Thursday, August 23, 2007

Life under a canopy of Qassams


From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Moments before we met, Mayan Bar-On bolted for the center of her family's home on Kibbutz Nir-Am along the Gaza border.

Away from the windows, away from the doors, in a hallway underneath a red-tile roof that couldn't withstand a Qassam strike, she and her 9-year-old brother, Gabi, huddled and waited for the boom.

Now, though, the 12-year-old girl is partaking in a more peaceful ritual. She lights the Shabbat candles and prays
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam. Asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
"Shabbat Shalom," her father, Uzi, says.

Everyone shares the sentiment and begins to pass the dinner plates, knowing that at any moment, with only a few seconds warning from a public intercom, they may have to drop everything and again -- again and again -- take cover.

Six seconds: That's all the time residents of Kibbutz Nir-Am have to react.

Six seconds: Less time than it took to read this paragraph ... Boom! And after they hear the boom, they know it's safe to return to life, at least for now.

This is fast becoming tradition on the frontier of Israeli society. Between the rocket-launching Gaza fields of Beit Hanoun and the primary target town of Sderot, Nir-Am has been constantly under fire for the past six years. More than 6,000 Qassam rockets have been launched at Israeli cities and villages since September 2001, and hundreds have landed in this community of about 350.

It's difficult to imagine the effect of this terror on daily life. It's even more challenging to comprehend why a sensible person would stay here. But for the Bar-Ons and thousands of other families, living under a canopy of Qassams is simply their life station.

"You never get used to it, but you learn to live with it, you learn to compensate, you learn to do things: Teach the children what to do when this happens, keep them as close as possible to some kind of shelter that they can run to. But it's a nightmare," says Marcell Bar-On, Mayan's mother. "You are really torn between trying to keep your children safe and getting them out of a situation which is terrible and being in a place where your home is and where your heart is and where everything is."

It takes about an hour and a quarter to drive the 90 kilometers from Jerusalem to Sderot. It's a relatively short journey, but the two communities' realities are worlds apart.

In Jerusalem, the economy is booming and the population is soaring. In Sderot, 370 of 450 small businesses have closed shop during the past 18 months, and even some of the most stalwart residents have lost faith; those who could leave, for the most part have.

In Jerusalem the last terrorist attack was in early 2004. In the Sderot region, it likely was within the past few minutes.

Even the northern border with Lebanon, the site of last summer's war with Hezbollah, appears way ahead of its southern sibling in the return to terror-free normalcy. Travel to Metula, west of the Golan Heights and within sniper distance of Klea, and you see comfortable suburban homes and picturesque farmlands.

"You can see the parched hillsides. That is the most lasting reminder of what was here last summer," Jacob Dallal, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), told a group of American Jewish journalists brought to the region this month to see how donations to the United Jewish Communities (UJC), through local federations, have helped rebuild the region through small-business loans, counseling centers and after-school programs.

But to the south, the region of the western Negev that includes Sderot and surrounding kibbutzim and moshavim, where $6.5 million in donations from the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign have been similarly allotted, the bombardment continues.

And that is the big difference between recovery in the north and the south.

Cities like Nahariya and Haifa and Kiryat Shmona were given a reprieve from military conflict after last summer's month of intense attacks. The war ended, even if no one believes it's over for good, or even for long.

Around Sderot, by contrast, the threat continues to crest, with no break in site.

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As an agent of death, Qassam rockets are a bad selection. Since 2001, those fired from Gaza have killed 11 people. That's only about one death per 550 rockets. But as a tool of terror, the homemade missles, packed with 1 to 5 kilograms of gunpowder and with a range of 10 to 12 kilometers, are very effective.

The emotional toll piles up when children are forced to think about where they can hide from incoming rocket fire each time they go outside; just waiting for the bus seems like a game of Russian roulette; and going to work means spending eight hours wondering if that morning was the last time you will have seen your kids.

The Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma found that about 11 percent of adults and 16 percent of toddlers in Sderot have full-blown post-traumatic stress disorder. Another study reported that as many as 33 percent of children between ages 2 and 6 show symptoms of PTSD.

It should be no surprise then that one of the most popular places in town is the city's trauma center, an unreinforced one-story building with a handful of beds and blast walls protecting the front door. Here the distressed come to calm down after a Qassam has rattled the house next door or shaken the ground under their feet or simply frayed their nerves to a frenzy.

"Once you have experienced a rocket landing nearby, you are absolutely sure that when the next siren goes off, that rocket is headed directly for you, even if it is aimed a few kilometers away," said Noam Bedein, a 25-year-old college student who lives in Sderot and is director of the Sderot Information Center of the Western Negev, which has heightened awareness on its Web site, www.sderotmedia.com.

More than 2,000 trauma cases were opened just in the past 12 months. Some patients stay at the trauma center only long enough to get a cold drink and some comforting conversation; others need medication and a few days' attention.

"You can't give people what they really need: security," said Aharon Polat (pictured), a social worker at the center. "You can be a great psychologist or you can be a great social worker, but if you speak with someone and one minute later there is an alarm for a Qassam, he doesn't breathe well. It comes again and again and again, and it is very difficult to make people learn to live with it. What can I say to them? 'Don't worry?'"

"It can hurt everyone every hour," he continued. "When there is one or two days without a Qassam, people feel much, much better. You can see they are happy. They are almost normal. But then a Qassam comes again, and it breaks them. It's very hard to live with this. You can't stop thinking something will happen to you or your child."

Polat lives just outside of Sderot on Kibbutz Karmia, where he is raising his two children. He said he takes some comfort in the mundane. But it is a pragmatic sense of peace, not an idealistic one.

"When I breathe, I enjoy breathing, and when I eat, I enjoy eating, and when I run, I enjoy running. I enjoy life for whatever I can. I try to hold life together," he said. "I have a problem with sorrow and a problem with pain and with angriness and with what will be of this country -- will Israel continue to exist in 20 years? Will they be free? -- but I can function."

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Less than a mile from what was once the refugee community of Gaza, Sderot took shape in the early 1950s as a tent city for new Israelis. Its name means "broadways" in Hebrew, a fitting selection for an outpost in the western Negev that continues to be a point of entry for immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union. (The influx of Russian speakers doubled the city's population during the '90s to a total of about 24,000; the tally has ranged from 10,000 to 20,000 since the escalation of attacks in May.)

Far from ever being a metropolis, Sderot was an outpost of pre-1967 Zionism, a settlement of Jews within the Green Line that stood as a citadel against Egypt. Following the unilateral disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005, when the settlements were razed and the Israeli army left, Sderot's role in defending Jewish statehood returned.

"There is no more Jewish act than living in Sderot," said Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, who visited last summer. "They are truly on the front lines of our entire people. Sure, people want to move out of the range of the missiles, but all that will prove is that the existence of the State of Israel and the existence of the Jewish people is just a function of range. So the simple defiant act of staying there is so awesome and so impressive."

"Sderot" has become a catchphrase for the region under fire in the western Negev. Due west of Sderot, just before you reach Beit Hanoun, lies Kibbutz Nir-Am.

Asher and Rachel Bar-On moved to this former patch of sand and hardscrabble desert -- now fecund with citrus groves and sunflowers and wheat fields -- in 1943. They came by way of northern Israel after fleeing Eastern Europe at the start of World War II, and the Bar-Ons were among the founding families of the kibbutz, the oldest in this region.

Twelve years later, Rachel gave birth to Uzi, whom she named for a doctor who helped when the kibbutz was getting shelled during the War of Independence. Back then, the border with Gaza was an open field, and as a child, Uzi tended cattle out in the pasture. There he befriended a young Palestinian shepherd with whom he still speaks almost daily. (Until the outbreak of the second intifada, Uzi and his family traveled regularly into Gaza to see friends and eat seafood. No longer.)

Today, Uzi is the logistics manager at Michsaf, a tableware manufacturer run by Nir-Am residents. He, Marcell, Mayan and Gabi live in a four-bedroom stucco house with yellow walls and a red roof; two older daughters, Kelly, 21, and Dana, 20, live in separate housing on the kibbutz.

The Bar-On's front door leads into what used to be the veranda, but, thanks to the addition of two mostly windowed walls, is now the living room. The ceiling is rich cherry oak and the floor smooth brick. This is where Mayan and Gabi sit on plump, blue leather couches and watch Nickelodeon, and from where they run when they hear the "color red" warning of an incoming rocket -- "tveza adom."

"If we're sitting in here with the air-conditioning on and the windows closed and the TV on, we can't hear the siren. What does it matter if we can hear it or not?" Marcell asks, growing exasperated. "What can we do? We're going to go where there are not windows, but we are still not protected."

For that reason, when the rocket attacks are heavy, like they were for the last two weeks of May, when 293 rockets were launched from Gaza after a six-month cease-fire broke down, the Bar-Ons often sleep on the concrete floor of a communal bomb shelter about 50 meters from their house.

"I like this one because it is underground," Marcell says, walking down the stairs in the dark. "It's something extra. It's really, really safe."

"Ooh, it smells terrible," she says, before flipping the light switch and revealing a red picnic bench, tile floor and wine cellar d├ęcor. About 15 feet by 20 feet, the room is stuffed with upwards of a dozen people on busy nights.

Fortunately, the previous few weeks have been "quiet." Marcell uses that term several times and usually follows it with a grimace, as if the Sderot region has been experiencing the calm before the storm.

Quiet, anyway, doesn't mean silent. It still means three to four Qassams coming their direction each day.

Last month, Uzi and Marcell saw one of the rockets fly above them as they swam in the pool after dinner.

"We knew that Gabi was playing soccer and that Mayan was in bed. We were totally helpless in the middle of the pool, and we saw this bomb fly right over our heads," Marcell recalls. "We jumped out of the pool to see where Gabi was, to see if he was still alive."

He was. But the rocket tore off a room in an elderly couple's home. That direct hit followed the Qassam that landed on the kibbutz restaurant, Fauna, and burned the structure to the foundation, which followed the bomb that tore through one of the dorms rented to students at Sapir College. Amazingly, each time, no one was hurt.

"We have," Marcell adds, "so many stories like that ...."

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The political sentiment in Sderot is easy to gauge. As you approach the area, just read the wooden signs with painted red Hebrew messages that appear on the side of the highway:

"We are staying here because we are connected to the soil. But shortly we will be buried inside. Thank you, Olmert."

In a meeting with journalists last month in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem office, before which the group was told that Olmert's comments were on the record but couldn't be quoted, the prime minister said the attacks from Gaza, which seem even more problematic since Hamas' forceful expulsion of Fatah government officials in June, require continuous and meticulous intervention but not a comprehensive military response.

A major operation, Olmert said, would not entirely end the attacks, and he believes it would come at too great a cost to Israel. He declined to comment on future plans for dealing with Gaza.

In May, this paper reported that most military experts believe that only a major ground operation would eradicate the threat. But they echoed Olmert's sentiment. It would cause, they said, significant "Israeli military casualties, Palestinian humanitarian suffering, [negative] international opinion and economic losses."

"Everything is waiting," IDF Reserve Brig. Gen. Shalom Harari said at Sapir College before a tour of the Gaza border. "Now, you ask me, what will decide about the timing of such an operation? That is what is called the 'strategic Qassam.'"

"The Qassam that will fall on a synagogue in Sderot and kill 10," said Harari, a senior research fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute. "Or the Qassam that will fall on a kindergarten and kill, I hope not, God hopes not, 10 children. Or the Qassam that will fall here and kill 10 students. That will be the igniting point."

There are countless stories of near-massacres that could have been such a catalyst -- the gasoline tanker that left the station moments before a rocket blew a crater in the driveway, the Qassam that flew through the roof of a synagogue office while congregants were in the sanctuary on Shabbat, the bomb that fell on the playground of Gabi's school the day all the parents kept their kids home in protest.

For now, the Israel Defense Forces have been instructed to target Hamas and Islamic Jihad members who are orchestrating or participating in the Qassam attacks. This past Monday, an Israeli jet fired a missile at a car in the Gaza Strip that was carrying six Hamas operatives involved in rocket launches hours before. All were killed. On Tuesday, three more were killed in a separate airstrike.

"Once you target the head of that area and the head of that zone, the organization is damaged and it limits their ability to carry out the terrorist activities against Israel in the future," IDF Maj. Avital Leibovitch said shortly after the Monday mission.

But many in the western Negev say the government could be doing a lot more. Ari Shavit, a columnist for the liberal newspaper Ha'aretz, lamented in late May that denizens of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the rest of Israel's core had forgotten Sderot.

"Suddenly, the feeling is that perhaps it has really happened: Perhaps Sderot has been broken," Shavit wrote. "But Sderot has still not been broken. If the rocket attacks cease, most people will return. Without security, without hope, without happiness -- a depressing return to no choice.

"So the basic fact remains: Sderot 2007 is a city that seems cursed. A frontier city with no home front. A frontier city with no aura of heroism. A frontier city that the government should protect, but isn't protecting. A frontier city that the nation should be standing behind, but is not. A frontier city abandoned by the center of the country."

But Sderot has not been forgotten. Thanks to people like Bedein, who keeps the region's story in the news; to Israeli philanthropists like Arcadi Gaydamak, who gives freely to whatever the need is in the region, and to American Jews, who indirectly support Sderot through donations to the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign and other programs.

UJC, through programs administered by JAFI and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, has reinforced buildings, provided trauma counseling, financed summer camps outside the Qassam range for the region's 8,200 children ages 6 to 17 and supported a senior center where elderly residents attend daily continuing education courses in a large bomb shelter furnished as a classroom.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles earmarked $20,000 for new equipment for a youth center computer room. And after matching funds with Temple Isaiah, The Federation sent $35,000 for the Etgarim program for at-risk teens.

"For us and all of those who love the State of Israel, it is essential that we get the things we need so people don't leave Sderot," said Shimon Peretz, the city's director-general. "If we leave, Sderot will be the first to fall, and following Sderot will be Ashdod and Ashkelon."

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Smaller than a walk-in closet, the white bomb shelter with the blue door trim is stocked with two small beanbag chairs, a flannel blanket, a pillow and a pink-and-blue "My Own Beauty Vanity."

Immediately outside the portable shelter stands a netless soccer goal. This patch of browning grass rimmed by houses is the only place children are allowed to play soccer now, the larger field fenced off because it was too far from emergency cover.

"It's a sh—ty life," Marcell says. "That's not the way it's supposed to be. But it's life."

Everybody struggles differently with the reality.

Dana struggled to sleep, lost 20 pounds and developed low blood iron after a Qassam landed a few meters away while she was lying out by the kibbutz pool.

When Kelly was in the army last year, she didn't want to come home on the weekends and started sleeping under her bed when she got out.

And Gabi, for two weeks this summer, woke up most nights sprinting for the center of the house. Marcell found him there one morning about 2 a.m., curled into a ball with a sheet over his head.

"Gabi," she asked, "what are you doing?"

"There was a tzeva adom. There was a tzeva adom."

There hadn't been, but such fears are fomented by an existence so precarious that people are afraid to close their eyes lest they slumber through a rocket warning. Showers and sex also are problematic: No one wants emergency workers discovering their bruised bodies naked in the bathroom or cleaved to a lover. And under such circumstances, who's going to hear the alarm?

"One day, I walked into the shower and I heard 'tzeva adom,'" says Sigal Yisrael, a teacher at Gabi's school, Shaar HaNegev Elementary. "I had to decide real fast to go out or to stay in. I just covered myself with a towel and looked down at my legs to make sure they were shaved."

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Why then does anyone stay in Sderot?

Like many in this area, the Bar-Ons have tried leaving. They skipped from kibbutz to kibbutz, even fled to Marcell's native South Africa for a few months. But, at the end of the day, they're stuck in the area like most everyone else here.

Property values have tanked for homeowners -- who would want to buy a home in an area where predictability has become so unpredictable? And for those on the kibbutzim, homeownership is a misnomer. As members of a cooperative community, families like the Bar-Ons "own" their house as long as they remain part of the kibbutz. But the title is not truly theirs, and if they were to leave, they would receive a payout from the kibbutz and have little equity to start over.

"I used to watch the news during the Bosnian War, and I'd see these guys running to work with briefcases, trying to avoid the snipers," Marcell says. "I used to think, 'How can people allow themselves to live like that?' And now I'm doing the same thing, and I understand: It's a lack of choice."

For more, check out The God Blog

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

What Olmert thinks of American Jewish money

From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

JERUSALEM, Aug. 8 -- "You are not to directly quote the prime minister," Ehud Olmert's press handler told a group of American Jewish journalists I've been traveling with this week.

This directive came today as we sat in a conference room in Olmert's Jerusalem offices. It seemed a ridiculous rule, but the prime minister's fears made more sense once the meeting was over.

When Olmert walked confidently into the conference room, he shook some hands, said 'Shalom' and posed for a photo with a few journalists. Dressed in a navy suit and red tie, he sat tall, speaking in fluent English as he cracked jokes and invited our questions -- and that's when the meeting went south.

Asked about the hundreds of millions of dollars sent by American Jews to help Israel during and after last summer's war with Hezbollah, Olmert responded that the donations were very important -- but he stopped short of calling it "necessary."

If a giver wants to give and the receiver wants to get, Olmert said, God bless that situation.

And as we've seen this week, God -- or human resourcefulness -- has blessed a quick reconstruction of northern Israel. But Olmert's comments seemed particularly ungrateful because he spoke not only to the American journalists, but also to some top officials of the United Jewish Communities (UJC).

Through the UJC's Israel Emergency Campaign last summer, North American federations sent $360 million to Israel. UJC is also the sponsor of this media trip, which was designed to show reporters and editors how American donations have been used. UJC officials have shuttled our group, including editors and writers from major Jewish publications in Washington, New York, Philadelphia and L.A., to show us the pain inflicted by war.

They arranged this forum with the prime minister to allow him to speak to the most philanthropic Diaspora community -- and this is what he says?

Nachman Shai, senior vice president and director general of UJC Israel, wouldn't directly respond. "UJC is extremely proud of the work we have done with our partners and the government of Israel both during and after the war," he said in a statement prepared after the meeting.

It could be that Olmert didn't want to show Israel's hostile neighbors any sign of weakness by suggesting that the country cannot survive without Diaspora money. But given the past 60 years of American Jewish support for Israel Bonds and emergency aid during wartime, this was probably not the best audience for such high-handedness.

Olmert's popularity already is insanely low. Last month, the newspaper Yediot Ahronot reported his approval rating among Israelis has fallen to 8 percent, next to which President Bush looks like the coolest kid in school. Olmert has been heavily criticized for myriad mistakes in last summer's war, and even now, 12 months after the ceasefire, he appears oblivious to the situation on the ground.

I've spent the past three days in Northern Israel, near Haifa, Nahariya, the Galilee - and most everyone I've met has talked at some length about the lingering and traumatic affects of having been bombarded by Katyusha rockets for 34 days last summer.

Take, for instance, Shiri Havkin, who lives in the town of Rosh Pina. Havkin runs a small business, Drora's Herb Farm, out of her home; it was started by her mother, the Israeli singer Drora Havkin, and the younger Havkin took over when her mother died in 1995. She nearly lost it all last summer when tourism stopped -- her savings shriveled and she bounced so many checks the bank froze her activity.

She only stayed afloat thanks to a low-interest loan from a small-business development center that was supported by UJC. Another war, though, might be enough for Havkin to give up on the Galilee.

"If there will be another war, I will have to sell my house," she said. "I'm sorry to say but I cannot stand another war."

Olmert dismissed such sentiments as isolated and insignificant.

There is no trauma, he said: Nothing is collapsing; the north is booming; income is higher than ever; employment is higher than ever.

And, in fact, his claims are partially true. Israel's economy is once again going gangbusters. People have returned to the north, and the most visible remnants of war are a few blackened trees on the hillsides close to the border. Nahariya's streets and boardwalk are filled day and night with young revelers.

But that doesn't account for the emotional wreckage inside many Israelis.

Numerous psychologists and social workers told our group that post-traumatic stress disorder is a public-health crisis in northern Israel. One to-be-published study by Rami Benbenishty of Hebrew University found that 10 percent to 11 percent of children in Nahariya are in "critical, immediate need" of psychological treatment. They suffer not from war fatigue, but concussion paranoia. Debilitating fear is literally a sneeze away for some.

But what did the leader of Israel say when told many psychologists would not agree with his analysis of how war has affected his citizens?

He said it was time to change the psychologist.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Interview with a serial blogger


From: The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles

Luke Ford loves gossip.

He loves to dish dirt on rabbis suspected of sleeping around and on pornographers stealing from their customers.

The blogger likes playing the role of the outsider journalist, the little guy willing to fight back, more nimble than those dinosaurs we call newspapers. He is -- to quote Luke Ford himself -- "more a kid who likes to throw manure."

The son of a Seventh-day Adventist evangelist, Ford is named after the gentile physician who wrote one of the Gospels and he shares his last name with one of the most infamously anti-Semitic Americans in history. But that's not why mentioning the contentious Internet journalist, who converted to Judaism 15 years ago, gives some Jews the sensation of nails scraping across a chalkboard.

"He's a lashon hara monger," said one community leader, who like many agreed to speak only anonymously. "He comes up with the most outrageous conclusions and puts them up on his Web site, passing them off as truth. If a rabbi stands up on the pulpit and says something, by Saturday night it is on [Ford's] Web site, twisted, with his perverted insights, as if it is fool-proof truth."

But sometimes, Ford is right. And therein lies this tale: what happens when gossip, roundly despised in Jewish law and tradition, turns out to be true and important? What is the difference between making gossip and breaking news? And how, in the brave new world of blogging, do we answer these questions?

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa might be wondering the same thing. It was Luke Ford who on his blog broke the news that the mayor's marriage had failed. Los Angeles has thousands upon thousands of niche bloggers, and Ford is nowhere near the most read. But he got the ball rolling, and he didn't relent after Villaraigosa vehemently denied the claim.

Eventually, Ford's reporting at LukeFord.net was vindicated, and the Villaraigosa revelation led to radio appearances and regular mentions on notable blogs like Slate.com's Kausfiles and LAObserved.com. Last week, the Los Angeles Times invited Ford to debate blogging and journalism ethics with KTLA reporter Eric Spillman at LATimes.com.

"I'm 41 years old," Ford said over coffee last week, "and it is just so obvious to me that the only thing I am good at is blogging.... As a blogger, I have to pick up the crap; I pick up the droppings that polite reporters don't want to touch."

LukeFord.net is now getting about 4,000 page views per day, according to Blogads, which tracks traffic for advertisement pricing. That's double the eyeballs Ford attracted before the mayor confirmed in June that he and his wife had separated.

And Ford's run is continuing: Last Friday he reported L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca was divorcing his wife; by Monday other media outlets had picked up on it.

But to Ford's critics, the value of such scoops doesn't justify the less savory aspects of blogging in general, and LukeFord.net specifically. After all, Ford has had a handful of breakthrough stories before, and then returned to obscurity.

"People who act that way can and do get lucky and therefore some credibility is given to them," one Jewish critic said. "It's like B.F. Skinner said about variable reinforcement schedule: If you don't give the rat a pill every time they push the bar, but you give it every third time or every fifth time or at an interval, the rats keep pushing the bar like crazy. And that is what some of these blogs do."

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Many Jewish leaders are disgusted by Ford. They say they have befriended him and been betrayed. Who knows what he might catch them saying, or what he might publish somebody else saying about them? Multiple rabbis contacted by The Journal declined to comment; not only that, they didn't even want to be named as having declined comment.

Few sins are as serious as that of lashon hara, the evil tongue, though the severity of gossip and negative speech wasn't widely understood until Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan came along in the late 1800s and published his famous book, "Chofetz Chaim."

There are 31 commandments regarding lashon hara. The gist is that it's not only sinful to gossip about someone, but to say negative things at all, even if true, unless there is a compelling reason.

If a person knows their friend is getting involved romantically with a scoundrel or professionally with a crook, they should dish the dirt -- privately, said Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, a local Orthodox expert on lashon hara. That's different from making a broad-brush PSA.

"When it is put out in the open like that on the Internet, it almost never becomes acceptable," said Stulberger, principal of Valley Torah High School. "If there is a situation where you have factual clear knowledgeable information and you needed to warn a wide spectrum of people because you couldn't get to everybody personally, I suppose there could be a scenario where it would be justified. But certainly if it is haphazard, if it isn't researched properly, if you haven't thought through the repercussions -- there are so many variables that the Chofetz Chaim talks about, it would be a rare, rare day that something like that would be justified."

Stulberger wasn't familiar with LukeFord.net, but it's hard to imagine the blog fitting the Chofetz Chaim criteria. Though the site is loaded with insightful interviews and

Brad adds (4:48 PM, 8/03/2007):

As expected, Luke Ford has been blogging about this profile.

To see the continuing dialog and some of my other musings on the cowboy blogger, visit The God Blog.
profiles of local and national Jewish leaders, the blog does little to distinguish between rumor and reportage.

"Whether blogging about Jews, porners, Australian fauna, my mental health, my dad Desmond and myriad topics, I've never been one to rigorously check my facts before posting," Ford wrote in April. "And I've misused the English language quite regularly. The speed of the Internet doesn't allow for fact checking or being clear when I write. I'm a blogger, mates, and I play by [my] own rules."

The outcome is a mosaic of phone conversations, e-mails, reader comments, personal reflection, questions, opinion and fiction.

"Is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg Gay?" a July 10 headline asked. "His mannerisms scream gay to me but maybe he's just a perfect gentleman," Ford wrote.

That is not news reporting; it is Ford posting a question in hopes that it will lead him to the answer. (An Associated Press story Sunday about a sexual harassment lawsuit Bloomberg settled in 2000 with a female executive of his financial company ran on LukeFord.net under the headline, "Guess This Answers My Question About Mayor Bloomberg.")

Ford argues that gossip is morally neutral. The benefits of gossip balance out the negatives, he says. But even Ford's favorite Jewish journalist doesn't agree with that.

"I looked up your Web site and have to admit to being troubled ... by the lashon harah aspect of your work," Yossi Klein Halevi, a contributing editor to The New Republic and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, wrote Ford in a July 2004 e-mail, quoted in Ford's book "Yesterday's News Tomorrow: Inside the World of Jewish Journalism." "It's not at all as straightforward as you put it -- especially the notion midah k'neged midah [measure for measure], which is not in our hands but in God's hands to do."

To which Ford replied: "If we held by the Chofetz Chaim, most of your work, as well as mine, would be forbidden."

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Ford got his online start in 1997 after producing and directing an adult film, "What Women Want" -- not to be confused with the Mel Gibson movie -- and acting in a few pictures. (He says he never appeared naked or had sex on camera. Others confirmed this; I was not diligent enough to roll back the tapes.) He had just written "A History of X: 100 Years of Sex in Film," and his curiosity about the business was at a high.

Within months, www.LukeFord.com (a porn blog he sold in 2001) broke the biggest crisis to rock the adult industry in years. HIV had infected five adult performers, and Ford was the only one pushing the story, naming "patient zero" and the infected actresses.

"People were saying, 'He's lying. He's wrong. He can't be trusted.' And he was right. He was way out in front of everybody else on this HIV story," said former New York Times reporter Nick Ravo, who turned to Ford as an industry insider.

Ford was not only ahead of the curve on the HIV story, but on the power of the Internet in general. Before newspapers began worrying about the coming circulation crisis, the Internet savvy of people like Ford was hastening it. With little training and even less money, Ford was uncovering stories about HIV, Mafia ties to the business and pay-for-porn scams with a cheap computer and an inquisitive mind.

His techniques were unorthodox, and not simply because he kept kosher and Shabbat while profiting from pornography. Trading in rumor and innuendo, lawsuits became part of the gig because he was willing to publish one-source stories and anonymous accusations as fact.

"There are three reasons why people come into the adult industry and two of them are wrong. The first is sex, which is mechanical, and the second is money, which is incidental. The primary reason is for the glory, and Luke has made himself glorious," said Bill "Papa Bear" Margold, once dubbed "the renaissance man of porn" by Playboy. "He is the first site you go to see what is going on. Even if he doesn't know what is going on, you go there to see that he doesn't know what is going on."

But his notoriety as an adult-industry blogger complicated Ford's search for a spiritual home in Los Angeles' Orthodox community. The first shul to give him the boot was Aish HaTorah in 1995 for being too antagonistic and again in 1998 when Rabbi Moshe Cohen discovered Ford's double life as a porn journalist.

"He was one of the Torah weirdos," said Rabbi Aryeh Markman, the shul's executive director. "You get all sorts of people showing up in shul and we bust them. 'I'm happy you're looking for a place to daven. But this isn't one of them.' And you throw them out. ... The antithesis of Torah is porn."

Ford journeyed down Pico Boulevard and created a new life for himself at Young Israel of Century City, going by his Hebrew name Levi Ben Avraham. He remained there for three years before being ousted.

About the same time, he was tossed from the Rabbinical Council of California's conversion program for "deceit and deception," administrator Rabbi Avrohom Union said. "Don't take anything he says at face value."

Ford sold LukeFord.com in 2001 for $25,000 and started his personal site, LukeFord.net. In 2004, he also returned to adult-industry blogging at www.LukeIsBack.com. Still, Ford has found a place to daven. The one condition for his cooperation on this article was that the shul not be named, although its identity is an open secret in the community.

Back in January, Tony Castro had a sexy story to sell: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had stopped wearing his wedding ring and hadn't been seen with his wife in months. Castro, a reporter for the L.A. Daily News, knew he'd hit gold. He dug deeper, verified what he'd heard and pitched it for page one. Only, his editors -- who at the time also were my editors -- weren't buying it. They didn't think the story qualified as much more than glorified gossip, even if it was about Los Angeles' most vocal family man. The story appeared destined for a journalistic coma.

But on Jan. 29, while interviewing Ford for the Daily News' series on porn in the Valley, Castro mentioned the mayor's marital troubles. He knew Ford would get the story out. Before the phone conservation was over, Ford had posted this headline at LukeFord.net: "Antonio Villaraigosa's Marriage Kaput."

"The mayor and his wife Corina haven't been seen together in public in about 10 months (since the president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, visited in May 2006)," Ford wrote. "Villaraigosa no longer wears his wedding band (not since the first week of September 2006). His wife does not live with him in the mayor's mansion (I don't think she's ever lived there with him)."

This apparently prompted an L.A. Times reporter to pay an unexpected visited to the Getty House, the mayor's official residence, and prod about the mayor's nuptials. Villaraigosa was adamant that his marriage wasn't over.

"Absolutely not true," he said. "We are not separated."

But then in June, something peculiar happened: Villaraigosa came clean. He and Corina were having serious problems and had separated. The next day, she filed for divorce.

Ford's reporting was not only exonerated but exalted.

Previously, Ford's non-porn reporting was most notable for his profiles of film producers and Jewish journalists and for publishing allegations of people who said they had been sexually harassed or assaulted by Jewish leaders.

Last year, Rabbi Aron Tendler, then the pulpit rabbi at Shaarey Zedek in Valley Village, stepped down after Ford and a few other blogs published accusations of inappropriate sexual relationships with women and girls at Yeshiva of Los Angeles (YULA), as a teacher and later principal there between 1980 and 1999.

"A few years ago, Ford irritated administrators of American Jewish University, then known as University of Judaism, when he published pages upon pages of documents from a former rabbinic student's lawsuits for assault, battery, negligence, sexual discrimination and retaliation. Ford interviewed the former student, Marsha Plafkin, and published the 39-page transcript of her accusations as fact. (The court ruled in AJU's favor on the assault, battery and negligence lawsuit, and dismissed the second case without prejudice; university President Robert Wexler declined comment for this article.)"

Ford has long been famous for two things: his spartan lifestyle and his propensity for turning gossip into news, thanks to the ever-present digital recorder he uses to capture scuttlebutt at journalism parties and porn functions.

"I didn't realize just how irresponsible we normally are in everyday private conversations until I encountered L.A. blogger Luke Ford," Mickey Kaus of Kausfiles wrote in a 2003 article for Slate.com titled "The Case Against Editors." "Ford goes around to parties and immediately posts snatches of his conversations on the Web. His reporting is impeccable. He has faithfully quoted me libeling dozens of people on two separate occasions."

Kaus, like most of Ford's media connections, was a friend of National Review Online columnist Cathy Seipp. Ford repaid Seipp, who died in March, by eulogizing her on his blog as a "bulldozer" and an unrepentant adulteress who "had an unshakable belief in her own righteousness."

It was classic Ford, throwing stones at the people who would save him from drowning, which is a tale he tells often about falling off a pier as a child after throwing rocks at his sister and she coming to his rescue.

He has no qualms with castigating those who have propped him up in life.

Ford credits his Jewish conversion to the wisdom of talk-radio host Dennis Prager, whom he heard speaking about Judaism when Ford was bed-ridden with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome after dropping out of UCLA. The two began talking regularly by phone, but then Ford bought the domain www.DennisPrager.net and used it to lambast the man he loved like a father. (That info has all been moved over to LukeFord.net.)

Prager has since completely distanced himself.

"He was neither a pupil nor a friend," Prager said in a brief interview. "I think I appealed to something good in him at some point, and I hope I did. But I don't know."

While Seipp's college-age daughter still converses with Ford and he says Kaddish for her every day at shul, most in that circle have written off their friendships with the blogger-without-boundaries.

"I'm barely even an armchair Ford watcher, but it seems like every time there's a brouhaha like this (i.e., every month or so), the conversation turns to whether this time, this time!, he's gone too far, whether it might finally, finally!, be time to write the Vulcan porn gossip out of polite society," Tim Cavanaugh, Web opinion editor of the L.A. Times, wrote on the paper's site. "I suspect the reason he always comes back can be found in this recent defense of a Seipp family enemy. If he were just some amoral jerk who constantly turned on his friends, they would drop him without further thought. But Ford always has some elaborately worked-out justification for doing the wrong thing -- and even if the morality is understood only by Ford himself, there's something compelling in the amount of thought and ethical self-torment that goes into the decision."

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Shortly before sundown last Thursday, Ford updates a story about an aide to Villaraigosa who's leaving City Hall. He's seated at his desk in his home south of Pico Boulevard. This is where he spends day and night, only leaving once or twice most days to walk to shul or to get some exercise. Three of four days, he says, he doesn't leave the hood.

He lives in a guesthouse occupying half a converted garage. In a narrow room smaller than a college dorm, a few blankets -- Ford's bed -- lay on the ground between his desk and the bathroom door, against which two white pillows rest. A bookshelf is lined with Judaica items and books on the Talmud, Jewish history and English literature; most of the books he reads come from the library.

There is a fridge and microwave; cassette tapes of recorded phone conversations are piled on the floor, a smorgasbord of bottled vitamins and medication cover a white dresser with gilded accents. "The Hovel," as Ford endearingly refers to it, feels dank and smells worse, but for $600 a month, it's home.

Ford posts the story, slips into the bathroom to wash his hands, then locks up and begins the half-mile schlep to shul.

"This is a good place," an elderly man says to a teenage boy as Ford reads a Talmud commentary before a minyan has arrived. "You're welcome here. You can come in the morning; you can come in the evening. You will feel good here."

Certainly, that is true for Ford. This is the place that gives his life structure and purpose and stability. This is the only shul that's let him continue davening there after discovering the depraved world within which he works. Judaism is not about a personal relationship with God, and without an accepting community there is no religious observance. For a convert like Ford, there is no Jewish identity absent Judaism.

"Orthodox Judaism in general, not just going to shul, gives me much needed structure," Ford says after the service ended. "I have no core. I'm way too flexible on the things I do. This gives me some structure, and it's important for me to bounce off the same people everyday.... It gives my life meaning, it gives my life rhythm, it gives my day a beginning and end. And it reminds me that there is a God."

He returns home and hops in his van -- a distinctly dented and rusted old GTE work van -- and heads out to the Valley. He's got a porn party to infiltrate.