social settings, but anything more than that can be dangerous. Alcohol is the most abused substance of all in our society, and undoubtedly every one of us knows someone who has faced serious health issues as a result of heavy drinking -- not to mention the havoc alcoholism brings to marriages, careers, and family relationships.

A cornerstone of religious life is positive interaction with family and friends, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol can only hinder the growth of healthy relationships. I would suggest that instead of trying to facilitate marijuana use among juveniles, Mr. Robertson should spearhead a new spiritual initiative which would provide our young people with purpose and meaning, and help them understand how vitally important it is to stay clean and sober.

If I had to offer a critique on America's war on drugs, I might recommend that we place a greater emphasis on preventive education and treatment/rehabilitation -- so that we focus more on reducing demand rather than simply limiting supply. But in any case, I feel that an effort to legalize marijuana, which so often becomes a stepping-stone to other drugs, is misguided. Pat Robertson's comments may be well intentioned, but I strongly disagree with his position on this issue.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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March 25, 2012

Are Synagogues Singling out the Single?

There are more single people in America now than at any time in the nation's history — according to the 2010 U.S. census, almost 44% of adults are unmarried — and some writers claim that synagogues are too slow to adapt to the growing number.

These include an emphasis on family- and marriage-oriented sermons and events; an assumption by married congregants that singles have more time and can give more help with events; and a feeling of being expected to get married as soon as possible.

Another problem synagogues face is that the singles demographic includes so many diverse groups — never married, divorced, widowed, senior, college grads, singles with children, and single professionals — that the synagogue simply doesn't know how to handle them and lumps them all in together. Compare this to rabbis and other religious leaders who by biblical precedent are usually men who've been married to the same women forever, and you can see right away how there's a cultural disconnect.”

Are synagogues doing enough to attract, keep and minister to singles?

I am a strong advocate of providing spiritual services for all people, regardless of their station in life such as their marriage status. As religious leaders, we have a moral obligation to reach out and embrace all those who seek guidance and deeper meaning. We must not wait for people to conform to a particular lifestyle before they feel welcome and comfortable entering our houses of worship.

However, this is sometimes easier said than done. The truth is that many religious organizations are underfunded and overtasked with providing services for the community. Combine that reality with a mentality that is often outdated and not ready to deal with contemporary trends, and you’ll inevitably have many people falling through the cracks.

The solution ultimately lies in involving as many people as possible in the decision-making process of our organizations. Although instinct might dictate that governing boards should be kept small in order to be effective, it nevertheless behooves us to include people who represent various lifestyles when planning events and structuring worship services to ensure that we’re inclusive of those who might otherwise feel disenfranchised.

I’m often surprised at the willingness of individuals to roll up their sleeves and help -- they only need to be asked. It’s true that most of us are terribly busy, and time is a precious commodity whether one is married or single. I encourage all those who would like to see spiritual growth to say “yes” when approached by a religious leader -- both for much-needed funds and for actual physical assistance. If you are not approached, take the initiative and lead the charge to support your local house of worship. You will be amazed at how well you’ll be received.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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March 18, 2012

The United States as Middle East Peacemaker

Following President Obama's recent speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's (AIPAC) 2012 Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., a writer has taken America to task for attempting to broker peace in the Middle East while giving continued support to Israel.

In an article headlined "Why the United States has no moral credibility as a peacemaker," Omid Safi likens America to a biased referee who tells one team, "I want you to know that you and I share an unbreakable bond. If you are ever behind, I am going to jump in, and protect you. If you commit a foul, I am going to waive off those fouls."

Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, goes on to point out that the U.S. has given billions of dollars in financial aid and military hardware, vetoed several United Nations resolutions against Israel, but still considers itself to be the only nation capable of achieving peace between Israel and Palestinians.

Safi's view is countermanded by Sam Lane, managing editor at The Daily Iowan. In an opinion piece headlined "United States is right to provide foreign aid to Israel," Lane states how he felt skeptical about America's aid to Israel, asking, "Why spend more than $3 billion in foreign aid to Israel instead of other nations? Why should we be even considering engaging in a conflict with Iran during such a difficult economic time at home?" But after listening to speakers at the AIPAC conference, including Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Lane changed his mind. "The U.S. must continue to show support for Israel, not for the purpose of spreading democracy but to protect it in a state where a democratic way of life faces fire from neighboring countries daily," he says in the article.

Can America act as peacemaker between Israel and Palestinians while giving unequivocal support to Israel?

Of course the United States can -- and should -- act as a peacemaker in the Middle East and at the same time offer unwavering support to Israel. These two roles are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it could be argued that America’s strong bond with Israel helps enable that small country surrounded by hostile neighbors to feel secure enough to enter into a real dialogue.

America’s role as Mideast peacemaker is due to our proven track record of forging a major agreement between the nations of Egypt and Israel -- and our distinction of being the only superpower in the world today. Our influence and strength have allowed us to bring opposing sides to the table and create a climate where serious negotiations are possible. No other country is capable of doing this, because no other country has quite the same clout and network of deep relationships with parties from all sides.

America’s unequivocal support of Israel is due to the simple fact that as a nation, we share Judeo-Christian moral and ethical values with no country in the Middle East but Israel. Like the United States, the Jewish State stands out as a beacon of democracy, human rights, and liberty for all its citizens, regardless of race, religion, color, or creed. These principles cannot be found in any other country in the area. Does Israel occasionally fall short of its lofty ideals? Of course -- as in every democracy, there are still flaws and room for improvement. Nevertheless, the nation stands in an entirely different category from the brutal dictatorships and repressive monarchies that characterize the rest of the region.

Inevitably, people who are uniformed -- or who refuse to become informed -- will argue that America should not support a country that is “discriminatory” or is “occupying” land belonging to Arabs. The fallacy of these arguments is self-evident. The fact is that Israel affords its Arab residents -- who comprise 20% of its population -- full citizenship and the right to participate in every aspect of society. There are 14 Arabs in the Israeli Parliament, making decisions for all its citizens, and there is also an Arab member of the Israeli Supreme Court. Does that sound discriminatory?

There is also much misinformation regarding the occupation. Israel came into possession of the Occupied Territories after its victory in the 1967 Six Day War, when every Arab nation in the Middle East attacked the tiny country in a coordinated campaign to annihilate her. Israel’s subsequent attempts to vacate occupied lands in 2000 and 2005 only brought the enemy closer to her borders and resulted in tens of thousands of rockets being fired into civilian centers and causing horrific terror. Most Israelis do not think occupation is a good idea, but having rockets rain down on Tel Aviv or Jerusalem is far worse.

Ultimately, there are two issues that -- more so than all others -- stand in the way of peace. As of today, the Palestinians have refused to abandon terrorism or accept Israel’s sovereignty and right to exist as a Jewish homeland. I am certain that if the Palestinian people reject violence and fully accept a neighboring Jewish state there will be peace. Most Americans fully understand this indisputable truth, and therefore provide strong support to Israel, which over time has proven to be our most trustworthy friend and stable ally in the Middle East.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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March 11, 2012

Does Religion Make You Healthy and Happy?

Q. A poll has discovered that Americans who describe themselves as "very religious" have a higher all-round wellbeing than others. The survey, conducted by Gallup, ties in with others the organization has conducted that found very religious people have an overall healthier life than those who are moderately religious or not religious.

Generally speaking, those in the very religious category smoke less, eat less and exercise more. They also report better mental and emotional health. When broken down into the different indexes Gallup uses for its definition of "wellbeing," those classed as very religious top all categories which include emotional health, healthy behaviors, life evaluation and work environment.

If there's one thing about religion that adds to a sense of overall wellbeing, what is it?

Religious values instill within us a strong conviction that we are not in full control of everything that happens around us. While we can definitely shape the course of life through our actions, our fate is ultimately determined by a higher authority -- namely, God. Everyone wants to be successful, find prominence in their domain, and be able to comfortably sustain themselves and their families. But what happens when these goals are not attained? It is at these junctions in life that religion provides us with a measure of hope and deeper meaning -- enabling us to refocus on our priorities, recognize what is truly important, and persevere.

Simon Ben Zoma, a Jewish sage of the Second Century, encapsulates this concept beautifully. He writes: Who is wise? One who learns from every person. Who is a strong? One who overpowers his evil inclination. Who is wealthy? One who is satisfied with his lot. Who is honorable? One who honors others.

Judaism and other religions emphasize that while we cannot fully control what happens to us in life, we can definitely decide to respond positively to the challenges that come our way by recognizing that happiness can be attained in many ways. A sense of meaning and satisfaction is often found in unlikely places -- all it takes is determination and spiritual focus.

I truly believe that it’s this realization that helps religious believers cope with everyday stresses and even extraordinary hardships. Those who are not fortunate to have spiritual direction are sometimes overwhelmed by the difficult realities of life, and their health and emotions are therefore negatively affected.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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March 4, 2012

Concern Regarding a President's Religious Beliefs

Q. Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum is having to defend comments he made about President Obama's religion. Speaking in Ohio recently, Santorum said that although he accepted the president's Christianity, he believed Obama adhered to "some phony theology. Not a theology based on the Bible. A different theology." When questioned on CBS' "Face The Nation," Santorum said that the comment had more to do with global warming and the environment, saying, "I accept the fact that the president's a Christian. I just said that when you have a worldview that elevates the Earth above man... this is just all an attempt to centralize power, to give more power to the government."

Santorum's remark was backed up by evangelical leader Franklin Graham. In an appearance on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" show, Graham said, "“[Obama] has said he’s a Christian, so I just have to assume that he is.” Graham added that Obama told him that he only began attending church out of political expediency. “You have to go by what a person says and how they live their life and where they go to church. Are they faithful church-goers? Or do they just go when the cameras are on them,” he said.

Is the current President's religion a cause for concern? Or were Santorum and Graham's remarks electioneering?

When choosing an individual to hold the highest office in the land, I believe it’s appropriate for a voter to consider the candidate’s ethical bearing and general regard for religion; however, we should not be concerned with his or her specific religious affiliation or denomination. A candidate for president should certainly respect religion and spiritual beliefs, and must be committed to protecting the core moral values that made our nation great. However, Article VI of the Constitution explicitly declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States” -- and those are wise words.

Sadly, what we are witnessing in the recent remarks of Senator Santorum and Reverend Graham is grandstanding and religious posturing of the highest order. Almost all of the candidates are guilty of this in one way or another, and I often wonder if this is a primary campaign or a referendum on religious adherence. The rhetoric can get so outlandish that I don’t know whether to take offense or laugh at the absurdity.

It is high time we get past the accusations, innuendo, and petty “holier than thou” bickering and focus on the real issues facing this nation. Although we’re hopefully seeing the light at the end of the tunnel for America’s economic woes, these problems are far from over and we might slip backward at any moment. Overseas, we must confront continuing military challenges in Afghanistan, plus the fanatical leaders of Iran seem determined to develop a nuclear weapon -- which could present a true nightmare scenario. And hard choices remain on a host of other subjects ranging from the national debt to affordable healthcare.

With so many pressing challenges on the table, I think we should simply agree that from a religious standpoint all of the candidates, including President Obama, are fully qualified since they all respect religion and are committed to safekeeping our freedom of worship.

Now, can we all please get back to reality and debate the real issues?

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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February 26, 2012

Can Religion and Secularism Coexist?

Q. Britain is in the midst of a heated debate on the role of religion in public life, with parties split into those who believe faith plays too big a role and those who feel the country is being taken over by a “militant secularism.” The arguments have deepened in recent weeks after two court cases--one against the owners of a hotel who refused to allow a gay couple to take a double room and the other where Bideford Town Council was banned from holding prayers before meetings--garnered international attention.

The case for religion has been taken up by Baroness Warsi, a Muslim member of the House of Lords and chairman of the ruling Conservative Party. Warsi, who led a ministerial delegation to Rome to meet the Pope, wrote in an article for The Daily Telegraph newspaper, “You cannot and should not extract these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes" and went on to compare what she calls "militant secularism" to totalitarian regimes. Warsi emphasizes that she is not calling for a theocracy, but an environment where religious and secular agencies can work together.

Secularists claim that they are not trying to destroy religion in Britain, but to level the playing field. The National Secular Society, which backed the court case against Bideford, said in a tweet, "Secularism seeks to ensure & protect freedom of religious belief & practice for *all* citizens. Challenging privilege is not anti-religious." The NSS's director, Keith Porteous Wood, added, "This judgment is an important victory for everyone who wants a secular society, one that neither advantages nor disadvantages people because of their religion or lack of it."

Can religion and secularism coexist, or will there always be friction?

While there may always a hint of friction between the two views, I definitely think that religion and secularism can coexist in a free society. In order to achieve a more harmonious balance, however, we will need people at the negotiating table who are serious about respecting those with different opinions. Unfortunately, this ideal situation is far from a reality -- and judging from the current political atmosphere in most Western countries, does not seem likely to materialize any time soon. The sad fact is that both sides of this debate are entrenched in their way of thinking and don’t seem ready to reach across the aisle and compromise.

For example, Keith Porteous Wood of Britain's National Secular Society claims to want to “level the playing field” for all of England’s citizens by banning prayers from town council meetings. What he is really doing is imposing the will of a small minority onto the majority, who appreciate religious values and approve of non-denominational prayers in the halls of government. Equally disturbing is the trend of religious extremists attempting to force adherence to their particular beliefs onto the general population without any sensitivity for those who don’t practice as they do.

Today, there are so many challenges to the stability of our democratic societies. We face bitter political partisanship at all levels of government, continuing financial uncertainty on multiple fronts, plus the ever-present menace of terrorism -- including a potentially devastating nuclear threat from Iran, the grand master of terrorist entities. Taking all these factors into account, I think that we all need to pause, take a deep breath, and tone down the vitriol when discussing matters of religion and its proper role. It is high time that we look beyond our differences and minimize this kind of infighting; I feel strongly that we should focus on our common goals and shared values as we address the pressing issues that present such danger and instability to our world.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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February 19, 2012

Spirituality Testing in the Military

A group of U.S. Army soldiers and officers is fighting against a spiritual fitness test, a computerized survey that is mandatory for all Army members. Those surveyed are asked to rate their responses to statements such as, "I am a spiritual person. I believe that in some way my life is closely connected to all of humanity. I often find comfort in my religion and spiritual beliefs," or, "In difficult times, I pray or meditate." The test then ranks their emotional, social, family and spiritual “fitness.”

Army Sgt. Justin Griffith has come to attention for leading the charge to alter the test. He and other protesters--some atheist, others religious -- point out that an individual's beliefs or lack of beliefs have no impact on his or her abilities as a soldier, and some are worried that "failing" the survey could count against them when it comes to being considered for promotion. They also claim that the description "spiritual" may as well be code for "Christian."

Should the military be testing the "spirituality" of its soldiers?

The military is right to be concerned about the mental health of individuals who have been -- or could be -- exposed to the pressures of combat. A significant number of our men and women in uniform undergo experiences that can lead to depression, post-traumatic stress, and other emotional wounds; therefore, it is important that we take these issues seriously and provide the best possible support to those who serve. However, the Army’s computerized “spiritual fitness” test does not sound appropriate to me, and I don’t feel it’s wise to administer this kind of test to either current or potential service members.

We can all agree that our armed forces must be comprised of individuals capable of protecting our country and safeguarding its interests. A significant measure of a person’s ability to serve in the military is his or her mental condition. As such, it’s incumbent upon the Army to ensure that those who wear the uniform are not only physically fit, but also possess a sound mind and character.

For this reason, I believe it’s appropriate to administer tests to gauge one’s mental health. And I would find it acceptable if one or two test questions pertained to spiritual inclinations, since this can sometimes indicate an individual’s psychological disposition. However, a separate test focused specifically on “spiritual fitness”
that probes one’s religious beliefs and practices is, in my opinion, entirely out of place.

The modern U.S. military stands out as an institution of tremendous diversity, where individuals of many cultures, races, and religious beliefs converge for the one purpose of protecting our great country.
We must ensure that the military remains hospitable for all by being respectful of differing beliefs, and by providing equal treatment to every person who takes up the noble calling of service.

The Army’s “spiritual fitness” exam may be well-intentioned, but it cannot be considered a fair indicator of one’s emotional health or mental stability – and it could be viewed as discriminatory. Plus, the results of such a test could be misconstrued or abused; for example, a bigoted, extremist officer might harass a new recruit who doesn’t adhere to their ideas of “normal” religious behavior. I don’t think the military should be testing the spirituality of its members.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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February 12, 2012

Honor Killings

Q. The conviction last month of three members of an Afghan family for murdering four relatives has brought so-called "honor killings" into the news again. The bodies of sisters Zainab, 19, Sahar, 17, and Geeti Shafia, 13, and their father's first wife, Rona Amir Mohammad, were found in a submerged car in 2009. The girls' father, mother and brother have been sentenced to 25 years in prison by a Canadian court.

The jury heard police wiretaps of the family in which the girls' father, Mohammad Shafia, called his daughters "treacherous whores" because they defied his rules on dress, using the Internet, attending school and dating boys. Ontario Superior Court Judge Robert Maranger told Shafia that the women died because they "offended your completely twisted concept of honor ... that has absolutely no place in any civilized society."

A Calgary-based imam, Syed Soharwardy, said the Shafia case has galvanized the community to address uncomfortable issues. Soharwardy said that "honor killings" are less to do with Islam and more with cultural values that existed before the faith took root, and that the Koran specifically forbids them.

What can Islamic leaders do about these "honor killings"? Or are they a cultural phenomenon and nothing to do with a particular religion?

I truly believe that such shocking crimes have more to do with psychological illness than religious doctrine. And ultimately, it’s irrelevant whether these so-called “honor killings” are spurred by Islamic beliefs, cultural traditions, or mental illness, since our response must be the same: there can be absolutely no place for this kind of ghastly behavior in a civilized society.

We should not tolerate the abuse or denigration of women in any shape or form, regardless of the motivation. Whether it’s an Islamic father killing his daughters in an “honor killing,” an ultra-orthodox Jew spitting at an eight year-old girl for offending his standards of “modesty,” or a fundamentalist Christian whipping his teen-age daughter into “obedience,” this madness must stop! It is simply unacceptable. Period.
I am not sure what runs through these people’s heads that allow them to treat women in this fashion. But as a society, we have a moral obligation to instill within our male children a reverence for women. As the physically weaker member of our species, boys must be taught to protect and venerate women, and to respect them for who they are as individuals.

Sadly, our modern culture tends to glorify a woman’s body and take a sexist attitude about her appearance, often at the expense of respecting her feelings and honoring her unique knowledge and skills. As much as we would like these demeaning visuals to remain on the TV screen of a Super Bowl commercial, the reality is that they have a deep impact on our society --and make especially strong imprints on the impressionable minds of our children. We therefore have a moral responsibility to counter the negative effects of the mass media and instill within our young ones -- both male and female --the essential concept that no human should ever be judged or valued solely on their external appearance.

Every woman, regardless of her station in life, is created in the very image of God and deserves just as much respect. Harming a woman in any way is an affront to our Creator, and those who perpetrate these horrendous acts, regardless of motive, will pay for it dearly -- both in the physical and the spiritual realms.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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February 5, 2012

Human Trafficiking at the Super Bowl

Q. While Indianapolis gears up for an influx of football fans eager to see the Patriots take on the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI, faith groups and the city's police force have been getting ready to cope with an entirely different - and very disturbing - problem: human trafficking for the sex trade.

Major sporting events have long been known to attract vice workers and those who control them. Almost 10,000 prostitutes traveled to Miami for the 2010 Super Bowl, and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott described Super Bowl XLV as “one of the biggest human trafficking events in the United States.” Many of the sex workers are as young as 13 and have a life expectancy of just 20. Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said that 100,000 to 300,000 American children are exploited in the sex trade.

Should faith leaders be doing more to help, or is an issue like this best left to law enforcement?

A. Of course faith leaders should be doing anything and everything in their power to help public officials with this vitally important issue. But why wait for a Super Bowl to focus on such a significant problem as human trafficking for the sex trade? The plight of these poor children should be front and center on a constant basis. These kids are literally trapped in life-and-death situations,and assisting them should command a firm place at the top of our collective agenda. Anything that can be done to save these unfortunate, broken souls from a life of terrible abuse and neglect should be done --before it’s too late.

A disturbing fact contained in many reports from organizations assisting these exploited children is that the trafficking of minors for the sex trade is far more common that we would like to believe. This despicable industry is not just relegated to faraway places in the Third World;the phenomenon is now rampant in Western countries, including the United States. It is happening right here,right now,in our own communities.

This knowledge should send shudders down the spine of every person of good conscience. As fathers and mothers with children of our own -- or simply as good people with moral integrity -- we should be thoroughly moved by the plight of these young people. We need to roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to halt human trafficking. I applaud people like Theresa Flores, who although she was terribly scarred by being forced into the sex trade at 15, has made it her life’s mission to help save others in similar circumstances. We should all learn from her,and assist in making a positive difference by eradicating this contemptible trade once and for all.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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January 29, 2012

How Much Can the Goverment Meddle in Religious Organizations' Affairs?

Q. The U.S. Supreme Court has given a boost to religious institutions by ruling that they are exempt from federal employment laws in their hiring and firing of employees.

In his decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote, "The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important ... But so, too, is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith and carry out their mission."

The ruling has gained support from those who see it as a victory for the separation of church and state and keeping government out of internal church affairs. But others have condemned the decision as simply carving out another religious exemption from federal law, and being too loose in what it defines as "minister."

Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s recent, unanimous ruling?

I agree with the Supreme Court’s decision in this case, albeit with some hesitation.

The First Amendment of our Constitution, which mandates a separation of Church and State, has been liberally interpreted as a complete separation between government and religion. Unfortunately, the result in recent years has been an active battle against religious expression of any kind in the public arena. City governments are continually challenged whenever a Christmas tree or Chanukah Menorah is placed on the steps of city hall. Even a simple, non-religious moment of silence in public schools has been deemed a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Well, we can’t have it both ways. If we exclude all religious influence from the public sphere, then in fairness we cannot cry foul when a religious institution rejects the influence of government regulation in its private affairs.

As I've previously written in this column, I disagree with the prevailing notion that the state must be entirely divorced from religion. In my opinion, the framers of our Constitution had no quarrel with religious expression in the public square. Their intent in drafting the First Amendment was simply -- and specifically -- that government should not favor one religion over another.

If this view became the generally accepted interpretation of the Constitution, then I would approve of limited government oversight on the hiring and firing practices of religious organizations, and would question the legality of dismissing a non-ministerial employee over a religious infraction. As the law is currently interpreted, however, I’m pleased with the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in this case since it clearly demonstrates an evenhanded approach to applying the law.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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January 15, 2012

Why do Celebrity Marriages Fail?

Singer Sinead O'Connor is the latest star to file for divorce, after only 16 days of marriage. Kim Kardashian's union with Kris Humphries lasted 72 days, and Katy Perry's marriage to comedian Russel Brand is ending after 2 months. Last year seemed to be a high point for celebrity splits, with many stars filing for divorce.

Experts and columnists give many reasons why celebrity marriages end in divorce. Relationship expert Andrea Syrtash said, "Long shooting days, months on the road and a seemingly endless array of options and suitors make it tough for high-profile actors and celebrities to stay focused on their marriages." Others put it down to the pressures of being in the spotlight, with every move scrutinized by the press, rumors of affairs in the media and the pair's often diverging careers.

Some, however, are more cynical, pointing to the huge amounts of publicity and, in some cases, money a wedding can bring; Kim Kardashian is reported to have made almost $18 million from selling the TV and magazine rights to her ceremony, although she denies making anything at all. Robert Paul of the National Institute of Marriage says that celebrity unions are a good guide for the public how not to conduct a relationship, and that they are tainting the institute of marriage in the eyes of the public. "It appears to the public that many of these celebrities don't take it very seriously. It seems like they approach marriage... as if they are throwaway kind of relationships," he told The Christian Post.

Why do you think many celebrity marriages fail so fast?

In my view, the reason many celebrity marriages fail so quickly and spectacularly is because stardom can fuel narcissistic traits that are detrimental to the marriage union. Under the wedding canopy, we are asked to dedicate ourselves entirely to another person, and commit to love and accept each other with all our heart and soul. For a self-centered individual who is accustomed to the fawning attention of thousands and who usually has every wish and whim fulfilled, this is an almost impossible undertaking.

What surprises me more than the astronomically high divorce rate among superstars is the fact that there are a few of these prominent figures who actually seem to maintain normal family lives. We should be asking these individuals how they manage to keep their marriages intact despite all the pressure. Knowing the secret to their success may actually help other celebrities achieve the same goal.

I feel strongly that parents should recognize that many of these stars have extremely shallow personalities and serve as a bad influence on our children. It is essential that we do not let our kids idolize them or accept them as role models. I know it’s very difficult to insulate our young ones from the extraordinary status conferred upon these media stars; nevertheless, it's important that children understand that being a talented actor or athlete does not ensure a morally sound character. A person's skill as an entertainer or sports figure has no correlation to their integrity or virtue -- and we often see individuals who are very gifted in some respects but sorely lacking when it comes to core values.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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January 8, 2012

Explaining Death to a Child

The death of a loved one is always a hard pain to bear for adults, but for children it can be even worse. And trying to find an explanation for why a friend, relative or pet is no longer around can be very tough for parents.

Advice available online includes explaining death in literal terms, as young children tend to see the world in black-and-white, and to avoid euphemisms such as "he's gone to sleep" or "he's gone away." Explaining that the person's body "stopped working" or that he died because he was very old seem to be the most favored. If the person was ill, it's best to emphasize that they are no longer in pain.

In religious households the family's shared faith can often be a great benefit to children, but in homes that aren't particularly religious suddenly introducing religious concepts can have a frightening effect on kids.

Is there an easy way to tackle the job of explaining death to a child? Is it better to explain death to a youngster to prepare them for it?

Sadly,there is no easy way to explain death to a child -- and unfortunately,it's almost inevitable that every child will experience the death of a loved one. Most often the first loss is that of an elderly grandparent or great-grandparent,in which case a child hopefully has caring parents and relatives to help them bear the burden. Similarly,if a beloved pet passes away, there is usually a supportive family that can rally around to ease the sadness felt by the little ones. But sometimes a child will lose a parent and be left without the reassuring shoulder of a father or mother to lean on. That is undoubtedly one of life’s most difficult,most painful experiences.

I have found that children -- and often adults -- cannot truly grasp or understand explanations for death, pain,and suffering. And for many people in the midst of severe grief, there simply aren't any "satisfactory answers" to address such profound questions. I feel that for the clergy, more important than trying to make sense of death is to simply offer a gentle helping hand and abundant emotional support. This is especially true in the case of a young child who loses a parent.

I also believe that religious rituals surrounding death and bereavement provide a good mechanism for being able to cope with the passing of a loved one. After the death of an immediate relative,Judaism requires the observance of “Shiva,” which is a seven-day period where the mourners stay home and are visited,cared for, and comforted by friends and relatives. This process of slowly easing one back into society after a calamitous experience is therapeutic,and helps one come to terms with the reality of this most painful experience.

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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January 1, 2012

Q. Today is the beginning of 2012. What are your hopes - and fears - for the new year?

What a year this has been!

In 2011 our economy went through more ups,downs,and spirals than a roller coaster -- and despite various positive indications,our nation's economic woes seem to persist. Although it probably did not surprise anyone,politics in this country grew downright absurd,with our elected officials acting like kindergarten children. The Middle East went into upheaval,and popular uprisings replaced dictators with rulers who thus far don’t seem to be much better for their populations. And,to top it all off, the constant threat of nuclear confrontation from rogue countries like Iran and North Korea seems to be escalating. All of this sounds very scary!

While we may see more of the same turmoil in the coming year,my faith in humanity leads me to hope -- in fact,to believe -- that things will be better, much better.

Let us not forget that even in difficult times like these,there is still much to be thankful for. There are so many good things that happened during this past year -- all of which did not make it to the front page of the Los Angeles Times, or to page 28 for that matter. I personally have witnessed many,many good deeds and seen genuine compassion shown from one human being to another. I’m sure this is true of most of us if we just take a moment to pause and reflect on our daily lives.

It is these little acts of goodness and kindness that ultimately convince me that this coming year will be truly blessed and that humanity will see a measure of peace and contentment which we have not seen in decades. The potential for positive developments is all around us,and the possibilities are truly exiting.
Happy New Year,everyone! Let’s ring out the old and bring in the new!

Rabbi Simcha Backman

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