Bob Saget: Clean-cut and filthy (uncensored version)

Bob Saget was pondering his status as comedy’s reigning filth monger at a Santa Monica cafe recently.

“You play a guy who’s clean-cut and never curses for eight years, like I did on ‘Full House,’ and people think that’s who you are,” said Saget, who will be roasted on Comedy Central Aug. 17. “And then you talk really dirty in your act, and people think that’s who you are.”

The 52-year-old pauses, and a sheepish look crosses his still-boyish face. “Ah, I’m still doing it,” he admits. “I talked to Don Rickles last week, and he said, ‘So I watched your HBO special; I really liked it, but you left out two f-words.’ My response was, ‘I know. If I had only put in 200 less.'”

This is the uncensored version of this story. For the G-rated version, click here.

It’s a surprisingly repentant statement from a comic whose stand-up has quashed his wholesome TV image as “Full House” dad Danny Tanner and as the grinning host of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” in the late 1980s and 1990s.

During the 13 years since “Full House” wrapped its last episode (only to continue in endless syndication), neither Saget nor the Olsen twins, who shared the role of his youngest TV daughter, have lived up to the expectations of some.

While Mary-Kate and Ashley have become billionaire moguls and the targets of vociferous tabloid reportage, Saget has mocked his own sugary image with joke songs, such as “Danny Tanner Is Not Gay” and “My Dog Licked My Balls.”

“For the record, he made the first move,” Saget said.

Saget’s stand-up, in his words, has always been “perverted,” but that did not become widely known until he was asked to appear in the 2005 documentary, “The Aristocrats,” in which he out-raunched 100 other comedians. Since then, Saget has sold out stadiums and college theaters with an act so over-the-top nasty that it is outrageous even in a comedy zeitgeist already pushed to Sarah Silverman extremes.

His stream-of-consciousness riffs about incest, date rape, snuff films, bestiality and every possible bodily fluid are “a word salad of language so blisteringly blue that a potential diagnosis, as Saget freely admits on HBO, of Tourette’s syndrome cannot be ruled out,” the Washington Post said.

The promos for his Comedy Central roast feature Saget admonishing a donkey for trying to sniff his privates.

Even when he’s riffing about his synagogue, Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, an animal somehow enters the picture.

“We have a great synagogue the rabbi will marry a man to a goat,” he said. “It’s Reconstructionist they’ll do gay marriage if you need it, they’ll do interfaith and interfaith’s nothing after a goat.”

Saget also has the reputation, among those who know him, to be as kind as he can be crude. A few days after the taping of his Comedy Central roast, he publicly protested the vulgar Olsen jokes proffered by roast master John Stamos (another “Full House” co-star) and dais participants, such as Gilbert Gottfried.

“Anybody who talks about my TV kids that upsets me,” Saget said in a statement. “I am very protective. I love them very, very much.”

Saget was more measured about the roast several days later: “Some of the comedy for sure crossed the line,” he said in an e-mail. “It’s a roast, and they went for it. I also believe in freedom of speech, and the comedians meant no harm.”

Saget said he gets to look at the final edit and that “Comedy Central has been incredibly collaborative. The director-producer, Joel Gallen, is very talented … and also has helped to talk me off of ledges over many aspects of this roast.

“I think it’s a very funny show, but it’s not for everyone,” he added, delicately.”

Saget’s Kehillat Israel shows are far cleaner. He joined the congregation with his ex-wife, Sherri, in 1990, and their three daughters (now ages 15 to 21) had their bat mitzvahs there.

The synagogue’s rabbi, Steven Carr Reuben, is a fan: “Bob has appeared at almost every major event we’ve hosted in the last 15 years,” he said. “He once admitted to me that temple shows are the hardest to do, because he has to censor himself.

“Bob is particularly funny because he has this dual, schizophrenic reputation from the G-rated family shows to the X-rated stand-up show,” the rabbi added. “I appreciate his humor, because I know where it comes from: a sweet and loving way of communicating with people.

“Some comedy is cutting, but Bob’s humor is always designed for us to see the funny side of ourselves in difficult situations. He’ll be in the hospital visiting someone and making a joke about people’s catheters. It’s uncomfortable but funny, too.”

In person, Saget is warm and approachable; wears jeans and sneakers and speaks in the same stream-of-consciousness style he uses in his act. Over the course of two hours, he veers from a critical dissection of his neuroses (“I’m ADD for sure,” he said during the interview. “I’ve been Uri Gellering this spoon for half an hour.”); to his 2007 HBO special, “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right”; to his recent shift to “actor mode,” with a Broadway turn in “The Drowsy Chaperone” and a new CW sitcom, “Surviving Suburbia,” in which he plays a disgruntled family man.

‘My dog licked my balls’ — Bob Saget in concert

Is circumcision a requirement for conversion?

I called Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn at his home in Kansas City, Kan., where he’s rabbi at that city’s New Reform Temple. Was it true that he had told the group in Mexicali that it wasn’t necessary for adult converts to Judaism to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

“That is correct,” Cukierkorn said. “I did tell them that. Brit milah is appropriate for babies, but not for adult men, for whom it’s a gruesome and painful ritual. If an adult doesn’t want to undergo it, he should not be required to do so.”

“I get criticized for my attitude,” said Cukierkorn, who’s originally from South America. “I’ve had arguments with my own colleagues over this. I say that if we Reform rabbis emphasize ritual too much, we take the focus away from our main mandate, which is to make the world a better place in which we all behave in a more ethical manner.”

On the contrary, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who heads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism and has sponsored many conversions, the brit milah is a fundamental ritual, and adult men are required to undergo it in order to convert.

“In the past, there have been varying standards,” Weinberg said. “Some rabbis said one thing; some said another. But now, accepted standards for conversion have been established through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, to which many non-Orthodox rabbis of Southern California are signatories. According to the Caplan Bet Din, brit milah is a requirement for men who were never circumcised as babies.”

Weinberg said that if a non-Jewish male had been circumcised at birth, conversion requires a symbolic ritual, according to Jewish law: hatafat dam brit.

Weinberg smiled mischievously. “Just a small prick,” he said, “enough to draw a single drop of blood.”

Rabbi Suzanne Singer, director of the Union of Reform Judaism’s regional Introduction to Judaism Program, said that a sponsoring Reform rabbi has flexibility when it comes to this issue, depending on what the convert wants to do. She pointed out that whether or not there is a brit milah, there’s always a ceremony in which the convert is conferred a Hebrew name, which — when there is no brit milah — becomes the method by which he’s welcomed to the covenant.

Marlon Franklin, 37, recently underwent a brit milah. Born into a Catholic family in Venezuela, he directs commercials and promotions for Spanish-language television. This past year, he converted after participating in the University of Judaism’s introductory course given by Weinberg.

“The [brit milah] wasn’t bad at all,” Franklin said. “Dr. Sam Kunin explained everything, both before and during the procedure. I had local anesthesia, so I could see what was going on. It was excellent, no complications, no problems.”

Franklin said he was very conscious of the ancient, spiritual nature of the ritual, which made it “an awesome experience.”

Kunin is a “retired urologist and full-time mohel” who said he has performed more than 10,000 circumcisions in his life — about 1,000 on adult men. What did Kunin think about Cukierkorn’s comment that it’s a “gruesome and painful experience”?

“Doing a brit milah on an adult has gotten a bum rap,” Kunin said.

“I’ve had men drive home afterward. In most cases, a day or two later they’re back at work. If you do it right, there should be no problem.”

“I don’t understand the fuss people make,” he said. “In Africa now they’re circumcising thousands of adult men for AIDS prevention. If it were such a big deal, don’t you think word would get around and the men would stop doing it?”

A grown-up children’s story

Inner child therapy is a psychological method aimed at giving voice to part of the adult psyche that remains eternally childlike. It purports that a vulnerable innocence
exists within our subconscious; when acknowledged, a more complete and mature life experience is attained.

For example, were my inner child invited to describe Parshat Noach, she might say:

Go West, young Torah-observant Jews!

The wait is finally over for members of Young Israel of Century City, who were eagerly anticipating the theme of the annual program “brochure,” which was kept secret until its publication last week.
It’s … Old West.
The Young Israel of Century Gazette is printed on antique-looking brown paper with sepia-toned photographs and illustrations, such as revolvers, spurs, snakes, lizards, playing cards, an animal skeleton and a pitched wagon (with the words “Torah to Go” written on the canopy). The main headline of the Gazette is “YICC Transforms the West! Read All About It,” shown with a grainy, blurred-edge photo of the Modern Orthodox shul, located on Pico Boulevard in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.
While many synagogues around the country offer adult education programs and brochures, Young Israel of Century City is one of the few to package it in a humorous, stylized brochure. Last year the brochure was designed as a National Geographic magazine. Past themes have included the National Enquirer, a museum tour, and “soul food,” featuring a diner design.
“We felt that if you package your program in a sophisticated fashion people will pay attention,” said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who instituted the catchy brochures in the first years of his arrival, some 22 years ago. Not only do congregants anticipate the unveiling of the brochure (at Kol Nidre), but Muskin gets requests nationwide from other rabbis who are inspired by his design and by his programming.

The brochure — created with Jeff Coen of JDC design — is just one component of the process, which takes hundreds of hours, beginning with planning speakers, guests and events one year in advance.
The coming year’s events range from the intellectual (Yaffa Eliach, a Holocaust scholar, and Gil Graff, a Jewish historian); spiritual (Rabbi Asher Zelig Weiss, a rosh yeshiva from Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman, the “Disco Rabbi” who is chief rabbi of Migdal Ha’emek); political (AIPAC’s Jonathan S. Kessler, and Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles]); cultural (author Hallie Lerman, cultural critic on returning to modesty Wendy Shalit and musician Rabbi Shmuel Brazil).
Why put so much effort into adult education?
“It says in the Talmud if you learn Torah from one person you haven’t learned Torah,” Muskin said. The programs “generate an intellectual and spiritual excitement.”
On the back page of the brochure is a photograph of the original founders of Young Israel of Century City standing in front of the first shul, which really does look like a log cabin, even though it was from the 1970s.
Which brings up the age-old question: Why is it called Young Israel of Century City when it’s clearly not located there?
“I asked the same question when I came,” Muskin said of his 1986 arrival as the first full-time rabbi, 10 years after the synagogue’s inception. It turned out that the name Young Israel of Los Angeles was already taken. Ditto for Young Israel of Beverly Hills (Young Israel of Century City is Beverly Hills adjacent, anyway).
“They decided on Century City because you can see the Century City towers from the synagogue,” Muskin said.

Scheduled Relaxation

Last Sunday afternoon I was standing in my shower scrubbing my tile. It suddenly occurred to me — in the midst of Ajax and scouring pads — that the man who was ruling my fantasies was on a plane coming back from a sure-it’s-professional junket in Las Vegas.

Something was wrong with this picture. I dropped my sponge and ran to call my girlfriend: “Hey. You gotta help me. All of this straight-and-narrow is getting to me. I need to have some fun.”

We met at a local restaurant reminiscent of the hip, urban San Francisco eateries of our 20s, had a drink, stayed late, and laughed as the waiter batted his lashes.

“Listen,” I told her over martinis. “I think I’ve forgotten how to play.”

She looked at me with the knowing eyes of a friend and said, “Me too. I feel like all I do is work on myself. Where’s the friggin’ fun part?”

What occurred to me as I started thinking about it is that I used to rely on my relationship life to have fun. I’d fly to New York, run around the city, eat passionately with my boyfriend for 10 days and come home. I’d rush home from work, throw all my clothes on the floor, don a slinky dress and feverishly drive to the beach for a drink date. I’d hike up Runyan Canyon in the middle of a storm with my dating man, laugh uproariously and kiss in the rain. It was flash and dash, delight and joy — and sometimes even love. What is was was fun.

I relied on my relationship life for downtime, too. It was the time I hung out in bed, took the slow walk around my neighborhood, had the morning-after breakfast made sloppily and slowly between intimacies.

But lately all of that has been different. I stopped dating for a while altogether (no need to go into the now-mercifully distant reason why), and in the wake of a more careful re-entry into dating life, I’ve become a project girl. Creative things that I’ve been longing to express my whole adult life I’ve taken on like a conquest. I write, I paint, I sing, I cook and I songwrite. It’s rich and it’s full and it’s fulfilling.

But what it also is is busy. And beyond my projects and an involved social life, there seems to be no genuine relaxation time. There are no goof-off, just-for-fun days where there’s nothing to do but play. I’m not sure I even remember what play-time looks like anymore.

Yet — to be totally honest — when I think back on some of those play-time, nostalgia-inducing boyfriend experiences, I have to admit that as sweet and easy as those encounters could be, they were just as often peppered by the nervous tension of “being together” when we weren’t all the way there, or by the dodging and ducking of using our intimate connection to mask other, bigger incompatibilities. That wasn’t relaxing.

As the years have gone by, I realize I’d just as soon be alone than continue to go through cycles of head-spinning effort with someone in exchange for a couple of moments of grace. So I don’t do that anymore. And though this kind of spiritual honesty has created an ease in my nervous system (and a welcome death to that horrible intimate uncertainty of giving myself where it’s not appreciated), I have to stop and wonder, have I become overworked and underplayed?

I don’t want to say that getting rid of the -isms has gotten rid of the fun part. That’s not it. But there’s something here about playing and free-falling joy that I’m missing. Something in the enjoyment of what is already here, versus the pregnant push of needing to create it. To observe, appreciate, enjoy, relax, and receive. That’s what I’m missing. And now that I’m officially dating, it seems kind of imperative to bring this ethic back onto the playing field.

I was on my cell with my wise girlfriend yesterday — the one who gives me that uncannily timed girl-advice that saves me from giving in to my idiotic post-second-date fears — and three times in row she cut out at a pivotal word.

“What?” I intoned. “On my cell. You cut out.”

She laughed outloud: “Receive, sweetheart. It kills me that you missed that. Relax and receive!”

Oh, that.

If I’ve forgotten how to have downtime, if I’ve joined the ranks of the over-diligent in my efforts to not fall into wary paths of love, then it’s time to loosen the reigns a bit. Underplaying means I have to let go of my project-queen, art-making cottage-industry, and just be done for a while.

So, with the grace of personal discovery, I’ll be amending that busy behavior, whether I’m accompanied or not. It’s time to enjoy whoever I’m seeing, and have fun on my own. It’s time to let go, go slow, play, hang out and take some time to do absolutely nothing.

Even if it means I have to schedule it.

JoAnneh Nagler is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. She writes articles, philanthropic proposals and has recently been at work on Fox’s telenovellas “Table for Three” and “Fashion House.” Her newly completed folk-pop CD “I Burn” is online at

Jewish Studies Bug Bites Parents, Too

Eighteen months ago, when Lenard Cohen’s 4-year-old daughter was enrolled in the family’s congregational preschool, the Philadelphia-area father of three decided to go back to school himself.

He signed up for the Florence Melton Parent Education Program, a Jewish adult education course for parents of preschoolers.

Raised as a Reform Jew, Cohen said he was on the “lower end” of the observance scale when he signed up for the course, which meets once a week, 30 weeks a year, two hours at a stretch, for two full years.

His goal, he says, was to “increase my knowledge of Jewish practice, Jewish history and Jewish ethics, and to be able to pass it on to my children better.”

The course has done that and more, he says, bringing together a group of parents with disparate backgrounds and experiences.

“We’re all there because we’re parents of preschoolers and we want to learn,” he says.

With a number of recent studies showing that preschools have a profound effect on the Jewish life of the entire family, and that greater linkage is needed between preschools and the rest of the Jewish educational and communal network, educators and philanthropists are engaging in new initiatives to bring parents of Jewish preschoolers into the process.

Some of those initiatives are formal, such as the Melton program, which operates in 15 cities, and some are more informal, involving interaction and greater outreach between parents and their children’s school.

“There’s a sense of fragmentation,” says Lyndall Miller, coordinator of the Jewish early childhood education certificate program at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pa. “Parents don’t have models of how to parent. People don’t talk to each other about how they can build relationships with their children. Schools must become communities, and they don’t know how.”

Simply making the effort to reach out is a crucial beginning, educators say.

Ina Regosin, founding director of the Early Childhood Institute and dean of students at Hebrew College in Newton, Mass., says that when she was director of a Jewish preschool 30 years ago, she’d routinely invite parents into the building when they dropped off their children, “to educate them, of course.”

The school sent home weekly newsletters for the parents to read, and held evening programs on Jewish holidays and other topics.

The best Jewish preschools today all engage in that kind of active outreach to parents, and try to make it part of the natural rhythm of family life.

“Whatever we do for the children we do for the adults,” says Helen Cohen, who 12 years ago founded a preschool at Temple Israel, a large Reform congregation in Boston. Teachers send home weekly newsletters on the Torah portion, with the Hebrew words translated and transliterated. They hold family Havdalah services, and send parents home with clear instructions on how to do the ritual themselves.

Taking part in a Jewish learning experience at their child’s preschool is a nonthreatening way for many parents with little or no Jewish education to increase their own knowledge and feel more at home with Jewish observance.

Sometimes preschools run separate, adults-only classes for parents to study Torah or learn Jewish parenting skills.

“Our families are so assimilated, a lot of them are not comfortable with the rituals,” says Shelley Smith, preschool director at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Portland, Ore. “We create a safe zone for them to learn from the ground up, together with their children.

Sending kids home on Friday with “Shabbat boxes,” which typically include candles, transliterations of the blessings and challah baked by the child that day in class, is popular at many preschools.

“Who won’t hang the mezuzah your child made on the bedroom door?” Smith says. “Who on Friday night won’t stick candles in the Shabbat candlesticks your child made out of Play-Doh?”

At the Osher Marin JCC preschool in San Rafael, director Janet Harris stands in her front lobby every morning to greet the children and their parents. She shakes their hands and personally invites them to the school’s family programs.

The Osher Marin preschool is one of 12 schools involved in a pilot project by the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative, which was launched in 2004 to develop models of preschools that bring the entire family into the project of Jewish learning.

Mark Horowitz, the initiative’s executive director, says that each school receives funding and coaching to deepen the Jewish and developmental content in the classrooms, and to build strong relationships with the parents.

Next year, the program will add 10 to 20 new preschools to the project.

“If we can create communities of Jewish families around these preschools, then they will want to continue their connection with Jewish education and institutions,” he says. “We will have created a craving for Jewish life. It might mean congregational affiliation, or membership in Jewish Community Centers, or Jewish day school — some meaningful way to continue the communities in which they have been flourishing.”

The Melton Parent Education Program is one of two formal initiatives to emerge in recent years. The program, based at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and run out of its North American office in Northbrook, Ill., is modeled after the successful Florence Melton Adult Mini-School curriculum.

“We promote pluralism, text-based study and interactive learning,” says Mitch Parker, director of the program for preschool parents.

“We encourage the parents to realize that what they learn in class is relevant to Jewish family life, and to take the lesson home. We don’t teach the how-tos, but the whys of Judaism and the importance of it.”

This spring, 450 parents are enrolled nationwide. And it’s having an impact.

More of those parents are enrolling their children in day school — the stated goal of the Avi Chai Foundation, which subsidizes tuition for the program. The program is also, in some cases, open to parents of children in the younger grades of day school.

And, Parker says, “We definitely see behavioral changes” among the parent-students. “They admit that after two years, they are doing more Jewish things.”

Deborah Bradley of Walled Lake, Mich., outside Detroit, is in her second year of the program. Her three children all went to a Conservative congregational preschool. The two oldest are now in day school, and the youngest will start next year. The decision to put her kids in day school “evolved,” she says, as she and her husband saw how much they were learning in preschool.

She decided to take the Melton program “not only because of my love of studying, but to be able to delve into topics my children were getting introduced to in Jewish day school.”

Her 10-year-old had been asking difficult questions about Jewish beliefs regarding afterlife, cremation and where she stood on abortion.

“I came in with good knowledge, but getting Tanach references was helpful,” she says, referring to the Bible. “It helps me communicate better with the kids.”

Another formal education program operates in the Boston area and western Massachusetts. Ikkarim, an adult learning program for parents of 1- to 5-year-olds, is run by Hebrew College and Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. The Ikkarim program operates at several local synagogues. Focusing on Jewish text study, it targets parents of preschool-age children in its exploration of how Jewish values apply to contemporary family relationships.

Regosin of Hebrew College says that it’s critical to offer this kind of outreach to young Jewish parents, because they’re at the point in their lives when they’re making decisions that will affect the Jewish nature of their home for years to come.

“You’ve got families that are so open at this point, especially when it’s their first child,” she says. If the preschool experience is good, they’re more likely to continue that child’s Jewish education, and to send their younger children to preschool as well.

“When a young family makes that choice and walks through the door, it’s a tremendous opportunity,” she says. “If you have teachers and directors committed to strong Jewish education, they can have tremendous impact.”


Questions, Prayers and Shabbat Lights

Interfaith Questions

Why do bad things happen to good people? Or why do bad things happen to me? Dr. Aryeh Dean Cohen paraphrased these questions at an April 5 interfaith dialogue on theodicy or how to reconcile a benevolent God with evil.

The roundtable dialogue, “Jewish and Christian Perspective on Theodicy: How Could God Let Something Like This Happen and What Can We Do About It?” was sponsored by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and the Fuller Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian seminary in Pasadena, and was the second interfaith discussion on a series of topics.

“We have so much to learn from our Jewish friends, who give us permission to lament and engage in arguments with God,” said Dr. Richard Mouw, president of Fuller.

Before Passover and Easter, rabbis and pastors listened to varying perspectives on how the two religions confront all the disasters occurring in the world.

“Can God’s justice be defended and should one even try to do so?” asked James T. Butler, associate professor of the Old Testament at Fuller. He said that it’s important to question, rather than accept things on blind faith or counsel others that it is God’s will.

“If we convey the fact that faith is strongest when unquestioned, we contribute to the spiritual infantilization of our neighbors,” he said. “We teach them to settle for the God we have, rather than God they read about…. Instead of discouraging those who suffer, we can be their voice.”

Cohen agreed: “Sometimes the only thing you can do is listen.” He said that at other times, “the only thing you can do is scream and yell and curse.”

But really, he added the question is not “why did God do this, but why did we do this?” When it comes to natural disasters like New Orleans or human atrocities like genocide, we can’t really answer the question of where God is. But “where am I is a question we have an answer to.”

Egalitarian but Spiritual

They say “two Jews, three shuls,” so why not one more alternative community?

That’s why a group of 20-somethings started PicoEgal, an egalitarian minyan where men and women, participating as equals, conduct an entire, uncut Shabbat and holiday service that incorporates singing and spirituality.

“The basic idea is to have a community with a davening in accordance with halacha that also has spiritual singing,” said one of the founders, Abe Friedman, a first-year student at the University of Judaism.

Modeled after New York’s Hadar congregation, which attracts some 300 people each week, PicoEgal is one of a number of recently established minyans here and around the world that don’t affiliate with a particular movement and don’t have a synagogue building. For now, the two dozen or so “members” of PicoEgal meet at apartments in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood on the first and third Saturday mornings of each month, but they are looking for a more permanent space to rent. However, unlike other religious communities that are looking for a permanent home — like Ikar, for example — PicoEgal has no plans to become a full-time congregation.

“We’re not a one-stop shop for everyone,” Friedman said. “We didn’t want this to be an entire community, so much as a davening community [that adds to] what was already available.”

In that same vein, PicoEgal is also starting a multidenominational Beit Midrash study program, beginning with a Torah portion class each Tuesday in May, taught by Orthodox, Conservative and Reform teachers.

“While there are many opportunities for Jewish learning in the area, there is a lack of learning opportunities across the denominations. We wanted to try and provide a neutral forum for Torah learning outside any establishment,” Friedman said.

Just One Candle…

First it was Shabbat; now it’s candles…. What’s next? Kosher?

Ten years ago, Shabbat Across America began its campaign to get as many Jews as possible to celebrate Shabbat for at least one weekend a year. This May, a new organization is promoting “FridayLight,” a campaign encouraging 1 million women to light Shabbat candles — that’s 2 million candles!

“By lighting up each and every Friday night, you will not only bask in a personal moment of inner peace but also connect to a larger community of women everywhere who together hold the power to foster global peace,” reads the Web site (, which features a pale redhead in a Oriental robe holding a fat, yellow candle — definitely not a traditional Shabbat candle for sure.

“With the flicker of a million flames each and every Friday night, we can bring light to some of the darkest places on earth and usher in peace throughout the world,” it adds.

The New Four Questions

Why is law important in the Jewish faith? Why isn’t the bible enough? Why does the practice of Judaism seem to be different from what is written in the Torah? How can Jewish law relate to modern issues?

These and other modern-day questions about religion will be addressed in “From Sinai to Cyberspace,” a course from the Jewish Learning Institute, a Chabad adult education program presented at Chabad locations in 150 cities around the world. Each course, taught by Chabad rabbis, provides a textbook and is supplemented by audio-visual presentations. The courses also are available online.

“From Sinai To Cyberspace” examines the interplay of the written and oral traditions and how they impacted the development of Jewish law, creating a vibrant and flexible system faithful to its roots.

The course begins in early May at Los Angeles at Chabad Centers throughout Southern California, including Los Feliz, Studio City, Burbank, Sherman Oaks, Northridge and Pasadena.

For more information on PicoEgal, e-mail

For more information on the Chabad course and locations, visit


Intense Me’ah Gets High Marks

A Jewish adult education program is bearing fruit, according to a recent survey.

And now Me’ah — an intensive, two-year Jewish adult-education program marking its 10th year — is spreading from Boston across the country.

The name of the program, which means 100 in Hebrew, refers to the roughly 100 hours of study time participants spend over the two-year cycle.

Me’ah, which began in 1994 with 50 students in greater Boston, is also now being offered in Baltimore, Cleveland, Rhode Island, Florida, New Jersey and New York.

In separate conversations about Me’ah, its creators, David Gordis, president of Hebrew College, and Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, cite quality and location as the key to its success.

The program is held in neighborhood synagogues and Jewish community centers.

Gordis and Shrage are touting the results of a survey of Me’ah’s Boston-area graduates, who are moving into leadership positions in their Jewish communities.

Nearly two-thirds of graduates say the program had a major or moderate impact on their involvement in Jewish communal life. Close to half report increasing their charitable giving to synagogues and other Jewish causes.

“Adult education is up there with day schools [as far as] transformational opportunities,” Shrage said. “This is the right moment in Jewish history because there’s a huge longing for spirituality, community and a serious engagement with Judaism.”

Me’ah’s rigor and neutrality are appealing to a broad range of the American Jewish population, said Jack Wertheimer, provost of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. At the same time, he added, he would like to see a more sophisticated, outside, independent evaluation. The lack of such evaluations is a consistent issue with programs serving the American Jewish community, he said.

But Wertheimer applauded how Me’ah taps such resources as Jewish scholars for the benefit of the broader community as well as its transdenominational approach.

“The down side,” he said, “is that it may be too neutral and not sufficiently prescriptive to encourage involvement.”

Me’ah is one response to the controversial National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990, which alarmed the community about the long-term affects of assimilation.

“We were dealing with a population of people who by and large have been exposed to quality higher education and had become accustomed within their Jewish connections to be satisfied with mediocrity,” Gordis recalled.

Their prescription was a high-quality, academically rigorous curriculum taught by college-level professors during a two-year course of study using Jewish texts.

“We’re bringing the university to the synagogue,” said Richard Feczko, Me’ah’s national director. “It changes the relationship because it brings together elements of the Jewish community that normally don’t come together.”

Tuition runs about $1,200 for each student, about half of which is covered through subsidies from sponsoring Jewish federations.

If Me’ah’s approach sounds obvious now, there were nonetheless few offerings of this caliber when the program was launched, said Gordis and Shrage. Other adult Jewish learning either was episodic or was higher-level learning aimed at a small cadre of synagogue leaders.

“Me’ah begins the exploration at an extremely high level,” Shrage said. “You have the chance to change the zeitgeist.”

Terry Rosenberg heard Shrage’s motivational speech about Me’ah about nine years ago when her synagogue, Beth Elohim in the Boston suburb of Wellesley, was looking to revitalize its synagogue life.

“It was five minutes that changed my life,” Rosenberg said.

Shrage prodded the group, Rosenberg recalled vividly: “‘How come you have no problem if I asked you to distinguish between a Rembrandt and a Monet, but you’re not embarrassed that you don’t know about Rashi or Maimonides?'”

Rosenberg was so inspired that she organized a Me’ah class for Beth Elohim. In its first year, 1997, it attracted 50 members, who were divided into two classes.

“We realized that we wanted a Jewish identity which meant more than bagels and lox and High Holiday services,” she said.

Many of the Beth Elohim graduates now are active leaders in the synagogue. Rosenberg now co-chairs the organization’s committee on Jewish continuity and education, which is the funding source for Me’ah.

Richard Pzena could easily be the poster face for Me’ah: After he heard from a friend who works at Hebrew College that Me’ah might be expanding beyond the Boston area, he organized a group in his synagogue, Temple Sinai, in Summit, N.J.

“It struck a chord with a lot of people. You create bonds with your classmates and really learn on an academic level. Most of us went to Hebrew school, which was like pediatric Judaism,” he said.

Eighteen people enrolled in the first two-year class. By the time they held an open house for the second class, 25 people signed up.

Pzena, 46, who runs a small money management firm, caught the Me’ah bug. Post-Me’ah, he’s a member of his synagogue board, and sits on the investment committee of the United Jewish Appeal as well as Me’ah’s advisory board.

“If you look at our group of synagogue leaders, there’s a lot of overlap with Me’ah graduates,” Pzena said. “Some were already involved, but others had a desire to be involved and saw Me’ah as an entree.”

Wanted: A General in the Obesity War

Obesity is the fastest growing health threat in this country, currently on track to overtake tobacco as No. 1.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30 percent of American adults older than 20 (more than 60 million people) are obese. The percentage of youths ages 6-19 who are overweight has more than tripled since 1980 to more than 9 million.

The lifetime risk of Type II diabetes is headed toward 30 percent for boys and 40 percent for girls, putting these kids at greatly elevated risks for debilitating health problems, like kidney and heart disease, amputation and blindness.

Locally, more than half the adults in Los Angeles are either overweight or obese, while 21 percent of the children are overweight, with an additional 19 percent at risk of becoming overweight.

And while Jews are far from immune, obesity is not an equal opportunity affliction — African American and Latino communities have obesity rates triple that of whites, and poorer Americans are almost 50 percent more likely to be obese than wealthier Americans.

The seriousness of the problem has begun to attract considerable attention both inside the public health community and beyond. Our state and local governments have been active in responding to this epidemic — from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Obesity Task Force and his tireless cheerleading for more physical activity to the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) healthy beverage initiative, which notably brings healthier food and drinks to schools without diminishing snack revenues.

The nonprofit sector has also mobilized through a variety of projects that empower kids to lose weight by making smart diet and lifestyle choices, and through innovative organizations like Students Run L.A., where young Angelenos train for the L.A. marathon. Forward-thinking foundations have pitched in some of their considerable resources to fight obesity.

Meanwhile research/advocacy organizations like the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College have expanded their missions to address obesity, noting that many of the same families at risk for hunger are also at the greatest risk for obesity.

So why the need for another alarmist editorial when we already find some of our best and brightest organizations fighting obesity? The answer lies in the dual nature of the epidemic.

At one level, obesity is an extraordinarily uncomplicated problem. According to Dr. Francine Kaufmann, head of the Center for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism at Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, obesity is on the rise because we simply take in more calories in food then we expend in energy. Yet finding a correspondingly simple solution has proved maddeningly difficult.

Reversing the tide requires taking on, in a coordinated manner, the variety of factors responsible for the epidemic, from unhealthy diets, insufficient exercise, reliance on automobiles, inadequate nutrition education, excessive junk food, scarcity of fresh produce to many other complicated, interrelated causes related to the way we now live. And while many of these causes are being addressed individually, success in fighting this disease requires a strategy that coordinates the present multiplicity of approaches.

To introduce this higher level of strategizing, we are proposing the creation of a joint county, city (and, if possible, LAUSD) obesity coordinator. The office would be modeled on the city’s AIDS coordinator’s office created by Mayor Tom Bradley, but would include the county to take advantage of its public health and health care resources and the LAUSD as one of the country’s largest educational institutions, while also leveraging the bully pulpit available to the mayor.

Following the successful AIDS coordinator model, the obesity coordinator would have various responsibilities:

• Education/Public Health. The coordinator would create an education campaign, leveraging the city and county media infrastructure, as well as the school system and a prevention program targeted at encouraging healthier food and lifestyle choices.

• Policy/Coordination. The obesity coordinator would spearhead the development of county-citywide obesity policies to ensure that governmental and nongovernmental responses to obesity are adequately coordinated.

• Analysis. The coordinator would analyze the efficacy of existing programs and facilitate long-term studies of the current approaches to identify and consolidate around the most successful ones.

• Programs. Following on the pioneering work of the food policy organization, California Food Policy Advocates, we would encourage the obesity coordinator to explore creative solutions, including programs to introduce green grocers into neighborhoods that currently lack access to quality fresh produce. These programs would require minimal capital (possibly leveraging new markets tax credits and other innovative financing sources) to help create and capitalize local businesses that sell fresh fruits and vegetables.

We believe that the Jewish community has a role to play in the campaign to appoint an obesity coordinator and to win the battle against obesity. Generating the political will to create an empowered obesity coordinator will require pressure from many communities, including our own.

In addition, many existing institutions can participate in this fight, from Koreh L.A., The Jewish Federation’s reading in public schools program that could incorporate obesity education curriculum, or Mazon, the anti-hunger effort, which could expand its mission to confront the obesity epidemic through its network of food banks.

Ultimately, this is a complicated and long-term problem that will require the kind of effort deployed against AIDS and smoking.

The appointment of an obesity coordinator would enable more effective cooperation and strategic management of our resources and hasten the day when we turn around this burgeoning affliction.

Brian Albert and Tanya Bowers are members of the New Leaders Project, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1990 and links Jewish values with a commitment to civic activism.

This op-ed piece is the first of three by members of
the New Leaders Project (NLP), a Jewish civic leadership training program of the Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee. Participants researched three pressing issues — education,
housing and health — and presented their proposed solutions to a panel of community experts.

The Silver-Haired Bar Mitzvah Boy

“I’d like to order a cake for a bar mitzvah,” I said to the lady behind the counter at the kosher bakery. “Please put on the top, ‘Mazal tov, Spencer.'”

“Your son’s name is Spencer?” she asked.

“No, my husband’s name is Spencer,” I replied.

“But you said this is for a bar mitzvah.”

“Yes,” I said. “My husband’s bar mitzvah.”

My husband was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah in 2001, more or less on the sixth anniversary of his conversion to Judaism. People started asking Spencer when he was going to have a bar mitzvah when his hair was barely dry from the mikvah.

He started studying Hebrew the following year, and, after mastering the alephbet, signed up for a class that made its way through the siddur and into the Torah. He also led services a couple of times at our temple.

Still, he put off scheduling a bar mitzvah, even as the encouragement edged into arm-twisting. I finally pinned him down to a date by tying it to my dad’s 70th birthday, which would get the whole family together.

Spencer had attended plenty of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies by then, and his goal was more or less to “do what the kids do.” Our temple, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, has very few bar mitzvah ceremonies, so it could offer Spencer a Shabbat morning service to himself.

He led the service as shaliach tzibbur, chanted 16 verses of Torah, opened the haftarah reading and delivered a d’var Torah.

“Today I am a silver-haired man,” he told the congregation.

It was wonderful to look out from the bimah and see family members and most of our friends filling the shul. Spencer admitted afterward that while he’d been pushed into having his bar mitzvah, he was ready to be pushed. He felt a real sense of accomplishment and an intensified connection to Judaism.

Although men and women of all ages and backgrounds have undertaken adult bar mitzvah during the past 30 years or so, the phenomenon typically has focused on women who weren’t called to the Torah as girls, as exemplified by The Journal’s recent story on the ceremony involving 31 b’not mitzvah at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. Relatively few men who grew up Jewish think about pursuing bar mitzvah, especially if they went through the process as youngsters.

But as I listened to Spencer give his drash, I found myself thinking what a satisfying experience adult bar mitzvah might be for some men who had less-than-compelling bar mitzvah experiences as youngsters.

Just as Spencer came late to Judaism, so do a lot of people who grew up Jewish come late to an evaluation of their own spiritual needs and connection with Judaism as a faith. What might have been a forced, pro forma ritual at 13, might have real meaning at 35 or 45 or 55.

I’ve heard that many Jewish men, well-educated and professionally accomplished, don’t want to go through the humbling experience of learning or re-learning Hebrew and Bible cantillation. But even if that’s true, I can’t imagine a better way for a Jewish man to model pride in his Jewishness and respect for learning to his community and his own children. The man who swallows hard and opens a Hebrew primer may cause ripples that stir generations to come.

Nor do I think even the busiest temple is unable to make room for a solo adult bar or bat mitzvah. The adult ceremony, which usually isn’t followed by a big party, lends itself well to a Shabbat afternoon service or even a holiday Monday.

Inspiring as group adult b’nai mitzvah can be, there’s something to be said for taking on the same task the children do. A parent-and-child duo might also work if the timing is right.

If I’ve planted a seed, just remember two things: Wear a dark jacket, because you’re going to sweat. And bring Kleenex, because your spouse is going to cry.

Ellen Jaffe-Gill is a cantorial intern at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom” (Citadel Press). Her e-mail address is

Pitfalls of Making Playdate Plans

Brandon was 3 the first time another mother called me to schedule a playdate.

“A playdate,” I giggled. “That’s so clever! Did you make that up yourself?” (The dead silence on the other end of the phone clued me in that I had just made a monumental maternal faux pas that could potentially rival my last monumental maternal faux pas of offering up a bag of artificially colored/flavored Cheetos — rather than the au natural variety — to my son’s playgroup.) The other mother suddenly had a dire emergency and promised to call back. She didn’t.

Determined to spare myself future mortification, I began reading up on the ins and outs of playdates; rapidly surmising they entailed a considerable amount of parental involvement. One article, for example, “Plan the Perfect Playdate,” suggested I orchestrate a caterpillar cookie recipe that would have given Wolfgang Puck a run for his money. And honestly, do people really have potato sack races anymore?

Four kids and many magazine articles later, I now feel I am a virtual authority in the field of playdates. And considering Merriam-Webster has yet to add this modern mommy term to the official lexicon, I’ve taken it upon myself to write a definition.

Playdate (n): 1. adult-supervised, adult-directed “free play” between kids. 2. an organized method of fitting socializing into a kid’s hectic agenda. 3. a means of improving a child’s social status and heightening his popularity. 4. the culminating step in the over-scheduling of kids’ lives by over-protective, stressed-out parents.

Despite the societal clout of these new-fangled kiddie rendezvous, many experts fear that while they may be fine for preschoolers, they can be stagnating for kids developmentally prepared to be more independent, largely due to the following defining features:

The Playdate Scheduling Feature

When we were kids, our social plans were arranged with a “Hey, you wanna come over?” on the school bus ride home. Today’s playdates, in stark contrast, are planned weeks in advance and entered indelibly into parental palm pilots.

The Problem with the Scheduling Feature

Since kids’ friendships can change with the tides, a playdate planned six weeks in advance offers no guarantee that the playees will even be speaking by the designated moment of contact. Furthermore, due to vast parental involvement, playdates exude a comprehensive list of adult-driven etiquette rules that weren’t even on the radar screen when kids were running the show. If someone invites our child for a playdate, for example, mommy protocol suggests we reciprocate within a reasonable period of time. If, perchance, the other mother invites our child back prior to reasonable reciprocation, we must profusely apologize and promise to have her kid over two times in a row next time.

The Adult-Supervision Feature

When we were young, unsupervised play was the norm. We’d hop from one backyard to the next (before the evolution of the cul-de-sac) and stay out until our moms called us in for dinner. Today, parents are expected to continuously supervise their children’s social gatherings (and supply a long-range walkie-talkie in the event they have to run in to check on dinner).

The Problem with the Adult-Supervision Feature

From a safety standpoint, parental vigilance is perfectly appropriate. After all, awful, unthinkable things can happen to children when they are out of a parent’s vision and earshot (and the media makes sure we don’t forget it!). There is, however, a fine line (especially with older children) between being cautious and being overprotective and smothering. Our kids are growing up in a nervous world as it is. Our refusal to leave their side (when they are old enough for us to do so) sends a neon message that we, their knowledgeable parents, genuinely believe our absence will jeopardize their safety – an unsettling message indeed for children just getting their feet wet in the waters of independence.

The Organized Activity Feature

In the old days, If we and our friend grew tired of hopping on our pogo sticks, someone would say something profound like: “This is boring, let’s do something else.” We’d bounce around ideas like climbing a tree or watching “The Flintstones,” and move on to a new activity. During the modern playdate, on the other hand, the host parent is the designated boredom buster. Kids (and other parents) expect us to provide playdaters with one organized option after another, and have an arsenal of dehydration-preventing juice boxes are on hand, to boot.

The Problem with the Organized Activity Feature

Having every moment of a playdate planned and accounted for from bubble blowing to Batman action figure time, deprives children of the opportunity to engage in free creative play and learn to occupy themselves independently. Plus, it reaffirms the erroneous belief that it is a parent’s job to provide kids with round-the-clock entertainment.

So what can we modern parents do to counteract these playdate pifalls without making social pariahs out of ourselves? We can begin by throwing in the towel on the Julie the “Love Boat” cruise director persona (orchestrating limbo contests and shuffleboard competitions), and make like Captain Stubing instead (controlling the ship from a comfortable distance). In other words, our role as big kid playdate hostess is to provide a safe and pleasant playing environment, adequate (as opposed to constant) supervision, and, oh yes, dehydration-preventing juice boxes.

Sharon Duke Estroff is a nationally syndicated parenting columnist.


Election Education

Democrats and Republicans may have done their best to get out the vote, but nothing quite does it like making it part of the school curriculum. At schools around the city this week, regular classes were suspended so that kids from elementary to high school could dip their young toes into the political waters.

On election day at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy in Beverly Hills, the student council ran a polling place in the gym for pre-first- through eighth-graders, complete with official booths and “I voted” stickers. In the weeks leading up to the elections, kids as young as 5 learned to identify the major candidates and older kids learned about the electoral process (something about “electoral universities” sixth-grader Rebecca Asch said) and the issues at stake in this election.

All that came into play last week when seventh- and eighth-graders participated in mock debates before the rest of the school.

Students who had prepared position papers as part of an assignment for Hal Steinberg’s history class presented ideas on health care, taxes, the war in Iraq and social security. They delivered impromptu responses to their peers’ offerings, and were able to be a little more forthright than the actual candidates. Here, Sen. John Kerry (Simha Haddad) said President George W. Bush’s ego and his need to finish his father’s war drove him to make unwise decisions. Bush (Daniel Lazar) said it wasn’t fair to tax rich people for money they worked hard for.

“It was interesting because we could see both sides of the issues, which are difficult, in ways we could understand,” seventh-grader Benny Gelbart said.

And lest we think this is just some quaint academic exercise, Steinberg sees it otherwise.

“Some of these kids will be voting in just six years,” he said. “This gives them a chance to see that every vote is important.”

Sunday Best

For several years now synagogues have been scheduling adult education classes on Sunday mornings in a sometimes successful attempt to challenge the parental ritual of dropping the kids off at Hebrew school and then killing two hours at Starbucks or the gym.

This year, National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP) — the people who brought us Shabbat Across America and Read Hebrew America — is taking that a step further, introducing the Great Jewish Parenting Challenge. NJOP has collaborated with shuls nationwide to offer its signature crash courses in Hebrew, Judaism, Jewish history and the holidays on Sunday mornings.

“There are a lot of congregations within this one congregation, so we offer things when people are available,” said Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels of Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, which is participating in the Sunday morning Parenting Challenge.

The five-week Hebrew reading course, which will kick off the program at Beth Shir Shalom, is also being offered at dozens of Los Angeles-area shuls at different times during the week. So parents who are loathe to give up those two hours of freedom on Sunday morning can opt to schlep out on a Wednesday evening instead.

The first part of Beth Shir Shalom’s Great Jewish Parenting Challenge goes from now to Dec. 5, and students can join midcourse. Call (310) 453-3361 for more information. For other locations, call (800) 444-3273 or visit

‘Tis the Season …

…to worry about church-state separation. With December just around the corner and Chanukah coming quite a bit earlier than Christmas this year, the wink and nod behind the generic “holiday” celebrations becomes even more disingenuous, especially in public schools and other government settings. The Anti-Defamation League has some balanced and detailed information on its Web site on what exactly constitutes breaches of the church-state wall, and which public decorations and celebrations are and aren’t allowed. An example: Singing Handel’s “Messiah” — good. Singing 23 Christmas carols without so much as one dreidel made out of clay — not so good. Hanging a wreath on the teacher’s lounge door — joyous and welcome. Hanging a crucifix with “Jesus Loves Me” on the third-grade bulletin board — try again.

For more information, look under the “Religious Freedom” menu on the left-hand side of the home page at

Positive Parenting

Just as in any other profession, parenting requires the input and knowledge of experts and the group networking and support a good conference can provide. Recognizing that need, the Orthodox Union, with funding from The Jewish Federation, is holding its third annual Positive Parenting Conference on Nov. 14.

“There may be challenges to our parenting where our own resources, based upon our experiences and our own education, may not give us enough to be able to effectively deal with issues,” said Rabbi Sholom Strajcher, dean of the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, which is hosting and co-sponsoring the event.

Experts will address issues such as helping children deal with anger; the consequences of overindulging children; monitoring Internet access, friends and afterschool activities; dealing with religious differences within a family; and the emotional and academic issues linked to learning disabilities.

The conference will be held Sunday, Nov. 14, 8:45 a.m.-1 p.m. at the Emek Hebrew Academy-Teichman Family Torah Center, 15365 Magnolia Blvd., Sherman Oaks. Admission is $10 in advance (via mail) and $15 at the door. For reservations and information, call (310) 229-9000, ext. 6.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

Wonderousness of the First Time

A bar mitzvah is a time of becoming an adult. While my son was ready to proclaim, "Today I am a man," he also had to go through life with his voice changing and the wearing of braces for a perfect smile.

My first experience with this momentous occasion was after our son celebrated his first birthday. His grandfather, marveling at how bright he was, told everyone, "In 12 years we will have a bar mitzvah!"

It was an occasion he longed to see and, fortunately for all of us, he did.

As the years progressed, each year he would remind Bobby. Each time there were similar remarks followed by, "I know, Papa. Only six more years!"

While his grandfather often went over the prayers with him and his grandmother was in awe of how tall he was growing, my concerns were more about planning the event. We had been to a few bar mitzvahs during the year and everyone seemed to be similar. I guessed one copied another.

When the date was set, everything came into focus. He really will become a bar mitzvah. How exciting the whole year became. Bobby knew his prayers and haftarah very well. No one was concerned about that. He began to work on his sermon and master that, too.

Our synagogue does not allow music during Shabbat, so this had to be our plan: After Friday night services we had the regular pareve desserts — since most who keep kosher have a meat meal on Friday night and could not have dairy afterward — fresh fruits and lots of pick-up desserts, which worked very well.

We had invited my parents’ friends and my in-laws’ friends, plus all of our relatives. In addition, there were our friends, plus our children’s friends. We were hoping for 100, but stopped counting as the response cards surpassed that number.

Two days before, I followed Bobby and his Papa to shul, where my father bought Bobby a tallit. On the bimah, before his lesson was to start, I was fortunate to be able to take pictures of Daddy as he unfolded the tallit and showed Bobby how to say the prayer and wear it. Since we could not take photos on Shabbat, I instead look back on this time with fond memories.

Because we had hired a fabulous caterer, I was not worried. The florist was also terrific. Friday night came and went and we were very proud. We were to have a quiet Shabbat lunch after services and since we can play music after Shabbat ends, following the evening service there would be a big celebration.

Saturday morning is a long service. As we sat in the second row, always reserved for the family, we were so proud of our little man. He chanted with great confidence. The aliyot went by very well. When it was time for his haftarah, he started beautifully. Somewhere in the middle, he paused and cleared his throat.

While he seemed to be searching for the next note, I was worried because his wonderful teacher, our cantor, did not jump in to help. Finally, he cleared his throat again and continued without a hitch. I felt so bad for him. There was too much for him to do, I whispered to his dad. He reassured me that all would be fine.

The rest of the service was wonderful. Soon we were down in the sisterhood hall, enjoying the compliments from everyone on the services, and the beautifully served food. Some time later, I asked him if he hesitated because he was nervous or because he forgot the words.

Bobby laughed and leaned over.

"The reason I paused," he told me, "is because I swallowed one of my rubber bands. Darn braces!"

Joan G Friedman, lives in Reading, Penn., and can be reached at

Not Just for Kids Anymore

Storyopolis, the children’s art gallery and bookstore, is kicking out children next week for a grownups-only project, an Artists’ Studio Series featuring the not-so-kid-friendly art created by children’s book illustrators they work with regularly.

While appealing to the 21-and-over crowd may seem a departure for the gallery, Storyopolis owner, Matthew Abromowitz, maintains it makes perfect sense.

“What I found out when I looked into the artists was that about 60 percent of them do editorial work for magazines and newspapers, too,” Abromowitz said. He said he believed their adult-oriented art deserved a forum as well.

Thursday’s catered exhibition will feature works by “Little Gorilla” author and illustrator Ruth Lercher Bornstein. Aside from “Little Gorilla” (Clarion Books, 2000), Bornstein is best-known for her books “The Dancing Man” (Houghton Mifflin, 1998) and “Rabbit’s Good News” (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). She has been a published children’s book writer and illustrator since 1972, but the septuagenarian also paints and does collage work inspired by her Jewish heritage and her personal experiences. The aftermath of World War II, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust are some themes she’s explored in her more adult work.

Launched on July 8, the Artists’ Studio Series will feature new art every two weeks in the store’s gallery space. One future exhibition will feature the work of Gennady Spirin, the illustrator of some 30 children’s books, including Madonna’s recently released “Yakov and the Seven Thieves” (Callaway Editions).

Free. 116 N. Robertson Blvd., Plaza Level A, Los
Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 358-2509.

Between the Sheets

So what does a nice Jewish girl know about porn? Quite a bit. Writer Lynn Isenberg strived for silver screen success and Hollywood nights, but instead found sex scene success and "Boogie Nights." Tired of legitimate film studios’ constant rejection, Isenberg found success as a screenwriter for adult films.

"Everyone in Hollywood said I was a great writer, but I couldn’t get any projects going," said Isenberg, a Sinai Temple regular. "I wandered into the adult film industry by accident, but found I could tell good stories there and actually see them on film."

In contrast to her never-ending struggle to push projects through the legitimate studio system, Isenberg discovered the porn industry came with a quick turnaround and instant gratification.

"Instead of delayed contract talks, everything was done with a handshake deal," Isenberg said. "I found the industry to have a great deal of integrity."

Ten years later, Isenberg has written "My Life Uncovered," her debut novel inspired by her own unexpected journey through the porn industry. The book, published by Red Dress Ink, follows fictional protagonist Laura Taylor as she juggles her screenwriting dreams, secret adult film career, disastrous dating life and Jewish morals.

"The book is really about finding balance. It’s about self-improvement and self-discovery," Isenberg said.

What better place to discover oneself than in synagogue? That’s right, this insider peek at the porn industry comes complete with Shabbat morning service scenes. The rabbi’s sermons may not be steamy, but they are revealing. The book’s heroine does all her best thinking in shul.

"Laura has concerns about her work. She’s seeking moral redemption and solace. She finds it at synagogue," she said.

As for her own moral experience, Isenberg says she’s better for the time she spent in the adult industry.

"I’m a better person — more open-minded and less judgmental. I became more tolerant of others, of myself, and of the choices we make."

Isenberg will be appearing at Barnes & Noble, 16461 Ventura Blvd., Encino on Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m.

Adults-In-Training Hopes and Fears

"Why are you having a bar or bat mitzvah?" Larry Kligman, dean of students at Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, asks the school’s 65 seventh-graders.





The students are attending a one-day retreat, an event the school has sponsored for more than 10 years, enabling them to reflect on the ritual’s meaning as well as the concomitant anticipation and anguish.

"It’s a difficult year," Kligman explains, "as the students have to cope with their own bar or bat mitzvah in addition to a heavy academic load and the pressures of attending a friend’s bar or bat mitzvah almost every weekend."

This year, Jerry Brown, senior rabbi at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, has volunteered to host the retreat at his synagogue as well as lead one of the discussions.

"Why 13? It’s an interesting age, but why 13?" Brown asks the students.

"We become teenagers," Joshua I. Goldberg says.

"Teenagers," Brown says, grimacing as he emphasizes the first syllable. "What’s different about these teenage years?"

"We learn differently."

"We have more ability to understand things."


He tells them that everything is changing — physically, psychologically and emotionally — faster than anytime in their lives except infancy. And that the ancient sages came up with the same number we have — 13 — to mark the beginning of adolescence.

"Why do you think the word teenager has a bad connotation?" he asks. "What kinds of things happen at bar mitzvah services and receptions?"


"Food fights."


"If you see somebody getting into something, do you want to do a very hard thing and say something to them?" Brown asks.

"Yes, because the bar mitzvah is only fun if everybody is having a good time," Benjamin Selski says.

"A successful bar mitzvah depends just as much on your friends," Hal Greenwald, Heschel’s rabbi-in-residence, adds.

Brown tells the students that they are becoming adults in terms of participating in Jewish religious life, but otherwise he considers them "adults-in-training."

He explains that the bar and bat mitzvah is essentially "a big time-out," a chance to think about what adolescence means and to start learning to take on adult responsibilities.

"To be in charge of your own lives is the best thing that you can want. I invite you to take that seriously," he says. "And a bar or bat mitzvah is the perfect place to start."

In another workshop, students are invited to grapple with real life scenarios. "What do you do when you’re invited to two bar mitzvahs on the same day?" Kligman asks them.

"If people know there’s a conflict far enough in advance, maybe one person can change the date. That happened to me," Samantha Hay says.

"You can go to one person’s service and one person’s party," Aviva Fleschler says.

Kligman presents another dilemma. "It’s 9 p.m. The party’s a little boring, but it’s not over until 11. What do you do?"

"You should put yourself in the bar or bat mitzvah’s place. You don’t want that person to feel bad if all the kids are leaving," Alex Kaplan answers.

"And if you’re going to be there, you need to be there more than just physically," Betty Winn, Heschel’s head of school, adds.

In the sanctuary, Judaic studies teacher Jodi Lasker helps the students "get a feel for the choreography" of the service, first showing them how to put on a tallit.

"Why does a tallit have an atara [collar]?" she asks.

"So you know where to hold it when you’re putting it on," Benjamin Wenger answers.

She explains that an atara is not required to have the tallit blessing on it and also tells the students that Torah is read on Mondays and Thursdays, in addition to Shabbat, because those were the traditional market days when people gathered together.

She then asks Josh Goldberg to demonstrate reading from the Torah and shows students where to stand if they’re called up for an aliyah.

After lunch, the students break into small groups where they write responses to specific questions. The answers to the first question — What are you looking forward to? — are read anonymously.

"The best thing is completing my Torah and Haftarah portion."

"The smiles on my family’s faces."

"The party."

"Giving my d’var Torah."

What are you afraid of?

"I’m afraid that at the service only two of my friends will be in the sanctuary when I’m reading my Torah portion and the rest will be in the bathroom."

"I’m worried my friends will be disrespectful."

"I’m afraid I’m going to mess up during the service and my friends will laugh."

"I wish people would not chew gum and talk."

"I’m afraid my dress will rip."

Students then write down their suggestions for invitation etiquette as well as appropriate behavior at both the service and the celebration. These are presented to the entire class, and copies are later distributed to all seventh-graders and their parents.

"We all now know what to do," says Kligman at the retreat’s finish. "Let’s do it."

Bar and Bat Mitzvah Dos and Don’ts

DO mail invitations; DON’T give them out in school.

DON’T leave out just a few classmates if you cannot invite the whole class.

DO R.S.V.P. promptly, before the cutoff date.

DO personally apologize and explain to your classmate why you cannot attend if there is more than one bar or bat mitzvah on the same date, it is a good idea to make your decision about which event to attend independently.

DO be respectful in services:

1. Don’t walk in and out of the temple, especially in large groups.

2. Do participate in the service.

3. If you know you have trouble sitting for a long time, consider coming a little later in the morning, perhaps at the start of the Torah service.

4. Consider going to the service as an important part of the celebration.

5. Dress appropriately in the synagogue — covered shoulders, no jeans, etc.

6. If you must arrive late, do not be disruptive when greeting your friends.

7. Don’t bring or use your cell phone or pager.

DO be a considerate guest while at the party:

1. Don’t be wild in the hallway or restrooms.

2. Stay in the party room, dance, celebrate with your classmates.

3. Thank the host family before going home.

4. Stay for the whole party; don’t decide to leave early, especially in a group.

DO remember, your actions should reflect how you want everyone else to behave when it is your special day. — JU

Jane Ulman lives in Encino and has four sons.

You Gotta Be in it to Win it

Want to win a full day school scholarship? Or maybe free synagogue membership?

Now you can, in the new Jewish community raffle, Arie Katz, chair of the Jewish Community Scholar Program (CSP), created the raffle to raise awareness of adult Jewish learning in Orange County and what he calls the “amazing infrastructure in our Orange County Community.”

Synagogues and Jewish institutions will help sell tickets, which can be purchased via credit card through The Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Funds raised from raffle sales will go to a variety of local institutions, including Jewish day schools, the Jewish Community Center, local synagogues and day camps. The bulk of the funds will go toward expanding CSP, which brings the world’s leading Jewish thinkers, scholars and artists to Orange County for a series of lectures, workshops and classes. Funds from the raffle will also partially underwrite the costs of a May 2004 community retreat and a proposed community Shabbat celebration in June.

“If the raffle is successful, then the whole community wins,” Katz said.

Tickets for the raffle, which will go on sale from Sept. 1 through Nov. 12, will cost $100. The winner, which will be selected Nov. 14., will be published in the December issue of The Jewish Journal of Orange County. For more information about CSP and the raffle, visit or call (949) 682-4040.

Going Forth as a Driver

On May 7, exactly 16 years minus 5 1/2 hours after his birth, my son, Gabe, took his driving test at the Winnetka Department of Motor Vehicles office.

"Are you nervous?" the test instructor asked.

"Yes," Gabe answered.

"Don’t be, or we’ll both be dead."

I, too, was nervous. Nervous that he wouldn’t pass the driving test. And nervous that he would. And so, while he demonstrated his ability to start, stop, turn and back up in a straight line, I paced inside the building and out, like an expectant father outside a maternity ward, not allowed to witness the actual birth.

And birth it is. Of an adult. With a newly bestowed sense of independence and responsibility.

As a parent, I fear for his safety.

"It’s 100 percent guaranteed every new driver will have an accident," our insurance agent said. And, already, Gabe has put a major gash in the front fender.

"That’s your free one," my husband, Larry, said.

Worse, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that two out of five deaths among U.S. teens result from motor vehicle crashes.

Legally and technically, Gabe has been prepared by Valley Bob’s Driving School. And while the name may not inspire confidence, the school has ably provided the requisite hours of classroom and behind-the-wheel instruction, as well as extra defensive driving training. Plus, Larry and I spent more than 50 hours driving with him.

Emotionally and spiritually, Gabe has been prepared by his Judaic studies class at Milken Community High School. There, he created a driving amulet, a project that acknowledges this all-important rite of passage in the life of every 10th-grader.

According to Rabbi Bob Baruch, Gabe’s Judaic studies teacher, "The big theme in the 10th-grade curriculum is lech lecha, going forth. God says to Abraham, ‘Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’ Obtaining the driving license is part of the going forth for yourself."

Baruch explained to the students that amulets are magic charms that give people power and protection.

"They come from the Jewish folkloric and superstitious tradition but also have deeper spiritual meaning to people," he said.

The project, now in its second year, was created by Judaic studies teacher Andrea Hodos and artist-in-residence Benny Ferdman and incorporates both symbols and Torah verses.

"Our goals are celebrating independence; acknowledging the need for protection, both from God and from inner demons; and recognizing responsibility. They actually spell CAR," Hodos said.

And so, on a small rectangular piece of wood, the students designed their amulets, first selecting a Jewish symbol with significance to them. Students chose lions, unicorns, hamsas (an amulet shaped like a hand), elephants and other symbols that they traced onto a piece of copper. Next, they made the symbol stand out by repeatedly tapping the area outside the design with a nail before attaching it to the amulet.

"This isn’t easy. You have to beat it, to shape it to your will," Ferdman said.

Gabe chose an endless knot, which, to a parent, is a perfect depiction of adolescence.

"My journey is just beginning, but it never ends," Gabe explained.

Students added one to three verses of Jewish text pertaining to independence, protection or responsibility, which they engraved, usually cryptically, with a wood-burning pen. Some selected "their eyes were opened" (Genesis 3:7) or "you shall be a blessing" (Genesis 12:2). Gabe chose the concept of pikuah nefesh (the saving of lives).

"Nothing is more important," he said. "When you’re driving, you have to have respect for the power you control."

In addition, students added a traffic sign such as No U Turn, Keep Right or One Way, which they glued onto the amulet.

"Look at traffic signs as symbols. Turn the road into a poetic experience," Ferdman said.

Gabe took Maintain Top Safe Speed.

"You can’t ‘wuss out,’" he said.

They also added other personal symbols, often indecipherable to others.

"The owner of the amulet is the only one who needs to know what it means," said Ferdman.

On the last day of class, the students received their finished amulets, which Ferdman had shellacked and fitted with a key ring. Together with Baruch, they recited the "Shehecheyanu," marking this milestone which, in our culture, short of sexual initiation, most says adult.

As a parent, I realize I cannot accompany Gabe on his journey. Nor can I always protect him. But I hope that this amulet, which he has attached to his key chain, will protect him by reminding him of who he is and what he believes, by reminding him that he as well as the others on the road are created b’tzelem Elokim (in the image of God).

And I hope, as God says to Abraham as he sets off on his journey, that Gabe, too, "will be a blessing." To his family, his community and, most of all, to himself.

Jane Ulman lives in Encino with her husband and four sons.

Fern Milken Sports & Youth Complex

If anyone doubts the popularity of the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Complex at the West Valley Jewish Community Center, just show up on any given weekday. The center, which used to attract primarily seniors, is now a hangout for youth of all ages, especially those with a love of shooting hoop.

It is a sight Eli Sherman, health and physical education director for the West Valley JCC, had dreamed of for years. He said the $4.5-million facility has increased participation in all areas, especially basketball. The 12,000-square foot auditorium is the setting for not only camp but ongoing classes, adult and youth leagues and open play times throughout the year. The Rita Room multipurpose room has given the center space to offer classes in fencing and table tennis. The interior lobby of the gleaming facility is home to the Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame with tributes to Jewish athletes, coaches and sports writers. Although not new, the pool and fitness areas continue to attract a daily round of regulars, mostly older adults, while high school students enjoy playing air hockey in the new teen lounge.

“We now have something for everybody,” Sherman said. “For a long time the center had the reputation of attracting either the very young or the older population. What has been missing is the young adults and the young families which are now coming in much greater numbers because of the variety programs we’re able to offer. It’s very exciting for us because the young families represent the future of the Jewish Community Centers in Los Angeles.”

According to West Valley JCC officials, the community center has experienced a 28 percent increase in the number of “member units” or paying members since the Sports & Youth Complex opened in December. Currently about 1,500 adults pay the additional fees on top of their JCC membership to belong to the Fitness Center; an estimated 200 children are signed up to take classes and participate in camping programs this summer.

The expansion of the JCC’s summer program is one of the biggest changes brought about by the new facility. This year the WVJCC will launch an ambitious program of specialty sports camps in five categories: basketball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis and dance. The dance camp will be taught by Laker girl Hope Wood and the basketball camp by former Harlem Globetrotter Sterling “Smooth” Forbes and Kelvin “Special K” Hildreth.

Another area the center staff hopes to promote with the new space is gymnastics. The WVJCC recently received a $25,000 grant from the Amateur Athletic Foundation – the folks behind the Olympics – to purchase equipment. Sherman said he has already hired three gymnastic instructors and on Sunday, July 9, at 10 a.m. the center will host a gymnastics demonstration to showcase the new equipment which includes balance beams, tumbling mats and uneven parallel bars.

As participation in the center continues to grow, so does the need for services. Additional adult classes being offered this summer for the first time include Israeli folk dancing and Krav Maga. Center officials also plan to offer babysitting services for infants and children up to age 3, so parents of young children can swim or participate in classes and league activities. “We are able to offer a lot of new activities, a lot of nice things that could never have been possible without the new Fern Milken Sports & Youth Center,” Sherman said.

Sherman should know – he has been with the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles for 45 years. Some of the kids he coached on his first job at the Westside JCC are now middle-aged men with children of their own. He has seen many changes over the years in the Jewish community’s attitude toward fitness, the most dramatic concerning women and sports. As Sherman recalls, in the 1950s girls might participate in one of the popular swimming programs at the “J” or take gymnastics, but never team sports.”The girls back then were the cheerleaders,” he said. “Now as many girls as boys participate in sports. It’s partly a change in attitude, but I think it’s mostly because of television. Unless you’ve been living in a cave for the past four decades, it’s hard not to be affected by the marketing push to get sports into everybody’s life.”

Sherman said that talking about a sports hero in years past was like discussing “some biblical figure as far removed as Samson from real life.”
“Now every kid can talk about Kobe Bryant or the women of the WNBA,” he said.Although pleased with the new facility, Sherman said he wishes the center had the space to match some of the more impressive Jewish community centers in other parts of the country, such as the one in Cleveland that boasts running tracks, indoor and outdoor swimming pools and baseball fields.”Sadly, in Los Angeles, where we have the second largest Jewish community in the nation, we have never come near having the recreational facilities like you have back East or in the Midwest,” Sherman laments. “Plus in L.A. there’s a bank, a gas station and a fitness center on every corner, so we are in constant competition with the commercial clubs.”

The WVJCC is a part of the Bernard Milken Community Campus in West Hills, which also houses the Jewish Federation/ Valley Alliance. The new Sports & Youth Center was a collaboration of the two entities, which joined forces to raise the money necessary to finish the project, although fundraising will continue, according to Rhonda Wilkens, director of the West Valley JCC.

“We are continuing the campaign as an endowment fund so that any time the center needs something, the money is there,” Wilkens said, adding that building maintenance is a high priority. “We want the center to continue to look and feel as beautiful, with state-of-the-art equipment, 20 years from now as it does today.”

The Journey Within

Three in five adults report that their level of Jewish involvement has changed substantially over the course of their adult lives. Remarkably, their involvement is nearly as likely to have increased as to have declined.What’s constant is change. American Jews continually adapt and reinvent their identities throughout their adult lives.

Those are the most important findings in “Connections and Journeys,” a landmark study of Jewish identity scheduled for release next week by UJA-Federation of New York. Four years in the making, it’s one of the most complex looks ever at how American Jews form and re-form their Jewish identities.”The perspective taken in this study is that identity is the result of an ongoing process, rather than an entity that is fully acquired at some point in a person’s lifetime,” writes the author, Brandeis University social psychologist Bethamie Horowitz.

The study suggests that Jewish attachment is subject to many influences, from family attitudes to Jewish schooling, teenage programs and adult relationships. One of the most important, startlingly, is family stability; strained childhood relations with parents point strongly to declining adult Jewish attachment.Some of Horowitz’s findings will cause fireworks. Only 5 percent of respondents report being positively influenced by rabbis; 10 percent say rabbis have turned them off. As for Jewish schooling, it’s decisive only among Orthodox Jews. For others, crucial influences come later: youth groups, Israel visits, relationships, childbirth.

Most troubling, increases are mainly in feelings of Jewish attachment. What’s declining is Jewish practice. For traditionalists, at least, that’s what counts.

But most of all, Jews are in continual flux. “A person constructs a sense of Jewishness from his/her own mix of experiences, engagements, interactions and contexts,” Horowitz writes. “We see evidence of a more pliable, ‘personalized’ Jewish identity, which for many has more to do with personal meaning and expression than with communal expression.” A useful metaphor, she suggests, is “a salad bar.”To capture that dynamism, the study works in two dimensions. First, it “explores people’s current connections to Jewishness,” including what they do and how they feel. Second, it “examines people’s journeys – how people’s Jewish identities change and are influenced throughout the life course.”The study combined telephone surveys with one-on-one interviews and focus groups. In all, 1,504 subjects were included, all born in America after World War II. Ages ranged from 22 to 52.

All lived in the New York area, which could skew the findings. As a metropolitan area that’s fully 13 percent Jewish – and home to one-fourth of all American Jews – New York, Horowitz writes, “can serve as both an exception and a rule about American Jewish identity.”

Horowitz begins by dividing her subjects into three basic “modes” of Jewish identity: assimilated (she politely calls them “Otherwise Engaged”), “Intensively Engaged,” and “Mixed Engagement.” Each “mode” comprises almost exactly one-third of the population.

Divisions are based on survey responses in three categories: “Subjective Jewish Centrality” (pride in Jewishness, sense of belonging); “Ritual Practice” (candle-lighting, separate dishes), and “Cultural-Communal Behavior” (owning Jewish books, attending Jewish lectures).

What Horowitz does next is one of her most important innovations. She divides her three “identity modes” into seven subgroups, a Jewish equivalent of market segments. These become the building blocks for all that follows.

The “Otherwise Engaged” subdivide into “Really Indifferent” (nine percent of the total population, mainly young, male and single) and those “With Some Jewish Interest” (24 percent). Both show low involvement by every measure. The “Intensively Engaged” break down into Orthodox (16 percent) and Non-Orthodox (18 percent, mainly Conservative).

The “Mixed” group divides in three: “Subjectively Engaged” (7 percent), “Tradition-Oriented” (18 percent) and “Cultural-Communal Involvement” (14 percent). Each combines a high score in one engagement type – subjective feeling, ritual or cultural-communal activity – with a low score in other areas.Some subdivisions were a surprise, Horowitz writes. The Tradition-Oriented, with high ritual involvement, tend to be young, fourth-generation Americans. This suggests a quiet resurgence of religiosity.Then again, the most assimilated had been expected to subdivide into a group that was “outright hostile” and another that was essentially passive. Instead, Horowitz found, only 1 percent showed outright hostility, while fully 63 percent were “very positive.” Hence the division into “Really Indifferent” and “Some Interest.”

This led to one of her most important conclusions about contemporary Jewish identity: In contrast to past generations, “the range of emotion about being Jewish has shifted, from acceptance versus rejection to meaningfulness versus indifference.” Jews aren’t running away anymore. They just aren’t being drawn in.

Horowitz’s most ingenious advance, and her riskiest, is her analysis of types of changes Jews undergo. Using survey data asking how subjects acted and felt in childhood, she picks two indicators – Sabbath candle-lighting and Jewish pride – to compare individual Jewish “journeys.”

If the subjects’ memories are to be trusted, two-fifths haven’t changed much since they were 12. One-fifth maintain a “steady, low-intensity Jewish involvement” in attitude and behavior. Another fifth show a “steady, high-intensity” involvement.

The other 60 percent show clear movement. For one-sixth, 17 percent, involvement “lapses or decreases” in at least one dimension, with the other either lapsing or low. Another 10 percent show increasing involvement in one measure, with the other high or increasing.The largest group, one-third of the population, showed an “Interior” journey: rising subjective Jewish involvement, coupled with low or declining ritual practice.

Journeys were closely linked to Jewish denomination. Three-fourths of those raised Orthodox followed Steady-High or Increasing Journeys. Among those raised Conservative, one-fourth had High or Increasing journeys, while 44 percent were Interior. Among Reform Jews, one-tenth had High or Increasing journeys, 36 percent Interior and 55 percent Steady-Low or Lapsing journeys.This is risky stuff. We could be looking at nothing more than Jews who have stopped lighting Sabbath candles but think it’s O.K. Pessimists will look at this and see confirmation of a disintegrating Jewish community.

But Horowitz could be onto something big. Fully 70 percent of her subjects report low or declining ritual observance. Yet nearly as many, 63 percent, report high or increasing levels of subjective Jewish attachment. American Jewish identity “isn’t necessarily declining,” Horowitz writes. But it is changing, becoming more personal, more, well, Interior.

The challenge for the Jewish community is to begin understanding those market segments, to find ways of helping Jews grow. “Although people have journeys which can be very idiosyncratic,” Horowitz writes, “the Jewish community can develop pathways to help bolster people along the way.”

A Hands-On Holiday

Teachers have known for a long time that hands-on projects can bring a message home better than any lecture or study session.

And perhaps there’s no holiday on the Jewish calendar that better lends itself to creative manual labor — for kids and adults alike — than Sukkot, which comes this year on Sunday night, Oct. 4, and extends through Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Jews around the world observe the biblical fall harvest festival, which commemorates Israel’s sojourning in the desert, by spending a week eating in — or even living in — huts with vegetation as a roof. In addition, four species of plant — palm, myrtle and willow branches, and the citron, or etrog — are used in synagogue and home rituals.

The holiday is often a time when families and friends gather to build and then enjoy the sukkah, sharing meals and parties in the highly creative and individualized structures.

Here are the stories of a congregation and a family who took the opportunity to invest themselves physically and spiritually in the fall festival that ends the month-long High Holiday cycle.

It May Be Small, But It’s Kosher

Like many, Esther and Avraham Brander designed and built their own sukkah, decorated it and invited friends over to share in the holiday.

What makes their sukkah unique is that it is 5 feet high, and Esther is 7 years old and Avraham is 8.

The brother and sister, with help from their 4-year-old brother, Yaakov, used 3/4-inch plastic pipes with connectors for the frame, and fabric for the walls.

“They get very excited about things that are their own,” says their mother, Batyah Brander, assistant English principal of Ohr Haemet, a girls high school on Robertson Boulevard, and wife of Asher Brander, rabbi of the Westwood Kehilla.

Batyah helped the children puzzle the pieces together and secure the connectors to make sure the structure was steady. She estimates that the youngsters, who attend Toras Emes day school on La Brea Avenue, did 80 percent of the work on their own.

They also chose a kosher spot in the yard, where no trees hang over the 4 1/2-x-10-foot structure — and where the sukkah is out of sight of the family’s full-size sukkah.

Esther and Avraham are accustomed to these types of projects. They make their own challah and recently started making grape juice, stomping on the fruit (through plastic bags) and bottling it with their own labels.

“I never have to yell at them to come to the table for kiddush, because it’s their own grape juice,” Brander says. And on sukkah-building day, they got their homework done in a flash.

“They learned a lot more than if we just built it ourselves and let them sit in it,” Brander says.