Jewish World Watch’s Walk to End Genocide participants included Mariya Svilak (fourth from left), part of the Stephen Wise Temple team, and Karina Zysman (far right), a senior at Taft Charter High School and captain of Team Taft. Photo by Ryan Torok

Community puts best foot forward at JWW’s Walk to End Genocide

To help raise awareness of efforts to end genocides, approximately 1,000 people participated in the 11th annual Jewish World Watch (JWW) Walk to End Genocide on April 30, starting at Pan Pacific Park.

“It’s one place where everyone comes together,” said Susan Freudenheim, executive director of JWW. “It’s a community event where people of all denominations and across the board — churches and other groups — come together.”

Indeed, clergy, synagogue members, high school students and elected officials, many wearing T-shirts that read, “This is what activism looks like,” covered 5 kilometers on streets neighboring The Grove and the Original Farmers Market.

“I think all of us who have genocide in our DNA need to stand right now with Jewish World Watch to make sure we understand genocide is not something in the history books,” Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer said in an interview. “Genocide is something happening right now.”

Beyond the Holocaust, during which the Nazis systematically targeted European Jewry for extinction, other groups have suffered genocide, which the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines as “violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.”

A Jewish lawyer from what is now Belarus, Raphael Lemkin, coined the term “genocide” in 1944. Genocides have occurred against Armenians in 1915, Cambodians in 1975, Rwandans in 1994 and Sudanese in the early years of this century.

“I think all of us who have genocide in our DNA need to stand right now with Jewish World Watch to make sure we understand genocide is not something in the history books.” — Los Angeles Unified School District Board President Steve Zimmer

Rabbi Yechiel Hoffman, director of youth learning and engagement at Temple Beth Am, said the walk would not prevent killings in South Sudan, the world’s newest country, or Syria, which has endured civil war since 2011. Raising awareness about those countries, however, is important, Hoffman said.

“You don’t walk because it ends genocide,” he said, joined by his daughter, Mina, 10, at the event. “You walk to raise awareness that genocide is a real thing that exists today.”

Jordana Olszewski, who owns a jewelry company called Jordana Adrienne, participated as a member of Team Ohr HaTorah, named for a synagogue in Mar Vista. She started the day at 8 a.m., running in a 10K race that kicked off the event.

“I’m tired, but it’s all right, it’s great,” she said, as she completed the event. “All these different synagogues and organizations coming together, it’s really nice.” Moments later, she picked up a bongo drum and banged away as part of a drum circle drawing people of all ages.

Headquartered in Encino, JWW is focused on ending genocide by partnering with groups working in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and South Sudan.

In 2004, the late Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Harold Schulweis co-founded the organization with Janice Kamenir-Reznik, on the premise that Jews have a responsibility to prevent another Holocaust from happening, whether the victims are Jewish or not.

Schulweis delivered a 2004 High Holy Days sermon titled “Globalism and Judaism,” in which he declared, “To be a Jew is to think big; to be a Jew is to think globally; to be a Jew is to act globally; to be a Jew is to love God, who is global.”

At the walk, L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz attempted to uphold the JWW co-founder’s mission.

“ ‘Never again’ does not just mean for Jews,” he said, wearing a Los Angeles Dodgers cap. “We all have to fight genocide in any way we can.”

Freudenheim said the organization has expanded its work to include assistance for refugees displaced by the Syrian civil war.

“We’ve also been working on trying to help the Syrian refugees who are in Greece, in Lesbos, by providing help to support the psychological aspects of their residency, to give them psychological support,” she said.

Additional JWW Walk to End Genocide events took place this year in Washington, D.C., and Santa Rosa and the Conejo Valley in California.  Altogether, the four events raised more than $180,000.

Karina Zysman, 18, a senior at Taft Charter High School planning to attend UCLA this fall, is secretary of the JWW Teen Ambassador Program, which instills community organizing and advocacy skills in students grades 9-12.

As captain of Team Taft and participating in her first Walk to End Genocide, she carried a sign reading, “Welcome Refugees.”

“The first step to making a change is to show up,” she said. “I am so astonished by how many people did show up for this cause. It inspires me to have hope, using baby steps to change the world for the better.”

Alan Gross’ wife urges activism on his behalf

The wife American contractor Alan Gross called for increased pressure on Congress and President Obama to get her husband released from a Cuban jail.

Judy Gross spoke Monday at a protest on her husband’s behalf outside the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. The rally was organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington.

Dec. 3 will mark two years since Alan Gross’ arrest.

“I spoke with Alan two days ago. Never have I heard him more hopeless and depressed,” Judy Gross told the rally. He has gained five pounds after losing 100, due to the fact that he has difficulty getting around because of debilitating arthritis, she said.

Gross, 62, is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba for “crimes against the state” for distributing laptop computers and connecting Cuban Jews to the Internet. He was arrested in 2009 as he was leaving Cuba, and accused of being a spy.

Gross’ family and U.S. State Department officials say that Gross was in the country on a U.S. Agency for International Development contract to help the country’s 1,500 Jews communicate with other Jewish communities using the Internet. The main Jewish groups in Cuba have denied any contact with or knowledge of Gross or the program.

Judy Gross and her husband’s supporters have stepped up their activism on Alan Gross’ behalf, after quiet diplomacy failed.

‘Rachel Corrie’ on stage: agitprop or art?

“The American Jewish community has a problem keeping silent,” says scholar Michael Berenbaum, and he ascribes the “problem” to guilt over our collective failure to speak up during the Holocaust.

In a very different time and on a vastly different scale, the option of silence versus public protest faces Los Angeles Jews in advance of the opening of a play many view as anti-Israel propaganda.

The one-woman play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” will open Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor venue in Topanga Canyon. Although it is hardly a prominent theatrical event for a cultural mecca like Los Angeles, its focus on a controversial historical figure from Israel’s recent history raises questions of artistic freedom and historical balance.

Rachel Corrie, who grew up in a liberal, non-Jewish family in Olympia, Wash., traveled during the Second Intifada to the Gaza Strip as part of an activist movement to “shield” Palestinian inhabitants from the Israeli army.

She was killed March 16, 2003, at age 23, while confronting an army bulldozer assigned to demolish a house believed to harbor hostile militants. Some allege the bulldozer driver killed Corrie on purpose because she would not move out of the way. Others say the driver did not see her and ran over her accidentally.

The dramatic circumstances of this young American woman’s death in the midst of a widely covered conflict quickly turned the incident into an international cause célèbre.

Corrie, a compulsive writer, left behind a huge cache of diary entries and e-mail letters, which two Londoners, actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, have edited into a 70-minute play.

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opened in London in 2005 to full houses and glowing reviews. A planned New York premiere in early 2006, at the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop, met a different fate, however.

The timing of the New York opening was inauspicious. It was a moment when the always-heated emotions surrounding the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been intensified by Hamas’ election victory in Gaza, a group listed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. The play’s intended opening also coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke, which left the Israeli leader in a coma.

So, before opening the play, James Nicola, artistic director of the New York theater, decided to poll local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work, according to a New York Times report.

Nicola concluded that the announced play “has made this community very defensive and very edgy … and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the opening indefinitely.”

Nevertheless, the play opened later that year at a commercial theater in Greenwich Village, and that production left New York Times critic Clive Davis cold.

“An element of unvarnished propaganda comes to the fore … with no attempt to set the violence in context,” Davis wrote. “We are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists.”

In a rebuttal, Viner, the play’s co-editor, defended her work as “a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop.”

Various productions of the play have since been staged in Seattle, Chicago, Australia and Ireland.

Samara Frame will portray activist Rachel Corrie in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” opening Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Perhaps with the unhappy New York experience in mind, the Theatricum Botanicum’s board decided to do some advance outreach to the local Jewish community, with veteran character actor Alan Blumenfeld, a longtime board member, volunteering to make the contacts.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Blumenfeld noted that, so far, attention has focused on Corrie’s dramatic end, rather than on her life. In assessing the play, he said, “I think it is important to figure out who she was and what she tried to do — separate from her death.”

In one of her diary entries, the then-21-year-old Corrie describes herself as “scattered, deviant and too loud.” Susan Angelo, who directs actress Samara Frame in the upcoming production, sees Corrie as a rather naïve young woman who knew little about the Middle East conflict and could have gone to any global hot spot in her search “to make her life meaningful.”

Co-editor Viner, in an epilogue to the play’s script, sums up Corrie as “messy, skinny, Dali-loving, list-making, chain-smoking, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar.”

A reading of the play shows Corrie portrayed as an intelligent, idealistic, super-imaginative and introspective teenager and young woman, who strove, somewhat self-consciously, to appear unconventional.

In trying to evaluate the Jewish community’s mood, Blumenfeld spoke with representatives of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs.

Blumenfeld said he found the representatives of all three groups friendly and forthcoming. As a result of the discussions, representatives from the community will provide audiences with factual written material and participate in “audience talk-back” sessions following all four performances of the play.

In an interview, Patsy Ostroy, founding president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said she had not seen the play but she anticipated “a negative reaction in the Jewish community,” while at the same time fully defending the play’s right to be heard and seen.

Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, said she had expressed her deep concern about the possible impact of the “play’s misinformation” on audiences, but also explored with Blumenfeld possible future stagings of other works at Theatricum Botanicum, perhaps by young Israeli authors.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a group that on its Web site describes its mission as fighting the “delegitimization of Israel,” expressed concern about the play’s approach: “I can fully understand that Rachel’s parents are heartbroken …  but the play itself consists of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda.”

StandWithUs does not advocate a boycott of the play, she said, but it will distribute to audiences a leaflet featuring pictures of eight Israeli women, all also named Rachel, who have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Although the Simon Wiesenthal Center was not part of Blumenfeld’s advance discussions, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that based on Israel’s record and government investigation of the case, he is convinced Corrie’s death was accidental.

“In a free country, the producers of the play have every right to put it on,” Hier said, “but to any friend of Israel, I would say, ‘Don’t see it.’ ”

Veteran peace and civil-rights activist Gerald Bubis also emphasized the right of any play to present its message, nevertheless predicting that “the more Jews attack the play, the more publicity it will get.

“My advice about the play is leave it alone, leave it alone,” Bubis said. “If it’s good, it’ll survive; if it’s bad, it won’t. In either case, nothing will happen to the Jews.”

Two telling evaluations came from theatrical producers who have had their own struggles with controversial plays.

Howard Teichman, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, recalled that two years ago he wanted to put on “Behind the Gates” by Wendy Graf, much of it set in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.

Though Teichman considered the play “brilliant,” when he presented the project to his board, a majority turned it down, concerned that the contents would offend religious sensibilities. “I still think one of the theater’s missions is to present all points of view,” he said.

Gordon Davidson, who served for nearly four decades as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, staged “The Devils” by John Whiting as his very first production. Among other topics, the play dealt with religious hysteria and sexual repression among 17th century nuns and priests, and the reaction by the Catholic Church and powerful politicians almost aborted Davidson’s career at its start.

“I realize that a given play may cause anger and hurt, but if I chose it on its merits, I have to take the responsibility,” Davidson said. “And what better exercise in democracy can there be?”

So far, the Jewish community, or that segment aware of the Rachel Corrie play, is generally taking its upcoming performance with equanimity.

Blumenfeld said that the theater sent out notices of the play’s schedule to its mailing list of 4,000, and just seven came back with e-mailed comments.

“Three said, ‘I’m excited and will attend,’ ” Blumenfeld said. “Two responded with, ‘I am concerned about the play. Can we discuss this?’ And two more messaged, ‘How dare you put this on? I’ll never set foot in your theater again.’ ”

Performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” are on successive Thursday evenings, Sept. 1, 8, 15 and 22, at the Theatricum Botanicum’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion, located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway. For tickets ($12 each) and information, phone (310) 455-3723, or visit

A leaflet will be distributed to audiences by the group StandWithUs.

Israelis awakening to the power of grass-roots activism

On a recent Saturday night, my wife and I waded into a sea of 6,000 protesters in Modiin as part of 12 other similarly staged rallies across Israel to demand social justice and greater accountability from our elected officials in Israel.

This was Modiin, the newly created suburban retreat of the middle class—a far cry from the social challenges facing the country. Amid a wave of upwardly mobile suburbanites, we found common cause with the hundreds of thousands of protestors who believe that Israel must provide greater social mobility and opportunity.

It was a dream come true. When I lived in New York, I said that people deserve the government they elect and that real change will come about only when average people take to the streets and demand better. In Israel this is happening.

As one of the most heavily taxed nations in the developed world, Israel (with compulsory military service) extracts an incredible price from its population. The Israeli people have the right, and indeed the responsibility, to demand that their government be accountable and responsive to the needs of its people.

Just a few months ago I was inspired by young Arabs who took to the streets in capitals from Cairo to Damascus to demand dignity, economic opportunity and democracy. They risked far more than we do in a free and democratic state; they risked their lives. Today we are witness to young Israelis taking to the streets to demand more from their government and greater social equality in their society.

Many voices make up this movement, including many with political ambitions, but there is something different about it. These protests demonstrate a younger generation seeking ownership of our society. The young protesters understand that to have social justice requires a greater level of social cohesion. The purposeful spread of the protests from urban to rural areas reflects the desire for a movement that stretches across Israeli society and is both inclusive and comprehensive.

It is also the cry of desperate masses of middle-class citizens who want and deserve a better life. When average citizens and upper-middle-class citizens can barely finish the month with their salaries, they are unable to invest in their futures and the futures of their children. When young people with a college degree cannot find meaningful jobs, our entire society suffers from a deficit in human capital.

The people of Israel deserve more attuned leadership and are finally mobilizing to demand a more accountable government that will lower oppressive taxes. Until our elected representatives understand the burdens placed on Israeli citizens and fix the system of taxation without limits, this movement will endure.

Taxes, social justice and Jewish values have a deep connection. How a government collects and spends its tax revenue reflects the priorities of the society and the government itself. A more accountable and transparent system of taxation will result in a shift of government expenditures to areas that offer support for the middle class, reduce economic inequality, and enhance Israeli democracy and increase faith in the government.

The drive for social justice ultimately will come from the people themselves. The protests in Modiin and other cities are resonating across Israeli society, uniting young and old, religious and secular. It is a movement rooted in the Jewish values of our faith and in the teachings of the Ethics of our Fathers.

While the specific demands of the student protest leaders are unclear, and legislative change and affordable housing remain uncertain, what is clear is that student sentiment has tapped an untouched nerve in Israeli society.

Whether the results of the protest movement yield new elections, new legislation, new housing or none of the above, Israeli society has awakened to the power of grass-roots activism. What happens next is anyone’s guess, but like the seasons of the year, change is coming, like it or not.

(David Borowich Ya’ari is the CEO of Hillel in Israel. He made aliyah with his wife and family in 2009 and lives in Modiin.)

The seminar of a lifetime

As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to

The Bloods, the Crips and the rabbi

In 1970, Abraham David Cooper was arrested by Washington police during a sit-in across from the Soviet embassy and put behind bars in a jammed holding cell. The then-20-year old Yeshiva College student came away from the experience with two important observations that may have changed his life:

  • First, that he didn’t like being in jail.
  • Second, that the established Jewish organizations had been missing in action in what Cooper considered the defining Jewish struggle of the time.

In the intervening 37 years, Cooper has made a point of being present in many of the world’s hot spots, and, at the same time, managed to stay out of prison. And during roughly the same time span, he has played a key role in creating one of the most activist Jewish organizations in the world, working outside the boundaries of the traditional organized community structure.

Ordained as an Orthodox rabbi, Cooper’s formal title today is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC). That curious academic rank is a holdover from his initial work with the SWC-affiliated Yeshiva University of Los Angeles, but it hardly defines his role and influence on this Jewish institution whose mission is to promote understanding among the world’s people.

Cooper, 57, is, in most respects, the alter ego of Rabbi Marvin Hier, the founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, and the 33-year-long relationship in which their interaction and division of labor are defined by a kind of shorthand telepathy, requiring no organizational chart or chain of command.

But if today the SWC is a worldwide presence — with seven offices at home and abroad, a landmark Museum of Tolerance, a reported 400,000 member families, high-profile donors and entr�(c)e to presidents and kings — a considerable share of the credit goes to Cooper.

While Hier is the ultimate decision maker and both men respond interchangeably, and instantly, to the endless real or perceived crises facing Israel and the Jewish people around the globe, Cooper does have specific areas of responsibility and expertise.

One is interfaith relations; another is the burgeoning area of cyberspace. Cooper testified before Congress as long as six years ago that the increasing sophistication of Internet propaganda by hate groups, white supremacists and Islamic extremists was exerting growing influence among younger people.

From his Pacific-oriented vantage point in Los Angeles, Cooper is the point man for relations with Japan, China and other Far Eastern nations, introducing Holocaust exhibits, exposing anti-Semitic literature, and establishing ties with political and religious leaders.

“Abe is the Wiesenthal Center’s ambassador to most of the world,” Hier said.

This “ambassador” also shows up in some unexpected places and situations.

Last year, for instance, Cooper was drafted as witness to a peace treaty signed by the so-called O.G.s (original gangster), the founding elders of the Bloods and the Crips, two of the most fearful rival gangs in South Los Angeles.

He was recruited for the assignment by Katy Haber, a London-born film producer, who has been working for many years with at-risk youth and the homeless in the African American community.

Haber had met Cooper while working as a docent at the Museum of Tolerance and had no doubt that he was the right man to win the confidence of the gang members.

“Who would be more appropriate than a man who works on conflict resolution with world leaders?” Haber asked rhetorically. “Besides, he is a man of deep intellect, extraordinary sensitivity, and one of the major humanitarians in our community.”

In the introductory meeting and after guiding the O.G.s through the Museum of Tolerance, Cooper complemented the broad lesson of mutual understanding with concrete specifics on community activism, finding jobs and how to deal with authorities.

Cooper said he has no particular formula or technique for bringing opposing sides to the table or bridging differences.

“Part of it is my background as a New Yorker, an American and a Jew, which has given me a certain quiet self-assurance,” he said. “Another part is the example set early on by my father.”

By way of contrast, Cooper was on the other side of the world last summer, on the Indonesian island of Bali. He was there as the organizer of the “Tolerance between Religions” conference, which brought together such unlikely participants as leading Muslim, Hindu and Jewish religious leaders, victims of the three faiths targeted by suicide bombers, and a Holocaust survivor.

In one speech, carried by Arab networks and worldwide, former president Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation in the world, upbraided Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his denial of the Holocaust.

Cooper’s organizing partner was C. Holland Taylor, CEO of the Libforall Foundation, which works with Muslim religious, educational, business and entertainment leaders to stem the spread of Islamic extremism.

After the Bali conference, Taylor and Cooper led a high-profile peace delegation from Indonesia, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, on a weeklong mission to the Jewish state.

The experience impressed Taylor, who in a phone call from Indonesia described Cooper as “a brilliant strategist, who grasps immediately what can be done and who can juggle a dozen issues simultaneously.”

In the relationship between the Wiesenthal Center’s two top men, Cooper’s loyalty and admiration for Hier is unquestioned, but there is one easily noticed distinction between the two Orthodox rabbis.

As the Center’s clout has increased over the years, so has criticism of the institution within the general, and Orthodox, communities.

Complaints, mostly sotto voce, are aimed at the center’s alleged intrusions on the turfs of older community organizations, its political influence, the high salaries paid its top executives, violations of standards for nonprofit organizations, alarmist tactics and, in Israel, plans to build a $200 million Center for Human Dignity/Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem.

In practically all these criticisms, the target is Hier, who is sometimes described, in awe, fear or derision, as a “New York street fighter.” By contrast, Cooper gets off unscathed.

Street fight

The Brooklyn-born activist rose from his seat, walked slowly to the microphone, cleared his throat, and in front of a couple of hundred fellow activists assembled in an auditorium on a chilly Wednesday night, expressed his righteous indignation.

“We are tired of being used as stepping stones!” he bellowed to the delight of the crowd. “Enough is enough. It’s time for our voice to be heard!”

Was the man referring to the abuse of Israel at the United Nations?

Was he expressing outrage at how thousands of Jews displaced from their homes in Gaza two years ago have had their lives turned upside down, while bombs keep falling on Sderot?

What was this man so passionate about?

Actually, he was talking about the parking and traffic situation on Pico and Olympic boulevards.

He was fuming that he and other residents were not consulted before the city announced their plan to relieve the ever-worsening traffic on those boulevards.

You see, a few months ago, the city decided it was time to finally show some action on this particular problem. The plan that was announced in November by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss at an outdoor press conference in November had three phases, the first being the most controversial: restrict the parking on Pico and Olympic boulevards during the peak traffic hours.

For storefront merchants who depend on street traffic and who contribute plenty in taxes and fees, that was the last thing they needed.

Take Julien Bohbot, owner of Delice Bakery in Pico-Robertson, who was sitting next to me at the Wednesday town hall meeting. Most of his customers use street parking on Pico, and the 3-7 p.m. time period is his busiest. If the city makes parking illegal during that time, he can’t see how his business will survive.

The meeting was full of angry business owners and residents like Bohbot, and it was clear that the man who got up to speak, Jay Handal, was their hero.

Handal heads the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his cause, I felt I was listening to Alan Dershowitz defending Israel.

A few days later, I decided to track him down at the Italian restaurant in Brentwood he has owned for 21 years, San Gennaro.

It turns out that Handal is not only upset at Villaraigosa and Weiss for the way they “ambushed” the neighborhoods with their press conference, he’s also upset at the local media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, for not giving enough voice to the neighborhoods’ grievances.

He does have kind words for councilman and former television host Bill Rosendhal, who arranged the town hall meeting and who is helping residents and small business merchants get their day in court.

Handal thinks it’ll be an uphill battle to stop the city’s plan, because, as he says, Villaraigosa and Weiss now have egg on their face, and it’s not easy for politicians to admit they’re wrong.

Are they wrong? Well, the fact that the Department of Transportation and a mayoral representative are now appearing at a series of town hall meetings to explain their plans and listen to people’s concerns is a sign that they could have handled it better in the first place.

But Handal also thinks their proposals are misguided. He thinks restricting parking won’t solve anything because it will encourage even more traffic on those boulevards, while hurting businesses — which in the end only lowers the city’s revenues. At the meeting, he got a rousing applause when he brought up the idea of starting with phase two — retiming of traffic lights — and leaving the street parking alone until more impact studies are done.

The real problem, he told me, is that the city of Santa Monica overdeveloped their business sector without a corresponding increase in housing. This has resulted in a huge increase in eastbound traffic on Pico and Olympic; and since Venice and Washington boulevards are underused, he thinks encouraging people to use those boulevards would be smarter.

But all those ideas are peanuts compared to what Handal dreams about for the future.

On Sunday, he told me about this dream, which he is working on with a group of activists, and which he believes will redefine the city of Los Angeles: High-speed, comfortable, pollution-free, magnetic-levitation monorails.

No kidding. He showed me plans. Instead of costing $7 billion like the city’s much-touted “Subway to the Sea,” and taking until the year 2030 to extend the current subway from Western to La Cienega, the monorail would cost $1.75 billion, go from the ocean to Union Station and could be completed in five years.

As he sees it, the monorail would rise majestically above Pico Boulevard (or any other major east-west artery) and would be a major tourist attraction. He talks about having fancy cafes in these monorails, first-class cabins with express service to downtown, convenient stops for shoppers and commuters, and, eventually, expanding the monorail to other parts of Los Angeles to reduce the congestion and get people to places like LAX without any hassles.

Handal is livid that these kind of creative ideas get so little attention. When I ask him why, he replies in his thick Brooklyn accent: “Just follow the money.” Powerful unions and big business, he says, have a vested interest in lucrative projects like $7 billion subways, and politicians hungry for election money listen to them.

But Handal is not deterred. His passion never ends.

Frankly, I don’t often meet people who go gaga over stuff like parking studies and the timing of traffic lights. But I confess, when I saw Handal get so passionate about the monorail idea and his vision for the city I love, it gave me a little thrill.

Maybe I’ll go to the next town hall meeting. Mr. Mayor, are you listening?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Family Law Center Thanks Its Founding ‘Angel’

If you meet Grace Quinn sunning herself on the patio of her home at Westwood Horizons Retirement Residence or pushing her bright red walker in Trader Joe’s, you wouldn’t guess that this nonagenarian is one of the founders of Levitt & Quinn Family Law Center.

In 1981, a 66-year-old Quinn and two other partners traded the Beverly Hills life of country clubs and card games for a rat-infested storefront practice in Silver Lake, where the streets teamed with drug dealers, prostitutes and gang members. Even after moving to Westwood Horizons at 80, she’d leave the retirement community where everything was geared to making her comfortable and commute almost an hour each way to do the work she loved. She continued to work for the center for five more years before she retired in 2001.

Although its original founders are no longer with the center, the nonprofit continues to offer low-cost legal services to help lower-income households resolve family conflicts. Quinn says she misses rolling up to the Sunset Boulevard center with partner Ethel Levitt (who died of a stroke in 1995), in her beige Cadillac featuring the license plate “LAWMAMA.”

“Life was good to me,” she said. “I wanted to make a difference, and I wanted to give something back.”

The center doles out legal advice to the working poor, aiding neighborhood residents with divorce, custody, paternity, adoption and guardianship — issues that could well become a matter of life and death.

Although Quinn no longer devotes her time to Levitt & Quinn, her name continues to grace the organization’s stationery with the title “founder” right next to it. This past year the nonprofit honored her 90th birthday at their 24th annual Awards Dinner.

In her comfortable apartment at Westwood Horizons, Quinn reminisces, rummaging through scrapbooks for photos, repositioning meaningful art work on her wall and, in the end, pointedly nodding at the red walker parked in a corner, next to a rarely used cane.

“I just use them when I go out,” she says with pride as she walks past them, straight as a stick.

Quinn grew up in a middle-class home, but when she graduated from Roosevelt High School the Great Depression had devastated her parents’ life savings. Money for college was out of the question, but a perk of her job as a registrar for the dean of Pacific Coast University College of Law was the opportunity to attend law school at night.

Quinn was one of about five women in the class, and when she graduated four years later she was at the top of her class. She passed the bar in 1937, and took a civil service job as a researcher.

After marrying journalist Joe Quinn in 1941 and giving birth to her sons, Tom and Bob, she left her legal job to become a stay-at-home mother.

Once her youngest son started school, Quinn started work as a volunteer attorney with the Los Angeles Legal Aid Foundation. Around the same time, her husband began working as L.A. deputy mayor under Mayor Sam Yorty, serving out three terms from 1961 to 1973. Eventually, she left her work with Legal Aid to become an adjunct ambassador to work beside her husband, traveling around the world to countries like German, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

When Joe died at 76, the always-practical Quinn returned to Legal Aid after telling herself, “Time to go back to work.”

In 1980, after President Reagan cut back funding to the family law division of Legal Aid, Quinn, Levitt and Ziva Naumann, who had all met at a United Way luncheon, decided to found Levitt & Quinn.

“We had a huge backlog of cases, about 10,000 people waiting to be interviewed. Some people had been on the list for years,” Quinn said.

By 1981, Levitt & Quinn incorporated as a nonprofit law firm. They found an office on Sunset Boulevard that was cheap as well as convenient to bus lines and the courthouse. Neither partner ever took a salary and both supported the firm with their own funds.

“I had a law degree and I wanted to help people who didn’t know how to help themselves,” Quinn said. “We developed do it-yourself divorce classes, which empowered women to get involved in their own cases — filling out paperwork, filing forms at the court house — so they felt more like partners than clients.”

In the beginning, the money came out of their savings accounts. To supplement, they organized fundraisers — rummage sales, Las Vegas nights, buffet dinners — their guest list straight out of their phone books, with Naumann catering most of them herself.

Today, the law firm is more vibrant than ever and supports five paid attorneys (along with volunteers), a staff of 10 administrators and legal assistants, as well as a 12-member advisory council and a 17-member board of directors. And the firm has since moved to new digs on Beverly Boulevard, still close to the courthouse.

“We still operate on the same vision our founders created in 1981,” says Joan Alexander, director of development. “The difference is we’re bigger and more streamlined.”

“I loved working with these women,” Quinn says. “We were good friends, and we respected each other. It was the friendship of a lifetime.”

On a recent visit to the newly renovated law firm, Quinn entered the front door where, as usual, a crowd of people was waiting to see a lawyer. On the wall was a striking photo of the three founders, archangels of the firm.

A young Latino man looked Quinn up and down, then looked at the photo, then back at Quinn. A smile came over his face. As she proceeded to leave, he followed her out to the parking lot, asking if he could help her down the stairs and into her car. He was almost in tears, and, almost embarrassed to say it to Quinn directly.

“This woman is an angel,” he said. “She saved my life.”

Falash Mura Wait and Hope

I pulled my rubber-duck-yellow poncho over my head and trudged through the dirt of the open sewage and trash in the shantytown, trying to breathe through my mouth. I was in Ethiopia with my mother and a mission from United Jewish Communities (UJC) and I could smell the people’s desperation for a new life in the holy place of Jerusalem.

My eyes were opened so wide by seeing what is going on in Ethiopia that they almost ripped. I saw Ethiopian Jews living a life that no one should ever have to bear, Jewish or not, with disease, lack of food and obvious poverty.

Most of the more than 20,000 Ethiopian Jews left in Ethiopia today are Falash Mura, people whose families were converted to Christianity about 100 years ago, but who still identify as Jews. The Israeli government for years has been wavering on whether they are real Jews and should be brought to Israel, even though most have family there. Today there are about 85,000 Ethiopian Jews in Israel, including about 20,000 who were born there.

Starting in the 1970s, thousands of Ethiopian Jews walked from their villages through the Sudan, hoping to find a way to Jerusalem. Some of them died along the way from sickness and exhaustion. More than 8,000 Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel in Operation Moses in 1984, but still thousands of the community were left with just bubbles of hope back in Gondar. There were 3,000 Falash Mura among the 15,000 Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted to Israel in Operation Solomon in 1990, but the Israeli government sent the Falash Mura back to compounds in Addis Ababa because they weren’t considered “real Jews.”

I wonder how any country, especially Israel, which has suffered so much, can turn away children who could turn out to be doctors, teachers and the world’s next best politicians, and send them not back to their villages in Gondar but to compounds covered in the gray blanket of rain clouds in Addis Ababa, where they don’t have any of their belongings or money to survive.

Falash Mura who are still in the compounds of Addis Ababa or their villages in Gondar are waiting to see what’s over the rainbow — and that place is Israel.
My group went to one of the compounds in Addis Ababa, where we saw the clinics and met the main doctor, Rick Hodes, who inspired and motivated me more than anyone or anything. He has spent more than 20 years helping the sick and needy in Ethiopia.

I thought that doing a four-day mission should make me a good person, but he has devoted his whole career and life to helping, including adopting 12 children himself — and only one fully healthy. He studied at Johns Hopkins and could have lived a well-off life in America. But instead, he chose the path of living in Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Jews, where he could be their doctor, a friend and a part of their lives.

In Addis Ababa, we went to see some one-room, square huts that housed five people. I stepped into an old woman’s hut and saw the dilapidated, stained walls with no light, straw mattresses and the few reed-woven goods that were the fiber of her life. But what really caught my eye was one picture frame crammed with five or six little shots of family members that had made it to Israel.

The old woman sitting on the coarse, straw mattress said that she had been told that she could go to Israel because she has family there. She left all of her belongings in Gondar and went to live with nothing in Addis Ababa. She has been waiting for nine years. I asked the translator to ask her who had told her to go to Israel. The old woman said in Amharic, “God.”

An early one-hour flight to Gondar took us to one of the places where families are interviewed to determine if they are eligible to go to Israel. As I was looking around the room, my mom pointed to a little box filled with passport photos. The box, coincidentally, had the word “lucky” in bold red printed on the side. Those passport photos were of the lucky Falash Mura, those chosen to go Israel, as they believe God intended for them.

The last day, before we went back to Israel with about 50 new immigrant Falash Mura, we stopped at the Israeli Embassy and passed by crowded rooms with classes on how to flush toilets, use refrigerators and what the plane is going to be like.

When the UJC group met at the Addis Ababa airport for our 2:30 a.m. flight, we saw all of the Ethiopian families in their finest white dresses and the little boys in gray suits they had picked up at the embassy. One member of our group brought a Polaroid camera and gave the families pictures of themselves on the day their hopes became reality.

Once we were settled on the plane, these families were reserved and quiet. If they had any fear it was bottled inside. The wheels levitated into the clouds, and only a few of the children giggled, and maybe one baby cried.

When we landed, all of the UJC members walked nonchalantly out of the exit. But as we watched, the Falash Mura came out of the plane — the women modestly enveloped in their white scarves — and when each of them reached the tarmac, they kissed the ground, almost throwing themselves to the pavement. They had gone over the rainbow. They had reached Israel.

Sophia Kay is 15 and attends The Archer School for Girls.

To learn more about Ethiopian Jews, visit the

A 10-Step Guide to Helping Israel

As the conflict in Israel continues, Jewish groups are focusing their efforts — financial, spiritual, intellectual, personal and practical — on ways to help Israel. The following list — by no means comprehensive — includes 10 things you can do to help Israel.

  1. Write a Letter to a Family: Sometimes the personal touch is the most effective. The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles has set up a way to send your letters in diplomatic packages that will go directly to families in shelters in the North. To participate, go to Who knows? Maybe your letter will lead to a full correspondence!
  2. Send a Gift Basket to a Family: Nothing distracts a child more than candy or toys. The Web site is offering free delivery for care packages being sent to children in shelters. Prices for packages for 10-20 children begin at $19.95.
  3. Send a Gift Basket to a Soldier: The Israel Defense Forces recently called up 30,000 reservists, in addition to the thousands of 18- 21-year-olds serving their national duty. “Dash Cham,” which means warm regards, is a web site specializing in sending gift baskets from the Diaspora to Israel.
    “The IDF has told us that these programs have helped boost morale and provide helpful and wanted food and personal care products to the soldiers,” says a notice on

  4. Deliver a Pizza: A program popular during the second intifada is still going strong. Send a hot pizza to soldiers on the front line. For more information, go to
  5. Send a Northerner to the South: For only $15 a day you can send one person to Efrat. Rabbi Joel Zeff, formerly of Westwood Kehilla, moved to Israel 12 years ago and is now involved in an effort to bring more than 300 people to the Ohr Torah institutions in Efrat, for food, clothing and housing in the school’s dorms. Tax deductible donations can be sent to American Friends of Ohr Torah Stone, 49 W. 45th St., Suite 701, N.Y., N.Y. 10036. The memo line on the check should indicate “For Northern Refugees.”
  6. Donate Money: Of course there are many places to send money to help Israel, but among those that will ensure that 100 percent of your donation goes directly to humanitarian needs is The Jewish Federation’s Israel in Crisis Fund. The fund will provide kits for children in bomb shelters, summer camps and programs for displaced children, trauma and meal services for the elderly, assistance for the disabled, training for volunteers, psychological support, air-conditioning for bomb shelters and more. For more information, go to or call 1-866-968-7333.
  7. Visit Israel: Tourism in Israel was set to be at an all-time high this summer and while some groups and individuals have cancelled trips because of fears about the conflict, many people are going as planned. Despite travel advisories, it’s still possible to travel to Israel safely by remaining in the central region, Jerusalem and the South. There is nothing that puts a smile on an Israeli’s face more than to see an American visitor.

    Some groups are going on focused three- or four-day missions to help distribute food, toys and funds to victims of the war. Participants often also meet with politicians for briefings on the current situation and how to help. Right now, Sinai Temple and Stephen S. Wise are each taking delegations to Israel for three days; each has raised at least $1 million to distribute there.

    Some local groups are proceeding with trips that were already planned, but are refocusing their design:, the pro-Israel advocacy organization, which has led the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the Israeli Consulate here, is currently on a 10-day mission to Israel. The National Republican Jewish Coalition is also taking a leadership group Aug. 6-14.

  8. Help the Blood Drive: Due to the violence, Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s first-aid and emergency response organization, and the State of Israel are on high blood alert. The American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA)is asking for all U.S. citizens to donate money — instead of blood — to ensure that the IDF is able to care for all those wounded as the current conflict escalates.

    “It is critical during this time that we support those victims of the recent violence,” says Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice presidet of AFMDA. “In Israel, citizens are lining up to donate blood, but without this financial support, we risk not being able to process all potential donations.”

    MDA in Israel also needs funds for medical supplies, blood test kits, telecommunication devices, life-saving vehicles maintenance, as well as to support the increase in staff needed to work all hours, and more. Funding can be donated through, or via their hotline, at (866) 632-2763.

  9. Spread the News: As the war progresses, much of the battle will be fought in the media. Some local activists are meeting in their homes to plan how to fight the battle in the media. Other organizations are posting articles about the situation. Knowledge is power: Read and disseminate articles and photographs to your community that support your position.

    The Los Angeles Israeli Consulate has been briefing federations in the Western Region on the situation so that local members can call in to radio shows, write in to newspapers, and make their presence known.

    There are also a number of Web campaigns being disseminated. StandWithUs urges the Red Cross to help free Gilad Shalit, by sending a letter, which can be found on their Web site

  10. Pray and Study Torah: As much of the community gathered last week to rally for Israel, Orthodox synagogues around the city organized to say special psalms for the Jewish State. Throughout the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av, the fast of the ninth of Av on Thursday, the Orthodox Union synagogue members have been studying Torah to help the situation.

    “We believe that such a major continuous spiritual effort will have a meritorious effect on the welfare of our fellow Jews in Israel at this critical time,” said OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

    OU President Stephen J. Savitsky added: “We are calling for massive involvement in Torah study, because this is one way in which we feel we can make a difference and demonstrate our concern.”

We welcome your suggestions on how to help Israel. Please send them to and we will post them on our Web site.

A Side of L.A. the Tour Books Don’t Mention

I’ll admit to a bit of initial wariness about a bus tour through Inglewood, Lennox and Hawthorne, sponsored a couple of Sundays ago by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). The three communities just east of LAX have poverty and crime rates far exceeding the averages in L.A. County. Images of huge buses packed with well-insulated tourists were difficult to avoid.

But the 90 people who boarded the two buses at the Westside Jewish Community Center were not interested in casual sightseeing.

The tour, co-sponsored by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), IKAR, Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood proved an opportunity to examine the underbelly of the tourism industry surrounding LAX.

“One of the major components of our campaign supporting the organizing efforts of the workers in the 13 hotels along Century Boulevard is to examine the impact of low wages on the surrounding communities, where most of the workers live,” said Jaime Rapaport, PJA’s program director. “We’re offering this tour to help us all understand the very real effects of substandard working conditions.”
In addition to PJA members and congregants from a range of synagogues, participants included PJA’s Jeremiah Fellows — 20-somethings examining social justice issues — as well as members of The Jewish Federation’s New Leader’s Project and seminarians from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Judaism.

“As Jews we have to stand together with these workers and not be influenced by the pressures of the current anti-immigration politics,” said Marla Stone, a member of IKAR who took part with her husband, Scott Johnson, and their 4-year-old daughter, Claudia.

“We thought we’d get more out of seeing the actual sites of the struggles,” she said. “It’s important to bring Jews closer to their entire city, especially the places that are often invisible, and we wanted our daughter to get a sense of that, too.”

Clad in a PJA “Mensches in the Trenches” T-shirt, Laura Podolsky of the organization’s Economic Justice Working Group took hold the microphone as our bus headed south on Fairfax and past the oil rigs on La Cienega Boulevard.
The neighborhoods surrounding the airport, in addition to suffering the noise and pollution that results from being directly under the incoming flight paths, are some of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, she said.

As we approached the airport, passing the seemingly endless sun-baked parking structures, rental car lots and decaying mini-malls, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of CLUE, explained that unionized hotel housekeepers earn more than double their nounionized counterparts on average. In an era where companies increasingly take their businesses overseas, she said. “Hotel jobs cannot be outsourced.”

Our bus pulled into the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. on Century Boulevard, where Daniella Urban, a front desk worker from the Hilton, joined us with tales of the many obstacles she had confronted in her organizing.

En route to our next stop, we drove by two elementary schools located directly under the LAX flight path. The primary concern in the schools’ construction in the 1980s was noise attenuation. The result: bunker-like structures with no classroom windows. Not a pretty sight.

Just as we might have been despairing over these conditions, our buses pulled into the immense parking lot between the Inglewood Forum and Hollywood Park.
Former Inglewood City Councilman and LAANE senior organizer Daniel Tabor introduced the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, as “sister, pastor, warrior” for her opposition to a Wal-Mart on this very site.

As planes flew overhead, Perez argued that the defeat of Wal-Mart showed “we are more powerful than we think. We started the campaign as witnesses. We didn’t think we had any chance of defeating them. And then we won.”

But, she cautioned the group, shortly after Wal-Mart was rejected by the city, they actually bought the contested land; the battle is not over.

“It takes a village of warriors, which includes many of you,” Salvatierra emphasized as we got back on the bus.

Our final stop on that hot afternoon was B’nai Tikvah Congregation. The synagogue shares the facilities of the Westchester Christian Church, and the sounds of a gospel chorus were pouring out the door.

Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen was one of 27 protesters arrested last month for committing civil disobedience in support of the hotel workers — something he left out of his address.

Instead, he invoked the words of Abraham Heschel, his teacher’s teacher, who described his experience marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“Heschel said, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying,'” Van Leeuwen recalled. He then invoked an image, not from scriptures, but from Hanna-Barbera, imagining a flotilla of Flintstone buses, propelled by the leg power of its riders. “We are the praying legs that propel the buses of justice,” he declared. An appropriate enough benediction before we boarded our gas-propelled vehicles to return to the Westside JCC.

Back on the bus, Salvatierra spoke of the organizing campaign’s future, which is expected to culminate with a rally on Sept. 28 at Hilton Hotel’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.

“It’s David and Goliath work,” she said. “But don’t forget who won.”
Her message had an impact. “I signed up for the Economic Justice Working Group, and I’m planning to be at the rally,” Marla Stone said.

For more information, visit or

Panama Solar Project Shows Power of Tikkun Olam

At 7 a.m., after a long, grueling red-eye journey from Los Angeles, our plane landed on a narrow runway carved out of the lush rainforest deep in a remote island area of
the Panamanian outback. As my son, Adam, 13, and I trudged off the plane, 40 smiling Kuna natives eagerly welcomed us to the exotic island of Playón Chico.

With vivid memories of Adam’s bar mitzvah just a fortnight prior replaying in my mind, I couldn’t help but think that this would be the adventure of a lifetime.
Indeed, it was.

We were on a tikkun olam (heal the world) mission to change the lives of Spanish-speaking natives from numerous island villages in the province of Comarca de Kuna Yala by providing training on how to install and maintain solar power systems.

While sleeping in hammocks in a primitive island village, subsisting on a grilled fish diet and using an outhouse is not the typical way a father commemorates his son’s bar mitzvah, that’s exactly what we did over the next five incredible days.

Ironically, Adam’s Torah portion, Noach, speaks about renewing the environment and bringing the natural world back into order after an epic flood. Similarly, Adam saw our mission as a way of renewing nature in a faraway part of the world.

With no electricity in the province (not to mention roads, modern plumbing or reliable communications), having solar power would help ensure a good, renewable energy source and provide some energy self-sufficiency for these people. We worked through the auspices of my company, Permacity Construction, a firm specializing in solar power installation, and Codesta, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the Panamanian environment.

We became involved in this because we’ve always been concerned about the environment and reducing society’s dependence on fossil fuels. Adam has been an active supporter of Pennies for the Rainforest and Heal the Bay.

I suppose this philanthropic orientation emanates from my parents, Jerry and Lorraine, who have long been active in tikkun olam projects like the environment and causes in the Jewish community and beyond, including serving in leadership roles in our family synagogue, Temple Emanuel. They’re very hands-on people, so Adam and I were simply following in their footsteps with our mission.

The communities we helped are among Panama’s poorest, and the living conditions were quite primitive: We lived on the top floor of a small cement home — one of the few on this island of many dirt-floor grass huts — and the owners lived below.

The bathroom was a simple outhouse of wood poles and palm leaves over the ocean. We showered with a bucket. Our diet consisted primarily of plentiful fish (served complete with head and tail), lentils, rice and banana soup. Adam and I both endured stomach ailments and much fatigue from a lack of sleep.

The mission involved months of preparation, including research on the villages’ energy needs, their structures and what local resources — if any — were available. Some villages had generators, but the gas needed to power them is very expensive. Some older, inoperable solar panels exist, but nobody knows how to repair them.

I ultimately produced a detailed, 40-page solar power system training manual that was translated into Spanish. Finally, I packed and shipped many tools and parts so that each village would have a complete solar power system kit.

In Playón Chico, with the aid of a skilled translator and some other helpers, including Adam, I spent several days teaching a solar energy crash course to 34 top-notch, handpicked students who commuted by dugout canoes to our classroom.

The mission culminated when we finished installing solar panels, batteries and related equipment to power a lighting system in the community’s large town hall, or congresso. Though consisting of just seven 20-watt fluorescent lights (equivalent to 75-watt bulbs), this marked a major advancement, because the congresso had been previously illuminated by only one kerosene lantern.

That evening, when the new lights were turned on, cheers erupted as hundreds of villagers began a long celebration of dance, song and hand pipe music, along with speeches. The village chief gave Adam and me the royal treatment, seating us on his special bench and treating us like heroes.

It was wonderful to watch as the Kuna Yala people began to control their own destiny. We also were thrilled to see that natives from different islands, who had hardly even met before, were now beginning to work together collaboratively, including successful efforts to expand the use of solar power.
This experience has truly inspired Adam.

“I definitely want to do more as I get older,” he says. “Now I know what I can do. I’ve seen firsthand what things can be improved and how things can be improved. And I definitely want to help out more in the future.”

Quite frankly, that’s the best bar mitzvah gift Adam’s mother, Anne, and I could have ever given him.

Seniors’ Deeds Pave Path for Future

Parents and pundits, you may breathe a sigh of relief. The Class of 2006 — or at least The Jewish Journal’s not-so-random sampling of the class of 2006 — will put to rest any notion that this plugged in but wireless, overscheduled but doted upon and supersavvy but still so na?ve iPod generation is resting on a sense of inflated entitlement.

These graduating seniors, and surely dozens more who could have made it onto these pages, are doing everything they can to shape a world they want to call home. They have rallied thousands of high school students and adults on behalf of refugees in Africa; they have pushed the school system to meet their standards of morality; they have taught kids to read, raised money for AIDS orphans, interviewed Holocaust survivors, built houses with their own hands and pledged themselves to defend our country.

They come from day schools, public schools, independent schools. They are Orthodox, Conservative and Reform, and all are Jewish in ways that defy definition. They are our future, and that future is looking just fine. — Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Eduation Editor

Zac Ellington
Taft High School
Grinnell College

For the past two years, Zac Ellington has routinely dedicated 35 to 40 hours a week to prepping with the Taft Academic Decathlon Team. This year, it all paid off when Taft won the 2006 Academic Decathlon National Championship.

Ellington is also the winner of a full-tuition Posse Scholarship to Grinnell College in Iowa, where he wants to study environmental science. He plans later to go dental school and become an orthodontist.

An African American, Ellington said he has always had to assert his Jewish identity strongly. His temple, Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, has always been a big part of his life.

“I’ve always had to work to maintain my Jewish identity because I’m black…. Growing up, that’s made me more Jewish. Because people don’t expect it from me, that’s made me associate with it all the more.”

A music lover, Ellington wants to learn a new instrument at Grinnell next year — he already plays the bass guitar and trumpet. He also plans to try fencing. Currently, he spends his time tutoring high school and middle school students in math and English. — Lisa Hirschmann, Contributing Writer

Ari Berlin
Saugus High School
Yale University

Thanks in great part to Ari Berlin, a senior at Saugus High School, the William S. Hart Union School District in the Santa Clarita Valley no longer keeps students in school on Rosh Hashanah. Berlin advocated that Jewish holidays be “student-free days” in letters to his local newspaper, school principal and district board members at the beginning of the school year.

Berlin began a casual Jewish group at Saugus while in 10th grade, which brought together Jewish and non-Jewish students alike to experience Jewish rituals, cuisine and customs.

“I think the culture of it is the best part,” said Berlin, who will attend Yale University in the fall and wants to major in ethics, politics and economics. “Learning all the holidays and the traditions — my family has always shared that with me, and I share that with other people.”

Berlin was not particularly interested in politics until his junior year, when he attended the Presidential Classroom Inaugural Program in Washington, D.C., which provides high school juniors and seniors with political education and leadership training.

Prior to his trip to Washington, his main academic interest had been science, with which he has had great success. He worked as a research intern at Caltech and took part in the UC Davis Cosmos program as both a student and peer mentor. Berlin said his time in Washington motivated him to draw more attention to science and math in politics. — LH

Elan Feldman
New Community Jewish High School
Claremont McKenna College

When asked what inspired him to run the Los Angeles Marathon while still in high school, Elan Feldman said, “That I’ve never run it before. It’s one of those things that you see, and you wonder if you could yourself.”

He has also run on the cross-country team at New Community Jewish High School, earning first team all-league honors, and has played on the lacrosse team, all the while managing a full load of advanced placement classes.

Feldman is a leader. He has been student body president of New Community Jewish High School for the past three years, helping to set the foundation for student government at the new high school. He wants to study economics, government and leadership next year at Claremont McKenna College and will be interning for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa this summer. In the past, he has interned for Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks).

For Feldman, being Jewish is “about helping another person. The whole idea of tikkun olam. Do anything you can to help another person.”

While not religious, he describes himself as a community-oriented Reform Jew. He has served as vice president of the Temple Judea Youth Club and is a member of NCJHS’s Israel Advocacy Club. — LH

Elana Goldstein
Alexander Hamilton High School
Brown University

Elana Goldstein discovered that the Los Angeles Unified School District was not living up to its commitment to take part in a process that ensures its physical education uniforms are not made in sweatshops. This led her to testify against the district in court.

Goldstein first became interested in workers’ rights through working for the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which Goldstein describes as “a Jewish ACLU.” She is also on her Temple Youth Group Board at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, where her mother, Laura Geller, is senior rabbi. Goldstein also works as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Malibu.

Goldstein explains her interpretation of tikkun olam as “more advocacy, volunteering your time, volunteering your money, stopping the conversation and starting the action.”

Goldstein credits her Jewish upbringing with teaching her to respect social justice and liberal values. “I was allowed to question everything in my home, which I think is a fundamentally Jewish value,” she said.

Goldstein is also ranked fourth out of 700 seniors at Hamilton High School and will attend Brown University in the fall. –LH

Kenny Gotlieb
Harvard University

Kenny Gotlieb has been interested in science ever since he had a mural of the planet Earth, while growing up. Now he is on his way to Harvard University, where he wants to study physics, biophysics or math-applied economics.

He has a long list of academic accomplishments. He is a National Merit Scholar, a member of Harvard-Westlake’s Cum Laude Society and has taken part in a directed thermodynamics study at Harvard-Westlake on how to make refrigerators more efficient.

His accomplishments outside of science also abound. The grandson of Polish Holocaust survivors, he won a grant from Harvard-Westlake to travel to The Netherlands last summer to do Holocaust research. He took the train between cities, interviewing scholars, museum curators and Jewish survivors and their rescuers.

He fondly recalled meeting Tieme Beubing, a hospitable Dutch man who hid both Jews and American pilots who had been shot down during the war. Based on his research, Gotlieb created a Web site about the Dutch resistance during World War II as an independent study this past semester. — LH

Thais Miller
Milken Community High School
Undecided about college (currently on waitlist at Stanford and George Washington Universities; has been accepted at American University)

“The Function and Expression of the miR 171 Promoter in Embryonic and Seedling Arabidopsis Development.” That is the name of the 20-page report on RNA that made Thais Miller a semifinalist in the 2006 Intel Science Talent Search.

But despite her obvious knack for biology, Miller, a senior at Milken Community High School, said she wants to study sociology or literature in college. An avid writer, Miller composes poetry, short stories and is even working on a Lolita-esque screenplay about a love affair between an overage movie studio executive and a young and na?ve Hollywood starlet. She is the co-president of Rites of Passage, a poetry club at Milken.

Her list of talents doesn’t end there. When Miller’s parents took her to a music store at the age of 4, an unwitting employee placed a toy violin in her hands, only to find that young Thais refused to part with it. Today, she practices and performs with her teacher and plays the electric violin in Milken’s jazz band. When the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s Keynote Brass Ensemble came to Los Angeles in 2003, Miller performed with it as part of Milken’s Chamber Ensemble.

Miller believes deeply in community service and serves as a teacher’s assistant at University Synagogue. This summer, she is working at the Human Relations Commission, an organization she admires for its promotion of tolerance. — LH

Shira Shane
New Community Jewish High School
Stanford University

Shira Shane has an eclectic collection of interests. Film, musical theater, Buddhism, art, languages, surfing and international relations are just a few she rattles off with enthusiasm.

In addition to being the top student in her graduating class at New Community Jewish High School, she speaks Hebrew fluently after living in Israel with her family for three years and is studying Arabic and French.

Shane founded Teens Against Genocide (TAG), a social justice organization that now encompasses 25 high schools. On April 23, TAG rallied on behalf of the crisis in Darfur in front of the Federal Building in downtown Los Angeles, grabbing the attention of local congressmen.

After running for her school cross-country team this year and training extensively, she completed the Los Angeles Marathon on March 19. She has also played on her school’s lacrosse team for three years.

Shane, who is Conservative, said her Jewish values come into play every day and allow her to connect to friends.

“They’ve guided me as a person, given me guidelines as to how to live my life,” she said. — LH

Ruben Zweiban
Milken Community High School
U.S. Naval Academy

Not many college-bound seniors can say they co-founded both the Young Republican and Young Democrat clubs at their high school. But because Ruben Zweiban found himself part of a Republican minority at Milken Community High School, he co-founded a club for the Democrat majority, as well, in order to encourage healthy and fair political debate.

Zweiban will attend the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis next year, a feat he accomplished by winning a nomination from Rep. Howard Berman (D-Sherman Oaks). Each United States congressperson gets only one constituent admitted per year.

One of the biggest challenges about being at Annapolis, Zweiban believes, will be combining a rigorous training and school schedule with the faithful practice of Judaism. Zweiban grew up in a Conservative family, observing Shabbat and all major holidays, and he is heartened that the Naval Academy recently opened a synagogue.

An excellent student with a 4.5 grade point average and a full load of Advanced Placement classes, Zweiban wants to study international policy at Annapolis. Already a Hebrew speaker, he is interested in learning Arabic as well. He wants to pursue a career in the Navy, and eventually, he hopes, at the Pentagon.

Zweiban has always been fascinated by the military. At age 13, he began attending the Navy League Cadet Corps, a one-week boot camp. He also participated in the United States Naval Sea Cadet Corps, which simulates a month of Navy Seal training. Only 19 of 42 participants completed the training, and Zweiban was one of them. — LH

Elizabeth Rubin
Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim
University of Pennsylvania

Every Friday afternoon, Elizabeth Rubin has back-to-back standing appointments.

First, she heads over to Melrose Avenue Elementary School as a volunteer for Koreh L.A., a Jewish Federation project. For two years, she’s been devising games and offering incentives to help struggling first-graders learn to read.Then she visits a toddler through Chai Lifeline, an organization that provides support for families with chronically ill children. When Rubin started visiting early this year, the little girl would cry when she walked in. Now, she cries only when it’s time for Rubin to leave.

Rubin has been playing basketball at YULA since the ninth grade, and last season the YULA team made it to the league playoffs and won the national title at a yeshiva tournament in Florida. She also plays volleyball, is editor of the school newspaper, a counselor for the B’nei Akiva Zionist youth movement and won an academic prize for women in science and engineering.

As one of five high school seniors nationwide chosen to be an Orthodox Union Joseph Lieberman Scholar, Rubin participated in several political and leadership events in Washington and around the country.

Rubin will spend a year in yeshiva in Israel before going to the University of Pennsylvania, where she might study education, urban studies or communications. And she wants to be a mom.

“I like having a full life,” said Rubin, the oldest of six children. “There is never any down time, and always something going on.” — JGF

Elizabeth Green
Marlborough School and Wilshire Boulevard Temple
Northwestern University

As the community service representative to Student Council for Marlborough School, Elizabeth Green set out to raise $20,000 to build a school for AIDS orphans in Zambia.

But then Hurricane Katrina hit, and $5,000 and most of the students’ community service energy were directed at the Gulf Coast. Left with just one semester, she still she managed to supervise the raising of $29,000 for Zambia.

Green has been involved in community service since she was 6 years old, when she got pet stores to donate dog food to homeless pet owners. She worked at HopeNet food pantry in the Mid-Wilshire area and at the age of 15 ran the Honolulu Marathon, raising $8,000 for AIDS Walk L.A.

Green honed her inclination for tikkun olam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, where she has been a student since fourth grade. She participates in the weekly madrichim program, discussing Jewish values with other teens then mentoring eighth graders.

She received the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Arakhim Award for outstanding character traits, and at Marlborough received awards this year in community service, environmental science and history.

She will attend Northwestern University and hopes to study creative writing and environmental science. And she will continue community service.

“I have a sense that I don’t necessarily deserve all the opportunities I have, and that a lot of people who find themselves in difficult situations don’t deserve what they have either,” said Green. “Community service brings an awareness that there is a world beyond yourself.” — JGF

Seth Samuels
Columbia/Jewish Theological Seminary

To become an Eagle Scout after six years of being in the Boy Scouts, Seth Samuels mustered a team of 49 volunteers and raised $5,000 to refurbish the home of an indigent, elderly woman in Pasadena last year.

With the help of Rebuilding Together, Samuels supervised the work site to install new pipes, a wheelchair ramp, a security fence, new flooring, sidewalk concrete and cabinets.

This summer, he’s taking those skills to Louisiana, where he and some friends will work to rebuild the hurricane-ravaged area.

Samuels’ hands also tend to more delicate tools — such as his cello, which he plays for the Shalhevet orchestra, where he is also assistant conductor and tenor section head for the choir. He’s starred in musical theater productions with United Synagogue Youth at Adat Ari El and has been a counselor at Camp Ramah, a bar mitzvah tutor and big brother to Shalhevet middle schoolers.

Next year he hopes to study psychology and Talmud at a joint program at Columbia and the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Samuels is an AP Scholar (he aced three exams in one year) and won the Manhigut Award for leadership from the Bureau of Jewish Education, a citizenship award from United Synagogue Youth and scholarship from the National Committee on Jewish Scouting.

For Samuels, the scouting and other work he does all fit together.

“It has to do with believing in God and being a religious person, but also working for the betterment of the country and the people in this country. It’s about being a better person.” — JGF


A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews

It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

South African Judge Inspires Redemption

When he turned 6 in 1941, Albie Sachs received a birthday card from his father, Solly, a union leader in South Africa. The card read: “Many happy returns, and may you grow up to be a soldier in the fight for liberation.”

It would be less a wish than a prophecy. The younger Sachs would grow up to become a leading civil rights lawyer and activist as South Africa successfully struggled to free itself of the taint of legally sanctioned racial segregation and the violence it took to deprive the nation’s black population of its basic human rights.

Today, Sachs is a justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa, appointed to the bench in 1994 by President Nelson Mandela and playing a leading role in writing the nation’s new constitution after the fall of apartheid. But like many soldiers, Sachs was injured in the fight. He was jailed without trial twice and spent months in solitary confinement. He lived in exile in Mozambique for decades. In 1988, he was almost killed when agents of South Africa’s security forces planted a bomb in his car. The attack left him without sight in one eye, tore off his arm and required a grueling rehabilitation, during which time Sachs had to learn to walk and write again.

This month, Sachs is in the U.S. sharing his experiences — and his message of how societies can rebuild in the aftermath of violence and injustice — during a series of community conversations sponsored by the educational organization, Facing History and Ourselves, supported by a grant from the Allstate Foundation. On Jan. 23, Sachs will arrive in Los Angeles for a talk at the SGI World Culture Center.

Sachs says his Jewish heritage has played a part in informing his activism. His parents — like most of South Africa’s Jews of that time — fled pogroms in Lithuania as small children with their families. The family’s experience of escaping violence and discrimination fostered Sachs’ parents’ political activism, which in turn ignited his own commitment to justice.

“They had a freedom-loving spirit that came through to me,” Sachs says of his parents.

He recalls that the only book he was allowed to have in solitary was the Bible.

“I was struck by the Old Testament,” he says. “Some parts are very punitive — smiting every man, woman and child, every cat and dog,” he says.

But then there is also the opposite: the words of hope in the Song of Songs, the Psalms and the prophets, Sachs says. Faced with the contrast between redemption and anger, Sachs chooses redemption.

Sachs recounts the time he met with the man who organized the car bombing that almost cost him his life. The man was about to go before South Africa’s famed Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

“I didn’t feel I was ‘forgiving’ him,” Sachs says. “I was trying to establish a human relationship. He won’t be my friend, but if he sat next to me on the bus, I’d say, ‘Hello, how are you doing?”

Of his assailants, Sachs says: “We’re sharing one country. That’s much more powerful than vengeance.”

Justice Albie Sachs will speak at the SGI World Culture Center, 525 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, on Monday, Jan. 23, 7-9 p.m. The program is free and open to the public. For more information, call (626) 744-1177 ext. 22.

Laureen Lazarovici is a writer and social activist who lives in Los Angeles.

A Developing Reputation


This Time They’re Ready for the Wave

Special Report

A Developing Reputation – Messinger channels Jewish help to non-Jewish world


The two young, sari-clad women, one in blue and one in orange, stand in the thatched-roof meeting hall, take hold of the microphone and join their voices.

“We don’t need any fancy materials,” they croon by heart. “What we need is just some food to live. We don’t ask for a refrigerator, a TV or a car. We just need some small capital to start a business.”

The audience of women in the village of Alamarai Kuppam applaud with enthusiasm. The few men, seated or hovering around the edges, are more circumspect, but they, too, nod approvingly.

Call it women’s lib, post-tsunami-India style.

The outpouring of financial support that followed the 2004 tsunami has accelerated efforts to improve the lives of rural women — an initiative that goes well beyond helping families recover from the tsunami.

“This disaster has given us a space to create gender equality,” says Attapan, the director of Rural Organization for Society Education (ROSE). ROSE is among the Indian nonprofits supported by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which focuses on international development based on the Jewish value of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Before, says Attapan, many fishing villages functioned almost as closed societies, distrustful of outsiders, with women locked into traditional, subservient roles. It’s still a country of arranged marriages, and, in places, instances of girl infanticide and widow burning.

But in this region, when the tidal wave took everything, these villagers had to look outside for help. The women, it turned out, were eager for expanded roles. And many men quickly realized that not only could they benefit from the outsiders, who brought resources and new ideas, but also from the resourcefulness of their own spouses, daughters and mothers.

Attapan’s organization has worked with women from fishing villages to help them develop business skills, such as tailoring and growing and selling herbs.

The two singing women are performing the homemade anthem of an informal women’s “congress” from 14 villages that has gathered in Alamarai Kuppam under the auspices of the Ghandian Unit for Integrated Development (GUIDE). GUIDE is trying to make women politically powerful and to break down traditional Hindu class divisions.

The caste system, although officially abolished in 1949, remains a potent and denigrating social force. The mixture of castes among the women gathered in Alamarai Kuppam is striking: It includes Dalit participants, the group once known as untouchables; they still suffer pervasive discrimination.

At the meeting, women rise group by group to proclaim their successes.

“We stopped the men from making alcohol in our village,” one women says.

Another exclaims: “We made demands for tsunami relief and got it.”

“We got schools to reduce their fees,” a third says.

This activism is true and courageous feminism, says R. Vasantha, development consultant for GUIDE. “In traditional society, if a woman speaks out about a problem, especially a problem with an abusive husband, she is an immoral woman. These women will now go to a police station and file a case.”

A delegation of women from four villages recently demanded that a man reserve some property and inheritance for a second wife he had taken, as well as for the woman’s baby. And in Alamarai Kuppam, women and GUIDE workers went to the police to halt an arranged marriage between an unwilling 13-year-old and an older man who wanted a second wife.

The 13-year-old’s parents had made the deal for money. Villagers later raised money to help the family.

And, when it comes to the business theme of the homemade anthem, these women aren’t waiting for opportunity to come looking for them. They’ve opened fish stalls in nearby towns to sell the village catch. And they’re going to start an ice factory to keep their fish fresh and to sell ice to others.

Working with women, particularly educating them, is probably the “best single investment” that can be made in international development, said Michael Cohen, director of the New School for Social Research’s graduate program in international affairs in New York. “It helps on the income side and reduces the family size.”

Both elements, he added, are key to reducing rural poverty.


Some Places To Give
A partial listing of organizations involved in tsunami relief

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site:

American Jewish World Service
Web site:
45 West 36th Street, 10th Floor
New York, NY 10018-7904
Tel: (212) 736-2597
Regional: (415) 296-2533
Toll free: (800) 889-7146

Church World Service
Web site:
Regional office:
2235 N. Lake Ave Suite 112
Altadena, CA 91001
Tel: (626) 296-3195
Toll Free: (888) CWS-CROP or (888) 297-2767

Doctors Without Borders
Web site:
333 7th Avenue, 2nd Floor
New York, NY 10001-5004
Tel: (212) 679-6800
Local: (310) 399-0049

Global Fund for Children
Web site:
1101 Fourteenth Street, NW Ste. 420
Washington, DC 20005
Tel: (202) 331-9003

Global Greengrants Fund
2840 Wilderness Place Ste.
A Boulder, CO 80301
Tel: (303) 939-9866

International Medical Corps
Web site:
919 Santa Monica Blvd. Ste. 300
Santa Monica, CA 90404
Tel: (310) 826-7800

International Rescue Committee
Web site:
122 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10168-1289
Tel: (212) 551-3000

Mercy Corps
Web site:
Dept. W
3015 SW 1st Ave.
Portland, OR 97201 USA
Tel: (800) 292-3355


Web site:
26 West Street
Boston, MA 02111
Tel: (800) 77-OXFAM or (800) 776-9326

Activists Strategize on Hotel Contracts

The gala dinner was like many others at the Century Plaza Hotel, featuring festive centerpieces atop crisp tablecloths, well-dressed guests exchanging greetings and servers bustling about offering trays of beverages.

However, this event wasn’t actually inside the hotel. Set in front of the hotel on the Avenue of the Stars, which was blocked off, this banquet-in-the-street supported some 4,000 striking workers at seven Los Angeles hotels. The traffic-stopping April gathering was among a series of actions organized by a coalition of community groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), in support of an 11-month strike that ended in June.

The outcome was an important step forward for the union: It achieved a wage hike, continued health benefits and a short contract that will expire at nearly the same time as the contracts of other hotel workers in other parts of the country.

Last week saw the next round of activism — a transnational effort in support of hotel workers in eight cities fighting for a new contract in 2006.

On Wednesday, inspired by the success in Los Angeles, Jewish social justice organizations from the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel workers’ union headquarters just west of downtown. The strategy session was convened by New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance. Representatives also attended from other Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, as well as from groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. In mostly closed-door meetings, organizers discussed the tactics and the coalition building that worked in this year’s L.A. campaign and how the lessons would apply in other cities.

Organizers say that Jewish involvement has been a central fixture within the effort.

Jewish participation, particularly at the Century Plaza Hotel, was essential, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the hotel workers local, UNITE HERE. The Century Plaza is sufficiently serious about Jewish clientele to maintain a sealed-off kosher kitchen, she said.

“There’s no doubt that if it had not been for the influence and the participation and the constant, constant communication of the Jewish organizations, the Century Plaza would not have settled,” Durazo said.

“The most important aspect of what we did there,” said Jaime Rapaport, the architect of PJA’s hotel worker support campaign, “was this national Jewish response to a campaign that’s addressing poverty.”

The national average median wage for housekeepers is $7.85 an hour, according to the union. Wages are higher where more hotels are organized: In New York, where hotels are 95 percent unionized, a housekeeper’s wages start at $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, with a 35 percent union density, housekeepers average $11.31.

“It’s not just about a contract fight,” UNITE HERE organizer Vivian Rothstein said. “It’s a national approach to address conditions for nonunion and union workers.”

But a hotel industry representative said the union activists are over-reaching with unrealistic demands and that they misrepresent how hotels treat their workers.

“The bulk of hotel workers are housekeepers. They make, under this contract, approximately $13.50 an hour,” said Fred Muir of the Hotel Employers Council, which represents seven unionized Los Angeles-area hotels. He points out that the contract also provides for a pension fund, paid health care and free meals at work.

The strategy on the hotel side has been to prevent union contracts across the country from expiring at the same time. Hotels gave ground on that issue in the last year. Beyond that, individual hotel chains have opposed union organizing and simply worked to hold down labor costs in a business environment that includes rising health-care costs.

The economics of the hotel industry are simple, Muir said. “How many rooms can you fill and how much can you charge for them? The money to pay everyone has to come from somewhere.”

Room rates in New York are twice what they are in Los Angeles, so workers in New York can be paid more than those in Los Angeles, he said.

The activists who gathered last week emphasized that they are trying to make their labor campaign about Jewish values. The meeting’s purpose was to link local Jewish groups to the union organizing in their cities, and, just as important, bring them together to develop “a common language, a common strategy, common goals that would enable us to speak in a louder and more aggregated voice,” said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He wants to expand the notion of what constitutes “Jewish issues.”

“We want to put out there on the radar the notion that social justice is central to our identity as Jews,” he said.

The idea resonates with Simon Greer, who just six months ago took over as executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice. The foundation, which handles some $15 million annually, underwrote transportation and lodging costs for participants from the Jewish social justice organizations.

Greer said that the campaign seeks to boost hotel workers into the middle class. “As Jews in this country, the beneficiaries of America as an open society, we are obligated to do something for others in this society,” he said. “A piece of this is about how we reclaim justice as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in America.”

When Jews make choices that support social justice, he added, they are, in effect, expanding the notion of keeping kosher.

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support

For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is “welcome in our pews,” said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but “not welcome in our pulpit.”

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is “energetically resisting” the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action “means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination.”

Bacon added that All Saints has received a “surprising outpouring of solidarity” from a “host of other believers.”

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

“I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that “challenge my congregation” by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn’t know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

“There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, “Jacobs said. “When ‘united we stand’ means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now.”

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints’ former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government’s record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster.”

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify “the killing of innocent people” in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take “all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker” to the ballot box and “vote your deepest values.”

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it “may not be tax-exempt as a church” because Regas’ remarks raised questions concerning the church’s “involvement in … political campaign intervention.”

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there’s been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

“I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support,” Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. “Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South,” he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a “selective application of the law,” he said, and a “deliberate act of attempted intimidation” against clergy who criticize the administration. “No one’s going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated.”

“I don’t think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war,” Beerman added. “Regas wasn’t telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war.”

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

“Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech,” Beerman recalled. “Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war.”

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. “It’s from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”

Nevertheless, “instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves” since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with “more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit,” as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints “by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again,” Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS’s demand for an admission of wrongdoing “reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s,” USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church’s response was the right one, said Diamond: “The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous.”

“Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else],” he said. “It’s made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell.”


The Downer in Me

People always tell me that I am a downer, constantly talking about the world’s problems here, genocide there; conflict here, poverty there.

Nobody ever wants to talk to me at a party!

However, I also have a deep spiritual side, one that is open to the beauty and wonder of a sunrise, the power of my breath to focus my being, the depth and glory of prayer and praise of God. Together, these sides of me find a perfect home in this week’s parsha, Eikev.

Throughout Deuteronomy — which is Moses’ final clarion call to the people that they should love God, follow the mitzvot and have faith — we find an amazing combination of spiritual direction and powerful calls to social justice. We are not meant to separate prayer, Torah and God from the needs of the world, the demands of justice and the overarching call for equality and peace on earth. At the same time, God gave us free will, the power to decide and discern for ourselves, which is the most amazing and dangerous aspect of our being human.

The Torah says, “And now, O Israel, what does God demand of you? Only this: to revere Adonai your God, to walk only in God’s paths, to love God and to serve God with all your heart and soul, keeping God’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good” (10:12-13).

Moses understands that reverence and love are not attributes that can be commanded.

“Everything is in the power of Heaven, except whether a person will choose to revere God” (Talmud Berachot 33b).

As part of our inherent design, God made us the masters of our own destiny, giving us the path and the tools to succeed, but leaving the choice of using those tools up to us. This is what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel understood as the great partnership between humans and God. That is why I understand Judaism to be the great combination of spiritual depth and social activism, prayer and action, Torah and the morning news. Without the action, the spirit is vacuous; without the spirit, the action tends to be ungrounded and temporary. God needs us to carry out the master plan; we need God to be reminded of that plan.

I am greatly disturbed at the direction our country is taking the world, as we are the greatest, richest and most powerful nation ever to exist, yet we continue to have a tremendous poverty rate, millions of homeless people — including children — and skyrocketing deficits, yet we give the lowest percentage of our GNP to foreign aid than any of the other major industrial countries. And even as we proclaim to be God-fearing and religious, we are not heeding the Torah this week, which teaches, “Take care lest you forget Adonai your God and fail to keep God’s commandments…. When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in … beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget Adonai your God … and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’ Remember that Adonai your God is the one who gives you the power to get wealth….” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14,17-18).

These verses remind me that forgetting God leads to greed and arrogance. Our country, with all of its amazing virtues and incredible individual generosity, is not living up to its greatest potential, because we are not leading the world by example. We don’t want to help others if it might hurt us. We don’t want to give up our luxuries, including unnecessarily large automobiles, to save the environment. We don’t want to participate in world treaties that might challenge our selfishness, requiring us to make less money so we can pass a cleaner, healthier and more balanced world unto our children. This is the downer side of me.

Yet, the spiritual side reminds me that this is what God demands: to seek justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with God. I cannot help but read the Torah this week and think of the Sudan, where millions of lives are being lost and disaffected while the world watches silently; of my own community in Pasadena, where there is homelessness and poverty because we don’t want to build affordable housing and give more to those in need; of the disappearing ozone layer and melting glaciers because we are burning so much fossil fuel in our SUVs for the sake of comfort and status, and of the thousands of lives being lost in Iraq for a war that appears to not be bringing us any closer to peace and security. The Torah tells us what God wants, but then leaves it up to us to achieve it.

As we inch closer to Rosh Hashanah, let us all find ways to remember God more often in our daily lives. When we eat and are full, let us give thanks. When we prosper, share it with others. If we can share God’s grace with the world around us, we have the hope of saving ourselves. And the next time you are at a party, maybe choose to be a bit of a downer for the sake of tikkun olam. If we don’t talk about it, nothing will change.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive board of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and is chair of the social action committee.


Rabbis Call for Day of Fasting for Darfur

Because the quintessential Jewish celebration — of life, of survival, of victory — always involves food, it only makes sense that a Jewish response to tragedy involves fasting.

Rabbis from all denominations are calling upon Jews in Los Angeles to participate in a day of fasting, prayer and political activism to raise alarm about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Roving militias, backed by the Muslim Sudanese government, have killed an estimated 300,000 black Africans and displaced, raped or maimed another 2 million in the last year and a half.

“We are appealing to people’s conscience to invoke traditional responses to calamity, and to think beyond the immediate bodily welfare of the Jewish people as entering our perception of what constitutes a calamity,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. The Board of Rabbis responded to a call to action issued by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who founded Jewish World Watch (JWW) in September 2004. The coalition of 14 synagogues works to combat genocide and human rights violations around the world through education and by building political will to confront genocide.

In the last eight months, JWW speakers have addressed students at 40 schools and dozens of clubs and synagogue groups. It advocated for the Darfur Accountability Act currently in Congress, has sent thousands of letters to politicians and raised $150,000 to build wells and medical clinics in Darfur.

The May 26 fast, sponsored by JWW and the Board of Rabbis, brings the Darfur atrocities to a wider swath of the Jewish community.

An almost unprecedented coalition of 17 Orthodox, Reform and Conservative schools and shuls on the Westside joined to sponsor a mincha (afternoon prayer) service and break fast at B’nai David-Judea on Pico Boulevard, one of three venues that evening.

While the Orthodox community has traditionally been more concerned with issues that directly impact Jews, rabbis’ readiness to sponsor this event indicates an acknowledgment that genocide anywhere is a Jewish issue, said Kanefsky, who is Orthodox.

“Our claim that the world stood by while the Holocaust unfolded is now pointed at us, and we have this opportunity to demonstrate that we understand the accusation we have leveled at others over the last 50 years,” Kanefsky said.

All three May 26 events will highlight action items such as fundraising or pressuring politicians.

“It is critical that this not be some sort of guilt-assuaging event, but a touchstone for a pattern of activity,” Kanefsky said.

Stephen S. Wise Temple: Service and break the fast, followed by lecture from John Prendergast, former director of African affairs for the National Security Council and currently director of the International Crisis Group. 6:45 p.m. (service/break the fast), 7:30 p.m. (speech). 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, off of Mulholland Drive near Sepulveda Boulevard; (310) 889-2274; e-mail

Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center: Interfaith service with the All-Saints Church and musician Craig Taubman with break the fast and a short film on Darfur. 7 p.m. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. (626) 798-1161.

B’nai David-Judea: Mincha service, Torah study, short film on Darfur and break fast, 6:45 p.m., 8906 Pico Blvd. west of Robertson Boulevard; (310) 276-9269; e-mail

For information on Jewish World Watch, visit; e-mail; or call (818) 530-4088.

Taking Note of 2004

Last week, I pulled out a big, unsorted folder from my desk filled with material I had used for my Jewish Journal columns. Early in my

career, I was taught to take notes on folded sheets of paper, my employer being too cheap to buy notebooks. After finishing the story, we reporters usually threw away the notes, believing that nothing we wrote was of lasting value.

When I started writing books, I realized the value of saving things — but not in an organized way. Still, I had the material for my columns, and I thought that wading through it would be a good way to review the year — and it was.

I spent much of my time in 2004 on the Jewish vote in the presidential election. I interviewed party activists and ordinary voters, many of them in the San Fernando Valley. Because of its middle-class demographics, the Valley is an excellent laboratory for politics of all kinds.

I looked at the election through the prism of Israel, speculating on whether President Bush would improve his standing in the Jewish community because of his ironclad support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

In the end, the president got 24 percent of the Jewish vote, according to an analysis of exit polls. This was 5 percent more than he received in 2000, a fact hailed by Jewish Republicans as a victory and by Jewish Democrats as a repudiation.

Actually, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, his total was far below his father’s 35 percent in 1988, Ronald Reagan’s 39 percent in 1980, Richard M. Nixon’s 35 percent in 1972 and Dwight Eisenhower’s 40 percent in 1956.

Looking back on the election, it’s clear there was more to the Jewish vote than Israel. The 76 percent Kerry vote included huge numbers of people who are intensely fervent in their support for Israel. The 24 percent who voted for Bush don’t have a monopoly on the issue.

There were many other factors driving the Kerry vote. His voters didn’t like Bush, disapproved of his war policy and felt he was taking the country down the wrong road domestically with proposals such as privatizing Social Security.

Other factors were also important. Although I didn’t explore it much, I’ll bet the religious and cultural divide in the Jewish community was as important in shaping the Jewish vote as was Israel.

As the Israel Insider noted in its post-election analysis, a higher proportion of Orthodox Jews were Republican than less-observant or secular Jews.

How did religion and culture play into this? Are Orthodox Jews like fundamentalist Christians, bringing to the political process a whole basket of convictions that ran counter to what was proposed by the Democratic candidate and the party platform?

Did the Orthodox resent the way liberal Hollywood campaigned for Kerry? How did they react to newly wed same- sex couples hugging after marriage ceremonies in the San Francisco City Hall presided over by Democratic Mayor Gavin Newsom?

And what about abortion? Feelings on this subject will come out in the debate over new Supreme Court justices, which basically will revolve around how the nominees feel about choice. Without getting into a discussion about the range of rabbinical thought on abortion, it’s safe to say many Orthodox thinkers take a position that choice advocates would say is distinctly anti-choice.

In the last presidential election, the Republicans demonstrated a great ability to pick out ideological sympathizers from masses of voters. Undoubtedly, they will do this with Orthodox Jews as they seek support for a Bush Supreme Court nominee.

They know there’s a culture war in the Jewish community, as there is elsewhere in America. Tracking it will be a challenging job in the months ahead.

In my brief expeditions to college campuses during the past year, I saw a wide variety of thought and activism that was reflective of the community as a whole. I’ve made a resolution to explore them more.

Looking through my folder, I found other ideas to be checked out. One is Jewish life in the far suburbs that stretch beyond the West Valley into Ventura County. What are the ties that bind this community?

Another subject is the Jewish poor, particularly the elderly. I dipped into this early in my Jewish Journal writing career but never followed up. How will this impact the Social Security debate? What will be the attitude in the Jewish community to the medical and social service cuts being considered in Sacramento and Washington?

Any other ideas will be appreciated. When I started this column, I thought of it as my personal voyage of discovery through the Jewish community, in all its richness and diversity. I still have a lot of territory to cover.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at

Body Shop Sorry for Palestinian Award

The Body Shop, a British-based retailer of personal care products, is apologizing for a 2002 human rights award it gave to a Palestinian group. The action comes after a Los Angeles-based boycott campaign caught the attention of The Body Shop and Jewish leaders.

Jewish activists began the boycott effort after learning of the retailer’s 2002 honoring of the National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced and for a 2001 Day for Palestine fundraiser in the United Arab Emirates. The Body Shop had been coming under increasing scrutiny since the broad e-mail campaign began in August. However, the retailer has no plans at this time to withdraw the award.

The award shows that The Body Shop favors the Palestinian side in the Middle East conflict, said David Frankenthal, a Los Angeles computer consultant who runs an online activist group called Join The Boycott, which previously called for boycotting newspapers such as the Los Angeles Times over news coverage of Israel.

The Body Shop created the biennial Body Shop Human Rights Award in 2000. The National Committee for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced was one of four 2002 recipients to share the award’s $300,000 prize. The group advocates the Palestinian “right of return,” widely seen in the Jewish community as destructive to the Jewish state. The group’s documents denounce the founding of “the Israeli state, gained with the support of international Zionism and imperialist forces.”

Body Shop officials initially sent activists standard e-mail responses stating that the Palestinian group was being honored with the $75,000 prize for being one of the “best examples of peaceful grass-roots activism on the issue of housing.”

The online boycott campaign also caught the attention of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). In a Sept. 20 letter to ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, Adrian Bellamy, Body Shop International executive chairman, said the retailer would be taking “as balanced an approach as possible” on future company honors.

The Body Shop told activists in e-mails that it “supports the integrity of the award jury and the robustness of the selection process.” But Bellamy later wrote to Foxman that the awards jury “did not consider the broader issue of a right of return’ for all Palestinian people living outside Israel, or any individual opinions that may have been expressed on this broader issue by members of the National Committee [for the Defense of the Rights of the Internally Displaced].”

“We have not promoted a broader agenda for a ‘right of return’ for all Palestinians nor rejected Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state,” stated Bellamy’s letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Jewish Journal.

Frankenthal said he obtained at least 1,000 signatures of people willing to boycott Body Shop stores. Following the online uproar, the retailer removed images of the awards and its Palestinian honoree from its Web site.

“The Body Shop has been reviewing the future of the Human Rights Award over the last few months,” Bellamy wrote to the ADL. “We sincerely apologize if we have caused offense in making this award.”

Foxman said he was pleased with the retailers’ plan to fix its awards system, but he did not agree with the online activists’ call for a Body Shop boycott.

“We do not call for boycotts,” said Foxman, who also credited the Jewish activists’ campaign, because it got The Body Shop’s attention. “They realized that what they were doing was misinterpreted.”

The e-mail campaign also called for a boycott because of a June 2001 Body Shop event in the United Arab Emirates. There, the chain’s seven stores sponsored the A Day for Palestine fundraiser, with each store’s one-day revenues being donated to a Palestinian-allied charity.

The fundraiser was not a pressing issue to ADL leaders. A Body Shop spokesman told The Journal that the event was done by franchise retailers in the United Arab Emirates, which, as local franchisees, can create their own charity events without approval from Body Shop management.

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), has some local ties to The Body Shop at Sherman Oaks Fashion Square. The store carries JFS brochures and pink-and-white laminated hot-line cards for its Family Violence Project, part of the Body Shop’s commitment to U.S. domestic violence programs.

Paul Castro, JFS executive director, said The Body Shop’s U.S. arm has donated between $200-$300 to JFS in the past 18 months. When Castro learned about The Body Shop’s honoring of the Palestinian group, he said, “We’re clearly going to have to re-examine it [the donor relationship]. The relationship has been sort of casual. They’ve been supportive of the work we have done.” n

Episcopal Church Mulls Divestment

Jewish leaders are displeased with another mainline Protestant church’s call for divestment of church funds from companies doing business with Israel, with Southern California clergy trying to quell what could be an interfaith nightmare.”Obviously one of our fears when the Presbyterians’ divestment call came was that it would spread to other denominations,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. “That looks like it’s the case; our fears have been realized.”Buoyed by last summer’s controversial Israel divestment push by the Presbyterian Church, the Episcopal Church is moving closer to divestment. On Sept. 22, the Church of England’s Anglican Peace and Justice Network issued a worldwide call for Israel to recognize Jerusalem as a shared capital of Israel and a separate Palestinian state and assure the Palestinian refugees the “right of return.”The Anglican group also called for, “the unconditional recognition of the state of Palestine.” After comparing the Israeli-Arab conflict to apartheid-era South Africa, the group’s leader, Jenny Te Paa of New Zealand, told London’s The Guardian newspaper that it was “the Christian call” to advocate for divestment and take on Israel, “one of the most wealthy and incredibly powerful nations.”The Anglican Peace and Justice Network has influence over peace activists in the Episcopal Church, the Church of England’s U.S. counterpart. On Oct. 1, the Episcopal Socially Responsible Investment Panel further enraged Jewish leaders by saying the church should research possible divestment.Like the Presbyterians, the Anglican and Episcopalian divestment overtures are still in the preliminary stages, but the thought of Christian churches trying to financially isolate the Jewish state is unnerving to Jewish leaders.”This is the diplomatic and ‘civil society’ flip side of the intifada,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said too many anti-American activists are embracing Israel, “as the new apartheid state…. These moves by elites in these two crucial churches, inspired by pro-Palestinian activists and prodding from their over-the-top European partners, do not reflect the rank and file of the churches they speak for.”In the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, the prominent All Saints Church in Pasadena has an active Middle East Ministry. Elizabeth Crighton, a ministry member and Pomona College politics professor, said the Anglican and Episcopalian divestment suggestions have not been examined at the parish level.”That conversation has yet to be held,” said Crighton, whose teaching specialties include ethnic conflict and peace processes. “We are not yet clear what we are going to do, if anything, with this. I think it’s an interesting resolution; it’s always a question of what the impact of what a divestment decision would be. Unless lots of groups and lots of individuals jump on board, it has no real impact. I think we need to think about it.”The Anglican peace group’s adviser is the Rev. Naim Ateek, a Palestinian clergyman who runs the Jerusalem-based Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center. The center has denounced Christian Zionism and approaches the conflict from the Palestinian perspective. Last year on the Sabeel Web site, Ateek grieved over the sudden death of Palestinian American scholar and anti-Israel critic Edward Said, an Anglican.All Saints has hosted Ateek and has been open to many Sabeel perspectives. “We have connections to them, and visitors from Sabeel, so we’re definitely connected,” Crighton said.On Oct. 12, All Saints will host a trio of Muslim, Christian and Jewish women from Jerusalem to discuss peace. The group hosting the women’s U.S. tour is Washington, D.C.-based Partners for Peace, a Palestinian-allied activist group. Crighton said the women were being hosted at the church as part of their tour but had not been specifically invited. “It was not something that we initiated,” she said.A link between All Saints and the Anglican peace group is Ethan Flad, the Oakland-based editor of the Episcopal online magazine The Witness. Along with Ateek, Flad signed the Anglican group’s statement calling for the Palestinian “right of return.” All Saints is home to the national Episcopalian gay outreach group Claiming The Blessing, and Flad sits on the group’s steering committee. Flad will speak this weekend in Atlanta at the Claiming The Blessing activism conference; his workshop topic will be Israel’s security barrier.”What were hoping to do [at the Atlanta conference] is the draw the parallels between the interlocking oppressions that many of us suffer in terms of a variety of justice issues,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, executive director of Claiming The Blessing. “We as a church are not of one opinion on how best to a partner for peace in the Middle East. We have to continue to wrestle through it.”Diamond met with Los Angeles Episcopal Bishop J. Jon Bruno and his staff, with the rabbi coming away from the meeting cautious but hopeful. “I think they made it clear they wanted to engage in conversation with Jewish leadership prior to coming forward with any resolution,” Diamond said. “And those discussions at least locally have begin and will continue.”Bruno is expected to travel to Israel Feb. 7-14 with Diamond and other local Christian clergy. The rabbi and bishop both serve on the Council of Religious Leaders of Greater Los Angeles.Bruno could not be reached for comment this week because he was traveling. His spokesperson, Janet Kawamoto, said the bishop and Diamond “are in dialogue on this issue and they plan to work together to put together a task force on all the pertinent issues.”Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch is taking more of a wait-and-see approach and continuing dialogue with Bruno. “I really think these [divestment] proposals are wrong-headed,” he said.Cooper and the Wiesenthal Center are launching “an ongoing effort to communicate with pro-Israel voices within these churches to urge them to take the lead in turning back these initiatives,” he said.Cooper also said he wants the Jewish community “to reach out in an informed, firm, but respectful way to the Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches to lobby for help. What our Christian neighbors need to hear is how strongly African Americans felt in their opposition to apartheid 20 years ago is matched by the depths of our love and commitment to a safe, viable Israel — one that is treated as an equal among nations.” n

Community Briefs

Workers Owe Win to Bet Tzedek

Bet Tzedek has won a significant victory for low-paid Latino and Asian garment workers, successors to the Jewish immigrants who labored in sweatshops a century ago. The settlement, reached by the free legal counseling service, is somewhat technical, but is likely to have a major impact on California’s $22 billion apparel industry, employing 140,000 workers.

In essence, a large-scale retailer agreed in the settlement that it bears a responsibility if one of its contractors, who actually make the clothing, underpays its workers.

The case pitted four Latina workers, represented by Bet Tzedek, against Wet Seal, an Orange County-based company with 619 stores in 47 states selling so-called private label apparel aimed at the hip preteen and teen girls market. The workers were employed by one of the 800 small sewing and manufacturing contractors used by Wet Seal around the country. For several years, the women charged, they worked about 68 hours a week for D.T. Sewing and were never paid more for regular and overtime work than $4 an hour. The California minimum hourly wage is $6.75.

After the workers filed claims, under a new state law, against D.T. Sewing and Wet Seal, the state labor commissioner awarded the workers $240,000 for back pay and damages, of which Wet Seal’s liability was $90,000. D.T. Sewing promptly went out of business without paying the workers, not an unusual tactic of the small shops, which typically employ 30-50 workers and are often undercapitalized and fly-by-night, said attorney Cassy Stubbs, who led the case as head of Bet Tzedek’s employment rights project.

Wet Seal first appealed its $90,000 assessment to the courts, but last week decided to settle. In addition to the money for the workers, the company pledged to contribute $40,000 to Bet Tzedek’s ongoing efforts on behalf of garment industry workers. From now on, “Wet Seal will not do business with manufacturers that treat their workers unfairly and unlawfully,” said Peter D. Whitford, Wet Seal’s recently appointed CEO.

“I think Wet Seal’s action will make other retailers quite nervous and that they will fall in line,” said Stubbs, who was joined by pro bono co-counsel Paul Chan.

Mitch Kamin, executive director of Bet Tzedek, said that “We will continue to be firmly committed to help the most vulnerable members of our population, who make our economy function and are so often exploited.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Spreading Local Activism

Some 200 young Jewish professionals filled five meeting rooms and one ballroom at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles New Leaders Project (NLP) on Jan. 25.

“I met a lot of smart, talented, engaged people who know that the best of Jewish tradition means that you don’t just look out for your comfort and well-being, but you try to transform the community around you,” said NLP 2004 graduate Eric Greene, also a vice president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. “Even in communities that are not predominantly Jewish, we still have a stake in caring about those communities and our collective futures.”

The daylong event attempted to inspire interest in local activism, and was sponsored by the New Leaders Project Class of 2004, an adjunct program of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. With money from the Saban Family Foundation and Jewish Community Foundation, the Sunday event included 10 panel discussions and a short graduation ceremony with certificates given to NLP graduates.

Jews make up only 6 percent of the City of Los Angeles’ population, panelists said, but usually cast 18 percent of total votes in city elections. Yet faced with a general indifference to local politics, said Bruce Bialosky, Southern California of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Jewish voters instead will keep gravitating to larger issues such as Israel.

“We are now focusing back on our own self-interest,” he said. “Without Israel, the Jewish people will not exist in the future.”

“Life is more complicated for Jews now than it has ever been,” said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. “There really is a distinctive Jewish political vision of American society and it’s not captured entirely by either party.”

The conference attracted six first- and second-generation Iranian Americans who are less tethered than their parents to distinctly Persian local Jewish life. “People our age, the younger ones who are just starting our leadership activity in the Jewish community, we’re more likely to integrate,” said Lida Tabibian, 26, a computer consultant.

Panel discussions on social services, transportation and race relations were less crowded than a well-attended dialogue on civil liberties. There, Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson and University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky criticized the federal anti-terrorist Patriot Act, which was defended by Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley and Luis Flores, chief division counsel for the Los Angeles FBI office.

Many panelists shared their inspiration to activism. Writer David Levinson created Temple Israel of Hollywood’s “Big Sunday” volunteer day with 300 people in 1999; about 2,500 people are expected to volunteers this year at 70 local nonprofit agencies for this year’s Big Sunday on May 2.

“Everybody has something to offer somebody else,” he said. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

It’s a Wrap, Kid

Conservative men will be wrapped up a little more than usual this Sunday.

The Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs is putting out posters and ads with slogans like “Get Into Leather” in hope of enticing men who don’t usually wrap tefillin, let alone make it to morning minyan, to attend the fourth annual World Wide Wrap at participating Conservative synagogues on Feb. 1. This year the group has emphasized its youth outreach program, Dor V’Dor, and expanded its twining program, which links American Conservative synagogues with congregations in other countries to share ideas about making the mitzvah of tefillin more appealing.

At least 10 Southern California Conservative congregations have registered to participate in the Wrap, but more are expected to jump on board in the days leading up to the event. The Dor V’Dor program encourages Hebrew school students to attend the Wrap and asks that they bring along their parents, who may not have put on tefillin themselves in 20 or 30 years.

“What we’re trying to do is to show that it’s not that complex or uncomfortable,” said Myles Simpson, Wrap committee member for the federation’s western region and a member of Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks. “And by encouraging someone to do it once, then maybe he’ll do it again. And maybe if he does it, then he’ll get his kids involved.”

For information about the World Wide Wrap in your area,visit  or call (800) 288-3562. — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Animal Activists Gone Wild

Holding up grisly posters that juxtaposed images of Holocaust victims next to animals in slaughterhouses, animal rights activists demonstrated Tuesday in front of the Museum of Tolerance.

While only 10 protesters attended the demonstration, which was staged by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the group’s latest "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign comparing genocide to food manufacturing has caused most people to wonder: Have the activists gone too far this time?

In the past, PETA has been responsible for in-your-face activism like slinging red paint at people wearing fur coats and breaking into laboratories to set animals free. Their antics have at times influenced public opinion — such as turning the fashion tide against fur in the ’90s. But will this Holocaust campaign have a similar effect?

"It’s vile," said Ben Greenfield, 16, a junior at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school (YULA), who was walking by during his lunch break. "You have to set a limit and a standard. It’s pretty basic that you can’t compare the Holocaust to slaughterhouses. Human rights are just more sacred than animal rights."

The one-hour, peaceful noontime event attracted a smattering of security and onlookers, and garnered an occasional honk of support from a motorist.

But many who saw the signs at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive were insulted. One YULA student said PETA’s campaign was, "the most disgusting thing" she had ever seen in her young life.

While most museum staff and volunteers largely ignored the activists, one older museum volunteer confronted PETA protester Coby Siegenthaler, loudly denouncing the poster’s comparisons.

Yet the 78-year-old Siegenthaler, a Dutch immigrant and retired nurse who said she lived in Amsterdam during the war, was unfazed.

"In wartime, we had our house full of Jewish people, and now they could be a little more compassionate and eat a vegan diet," she said.

Comparing people to animals, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the museum’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, "is an obscene parallel."

"There are no words, other than to say we have an obligation to stand with the pain of the victims," he said, adding that the radical PETA is steering away from any rational dialogue about treatment of farm animals and other animal concerns by the extremism of its traveling "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit.

"The outrage here is, it’s not as if the underlying issues [of vegetarianism] aren’t worthy of discussion, debate and action," he said.

About two weeks ago PETA asked the museum to exhibit "Plate," which traveled to 14 U.S. cities over the summer. In July, the group ran a TV commercial in Poland with anti-meat and Holocaust images.

Cooper said PETA’s request for space at his museum, "Wasn’t worth a postage stamp — and they knew that when they sent that."

He also chastised the group for Tuesday’s demonstration.

"For shame. It’s a shanda. For them [PETA] it works. They don’t care; you are wallpaper for their campaign. The victims of the Shoah are wallpaper, the Museum of Tolerance is wallpaper, The Jewish Journal is wallpaper."

But PETA activists said their campaign was about tolerance.

"Putting Holocaust images in front of people helps to develop empathy for Jews," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s director of vegan outreach. "And juxtaposing those images with the horrific things that we do to farm animals — it doesn’t seem to me that this in any way demeans anyone’s suffering."

Could PETA’s no-meat/no-cruelty message be conveyed without connecting it to a prominent historical issue like Nazi genocide?

"It can be made, certainly, absent of metaphor," Friedrich said. "But if you were attempting to find a comparison that resonates in the public consciousness, unfortunately most people are not aware of those other atrocities — Rwanda, Cambodia, Stalinist Russia — the same way that they are aware of the Holocaust. This forces people to think about that and the horrors of anti-Semitism, and simultaneously to think about what we’re doing today, which is also vile and immoral."

Yet, Cooper does not understand why PETA would "blatantly inflict pain on humans," with illegitimate human-versus-animal Holocaust comparisons.

"All I know is, I have to deal with the pain and the anguish of those who survived," he said.

Present-Day Apathy Not Always Case

“Triangle: The Fire That Changed America,” by David Von Drehle (Atlantic Monthly Press, $26)

We live in cynical times. For years, young people have felt disengaged from the political process. Knowledge of governmental figures and the workings of law seem more tenuous among college students every year. Now, driven by electoral ambiguities and corporate scandals, Americans have grown increasingly disillusioned about the impact individuals can really have on the governance of this country.

This hasn’t always been the case. The first half of the 20th century was a time of unrivaled activism. That involvement took many forms. In New York, the infamous Tammany Hall political system openly bought and sold votes and the influence that came with them. Opposing the forces of the ward bosses, sachems and scouts — as the Tammany operatives were called — were the ranks of progressive thinkers who agitated for change. Among the latter group, Eastern European Jews, recent immigrants from such oppressive and anti-Semitic regimes as Russia, Hungary and Lithuania, were in the vanguard. Having lived through the pogroms (as well as other forms of discrimination and intimidation) in their hometowns and cities, they came to the United States prepared for better treatment, and willing to fight for it when it was not forthcoming.

The immigrant’s life was not an easy one. As is well known, many ended up in the tenements of the Lower East Side, working for slave wages in sweatshops and dreaming of better days to come. That their bosses were often other immigrant Jews did not ensure that they would be treated fairly or even humanely. Those who could amass their fortunes at the expense of other, more recent arrivals, did so without a second thought.

It is hard to understand where they drew the strength to take on a system stacked against them; factory workers had little money, no clout with city officials — who had been paid off by the shop owners — and practically no time to organize. They worked from early in the morning until late in the night in cramped, poorly lit rooms, being driven to produce more and more by foremen who stood over them with eagle eyes, aware that they could be replaced by another desperate person for any infraction.

Then there were the safety hazards: fire was common. According to one source, approximately 136 people died in workplace fires every year. Tenement fires were common, too, and with up to 150 people squeezed into a narrow, six-story building, surviving was a matter of luck and chance. Conditions were so unsanitary at work and home that people often fell sick with diseases we think of as belonging only in underdeveloped, Third World countries.

Life indeed was hard, but somehow that difficulty galvanized people, and things were ready to burst by 1909, as David Von Drehle comprehensively and often chillingly relates in his new book, “Triangle: The Fire that Changed America.” By the autumn of that year, conditions in the shirtwaist factories, where mainly young women toiled to produce ladies’ blouses, had deteriorated so far that the workers, many of whom barely spoke English, inspired thousands to stage a walkout in hopes of forming a union.

The young women drew some influential supporters, among them J.P. Morgan’s daughter and Frances Perkins, who would go on to hold the first Cabinet position held by a woman in American history. These “society women” had money, influence and the ability to draw media attention to the cause of the shirtwaist workers. What they did not have was the vote. Women’s suffrage did not pass until 1920, and yet all these women, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, threw themselves into the fray. Even though they could not affect elections, they still believed they could have an impact on the way things were run.

And they were right, but first there had to be a fire. Von Drehle brings the situation that led up to the disastrous Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire — the deadliest workplace disaster in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001 — horribly to life. His book shows how the events of the previous year and a half led to the changes instituted in the wake of the devastating blaze. Primed by the strike’s impact, the government was finally ready to change business practices to protect the safety and well-being of those at the bottom of the economic ladder.

The outcome was by no means assured. The owners, who had locked their workers into the factory floor to make sure no one stole some thread, lace or even a $0.50 blouse, were acquitted in their trial, and the Tammany bosses resisted any change that might have adversely affected their coffers. But change did come, and transformed the lives of countless American workers.

That was then. We are all enfranchised now, and yet one doesn’t have to look far to find greed, corruption and the perversion of the democratic process. What will it take to galvanize us?

Silence on Tolerance Issue Stirs Concern

Jewish leaders were uncharacteristically silent last week as Islamic groups raged against a Department of Defense decision to allow a notorious Islam basher to deliver a Good Friday sermon at the Pentagon.

Part of that silence was an accident of timing: the controversy erupted at the start of the Passover holiday, and many Jewish organizations were not fully operational. However, it also reflected a disturbing inconsistency in Jewish activism today.

Religious tolerance, traditionally a top priority for Jewish groups, seems to be not as much a priority when it comes to a growing, vocal and, according to some, increasingly radicalized Islamic community. In addition, evangelical Christian leaders who trash Islam apparently can be forgiven many sins just because they enthusiastically support Israel at a time when the Jewish State has precious few friends.

The issue came into sharp focus last week when the Defense Department invited the Rev. Franklin Graham to mark the religious holiday at the Pentagon.

Islamic groups quickly protested, and their reasons were compelling: Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and heir to his globe-spanning ministry, characterized Islam as an "evil religion" in the days after Sept. 11. At a time when Muslims feared a backlash because of the terror attacks and President Bush was trying to convince the Islamic world that his war on terror was not a war on their religion, Graham added that Islam is "wicked, violent and not of the same God."

However, the Pentagon held firm, and Graham, who now wants to send relief supplies to Baghdad and, presumably, Bible tracts, appeared as scheduled on Friday.

There was a peculiar silence from the Jewish groups that have been so prominent in the fight for religious freedom — and not just religious freedom for Jews. In part, that silence was a function of holiday schedules, but it also reflected a growing discomfort with the Muslim groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that were protesting Graham’s appearance.

Jewish groups have some good reasons to be wary of their Islamic counterparts, many of which have been too willing to support terrorism aimed at Jews and too unwilling to condemn the extremists in their own community. On campuses across the country, Islamic protests against Israel have veered off into outright anti-Semitism.

But that extremism does not justify condemnations of the entire religion, any more than the Christian religion should be condemned because of its sects that preach violent hatred of Jews.

There’s another factor in the Jewish silence that may be more important. Some of those who have been most vociferous in their denunciations of the Islamic religion are also newfound supporters of Israel.

At a time when mainline Christian churches have nothing but criticism for the Jewish State and nothing but sympathy for a Palestinian leadership that abandoned negotiations in favor of terrorism, the evangelicals have aligned themselves with the current Israeli government.

Among Jewish leaders, there may be an understandable unwillingness to criticize a group that has jumped to Israel’s defense at a time when the world has gone back to the favorite sport of reflexive Israel bashing.

Some of the Christians who have been most offensive in condemning Islam have also become Israel’s staunchest defenders. Consider the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who labeled the Prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" and defended a Southern Baptist leader who called the revered leader a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Falwell may be an ardent fan of the current Israeli government — he recently appeared at a big pro-Israel rally in Washington — but he is also the man who publicly proclaimed that the antichrist, a figure of towering evil in Christian Bible prophecy, must be Jewish. In other words, his love for Israel doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes say things that incite hostility against Jews.

To their credit, some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, strongly criticized Falwell’s comments about Islam. However, when Graham was picked to speak at the Pentagon, there was nothing but silence.

So there are some questions to ponder:

  • Are Jewish leaders muting their criticism of the Islam bashers because these bigots have become important and influential supporters of Israel?

  • Should this support for an embattled Israel outweigh the traditional Jewish conviction that legitimizing religious bigotry against one minority threatens all minorities?

  • Is this the image that we want to present to the rest of the world — that Jews oppose religious intolerance but make exceptions for friends of Israel?

  • Do we really want the pro-Israel cause — a just cause — associated with the groups that leapt to Graham’s defense, such as the antihomosexual Traditional Values Coalition, which called the Graham critics the "anti-Christian crowd?"

Jewish and Islamic groups may be bitter adversaries over the Mideast mess, but that does not change the fact that they have some interests in common — starting with an interest in making sure religious intolerance is never tolerated.

Crisis Manager

On March 11, Paul S. Nussbaum trudged down the driveway in
his bathrobe, picked up the Los Angeles Times and headed back into his house —
part of his early morning routine. Moments later his wife handed him a fruit
protein shake, he cracked open the paper and pulled out the business section.

Nussbaum was “astounded and dumbfounded” by what he saw.
Under a headline that read, “Wells Refuses Belgium Claim,” Nussbaum learned
that Wells Fargo & Co. said it would not contribute $267,000 to a war
reparations fund for Belgian Jews, making it the only financial institution of
22 banks named in the $59 million settlement to balk at paying. Wells Fargo
argued that it had no legal obligation, because it had inherited the liability
through its acquisition of a small Belgium bank.

For Nussbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors, the bank’s
actions came as a double shock. For one thing, Wells Fargo had cultivated a
great deal of good will in the Jewish community by contributing hundreds of
thousands of dollars to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Family Service
(JFS) and other Jewish organizations. For another, Nussbaum, 46, is senior vice
president for Wells Fargo in Beverly Hills.

Turning to his wife, Nussbaum said: “The bank has done
something incredibly stupid that I have to deal with.”

And he did.

A day later, after a barrage of calls by Nussbaum to senior
executives at Wells Fargo and Jewish leaders, the bank said it would pay the
reparations. In a statement, Wells Fargo Chief Executive Dick Kovacevich
apologized to the Jewish community and called the Holocaust “the worst form of
discrimination and violation of human rights.”

The bank’s quick reversal probably minimized long-term
damage to its business interests and reputation. It also reflected the
crisis-management skills of Nussbaum, a Jewish philanthropist who has spent
much of his corporate career guiding organizations through roiled waters.

Although they sometimes cause him sleepless nights and an
upset stomach, difficult times bring out Nussbaum’s most analytical and
creative side, he said. Like a general calmly barking orders as bullets whiz
by, Nussbaum said he becomes ever more focused in a crisis, when his
“just-fix-it” personality kicks in.

During his career, he has helped clean up the portfolio of a
faltering savings in loan, put in 80-hour weeks to help Orange County tame its
budget to emerge from bankruptcy and single-handedly revived Wells Fargo’s
regional commercial banking office on the Westside.

In 1984, Nussbaum joined American Savings & Loan, just
as panicky investors had withdrawn $6.8 billion in one of the biggest bank runs
in history. Over the next five years, Nussbaum, working in conjunction with
then-American Savings CEO William J. Popejoy, helped the institution collect as
much as possible on its bad loans and remove them from the company’s books.
Nussbaum said his efforts saved taxpayers billions.

Later, he joined Wells Fargo. In 1995, the bank gave him a
paid leave so that he could serve as an adviser to his mentor Popejoy, then-CEO
of bankrupt Orange County. At first viewed suspiciously as a Popejoy lackey,
Nussbaum won over a lot of skeptics with his long hours and dedication toward
making the county solvent, experts said.

Nussbaum was part of a group of officials who slashed the
county’s budget 41 percent.  Although Nussbaum left after only five months,
Popejoy said, “I don’t think anyone made a bigger contribution that helped the
county regain its footing. Paul was one of the unsung heroes.”

Four years ago, Wells Fargo asked Nussbaum to reopen a
commercial banking office in Beverly Hills that had been shuttered during an
earlier consolidation. Starting from scratch, he has built a team of 16 people
and increased by fourfold the number of Wells Fargo loans to Westside companies
and individuals.

“I think Paul has done an exemplary job of establishing us
in a market we had tried to break into in the past but had been largely
unsuccessful,” said Paul Watson, Wells Fargo head of commercial and corporate
banking. “He’s a good banker and very involved with the community. When you put
that together, you have a successful formula.”

Nussbaum’s commitment to business is matched only by his
community activism. A board member at JFS, the Wiesenthal Center and Stephen S.
Wise Temple, he has encouraged Wells Fargo to donate hundreds of thousands of
dollars to those and other groups, including $150,000 this year to JFS.

Mark Berns, past president of Stephen S. Wise, said Nussbaum
makes contributions to the temple, both big and small. Recently, Nussbaum volunteered
to cook food all afternoon “over hot flames and in the sun” at a Purim festival
that raised $40,000, Berns said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, has known
Nussbaum for seven years. He said the banker’s efforts to coax Wells Fargo to
pay the reparations reflect Nussbaum’s deep commitment to Jewish values.

“I think he saved the bank a lot of heartache by making such
a big fuss,” Hier said. “He did the right thing.” 

Songs of Power

On a December day in 1993, an anxious Lee Hirsch sat on a747 bound for riot-torn South Africa with $600 and a small video camera.

The 20-year-old filmmaker didn’t know a soul inJohannesburg, but he had two telephone numbers and a mission: To make adocumentary about the protest music that had spurred the anti-apartheidmovement. To buy his ticket, he had sold his car and ignored the StateDepartment official who had called about the travel advisory.

“It was months after [American student] Amy Biehl had beenmurdered in Cape Town, and the plane was empty,” said Hirsch, a politicallyprogressive Jew from Long Island. “I was very scared, and I was prepared toturn around and go home the next day.”

Instead, he struggled for nine years to make “Amandla! ARevolution in Four-Part Harmony,” which won the audience and Freedom ofExpression Awards at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival and opens today in LosAngeles. Named for the Xhosa word for power, the exuberant movie explores the historyof apartheid and the music that helped overturn it. While some of the songshave previously been featured on the soundtracks of fictional films such as”Cry Freedom,” the documentary is the first to explore the phenomenon ofprotest music itself.

For the energetic Hirsch, who punctuates conversation withyouthful invectives such as “awesome,” one inspiration was the Jewish mandateof tikkun olam (repairing the world).

“I learned about it in a college class on the earlyChasidim, the Jewish radicals of their day,” said Hirsch, whose previous filmprofiled his godfather, the Holocaust survivor. “Coming out of the Jewishhistory of oppression, I feel we have the responsibility to stand up and makethe world a better place. In ‘Amandla!’ I wanted to show the power of music toaffect this kind of social and political change.”

Hirsch has been preoccupied with anti-apartheid music sincesuccessfully lobbying his Vermont boarding school to divest its South Africanholdings in the 1980s.

“I’d watch a news broadcast about unrest in a township andrealize that people were singing, because I could hear it under thenewscaster’s voice,” he said. “I started becoming obsessed with the music, andI vowed to learn more.”

Easier said than done. No studies or books existed on thesongs, which were largely undocumented. And the white, Jewish filmmaker didn’tknow any of the black activists or performers. His first break came when hecalled one of his telephone contacts two days after arriving in Johannesburgand reached a Zulu family whose son was prominent in the MK, the military wingof the African National Congress. Before long, he was tagging along tounderground meetings in the townships, which he describes as “row after row ofunpaved streets and garbage burning in overstuffed receptacles.”

“Suddenly, I was in the middle of things,” he said.

By the mid-1990s, Hirsch had partnered with “Amandla!”producer Sherry Simpson, an African American TV music producer based in LosAngeles, and had relocated to Johannesburg to develop the film. Over the nextfive years, he criss-crossed the country with his video camera, filling 12notebooks with research and persuading activists to appear in his film.

Parliament member Thandi Modise described how she sang tocomfort herself when her water broke during a prison beating and she was dumpedin her dank cell to give birth. An ex-death row warden stood in the former”hanging room” at Pretoria Central Prison and recalled leading shackledactivists to the gallows (they sang, too).

At a 1995 rally, Hirsch filmed a beaming President NelsonMandela dancing to a victory song before the country’s first democraticelections. 

He believes he was granted the access because he was aneager American, not a white South African; it didn’t hurt that he was Jewish.”It’s well known that most of the white anti-apartheid activists were Jews,” hesaid by telephone from his publicist’s office in Manhattan. “These people wereloved by the black community as if they were black, as if they were one of theirown.”

For two years, Hirsch lived in the guest bedroom of one suchactivist, Dr. Paul Davis, a “struggle doctor” who cared for detainees when theywere released from prison. Hirsch grew to love the multicultural Shabbatdinners Paul held with his wife, Allison Russell, a chief physician at thelargest black hospital in South Africa. “They were a tremendous inspiration tome,” Hirsch said of the couple. “We talked a lot about tikkun olam and what ourresponsibilities are to the world as Jews.”

Ten years after Hirsch set off on that empty flight forJohannesburg, he still considers directing socially-conscious films to be oneof those responsibilities. “I want to make movies that fuse my activism with alarger audience,” he said.

“Amandla!” opens Feb. 28 at Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 SunsetBlvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; and in March in Orange County. 

The Need for Campus Activism

The level of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiments on our
campuses has been hotly debated in recent months. Some see an alarming surge of
pro-Palestinian prejudices that drown out and intimidate
supporters of Israel — and too often cross the line into anti-Semitism. Others,
including some Jewish campus leaders, minimize these trends and criticize
organizations that have mobilized to counter them.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller of UCLA’s Hillel, for example, in
a recent article in this paper, disparaged these organizations and their
materials as “propagandistic,” “polemical,” part of the “anti-anti-Semitism
industry” and of “dubious value.”

Sadly, even though most Americans remain supportive of Israel,
there is abundant evidence that in academia, opposition to Israel’s policies
has mutated into attacks that demonize the Jewish State, undermine its
legitimacy and foment anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports
that “campus anti-Semitic incidents were up dramatically in 2002.” “Too often,”
added a recent ADL newsletter, “anti-Israel activism crosses the line into
anti-Semitism … and the bad news is that there is a silent majority on campus
that is simply not speaking out against anti-Semitism.”

It is not surprising that this majority remains silent.
Left-of-center ideology, with its fashionable post-colonialist critiques of America
and Israel, dominate campus culture. Edward Said’s bitter anti-Israel polemics
hold sway in Middle Eastern Studies departments and pervade other disciplines.
Pro-Palestinian views that distort Israeli-Arab history and spread
disinformation have been accepted as fact in many campus circles. Visiting
Israeli professors called their past year in American academia “a nightmare”
because of their colleagues’ intense and often ill-informed bias, Ha’aretz
reported last August.

“An entire year of attacks, even in corridors, staff
meetings and conferences … there is an unquestioned assumption that Israel
and the Israelis are the bad guys,” said Dr. Liora Brosh who taught comparative
literature at a New York State University.

Joint Palestinian-Israeli discussion panels often exclude
the moderate view, though they masquerade as balanced presentations. Divestment
campaigns that blame Israel alone for the conflict and ugly slogans such as
“Zionism is Racism” abound. Pro-Palestinian rhetoric is couched in a potent
brew of popular campus causes for social justice, human rights,
anti-globalization and indigenous people’s rights; and pro-Israeli students who
share these values have trouble disentangling them from the Palestinian
position. They also face an unfriendly environment. As journalist Daniel Pipes
recently pointed out, when well-known pro-Israel speakers lecture on campuses,
they require security protection. Speakers critical of Israel, however, do not.

It is little wonder that many Jewish students feel
uncomfortable and besieged. The one-sided nature of the campus debate also
leads other students, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who otherwise would have no
particular bias, to simply assume that Israel has no case.

Unfortunately, the solutions offered by some campus leaders
do not go far enough to address students’ needs or the larger problem. Their
recommendations — issuing healing messages, encouraging Jewish students to
reach out to Muslims, supporting moderate Arab Muslim students — certainly have
merit, but they do not help students understand Israel’s case and they do not
fill the urgent need to counter the barrage of anti-Israel disinformation.

Israel has compelling ethical and historical justifications
for its existence and its policies. The American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, ADL, National Hillel and grassroots groups such as StandWithUs have
mobilized to make sure this information is part of the campus debate. Their
arguments are mainstream, shared by a majority of the U.S. Congress and the
current Israeli government. All students should be familiar with these
positions even though they may not agree.

Pro-Israel organizations are helping turn the tide on our
campuses, The Forward reported on Dec. 20, 2002. Many campus activists credit
them “for providing increased resources and training to campus activists and
helping them develop more proactive approaches.”

Campus leaders need to be on the front lines encouraging —
not marginalizing — efforts to better inform students and to ensure that all
voices across the political spectrum are heard and respected. Suppressing
conservative pro-Israel views will have the unfortunate effect of keeping the
campus debate one-sided and of inhibiting dialogue. Students of today will be
the leaders of tomorrow. Hopefully, their college years will expose them to the
full range of issues about the beleaguered Middle East so they can make informed
decisions in the future. Â

Roz Rothstein is executive director of StandWithUs. Roberta Seid is director of research and education for StandWithUs.