President Donald Trump on Feb. 28. Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo/Reuters

There is no wave of Trump-induced anti-Semitism or racism


The actual percentage is yet to be exactly known, but it is already clear that a serious number of the major anti-Semitic incidents taking place — such as defacing Jewish graves, painting swastikas on Jewish students’ dorm room doors, and calling in bomb threats to Jewish institutions — are being perpetrated by leftists who wish to perpetuate the belief that Donald Trump’s election victory has unleashed a national wave of anti-Semitism.

The same seems to hold true for post-Trump anti-Muslim and anti-Black incidents.

I could cite dozens of examples. Here are a few:

Last week, it was reported that a Black, left-wing journalist was arrested for phoning in bomb threats to the ADL and half a dozen other Jewish institutions.

On Feb. 27, the Minneapolis Star Tribune headlined: “Racist graffiti found at Lakeville South High School.”

The article began: “Swastikas, racial epithets and other racist graffiti were found etched on bathroom stalls at Lakeville South High School on Monday.”

It turned out to be a hoax perpetrated by a non-white student: “A ‘non-Caucasian’ Minnesota high school student has been disciplined after it was determined he was responsible for racist and antisemitic graffiti found in a school bathroom. The scribblings included a picture of a lynching, the phrase ‘Hail the Ku Klux Klan,’ the ‘N’ word, and a swastika” (The College Fix, March 2).

On March 1, the Toronto Sun headlined: “Bomb threats targeting Muslims close Concordia buildings.”

The article continued: “ … a group threatened to detonate ‘small artisanal explosive devices’ once a day until Friday in order to injure Muslim students. The group, which described itself as a chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens of Canada, or C4, complained about Muslim prayer services on campus.”

The next day, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported: “The man charged in connection with Wednesday’s bomb threats at Concordia University, Hisham Saadi, was a PhD student in economics there. … Saadi is of Lebanese origin.”

The College Fix, which accumulates data on these hoaxes, reported that “At Massachusetts’ Williams College, two students admitted to trashing the school’s Griffin Hall with a ‘red wood-stain substance resembling blood’ and spelled out ‘AMKKK KILL.’ ” The college newspaper, The Williams Record, later reported that the two students did it “to bring attention to the potential impact of the presidential election on campus.”

At Bowling Green State University on the day after the election, a Black student alleged three white males clad in ‘Trump’ shirts called her a racial slur and threw rocks at her. ABC News reported shortly thereafter that the police concluded she made up the story.

MSNBC posted a tweet that contained what appeared to be a video of a female Muslim student beating up a ‘racist’ male pupil at Washburn High School. “Don’t mess with Somali girls in Minnesota,” MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell announced. “The dude tried to knock her hijab (headgar) [sic] off, she gave him a hard lesson.”

The video, titled “Welcome to Washburn,” went viral after it was posted to Facebook, with more than 6.5 million views, more than 161,000 shares and more than 29,000 comments.

But the Minneapolis Star Tribune declared the footage a “hoax” and a “play fight” intended as a joke. And school staff confirmed the alleged incident never happened.

Another anti-Muslim incident that was widely reported was proven to be a hoax. A female Muslim student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette alleged that right after the election, two white men, one of whom was wearing a Trump cap, attacked her and stole her wallet and the hijab she was wearing. Her story prompted the ACLU of Louisiana to issue a statement denouncing both the incident and Donald Trump; the FBI launched an investigation; and the story was covered by The Washington Post, The New York Times and CNN.

The Muslim student later admitted to police that she made up the whole story.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that a San Francisco man who raised a Nazi flag on the roof of his home right after the election was a left-wing Trump-hater.

There are so many examples of hoaxes perpetrated by Black, Muslim and white leftists that they could fill this issue of the Jewish Journal.

The entire notion of a Trump-inspired crime wave is fake news spread by the mainstream media. For more examples, see “There Is No Violent Hate-Crimewave In ‘Trump’s America.’ ”

Donald Trump is no more anti-Semitic than the columnists of this newspaper. Nor is Breitbart.com anti-Semitic. And there is no wave of Trump-induced anti-Semitism or racism in America.

This is only one more example of left-wing hysteria — like heterosexual AIDS in America; the “rape culture” on campuses; the alleged crisis of racist cops wantonly killing innocent Blacks; and global warming threatening life on earth.

Jews who think there is such a wave do so because they hate Donald Trump so much, they want to believe it. In other words, a lot of Jews want to believe that Jews are hated in America more than ever. Yet another way in which leftism has poisoned Jewish life.


Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Shades of Disclosure – Theatre Review


 

In the Skylight Theatre Company production of Shades of Disclosure, director Michael Kearns wants us to know up front, that “…given that we are at a new state of affairs…” (referencing Trump), “…we’re honoring a moment in 1986- when we presented a show called “AIDS US”.

The clear implication being that this new version of a stylized live tell-all has resonance for the current political climate and therefore speaks to and for us all, Gay or otherwise.  “Sophie”, a 16 year-old lesbian with a video camera is our tour guide, who refers to coming out and then first being worried about encountering kids her own age who were homophobic and transphobic and would judge her; and to wit, saw the worldwide AIDS epidemic as historical, but living in a “textbook” rather than real life; that is, until she started interviewing people for this project. She is making a documentary about AIDS and how deeply and real the scary epidemic has affected her community.  Sophie speaks with and to various “characters”, 16 real people in upstage tableau, who sometimes speak in unison, usually to repeat back a key phrase.  The first: “Who are you?!” was a bit Orwellian creepy.  One upstage dude says: “I’m the fuck buddy!” as its twin words are flashed upon the backdrop.  “…and I am negative”, referring to HIV Negative.  In sort of a Greek dramatic chorus splintering into individuals with their own particular story, the show begins to take shape as far as what we can expect to see: A stage interpretation of an AIDS survivor making a filmed documentary.  “I’m the deserter; my name is Albert and I’m negative”, then he tells a poetic paragraph about what AIDS actually is.  “I’m Jim!  I’m positive and AIDS is cool!” says the next player and I’m thinking, okay, alternative medical facts.  And, all of this is presented to us, the audience, as almost a group penned open letter to President Donald Trump.  This ain’t no swinging finger snap hissy fit.  These are a people who not only died decades ago from Reagan head-in-the-sand politics, the survivors die every day.  That’s what defines them as survivors.  And therefore, like the radioactive rats whose eyes were blinded by the unexpected flash of a nuclear attack, these 17 heroes speak for all Americans who currently feel disenfranchised, humiliated and indeed threatened, by the Orange Monster.

These are not actors.  I mean some of them probably ARE actors, but that’s not my point.  They are not acting.  They are telling us true stories from their own real lives.  Although the players are guided by a literal physically bound script, Shades of Disclosure is directed and written harmonically around the theme of honesty.  This must be a new theatrical genre; never properly identified, either specifically in the program materials or explicitly in the performance. Shades of Disclosure (surely living up to its eponymous name by accident) is unclear, blurred at times, as to what kind of show we’re actually watching. Is it a story-telling show or a written and acted play?  Turns out it’s both. Like the shades of theatrical genre, AIDS survivors from the LGTB community are a unique and new genre in and of themselves.  That’s where the real life cause and the real life players intersect. Real people, extoling their experience and wisdom gathered thereof in a hybrid of confessional and theatrical, and the best part is: They’re not acting. When you realize and remember that, you open yourself up to experiencing perhaps the bravest of all theatrical presentation: “confessional performance art”.  At worst, you’ll forget you’re in the theatre; at best, you’ll probably experience, and indeed emotionally participate in, one of the most authentic theatrical shows you’ll ever see.

Like the past we all want to see, human definition in “Shades” is blurred, therefore making “Shades of Disclosure” a choreographed presentation of authenticity. 

I have this friend.  Probably my oldest friend in the world.  I’ve known her since the mid-sixties when we met as classmates at Beverly Vista elementary school in Beverly Hills.  We became instant comedy buddies.  Nerds too inept to excel at sports or girls or beating up the weak.  We were the weak, therefore the strongest observers.  One of the blessings in my life is the fact that I’ve reconnected to many classmates from that period of my life.  We were and are a special group.  We were from a Beverly Hills that sported genuine movie stars shopping for themselves, a magical mystical village created by the early days of the movie industry and then refined by the remnants of Prohibition.  Most of my friends from that time are married with kids who are graduating.  Some of them are dentists.  Some of them are dead.  But we all share a common bond.  We grew up and survived the zone with the highest divorce rate in the country.jessie Like many of us, I was a victim of that too, and in that vein, my parents were trend-setters.  We had the most dysfunctional family this side of the Kardashians.   Where there is now a bank or a top line fashion store, was a little diner, a toy store, a magic store.  All run by colorful individuals, some of them former actors.  The Thrifties (which has been on Canon Drive for 30 years) used to be on Wilshire and had a counter in the back for burgers and milkshakes.  Behind the counter was a two-foot platform.  Why?  Because all the servers who worked there were former Munchkin actors.  The fact that “munchkin” didn’t get caught in spellcheck is a testament to that time.shades-of-disclosure-photo

By way of a shade of disclosure of my own, one of the major creative participants in Shades of Disclosure is Jessie Jacobson.  Long ago, when Jessie and I were young and best friends, both of us were boys.  I am now a man and Jessie is now a woman.  Like the past we all want to see, human definition in “Shades” is blurred, therefore making “Shades of Disclosure” a choreographed presentation of endless questioning.

“Shades of Disclosure is perhaps the one theatre show which comes to life on the cutting edge between realism and activism.” 

People who are strong and stand up for all of us, if only from their own soap box; and especially in these new dark times of Trump, are the final flanks in what I call: “the War on Errorism”; anonymous soldiers of truth and perspective, who often fall into the toxic foxhole of political correction. “Shades of Disclosure” is perhaps the one theatre show this reviewer has ever seen, which comes to life on the cutting edge between realism and activism.  17 actors who are real people who explore their AIDS survival stories in a unique and in-yo-face way.  The big problem for me personally is that my métier is comedy and this show is anything but; therefore awakening the sleeping Bevis or Butthead within. By reinforcing the invisible bonds which keep us all together, regardless of political viewpoint or personal grudges, entertainment meets art meets theatrical political activism. Bravo Shades of Disclosure. It is funny in spots, it’s sometimes dirty, it’s ultimately horrifying. Jessie plays guitar and sings a song, which everyone joins in unison. The chorus: “When negative means positive and positive is a bitch.”

Truer words were never sung by a braver bunch of humans.

Enjoy the veal,

Steven Alan Green, 2/10/17

Shades of Disclosure runs at 8:00pm Saturdays, and 3:00pm on Sundays on an extended the run through March 11th, 2017; with additional performances: Sat, Mar  4, Sun, Mar 5, and Sat, Mar 11.  There will be no performance the Sunday 2/26 (Oscars). Skylight Theatre is located at 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave, LA, 90027. Tickets are $15 – $40. Reservations: 213-761-7061 or online here.

Shades of Disclosure stars: Albert Auben, Gil Feroli, Cheri Gaulke, Randy Gravelle, John Glenn Harding, Austin Humble, Jessie Jacobson, Sophie Kim, Darrell Larson, Timothy Mack, Mason Mahoney, Jen Oconnor, Christine Papalexis, Roland Palencia, Ken Pienkos, & David Trudell. 

 

Put to the test: A young woman talks life with HIV


While growing up in a suburban Jewish home in Granada Hills, Kelly Gluckman never thought she could become HIV positive.  

“I knew that AIDS was a huge problem in Africa, in the gay community and among drug abusers, but it was something that happened to ‘them’ over there,” Gluckman, 29, said during an interview at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation (elizabethtayloraidsfoundation.org) in Beverly Hills, where she is now an activist who speaks to young people about HIV and AIDS.  

“Essentially, I was a heterosexual female who had sex with men who had sex with women. So while I knew that HIV existed, I never thought it could happen to me.”

Gluckman will turn out to urge people to get free testing for the virus during an event at The Abbey in West Hollywood, hosted by the foundation in partnership with the Centers for Disease Control, on June 27, National HIV Testing Day. 

Despite Gluckman’s early naiveté about the virus, condom use was mandatory with every one of her partners, and Gluckman made sure to get tested for HIV every time she got together with a new boyfriend. That is, until she began dating “Adam” (not his real name), a good friend who eventually became her boyfriend when she was 22.  

They were living together and had been intimate for a couple of months when, Gluckman said, her judgment lapsed and she decided to forego condoms during sex. Not long thereafter, Gluckman realized her mistake and insisted that they both get tested for HIV.  On Oct. 25, 2010, she and Adam arrived at the offices of Planned Parenthood in Santa Monica, where he was called first into the doctor’s office.  

“He came back and said he had tested positive, and I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ ” Gluckman recalled.  “We had the kind of relationship where we bantered all the time, so I thought he was joking. But then I looked at him and his face was white. All that was flashing through my mind was the last number of months of unprotected sex.”

Gluckman said she felt numb when her own test came back positive as well; but she perked up on the way back home to the couple’s apartment. Magic Johnson had been infected with HIV, but he was cured, she erroneously thought. A subsequent Google search revealed that while Johnson is healthy, he still has the retrovirus. 

“I was crushed,” Gluckman said.

She asked Adam if he had been faithful, and whether he knew of any previous partners who could have infected him. He adamantly told her no. But before long, a mutual male friend admitted to Gluckman that he had slept with Adam while the couple was together. 

“I screamed and cried,” said Gluckman, who was working as a server at a Sherman Oaks restaurant at the time.  

When she confronted her boyfriend, he at first denied any infidelity. But eventually he confessed to having sex with their friend, as well as more than 12 other men before he had started dating Gluckman.

Still, she said, “One reason it took me so long to break up with Adam is that I was scared other people wouldn’t find me attractive anymore.”

She also hoped that she and Adam could face their health crisis together. But while she diligently researched the virus and arranged for the couple to be treated at the Los Angeles LGBT Center (previously the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center), Adam did nothing to help her.  

“Then I noticed that he was making no effort to contact his previous partners about his HIV,” Gluckman said. “It turned out that being with Adam was like carrying a monkey on my back, apart from the cheating and the betrayal.”

Nine months after her diagnosis, Gluckman finally broke off the relationship, but her journey to getting treatment was fraught. Gluckman initially declined to take her prescribed anti-retroviral drugs “because I didn’t trust the government or the pharmaceutical companies,” she said. She even dabbled in HIV denialism. But she was alarmed when she discovered that her viral load had tripled after three months. Learning about the death of one denialist who had refused treatment finally convinced her to take the crucial drugs.

In person, Gluckman is petite, brunette, and has inspirational tattoos inked across her forearms.  One of them reads, “no regrets,” which is how she now feels about her HIV. 

“It’s become a blessing in disguise,” Gluckman said. It is because of her HIV that she has finally found her calling in life: as an advocate for HIV and AIDS prevention among young people.

Her activism began in 2011 when an official at the LGBT Center suggested that she participate in an advertising campaign, “Let’s Stop HIV Together,” sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. Gluckman went on to appear in an MTV documentary, “I’m Positive,” produced by Dr. Drew Pinsky, which focused on three young people living with HIV. She spoke to homeless youth and began working as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, lobbying in Washington, D.C., on behalf of sex education as well as lecturing to diverse young people.  Gluckman also became a member of the UCLA Sex Squad, a performing troupe devoted to sex education for high school students.

“Kelly’s openness to tell her story has been invaluable for furthering [our] mission to see an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” foundation spokeswoman Cristin Klein said in an email.  “Her story has allowed [us] to get her message in front of young people across the country, which has been far more receptive coming from a peer. Every time Kelly shares her story, she is helping to remove the stigma that surrounds HIV.”

Not that everything has been smooth sailing for Gluckman.  

“Dating has been extremely difficult,” she said.  

Gluckman has disclosed her HIV status on every first date: “I don’t want to invest my time, energy and emotion into someone who is not going to take an interest in me as a person,” she said.  

Most often, her dates would tell her she is an amazing person and that they respect her — and then she would never hear from them again. When one man learned of Gluckman’s HIV status, he ordered her to leave his home.

Today, however, Gluckman is in a committed relationship going on eight months with a man she met on Tinder; her viral load is undetectable, and she takes just one pill a day to keep healthy. Her family and friends have been supportive.

When she speaks to young people, she wants them to know that “HIV can happen to anybody; viruses don’t discriminate,” she said. “But you’re not a lesser person if you have acquired the virus; the vast majority of us are sexual beings.”

She also emphasizes, “If you get HIV, it’s not the end of the world. It sucks; I’m not going to tell you it’s a walk in the park. But it can be manageable. However, you need to get tested right away and if you’re positive, take care of it. Nip it in the bud, because if you wait until you land in the hospital with full-blown AIDS, it’s already done major damage to your body and probably will have taken some years off of your life.”

Gluckman also advocates the importance of safe sex. “Since becoming HIV positive, using condoms has become something that can be fun,” she said. “I get to have as much fun as I want, because of this safety net.”

In the fall, Gluckman will attend UCLA to earn a bachelor’s degree in arts advocacy toward HIV and AIDS education.  

“Through getting diagnosed, starting to do advocacy work and becom[ing] more and more passionate about it, I’ve found a real sense of purpose,” she said.

Shkreli insults Congress on Twitter after refusing to testify


Former Turing Pharmaceuticals Chief Executive Officer Martin Shkreli on Thursday called members of Congress “imbeciles” on Twitter, moments after he refused to testify before a House of Representatives committee on why his company raised the price of a lifesaving medicine by 5,000 percent.

“Hard to accept that these imbeciles represent the people in our government,” said Shkreli, using his @MartinShkreli Twitter handle.

Earlier, Shkreli invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and declined to answer questions from lawmakers about drug price increases he engineered, such as hiking the price of 62-year-old Daraprim to $750 a pill from $13.50. 

During the hearing, Shkreli, whose youth and attitude have prompted some critics to label him “Pharmabro,” responded to questions by laughing, twirling a pencil and yawning. 

After his appearance, he tweeted: “I had prior counsel produce a memo on facial expressions during congressional testimony if anyone wants to see it. Interesting precedence.”

He retweeted several posts, including one from Michael J Lis (@mikeylis) that said: “Congress should just ask @MartinShkreli questions on Twitter instead of putting them in front of the house committee.” 

Shkreli, 32, also interacted with some journalists, responding to one remark on his voting record with “have never voted and never will.”

Shkreli, who sparked outrage last year after the big hike in the price of 62-year-old Daraprim, was a trending topic on social media following the hearing. There were about 40 posts per minute about him on Twitter as of midday Thursday, according to analytics firm Zoomph. About 92,000 people were talking about Shkreli on Facebook.

His appearance on Thursday angered members of Congress. Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders), U.S. senator from Vermont and Democratic presidential candidate, tweeted: “The American people are fed up with the blatant profiteering of pharmaceutical company CEOs like Martin Shkreli. It must end.”

U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (@RepLujanGrisham), a New Mexico Democrat, said: “With all of the smirking, does @MartinShkreli really take this issue seriously? #PharmaBro.”

Twitter sentiment was negative overall toward Shkreli, according to Zoomph, and some tweets indicated it was not much better toward members of Congress. 

WDW Vacationer (@WDWVacationer) tweeted: “Trey Gowdy might be worse than Shkreli,” referring to an exchange in which the Republican representative from South Carolina got Shkreli to confirm how his last name is pronounced and then said: “See? … You did just answer a question.”

Gay-rights pioneer, playwright Kramer subject of new HBO doc


When young gay men began dying in 1981 of a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, waves of shock and fear spread throughout the gay community. The media coined the term “GRID,” for gay-related immune deficiency, until the term “AIDS” replaced it the following year. 

Watching his friends die one after the other, author and screenwriter Larry Kramer knew he had to act. By 1982, he’d helped found Gay Men’s Health Crisis to provide support and needed services to people living with HIV and AIDS. In 1987, he founded the more militant ACT UP to demand political action to fight the epidemic of AIDS. As Kramer said in a TV interview during that era, “We have to start being powerful or we are going to die.”

In the documentary “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” which screened at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and premieres June 29 on HBO, filmmaker Jean Carlomusto weaves together interviews with Kramer and other gay- rights leaders, shot over more than three decades with footage of street protests and tense activist meetings, to uncover the complex man at the heart of the story.

The film begins in September 1991 at an AIDS forum in New York City. AIDS had already killed 150,000 people in the U.S., and the death rate showed no sign of slowing. Kramer took the podium. He looked tense, his brow furrowed, his head resting on his palm. Finally he broke his silence and screamed out the word no one wanted to hear: “Plague!” People around the world are despondent, he shouted, as his eyes searched the room as if looking for a solution. Throughout the film, Kramer is as fiery as a biblical preacher railing against apathy and effeteness, going so far as to call his fellow homosexuals “sissies” for not being aggressive in demanding more.

In his semi-autobiographical 1985 play “The Normal Heart,” which won a Tony Award for best play revival on Broadway in 2011, Kramer made the protagonist Ned Weeks (based on himself) an obnoxious character. Kramer has a reputation of being a bombastic loudmouth and a contrarian. He admits it openly, almost gleefully. But, as the writer Calvin Trillin points out in the film, “a certain generation of gay men have reason to believe that Larry saved their lives.”

Kramer was, and still is, a controversial and divisive figure. He alienated many in the gay community for criticizing promiscuity and recreational drug use in his 1978 novel “Faggots,” though he was slightly redeemed when those activities were shown to have increased the spread of AIDS. He resigned from the board of Gay Men’s Health Crisis in 1983 because the other members weren’t as confrontational as he felt they needed to be. His next group, ACT UP, galvanized a community of activists to demand the Food and Drug Administration speed up the approval process for AIDS drugs, staging violent demonstrations and singling out government and medical officials for criticism.

Although much of the film takes place in New York, AIDS activism also had a strong presence on the West Coast, with groups in San Francisco and Los Angeles marching in solidarity. Congregation Kol Ami Rabbi Denise Eger,   one of the country’s first openly lesbian rabbis, began working at Congregation Beth Chayim Chadashim in 1988 as its first full-time rabbi, at the height of the AIDS crisis. 

“People were diagnosed and dead within six weeks,” Eger said. “It was a very bad time. People were in deep mourning, in crisis and traumatized.”

Eger ran a support group for HIV/AIDS patients and their loved ones, which continues to meet. 

“Most of my days as a rabbi were spent simply driving from hospital to hospital,” Eger said. She went from West L.A. to downtown, Sherman Oaks, Long Beach and UCLA, visiting sick congregants. “In 1988, people didn’t understand the disease. You’d go into a hospital, and they’d make you put on a full-body gown,” she said.

In “Larry Kramer in Love & Anger,” members of Gay Men’s Health Crisis are shown visiting hospital patients in New York, bringing them trays of food that nurses had left outside their doors because they were too afraid to enter. 

The documentary also explores lesser-known aspects of Kramer’s life: his contentious relationship with his parents, the affection he shared with his older brother, Arthur, and his difficult experiences as a closeted gay college student at Yale, where he attempted suicide. Kramer lived in London in the swinging ’60s, where he came to terms with his sexuality and also blossomed creatively. He worked for United Artists on several films and wrote the screenplay for “Women in Love,” a provocative adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel that won him international recognition.

Kramer tied his background in the film industry with his success as an activist. “We really were doing street theater, and we had a lot of really talented people,” he says in the film. “I was trained in the movie business. You call it direct action, I call it putting on a show.”

It’s remarkable to see Kramer deliver fiery, impassioned speeches in the 1980s and ’90s, contrasted with footage of him in July 2013, hospitalized for complications from a liver transplant related to years of living with and battling HIV. At 78, the disease that he spent much of his life fighting, both politically and personally, had taken its toll. He could barely lift his head or speak.

The film ends triumphantly, as Kramer marries his longtime partner, David Webster, while in the intensive care unit of New York University’s Langone Medical Center. Kramer left the hospital in May 2014 and is currently at work on a book about gay history in America. He has led an unconventional life, and continues to fight for AIDS victims as they continue to wait for researchers to develop an AIDS vaccine and cure.

Donald Sterling TV tirade puts surprise spotlight on Jewish free loan groups


Not every celebrity endorsement is a welcome one.

The saga of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling took yet another bizarre turn when he went on national television this week and started touting the virtues of Jewish mutual aid organizations.

In a CNN interview that aired Monday night, Sterling’s attempt to apologize for the inflammatory racial remarks that may cost him his team veered into a tirade against Magic Johnson. The Jewish tycoon argued that the basketball legend, who has a charitable foundation that addresses HIV/AIDS issues, is insufficiently philanthropic, and Sterling invoked the tradition of Jewish free loan associations to make his point.

“What does he do for the black people? He doesn’t do anything. The Jewish people have a company, and it’s for people who want to borrow money at no interest,” Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “They want to give them a fishing pole. We want to help people. If they don’t have the money, we’ll loan it to you. You don’t have interest. One day you’ll pay us back.”

Earlier in the interview, during another attack on Johnson, Sterling said, “Jews, when they get successful, they will help their people. And some of the African-Americans — maybe I’ll get in trouble again — they don’t want to help anybody.”

What Sterling was describing — and thrusting rather uncomfortably into the media glare — is a more than century-old communal institution that has helped both Jews and non-Jews with interest-free loans.

His words were not exactly welcome news to the professionals who run these organizations.

“I’m sorry that he mentioned us,” said Cindy Rogoway, executive director of the Hebrew Free Loan Association of San Francisco and vice president of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans. “I just think he’s a disgrace to himself.”

Sterling’s remarks,  however, do shed light on what has been a quiet corner of the Jewish charitable world.

Jewish free loan societies grew out of the landsmanschaften, or mutual benefit societies, organized by Jews from Central and Eastern Europe in the 19th century and transported to America when they immigrated.

Drawing on the biblical admonition not to charge interest to fellow Jews, the interest-free loan societies became a key financial resource for immigrants, providing funds for housing and education, as well as capital for small business expenses such as pushcarts and sewing machines.

“One of the main reasons that Hebrew free loan societies became so popular in the United States is that many immigrant Jews used these as access to capital for business,” said Shelly Tenenbaum, a professor of sociology at Clark University and the author of “A Credit to Their Community: Jewish Loan Societies in the United States.” “Business was a very important vehicle for Jewish immigrant mobility.”

Free loan societies proliferated. According to Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor of Jewish nonprofit management at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, a 1927 survey by the American Jewish Committee counted more than 500 Jewish free loan societies in the United States.

But by the mid-1940s, free loan societies were on the decline. Banks began to provide better access to capital through personal loans and the needs of growing Jewish businesses outstripped the societies’ resources.

The website of the International Association of Jewish Free Loans lists more than 30 Jewish free loan associations in the United States that belong to its network, along with others overseas.

Interestingly, the two largest American Jewish free loan societies, in New York and Los Angeles, were founded more than 100 years ago as nonsectarian institutions, giving loans to Jews and non-Jews. San Francisco, the third largest, has been sectarian since it was founded in 1897, but it has just launched a pilot program to offer student loans on a nonsectarian basis.

The Jewish free loan societies now fund an array of programs ranging from loans for education and small business, but also for camping, adoption and even fertility treatment. Borrowers are required to have one or more co-signers. All the free loan societies boast repayment rates of more than 99 percent.

A number of free loan societies have seen their assets and loan pools grow in recent years — the Jewish Free Loan Association in Los Angeles, for example, has some $18 million in assets and approximately $11 million circulating in loans, a figure it estimates has risen by about $1 million a year in the past few years.

The organization said Sterling has not been a donor but declined to comment further on his remarks.

Recent economic turbulence also has returned free loan societies to their roots as a last-resort safety net for American Jews and others.

The San Francisco association recently implemented an unemployment loan program. Rachel Grose, an associate director for the Los Angeles group, said that starting with the recession, her organization has seen its applicant pool expand from the poor and working classes to include more middle-class people.

“You had a lot of people who lost their jobs,” Grose said. “They weren’t necessarily living extravagant lifestyles, but they weren’t our typical caseload.”

Jewish free loan associations have inspired other ethnic groups to emulate their model. In San Francisco, the Hebrew Free Loan Association has been working for more than a decade with members of the local black community, including former Mayor Willie Brown, to help establish the African American Interest Free Loan Association.

Timothy Simon, the board chairman of the AAIFLA, said his organization is restructuring but hopes to begin making loans later this year pending approval by the state, with the San Francisco Hebrew Free Loan Association helping to evaluate, serve and process loans.

The city’s Hebrew Free Loan Association “has been not only extremely supportive but overwhelmingly empathetic to the needs of underserved communities in San Francisco,” Simon told JTA. “Our alliance is very strong.”

Henry Waxman: Governed by tikkun olam


The rain during Noah’s flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights. The Torah was given to Moses during a 40-day stay at the top of Mount Sinai. The Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert.

And so it seems fitting that Rep. Henry Waxman (D – Beverly Hills), who announced last week that he will retire from Congress when his term ends this year, will have served exactly 40 years in the people’s chamber. 

“People are shocked that I could ever leave,” Waxman said on Jan. 31, the day after he made his announcement. “Then they hear that I’ve been here for 40 years and are shocked at how old I am.”

Waxman turns 75 in September. During his 20 terms in the House of Representatives, he has authored some of the most ambitious pieces of legislation passed by Congress during that time, including laws making pharmaceutical products more affordable, improving air and water quality and expanding access to affordable health care. He presided over hearings confronting the tobacco industry’s claim that smoking would not harm people, the use of steroids in baseball and the regulation of conditions in America’s nursing homes. 

With a record like that, it’s not surprising that Waxman, the “dean of the Jewish caucus,” describes his political philosophy as an outgrowth of the principle of tikkun olam, trying to perfect the world. 

“We shouldn’t expect to complete it — even after 40 years — we shouldn’t try,” Waxman said. “But we should always remember the stranger and the disadvantaged, the people who need help; that’s in our tradition, [in] so many different places, and it’s a reminder that we’ve got to try to be a more just and fair society.”

But even as he took a rare moment to look back on his career, others are moving forward: With just a few months until California holds its now-nonpartisan primary elections, and immediately following Waxman’s announcement, a scrum of Democrats and independents immediately began clamoring to take Waxman’s place (see sidebar). Furthermore, at some point during the coming year, Waxman will likely identify what he’ll do with the next chapter of his career. For now, he’s said he’d like to continue working on issues he’s dealt with in Congress, and, as he told the Journal, he wants to continue to divide his time between Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, the latter being the place where he was born, grew up and still calls home. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington”

Born in Boyle Heights, Waxman grew up in South Central Los Angeles, where his family owned a grocery store on Compton Avenue. His father had to quit high school when the Great Depression hit, but he instilled in Henry an appreciation for education as the key to success. 

“I was able to go to public schools, all the way through law school,” said Waxman, who earned both undergraduate and law degrees from UCLA. That instilled in him a lifelong commitment to public education. 

Similarly, Waxman’s involvement in politics began at an early age. 

“In 1952, we got on a bus from Democratic headquarters and we went to a rally for Adlai Stevenson at Gilmore field,” said Sandy Weiner, who first met Waxman in the 7th grade at Thomas Alva Edison Junior High School. Later, Waxman, who had co-founded (with future Congressman Howard Berman) the UCLA chapter of Young Democrats, encouraged Weiner to set up another chapter at Claremont College. 

The Young Democrats’ movement, Weiner said, helped Waxman advance to his first political office, a seat in the California State Assembly, which he won in 1968, by defeating 28-year veteran Assemblyman Lester McMillan in the Democratic primary. 

“It was really a major grassroots effort,” Weiner said, describing a campaign that succeeded thanks to volunteers walking precincts and making phone calls as well as to political consultant Michael Berman’s then-new practice of sending carefully calibrated mailers to specific subsets of the electorate. “A lot of the dollars were from friends and family, and it was an exciting campaign,” Weiner recalled. 

Waxman moved from Sacramento to Washington six years later, where he remained committed to speaking up for society’s most marginalized members. 

“The wealthy and the powerful always have strong advocates in Washington, but my job was to stand up for the poor, the sick the elderly, for those people who had nobody else to speak for them,” Waxman said. “If I hadn’t held hearings on the AIDS epidemic, before we even knew the word AIDS — we had an administration where President Reagan didn’t even want to say the word ‘AIDS’; they were just shunted aside.”

Waxman’s upbringing clearly helped form his orientation toward crafting legislation to help the poor and disadvantaged, as did his strong Jewish identity. 

South Central was not home to many Jewish families, so Waxman’s family attended the synagogue closest to their home, the Huntington Park Hebrew Congregation, a community that has since dissolved. Though he attended Hebrew school and became a bar mitzvah in his youth, Waxman has said that he only truly began to investigate Jewish religious practice as an adult. 

“Ethics is at Judaism’s core,” Waxman said in a speech at USC in 2006. God’s primary concern is not that we mindlessly follow ritual, but act decently. Ritual is to help us do that.”

“All those years, it didn’t make any difference.”

Although Waxman remained primarily focused on domestic policy matters, particularly relating to health, the environment and consumer telecommunications, he also worked throughout his career to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“I’ve been to Israel so many times, I’ve lost count,” Waxman, whose daughter lives in Israel, said, although when he was first elected to Congress in 1975, he had never visited the Jewish state. Just one month after taking office, Waxman joined a Congressional delegation to the Middle East, an itinerary that included Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran. To obtain a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, Waxman had to first identify his religion and then provide evidence that he was, in fact, Jewish. Waxman obtained a letter from Adas Israel Congregation, the Conservative synagogue in D.C. where he is a member, and sent it to the Saudis, at which point his visa application was denied as a matter of policy. 

It took some work by the State Department, but Waxman made it into Saudi Arabia along with the other representatives. There, he met King Faisal. 

“I asked him two questions,” Waxman recalled. “Did he ever foresee living with Israel in the Middle East, if the territorial issues could be resolved? And why did he bar Jews?”

Faisal, Waxman recalled, said he had no quarrel with Jews; he was, however, anti-Zionist. 

“He said, ‘No, there can’t be an Israel; it has to be Palestine. It can’t be a Jewish country; Jews can live there, but it’s got to be an Arab country,’ ” Waxman said. “It was remarkable for the members on the committee to hear that.” 

At that point, Faisal wanted to turn away, but Waxman — a dogged questioner even as a new Congressman — insisted the king explain Saudi Arabia’s “No Jews Allowed” policy. 

“He said, ‘Friends of our enemies are our enemies,’ ” Waxman said, laughing at how quickly the king’s distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism fell apart. “So that was a good introduction.”

Even after 40 years, Waxman views the Arab leaders of Middle Eastern nations as being as unwilling as ever to accept the presence of a Jewish state in their midst. Not too long after Bashar al-Assad assumed the Syrian presidency in 2000, Waxman once again asked about Israel and the Jews. 

“He got angry and said, ‘No, we are not anti-Semitic; we have Jews here, we like our Jews here, but it can’t be a Jewish country,’ ” Waxman recalled. “So all those years, it didn’t make any difference. It just re-emphasized for me that the basic problem for Israel is the unwillingness of a large part of the Arab population to live with a Jewish country, the State of Israel.”

Waxman said he believes the United States needs to continue to maintain and project its military strength. 

“There’s a tremendous reluctance by President Obama to be involved — and I certainly share it — in Egypt and Syria and other areas that are undergoing dramatic changes, and civil wars even,” Waxman said. “But we’ve got to figure out ways where we can be helpful and not expect that things are going to get resolved without our being part of solutions.”

As for Israel’s continued security, Waxman said the most urgent matter is to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. He believes the present agreement — which freezes Iranian nuclear enrichment for six months until a permanent agreement can be reached — does not go far enough, and that the purpose of international sanctions has always been to prevent Iran from having even the capability of developing a nuclear bomb. 

“I am afraid the [Obama] administration has already signaled that they will live with Iran not having a bomb, but still allow enrichment of uranium, which can make a bomb possible,” Waxman said.

“I fear such an agreement is naive,” he added. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today” 

For all that hasn’t changed over the last 40 years, some aspects of the U.S. political landscape are radically different from what they were in 1975, or even 2005. Waxman said he is “exasperated by the extremism of the Tea Party Republicans,” although he expressed some hope that more moderate Republicans might be elected and regain control of the GOP. 

And though Waxman said he has continued to have some opportunities recently to craft legislation, even as a member of the minority, the reach of that bipartisanship seems to pale in comparison to the landscape in 1984, when Waxman and Sen. Orrin Hatch (R – Utah) passed legislation easing restrictions on generic drugs in the U.S. market — thereby saving families $1 trillion over just the last decade. 

“Henry was the go-to member of Congress on health care and on the environment,” said Mel Levine, who served as a congressman from 1983 to ’93, working closely with Waxman. “He was highly respected across the board, on both sides of the aisle, in both the House and the Senate. He was just uniquely capable of accomplishing big things, in a very kind of low-key manner, ironically.” 


Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., left, gestures towards Committee on House Oversight chairman Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., during a committee hearing in 1998. The committee voted 24-19 along party lines, which is short of the two-thirds required, to grant immunity to four potential witnesses in exchange for testimony about 1996 Clinton-Gore campaign fund-raising practices.  Photo via Newscom

At key points in his career, however, Waxman flouted the status quo and broke with the accepted rules — and got results. By raising large sums of money and distributing it to colleagues, Waxman was able to advance to ever more powerful posts in Congress. At the beginning of his third term, in 1978, he was able to take on leadership of the Health and Environment Subcommittee, the position that allowed him to achieve the far-reaching amendments to the Clean Air Act passed in 1990. In 2008, Waxman again bucked the seniority system and ousted Rep. John Dingell (D – Mich.) to become chair of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Many in Congress have since followed this and other practices pioneered by Waxman, as have many aspiring to public office. The targeted mail techniques developed by political consultant Michael Berman — Howard Berman’s brother, whose creative reapportionment helped bolster the power of the so-called Waxman-Berman machine — have been adopted and improved upon in recent decades. 

But for longtime friend Weiner, the way Waxman first got elected to the Assembly back in 1968 — relying mostly on volunteers, running a campaign on a shoestring and shoe leather — is a relic from a time long gone. 

“You couldn’t do that stuff today. Look what Henry was up against two years ago — a guy who put up $7.5 or $8 million dollars,” Weiner said, referring to opponent Bill Bloomfield, an independent and former Republican who came within eight points of Waxman in 2012. “And also, the club movement is basically dead. So whom do you get? Either private wealth or someone who was an aide.” 

“I hope that I can be a model for others”

For the next 10 months, voters in the 33rd district will be represented by Waxman, who’ll be filling a role that some had thought he’d never occupy — that of lame duck. 

“I was numb,” Howard Welinsky, president of the Los Angeles chapter of Democrats for Israel, said, describing his reaction to Waxman’s announcement. “I expected him to stay in Congress for a long time to come. I was numb, and then I was virtually in tears.”

Waxman, for his part, said he’s content to leave now, and explained his decision as driven by concerns that are as much biological as political. 

“If I stayed longer, it would be, do we get the House back? Maybe not — then we’re still in the minority,” Waxman said. “Then I’d wait until the presidential election in 2016, with the hopes that we get the majority back and still have a Democratic president to get things done. And my biological clock is ticking, so I would be here forever, to the end. And that’s not what I wanted.” 

As Waxman watches the growing crowd of Democrats put their names in the hopper for the coastal district he represents, the 74-year-old will be considering his legacy. Some of that will be in the form of his public policy contributions — which he said are driven by essentially Jewish values of protecting the stranger and coming to the aid of the disadvantaged. 

But at other times, Waxman may be thinking about his own accomplishments as a different kind of Jewish, or American value: the kind embodied by one individual, the kind that gets passed down in stories from generation to generation. 

One of Waxman’s Jewish role models was in his own family. His uncle, Al Waxman, published two (now-defunct) Los Angeles newspapers, the East Side Journal and the L.A. Reporter. During World War II, Waxman said Al was “the only editor or publisher in the country that fought against the relocation camps for Japanese-Americans.”

“I think you have to follow examples that have been set by others, that you can admire,” Waxman said. “And I hope that I can be a model for others who would chart their careers in public office.”

Diagnosis put brother on mission


David L. Neale, a prominent bankruptcy attorney and major donor to AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), was stunned when the call came from Brazil in late 1999: His younger brother, John (not his real name), then in his mid-30s and previously robust, was gravely ill in Rio de Janeiro.

John had been producing a concert at the famed opera house in the jungle city of Manaus when he collapsed in the throes of a virulent fever and had to be airlifted to the hospital. By the time Neale, his mother and sister flew down to Rio, John was in a coma, the result of a severe case of meningococcal meningitis.

His doctors promptly dropped a bombshell: John was suffering from AIDS and had apparently been in denial about the mysterious fevers that had landed him in bed for weeks at a time over the past year. “I was shocked,” said Neale, who hadn’t previously known that his brother was HIV positive.

Even after John’s condition was stabilized, he refused to return to the United States for treatment until several months later, when Neale received another emergency call from Brazil. “They had had doctors coming to John’s apartment, to do spinal taps for him in his bed,” recalled Neale, who has been consistently named by Los Angeles magazine as one of its 100 “super lawyers” in the bankruptcy field. “They had given him all these steroids, and his skin was waxy and yellow — he really looked awful.”

Neale hustled his brother onto a plane for Los Angeles, “which was in itself an ordeal because he couldn’t walk,” the attorney recalled. After landing in L.A., “I immediately drove him to the emergency room at Cedars-Sinai [Medical Center], where they told me that they hadn’t seen someone this ill with AIDS for years, given the advances in medications, and that I should be prepared for my brother to die.”

John survived, after 12 weeks in the hospital, yet he was weak and debilitated, and the family panicked. “I had no clue about what to do in a situation like this,” Neale said. “And because my brother had lived out of the country for so long, he had no health insurance, no place to live, nothing.”

The situation remained grim until, through Neale’s then-wife, the family was introduced to an official at APLA, which currently helps care for some 11,000 people with HIV in Los Angeles. It was the family’s first stop once John was out of the hospital: “He was literally lying on the floor in an office there,” Neale said.  “But APLA was a very comforting influence; it was like we were frantic, but they weren’t. They made things very manageable; otherwise it would have been overwhelming.”

APLA workers calmly helped to set John up on disability and Medi-Cal, so that he could receive the AIDS drug cocktails that cost around $5,000 per month, Neale said; they sent him to the right doctors, arranged for a hospital bed and IVs to be set up in Neale’s living room, and even for John to procure a driver’s license and other documents to get him re-established in the United States.  “I was so grateful,” Neale said.  

Thus, he immediately agreed when APLA officials asked him to serve on the group’s board for a full six-year term limit; since that ended three years ago, Neale has continued to fund the group, having donated sums in the six figures over the years. John, he said, has now regained his health and is back in Brazil producing concerts and other events.

“Thousands of low-income Los Angeles County residents with HIV/AIDS have benefited and continue to benefit from the vision, leadership and continuing support of David,” said Craig E. Thompson, APLA’s executive director.  “Admirably, he built on his personal connection with HIV disease to become a key board leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS.”

Neale, a graduate of Princeton University and Columbia University law school, has also been involved in Jewish causes, such as donating to campus Hillels and serving on the board of the American Friends of Hebrew University — he studied at Hebrew University for a time as a youth. He traces his philanthropy, in part, to the influence of his parents: His late father had been active on the board of the family’s synagogue in Cedarhurst, N.Y., while his mother has run the Head Start program in Williamsburg, N.Y., for the past 40 years, where she encourages low-income children to stay in school. “She’s always been very conscious of people who have less,” Neale said.

The health crisis of HIV/AIDS has also shifted to those who are underprivileged, he added.  “It’s no longer a fashionable cause, as people think everyone’s fine now, with the new medications,” he said. “But they don’t think about lower-income people, African-Americans or the Latino community — all these places where AIDS is still a huge problem. It’s like it’s not a white person’s problem anymore.

“In the Jewish community, people often give to Jewish charities, and I’ve done some of that, but I feel like AIDS is a cause that doesn’t have all the support it could use. It’s not like people are fixed and the disease is eradicated. It’s still a continuing and vital issue that we should pay attention to.”

Ron Diskin: Mapping defenses against HIV


The race to find a cure for AIDS, one of Earth’s most pressing epidemics for more than three decades now, is often more of a chaotic relay. Thousands of international scientists must constantly revise their own projects to keep up with findings from across all scientific disciplines — always collaborating toward a common good, yet also trying to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Israeli biologist Ron Diskin, 36, knows this cycle well. Still, he’s more of a team player than a superstar. Despite his status as a standout in the global AIDS research community for his investigation into the microscopic structure of the HIV virus — and, most recently, his revelations on the human body’s own natural HIV defense system — Diskin is hesitant to hype his individual results. 

“I know people want to hear about [a cure], but this is not my research,” said Diskin, sitting in his spacious new office at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. “My research is purely structural.”

The young scientist — who casually inhabits his swivel chair in a pair of khaki shorts, an orange T-shirt and a wide, geometric smile — said that applying his findings to the creation of a therapeutic agent will likely take years, although there are constant reminders that one is needed today.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, with financial help from the Weizmann Institute, decided to fly Diskin out for a visit Oct. 10-16 for a whirlwind week of AIDS events and speaking opportunities. These include the annual AIDS Walk Los Angeles — in which Diskin will participate on Oct. 13 — as well as a town hall meeting at Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood and a series of more scholarly presentations at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, USC and UCLA.

Of the various paths that scientists are currently forging toward an HIV vaccine, Diskin’s research has provided some of the most stable footing, said Z. Hong Zhou, a UCLA professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics who invited Diskin to speak about his research at UCLA this month. 

Diskin was part of a U.S. team which recently identified a group of potent antibodies that grow naturally in some HIV patients after a few years of infection — proteins produced by the patients’ own immune systems to fight off the HIV virus. In 2012 and 2013, Diskin’s team published a series of groundbreaking papers showing that these exceptionally strong HIV antibodies, called “broadly neutralizing antibodies,” could be synthetically reproduced — and even strengthened — in the lab.

Unlike previously studied antibodies, Diskin’s new, more versatile antibodies proved effective against many different types of HIV, including those more prevalent in Africa and Asia, where the AIDS crisis is ugliest. They also stood up to sneaky mutations within the HIV virus over time.

In December 2012, Diskin’s team proved in a paper that these new antibodies could “effectively control HIV-1 replication in humanized mice, and should be re-examined as a therapeutic modality in HIV-1-infected individuals.”

UCLA’s Zhou praised Diskin’s contribution to the breakthrough. 

“What is very, very interesting about Ron’s research is that he’s working on the antibodies produced by human cells — a human mechanism of defense,” he said. “Knowing how the antibody [defends human cells] is very important, and Ron basically determined how the antibody binds” to the HIV virus.

The hope, according to Zhou, is that scientists will eventually use Diskin’s research to “design something — sort of a mimic of this kind of antibody — and perhaps use this designed antibody as a vaccine or another therapeutic agent to prevent HIV infection.”

David Siegel, Israel’s consul general in Los Angeles, said stateside visits from Israelis like Diskin are necessary to educate skeptical Americans about Israel’s more progressive side.

“It’s one way to help Israel academically and scientifically, and it’s also a much more proactive way of dealing with Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] issues on campus,” he said.

Much as Miss Israel Yityish Aynaw’s recent visit to L.A. drew interest from Ethiopian immigrants and other African descendants in the area — Aynaw was born in Ethiopia — Siegel said he is hoping the Diskin tour will highlight Israel’s social and scientific advancements, as opposed to its widely criticized activity in the Palestinian territories. 

In particular, Diskin’s speech at Kol Ami, an LGBT congregation, is expected to attract many interested members of the West Hollywood community, some of them not necessarily connected to Israel, but eager to hear about Diskin’s world-famous HIV research.

After growing up an outdoorsy kid in Jerusalem and receiving three degrees from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, including a doctorate in biochemistry, Diskin flew to the United States for his postdoctoral studies. He worked under Pamela Bjorkman at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, which has been ranked the world’s No. 1 research university for the last three years by Britain’s Times Higher Education magazine.

Diskin had been trained at Hebrew University in structural biology — specifically, in using a 3D imaging method called X-ray crystallography to examine structural differences within families of proteins. But when he came to work under Bjorkman at Caltech, she surprised him with an offer to work on a new project in her lab: HIV.

Initial results were promising. The Collaboration for AIDS Vaccine Discovery, a network of scientists, research entities and supporters working to turn myriad HIV research efforts into a tangible vaccine, recognized Diskin as a “Young/Early Career Investigator” in 2010.

During his first couple of years at Caltech, the Israeli biologist used X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of glycoprotein 120, or GP120, the notorious binding protein on the surface of the HIV virus, which allows it to latch onto and infect host cells. 

But the HIV research field was turned on its head in 2011, when Michel Nussenzweig, a scientist at Rockefeller University in New York City, discovered how to clone a whole new set of natural antibodies that were developing in some longtime HIV patients — much more aggressive and diverse than the antibodies that scientists had previously been trying to reproduce as therapies.

“The new [antibodies] were so superior to the old ones,” Diskin said. “It was a completely new story. All of a sudden, it sparked the optimism that some vaccine that will elicit those HIV antibodies will work.”

Nussenzweig’s lab reached out to Diskin and the Caltech team for a fateful pairing that would alter the global landscape of AIDS research.

“We were able to get some structural information about the antibodies, and that was interesting,” Diskin said. “But we did something else that was less expected: We had the structural information in our hands, and we realized that we could actually maybe improve the antibody. … That was the first time that had been done in the HIV field.”

Today, Nussenzweig’s and Bjorkman’s labs continue to collaborate on this mission. However, at the height of Diskin’s antibody research last year, the Weizmann Institute began courting the Israeli HIV prodigy back to the Holy Land. He’s now the hottest new addition to the institute’s structural biology department, where he’s opening a lesser-traveled inquiry into a family of deadly, tropical Arenaviruses — such as Lassa fever — currently plaguing millions in Africa and South America.

“I’m still working on HIV — I have open questions and I have things I will study,” he said. “But considering the major forces in the world, it could be very hard to compete on the very hot topics” in the HIV field.

So Diskin is going back to basics as he builds his own lab among the sleek modern buildings and leafy canopies of the Weizmann Institute, laying the groundwork to do what he does best: map the structure behind some of the world’s most deadly viruses.

Green gold: Israel sets a new standard for legal medical marijuana research, production and sales


Just over six years ago, in the lush Upper Galilee of northern Israel, the nation’s first large-scale harvest of legal medical marijuana was flowering on the roof deck of Tzahi Cohen’s parents’ house, perched on a cliff overlooking the bright-green farming village of Birya. Until then, fewer than 100 Israeli patients suffering from a short list of ailments had been allowed to grow the plants for themselves, but this marked the first harvest by a licensed grower.

The Cohen home soon became a temple in the area for believers in the healing powers of cannabis — a legendary family operation that, in this early golden era, served as a grow house, a pharmacy and a treatment center all in one. In “
Strain samples at Tikun Olam’s distribution center in northern Tel Aviv.

“We think that medical cannabis should be distributed to the patients as any other medical drug — at pharmacies,” Ministry of Health spokeswoman Einav Shimron Grinboim wrote in an e-mail.

The ministry first announced that a new, cutting-edge distribution program would be unveiled in spring 2012, but — due partly to a turnover in the Israeli Knesset, and the challenges of setting up such an unprecedented structure — the ministry now predicts it will go into effect by the end of 2014.

The head of Israel’s newly created Medical Cannabis Unit, political unknown Yuval Landschaft, has a no-press policy of his own, and the Ministry of Health will not reveal the details of his new plan. But insiders told the Jewish Journal that Landschaft and a team of brand-new hires, whose sole duty is to oversee and redesign Israel’s medical cannabis program, are racing to build a streamlined pharmaceutical system that could set a new global standard in the field.

“Yuval’s dream is that everything be sent to a central warehouse, where it’ll be packaged for distribution,” said Mimi Peleg, director of patient training at Abarbanel’s cannabis center.

Under the plan, government-affiliated pharmaceutical supplier Sarel Ltd. would be in charge of testing each batch of cannabis to verify its quality and consistency, and would then stock pharmacies across Israel with measured doses of marijuana — as it does with any other medication.

Similar programs have previously been tested in both Canada and Holland. However, Canadian officials recently announced that they will hand the industry back to private suppliers in 2014, eliminating the federal government’s previous role of approving and educating cannabis patients. And in Holland, the number of patients has dropped to less than 1,000, with critics alleging that the quality of legal coffee-shop weed consistently tops the medical stuff.

State and city programs across the United States have spiraled even further out of control: A patchwork of conflicting laws at the local and federal levels have prevented a cohesive program from taking shape in any of the 20 states (plus Washington, D.C.) where medical marijuana is legal.

If Israeli officials can overcome this cannabis curse — requiring them to fit a radically complex, villainized and under-studied plant into a rigid pharmaceutical system — the small Jewish nation could become the first to pull off a federal program that the medical community can get behind.

WEST COAST ROOTS 

Right around the time the Cohens founded Tikun Olam, former Los Angeles resident Yohai Golan fled the Wild West medical cannabis scene in California to start growing small and humble again at his mother’s house in Israel. 

Golan and the Cohen family each received founding grants in 2008 — $15,000 and $50,000, respectively — from David Bronner of the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps fortune, who told the Jewish Journal he was inspired to donate the money because “the government in Israel looked like they were going to set an example of a more reasonable approach.” Bronner also funded a visit to Israel from leading cannabis experts at the Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana in Santa Cruz, who coached the growers through their startup phase.

Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tel Aviv in early September, dressed in a stone-studded Peter Pan hat worthy of Burning Man, Golan told turbulent stories of growing medical cannabis in Venice Beach and San Francisco in the late 1990s and early 2000s, running with the crews of big celebrity pot advocates like Jane’s Addiction front-man Perry Farrell and actor Woody Harrelson. Although Golan claimed he was legally licensed to grow in California, he said his grow houses were subjected to constant raids by local police, Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agents and even motorcycle gangs.

“California is where it began, but it became a mess,” he said. So Golan returned home to Israel, where he poured everything he had learned growing marijuana in California into a farm he later named Better.

“My friend is the owner of Bodhi Seeds out of Santa Cruz, and he went and took master strains that I liked and cross-bred them especially for me to use in Israel,” Golan said. “He created a Purple Kush strain — a cross of Purple Kush, Bubba Kush and Sour Diesel — that was made especially for the desert.” It has since become Better’s most popular strain.

Unlike the Cohens, who chose their spot in the Upper Galilee for its pure mountain air and mystical history, Golan eventually decided to base his farm a few hours south, in the Valley of Elah. “We have no humidity and desert winds that drop into the mercaz,” he said. The Better farm now grows another buzzed-about strain called “cheesepie,” which contains 13 percent CBD and less than 1 percent THC, along with seven other standardized strains and many more in the development stage.

Various cannabis growers in Israel confirmed that a few months ago, they received a letter outlining some of Landschaft’s proposed changes — including grouping the strains into four medicinal categories based on their levels of CBD and THC.

Nativ Segev, CEO of Better, said that as long as strain experimentation isn’t limited, he believes the strongest cannabis growers will still be able to thrive within the ministry’s egalitarian vision. “The best thing to do is specialize in growing — to grow the best you can, and then sell it to the government,” he said. “If you grow good things, if you grow the best [strains], you will be OK.”

Other farms are hesitant to move toward a more socialist system, which would involve sharing their gardening secrets with the feds, said Dr. Yehuda Baruch, Abarbanel’s director and former head of the cannabis program (before a changing of the guards in January).

“I tell the growers, ‘This is not the THC Olympics,’ ” said Boaz Wachtel, one of Israel’s original cannabis advocates and founder of the country’s fringe Green Leaf Party. “They’re very competitive.”

Up to now, a healthy competition between farms, as in many Israeli industries, has livened up the market and encouraged top product quality. However, a more centrally regulated system under construction at Israel’s Medical Cannabis Unit would eliminate some farms’ current branding advantages, and would allow patients and doctors to choose from all the farms’ strains, instead of just one. (Currently, patients report that it’s almost impossible to switch from one farm to another.) “If every grower has a number of great strains to offer, it won’t be a problem,” Wachtel said.

“The most important thing is that we stabilize phenotypes so that we can depend on what we’re getting from one season to the next,” said Abarbanel’s Peleg, who does strain testing for three of the farms. “The way to get there is to start sharing genetics — to have this national grow where we have a nursery for everybody, and start making better and more healthy clones that we’re giving away to the growers.”

However, she added, “this sharing attitude is not popular here.”

Doctors and other cannabis experts who spoke to the Jewish Journal agreed that one of the keys to writing cannabis into modern medical history, and to completing the clinical trials needed to more fully legitimize its use, will be to create standard strains or oils that can be replicated and expected to have consistent results, patient-to-patient.

Peleg said she hopes ego wars among growers won’t block Israel’s road to a more compassionate system. “We have the opportunity to really do something better” than anywhere else in the world, she said. “And I hope we take advantage of it.”


The outer wall of the Tikun Olam laboratory is inscribed with a passage from the Bible, in which God instructs Moses to anoint the altar with a special incense. Many believe this incense included cannabis.

MEDICINE OR SNAKE OIL?

In the United States, the exasperated Drug Policy Alliance, a leading organization in the fight to turn around backward cannabis policy, has long argued that American scientists and physicians interested in studying and prescribing cannabis are stuck in a sort of catch-22.

Amanda Reiman, policy manager for the alliance’s California branch, wrote in a March 2013 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times: “Marijuana’s Schedule I classification, which places it alongside heroin, defines it as being too dangerous for most research. Consequently, almost no research on marijuana’s medical benefits gets funded, so there’s practically no way to find the evidence that would result in marijuana’s reclassification.”

Due to this lack of hard evidence, doctors in Los Angeles — from the so-called Dr. Feelgoods along the Venice Beach Boardwalk to pricey boutique physicians in Beverly Hills — are not even technically allowed to prescribe cannabis. Instead, they issue patients a recommendation slip, no questions asked.

“A doctor can recommend cannabis, but they can’t tell [patients] where to get it, and they can’t have a conversation with them about using it,” Reiman said in an interview, adding that in Israel, on the other hand, “when your federal government participates in the program, doctors don’t have to worry that if someone finds out, they’re going to get a bad reputation.”

Peleg, who worked for many years in Santa Cruz for the respected dispensing collective Wo/Men’s Alliance for Medical Marijuana before moving to Israel, added that in California, “Doctors aren’t supposed to talk about strains and methodologies, and sellers aren’t supposed to talk about diseases and implementation.” This leaves patients in the dark about the nuances of the cannabis plant in relation to their symptoms, and they find the right strain and dosage through trial and error. 

“It’s irresponsible for us to consider this a medicine and treat it like snake oil,” Peleg said. “Just because it works on everything doesn’t mean it’s snake oil. We need the studies for the right reasons — because people deserve to know what to expect. We need to know really basic questions, like do strains matter or not, or do cannabinoids matter? Let’s prove it.”

Although there is a world of research to conduct before the ingredients of marijuana are 100 percent understood within a medical framework, much of what doctors do know has come out of the Holy Land. “In many ways, Israel is providing the research we need to move forward,” Reiman said.

Researchers in the United States complain that due to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s stronghold on the scientific cannabis supply, it’s near impossible to conduct the studies and clinical trials that doctors need to more confidently prescribe marijuana to their patients.

Conversely, in Israel, a tiny country of 8 million with intimate connections but big dreams, a circle of talent in the field — including cannabis growers, scientists and physicians — are all within one phone call to a friend-of-a-friend.

Professor Raphael Mechoulam, known internationally as the grandfather of cannabis research for being the first to isolate THC in the 1960s, remains today a top professor and researcher at Hebrew University. In the middle of an interview with the Jewish Journal, the kindly and soft-spoken 82-year-old took a panicked phone call from a local physician who wanted to know whether his cancer patient could benefit from cannabis. “I get that several times a day,” he said.

“Until well-designed clinical trials have been done and have been published, physicians don’t know what to do,” he added.

Mechoulam famously got his hands on his first batch of Lebanese hashish in the early ’60s, through a friend who had connections at the National Headquarters of the Israel Police. “Later we found that both the head of the investigative branch of the police and I had broken quite a few laws,” Mechoulam wrote in the British Journal of Addiction. “The Ministry of Health was in charge of illicit drug licensing and not the police, and I had broken the severe drug laws. Luckily, being ‘reliable,’ I just had to apologize.” He would later go on to receive the Israel Prize in exact sciences, the nation’s highest honor, for his work with cannabis.

In the decades since Mechoulam’s groundbreaking discovery, he and dozens of other Israeli scientists, in collaboration with their peers around the world, have built a foundation of knowledge on which a sane medical cannabis program can be built — all with the crucial blessing of the federal government.

Professor Ruth Gallily at Hebrew University has proven herself the queen of CBD research, confirming it highly effective in treating many types of inflammation, including that which leads to severe spine and back pain and even some heart disease.

“I can really tell you that CBD is a fantastic anti-inflammatory,” she said. “I have seen the benefit of it to so many people.”

Dr. Ephraim Lansky, an Israeli physician who specializes in studying herbs, published a now-famous case study based on a cancer patient who came to him with a golf-ball-sized tumor in his head. Lansky treated the young man with about one gram of high-CBD cannabis per day, ingested orally.


“Prescribed Grass” filmmaker Zach Klein, left, visited the Hadarim nursing home in southern Israel with CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta, center, to show him the benefits of cannabis for some patients there. Also pictured is nurse Inbal Sikorin, who helps administer the cannabis to patients. Photo courtesy of Zach Klein

Eight months later, according to Lansky, the tumor had shrunk by 75 percent, and his patient’s seizures had faded completely.

“Cannabis is just another herb, and it belongs within the wider context of herbal medicine,” Lansky told the Jewish Journal. “Of all the other herbs I use, it’s the most useful. I’d even have to put it ahead of garlic.” He hopes to spend the next few years publishing case studies on his cannabis patients, which could become the building blocks for full-scale clinical trials.

Mechoulam is likewise interested in the greater context of cannabis as a sort of cure-all: He continues to explore and lecture about his discoveries within the human body’s own natural endocannabinoid system, a network of receptors that line up with the dozens of active ingredients in marijuana. The system could hold the secret to why marijuana is able to ease such a wide variety of symptoms and illnesses.

Their work is not going unnoticed.

Dr. Alan Shackelford, a Colorado physician who treated an epileptic 5-year-old with high-CBD cannabis as the crux of Gupta’s CNN documentary, has announced that he is immigrating to Israel to take advantage of the more expansive research opportunities.

“We have an obligation as a medical community to study cannabis so that we can understand how it works, and more effectively decide what cannabinoids are most effective for what, and at what dose,” Shackelford told the Jewish Journal in a phone interview. He added he is “humbled by the opportunity to take what I know and expand on it in collaboration with these committed people in Israel who have done so much more.”

Shackelford hopes to study cannabis’ effectiveness in treating seizure disorders, among other conditions. “Israel’s the perfect place to do it, because of the openness to inquiry, and because of the relative lack of pejorative government opinion — because federal legislation is not restrictive,” he said.

Shackelford is also determined to help set up a system in Israel wherein physicians are involved in learning about the particulars of cannabis as a medicine. 

The real remaining obstacle to putting scientific theories about cannabis into medical practice, and setting up a sound pharmaceutical system, is a lack of funding for clinical trials on humans, said Shackelford — a problem echoed by many other experts in the field. Researchers must first test various combinations of THC and CBD (and other cannabinoids) on patients, under strict controls, before the medication can be properly prescribed.

“Clinical research is not an easy thing to do,” Mechoulam said. “And because cannabis came from the wrong direction, from the direction of an illicit drug, it’s difficult to get it into the clinical trials.”

The Israeli government has approved some of the only clinical trials involving cannabis in the world, including an exciting look at the response of PTSD patients to cannabis high in THC. However, these trials have only just touched the tip of the iceberg. And while some pharmaceutical companies have taken cautious interest in refabricating the elements of marijuana and running their own trials, they still seem generally unsure of how to brand and patent such a complex product of Mother Nature.

Thanks to this absence of conclusive research, it’s not easy for patients to snag a coveted pot license from the Ministry of Health.


A single storage locker at Abarbanel Mental Health Center holds the majority of the nation’s cannabis supply, after the marijuana has been tested at the lab and before it is packaged for distribution.

Although the number of license holders in Israel has been growing in recent months — according to the ministry, the total now sits at about 12,700, up from about 11,000 at the start of the year — estimates by pro-cannabis politicians and even the Ministry of Health itself put the number of potential cannabis patients still left out in the cold at between 40,000 and 100,000. 

Doctors in California can recommend medical marijuana for any condition as they see fit, while Israel’s Ministry of Health instructs doctors only to prescribe marijuana as a last resort and keeps a strict list of medical conditions that qualify for treatment, such as Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer. Some patients wait months, even years, before they see their requests approved.

Israeli activists have not stood idly by: An angry mob staged a hunger strike outside Health Minister Yael German’s house in May, responding to a further tightening of the list. (German has since expanded the list to include Parkinson’s disease and Tourette syndrome.)

An Israeli psychiatrist who wished to remain anonymous said he has seen a mere four or five new cannabis licenses issued to his PTSD patients in the past few years, out of hundreds who have applied. This, despite the fact that he has seen “spectacular results in patients with post-trauma.” 

A recent pilot for a clinical trial out of Abarbanel showed similarly promising results. However, “In order to convince the specialists to agree that cannabis is good for post-trauma, you need to [isolate] certain cognitive functions that you can test very precisely,” the psychiatrist said. Rick Doblin, founder and director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) in California, also attested that the study was “very haphazard and irregular, with no information on things like how much marijuana they used — but still it showed that it seemed to be helpful for quite a few people.”

Tragically, as researchers fumble in uncharted territory, many of the unusually high number of Israelis with PTSD are unable to find relief in the top-of-the-line bud their country has to offer. 

THE HAVES AND HAVE-NOTS 

“We have to consider, what are we doing when we don’t give people this medication? That’s the real question,” Dr. Itai Gur-Arie, then-chairman of the Israel Pain Association, said in the documentary “Prescribed Grass.” “It’s not that the patients won’t get any medication at all. They’ll get other medication — opiates. In other words, we won’t give them marijuana, we’ll give them heroin.”

Wachtel, one of Israel’s first cannabis advocates, had to rush out of an interview to consult a family whose teenage daughter, stuck at home for the last nine months with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, couldn’t get cannabis through her doctor — “so the family decided to go to the black market, to see if it helps,” Wachtel said.

On the positive side, patients in Israel lucky enough to meet the government’s cannabis criteria — and, in many cases, persistent enough in pressuring their doctors — are overwhelmingly impressed with the results. 

A 32-year-old cannabis patient in the western Galilee who wished to remain anonymous said he experienced violent spasms in his legs after being paralyzed in a swimming-pool accident a couple of years back. After trying marijuana on his own, he found that it instantly relieved the spasms.

So the quadriplegic told his doctor he needed cannabis for back pain, because pain is one of the approved conditions on the Ministry of Health’s list — and was prescribed 20 grams a month, the ministry’s conservative starting dose. Although the patient said he believes he needs a few more grams per month, he has been highly impressed with the strains he receives through IMC Agriculture, another licensed grower in Israel. (He said he chose IMC over Tikun Olam because the latter “became too commercial.”)

“When I go to swim, if I’m not using the cannabis, my body starts having spastic seizures — my body becomes completely stiff,” the patient said. But with a few puffs of cannabis beforehand, his paralyzed limbs are able to relax in the water.

With the help of cannabis, the 32-year-old has eliminated all but one of seven pharmaceuticals from his daily regimen.

Paulette Azar, 55, a recovering breast-cancer survivor who lives on a kibbutz in the Golan Heights, said she fights for about three months each year to renew her annual cannabis license to treat her lingering cancer pain and PTSD symptoms. 

“It was very painful, the cancer — very painful,” she remembered, clutching her forearms tightly. “The doctors tried to give me other medications, but I didn’t let them. I had to be rude with them. I shouted, so I got [the cannabis]. And since then, I have no more pain when I smoke it, and I am very happy. I put music in my house, and I can live my normal life.”

Since the humble beginnings of the Ministry of Health’s cannabis program, the standard dose has plummeted from 200 grams to 20 grams per month. “At the beginning of the month, there are so many people who need their medicine, so we have to wait in line for, like, two hours,” Azar said.

Still, Azar said she is shocked and grateful that such a security-obsessed government allows her up to 70 grams of Tikun Olam product monthly.

Another Tikun Olam patient, Mor Hagdi of the Ramat Gan suburbs, was diagnosed with leukemia when he was just 22. He said he tried cannabis as a last resort, when his cocktail of pain pills wasn’t able to ease his suffering and was turning him into a zombie. “The pain is chemo pain,” he said. “I swear to God, I wouldn’t want even my enemy to get this pain. Now when I am talking about this, I cannot sit, I must walk — it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody in the world. But when I smoke the cannabis, I just feel the pain going down. It’s relaxing — and now there is no more pain.” The marijuana has also helped stoke his dwindling appetite.

Three years ago, Zach Klein, the filmmaker behind “Prescribed Grass,” initiated a very do-it-yourself clinical trial at the Hadarim nursing home just south of Tel Aviv — the same one where CNN’s Gupta watched a Holocaust survivor smoke away his dark past.


Yossi Segev, left, and Mimi Peleg were two original employees of Israel’s central cannabis distribution center, located at Abarbanel. Here, Peleg weighs cannabis during the center’s early days. Photo courtesy of Mimi Peleg

“One of the families [of a patient] saw the documentary and asked the head nurse for medical cannabis,” Klein remembered. “She said, ‘No, that’s ridiculous.’ But they insisted. So she called me and told me, ‘You made this movie, so now come here and help me out.’ ”

Klein, who worked as head of research and development for Tikun Olam at the time, came to the home and tried blowing cannabis in the face of a 75-year-old woman with dementia. 

“I saw an immediate change,” he said. “She stopped shouting; she created eye contact with me. The nurse almost collapsed, because for months, this was the tiger in the place. And after a few minutes, we actually had some kind of communication — I was calling her name, and she was responding. After a few minutes, she was even laughing.”
One of the most outspoken medical pot advocates in the Israeli Knesset has also been the most unlikely: Knesset member Moshe Feiglin, the same religious conservative who ignited the Israeli right this year when he posted to Facebook that he didn’t see anything wrong with shaking women’s hands. Feiglin is furious that it has taken Israel so long to build a system wherein marijuana is prescribed to everyone who needs it. 

 “Israel has reached a very, very high level of research and development of new kinds of cannabis,” Feiglin said in a phone interview. “It can help the whole world, and it can help the Israeli economy tremendously. I find it hard to believe that people are trying to restrict it. You cannot stop something that is so clear — so good for the patients and so good for the economy.”

Currently, only Holland allows its medical cannabis farms there to export marijuana to other countries, and the quality of Dutch medical strains is hugely lacking, according to Israeli activist and expert Wachtel. Israeli cannabis farms are anxious to share their strains with the world. At least two farms have been preparing for the coming revolution: Tikun Olam and Better have grown a loyal following around the world via social media, racking up about 1,300 and 24,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. Better’s fans drool over close-ups of the harvest, leaving comments such as “Dank!” “Gorgeous!” “Teach me your ways” and “You’re an inspiration to growers everywhere.” 

Beverly Hills PR maven Cheryl Shuman, who calls herself “the Martha Stewart of marijuana,” made a highly publicized trip to Tikun Olam territory in early September, bringing back with her high praise for the Holy Land. 

“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders — with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” Shuman told the Jerusalem Post Magazine for a cover story on her visit. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries. … That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me, and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”


At a lab located on the Tikun Olam farm, various forms of marijuana — including, from left, capsules, cigarettes, whole buds and liquid tincture — are tested.

Tikun Olam spokeswoman Weisberg said the farm is more than willing to meet that tall order. “This is a product that we can send to the whole world,” she said.

One of Colorado’s most active medical pot advocates, Bill Althouse, said he has communicated with growers in Israel about the possibility of sharing cannabis strains by shipping their genetic material internationally. Yet, the Ministry of Public Security, which runs Israel’s police department, has been a roadblock to the farms’ expansion, arguing in government meetings that medical cannabis is “leaking” into the hands of non-patients. Police keep a close eye on the farms — mandating video security systems worthy of Israel’s nuclear research center in Dimona — and poke around every once in a while to make their presence known. 

Tikun Olam has received numerous warnings to stop selling “special” baked goods such as chocolate praline and tahini cookies containing cannabis butter, on the basis that their effectiveness has not been properly researched. Police sent an undercover agent to Tikun Olam’s cramped storefront in northern Tel Aviv three years ago to prove that the supplier was over-selling to patients.

“I don’t think they themselves know why they’re here,” said Weisberg on our tour of the Tikun Olam farm, ducking into the portable office building when she realized cops had arrived to survey the premises.

But despite ongoing complaints from growers and patients that Israel’s medical cannabis program is too tightly regulated, many experts see the strict and tedious beginnings of the Israeli program as essential to its eventual success. 

“The con in Israel is there are a large number of patients who can’t get recommendations because they don’t meet this limited list of conditions that have been chosen to start the process,” said MAPS’ Doblin. “But the advantage is that Israel is building public support in a pretty steady way, with no backlash. When you have these broader, anything-goes [policies], there often is the potential and actuality of a backlash.”

Peleg, who is working as MAPS’ liaison in Israel, agreed that the Israeli government’s heavy hand has been a blessing in disguise.

“In a democracy, you’ve got to take into consideration that it’s all about compromise. And in terms of slow and steady growth, we are having a responsible growth rate,” she said. “I was shocked when I recently did a tour of cannabis clubs in California and Colorado to learn that in those states, you don’t have to be taught how to use cannabis, ever. There’s a real disconnect going on there that I think we’ve got solved here.”

Fighting cancer: From loss to action


A calming shade of purple punctuates the Manhattan Beach office of the woman who founded the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network (PanCAN). In one corner, two teddy bears with purple ribbons add a comforting touch to the “living room” setting where Pamela Acosta Marquardt meets with visitors, staff and supporters. 

Her philosophy — “Dream until your dreams come true” — is painted across her office wall. It’s a way of thinking that has carried Marquardt through a varied professional life that included successful, high-level stints at a chain of West Coast clothing stores and a metal recycling business in Ontario, Calif. 

However, her dreams and her outlook changed in June 1996. That’s when her mother was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. At that point, all she dreamed about was a way to save her mom.

“[My mother] followed doctors’ orders and, six months to the day after her diagnosis, died,” Marquardt said. “She had never been sick a day in her life and had only been in the hospital to give birth to her three children.”

Still, the odds had been stacked against her — just 6 percent of those diagnosed with pancreatic cancer survive five years, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“When she was diagnosed, I remember the first thought that went through my mind was that this was the disease that took [actor] Michael Landon’s life. He had tremendous resources, and if he couldn’t use them to save his life, how would I be able to save my mother’s?” Marquardt said. “My next logical thought was to go on the Internet to find an organization dealing with pancreatic cancer that would give me guidance on how to save my mother.”

When Marquardt went online, she discovered, to her dismay, that there were no formal organizations that addressed pancreatic cancer. The only thing she could find was a very small online discussion group. Although there were only a dozen people using it to deal with their families’ experiences with the illness, the chat room became a lifeline for Marquardt.

Although talking with compassionate souls about her mother’s condition provided comfort, she also wanted answers. What she found, instead, was a long list of celebrity deaths tied to the disease: Landon, hairstylist Paul Mitchell, composer Henry Mancini, actress Donna Reed and entertainer Jack Benny. She also learned of a researcher at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore who was having trouble securing funding for his lab and faced the possibility of having to transfer to another institution, and not continuing his work in pancreatic cancer. 

Eventually, Marquardt, 60, of Rancho Cucamonga said she realized she would have to get creative to generate widespread interest to help other families and understand the impact of the disease.

“I [turned to] the history of the AIDS movement for guidance,” she said. “Like AIDS, pancreatic cancer in its own way is a devastating illness not many people wanted to talk about. I found myself inspired in how Elizabeth Taylor took up the cause [of fighting AIDS] and how that changed everything.

“Because there were so many celebrities affected by pancreatic cancer, I came up with this crazy idea to produce a black-tie celebrity gala in Beverly Hills where families who lost their famous members to pancreatic cancer could help spread word among the Hollywood community and other influential people about the need for research, like what needed to be funded at Johns Hopkins.”

The first gala, staged in 1998, raised more than $165,000 and marked an auspicious start to an organization that began in Marquardt’s home. (The most recent one raised $1.1 million.) Its annual “An Evening With the Stars” gala will take place this year on Oct. 19 at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills.

When the organization officially incorporated in February 1999, many of her contacts from the chat room stepped forward to help, while other volunteers came out of the woodwork. One of those volunteers was a young woman just out of college, Julie Fleshman, who lost her father at age 52. Now the president and CEO of the organization, she has built the PanCAN to a staff of more than 100, with its headquarters in Manhattan Beach and an office in Washington, D.C. 

So far, the organization has awarded 94 research grants across the country, and more than 70,000 patients and families have been served through its Patient and Liaison Services program, which provides up-to-date information on treatment options and more. 

Over time, Marquardt, who remains with the organization as director of donor relations, said she was struck by the preponderance of Jewish family names in the chat room and elsewhere. It turns out that the Ashkenazic Jewish population has an increased predisposition to pancreatic cancer because it is more likely to carry mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. 

“[Ashkenazic Jews] need to be keenly aware of everything that goes on in our bodies, and everything happening within our medical communities and families,” Marquardt said. 

Although PanCAN (pancan.org) provides patients and families nationwide with resources and information on various fundraising efforts, the organization still has its work cut out. Marquardt said that the organization’s primary goal is to double the disease’s five-year survival rate by 2020. It hopes to accomplish this by increasing: the number of scientists studying the cancer, the funding available for research, the number of patients enrolled in clinical trials and the participants at PanCAN events.

“My dream was to put the pieces together and figure out a way to pull people together  to help those affected find answers, support and so on,” Marquardt said. “Ultimately, I became a cheerleader for both families affected and everybody else who helped put together everything from the first fundraiser to the organization as it stands today. I am gratified about how so many people ultimately stepped up to the plate to help out.”

Outstanding Graduate: Joelle Milman — Transforming herself


When Joelle Milman was a high school sophomore, she met award-winning photographer Art Streiber, who has contributed to Vanity Fair among other high-profile publications.

It didn’t happen as you might expect. It was her work on display during an art show at the Annenberg Space for Photography, and he was the one who approached her — to offer a compliment on one of her photos.

“That was, like, the best moment ever,” said the 18-year-old recent graduate of the Academy of Music at Hamilton High School, where she majored in drama.

Committed to the arts, Milman has had several “best moments” during her four years in the magnet program. 

There was the time she was picked for a role in NASA’s “Space School Musical,” an educational “hip-hopera” series of videos about the planets, moon, asteroids and more, as a freshman. Or you could point to the school’s annual AIDS awareness play, which she wrote and produced this year. 

“I think that drama, when done right — which I think Hamilton is pretty good at — is something really transformative,” Milman said. “You can take someone and really make them feel something that that they never thought they would feel. As people in the world, we should try to make everyone see things different than they would usually feel.”

There have been some challenging moments along the way. After middle school, the Modern Orthodox teen left Shalhevet School because she knew she needed to break out of her comfort zone. She had been at a Jewish day school since kindergarten and entered into the new, unfamiliar world of a magnet music academy at a public high school. 

[Next Grad: Ruth Maouda]

“Me leaving Shalhevet just felt like the hugest thing in the entire world,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone could go through anything that different in terms of [a change from one school to the next].”

To her pleasant surprise, she made friends quickly. She credits the school — specifically, the mix of cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds within the student body — as contributing to her personal growth.

Milman excelled academically and plans to attend Barnard College in New York, where she is considering studying English and environmental policy. But she also found time to give back to her school and local communities, planning school fundraising events and mentoring struggling students while working with Jewish organizations. She volunteered at Friendship Circle Los Angeles working with children with special needs, assembled groceries for the poor with Tomchei Shabbos and manned a photo booth at a party for Chai Lifeline, which serves kids who have deadly illnesses. 

Her time at Hamilton has influenced how she views her religion, too, she said. 

“I think everyone should make a concentrated effort to be a diverse and well-rounded person, and I think that’s how I want my Modern Orthodoxy to be,” she said. “I think that’s really important.”

Being American is bad for your health


“Americans are sicker and die younger than people in other wealthy nations.” 

That stark sentence appears in the January 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it comes from the authors of a landmark report – “Shorter Lives, Poorer Health” – on differences among high-income countries.

You probably already know that America spends more on healthcare than any other country.  That was one of the few facts to survive the political food fight pretending to be a serious national debate about the Affordable Care Act.

But the airwaves also thrummed with so many sound bites from so many jingoistic know-nothings claiming that America has the best healthcare system in the world that today, most people don’t realize how shockingly damaging it is to your wellness and longevity to be born in the U.S.A.

This is made achingly clear in the study of the “U.S. health disadvantage” recently issued by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, which was conducted over 18 months by experts in medicine and public health, demography, social science, political science, economics, behavioral science and epidemiology. 

Compare the health of the American people with our peer nations – with Britain, Canada and Australia; with Japan; with the Scandinavian countries; with France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands.  Side by side with the world’s wealthy democracies, America comes in last, and over the past several decades, it’s only gotten worse.

With few exceptions – like death rates from breast cancer – we suck.  Our newborns are less likely to reach their first birthday, or their fifth birthday.  Our adolescents die at higher rates from car crashes and homicides, and they have the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections.  Americans have the highest incidence of AIDS, the highest obesity rates, the highest diabetes rates among adults 20 and older, the highest rates of chronic lung disease and heart disease and drug-related deaths. 

There is one bright spot.  Americans who live past their 75th birthday have the longest life expectancy.  But for everyone else – from babies to baby boomers and beyond – your chances of living a long life are the butt-ugly worst among all the 17 rich nations in our peer group.

In case you’re tempted to blow off these bleak statistics about American longevity by deciding that they don’t apply to someone like you – before you attribute them to, how shall we put it, the special burdens that our racially and economically diverse and culturally heterogeneous nation has nobly chosen to bear – chew on this: “Even non-Hispanic white adults or those with health insurance, a college education, high incomes, or healthy behaviors appear to be in worse health (e.g., higher infant mortality, higher rates of chronic diseases, lower life expectancy) in the United States than in other high-income countries.”  And by the way, “the nation’s large population of recent immigrants is generally in better health than native-born Americans.”

Why are we trailing so badly?  Some of the causes catalogued by the report:

The U.S. public health and medical care systems:  Our employer- and private insurance-based health care system has long set us apart from our peer nations, who provide universal access.  The right loves to rail against “socialized medicine,” but on health outcomes, the other guys win.

Individual behavior: Tobacco, diet, physical inactivity, alcohol and other drug use and sexual practices play a part, but there’s not a whole lot of evidence that uniquely nails Americans’ behavior. The big exception is injurious behavior.  We loves us our firearms, and we don’t much like wearing seat belts or motorcycle helmets. 

Social factors:  Stark income inequality and poverty separate us from other wealthy nations, who also have more generous safety nets and demonstrate greater social mobility than we do.  In America, the best predictor of good or bad health is the income level of your zip code.

Physical and social environmental factors: Toxins harm us, but our pollution isn’t notably worse than in other rich nations.  The culprit may be our “built environment”: less public transportation, walking and cycling; more cars and car accidents; less access to fresh produce; more marketing and bigger portions of bad food.

Policies and social values:  To me, this is the richest, and riskiest, ground broken by the report, which asks whether there’s a common denominator – upstream, root causes – that help explain why the United States has been losing ground in so many health domains since the 1970s: 

“Certain character attributes of the quintessential American (e.g. dynamism, rugged individualism) are often invoked to explain the nation’s great achievements and perseverance.  Might these same characteristics also be associated with risk-taking and potentially unhealthy behaviors? Are there health implications to Americans’ dislike of outside (e.g., government) interference in personal lives and in business and marketing practices?”

My answer is yes, but I’d plant the problem in recent history and politics, not in timeless quintessentials.  Since the 1980s, in the sunny name of “free enterprise,” there’s been a ferocious, ideologically driven effort to demonize government, roll back regulations, privatize the safety net, stigmatize public assistance, gut public investment, weaken consumer protection, consolidate corporate power, delegitimize science, condemn anti-poverty efforts as “class warfare” and entrust public health to the tender mercies of the marketplace. 

The epidemic of gun violence has been fueled by anti-government paranoia stoked by the gun manufacturers’ lobby, the NRA.  The spike in consumption of high-fructose corn syrup has been driven by the food industry’s business decisions and its political (i.e., financial) clout.  In the name of fiscal conservatism, plutocrats push for cuts in discretionary expenditures on maternal health, early childhood education, social services and public transportation.  The same tactic that once prolonged tobacco’s death grip – the confection of a phony scientific “controversy” – now undermines efforts to combat climate change, which is as big a danger to public health as any disease.

More accidents may be shortening our lifespans.  But we’re not getting sicker by accident.


Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

A feast for Mollie Pier


In 1989, Mollie Pier co-founded Project Chicken Soup (PCS), a nonprofit organization that makes and delivers free kosher food to Angelenos living with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. Today, at 92, she still volunteers, spending eight hours a month in the kitchen and calling recipients when their meals are ready.

On Nov. 11, Pier was honored at Temple Beth Am by Project Chicken Soup for her efforts over the past 23 years. The event featured food from Jewish chefs around Los Angeles as well as speeches from Pier’s colleagues, a silent auction and performances from the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, Cantor Magda Fishman of Temple Beth Am, Cantor Juval Porat of Beth Chayim Chadashim and pianist David Silverstein. 

Of her honoring, Pier said, “It’s just overwhelming. I can’t believe this is me; I don’t think I deserve what everybody else thinks I do. It’s just breathtaking.”

More than 1,500 volunteers work for PCS each year, helping to serve as many as 30,000 meals. Every month, 125 clients each receive 20 meals, and the organization plans to double that number once fundraising goals are reached. 

“Most of our clients are low income, and many are food insecure,” said Cathryn Friedman, executive director. “There is evidence regarding the importance of appropriate nutrition for people living with HIV/AIDS and the role it plays in delaying [or] preventing the progression to late-stage disease. For people with cancer or other serious illnesses, an inability to acquire [or] prepare food results in food insecurity and negative health consequences. PCS services contribute to improved health status.”

Food at the event included all the traditional Jewish dishes, with a modern twist. Alex Reznik, formerly executive chef at the now-shuttered kosher steak house La Seine, served pickled herring and smoked whitefish, and Akasha Richmond, who owns AKASHA, made kale Caesar salad with olive oil croutons and parmesan. Susan Feniger of Street provided chilled Asian noodles with deviled egg and sriracha sauce. 

“Molly’s been the driver of some work that literally needed to be done,” Feniger said. “She’s made a strong statement certainly for all of us. We’re in the hospitality business, and we try to give back. To be here to support her is critical.”

Another guest chef, The Foundry on Melrose’s Eric Greenspan, who defeated Bobby Flay on “Iron Chef America,” made potato and apple kugel with garlic horseradish crust. “We spend so much time in an insular world in our kitchens,” he said. “It’s important every once in a while to poke your head out and take a look at the world around you and make sure that you’re a part of it. ‘Try to do a mitzvah a day,’ is what my dad always said, so this is definitely one of them.”

Joanne Feldman, a volunteer with PCS for five years who owns Mr. Pickles Kosher Catering, said she is proud of the work that the group has done. “We have been blessed to have somebody as wonderful as Mollie Pier being a part of the glue that holds this organization together,” she said. “She does it with such love and heart, and it’s amazing.”

Ronna Sundy, events coordinator at Temple Beth Am, said she and her family were given help by PCS when they needed it. 

“My adopted daughter’s father died of AIDS, and the family was fed through PCS,” she said. “They fed us during shivah, and it was a wonderful thing. What Project Chicken Soup has done for the community and for everyone is also part of Temple Beth Am’s being. We give back and want to help everyone. Mollie is volunteering, still, at 92 years old. I would only like to follow in her footsteps.”

Pier co-founded PCS not only to help the sick, but for personal reasons as well. Her son Nathaniel, a doctor who treated AIDS patients, came out as gay in the late 1970s. In 1989, he died of the disease, and she wanted his legacy to live on.

At the event, Pier said that was happening. “I think he’d be proud of me, as I was of him. I have a very spiritual feeling that he helped so many people with his medical knowledge.”

For recipes, visit jewishjournal.com.

Arafat’s body exhumed to test for poisoning


Forensic experts took samples from the body of former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's uncovered corpse in the West Bank on Tuesday, trying to determine if he was murdered with the hard-to-trace radioactive poison polonium.

Palestinians witnessed the funeral of their longtime leader eight years ago, but conspiracy theories surrounding his death have never been laid to rest.

Despite repeated denials from Israelis, many Palestinians are convinced Arafat was the victim of assassination by Israeli agents and may have been poisoned wittingly or unwittingly by a Palestinian. They may remain convinced of that, whatever the outcome of this autopsy.

Arafat's body was uncovered in the grave and samples removed without moving the corpse. The tomb was resealed in hours, and wreaths were placed by Palestinian leaders, including Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

The head of the Palestinian investigation committee, Tawfiq Tirawi, said the procedure went smoothly. A Palestinian medical team took samples and gave them to each of the Swiss, French and Russian forensic teams.

“We need proof in order to find those who are behind this assassination and take it to the ICC (International Criminal Court),” he said. “When we have proof, we will go to the ICC for it to be our first case to try those whose policy is assassinations.”

French magistrates in August opened a murder inquiry into Arafat's death in Paris in 2004, after a Swiss institute said it had discovered high levels of polonium on clothing of his which was supplied by his widow, Suha, for a television documentary.

“The state of the body was exactly what you would expect to find for someone who has been buried for eight years,” Health Minister Hani Abdeen told a news conference. “There was nothing out of the ordinary.”

Jordanian doctor Abdullah al Bashir, head of the Palestinian medical committee, said about 20 samples were taken and analysis would take at least three months.

“In order to do these analyses, to check, cross-check and double cross-check, it will take several months and I don't think we'll have anything tangible available before March or April next year,” said Darcy Christen, spokesman for Lausanne University Hospital in Switzerland that carried out the original tests on Arafat's clothes.

Arafat was regarded as a freedom fighter to Palestinians but a terrorist to Israelis first, and a partner for peace, albeit problematic, only later. He led the bid for a Palestinian state through years of war and peacemaking, then died in a French hospital, at 75, after a short, mysterious illness.

No autopsy was carried out at the time, at the request of Suha, and French doctors who treated him said they were unable to determine the cause of death.

But allegations of foul play surfaced immediately. Arafat had enemies among his own people, but many Palestinians pointed the finger at Israel, which confined the leader to his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah for the final two and a half years of his life, after a Palestinian uprising erupted.

Israel denies murdering him, and the Israeli leader at the time, Ariel Sharon, now lies in a coma from which not expected to awaken. Israel invited the Palestinian leadership to release all Arafat's medical records, which were never made public following his death and still have not been opened.

Polonium, apparently ingested with food, was found to have caused the death of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006. But some experts have questioned whether Arafat could have died in this way, pointing to a brief recovery during his illness that they said was not consistent with radioactive poisoning. They also noted he did not lose all his hair.

Eight years is considered the limit to detect any traces of the fast-decaying polonium and Lausanne hospital questioned in August if it would be worth seeking any samples, if access to Arafat's body was delayed as late as “October or November.”

Not all of Arafat's family agreed to the exhumation. Arafat's widow watched on television from her house in Malta.

“This will bring closure, we will know the truth about why he died. I owe this answer to the Palestinian people, to the new generation, and to his daughter,” a tearful Suha told timesofmalta.com.

Additional reporting by Chris Scicluna in Malta; Writing by Crispian Balmer; Editing by Douglas Hamilton, Tom Pfeiffer and Jason Webb

Israel for a Cure participates in AIDS Walk


Israel and American men and women of all ages, representatives of Israeli and Jewish community organizations and others turned out to walk with Israel for a Cure, one of approximately 1,700 teams that participated in the AIDS Walk Los Angeles on Oct. 14.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles organized the Israel for a Cure group to demonstrate Israel’s support for the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“The reason we do this is because it really is a global issue — it affects Israel, it affects the Jewish people,” said Consul General of Israel David Siegel, who was among the participants. This was the fourth year that the consulate has organized a team for the walk.

The Israel for a Cure team drew approximately 50 participants wearing Israel for a Cure T-shirts and carrying blue and white balloons, Israeli flags and a banner proclaiming “Israel for a Cure.” Participants included representatives of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group; Na’amat, an Israeli movement dedicated to women’s rights; members of the Israeli Leadership Council; and of Congregation Kol Ami, a synagogue based in West Hollywood.

Additionally, community leaders — including Congressmen Howard Berman and Adam Schiff, Congresswoman Maxine Waters and L.A City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Dennis Zine — stopped by the team’s meeting station — near the intersection of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards — to express support.

Also among the participants was Drew Michelman, a student at Buckley School in Sherman Oaks, who raised more than $2,000 for the event as part of his bar mitzvah project.

“It was a good experience to just know that while you’re walking, you’re helping people around the world,” the seventh-grader said.

In addition to being committed to raising awareness about HIV/AIDS on a community level, Israel is focused on ending the epidemic on a scientific and policy level, Siegel said. Last year, Israel signed a multiyear cooperative agreement with UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. The Israeli biotech industry is currently working on developing cutting-edge methods of battling deadly viruses such as HIV. 

AIDS Walk Los Angeles is an annual event that raises funds and awareness to improve the lives of people affected by the disease, reduce the incidence of infection, and advocate for fair and effective HIV-related policy. This year, the 28th annual walk — a 6.2-mile trek in West Hollywood — drew a reported 30,000 participants and raised $2.9 million.

Cooking for AIDS patients Is chicken soup for grieving mom’s soul


Several days before Mollie Pier’s son, Nathaniel, died of complications from AIDS, she joined together with his doctors, Nathaniel and his longtime partner, Michael, as the couple exchanged rings and vows in his hospital room.

After Nathaniel died on Dec. 27, 1989, Pier stepped up her volunteer work on behalf of gays and lesbians, leading groups for parents within and outside the Jewish community, and helping to found Project Chicken Soup, for which several dozen volunteers cook and deliver kosher meals twice a month to people with HIV in Los Angeles.

“There was a terrible sadness that permeated my entire days,” Pier, now 91, said of the period following Nathaniel’s death. “But I was determined to continue working on behalf of gays and lesbians and people with AIDS, in his memory.

“My son was one of the first doctors in New York who treated people with AIDS,” she continued. “I like to say that he helped people with his knowledge of medicine, and I help people with my knowledge of cooking.”

Story continues after the jump

Pier, an avid baker who still leads the baking team at Project Chicken Soup, has done much more than that. After her son came out to her in the early 1980s, she addressed his fear of rejection in a letter: “I said, ‘You are my son, I love you, and I’m proud of you, and any way of life that makes you happy makes me happy, too.”

Pier became a leader in the Los Angeles branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), and in a similar group founded for Jews through Valley Beth Shalom. She moderated discussion groups, gave speeches and, before each performance by the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, baked up to 600 cookies for members to enjoy. “In my PFLAG group, I was the first mother to lose a son to AIDS, so I was asked to lead a group for people who also lost loved ones,” she recalled.

Pier had already been helping temple sisterhoods cook brunches for people with AIDS when, after Nathaniel’s death, she began gathering with volunteers to provide more of such meals in a kosher kitchen in Hollywood. The effort, known as Project Chicken Soup, began, she said, with 20 clients, gleaning funds early on from The Jewish Federation when Pier reported that “these people didn’t just need counseling, they were very sick and very poor and needed food.” 

Pier still spends up to four hours calling clients two Fridays a month to ensure they’ll be home for their Sunday food delivery. “I’ve had a strong connection to tikkun olam since I was a child, and this work provides me with a spiritual connection to my son,” she said.

African AIDS experts visit, learn from Israel


A delegation of prominent HIV/AIDS doctors from across East Africa is visiting Israel to expand medical partnerships and benefit from Israel’s expertise.

The 10 African medical experts from Botswana, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya arrived Sunday in Israel for a weeklong visit under the auspices of Project Interchange and the Israeli Consortium on AIDS Medicine in Africa.

Dr. Mark Wainberg, former president of the International AIDS Society and currently drector of the McGill University AIDS Center, also joined the seminar.

The program is designed to launch collaboration between Israeli and African universities and hospitals, and also will help expand medical partnerships across Africa, as well as provide Israel’s medical advances and expertise as a resource for global public health concerns.

In addition to the medical sessions, the group is scheduled to meet with experts from across Israel’s political and social spectrum who will discuss strategic and regional issues, as well as Israeli and Palestinian politics and society.

The visit is being held in cooperation with MASHAV, Israel’s national agency for international development cooperation, and Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Africa Division.

Cedars-Sinai studies liver transplants for HIV patients


Although he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1991, Brent Carrillo had been well enough to pursue careers in custom stone and tile installation and interior design with relatively few health setbacks. A lifelong resident of Burbank, Carrillo moved to Portland in 2005 to enjoy a home set on half an acre of forested land.

But right about that time, a blood test revealed that Carrillo had elevated liver enzymes. He was diagnosed with Hepatitis C, but the medication he was prescribed made Carrillo’s blood so thin that he had to discontinue taking it. His condition worsened, and in the fall of 2007, Carrillo’s doctor said his liver would cease functioning in about a year.

“The doctor said there was nothing more they could do,” Carrillo said. “He didn’t give me any options.”

Like Carrillo, many others with HIV are living decades after their diagnosis, thanks to the development in the mid-90s of a new class of AIDS drugs, which drastically slow the progression of the virus. But while the threat posed by infection has declined, the danger of organ failure has become more likely.

“As treatment has improved, patients are not dying of HIV complications but from liver disease and cirrhosis complications,” says Dr. Nicholas N. Nissen, assistant surgical director of the Multi-Organ Transplant Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Center for Liver Diseases and Transplantation. “Individuals with HIV should know that, despite excellent control, liver disease and liver cancer are increasingly likely.”

Carrillo, 46, had resigned himself to the idea of having a year to live, but his mother, Sandy, was unwilling to accept such a fate for her son. While scouring the Internet for information, she found a study involving liver transplantation for individuals with HIV. One of the study locations was Cedars-Sinai.

The medical center is participating in a National Institutes of Health-sponsored clinical trial to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of liver transplantation among HIV-positive patients. Cedars-Sinai is one of only 11 hospitals in the country and two in the state participating in the study. The other California facility, University of California San Francisco Medical Center, is also studying the effectiveness of kidney transplantation in HIV-positive patients.

“This is a tremendously important question,” Nissen said. “Patients ill enough to be a candidate for liver transplantation are out of other options. This is the best and sometimes only option they have.”

Nissen says that many transplant centers have been reluctant to perform transplants in HIV-positive patients with liver failure because little is known about how they fare afterwards. In addition, it had been assumed that the immune-suppressing medications required for an organ transplant would “allow HIV to run wild.”

Patients who are part of the study have agreed to be monitored for effects of the transplant and immuno-suppression drugs for five years following their transplant. As with any liver transplant recipient, their status on the waiting list for an organ is based on a numerical score determined by medical tests.

“Liver transplantation is a well-established procedure,” Nissen said. “We are not comparing two types of therapy, as is often done in a clinical trial. Rather, we are evaluating how these patients do when transplanted.”

Patients admitted to the study must have a strong enough immune system and no severe infections or malignancies. Carrillo underwent a series of tests to assess his health status before being accepted to the study.

An earlier study published this year in The American Journal of Transplantation concluded that liver transplantation was “an option for selected HIV-infected patients cared for at centers with adequate expertise.” However, it involved only 11 patients. The current, multicenter study will follow 125 liver transplant patients and publish findings next year.

The biggest challenge, Nissen says, is integrating the combination of medicines this group of patients requires after transplant. The combination includes those designed to prevent organ rejection along with medications addressing HIV and other recurrent disease. “It’s not just the transplant itself, but the effect of medication on HIV…. Any change in medication would require involving [a team of] physicians.”

Cedars-Sinai has assumed some risk by being part of the trial since the hospital’s overall liver transplant results — available online to the public — could be negatively affected were the HIV positive group to show poor results.

Carrillo is glad the hospital was willing to take that risk. His condition had been deteriorating since he was accepted into the study in January. On Sept. 10, he received a new liver, and was discharged from the hospital a week later.

He says he has more energy and feels like “a whole new person.”

“This has given me another 20 or 30 years that I didn’t know I would have,” Carrillo said. “My brother has two young children, and now I have hope of seeing them grow up.”

African AIDS fight uses Israeli circumcision skills


In a clinic in Swaziland, Israeli doctors have been training their counterparts in male circumcision, hoping expertise in the ancient technique will help in the battle against the modern scourge of AIDS.

The United Nations announced last year that the procedure could reduce the rate of HIV transmission by up to 60 percent. It was in Israel, with its experience performing adult male circumcision on a wide scale, that the international medical community found an unlikely partner in the global fight against AIDS.

“Israeli medicine and public health are positioned as a real asset in African countries,” said Dr. Inon Schenker, a director of Operation Abraham, the consortium that sent the doctors to Swaziland and plans to send more training teams to Africa. “They recognize the expertise and experience gained in Israel over the past decade, where close to 100,000 [adult] male circumcisions have been conducted.”

Israel’s accidental expertise in conducting large-scale numbers of adult male circumcisions came with the mass wave of immigration from the former Soviet Union, which brought with it a dramatic rise in men requesting the procedure.

To meet the demand, Israeli hospitals set up special circumcision clinics in five hospitals throughout the country. In turn, Israeli doctors gained unique experience in performing a high number of procedures efficiently.

It’s a model organization, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations would like to see it replicated in Africa as a tool for helping combat the spread of HIV.

Answering the call has been Operation Abraham, a team of Israeli doctors and AIDS educators — Jews, Muslims and Christians — who this year made three training trips to Swaziland, in what is considered a pilot program that they hope is just the start of their work. The organization has had requests to do a similar training program in Uganda, Lesotho, Namibia, Kenya and South Africa.

Their work is sponsored by the Jerusalem AIDS project and the Hadassah Medical Center, and they hope to recruit surgeons from abroad.

Dr. Eitan Gross, a pediatric surgeon at the Hadassah hospital in Ein Kerem, who was in Swaziland and is the medical director of Operation Abraham, said he was surprised initially to hear that surgery could play a role in preventing the spread of AIDS.

Research has shown that male circumcision reduces the chance of HIV infection. Experts say the scientific evidence has shown that specific cells on the penis foreskin appear to be targeted by the virus. It also has been found that an unremoved foreskin can trap the virus on the skin, making infection more likely.

Gross said he was moved by his time in Swaziland, which has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. The average life expectancy in the country has plummeted to 31 years.

“People came of their own free will,” he said. “There was no publicity to draw them…. When we spoke to the men who came, many of them in their 20s and 30s, they told us about living amid the epidemic and what it’s like to see so many people die.”

Although nearly 30 percent of the world’s men are circumcised, the practice is quite rare in many southern African countries, where AIDS has become pandemic.

Dr. Jamal Garah, an Israeli Arab pediatrician, was among the Israeli doctors in Swaziland. He has experience in performing male circumcisions, usually on babies or young children in Israel’s Muslim community.

“It’s fitting that our project is named after Abraham,” he said. “It symbolizes a measure of unity to give the message to other people that we can work together.”

Officials from the WHO traveled to Jerusalem in 2006 to gather information on Israel’s expertise in the field.

“The circumstances in which adult male circumcision are done in some institutions in Israel are generally of a high standard with few complications,” said Dr. Tim Hargreave, a leading British urological surgeon and WHO technical adviser, explaining the organization’s interest in Israel’s experience.

Drawing in part on Israeli methodology, Hargreave helped author the WHO manual on male circumcision, which along with a teaching course, is being used as part of government male circumcision programs in several African countries.

Dr. Kiron Koshy was one of the doctors working in Swaziland who was trained by the Israeli team. He now conducts as many as 15 male circumcisions a week at a Catholic mission hospital near the Mozambique border — more than twice the rate he was performing previously.

“I have now learned the technique, and I can work faster,” Koshy said in a phone interview from Swaziland. “There are a lot of people coming in for the operation, and I think the numbers are only going to increase.”

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Don Abramson, a former chairman of American Jewish World Service who has been advocating for the project, said he hopes it will help galvanize Diaspora Jewry to fight one of the world’s biggest problems. One of his ideas is to encourage Jews around the world to donate money to Operation Abraham whenever they attend a bris.

“My message to Jewish families is that a bris affirms the Divine covenant relationship with the child, but also demonstrates that their friends and family who care about the child celebrate that the child is healthy enough to have a bris,” Abramson said. “A contribution to Project Abraham demonstrates a desire for others to be alive and healthy, as well, and could be a life-saving act.”

Malibu camp offers respite and community for kids with HIV


It's nearly dusk at Camp Pacific Heartland in Malibu and teenager Stephon Cooperawls sits beside me, watching the summer sun sink into the sea. All the other campers are in the dining room having dinner, but Cooperawls has a story to tell, and this is the only place he feels safe talking about it.

“I first got involved with camp when I was 7 years old. I didn't know I had it when I was 7. I was living with a foster parent, and she just brought me here,” Cooperawls began.

“As I got older, I started to have a clue, wondering 'Why am I here?' and 'Why am I taking meds?' and 'Why am I going to the hospital?' It all just added up, and one day, my father came to me and said, 'Stephon, I just want to tell you something: You have HIV.'”

Cooperawls, a 17-year-old African American, was born with HIV. And like many of the children between the ages of 6 and 20 who have passed through Camp Pacific Heartland or its sister arts camp, Camp Hollywood Heart, he is battling what is considered one of the greatest epidemics of our time.

Cooperawls is both infected and affected by the disease: his biological father died of AIDS, and his mother, who abandoned him as an infant, is also infected.

“When I found out I had it, I always thought I was just going to up and die one day, but I've learned that you're not going to die. You die when it's your time to go,” he said.

But nobody is going anywhere this week. Nestled high in the Malibu Mountains at Wilshire Boulevard Temple's Gindling Hilltop Camp, Cooperawls and the other campers enjoy what many call the best week of their lives. It is the one week of the year when they are free from judgment in a place where they can swim and use the bathrooms without any erroneous worrying about disease transmission, and where they make new friends with whom they can share their secret.

It is an empowering and life-altering experience for each camper, but it has also transformed the life of David Gale, the Hollywood executive whose quest for meaning brought Camp Heartland to Southern California.

“Every one of us asks what our purpose is in life,” Gale said, reflecting on what this experience has meant to him.

“Very often, it's your career, maybe your family, but for me it's been, 'How can I make an impact on people in the world?' But this is not a one-sided exchange. These kids have made me appreciate the value of life.”

Having grown up with Crohn's disease, itself a serious illness, Gale shares a unique kinship with the hundreds of children he helps. An otherwise unassuming individual, today dressed in shorts and a T-shirt with a digital camera hanging from his neck, his sensitivity to the kids' condition is visceral and palpable. At camp, Gale is not one of the top executives at MTV, he's just “David,” and he doesn't really want to talk about his professional success. He wants this story to be about the kids.

Working in an industry characterized by tough personalities and superficial values, Gale's genuine modesty is rare. Inasmuch as his talent and ambition have earned him considerable success (he is a Stanford graduate and also holds a law degree from New York University), the vice president of MTV new media and specialty films has coupled his personal achievements with giving to others. He believes lasting happiness results from three things: doing what you love, contact with people you love and philanthropic giving.

“There's not even close to enough of that happening in Hollywood. That's why there are so many unhappy people despite their success — because they're not giving, they're taking, they're demanding, they're insisting — and they judge their success in life based on the box office, based on their power, their deals and who knows them,” Gale said.

“This camp, this organization [Hollywood Heart] gives me true happiness. I get back so much more in ways that are impossible to quantify, in ways I couldn't get from anything material or anything else I've ever done,” he said.

Gale's desire to give was the result of a tremendous loss. When his mother was dying of cancer, he saw the outpouring of community support coming from her synagogue, which inspired his own involvement with Wilshire Boulevard Temple. And it was 15 years ago, when he sat on the social action committee, that Gale, now 50, realized he could do more than chair the synagogue's food pantry.

At the time, Gale was vice president of MTV Films, a division he created and through which he produced a bevy of hits, including, “Election,” “Jackass,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Varsity Blues.” During his 11 years at the helm, MTV Films grossed more than $1 billion at the box office and garnered their first Academy Award nomination (for “Election,” which Gale says, is the film that makes him most proud). Without any personal tie, he was struck by the horrors of the rising AIDS epidemic and immediately decided to start a camp for HIV/AIDS-infected youth.

“I love the movies I've made and I'm very proud of them, but it's just a credit, whereas something that's extremely deep and meaningful and lasting is truly the thing that I would want people to remember me for. Not my movies,” he said.

As fulfilling as philanthropy is, Gale is quick to point out that his commercial success has significantly enabled his ability to give.

“I could not have started this charity without my success and without my connections,” he said plainly. For starters, although Wilshire Boulevard Temple did not wish to directly sponsor the camp project, they offered Gale use of their camp facilities in Malibu at a greatly reduced rate.

With access to money and powerful industry connections, Gale could offer financial support for a camp, but with the demands of his job, did not have the ability to program his dream from scratch.

Enter Neil Willenson, a fellow Jew from Wisconsin who had already established a camp for at-risk kids but without a permanent home yet.

Willenson's journey began when he read a disturbing article in his local paper titled “AIDS Hysteria” about 5-year-old Nile Sandeen, who contracted HIV from his mother and suffered cruel abuse at the hands of his community. Through his friendship with Sandeen, Willenson discovered that the stigma of the disease and the many misconceptions surrounding HIV/AIDS often caused more emotional suffering than the disease itself.

“The scourge of paranoia is worse than HIV,” said Willenson, 37, the founder of Camp Heartland. “HIV may be the most manageable part of their lives.”

In 1993, Camp Heartland's inaugural summer, Willenson welcomed 72 kids from 20 states to a one-week, cost-free retreat at a leased campsite in Milwaukee where there was hiking, horseback riding and archery. The following summer, he received a call from Gale, who took a red-eye to visit Willenson's Camp Heartland. By the summer of 1995, Gale and Willenson launched Camp Pacific Heartland, the West Coast version of Willenson's concept, funded through Gale's efforts and with the goal of recruiting at least 50 percent of its campers from Southern California.

The night I visit is “MTV Night” at camp, and the speakers are blaring Madonna. All 60 kids are breathless with anticipation over who this year's surprise celebrity guest will be. Gale's connections in Hollywood have produced a gaggle of celebrities here over the years, including Chris Tucker, Cuba Gooding Jr., Brandy and David Arquette.

When Wilmer Valderrama of “That '70s Show” arrives, he joins his screaming, adoring fans for a late-night dance party.

A 7-year-old girl gasps, “He's handsome! He's everything!”

She could be talking about Hollywood writer/director John Gatins, one of Hollywood Heart's most passionate advocates and a current board member, who is visiting tonight just for fun.

Gatins, who wrote “Coach Carter,” will return for Camp Hollywood Heart (the arts camp for Heartland graduates ages 16-20) to teach a writing workshop. He says he charts his life by this camp and that it inspired him to have children (he has three, ages 7, 5 and 18 months). Just prior to the release of his first feature film, “Dreamer: Inspired by a True Story,” DreamWorks gave him special permission to screen it at the camp.

“The night that I showed my movie here, I remember driving down that long, crazy hill to leave, and I just started laughing, and then I started kind of weeping, thinking, 'Wow I've never had such an amazing audience,'” Gatins recalled, almost tearfully.

“You work in the business, and everything is about the business. Everything is about, like, 'How did it play?' 'Will it work?' 'How do you sell it?' And to hear 100 kids laugh in the situations they're in, I sent DreamWorks an e-mail the next day that said, 'Look, I just have to tell you that I had an experience last night that for the first time my work felt meaningful on a level it never has.'”

AIPAC, Persian tragedy, Christian support for Israel


AIPAC

Do You think it is fair and balanced news to print only Sen. John McCain’s comments to AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee]?

I listened to Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hilary Clinton’s comments and feel they deserve the same coverage in The Jewish Journal (“McCain Raps Obama on Iran and Iraq at AIPAC“).

How do you justify not printing their comments? Not everyone has access to a Web site.

Charlotte Novatt
Los Angeles

Editor's Note: The Journal went to press before Clinton and Obama gave their speeches at the AIPAC conference. Sen. Obama's prepared remarks are online here, and Sen. Clinton's speech is online here.

Persian Tragedy

I think I speak for the entire Jewish community when I say that we are all saddened and in disbelief at the tragedy surrounding the death of Bianca Khalili (“Persian Tragedy,” June 13).

However, the horror is further exacerbated by the fact that we have not been able to stop the labeling of Jews. There are Russian, Moroccan, Mexican, Israeli, Sephardic, Ashkenazi and, yes, Persian Jews in our midst. Some of us are more or less observant; and, some of us are more or less accepted. Why? Persian Jews have been here since the late 1970s ,and I think that they have earned the right to be part of the entire community. Not Persian Jews, not separated from the rest of the Jewish community, but an integral, accepted and loved part of the Jewish community. Isn’t it time for all Jews to finally unite and stop putting up a mechitzah between us? This was not a Persian tragedy.

This was a Jewish tragedy.

Tamar Andrews
Los Angeles

I learned many huge lessons from the tragic events that recently occurred:
I will not allow myself the audacity to stand in judgment of another: will never “assume” anything about a person’s state of mind. No one knows who a person really is, what they are feeling or thinking at any given moment, what goes on in their homes, their hearts, their wallets…. I will not assign meanings to anyone’s behavior, or judge them to be anything, other than “an imperfect human being” just like me.

People talk, and that’s all it is: “talk.” You want facts? Good luck. I hear of lashon hara, I hear of police reports, of the “Jewish Way,” and you are one of the first to mention the human way.

I do not hear about “judgment,” or the law where you are innocent until proven guilty. I used to go to Beverly Hills High School; I have two teenagers, and I see what goes on … it can be brutal. However, I believe the real tragedy here is living within us, today.

There were two people there that night. One cannot ever talk again, and the other talks but no one wants to listen. The bottom line is none of us were there. None of us know what really happened, so for anyone to pass such cruel and dignified judgments is an utter tragedy of epic proportions, and a disgrace to logic and common sense.

I have spent three weeks at parties and gatherings listening to such ugly, baseless gossip, all of which was hearsay, illogical nonsense and just pure fantasy. People talked and talked, spewing words from their mouths so easily, as if they were reciting a poem, or reading street signs, without a moment’s hesitation to consider what they were saying, where it all came from, whether it was fact or hearsay … living their “C.S.I.” fantasy moment … well, because they just know everything and that makes it automatically a fact, of course; right?

The deceased is gone. Yet the living is left sinning, hurting, reeling, and lost. I only hope and pray that our people can find ourselves again, and learn from this.

It is time to stop, and put an end to this vicious cycle. Let the police and the courts take care of their business. Let us allow some breathing room for the families involved to grieve in peace and, God willing, someday heal.

Tannaz Rahbar
via e-mail

AIDS/HIV Supplement

I seldom miss an issue of The Jewish Journal, and I’m so glad I found the June 6 issue. Thanks so much for the supplement “AIDS and HIV” — it is fantastic and so important.

I have donated to AIDS Project Los Angeles and Project Angel Food but just learned of Project Chicken Soup.

GLSEN [Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network] is a fine group helping students and schools become inclusive for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students. They all need the same safe environments to study, learn and become productive, useful citizens, unharmed.

For me to realize (thru this supplement) that the Jewish community is open to helping is so rewarding and welcome. Please accept my sincere appreciation.

Dorothy L. Linder
Culver City

Christian Support for Israel

Thank you for finally publishing a positive article about Christian support for Israel in the May 30 article, “Interfaith Pep Rally For Israel Rocks the Forum.”

Instead of constantly looking for fault in Christian support for Israel we need to embrace their support, which is genuine and based on a shared belief in a common Bible and common God not just on a “common enemy in Islamic extremism.”

I have personally witnessed Christian pilgrimages to Israel on the Jewish holidays and seen their genuine love and devotion to the State of Israel and the Jewish people and we must never forget to appreciate their support.

Amanda Gelman
Los Angeles

Correction

Due to editing errors in "Orthodox Schools Share Concern For Greener World" (June 6), Master Solar and Madam Geothermal were erroneously attributed to David Chameides. Chameides is not associated with those characters or with the Big Mountain program at Camp Max Strauss. Chameides has not spoken at Yavneh, nor did he speak with Shalhevet parents, though he was invited to attend Shalhevet's trip to the landfill.

Ghana’s plight motivates rabbinical students


The dirt streets and makeshift shacks of Ghana may seem an unlikely place to learn to be a rabbi, but not for a group of students who recently visited the African country.

Twenty-five rabbinical students, including a few from American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, came away from the trip with an understanding of AIDS in Africa — and the poverty that has helped turn the disease into an epidemic on the continent. Participants say the experience left a deep impression on them and convinced them of the need to do more to stop the spread of AIDS.

“I can’t teach a lesson about poverty, I can’t teach a lesson about tzedakah [charity] without drawing on this experience,” said tour participant Dan Kaiman, 23, of AJU’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. “Because it’s part and parcel of so many of the tikkun olam — the repairing the world issues — that we deal with on a daily basis.”

The students visited Ghana for 10 days in January on a trip organized by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which supports the removal of restrictions from U.S. world AIDS policies, such as an abstinence-until-marriage earmark or an anti-prostitution pledge.

The students learned how desperate poverty contributes to the spread of AIDS in Africa when they visited a refugee camp in Ghana, where residents live in concrete-block houses on dirt streets, unable to find legal work because of their alien status.

Liberian refugees living in the camp told the rabbinical students some young mothers are forced to work as prostitutes to feed their children, often becoming infected with HIV as a result.

“The poverty was just something on a scale that I couldn’t quite imagine, living in Los Angeles my whole life,” said tour participant Adam Greenwald, 23, a student at AJU.

“To imagine if the choice is feeding your children today or a health risk down the road, I do certainly understand how a person could make the choice that they simply need to provide food for their family,” Greenwald said.

The students stayed in an area of Ghana called Hohoe, where they met with a Cuban doctor sent by his government to serve the country. The doctor, who is one of only a handful of licensed doctors in the area, explained that he sometimes diagnoses a dozen cases of HIV infection each week, said tour participant Joshua Corber, 25, of AJU.

The students also got an introduction to another side of health care in Ghana when they visited a healing clinic in a village near Hohoe, where patients with broken bones were bandaged with herbs, students said.

Chickens roamed the clinic’s dirt floors, and saws for amputations were among the few pieces of medical equipment on hand, students said.

An herbal healer at the clinic gave a disconcerting response when asked what he does to prevent HIV infection, Greenwald said.

“He said after each amputation he purchased a new saw,” Greenwald said.

For Corber, the tour revealed the social stigma that people with HIV encounter in Ghana.

“Nobody wants to admit that they have it, because basically the fear is and the reality is that they will be ostracized from the village, the community and their family,” Corber said. “And then they really will have no support at all.”

An estimated 2.2 percent of adults in Ghana had HIV or AIDS in 2006, which is relatively low for Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for one-third of all the world’s new HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS.

The rabbinical students who toured Ghana saw measures that are being taken in the African country to prevent the spread of HIV.

At the refugee camp for Liberians who have fled the civil wars in their home country, a bowl of free condoms was set outside the local office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Kaiman said. The camp was near Accra, the capital of the country.

And at the office of an AIDS-fighting group in Hohoe, the rabbinical students played the part of audience members, as a group of local teens put on a play about resisting the peer pressure to have sex at a young age. The teens present the play at schools in Ghana, as a way to educate youths to avoid HIV infection.

Corber, Greenwald and Kaiman, who all attend the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at AJU, said their tour of Ghana left a deep impression on them.

“It certainly opened my eyes,” said Kaiman, who grew up in New Jersey. “Africa isn’t something far away and distant anymore. It’s something very personal, and it’s something that you can’t avoid.”

Since returning to the United States, Kaiman has given a presentation about his Ghana experience at a synagogue, and he has contacted his representative in congress and members of the House Foreign Relations Committee to call for changes to the president’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

Corber, who grew up in Vancouver, Canada, said that after having seen the work that New York-based AJWS is doing in Africa, he is convinced that a little money goes a long way in Africa. That’s especially the case when the money goes to groups such as AJWS that work with established organizations in the developing world, Corber said.

Greenwald said the experience reinforced his own core beliefs.

“The core of my religious commitment is the idea that all human beings are children of a single God,” he said. “And if a large chunk of those human beings are sick and dying, then those are not others — there are no others — those are brothers and sisters and cousins who are my responsibility.”

Project Chicken Soup brings comfort by the bowl


The food is superb! You can taste the love and care.

I want to thank you for providing me with a beacon for my faith in good people.

I do so love the joy, peace and happiness your organization brings to my life. Thank you.

The notes are short, direct and never signed. They come from all over Los Angeles, from the South Los Angeles tenements to the San Fernando Valley suburbs. Their authors differ in age, ethnicity and religion, but have at least one thing in common: They all live with HIV/AIDS.

Their gratitude is directed at Project Chicken Soup, an L.A.-based nonprofit whose volunteers gather twice a month to cook nutritious, kosher meals and deliver them, free of charge, to the doors of clients across the city. The organization’s goal is to provide nechama, or comfort, to those in need.

“When you are diagnosed with HIV or AIDS, you often withdraw within yourself, and sometimes your family and friends might have a negative reaction to you,” said Paul Chitlik, president of Los Angeles Jewish AIDS Services/Project Chicken Soup. “What we do is we show that they are still part of the Jewish community by delivering kosher food that might remind them of their families in a better time. What Jew doesn’t feel comfort when having a bowl of chicken soup?”

For those whose families live too far away to care for them, he added, the group’s door-to-door service also offers a welcome chance for human contact.

As several clients testify, the nourishment volunteers deliver is more than stomach-deep: Your services feed my soul with love as well as keep me from hunger.

The experience is just as rewarding for the volunteers themselves, many said, some of whom have returned faithfully every other Sunday, year after year.

Among the 40 to 45 volunteers who typically show up each session are retired grandparents, high school students from places like Harvard-Westlake and Campbell Hall and college students from UCLA, which once sent their entire women’s volleyball team to lend a hand in the kitchen. Synagogue groups and b’nai mitzvah boys and girls work side by side with charity-minded locals of all races and creeds, who just want to help.

“Cooking food for people is the most direct form of community service you can do,” Chitlik said. “You cook, that day it gets to the house — still warm — and people eat it. You provide something that people need and that they will use right away. It’s very satisfying.”

That’s how Century City resident Eve Lasensky feels, who, at 89, has been cooking with Project Chicken Soup twice a month for the past 15 years.

Lasensky doesn’t know anyone with HIV/AIDS, but she wanted to contribute to the cause in a more hands-on way than by simply donating money.

“It’s such a rewarding thing to do,” she said. “It’s all wholesome food, and it’s all done with such love. Everybody there does it because they really want to be there. It makes my day.”

Clients have noticed the enthusiasm of people like Lasensky:

I’m so glad that there are wonderful volunteers like you. You are a Godsend!

The idea for Project Chicken Soup first began to simmer in 1989, when a group of volunteers calling themselves Nechama started to prepare and distribute baskets of kosher food to people living with HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles. Chitlik, who has been with the nonprofit in different capacities for the last decade, said the group formed to fill a need in the community — organizations like Project Angel Food and Meals on Wheels weren’t delivering kosher fare.

“We saw that there was a gap there, because there was a significant number of Jewish people with HIV or AIDS,” he said. “We saw a hole in services, and we were the only ones who filled that.”

Still the only regional provider of kosher meals to the HIV/AIDS community, Project Chicken Soup now gathers at the Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen on Fairfax Avenue and cooks for about 120 clients per session, with a waiting list to boot. Last year, the group involved more than 1,200 volunteers who spent over 10,500 hours preparing and delivering nearly 8,000 meals.

Recipients don’t have to be Jewish to qualify for meal deliveries, which usually include three complete entrées, two 32-ounce containers of soup (one always being the requisite chicken soup), two vegetable side dishes, fresh fruit, a breakfast package and a week’s supply of nutritional supplements.

Special holiday menus also feature seasonal treats. On Purim, volunteers bake hamantaschen. For Passover, they kosher the kitchen and deliver gefilte fish.

The group’s pervasive emphasis on comfort — both physical and spiritual — has seemingly struck a chord. Some clients write in to voice their appreciation for a service they can’t do for themselves: I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciated receiving my first delivery last Sunday. The food was really great and since I have little energy and failing health, it was a real treat.

Others write to share personal victories: I am in a much better position now both with health and finances and I’ve decided to leave the program. I cannot thank you enough for your warmth and dedication.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many Jews in Los Angeles live with HIV/AIDS, Chitlik said, since the county doesn’t keep track of religious information. But he noted that the Jewish community in recent years has taken steps to be more inclusive to this population.

“I think the community has opened its arms to help people come back,” he said. “At first, 20 or 30 years ago when the epidemic started, there were a lot of taboos around it. But now, almost everybody in the community has been touched by it — you know somebody who died, something like that. It’s been personalized.”

Project Chicken Soup has been recognized for its role in promoting “food as medicine” for people living with a life-threatening illness. Last summer, the group was chosen from 45 organizations nominated by members of Congress to receive the national 2007 Victory Against Hunger Award. Project Chicken Soup was nominated by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles).

The over-50 crowd relearns the ‘facts of life’


For years, single seniors would find the idea of meeting new people following a divorce, or loss of a partner, daunting at best. But with today’s online dating services, success in finding the perfect partner is ostensibly only a click away — all you need is a computer and a little courage.

But Jane Fowler, retired journalist and now HIV/AIDS prevention educator, waves a red flag of caution for older singles. As founder and director of the national HIV Wisdom for Older Women, Fowler says that older single people — “the fastest-growing segment of the dating services” — may put themselves at risk by engaging in new relationships.

“The perception among both the older, public population and providers of health and social services is that seniors are not at risk for sexually transmitted disease, and as a consequence they have low awareness about HIV,” Fowler said.

While HIV can pose health problems at any age, there is additional risk of having the virus as an older person. People 50 and older have less vigorous immune systems, and studies report that a majority of older adults have at least one or more chronic, age-related condition such as diabetes, arthritis or heart disease.

Fowler, a vibrant and active senior, has a personal commitment to HIV awareness for women older than 50: She was diagnosed HIV positive in the mid-1980s, having been exposed to the virus from an unprotected, heterosexual contact following her divorce.

“I am very concerned about women who, like me years ago, may be re-entering the dating scene after an absence of several decades,” she said.

The Myth of Age-Related Immunity

According to Fowler, AIDS cases in women over age 50 are reported to have tripled in the last decade. Furthermore, the findings of the recent landmark ROAH (“Research on Older Americans With HIV”) study by AIDS Community Research Initiative of America reported conclusive evidence that heterosexual contact is now the predominant mode of virus transmission.

“It is important to get the message out,” Fowler said, “to both women and men over age 50, that unprotected sexual contact is a risk.”

She said physicians do not typically discuss sexual behavior with their older patients, and this fosters a false sense of security that age imparts “some special kind of immunity.” Plus, as people age and their immune systems weaken, many of the symptoms of age-related conditions, such as fatigue, dementia, weight loss and skin rashes, are very similar to those of HIV.

“When these symptoms are overlooked and attributed to natural aging, people who are HIV positive end up walking out the door,” she said. “By the time they are diagnosed, they may be very ill and the window of opportunity to begin a therapy that helps prevent the virus from progressing to AIDS has already passed.”

However, the problems of older people affected by HIV are “much more than physical ones and a regimen of taking pills,” said Dr. Stephen Karpiak, lead investigator of the ROAH study. While the latest antiretroviral drug therapies allow people to live longer and healthier, their research data on the quality of life “paints an unsettling picture of the older person with HIV.”

“More often than not, these older, HIV-positive adults are not only alienated by friends and family, they are afraid to disclose their status and have few places to turn to for help,” said Karpiak, who described “help” as “the little things that make the big difference.”

“We’re talking about having someone to help buy groceries, take you to the doctor or to church,” he said. “Our study reported just how disconnected these people are from society — not just from their disease and its stigma, but also because they are old with this disease.”

There’s a stereotype of older people as being no longer productive, with failing mental competency and low value to society.

“There is this prevailing cultural attitude,” Fowler recounted, “of ‘so what if old people get HIV and die?’ — the assumption being that they have already lived their lives and are no longer productive contributors.”

Need for Community Involvement

Dr. L. Jeannine Burkhardt-Murray, medical director of Harlem United Community AIDS Center, who helped Karpiak write the spirituality component of the ROAH study questionnaire, adds another dimension to the picture of social disconnection.

“Informal caregiving by friends and family is provided to millions of people in this country who have chronic illness, disability, are elderly or just need some day-to-day maintenance help,” she explained. “But older people with HIV are often stepped over from potential sources of assistance because of persistent stigma and lingering misconceptions about virus transmission.”

“[It is] so unfortunate because we know that people who have outside contact with the community — not just the health arena of their doctors and nurses but with friends and family members — these are the ones who do the best,” she added.

Burkhardt-Murray said she has spent time over the years trying to engage local leaders of religious communities into supporting people with AIDS.

The dilemma, said Burkhardt-Murray, who lives and works in the largely African American community of Harlem, is that this is a population largely estranged from their family and friends who would turn to their church but find themselves unwelcome.

“For many years our clergy would not acknowledge this disease,” she said. But after more then a decade of advocacy, she sees things changing and the church is now more willing to talk openly about HIV with its constituency.

This is good news since one of the ROAH findings, she said, is that many older HIV-positive people “expressed a positive benefit from a religious or spiritual affiliation.”

An Intergenerational Approach to Breaking Barriers

For Ed Shaw, a tireless, 60-something HIV educator and chair of the New York Association of HIV Over 50, just “getting people to talk about this disease is an important step and can make a difference, one person at a time, to overcoming barriers.”

Reform rabbinical school teaches students to reach out to HIV/AIDS patients


HIV/AIDS education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) means “making sure rabbinical students don’t leave campus before they hone their skills to help people in need,” said Michele Prince, director of the Kalsman Institute of Judaism and Health at HUC-JIR.

At a time when HIV is more easily treatable but still a serious threat to global health, the imperative to care for those who are affected by the virus is both urgent and complex.

That means that while coursework in clinical pastoral education and pastoral counseling equips students with a theoretical understanding of the particular needs of people with HIV/AIDS, the most meaningful learning experiences most often happen away from the classroom.

“They work it out right at the bedside,” Prince said.

Through internships, students can also gain experience with marginalized people — the homeless, inmates in the Los Angeles County prison system, the mentally ill — who are less likely to have access to the new generation of medications that has allowed most HIV/AIDS patients to manage their disease more effectively.

“There are fewer patients who are hospitalized with HIV-related illnesses,” said Prince, “but people with the disease are often still stigmatized. That’s where the social justice component of pastoral education comes into play.”

Advocating for a social justice approach to HIV/AIDS education also entails teaching the values of Reform Judaism to young people who are just beginning to awaken to their sexual selves.

Rabbi Deborah Schuldenfrei at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine has developed a program co-sponsored by the Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation at HUC-JIR that provides information on sexual ethics and values to teenagers.

“Parents are sometimes shocked when they hear about the program, because they think we’re going to be talking to their kids about the mechanics of sex,” Schuldenfrei said. “What we want to emphasize is the value of beri’ut, emotional and spiritual health. As human beings we’re given the gifts of a physical body and wisdom, which means it’s our responsibility to learn how our bodies work and how to use them responsibly.”

Schuldenfrei said she works to help teens create language informed by scientific understanding that they can use to talk about sexuality with their parents and peers.

“So much mythology goes along with sex,” she said. “The science behind sexually transmitted diseases, birth control and pregnancy is part of the wisdom we have to offer when we teach about the ethics of sexuality. You have to teach the health component side-by-side with values.”

In addition to reaching across generations, HUC-JIR may also soon be reaching across oceans in its effort to bring HIV/AIDS care and education to people in need, said Prince. A recent rabbinical intern from Uganda hopes to attract other interns to his community in central Africa, where the spread of HIV across a wide swath of the population has had a destabilizing effect on social and economic development.

“The possibility of extending our reach internationally on the HIV/AIDS issue is just another aspect of the social justice component of what we do,” Prince said.

Albert Winn’s photography captures the intertwining influences of Judaism and illness


When the cold-and-flu season rolls around, Albert Winn’s longtime boyfriend usually gets sidelined by a bug for a week or two, but Winn says he seldom gets a sniffle.

“Virus?” Winn said with a chuckle as he mused on his robustness. “You don’t know from virus.”

Sixty-year-old Winn has been living with HIV since at least the late 1980s.

“I was diagnosed in 1989, but a previous boyfriend had died, and I knew plenty of guys who had become sick,” he said.

In 1989, many gay men were burying lovers and tending to sick friends.

That grim landscape inspired many gay artists and activists to turn morosely inward or angrily outward — to create art heavy with loss or to shake a fist at the larger social and political order that stood by idly as thousands died.

But as a gay Jew with AIDS who was about to launch his career as a photographer, Winn saw that fateful turn in his life not as a predicament but as an opportunity to document and explore the interplay between the distinct yet overlapping elements that defined him as a person.

Which is not to say that Winn’s 20-year AIDS odyssey has been anything less than arduous.

Like many people who received a diagnosis in the early years of the epidemic, Winn suspects he had been living with HIV for some time before telltale illnesses prompted him to get tested.

“It hit me pretty strongly,” he said. “I was perfectly OK in the doctor’s office, then I got into my car and started crying.”

At the time, Winn was living in West Hollywood with Scott Portnoff, his flu-prone boyfriend, and working toward his master of fine arts in photography at California Institute of the Arts.

“I told Scott, ‘I’m not going to let this get me down,'” Winn recalled.

Winn’s resolve was soon tested. He began to develop wasting syndrome — a condition in which the body can’t produce enough energy to replace the muscle and fat it loses as it fights disease — and his doctors told him there was nothing they could do to stop his decline.

Coming out to his family as gay had been a long, difficult process for Winn. The sudden onset of AIDS served to clarify the preciousness of time for him, and he decided he was going to explain his new situation to everyone who was dear to him as soon as possible.

He got on a plane and flew to Florida so that he could tell his parents about his illness face-to-face.

“At the time, AIDS was a death sentence, and they needed to see that I was alive,” Winn said. “A funny thing happens when you become ill. Even though you’re the person who’s sick, you have to be a caregiver in a way. You can’t just dump information on people.”

Such insight — that people who are gravely ill are not “the dying” but are still to be counted among “the living” — was pivotal for Winn. It informed not only his approach to his illness but also his angle on the work he was producing as a photographer.

“I had already been doing a lot of self-portraits,” he said. “Then it clicked — this is now my topic. Not just self-portraits, but autobiography.”

His thesis project at CalArts began to take shape as “My Life Until Now,” a collage of images and text anchored by autobiographical photography that reveals Winn and his life in thick detail.

If his HIV diagnosis spurred the development of his artist’s eye, Winn’s sparring with Nicholas Nixon, a mentor to Winn who had been one of the first photographers to document the AIDS crisis, helped to clarify his vision.

Nixon’s photographs depicted the ravages of AIDS in clinical and often gruesome imagery. When Nixon’s work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the show was picketed by gay activists who saw the pictures as dehumanizing.

“I had a similar reaction to the project,” Winn said. “I was concerned about how gay people and people with AIDS were represented. You’ve got to remember that you’re looking at a person.”

Portraying his personhood meant, for Winn, including signifiers of his Jewish and gay identities as well as emblems of his struggle with AIDS. Thus, images in “My Life Until Now” often feature moments in his relationship with Scott and the everyday, intertwining influences of Judaism and illness.

One of the most affecting pictures in the project is “Akedah,” in which the viewer sees Winn’s bare torso, his arm wrapped with tefillin, and an adhesive bandage in the crook of his left elbow.

“I began to practice putting on tefillin,” said Winn, who was raised in a Conservative family but had never considered himself religious. “There was something primal about binding prayers to your arm, next to your heart — to get them as close to your skin as you can.”

The act of binding prayers to his body also helped Winn contain the difficult feelings triggered by the daily ritual of having his blood drawn while he was in a clinical study of experimental AIDS therapies at UCLA.

“Over time, instead of getting used to it, it got worse,” Winn said. “So I wondered, ‘How do I make sense out of something that’s driving me insane?'”

The physical similarity between the act of putting on teffilin and “a Jewish guy having a rubber thing wrapped around his arm” was obvious to Winn. But the deeper resonance was between the life-and-death urgency of his situation and the ancient story of the binding of Isaac.

“I realized I was making a sacrifice for science, but it was also saving my life,” Winn said.

The picture, which Winn took shortly after having his blood drawn during the UCLA study, became one of the most iconic images in “My Life Until Now.” It has since become part of the permanent collections in the Library of Congress and the Jewish Museum in New York.

HIV/AIDS impacts the vulnerable across the city, up the state, over America and around the globe


Los Angeles resident Darryl Hendrix often struggles to get by. Like many of his neighbors, Hendrix’s costs for housing and personal necessities sometimes exceed his modest monthly income. But Hendrix, an African American gay man and a client at AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), is also living with HIV.

His diagnosis has complicated daily living. To stay healthy, he must maintain a nutritious, balanced diet in the face of rising food prices. He must confront HIV-related dental problems as health care costs climb. He must travel to medical appointments as gas prices and transportation fares skyrocket. And he must live with a disease that still carries tremendous stigma.

Hendrix’s story repeats itself locally, nationally and globally, among the most vulnerable populations: communities of color; the poor and disenfranchised; people struggling with addiction, mental illness and histories of abuse; and gay and bisexual men. More than 25 years into the epidemic, HIV/AIDS is the greatest public health crisis we’ve known.

A Global Crisis

Worldwide, there are more than 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS, and the epidemic continues to expand. In 2007, there were more than 6,800 new HIV infections globally each day. And while new treatment options make longer, better life with HIV possible, more than 5,700 die from AIDS-related complications daily.

Internationally, Sub-Saharan Africa remains the hardest hit. The region, which accounts for only 11 percent of the world’s population, is home to 68 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS. In response, APLA has partnered with several agencies on the ground in South Africa to develop sustainable food programs that support the nutritional needs of people living with HIV/AIDS.

APLA has also formed key collaborations with local organizations in India, which has the highest HIV prevalence rate in the world; in Latin America, where 100,000 new cases of HIV were reported in 2007; and in China, where high levels of stigma surrounding homosexuality complicate intervention efforts.

A Growing Epidemic in the U.S.

Since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the United States in 1981, more than 1.7 million Americans have been infected. More than 550,000 have died, and approximately 1.2 million are living with HIV/AIDS today. More than 25 percent of those who are infected do not know it.

The national epidemic is also growing. While previous estimates indicate 40,000 new HIV infections occur each year in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is soon expected to raise that estimate to as many as 60,000.

The disease disproportionately affects communities of color and other minorities in the United States. African Americans, who comprise 12 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for nearly 50 percent of 2006 AIDS diagnoses. Latinos and Native American/Alaska Natives have the second- and third-highest rates of AIDS cases, respectively. Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men account for nearly 60 percent of AIDS cases among men annually. And more than one-quarter of all new AIDS cases are among women.

Responding to these trends, APLA formed the Sexual Health Exchange (SHX) in 2007, a nationwide partnership with other AIDS service organizations to address these disparities in HIV infection rates among communities of color.

The Face of AIDS in Los Angeles

Los Angeles is the second-most HIV/AIDS-impacted community in the United States. Today, more than 60,000 Angelenos are living with HIV/AIDS — more than ever before — and Los Angeles sees 1,500 to 2,000 new infections each year.

As nationally, HIV/AIDS continues to impact communities of color and gay and bisexual men. Where these communities intersect, the statistics are even more striking: an estimated one in three African American gay men in Los Angeles is living with HIV.

APLA’s client profile offers a snapshot of the Los Angeles epidemic. APLA clients are diverse, with 37 percent Latino, 36 percent white and 23 percent African American. They are poor. Nine out of 10 live on less than $20,000 per year. Too many are uninsured. And while they are living longer thanks to treatment advances, their need for food, dental care, mental health services and other programs is also increasing.

Challenges Ahead

Darryl Hendrix’s story is a common one among APLA clients. For many, the cost of daily living is rising, while income is not. Necessities like food, housing and medical care are too quickly becoming expensive luxuries.

Government funding for HIV/AIDS services is also shrinking. Last month, Gov. Schwarzenegger announced plans to slash nearly $10 million from the state’s HIV/AIDS programs, along with proposed cuts to Medi-Cal dental benefits for adults that could leave millions of low-income beneficiaries (including people living with HIV/AIDS) without dental coverage.

Still, in the face of these challenges, APLA is doing more to support the hardest hit. Last year, more than 9,600 people living with HIV/AIDS accessed APLA’s direct services and education programs, including our countywide network of food pantries, our state-of-the-art dental clinics and a wide array of supportive services.

We reached nearly 600,000 through our publications and Web sites, working to prevent HIV infection through comprehensive HIV risk reduction and health education programs that target those at highest risk.

And we’re in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., responding to budget cuts by bringing our clients face-to-face with lawmakers to find solutions and shape the future of HIV/AIDS-related policy.

But our work would not be possible without our generous supporters. Two-thirds of our operating budget comes from private donors. We are particularly inspired by the generous contributions of the diverse communities of faith in Los Angeles. It is these gifts that allow us to fight an epidemic that still outpaces our most aggressive efforts to control it.

Teen makes a difference for orphans in Kenya slum


Instead of splurging on a Wii or a state-of-the-art laptop, Ryan Silver, of Manhattan Beach, donated a portion of his gift money to orphans in a Nairobi slum.

“I think the best thing you can do is help another person,” said Silver, 13. “I have a better life than the kids [in the orphanage], and I wanted to help them.”

Silver’s inspiration stemmed from a 2006 family vacation to Africa. Silver, his parents and his younger sister went on safari and explored Kenya and Tanzania. While the incredible sights of wild animals and tribesman remain with him, Silver’s most memorable moments were meeting the children in the Nyumbani Orphanage in Mukuru, a slum in Kenya’s capital. The orphanage houses about 100 children whose families have been affected by AIDS/HIV.

Silver and his family had traveled with Micato Safaris and chose to participate in the New York-based tour operator’s nonprofit AmericaShare program, which allows travelers to spend time with the orphans in Nairobi.

AmericaShare supports about 2,000 Kenyan children, many of whom have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic sweeping the continent. The organization places underprivileged children in schools and orphanages throughout East Africa. Through Lend a Helping Hand, a subprogram of America-Share, travelers can meet local children and offer financial support if they so choose.

It’s “main accomplishment is travelers hooking up with children whom they now support,” said Dennis Pinto, Micato’s managing director. “Many of these children were homeless or living on streets, and this gets them out of that situation.”

Often, this means living in the safety of the orphanage and getting a boarding-school education.

For Silver, Mukuru was a far cry from the clean, upscale neighborhood he knows in Manhattan Beach, where he surfs daily and plays on the school lacrosse team. Home to about 700,000, Mukuru has no infrastructure and little access to water and electricity.

“It was shocking,” Silver said.

After walking through narrow streets filled with mud, past large piles of trash and tiny, rundown shops, he arrived at the orphanage.

When Silver entered the facility, two toddler orphans, a brother and sister, took him by the hand and showed him their play area and vegetable garden. The juxtaposition of the devastation and the happy children was overwhelming. Silver says he was overcome with emotion.

“They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen, and they were so excited to see us,” said Silver, his soft-spoken voice evoking a mixture of sympathy and enthusiasm.

During Silver’s visit, the children and their caretakers sang songs for him in Swahili and played games. Although he only spent about two hours there, the experience changed his life.

“It definitely made me realize how lucky I am to have a home and a family and have the food and I water I need,” said Silver, who is in the eighth grade.

According to Pinto, Silver is not alone. For many children, especially teenagers, a trip through the slums of Africa can be life- altering.

“It is an experience that reaches quite deep into the psyches of teenagers,” Pinto said.

When Silver returned home, he began preparing for his bar mitzvah. Without hesitation, he knew that his mitzvah project would involve helping the children in the orphanage.

When it was time to send the invitations for his March simcha, Silver enclosed a letter about the cause and asked guests to donate money to AmericaShare at the reception. At the party, he played a video of the children from the orphanage and gave guests handmade decorative pins and bracelets that they bought from the women from the orphanage. Between the guests’ donations and his own, Silver raised more than $2,700.

In addition to completing a Jewish rite of passage, Silver was pleased that his celebration helped educate others about the plight of the children in Africa and to ultimately offer financial support.

“Instead of just coming for a party, [my guests] came to see what Mukuru is like and how they can help,” he said.

Silver now sponsors a teenage boy from the orphanage named Evans. The donated funds cover Evans’ $1,500 tuition for one year, and the remainder of the money will go to help support an additional orphan.

Silver says he plans to continue to support Evans and other orphans in the years to come.

“Ryan is quite a special kid who is sensitive to the world beyond him,” said Rabbi Mark Hyman of Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who officiated at Silver’s ceremony. Hyman said that becoming a bar mitzvah means one becomes responsible for transforming the world — something the teen has certainly taken on.

Silver said his experience in Africa continues to influence him.

“It has definitely given me a more positive look on life,” he said. “We can make a difference helping kids less fortunate.”

For more information, visit http://www.americashare.org/

IFF: ‘Hands’ sends message about kids, not AIDS


Dan Wolman, director of “Tied Hands” looks relaxed, but he has a problem.

His film, “Tied Hands,” tells the story of a middle-aged Tel Aviv woman (Gila Almagor) who is caring for her son (Ido Tadmor), a dancer dying of AIDS. But Wolman doesn’t want the project to be seen as an AIDS film.

“The subject of AIDS is not in the forefront. The word ‘AIDS’ is not even mentioned in the entire movie,” he points out.

The film follows Almagor’s character as she ventures into the seedier side of Tel Aviv to buy some marijuana that will ease her son’s pain.

“This movie is about other things. It’s about repression, atonement about a boy who grew up feeling he was not protected and loved and a woman who devoted her life to her husband, who collaborated with him in the cruel treatment of their son,” he says.

All these issues are at the heart of the film, but “Tied Hands” is nevertheless notable for being the rare Israeli movie to feature an AIDS sufferer. Why did Wolman, a veteran Israeli director who began making movies nearly 40 years ago, choose this subject?

The idea for “Tied Hands” began to take shape in the 1990s, when he visited director Amos Guttman, who was living with AIDS and had come back to Israel to die.

Guttman’s mother was an old woman and, like the mother in the movie, she weighed him to see how much weight he was losing.

“He was as thin as a bean sprout,” he recalls.

Then he and Guttman shared some marijuana, which helped reduce the dying man’s nausea.

Wolman later encountered AIDS a second time when his nephew died of the disease. But “Tied Hands” is not about Guttman or his nephew.

“It’s fiction,” he insists.

In spite of the queries Wolman’s gotten from the press about a possible autobiographical basis for the film, “Tied Hands” has had a much larger appeal as well. “This film strikes a chord with audiences,” Wolman says. “The pain is real and it hits you.”

Many viewers have told him that the movie made them rethink their own relationships with their parents or children. Wolman found that even his own thinking about the characters changed as he made the movie:

“At first I thought, ‘It’s the boy who suffers, he’s the victim.'”

Gradually, though, he found himself identifying more with the mother, who, in many ways, is not a very sympathetic character — a woman who passively acquiesced to her husband all their lives and rejected her son when he came out of the closet.

“She’s slowly getting the courage to look in the mirror and face herself,” Wolman says of the character.

At the film’s premiere at last summer’s Jerusalem Film Festival, where Almagor won a special prize for her performance, Wolman made a touching and extremely brief speech in which he urged parents to “accept your children as they are.”

Unlike most of the Israeli directors who show their work at the festival, Wolman has had a long career. He studied film at New York University in the ’60s and then returned to Israel to make “The Dreamer,” which tells the story of a young man torn between a much older woman and one closer to his age.

The film was shown at Cannes in 1970. Another career high point was a 1975 adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel, “My Michael.” In recent years, Wolman made “Foreign Sister,” a film about an Ethiopian worker in Israel, which is particularly poignant because during World War II the infant Wolman lived in Ethiopia while his father served in the British army.

He also recently made “Ben’s Biography,” a comic-drama about an abused child and his family.

Given the length and complexity of his career, he has a unique perspective on Israel’s so-called film renaissance of the past few years.

“When you build a building, you have to have respect for the first bricks,” he says. “Every 10 years or so people say, ‘Movies are getting good.'”

He defends the earlier days of the Israeli movie industry, naming a number of movies, such as “Avanti Popolo,” that he feels were excellent. He does concede that a number of factors in recent years, principally the Cinema Law that funneled more government money to local directors, have caused a healthy expansion in the country’s film industry.

In spite of the greater number of films these days, however, it’s not any easier for him to get financing now. “Tied Hands,” he says, was made for less than what the average Israeli film costs. To make ends meet over the years, Wolman took on all kinds of directing work, such as industrial films and children’s movies, including “Itamar Climbs the Walls,” based on the story by David Grossman.

Moviemaking is a family affair for Wolman. His wife, Shosh, is a valued collaborator and edits his films with him. His children also help in the creative process, his daughter designing posters for his films and his son, who is now in the army, sometimes working as a boom operator.

His son is “my biggest help and my toughest critic,” Wolman says.

Currently at work on a documentary about his parents, Wolman is also busy with the details of his latest film’s release. If it’s shown at gay film festivals that’s fine, he says, though he hopes it will be shown at festivals of all kinds.