Health Festival to Fuse Wellness and Spirituality

Life isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to get out of hand.

“Judaism has volumes of things to say about the quality of the way people approach challenges in life,” said Jonathan Schreiber, director of community engagement at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Just how much does it have to say? One look at the schedule for the upcoming week of Jewish Wisdom and Wellness — a festival of learning sponsored by Cedars-Sinai and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health — and it might seem limitless.

The biennial, transdenominational program is being held this year April 26 to May 3. It will cover a wide range of issues, including caregiving and healing, bioethics, visual art and end-of-life issues through nearly 100 lectures, workshops, classes and healing religious services.

Highlights include a kickoff rabbinic panel discussion on Jewish responses to life’s challenges with Rabbis Elazar Muskin, Zoe Klein, David Woznica and Amy Bernstein, moderated by Rob Eshman, Journal publisher and editor-in-chief. There will be a hiking retreat as well as a closing concert featuring Neshama Carlebach and Josh Nelson.

Joel Kushner, director of the Kalsman Institute, said this year’s festival is intended to be a deepening of what started two years ago with 70 events.

“Initially, we wanted to start a dialogue and bring together things that were happening around L.A. that seemed out of people’s reach. We wanted to bring health and wellness to them,” he said. “Jewish L.A. is so diverse, and we hope that the festival will offer something to all kinds of people. Everyone will have something they can relate to.”

Events will take place at a variety of participating synagogues, cultural centers and private homes around the area. They are spread throughout the Los Angeles community, from the Westside to the Valley to East L.A.

Almost all offerings are free, and all are open to the public but require preregistration, available online at

Cedars-Sinai provided two-thirds of the funding for micro-grants to help support the projects, with the rest coming from Kalsman and other foundations and donors, according to Kushner.

The result, Schreiber said, should be anything but typical.

“We asked ourselves whether we should do a traditional conference, or if we should turn the idea on its head,” he said. “What if we go out into the community and call upon local organizations and see how many people we can touch and show how the discussion of wellness and spirituality can be integrated into Jewish life?”

Some of this year’s events will touch on complex subjects in the Jewish community, including the unique joys and challenges in gay, lesbian and transgender lives. “Trans-Torah: The Family Journey” on May 3, for example, will feature two documentaries by the Youth and Gender Media Project on trans kids and their families, followed by a discussion on sacred texts that shed light on the meaning of gender.

At “Nosh ’n’ Drosh: Genetics in Halacha, Beyond Levis: Jews and Genes,” Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, an associate clinical professor of medical ethics at the Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem, will explore the bioethics of personalized genetic medicine on May 2.

And that’s just the beginning. There will be highly specialized events that focus on the bioethical issues of different Jewish communities, like “Coping With Chronic Illnesses in Iranian-American Jewish Families” on May 3. It will be led by various doctors, therapists and rabbis in the Iranian-American community.

Other options will focus on people with special needs, Shabbat-inspired yoga, healing services and end-of-life issues. An April 28 showing of the Israeli dark comedy “The Farewell Party” will take place at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3 in Beverly Hills ($18 advance tickets are required to attend the screening and discussion). The film centers on a group of seniors in a nursing home who create a euthanasia machine to help their loved ones die with dignity.

The closing concert on May 3 at Leo Baeck Temple brings together Nelson, a popular performer and composer of modern Jewish music whose work has been integrated into congregations and camps, with Carlebach, the daughter of the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who has also sung on Broadway.