2 N.J. schools say ex-teacher had sexual contact with students

Two Jewish schools in New Jersey have contacted police about a former teacher that they say had “inappropriate sexual contact” with students.

The Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck and the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth sent letters to parents saying that they had been informed recently of the incidents. The teacher, who is female, allegedly initiated the sexual contact last year.

After being informed of the accusations by the schools, local law enforcement launched investigations, according to news reports.

The Torah Academy wrote in its letter that the school found out about the allegations through a student who confided in another teacher about the incident. In a similar letter, the Jewish Educational Center said an alumnus called the school on Dec. 1 with the allegations.

“TABC has a zero tolerance for this type of behavior by adults,” read the letter sent by Rabbi Yosef Adler of the Torah Academy. “Our priorities are the welfare and safety of our students and the community at large.”

Tell-all book drags Hadassah back into Madoff story

Sheryl Weinstein, the high-profile victim of Bernard Madoff claiming to have had an affair with the confessed swindler, kicked off her book tour Tuesday with an appearance on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Why would a married woman, interviewer Chris Cuomo wanted to know, decide to write a book certain to cause a stir in her own personal life? Weinstein responded that as the person responsible for losing her family’s money with Madoff, she felt compelled to make things right by selling the only thing of value that she has: her story.

“When this happened, the feelings of guilt, responsibility, failure, became overwhelming. What went through my mind was, how am I going to get out of this? How am I going to make this situation better?” Weinstein said. “I knew it was going to be very hard on me. I was going to take a lot of the brunt. And I was willing to do that because the amount of responsibility was, and still is, really overwhelming.”

Weinstein was right to think that her decision to sell her story would land her smack in the center of the Madoff media circus. In the process, however, she also ended up dragging her former employer into the spotlight.

“I certainly hope Mrs. Weinstein was more discrete about her investment decisions on behalf of Hadassah than she was about her sex life,” Madoff’s attorney, Ira Sorkin, said in a statement broadcast to the ABC morning program’s 4 million viewers.

Weinstein, as virtually every media report on her new book makes clear, met Madoff and carried on an alleged 18-month affair with the investment guru during her tenure as Hadassah’s chief financial officer.

It’s not the sort of branding opportunity Hadassah officials were looking for, especially after months of promoting the message that the organization had moved beyond being a victim of Madoff’s Ponzi scheme.

Weinstein hasn’t worked at Hadassah for 12 years. And, on Tuesday, she reportedly told The Associated Press that she did not control investment decisions at the organization. Still,

Still, the book’s release has not only reopened questions about how the Jewish community’s largest membership organization ended up investing $40 million with Madoff (as Hadassah’s CFO, Weinstein reportedly was a member of the organization’s investment committee). It also has prompted media organizations to take a second look at the possibility that Hadassah and other charities potentially could be forced to return millions of dollars in profit that they withdrew over the years from their Madoff accounts.

At the time that Madoff’s scheme was exposed last year, Hadassah thought its account was worth $90 million, leading to initial reports about the losses suffered by the organization. But later it emerged that over the years Hadassah actually had withdrawn $130 million from its Madoff account.

Weinstein and Hadassah officials both have said that the first $7 million the organization invested with Madoff in 1988 came from a donor who insisted the money be handled that way. Hadassah had invested another $33 million with Madoff by 1996, a year before Weinstein left the organization.

When news of Weinstein’s book first broke, Hadassah officials were quick to insist that it was the first that they were hearing of the affair; the organization also stressed that there were many other members on the committee that decided to invest some of Hadassah’s money with Madoff.

“Hadassah was shocked to hear the news reports of Mrs. Weinstein’s personal admissions regarding this relationship. Indeed, we knew nothing of her relationship with Mr. Madoff until today, and her departure was unrelated to Mr. Madoff,” Hadassah’s president, Nancy Falchuk, said in a message sent to members of the organization’s board of directors.

Hadassah officials will not say why Weinstein left, but insist that it had nothing to do with Madoff.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported in 1998 that upon leaving Hadassah after nearly 14 years, Weinstein received $112,700 for 195 days of accrued vacation and $300,000 of severance. A Hadassah official was quoted as saying that the payments were part of “reaching an agreement” on her departure from the organization.

Efforts to reach Weinstein through her publisher were unsuccessful.

Hadassah insiders who asked not to be identified offered a mixed picture on the fund-raising fallout from the Madoff scandal. On the one hand there are loyal supporters who have rushed to support the organization. But there are also those dismayed at how Hadassah ended up investing with Madoff in the first place, and others who say they are reluctant to donate to an organization that could be forced to return money relating to its Madoff investments.

One insider said it is believed that no Hadassah board members were hit by Madoff, though some members of the organization—smaller donors who belonged to the country clubs in New York and Florida where Madoff poached—were wiped out.

It is too early to calculate with certainty whether Hadassah will suffer a significant drop in fund raising this year because of the fallout. But even if donations are down, with so many organizations experiencing a drop in support because of the economic climate, it would be difficult to prove a direct link to the publicity from the Weinstein tell-all. Officials at many nonprofits say they are assuming that many donors are simply hiding behind any excuse they can to avoid making donations.

Meanwhile, Falchuk (who also is a member of JTA’s board of directors) is highlighting several recent fund-raising successes and hammering home the message that Hadassah is moving beyond the Madoff scandal.

“As we near the end of August, Hadassah has received some good news,” she said in a recent message. “A new pledge of one million dollars, with two others in the pipeline, reflect the excitement, vitality and health of the organization. To date, over $213 million in gifts and pledges have supported our commitment to build the Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, approaching our goal of $318 million without equipment.

“What a hopeful way to end the summer and begin the New Year,” Falchuk added. “In three years, 2012, Hadassah will celebrate our Centennial Anniversary and dedicate the new Tower in Jerusalem. We look forward to a vibrant future for the organization and continuing our good work into the next century—in Israel, America and around the world.”

City Voice: The Mayor is cheating … on L.A.

Breaking the commandment against adultery shouldn’t disqualify you for public office.

Still, I don’t think the adulterer should expect cheers from the
Jewish community. This is especially true when the official is Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who has made his family and his life story a big part of his persona.

I felt let down by the news that Villaraigosa had an affair with television journalist Mirthala Salinas, who has reported on the mayor for Telemundo. (Her involvement with the mayor violated one of the three ethics rules I give my USC journalism students: Don’t lie, don’t steal and don’t sleep with your news sources.)

I was disappointed because he offered hope for uniting a fractious city behind some common goals important to the middle class and poor — the majority of the city’s residents, which includes many Jews — teachers, social workers, supermarket checkers and blue-collar workers. And he has had the support of the city’s most affluent Jews, who are among his campaign contributors.

Jews have a vested interest in working with the rest of Los Angeles on improving the public schools, saving affordable rentals from condo conversions, creating better transit and other issues.

As a political leader, Villaraigosa crossed ethnic lines in his successful campaign and began his tenure the same way. He has dashed from one part of the city to another — a highly visible mayor — and has been as at home in a synagogue as in a community meeting in South Los Angeles.

That is good. His predecessor, James Hahn, stuck to the office too much, neglecting the symbolic aspects of the job.

“People like to touch and feel the mayor,” said professor Peter Dreier, chair of Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Program and a Villaraigosa supporter.

But as his term moved along, he seemed scattered, bouncing from one event to another, bragging about existing on four hours of sleep a night, embracing the television cameras, always with a big smile. Recently, I heard a Russian say that Americans smile too much. I don’t want the mayor to grump around like Putin, but that huge grin in every photograph starts to look insincere.

As he dashed about, Villaraigosa always talked about his climb up the ladder from the Eastside, and portrayed himself as a family man. As reporters Duke Helfand and Steve Hymon noted in the Los Angeles Times, his family was featured in campaign literature and — until recently — on the mayoral Web site. He was a family guy, perfect for a city that despite the heavily publicized Hollywood and Westside glitz puts a high premium on family values.

Did he think he could keep his private life hidden? Privacy seems impossible in today’s media atmosphere, where news is shaped through the Internet. On Jan. 29, blogger Luke Ford reported that the mayor and his wife had not been seen together for 10 months and he was no longer wearing his wedding ring. The chase was on, and this month Beth Barrett of the Daily News broke the story of the affair.

After several days, the short-attention- span news media had moved on to other stories, and the mayor has been hard at work repairing his image. Success is important for the city and him personally. He is expected to run for re-election and may be a candidate for governor.

Professor Dreier said he thinks the mayor can come back.

“I think the reporters are more interested in his personal life than the public is,” Dreier said.

With Villaraigosa, he said, “a lot of people feel let down on a personal level,” but the mayor’s future depends on “whether the crime rate goes down, the schools improve” and on his ability to deal with matters as mundane but important as potholes in the streets.

And that’s going to be difficult. Even though a City Charter reform greatly increased the power of the mayor, a municipal official is limited in solving problems that are national in scope. You can’t build a subway to the sea without federal funds. And every city in the country is fighting for more state and federal funds for schools.

“His biggest problem is that he raised expectations real high, and it is almost impossible to reach those goals,” Dreier said.

If a Democrat wins the presidency in 2008, he said, “there will be a lot more funds flowing to L.A., and he’s got a lot of people expecting miracles and that’s part of the problem.”

The immediate spotlight is on the public schools.

Villaraigosa raised the money and provided the campaign know-how to allow his candidates to become a majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.

The mayor moved quickly to shape district policy. His aides prepared a series of initiatives speedily adopted by the school board.

The measures are designed to measure student performance, decrease the drop-out rate, improve education for students who are learning English and build smaller schools. Training of principals would be improved and parent involvement would be encouraged.

What will happen to these lofty goals is uncertain. History tells us that board proposals turn to mush as they make their way through the district’s bureaucracy. Since his staff wrote the proposals, the mayor will take the heat for their success or failure.

This is unglamorous work, requiring great focus. The mayor, Los Angeles’ most visible and powerful public official, is the only one who can make it work. Making things work is a big commandment in politics and government. If Villaraigosa follows through on his promises, his failure to obey the biblical injunction might well be forgiven.

Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Bill Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a Metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at bw.boyarsky@verizon.net.

Monica Lewinsky is Jewish

The New York Times devoted 1,500 words last Sunday to a biographical profile of Monica Lewinsky, the 24-year-old woman who allegedly had an 18-month affair with President Clinton and who has been accused of lying about it under oath.

The New York Times’ reporters are nothing if not thorough. We learned just about everything about young Monica.

But nowhere was there a word indicating that she was Jewish.

Perhaps that is as it should be. There was no mention of Linda Tripp’s religious background or Kenneth W. Starr’s either. That Monica Lewinsky is Jewish clearly has no resonance in the mainstream media. The implication of that astonishing fact seems fairly straightforward: To be Jewish is simply to be American. Beyond the fringe world of Internet hate groups, most of which consist of marginal men and women in our society who have regaled fellow chat room users with references to her religion, there is no ethnic imputation, no stereotyped past or present. Monica Lewinsky, for many Americans, is just another young woman from a privileged, upper-middle-class family. Beverly Hills and Brentwood conjure up more associations than her Jewishness.

And that is the way it should be.

But, of course, we know that she is Jewish; that her parents are members of Sinai Temple; that she was a bat mitzvah there some 11 years ago; that there were relatively few strong affiliations with Jewish organizations here; but, nevertheless, a good number of friends who were Jewish, including her father’s attorney, William Ginsburg, a medical malpractice specialist who now represents her.

And so the question — so what? — hangs above us in some unstated way. To The New York Times and most of its readers, that she was Jewish remains largely beside the point. We are way past those days of the old anti-Semitic canard about the Jewish Temptress. And for that, if nothing else, we should be grateful.

But what about us, the Jewish community of Los Angeles? Are we, too, so thoroughly part and parcel of this wider America that her Jewishness is only an incidental sidebar, a curiosity that merely causes a blink of recognition and a guess at her genealogy?

We know that Fred Goldman turned to his fellow Jews in Los Angeles for support during the O.J. Simpson trial, after his son, Ron Goldman, was murdered along with Nicole Brown Simpson. Indeed, his havurah, a study group, became a rock that helped sustain him throughout those gray days of despair.

To be sure, there is no comparison between a father’s unrelieved grief in the face of his son’s killing and the charges that confront Lewinsky. But do we stand apart with most other media consumers, reading with fascination, and not a little incredulity, the next unfolding chapter of the story? Is Monica Lewinsky, for us, as she is for The New York Times, simply another young American woman wrapped in a startling series of tawdry episodes involving the president of the United States?

Or is she, by reason of birth and background, part of what we assume to be family, a member of the tribe? Someone who may or may not have acted foolishly and improperly, may or may not have broken the law, but someone we recognize, embarrassment aside, without exchanging a word?

And if so, without judging whether she behaved well or badly, within the bounds of the law or outside of it, do we offer a hand, a shoulder, a word, even a murmur of friendly encouragement? Do we extend just a show of personal acknowledgment and a joining of hands, a nod that says we all rise and fall together no matter what direction our journeys have taken us? — Gene Lichtenstein, Editor-in-Chief

Remembering the ‘Rescuers’

Director Peter Bogdanovich is best-known for “The Last PictureShow,” “Paper Moon” and other films that explore the Americanexperience.

He is also known for his affairs with youthful, blond andquintessentially American sex symbols: a radiant, 22-year-old CybillShepherd from “The Last Picture Show”; the glamorous but doomedPlayboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, murdered in 1980 by herestranged husband; and Stratten’s younger sister, an actress thegrieving Bogdanovich began mentoring at the age of 13 and marriedseven years later.

What is less known about the 58-year-old director is that he doesnot consider himself first and foremost an American; rather, he is arefugee who was rescued from the Nazis.

That explains his passion for the television movie series”Rescuers: Stories of Courage,” which premières Oct. 5 onShowtime. The three films feature two rescuers’ stories each, takenfrom the popular 1992 book by Malka Drucker and Gay Block.

As for the Bogdanovich familystory, that began several years before the war, when BorislavBogdanovich, a Greek Orthodox Serb, was earning his living as apainter and pianist near Zagreb. The fortyish artist chanced torespond to an advertisement placed by a wealthy Viennese Jewishbusinessman who was seeking a piano teacher for his young daughters.Herma Robinson was the eldest and all of 13.

By the age of 17, she was pregnant with her piano teacher’s baby.The couple hastily moved to the altar, but Robinson pèredisapproved. Borislav was non-Jewish, an artist, and old enough to beHerma’s father. Robinson never behaved particularly well toward hisson-in-law despite the great favor Borislav did the family on the eveof war.

In early 1939, with the Nazi threat rumbling, Bogdanovich traveledto Paris to obtain tourist visas for the family to sail for New York,ostensibly to visit the World’s Fair. Peter, who was conceived afterthe couple’s first child died in a scalding accident, made the tripin utero. He was born two months after the family arrived inManhattan. While he spoke only Serbo-Croatian at home, the boy fellin love with all things American, especially the movies.

The rest of his mother’s family died in the concentration camps.”I was drawn to ‘Rescuers,'” he says, simply, “because I myself wassaved.”

Bogdanovich is known as a “women’s director,” so it is notsurprising that he took on the first film of the “Rescuers” series,entitled “Two Women.” In the first one-hour segment, ElizabethPerkins plays Gertruda Babilinska, a Polish nanny who hid her Jewishward from the Nazis. In the second, Sela Ward portrays Marie-RoseGineste, who supervised the hiding of Jews around her village ofMontauban, France.

Though the action in “Rescuers” takes place in Europe, the projectwas home-grown in Los Angeles. Specifically, it began with RabbiHarold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who, for decades, haspassionately urged Jews to remember the rescuers as well as the gaschambers.

Two of his congregants, Malka Drucker and Gay Block, took heed; inthe late 1980s, they put up thousands of their own dollars tointerview and photograph 50 rescuers in eight countries. They metpeasants and noblemen, priests and atheists, men and women who hadstolen food for their Jewish wards, forged passports and carriedchamber pots from attics.

Nevertheless, 20 publishers initially rejected the book, remarkingthat the world had heard quite enough about the Holocaust, and whowanted to look at pictures of old people?

Yet the tome was eventually a success, and Drucker’s agentbrother-in-law made sure that it crossed the desk of another ValleyBeth Shalom congregant, Jerry Offsay (on Offsay’s first day as thenew president of programming for Showtime two years ago, no less). Anenthused Offsay soon sent the book to Barbra Streisand and herproducing partner, Cis Corman, who says: “There was no way we couldnot do this project. We were in awe of the rescuers. We had heard ofWallenberg and Schindler, but we did not realize so many averagepeople had risked their lives.”

The first step, of course, was selecting six filmic stories from asampling of countries, and fleshing out the book’s terse,first-person interviews. Screenwriter Paul Monash traveled to JohtjeVos’ splendid, Woodstock, N.Y., country house to interview her abouthiding 36 Jews in her former home outside Amsterdam.

Writer Jon Pielmeier visited Germany to research the only rescuerswho were not in the book: Adolf and Maria Althoff, who hid Jews asclowns and jugglers in their wartime circus.

Drucker, among other tasks, conducted extra telephone interviewswith men who had been sheltered as small boys by Marie Taquet in hermilitary school in the Belgian castle of Jamoigne. Drucker sharesstory credit on that segment with her screenwriter parents.

Paramount Network Television put up some of the money, and whenthe scripts were done, the producers did not have to scrounge fortalent. The rescuers proved so popular that even A-list actors suchas Linda Hamilton (Marie Taquet) and Daryl Hannah (Maria Althoff)agreed to work at a fraction of their usual pay.

Watch “Two Women,” and it seems some dramatic license was used,for the story lines are, at times, different from those in the book.Nevertheless, the attention to atmospheric detail was precise.

Producer Jeff Freilich urged the art department to comb Europe forperiod props: actual forged passports, Nazi uniforms, wartime Germanvehicles, a 1930s French bicycle, a Hungarian iron from 1935. Theirefforts were so successful, he says, that once, while shooting insmall-town Canada, he heard a wail from across the road. Apparently,an elderly Auschwitz survivor who had not read the newspaper ads thatwarned about the shoot was overcome by the sight of Nazis andcowering Jews in the streets. Freilich found him crying, unable tostand and leaning against the wall. But when the producer apologizedand explained about the movies, the survivor wanly smiled and thankedhim.

The experience has stayed with Freilich. “Rescuers,” sums up theformer “Falcon Crest” writer/director/executive producer, “is thefirst time I have done something meaningful in TV.”

For Drucker, the project has had an even greater impact. Despiteher commercial success, she is not pursuing a career in show businessbut, rather, has enrolled in rabbinical school. “The book gave me aglimpse of what it is to connect people to heaven,” she says, “and Ican do that better as a rabbi.”

Drucker, in turn, has a theory about why the rescuers have becomeso popular. “We live in a time of great moral relativity, where weare inclined to feel hopeless about the possibility of redemption,”she says. “The rescuers, quite simply, remind us that goodness is apart of who we are.”

The second in the “Rescuers” series, “Two Couples,” will air inMay. The third, “Two Families,” will air in September 1998.