To combat antisemitism, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is putting words of wisdom on billboards across town.
Just don’t go looking for all the sayings in Jewish texts.
The signs — 10 of them are spread out across the city — each dispense a different epigram, unattributed, with the Federation logo and a link to jewishla.org printed underneath. But while the Federation described the source of the phrases in a Dec. 22 news release as “ancient Jewish values and teachings,” many of them seem to come from elsewhere.
“Love is the most powerful force in the universe,” reads one billboard in Woodland Hills. That’s often attributed to Albert Einstein — wise and Jewish, yes; ancient, no — but actually appears to be a fake. (Another Woodland Hills billboard, blazoned with “Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile,” is a real Einstein.)
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness,” says one in the Palms neighborhood. That’s definitely not from ancient Jewish teachings — it comes from a 17th-century exegesis of the New Testament, although it’s frequently misattributed online to the Talmud.
Another billboard’s Christian connection is even more straightforward. “Change your thoughts and you’ll change the world,” which appears on a Federation billboard on the Westside, is a near-quote of Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant clergyman and author of the bestselling self-help book The Power of Positive Thinking.
The executive who led the campaign, Federation chief creative officer Rob Goldenberg, said in an interview that any similarities between the quotes and Christian doctrine were incidental. He added that all the phrases had been vetted by the Federation’s CEO, Rabbi Noah Farkas.
“I’m getting this from — believe it or not — my IT guy, who is the person who I study with at work,” Goldenberg said, noting the IT guy, Alex Klein, is an Orthodox Jew. “Contrary to popular belief, not many people at the Federation wear kippahs.”
A billboard in Woodland Hills. The saying has often been attributed to Albert Einstein, but he never said it. Courtesy of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles
To be sure, the billboards don’t pose as Jewish literature, and the phrase “Any racism diminishes all of us,” which appears on a sign in Van Nuys, is hardly pretending to sound like Ecclesiastes (although Goldenberg’s IT guy, Klein, had a Talmudic source for it).
Goldenberg said the Federation tried hard to make sure that the billboards — whose space was donated by advertising company Outfront Media — didn’t feel like religious texts. The goal was simply to represent the Jewish community as a beacon of wisdom and love.
So the Federation elected to suit the audience rather than stick to the book.
That some of the sayings on the billboards may have been uttered first by Christians was not concerning to Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, former president of the Academy for Jewish Religion California, because, he said, the quotes’ underlying philosophy is still Jewish.
Even the notion of the overriding power of love, while commonly associated with Christianity, also predominates in Hasidic Judaism, Gottlieb said.
“Many spiritual messages are found in many scriptures,” Gottlieb said.
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