Wolpe Vows he will no longer address issue of ethnic percentages

Rabbi David Wolpe pledged in a sermon during Shabbat services at Sinai Temple on May 17 that he would no longer address the question of how many members of the congregation are Ashkenazi or Iranian or any other ethnicity. 

“We are 100 percent Jewish,” the Sinai Temple leader said during a heartfelt 20-minute sermon intended to extinguish a firestorm that had erupted during the previous week.

Wolpe’s remarks came in response to community reaction to an advertisement for Sinai Akiba Academy, the synagogue’s day school, that ran in the May 9 edition of the Jewish Journal. The ad included the headline: “ ‘Too Persian.’ Looks awful in print? It sounds worse in a whisper.” It also included a picture of five smiling children and went on to say, “We’re proud of our diversity.”

The wording of the headline set off a wave of angry conversations, phone calls and letters of protest to the temple’s staff, as well as some supportive responses. The result, Wolpe said, “has probably exceeded any other controversy that I’m aware of, that I’ve been involved with at the synagogue, and I’ve been involved in a few.”

The advertisement was targeting prospective school families, Sarah Shulkind, the head of school, said. “I’m not saying this as a hyperbole,” Shulkind said in an interview. “On every single tour I’ve given … at the end of the tour, someone will say, ‘One more question, can I ask you privately — I don’t mean to sound [rude], but is the school too Persian? What’s the ratio?’ Some variety of that question.” 

Sinai Akiba Academy has approximately 600 students, according to the Builders of Jewish Education website. Shulkind did not say how many are of Iranian heritage, but she said it is less than a majority.

Rabbi Lawrence Scheindlin, who retired in spring 2012 as head of school at Sinai Akiba, estimated the number to be somewhere around 30 percent as of 2012 — and growing.

The ad was apart of an ongoing campaign in the Journal addressing perceptions about the school. Previous ads have focused on technology, green space and more.

“The whole idea was to debunk the myth or the rumors of the school and to put out a proactive narrative about these topics,” Shulkind said.

 “Our Persian families have lots of other choices for Jewish education in L.A., just like our Israeli, Russian, South American, South African and Ashkenazi-at-large families,” the ad states. 

Shulkind acknowledged that the school, like many day schools, is facing decreased enrollment. She said, however, that was not the reason for the ads.

Wolpe and Shulkind both said in interviews that they had spent the better part of the week following the ad’s appearance meeting with concerned community members — both Ashkenazi and Iranian, according to Wolpe. 

Candice Daneshvar Amini, 29 and of Iranian heritage, was among those who met, along with her mother, with both Sinai leaders. The school alumnus and current synagogue member criticized the ad, calling it “one-dimensional.” But, she said, the meeting with Sinai leaders addressed her concerns.

“I think we got the sense that they understood — we told them our side of the story, and they are very appreciative of hearing what we have to say,” she said.

Wolpe said he was not involved with writing the ad but had a role in approving it. Its creation was a lengthy process, he said.

“We had vetted it with a quite a number of people who, in the end, thought it would be helpful and encourage conversation,” Wolpe said by phone.

Not everyone had negative opinions about the ad, however. Scheindlin said that publishing it was courageous. 

“There are many people who really value and delight in that diversity, and there are people, as the ad suggests, who seem to have some difficulty with that,” he said. “And the ad did a brilliant job of calling that out and saying diversity is a wonderful thing.”

Perhaps just raising the issue was bound to cause controversy, Iranian author and Jewish Journal columnist Gina Nahai said. 

“An ad like this, no matter how expertly worded, I don’t think it could have avoided hard feelings on one side or the other,” Nahai said, because it raises the real and important issue of division among Ashkenazi and Iranian Jews. 

 “The issue is that we have this problem in this city, and it has gotten worse in the last 35 years, not better,” she said.

Wolpe agreed, saying that he hopes this situation creates an opportunity for dialogue on the divisiveness, to invite healing.

“I want to turn it from a blight into a blessing, and that’s going to take a lot of work, a lot of time and a lot of love,” Wolpe told the Journal.

Where Wolpe and Nahai disagree is on the question of whether there has been progress already in the community. Wolpe, who has served at Sinai Temple for 18 years, believes there has been. 

“I think one of the reasons that the ad was so wounding is because it’s gotten so much better,” he said.

He told the Journal he was troubled by how many people it had offended.

“Had I for a moment realized it would have been offensive to people who I care about very deeply, I never would have allowed it to run,” he said. 

When he spoke to the congregation, Wolpe was visibly emotional. He spoke of how congregants had expressed concern about his own health — Wolpe suffered a brain tumor in 2009 — and how he has felt deeply connected to the congregation through his 18 years of service. During the sermon, he said that he would no longer play the “stupid percentage game” of answering how many Ashkenazi and Iranian members his synagogue has when people ask him about it, and he asked the congregation to pledge to do the same.

His words won a standing ovation. 

Norman Pell, 91, is a longtime member of the community. Walking to the synagogue’s parking garage after services, he said Wolpe’s sermon had sent the right message.

And he emphasized that Sinai is a home that does not distinguish between Ashkenazi and Iranian Jews.

“It is one of the greatest communities. It is all-inclusive; there is no differentiation in terms of my life, and I am very active — I go to the community every morning, and there are, as the rabbi said, Jewish people there,” he said.