Community Briefs

Allstate to Insure Travelers VisitingIsrael

Plaintiff Allen Estrin won a major victory in his lawsuit against 14 life insurance companies over their refusal to cover people who travel to Israel. The number of defendant insurers in the suit fell to 13 when The Allstate Corp. changed its policy on June 28.

“We decided that the benefits to our customers outweigh the risks,” Allstate declared in a statement, agreeing that it “shall not consider past or future travel to the State of Israel, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip,” when issuing its policies.

Allstate also agreed not to charge travelers to Israel higher premiums than any other policyholder, all else being equal.

“To me it’s obvious that to automatically reject somebody for life insurance simply because they either went to Israel in the past or they’re traveling there in the future is simply an unfair business practice,” said William Shernoff of Shernoff Bidart & Darras, who is representing Estrin along with attorney Lisa Stern.

The US State Department issued a travel warning regarding Israel on April 28, 2004, which may provide clues about why insurers have traditionally been so hesitant to offer coverage to travelers there. According to the warning, Americans visiting Israel “should avoid … public places such as restaurants and cafes, shopping and market areas and malls, pedestrian zones, public buses and bus stops, and other crowded venues and the areas around them,” due to possible terrorist attacks.

Shernoff noted, however, that many insurance companies already have exclusions for terrorism in their policies anyway, obviating the need to refuse coverage further.

“I absolutely did not feel in danger while I was in Israel,” said Estrin, who visited the country several years ago while producing a show for Dennis Prager. “I feel very good about this [case]. If there’s anything I can do to help Israel, I’m going to do it.”

“We think this lawsuit is going to do the trick. There are some bills in Congress and in some of the state legislatures to accomplish the same things, but it takes years for those things to happen,” Shernoff said. “When you file a lawsuit you get their attention, and that’s the way to change things.”

“I don’t deny the insurance companies the right to deny people coverage, but by the same token I can exercise my right to put pressure on them through this lawsuit,” Estrin said. “That is really the purpose of the lawsuit, to bring to light what they were doing.”

The suit continues against the 13 remaining insurers. — Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

Woznica to Take Post at Stephen S.Wise

Rabbi David Woznica, whose hiring by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles three years ago as executive vice president of Jewish affairs sparked some controversy, said he would leave the organization soon to become a rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple. The Federation has no immediate plans to fill his position.

At Stephen S. Wise, the rabbi said he hopes to contribute to making the temple a place where congregants come for classes, lectures and dialogues, “almost a Reform yeshiva of sorts.” He called the appointment a “dream-like opportunity.”

The Federation ruffled some feathers because it lured Woznica with a six-figure salary on the eve of organizational layoffs. Critics also groused that the organization already employed a rabbi as head of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and had no need for another. Federation executives countered that the rabbis had different functions.

Woznica, former director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the prestigious 92nd Street Y in New York, said he enjoyed his time at The Federation. He said he helped “elevate” the role of Judaism there by holding Torah classes, giving speeches throughout the community and overseeing public dialogues with such important Jewish figures as Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

“I think he did a very good job lighting up the community,” said Todd Morgan, former Federation chairman who helped recruit Woznica.

Federation President John Fishel said in a statement that Woznica’s private tutorials with senior leaders influenced their decision-making. “He helped bring a Jewish perspective to our decisions at the senior management level,” Fishel said.

That was part of the problem, critics said. Whereas The Federation originally brought the rabbi on to minister to Jews across a wide economic and geographic swath of the Southland, the organization failed to introduce him to a larger audience outside The Federation as promised. The Federation even had to form a special committee early on to figure out how to best tap Woznica’s talents months after hiring him.

“I don’t think he was ever used up to the maximum,” former Federation Vice President Gerald Bubis said. “He didn’t make the impression here that he did at the 92nd Street Y.”

At the Y from 1991 to 2001, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures a year. Executives there said the rabbi’s work helped burnish its image and attract new donors. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services at the Y, which he continues to preside over to this day.

Daniel R. Kaplan, former president and chairman of the 92nd Street Y and a current board member, said he thought Woznica performed well at The Federation and would thrive at Stephen S. Wise, because of its “hands-on opportunities.” — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

JCC Problems Continue as Agency WindsDown

As the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) winds down its affairs, one of the biggest JCCs under its control is in serious trouble, while uncertainty clouds the futures of some of the others.

An anonymous donor who had promised to buy Valley Cities Jewish Community Center from JCCGLA for $2.2 million and then lease it back to the community has pulled his offer. Insiders said he wanted to renegotiate the asking price.

JCCGLA officials said they have given Valley Cities supporters until October — rent-free — to buy the property. If they fail to close the deal by then, the JCC will go on the market, although any buyer would have to allow Valley Cities programs to operate there until next summer, said Nina Lieberman Giladi, outgoing JCCGLA executive vice president.

Valley Cities supporters said a deal could still be worked out with the anonymous buyer. Meanwhile, supporters think the property could attract other interested potential buyers, said Michael Brezner, president of Friends of Valley Cities JCC, a new nonprofit corporation that is to assume control of the community center from JCCGLA.

If Valley Cities is saved, supporters expect to generate operating revenue by renting out its newly refurbished auditorium for weddings and bar mitzvahs, its kitchen to caterers and JCCGLA’s offices to local businesses, once JCCGLA sheds its final employees as expected later this summer, said Les Paley, a Valley Cities board member and a JCCGLA director for 30 years. Valley Cities costs hundreds of thousands to operate annually.

Executives at the profitable Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, which, like Valley Cities, nearly closed down recently because of JCCGLA’s budget problems, said negotiations to buy the center are on track. In early July, a much-anticipated three-way meeting among Silverlake supporters, JCCGLA and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is scheduled.

JCCGLA’s Lieberman Giladi said her organization is still helping some of the centers prepare to go independent and would form a new legal entity with a board to manage the Westside JCC and the Shalom Institute properties. The organization would also manage Silverlake and Valley Cities until they are sold, she added.

Lieberman Giladi said she would leave JCCGLA to assume her new duties as dean of the University of Judaism’s MBA program in nonprofit management. Looking back, she said she thought her hard work on behalf of area community centers had paid off.

“It has been difficult and trying, but if one measures my performance by the outcome, I think this has been a successful endeavor,” said Lieberman Giladi, who said she might serve on JCCGLA’s reconfigured board. “JCCs that were slated for closure are continuing to operate.”

But JCCGLA has experienced its share of setbacks lately, which critics blame on mismanagement and an ongoing feud with The Federation that might have cost the Jewish centers badly needed funding.

At the end of June, the Conejo Valley JCC closed because of ongoing budget deficits. JCCGLA executives said they shuttered the facility to pay off its debt, including $2.2 million it owes The Federation, $450,000 to banks and $1 million to a special agency fund it tapped during its first systemwide crisis nearly three years ago.

Former Valley Cities board member Art Verity said he thought few in the community would miss JCCGLA. “I think they’ve done a terrible job,” he said. “Instead of rescuing and rebuilding centers, they destroyed them. At best, it’s incompetence.”

Rafe Perry, JCCGLA’s chief operating officer, said his organization deserved credit for trying to leave the remaining JCCs in the best shape possible. “We’re all working to make sure all these organizations start off debt-free and with a blank slate,” he said. — MB