Serving Community and Continuity

For Herb and Beverly Gelfand, the turning point came in the form of a population study. According to a census survey, the intermarriage rate among Jews in America had approached an all-time high of 52 percent. The sobering news motivated the Gelfands to rededicate their public lives to reversing those statistics.

Fast-forward six years. When Herb Gelfand became president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, he made Jewish continuity the top priority of his 1996-98 tenure. He secured an additional $1 million above the Federation’s annual $1.1 million allocation for its educational arm — the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) — to distribute among its network of 164 Orthodox and non-Orthodox schools. The budget amendment Gelfand pushed through endures today.

“From the outset,” says BJE Executive Director Dr. Gil Graff, “[Gelfand made] Jewish education…the leitmotif of his administration.”

Gelfand’s gesture, said Graff, may be “the beginning of additional strides forward…. Gelfand’s legacy has become integral to the ongoing allocation of [resources].”

Dr. Joseph Hakimi, Judaic studies director of Sinai Akiba Academy, says Gelfand has fortified the BJE’s mission to provide Jewish kids with an superior education, by instituting a host of supplemental teacher-training programs.

Gelfand is quick to point out that his wife of 45 years, Beverly, has been an equal partner in the realization of his bureaucratic vision.

Says the immediate past president, “There’s no way that I could have done any of the things I did without her intimate assistance.”

Indeed, Beverly put her husband through law school while working as a secretary. Their struggle paid off when Herb received a juris doctor degree from Loyola University of Law and embarked on a career of practicing real estate law. The Gelfands have been a communally involved couple ever since, lending their commitment to just about every high-profile humanitarian organization ever to rent out the Century Plaza for a fund-raiser. In light of their philanthropic accomplishments, the Gelfands will be honored by the BJE on June 8 at a Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel gala.

The Gelfands brought their children up at a time when the gaze of American Jewry was trained not on continuity but abroad: the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.

“Frankly, at that time, there weren’t that many [Jewish schools], nor was the issue even on the top of my brain,” says Gelfand, whose three children received public-school educations. Of his own Detroit childhood, Gelfand says: “I had very little Jewish education. I was bar mitzvah almost as an afterthought.”

In effect, by plowing their energies into enriching the scholastic experiences of the 30,000 students and 2,000 teachers that the BJE serves, the Gelfands have been trying to construct for their six grandchildren what they did not provide for their own offspring — a solid education grounded in Jewish values and thought.

As Los Angeles Hebrew High School Principal Ben Zion Kogen notes, Herb Gelfand’s fiat has set into motion a vital precedent that transcends its ostensible fiscal impact “simply by sending the message that the community strongly values supplementary schools and the contribution that they make to education.”

A Struggle Closer to Home

In the past, Herb and Beverly Gelfand have done much to raise awareness of the community’s and Israel’s causes and struggles. These days, the Gelfands are dealing with a struggle closer to home: young granddaughter Melanie Silverman’s battle to overcome osteosarcoma, commonly known as bone cancer.

“Her attitude is wonderful,” Gelfand says about the progress of his granddaughter, who last week underwent more chemotherapy. Although Melanie’s an A positive, Gelfand urges donors with all blood types to volunteer their platelets at the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, where Melanie is being treated.

Donors interested in giving blood at the Children’s Hospital must be in good health and between the ages of 17 and 65. No appointments are required for donations. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Appointments are required on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. The blood-donor center is found on the second floor of the hospital’s Sunset Boulevard-and-Vermont Avenue location. For more information, please call (323) 669-2441. — Michael Aushenker