Boycotting the boycotters: California’s legislature set to lead the way?

Dear businesses: If you boycott Israel, California will boycott you. 

That’s the message a bill by Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) is set to bring to the California legislature in January. 

His bill, if passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, would direct the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to divest from any investments they have in companies that boycott or engage in political or economic “discrimination against Israel.” This would include Israel proper or “territories controlled by the State of Israel,” such as the West Bank, according to a press release put out by Allen’s office. 

CalPERS and CalSTRS have portfolios worth nearly $500 billion and are the nation’s largest public retirement fund and teachers’ retirement fund.

“The BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] efforts worldwide have grown, and there needs to be a response,” Allen told the Journal in a recent interview. “For our pension system to be investing in companies that actively are boycotting the State of Israel doesn’t reflect the desires of Californians.”

Allen, a Christian, has attended numerous Jewish and pro-Israel events in recent months, including in Washington, D.C., and he supports a number of pro-Israel groups. He refers to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names of the area that are often used by supporters of Israel who believe the West Bank is rightfully Israel’s.

“In this context, Israel is most important to California in terms of the bilateral trade that we have,” Allen said. “For me personally, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is our strongest ally on that side of the world and maintaining our strong, close relationship is extremely important.”

While the BDS movement’s effectiveness in the United States has been mostly limited to symbolic votes of support in student governments on dozens of American campuses, and within the Presbyterian Church and several academic associations, Europe is a different story. There, the movement recently achieved a major victory when the European Union, Israel’s top trading partner, mandated that some imported products originating from the West Bank be labeled “made in settlements.” 

While this move may have negligible impact on Israel’s overall trade with the EU, there are fears that growing opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank could lead the EU to target companies that do business in the area.

This isn’t the first bill of its kind. Earlier this year, Illinois passed a law barring its pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel. And South Carolina passed a law requiring state contractors to affirm they’re not involved in any boycott against Israel. Allen’s bill, however, would make California the first state to focus on both state pensions and contractors.

Nationally, President Barack Obama and the Senate tentatively agreed in June to a version of a massive trade bill with Pacific Rim countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included language calling on the U.S. government to discourage its trading partners from participating in boycotts against Israeli businesses in “Israeli-controlled territories.” Congress is not expected to vote on the trade bill until after the November 2016 elections.

There is precedent in the state to Allen’s proposal — although it concerned the Iranian government. In 2007, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill introduced by Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) that ordered CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from any company that does at least $20 million in business with Iran’s petroleum or natural gas industries. The retirement funds are still held to the law despite Obama’s recent nuclear agreement with Iran, a clause of which seeks to “actively encourage officials at the state or local level” to “refrain from actions inconsistent” with the federal government’s lifting of its sanctions.

Allen, who is a partner in a money management firm in Orange County in addition to his full-time duties as state legislator, said he expects his bill to pass “with widespread support.”

One possible challenge, though, could be getting CalPERS and CalSTRS quickly on board, which did not happen with Anderson’s bill. Both funds opposed the legislation before it passed, and it took years to divest from any of the companies specified by the bill. Officials for the retirement funds argued that the financial losses and transaction costs of divesting would hurt their stakeholders. Eventually, in May 2011, CalPERS divested from four companies. So far, CalSTRS has divested from nine.

A spokesperson for CalPERS declined comment, but said the fund will review the legislation if and when it’s introduced. CalPERS’ official divestment policy states that due to its fiduciary duties, it’s generally forbidden from “sacrificing investment performance for the purpose of achieving goals that do not directly relate to CalPERS operations or benefits.”

Ricardo Duran, a spokesman for CalSTRS, said its staff “will not make a recommendation to the Teachers' Retirement Board until it is introduced and we have had an opportunity to analyze it.”

“I think that a lot of institutions like to resist change,” Allen said, “And there may be some resistance, but it’s something that I think needs to be done.”

On top of requiring CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from companies boycotting Israel, Allen’s bill also would require companies or individuals with whom the state government contracts to “certify that they do not participate in boycotts or any discrimination against Israel,” his office said.

Much could be at stake. In 2014, California exported just over $2.3 billion in goods to Israel — including manufactured goods, electronics and agricultural products — making it the Golden State’s 18th-largest export partner. That year, Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a nonbinding agreement to boost high-tech cooperation between California and Israel, aimed at solving problems related to water, alternative sources of energy and cybersecurity. In September, Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills signed separate nonbinding agreements to cooperate with Israel on matters such as water scarcity as well. 

Academy for Jewish Religion moves to Koreatown

For the first time since the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR-CA), was founded 13 years ago, the pluralistic institution that trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains has its own space. The school moved from Westwood into the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier this month.

“It just seemed like the right place, the right time, and that’s why we moved. And everyone is very excited about it,” said Tamar Frankiel, president of the transdenominational seminary.

With the move, AJR-CA has joined Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Jewish Journal in an office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., near Vermont Avenue. The 6,500-square-foot space, which includes six classrooms, eight administrative offices, a library and a faculty lounge, is adjacent to a large outdoor terrace area shared by the building’s tenants.

Several factors prompted the move from Westwood, where the school outgrew the campus it had been sharing on the property of the Hillel at UCLA. The incoming AJR-CA class is 40 percent larger than the 2013 graduating class, Frankiel said.  

While Koreatown is not exactly thought of as a conventionally Jewish area, times are changing: an increasing number of Jews are living and praying in and around Koreatown, including with the recent reopening of the renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

None of this has been lost on Frankiel. 

“We like to think that we’re moving to an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood growing in terms of Jewish institutions and accessible to different Jewish populations,” she said.

Unfortunately, some among the school’s 65 students will have a longer commute than before, Frankiel said. But there’s always public transportation — the location is near the Wilshire-Vermont subway stop and several bus stops. 

Frankiel believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Everyone who has been there has been like, ‘Wow! This is so great.’ So I feel wonderful about it, and so does everyone who has come to see the space.”

Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

AJR’s Rabbi Gottlieb leaving academic posts, will shift focus to writing

AJR’s Rabbi Gottlieb Leaving Academic Posts, Will Shift Focus to Writing

Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, president of the Academy of Jewish Religion, California, who last year co-founded a Jewish-Christian-Muslim graduate school, is leaving his academic posts to devote himself to writing full time.

Gottlieb said that his writing will focus on the same goals underlying his university leadership — to build bridges among all Jewish denominations, as well as among the world’s major faiths.

His upcoming book will emphasize the spiritual dimensions of Judaism, he said, a subject he has been teaching weekly.

“I want our people to grow, and any religious growth must include spirituality,” he said.

A graduate of Yeshiva University, Gottlieb also holds doctorate degrees in psychology and theology. For the past 11 years, he has served the Academy of Jewish Religion (AJR) as dean of the rabbinical and chaplaincy programs, as well as president.

Gottlieb will retire at the end of this year. Looking back on his tenure at AJR, he said, “We started out in a radical way to serve all of Am Yisrael and to emphasize the oneness of the Jewish people. We then expanded the concept of ‘unity within diversity’ to all religions.”

Last year, backed by a $50 million private donation, Gottlieb co-founded the interreligious Claremont Lincoln University with the Rev. Jerry D. Campbell, president of the Claremont School of Theology, and Imam Jihad Turk, of the Bayan Claremont/Islamic Center of Southern California.

This fall, Claremont Lincoln has received about 100 applications for its graduate courses, emphasizing multicultural, multireligious, spiritual and secular value systems.

The same announcement carrying Gottlieb’s departure also reported Campbell’s retirement as president of both the Claremont School of Theology and of Claremont Lincoln University as of next June, though he will continue to serve the latter as adviser and ambassador.

Gottlieb said that the timing of his and Campbell’s retirement was coincidental.

Previously, Gottlieb held posts as Hillel director at MIT and Princeton, and as rabbi at Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica and at the Westwood Village Synagogue.

Academy of Jewish Religion offers alternate path to rabbinate for 16 new grads

This year in Los Angeles, the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Region ordained 16 new rabbis. The Conservative Movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies ordained 10. And the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR, CA) ordained 11.

Never heard of the AJR, CA? You’re not alone. Just six years old, it remains unknown to many in the Jewish community, though its impact is growing rapidly.

Currently housed in the UCLA Hillel building in Westwood, this new alternative-minded trans-denominational rabbinical school began in 2001 as the West Coast branch of the New York-based Academy for Jewish Religion. Within a year, AJR, CA became an independent entity, and since ordaining its first three rabbis in 2003, each year’s class has increased. With this year’s 11 newly minted rabbis, the school’s graduating class has for the first time approached those of the more established seminaries.

Several factors make AJR, CA an attractive option to students interested in joining the rabbinate. First is its trans-denominational approach. Not affiliated with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements, AJR’s instructors nevertheless hail from all of those backgrounds.

The school was founded to “extract the strength in each [denomination and] to try to build bridges between them,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, Dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Programs. (The school also has a Cantorial Program).

Gottlieb was ordained as an Orthodox rabbi and has led both Orthodox and Conservative congregations; he said AJR, CA also places a strong emphasis on spirituality, drawing from chassidic, mussar (psycho-ethics) and kabbalistic texts.

Another of the school’s strong attractions is its effort to accommodate students who have other professional obligations. Classes meet only three days a week — Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays — which allows students to continue to work and to more easily balance family life with studies. A year in Israel, mandatory at the Reform and Conservative seminaries, is an option, but not a requirement. And while other denominations are seeing greater numbers of students coming to rabbinical school later in life, a whopping 70 percent of those attending AJR, CA’s five-year program have already pursued another career.

This year’s graduating class includes a psychiatrist, a former entertainment lawyer, a publishing industry executive and a drug and alcohol addiction counselor, as well as Jewish community professionals.

Dr. Bennett Blum, the psychiatrist, became disillusioned with Judaism as a teen. Growing up in Phoenix, he attended a Jewish day school where he “received a good education from really obnoxious people,” he said. Blum’s family lacked the wealth of the other families, and he was frequently reminded that he didn’t belong.

After day school, Blum had little to do with organized Judaism until he enrolled in medical school. There he met a woman raised in an Orthodox home who began to draw him back to Judaism. They have been married 17 years.

Blum went on to specialize in two psychiatric fields that brought him into the legal system — geriatric (dealing with elders) and forensic (involving crime investigation). He is a nationally sought expert on manipulation and abuse and has provided testimony on the abuse of elders to the Senate Commerce Committee.

Blum developed a tool to assess whether an individual can be considered competent — to manage his own affairs, for example, or to stand trial — that is now used both in the United States and abroad. He testified to the United Nation’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia regarding the competence of accused war criminal General Pavle Strugar.

Blum’s Jewish journey was propelled when he was asked by the U.S. Attorney’s office to testify in a case involving a rabbi accused of molestation. The rabbi claimed his background and Torah training meant he couldn’t have committed the act. Blum was asked to refute the argument with Jewish sources.

“I was paid to relearn Talmud,” said Blum, who poured through ancient and modern rabbinic rulings. “It re-sparked my interest.”

Blum was living in Los Angeles at the time, and took some classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), which further whetted his appetite. He even applied to the rabbinical school there, but was not able to attend full-time.

When he returned to Arizona, Blum assumed he would have to give up the idea of enrolling in rabbinical school. But his rabbi told him about AJR, which accommodates part-time attendance.

Blum enrolled and commuted from Phoenix to class each week, where students “were studying and asking deep and profound questions.”

Now he is bringing religious wisdom to his secular world. He has published a paper describing ancient rabbinic views on deceptive and manipulative practices, which has been presented to the legal community “as food for thought in elder abuse cases.” The paper has been so well received that attorneys, social service personnel and others throughout the country are “using Talmudic perspective for formulating their arguments,” Blum said.

And applying secular knowledge to the Jewish community, Blum plans to create a training program to help Jewish professionals recognize and deal with issues relating to elder abuse. He would like to see a specialized group established to serve as a resource to clergy.

For Julia Watts Belser, who was not born Jewish, the path to ordination began in her teens. Although she was brought up without any religious observance, she craved a spiritual life and began exploring Judaism as a teenager. She later enrolled in a Unitarian Universalist seminary, in part because it was “open to people of all faith traditions.”

By the time she graduated, Watts Belser, who had already undergone Renewal and Conservative conversions, knew she wanted to go to rabbinical school.

“I had fallen in love with Judaism as an intellectual tradition and as a place of my life’s work,” she said. “I wanted to teach the tradition and bring my creativity and sense of social justice into my work.”

Jews still have big role in changing L.A. political scene

It was not so long ago that Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Unified School District school board were filled with Jewish elected officials. The first winning Jewish
candidate of the 20th century, Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman) was elected to the council in 1953. From then on, Jews translated their high degree of political interest, disproportionate turnout at the polls and generally progressive politics into remarkable electoral success.

At one point, as many as one-third of the City Council members were Jewish. During the height of the school busing controversy in the late 1970s, the leadership of the anti-busing movement, as well as the most active whites in favor of busing, were Jewish and fought each other over school board seats.

Today, Jews remain a key constituency in Los Angeles politics and generate plenty of strong candidates. The dramatic rise of Latinos in local politics, though, has carved out another niche for minority candidates that once largely belonged to African Americans.

On the City Council, three seats (Districts 8, 9 and 10) are likely to remain African American for at least a while longer and then may shift toward Latinos. Another four (Districts 1, 6, 7 and 14) are likely to be Latino seats. Of the remaining eight seats, Jewish candidates have good chances to be elected but are only certain to be elected in one, the 5th District.

Jewish candidates also have an excellent chance at citywide races for mayor, controller and city attorney. On the school board, the Westside and Valley seats and maybe one more are still fair pickings for Jewish candidates.

The City Council’s 5th District stretches from the Fairfax district to Bel Air and Westwood on the Westside and into the near portions of the San Fernando Valley. It was Wyman’s seat, and then it fell to Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss.

The 5th District is roughly one-third Jewish in a city with a 6 percent Jewish population. It regularly turns out the highest number of voters in city elections. (As one measure in the recent city elections, there were 185 precincts in the 5th District, compared to only 59 in the working-class Eastside 1st District. The more registered voters, the more precincts.) It has the highest level of education among the voters of any L.A. City Council district.

It’s a very tough seat to win, because there are so many strong Jewish candidates in the area. Those who win it have a good chance to move up. Edelman and Yaroslavsky became L.A. County supervisors. Feuer was nearly elected city attorney in 2001 and just won a state Assembly seat. Weiss has just announced his candidacy for city attorney in 2009. His candidacy opens up the 5th District seat in the same year.

Term limits in Los Angeles create the usual game of musical chairs. Until last year, all the elected officials were limited to two terms. In November, Measure R scrambled things by adding a term for City Council members, while leaving the three citywide offices at two terms. So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Controller Laura Chick and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo are all termed out in 2009.

City Council members who thought they would be termed out now have another term. Even with that extra council term, the citywide openings will draw some like Weiss to give up their seats to go for the gold. Chick is thinking of running for the 5th District seat, and the popular controller would be a strong candidate.

Weiss has collected the endorsements of two popular mayors, Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan. He is hoping to preempt major competition early on. A strong challenger would be Bob Hertzberg, who can draw on the Valley Jewish base, which outnumbers the Westside Jewish constituency.

The mayor’s endorsement may keep major Latino candidates out of the race, a relevant factor, given Delgadillo’s upset victory over Feuer, another 5th District City Council member with even more endorsements. Having endorsed Villaraigosa early in the mayoral campaign, Weiss earned that crucial mayoral support. Chick is closely allied with the mayor, having helped his campaign with tough investigations of former Mayor James Hahn and having formally endorsed him.

The school board elections offer another window into the changing Jewish role in Los Angeles. Jewish voters are immensely and intensely interested in public education, even when their children are grown or in private schools. As in the school busing controversy, Jews are on both sides of the power struggle between the school board and the mayor.

Marlene Canter, the school board president, has been the strongest critic of the mayor’s plan. David Tokofsky managed, sometimes narrowly, to hold onto his Eastside seat against Latino challengers but finally stepped down this year to be replaced by a mayor-endorsed Latina, Yolie Aguilar. At the same time, the mayor’s potential control of the school board likely comes down to a Jewish candidate endorsed by the mayor in the Valley’s 3rd District.

Incumbent Jon Lauritzen is being supported by the teachers union and is under heavy challenge from Tamar Galatzan, who is supported by the mayor’s reform coalition. Before joining the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, where she is a deputy city attorney, Galatzan was Western states associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. In the primary election, Galatzan outpolled the incumbent, 44 percent to 40 percent, setting up a tight race in the runoff.

So why are Jews on both sides of the school debate? Jews have long ties to the school board and to the teachers union. But on the other side, there is a long tradition of supporting reform in all its varieties, and Jewish voters provide the city’s most reliable bloc of pro-reform voting.

Valley Jews especially were friendly to Riordan, who has strongly backed Villaraigosa’s moves on education. And warm views of Villaraigosa himself, who has long cultivated the Jewish community, add to the mix. If Galatzan is elected, Villaraigosa will have his school board majority.

So as the rise of Latinos has moderately edged out the role of Jews in one way, the linkage to Villaraigosa (for Weiss, Chick and Galatzan) has brought Jews another advantage in a way akin to the Bradley alliance. This is, of course, typical of Los Angeles politics in that nobody makes it on their own anyway, but only in alliance with other groups.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border

We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.

“OK,” he said, “we’re going to rendezvous with a man I’ve never met, go with him to a Mexican city I’ve never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don’t know.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said.

In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco — smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.

At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano came out, greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.

There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited. The brachot were led by Orozco and Lupe Medrano, as well as by Lupe’s daughter, Naara, and her friend, Nancy Fajardo.

During the Hamotzi, everyone either touched the braided, homemade challah or someone nearby, so that all were connected.

Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who’s Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.

Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.

When Mehlman told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.

I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?

This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

I’d seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it’s not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society. Why?

This question was on my mind as I watched the three women — one middle-aged, two in their 20s — cover their heads, close their eyes, wave their hands and say the brachot.

Afterward, Mehlman led the kabbalat Shabbat service. Some could read Hebrew, others knew the prayers by heart. All sang niggunim.

The feeling was warm and affable, even joyous — a large extended family welcoming Shabbat. When the service was over, Mehlman asked that each person say a few words about the path that led him or her to Judaism and to this home.

Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forcibly converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.

Orozco said he grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends.

He said he’s been drawn to Judaism since childhood.

“When I was little,” Orozco said, “I’d listen to Jewish music, to Israeli music, and be deeply affected by it. I felt that this was the music of my heart, of my soul. I remember, as a child looking at photos of the Western Wall and crying.”

Several offered anecdotes that indicated that they, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.

This visceral certainty about their Jewish roots may or may not be backed by hard evidence, but it’s what they feel, in blood and bone, fueled by family traditions — a feeling made all the stronger by the empathetic bond they have with those who, over the centuries, were unjustly coerced into professing a faith that was not theirs.

More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like “coming home.” By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they’re confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are. They’ve looked into themselves — and at their family history — and have returned to their true nature, which had been overlaid with alien rituals and faiths for hundreds of years.

A few at the gathering were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.

L.A.’s gourmet kosher makeover

At the new Shilo’s steakhouse on Pico Boulevard, concentric circles of color surround the caviar: green onion on the outside, yellow egg yolk sprinkled on the inner rim, followed by chopped egg whites peppered with blinis and tortillas and topped ceremoniously by a mound of glistening fish eggs.

The Ikura caviar is red, which indicates that it’s kosher — culled from salmon, not the non-kosher black beluga that comes from sturgeon.

At The Prime Grill on Rodeo Drive, the short ribs are braised for 12 hours and then served with wild mushrooms and spicy mustard. The chopped Wagyu Steak Sliders look like little hamburgers but are eye-openingly delectable, made from hand chopped steak, while the Oh Toro sashimi is smooth and silvery and almost swims down the throat.

At Tierra Sur at the Baron Herzog Winery in Oxnard, venison is one of the most popular dishes, and the white bean soup is topped with “bacon” — a crisp, salty, flavorful meat that’s made from lamb so it will be kosher.

Welcome to Southern California’s new world of Gourmet Kosher.
As America has fallen in love with food over the last decade, the kosher world has not been too far behind. Kosher products and kosher gourmet ingredients abound, as do kosher cookbooks and cooking classes and a general interest in food, entertaining and all it entails. The kosher market has proved a profitable one, appealing to the religious, the newly kosher and others who may want nondairy, halal or simply food that is perceived to be cleaner.

New York, the capital of fine dining, boasts a number of established top-caliber kosher restaurants, among them Le Marais, Abigail’s, Tevere and The Prime Grill, which opened there in 2000 and has just opened in Beverly Hills, as well.

The arrival in Southern California of The Prime Grill — a trendier, classier place than its New York counterpart — and other restaurants, signifies that Los Angeles, a city that often lags foodwise behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago, might finally be catching up when it comes to kosher food.

In the second-largest U.S. Jewish city (behind New York) Los Angeles has a fair number — about 50 — kosher eateries, from bakeries to pizza stores to ethnic food and a number of fancier restaurants.

New restaurants are appearing that don’t ladle up the chicken soup and pastrami sandwiches of yesteryear, though delis with that fare still abound, more often known as “kosher style” and consumed by the non-kosher crowd in the mood for a good knish.

This gourmet kosher trend is aspiring to create a whole new world of fine dining, with chefs trained at top culinary schools (some of them do not observe kashrut themselves) who offer high-end cuisine and extensive wine lists in dining rooms designed by famous decorators.

Pricey and elegant, the hope is to bring high-quality dining to the kosher consumer and, at the same time, attract all the other food connoisseurs that vie for tables at Los Angeles’ top eateries.

But are Los Angeles’ kosher consumers ready for high-class dining? And is the mainstream “treif” world ready to patronize a kosher restaurant as a prime destination?

What does it take to be a kosher restaurant?

No. 1, of course, is adherence to the laws of kashrut, a complex system with innumerable subtleties and exceptions, but which at its most basic elements prohibits pork, shellfish and some other animals and fish and their byproducts. There are also restrictions regarding alcohol and produce and laws prohibiting mixing meat and dairy products. Any kosher restaurant must choose to be either fleishig or milchiks (the Yiddish words for meat or dairy), which means choosing between steakhouse or Italian, a deli or a pizzeria. Not both.

To be certified glatt or suitably kosher for the Orthodox (there are also some Conservative certifications), a restaurant cannot be open on Sabbath or Jewish festivals. And, further, to get a hashgachah — the outside certification provided for a fee by organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of California, Kehilla and Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan, to name a few of the top L.A. certifiers — the venue must have a mashgiach onsite — a supervisor versed in the laws who will ensure complicity.

Rabbi Yaacov Vann, director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, one of the top kosher certifiers in California, describes the need for a kosher restaurant to be a “secure system,” and he uses specific criteria to assess the risks of each establishment.

“How likely is there to be a problem?” he said.

Bakeries, like the famous Schwartz’s, for example, have a low-risk assessment, because there’s little differential between ingredients for kosher bakeries and non-kosher bakeries — flour, sugar, eggs — are all pareve. “There’s little risk to cheat,” he said.

Meat, by contrast, must come from a certified shohet, or butcher, and is more expensive than regular meat. (In September, a scandal rocked Monsey, N.Y., when a butcher was discovered selling non-kosher meat to the ultra-Orthodox community.)

All restaurants, of course, need more oversight than any bakery or pizzeria, and the bigger and busier the place, the more supervision it requires. Depending on the facility, the mashgiach may be the owner or someone who works in the store or an outsider — although the RCC is hoping to require all restaurants to have outside supervisors to minimize corruption.

All this can cost the establishment thousands of dollars a year. But the assurance of strict observance is the only way to bring in people who eat kosher.

There are no statistics on the number of Jews who keep kosher in Los Angeles, though an estimated 10 percent of the L.A. area’s roughly 600,000 are said to be Orthodox. But even those numbers don’t mean much to restauranteurs, because not all religious Jews eat out, some do but only infrequently, limited by such reasons as money, time, family values or weekends spent at home for Shabbat. Many Jews who care about kashrut will also eat at non-kosher restaurants but limit themselves to nonmeat meals, allowing themselves more flexibility on the weekends, when kosher restaurants are closed.

In other words, it’s impossible to gauge the size of the market for kosher dining, except to say that the clientele, until now, has been mostly Jews, friends of Jews or colleagues of Jews taken there for business meals. And everyone agrees, that despite many choices until now among kosher restaurants, there haven’t been enough good kosher restaurants here.

Key Jewish California lawmakers return to powerful roles in new Congress

The 2006 congressional election that brought the Democrats back to power on Capitol Hill was a moment filled with meaning for four Jewish lions of California politics — Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (Van Nuys).

After six years in the wilderness as the minority during the polarizing Bush presidency, they have suddenly been given an unexpected second chance to be at the center of national policy. And with the 2008 presidential race looking very competitive, both within and between the parties, the Jewish community in Los Angeles also finds itself back in the middle of things.

For Waxman and Berman, in particular, the moment is delicious because the highly disciplined House was a prison under Republican speakers, and the Democratic majority is now large enough to allow them to take their time planning hearings.

The key to the House of Representatives is the committee and subcommittee system. Members have little power individually, unless they are in the party leadership, but when they exercise their power through committees, they can move mountains. The majority chooses virtually all the committee chairs, and that means that each of these political figures will have a forum from which to issue subpoenas, run hearings and propose legislation.

Waxman has the premier spot as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a perch from which he can roam throughout the government. The image of Waxman waving a subpoena must ruin the sleep of many White House staffers.

Undoubtedly, Waxman will explore the role of Bush administration officials in overriding the decisions of professionals in federal agencies, the secrecy that has surrounded government decision making, crises in public health and even profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq. Administration officials used to being coddled by Congress will find Waxman a much tougher customer. Barely able to contain his readiness, Waxman noted that there was so much to investigate that it was only a matter of deciding where to start.

Berman is a member of the Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Courts. Along with Judiciary Chair John Conyers, Berman has issued a call to close the loophole placed in the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (a Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania) that allows the Justice Department to remove U.S. attorneys and replace them without Senate confirmation.

Two other Jewish Democrats from this area will have important roles in national security matters. Rep. Jane Harman (Wilmington) had a choice position coming her way as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, but conflicts with then-incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) ended that dream, when the new leader passed Harman over for chair in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Harman did land a position as chair of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. From that spot, her considerable experience in intelligence and national security will showcase her, while she tries to rebuild her relationship with the speaker.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) has earned a choice seat on the Judiciary Committee and the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. He has staked out a tough position on Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, calling it a far greater threat than Iraq ever posed.

For Feinstein and Boxer, the world looks a little different. Individual senators are extremely important, regardless of their committee positions. But the Senate majority rests precariously on one vote, that of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a different sort of Jewish Democrat.

While winning re-election as an independent in very blue Connecticut, Lieberman appeared to be critical of President Bush’s Iraq policy. Once back in office, he has taken to implying that the president’s critics are lending “aid and comfort” to our enemies.

His fellow Democrats fear that he wants to join the Republicans and thereby swing control of the Senate back. Boxer, ever vigilant to electoral challenges as the more liberal of the two senators, can hear rumors that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might run for her seat in 2010. And yet, even with these unknowns, as senators they have great authority and public attention.

The two Senators will not only have key committee positions (Feinstein on Intelligence and Appropriations, Boxer as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) but access to national media. Expect Feinstein to play a leading role in the Iraq debate and other military matters, and Boxer to be central to discussions about education, choice and the environment. Much of the social agenda of the Bush administration has been conducted quietly through administrative decisions (such as imposing limits on family planning in international programs), a situation that can only be rectified by active congressional oversight.

A great unknown is the political impact of America’s relationship with Iran on these leading Jewish Democrats. They have all become vocal opponents of the Iraq War, despite, in some cases, being initially supportive.

Iran presents a different case. Supporters of Israel consider Iran to be a profound threat, especially if it should acquire nuclear weapons.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear to be laying the groundwork for possible war with Iran. Based on the Iraq experience, few have much confidence in the ability of the Bush administration to handle this crisis well.

Yet Jewish Democrats will still want to make sure that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not realized. Perhaps these California Democrats, some of whom are on pivotal national security committees or subcommittees, can craft a wise but forceful policy with Iran that can win public support and prevent another catastrophic foreign policy failure.

Having these long-serving members back in positions of power is going to make a real difference in national government. They have seen it all, from having great impact to being in the doghouse. Like athletes who know how hard it is to win a championship, they will be careful not to waste a second of their time at the top. They will question and probe, inquire and complain. An administration unused to being challenged will face oversight every working day.

But more than that is going on. Congressional elections always set the tone for the next presidential election, and 2006 has set the stage for 2008. California Jews, especially in the Los Angeles area, will play a significant role in that contest.

Come dive with me — Israeli skydivers training in SoCal

You do it … you can never go back,” Israeli Sharon Har-noy said recently of her passion for the sport of skydiving. She and teammate Adi Freid met with a reporter during a break from training at Perris Valley Skydiving, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Har-noy and Freid make up the only all-female Israeli skydive team in the advanced category, which includes just six teams. They came to Perris to prepare for their nationals, set for April 2007, and hopefully the world competition in Australia to follow. Their U.S. training tour, sponsored by Israeli American Dr. Avraham Kadar and his company,, included stops at Skydive Cross Keys in New Jersey, Skydive Arizona Eloy, as well as Perris, before they returned to Israel Oct. 19.

The team’s home drop zone, Paradive, at Habonim Beach, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, is only open four days a week, and it lacks the opportunities available in the United States. At Perris, they trained seven days a week on faster planes that could carry more people, and they utilized a wind tunnel that simulated skydiving. The teammates said that during one week of training at Perris, they got in 70 jumps and made progress that would have taken them at least three months in Israel.

In Israel, the pair train on the weekends. During the week, Freid is a senior psychology major at Tel Aviv University and Har-noy produces animated films for, an education service.

The pair, both now 24, met about 3 1/2 years ago at Paradive and became quick friends. They had both done diving before — Har-noy took her first jump at the drop zone after high school and continued on weekend breaks from the army, while Freid’s first skydiving experience was in New Zealand, during her post-military travels in 2002.

“Two girls in the drop zone, we had to get together and start jumping,” Freid said.

About a year ago, while on a trip to Perris, they met manager Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, a world champion diver who is also Jewish, suggested they team up and start competing.

“To be a good skydiver you have to jump with someone good, and if there is no good people in the drop zone, then nobody can get ahead,” Har-noy said.

Among those helping them prepare is coach David Gershfeld.

“They have that finesse that … drive and energy … to get better and actively progress,” Gershfeld said.

Freid and Har-noy say the sport is safe, more so, they argue, than driving a car.And while Paradive closed for a month during the recent war, both women say they didn’t feel threatened.

“Maybe it’s easier to skydive in Israel because you are used to being afraid, or used to being in dangerous situations. Skydiving really isn’t that dangerous,” Freid said.

— Sara Bakhshian, Contributing Writer

Letters to the Editor

Jewish Festivals of Yore

Rob Eshman does not have to apologize for sounding like a cranky old-timer in his lament about the Jewish festivals of yore (“A Bigger Sunday,” May 27). Much has changed since I participated in the Rancho Park festivities with my children. If attendance at the Woodley Park festival was 90 percent Israeli, many in Los Angeles must share the belief that Israel today may not represent the Diaspora view of Jewish values or Judaism itself.

The actions of the Israeli state suggest a people marching to a different drummer than the communal spectrum of the ’70s and ’80s that gathered at Rancho Park.

Martin Wallen
Bethesda, Md.

Many thanks for the nice mention of Big Sunday in your recent editorial.

Big Sunday is a volunteer day whose mission is to bring diverse people together from all walks of life, all over the city. As such, finding a date that is convenient for everyone is like walking a minefield. Big Sunday is always on a Sunday in the spring, and once you eliminate Passover, Easter, school breaks and Mother’s Day, the pickings are slim. One year we finally found a date, only to discover it was Greek Orthodox Easter. (Who knew?) This year we overlapped not only with the Israeli Festival, but with the NoHo Arts Fair, as well – and we happily sent volunteers to help out at both.

At Big Sunday our goal is to celebrate inclusiveness. Please tell your readers that any or all of them (and their congregations, schools, clubs and offices) are welcome to join us next May 7 for Big Sunday 2006.

David T. Levinson
Big Sunday

As one of those cranky old-timers, I read, with nostalgia and great sadness, your description of the present-day festival. I’m afraid that the community of the ’70s and ’80s may be irretrievably gone. The Solidarity Walk of yore was organized and operated by The Federation as a communitywide event – not Israeli, Russian, Sephardic or any other single group – nor did we secularize it with “Mitzvah” programs on that day. We had and have other days for those programs.

It was truly an inclusive Jewish community day, demonstrating our solidarity with Israel and as a Jewish people. Organizationally, the only competition among ourselves was to vie for the honor of having more people participate, be they from the country clubs, the Jewish day schools, or from each and every synagogue in the city. The 30,000-50,000 people who participated – whether walking the 18 km, organizing the event, singing or dancing in the park ’til dusk, working the booths – all felt a sense of the total community that unfortunately doesn’t prevail today.

You raised an issue that is, I believe, a sad manifestation of what our community has and is evolving to. Your plaintive hope that the future generations will somehow change this situation is, I feel, misplaced.

I feel the loss that you have articulated. Somehow, that sense of community must be recaptured. It does not exist today. What should we be doing about it and whose responsibility should it be to act? It won’t happen by a laissez-faire approach, and that seems to be the present status quo.

Ozzie Goren
Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

I cannot speak for all Reform Jews, but I love the feeling of pluralism (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). If congregants choose to worship with us garbed in head-to-toe tallit, wearing tefillin and are comfortable sitting next to me with my bare, bald head, and having a young woman in a mini-skirt on the other side, they are more than welcome. Our temple, in the Conejo Valley, had a beautiful standing-room-only community prayer service after Sept. 11. Clergy and local residents representing every race, color and creed, sang, hugged and wept together. I have no problem if fellow congregants, or our rabbis, choose to become more halachic as long as there is no impact on my personal Jewish lifestyle or beliefs. That’s the beauty of Reform Judaism.

Martin J. Weisman
Westlake Village

Cantorial Correction

Thank you for the wonderful article highlighting how far the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) has come in just a few short years (“Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step,” May 20). The article and accompanying photo do, however, merit a clarification and correction. In addition to the nontraditional roles noted, our graduates are also becoming congregational clergy. Indeed, of our 2005 ordinees, five out of seven will be serving in synagogues, in California as well as Arizona and Iowa. In addition, five of our eight past ordinees are also serving as congregational rabbis and cantors. Finally, the accompanying picture stated that it was of the “AJR rabbinical ordinees.” In fact, Paul Buch and Phillip Baron are being ordained as cantors.

Everyone associated with AJR has worked very hard to make the accomplishments noted in the article possible and we appreciate The Journal’s recognition of those efforts.

Rabbi Stan Levy
Chair, Board of Governors
Academy for Jewish Religion Los Angeles

Reform’s Reforms

Perhaps Micha Odenheimer of Ha’aretz has an excuse, but your editors have none. The principal architect and driving force behind the Pittsburgh Statement is our own community’s Rabbi Richard Levy, then president of the [Central Conference of American Rabbis]. That was itself a tribute to his stature within the movement as he was then neither a congregational rabbi nor a full-time teaching one, but instead the long-time executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is a major influence on the movement’s return to tradition, not to mention author/editor of several of its prayer books, which reintroduced Hebrew to the liturgy. Your failure to acknowledge Levy’s contributions in print is unforgivable.

Immanuel I. Spira
Los Angeles

Yip Is a Yid

Whatever her credentials may be, Jacqueline Bassan, author of the letter on May 27 denying Yip Harburg’s Jewishness, is simply wrong. Yip Harburg was born Isadore (or Isidore) Hochberg in New York City (Letters, May 27). His work is repeatedly referenced in “Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and Hollywood” by Jack Gottlieb (State University of New York Press, 2004).

Eric A. Gordon
“Mark the Music: The Life and Work of Marc Blitzstein”

Given his passionate and quintessentially Jewish concern for the underclass, not to mention his literary genius, I confess I would have been crestfallen to read that E.Y. “Yip” Harburg was of some other persuasion, had I not known better. In fact, he was a product of both Russian Jewish immigrants and the Lower East Side. I’m quite sure the Christian lyricist the writer had in mind was Johnny Mercer, one of the very few non-Jewish songwriting giants of that era.

Mark Ellman
Los Angeles

Lost Parking, Lost Temper

On my return to my car after attending the Israel Independence Day celebration in Woodley Park, I could not help but notice on the other side of the street a young man wearing a kippah in his early 30s arguing with another young man of similar age about a parking spot (“L.A.’s Big Sunday,” May 20).

He was so enraged, this young man wearing the kippah, he couldn’t let it go. Soon some people passing by saw what was going on and tried to extricate the two men from a soon-to-be fist fight or worse. The young man wearing the kippah had left his young wife with a baby in tow and kept going back and forth to the man that aced him out of a parking spot. The anger was so evident you couldn’t help but notice. I feel sorry for this observant young man; he obviously had a problem that it ticked him off so bad. I’m sure this is what the media calls “road rage.” But still, how can you ruin a lovely Sunday afternoon for yourself and your little family all over a lost parking spot? How will we ever achieve peace in the Middle East if young men here fight over a parking spot on Israel’s Independence Day?!

Jacqueline Bereskin

Platform for Extremist

Why are Jews so self-destructive? In response to an ad in The Jewish Journal, I attended a forum run by UCLA Center for Jewish Studies on May 22 (“Is Israel Jewish, Democratic, and Western? And What Should It Be?” May 20).

One of the three speakers was Israeli Arab Nadim Rouhana, who rejects Israel’s right to exist. That he’s not tried for treason is proof that Israel is indeed “liberal, democratic and western.” The question I have for the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies is why provide a platform to this extremist so he can reach impressionable students and Jewish Angelinos? Surely there are other Israeli Arabs with whom a rational dialog is possible. Why buy the bullets for someone who wants to kill you?

Harriet P. Epstein
Santa Monica

Stand With Sudan Refugees

Almost four years ago, Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, and I brought out Francis Bok, a Sudanese slave who escaped after 10 years of being held in captivity to speak in Los Angeles prior to Pesach 2002 (“We Must Work to Free Today’s Slaves,” April 9).

We made calls not only to synagogues and Jewish schools, but to many African American Churches to hear the horrific account of what happened to him as a 7 year old when he lost his entire family and became a slave for the next 10 years. His account of violence and slavery was not unusual and continues to happen to his people, the Dinka tribe, and the people of Darfur.

Four years ago, we were sadly met with a strange sense of indifference by the First AME Church where the Pastor Cecil Murray asked us, “Why should blacks in America care about slaves in Africa when we are still slaves here?” Although Murray did have Bok tell his story at the First AME, only about 150 of more than 400 members were interested enough to show up and listen.

To their credit, Francis was welcomed at UCLA, B’nai David, Beth Am and Stephen S. Wise to tell his tragic story. The most touching and heartwarming event was when Bok spoke to the Stephen S. Wise eighth-grade classes, which had been studying and doing a project on Sudan over the year. They welcomed him as if he was a rock star! This class had more knowledge of what was going on than their adult counterparts, and the Stephan S. Wise administration is to be congratulated for that.

Every year after that, Roz and I tried to again bring this issue to the Jews in Los Angels and were met with very little interest. More than 2 million human beings have died, and we are happy to see Los Angeles waking up. We need to show support and hope that this urgent message is brought to the attention of thousands if not millions of Jews. Jews can certainly identify with slavery and genocide and should play an active role in helping to stop this horrific atrocity. It is never too late to step up to the plate.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Associate Director
American Jewish Congress

Throw Book at Quran Flushers

Rob Eshman’s article makes good sense in reporting on religious stories; writer treat them sensitively (“Articles of Faith,” May 20).

I take exception to his questioning Newsweek’s story on the flushing of the Quran. They do indicate it was done by American interrogators. They are the guilty parties and need be tried by a military court.

Hyman Haves
Pacific Palisades

Another Jewish D.C. Museum

Most visitors to Washington, D.C., are aware of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (“Learn to Remember,” April 29). Yet for Jewish visitors there is a little-known museum that should also be seen: the National Museum of American Jewish Military History at 1811 R St. N.W. (free admission). Exhibits include a section on Jewish military involvement in the liberation of the concentration camps and a section on Jewish women in the military.

Phyllis Zimbler Miller
Los Angeles


Midlife Calling

For years, Min Kantrowitz resisted the pull. Sure, the books on her nightstand were more likely to be a reference guide to the Talmud rather than the latest best-seller. But a rabbi?

When the Academy for Jewish Religion (AJR) opened in Los Angeles in 2000, Kantrowitz resisted no longer. For four years she traveled to Los Angeles three days a week to study to be a rabbi, communting from Albuquerque, where she lives with her husband and teenage daughter. Last spring, at the age of 58, Kantrowitz was ordained as a rabbi.

"When I finally stopped resisting I got a lot more energy, and that was one way I knew it was right," said Kantrowitz, who founded and now heads an Albuquerque Jewish Family Service agency that provides chaplaincy services to the unaffiliated.

Kantrowitz, who went part time at her post as chair of the department of architecture and urban planning at the University of New Mexico in order to be a rabbi, is among a growing number of people who are opting to become rabbis midlife, very often after successful first careers.

Possessing both the life experience and maturity of an older rabbi and the passion and energy of a new ordinee, these second-career rabbis and cantors are leaving their marks on the profession. They bring to their posts not only expertise in fields such as law or business, but remarkable stories of what drove them to the rabbinate in the first place, and the sacrifices they needed to make to get there.

"More and more we’ve come to value personal stories and to see in personal stories insights into the working of God in the world and the working of human beings," said Rabbi Richard Levy, director of the School of Rabbinical Studies at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Los Angeles. "When someone comes equipped with these stories, it can help people see the Divine design."

The increase in second-career rabbinic students over the last decade seems to be more intense on the West Coast. The vast majority of students at AJR are over 40 years old. HUC-JIR estimates that about 30 percent of its Los Angeles rabbinic students and 20 percent nationally are second-career students. At the University of Judaism’s (UJ) Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, 35 percent to 40 percent of students are second career, a number that rose dramatically when UJ started ordaining rabbis nine years ago and remains higher than the percentage at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, according to Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, associate dean at the Ziegler School. In the Orthodox world, more and more rabbis are coming to the rabbinate after achieving degrees in other fields.

These figures represent significant jumps from 10 years ago, when only a handful of rabbinic students were not in their early 20s.

"We have seen in general a resurgence of interest in Jewish life and Judaism. That spiritual renaissance has been part of what has brought people to the rabbinate as well," said Peretz, who had a successful business career.

The trend among rabbis is an extension of a broader trend in the workforce. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics has not calculated the number — how to precisely define a career change makes data collection difficult — anecdotal evidence and the tremendous growth in resources for those wishing to re-educate themselves for a second career suggest that baby boomers and their children are more open to midlife career changes than previous generations.

"Most often what is missing is that people feel they are not making a difference in people’s lives," said Rachelle Cohn, a career counselor at Jewish Vocational Service, where an estimated 60 percent of people who come in for career counseling have had a previous career. "They are asking themselves, ‘Am I going to feel like I’ve made my place in this world?’"

AJR tapped into the midlifers when it opened with 11 students in 2000. Today, AJR has more than 50 students in its cantorial, rabbinic and chaplaincy programs, and only two or three of them are straight out of college. With a three-day-a-week schedule, AJR designed its program to cater to students with other major commitments, and the school’s transdenominational approach and spiritual bent attracts many older students with a newfound passion for Judaism.

"These students have had great success in their lives on one professional level, and yet feel a new calling and a new direction for their soul to take and have to overcome all the obstacles and barriers and difficulties dealing with that," said Rabbi Stan Levy, a co-founder and board chair at AJR.

For some, going into clerical life is is an unexpected twist in the plot of a life story; for others it is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream put off because of circumstances or social realities.

Rabbi Yocheved Porath Mintz spent more than 40 years as a highly accomplished Jewish educator in Chicago before she was ordained at AJR last spring at the age of 64. She now serves as a rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas, the first woman in a continuous line of 16 generations of Porath rabbis.

"It was a lifelong dream since I was 5," said Mintz, a grandmother of 11 who in her flowing white-and-gold tallit and matching oversized kippah swept through the AJR graduation like the Shabbat Queen. "At the time when women were just getting into the rabbinate I was raising my family and that was the wrong time."

The right time came about four years ago, when Mintz and her husband moved to Las Vegas. Mintz took as many classes as she could each semester, a task that became more difficult this year as she battled breast cancer. But neither surgery nor chemo nor radiation kept her from getting ordained as planned.

"It’s been a challenging year … but I couldn’t have picked a better place for this to have happened," Mintz said. "It’s been a tremendous learning experience, and strange as it sounds to say it, I am grateful for this opportunity."

It is just that kind of perspective gained from personal experience that observers say makes second-career rabbis essential resources to other students in rabbinic school and valuable counselors to their constituents.

"By the time I became a rabbi, I had lost both my parents and been through some personal tragedy, and I think the very fact that I have gathered so much strength from my Judaism is an important indicator to my congregation that there is something there," said Rabbi Mike Lotker, 55, who became the first full-time rabbi at Temple Ner Ami in Camarillo after he was ordained at HUC-JIR last year.

Lotker came from a successful first career as a physicist developing alternative energy (the company he headed built the windmills in Palm Springs). He grew up with little religion and turned to Judaism in a serious way in his mid-30s when his wife fell ill with Huntington’s disease. With the financial resources to follow his heart and his three children grown, Lotker entered rabbinic school.

"One of my classmates was younger than two of my children," Lotker laughed. "Having lived a real life and going back to school was an absolute treat — compared to real life, the pressure was very low and I was doing what I loved to do."

Most second-career students make significant sacrifices, leaving successful jobs and steady income, taking time from family.

"They are hungry for knowledge in a way no student I ever taught was," said Rabbi Stephen Robbins, co-founder and president of AJR.

Their singular focus makes them less likely to drop out than younger students, and also balances any disadvantage they might be at in comparison to the younger minds who might be able to learn more easily.

"We watch people in the first year struggling to remember things, and as they move through they get better and better," Robbins said. "Instead of having the energy of kids they have the smarts of a more mature person. It isn’t that they learn quicker; they learn better, they know better how to use their time and manage their brains to get the most out of the material."

Still, returning students acknowledge that they often come in without the background and foundational knowledge possessed by students who knew at the outset of their professional lives that they wanted to be rabbis. Since many later-in-life ordinees have also come to Judaism itself as adults, learning Hebrew can be difficult.

"I was coming from a professional world where I was an expert in what I did and so it was difficult to be starting at square one and knowing nothing," said Rabbi Amy Idit Jacques, 33, who was ordained at HUC-JIR this year after spending six years as a systems analyst in her previous career. "The first few years in school I felt I was learning more about what I didn’t know rather than accumulating knowledge," she said.

But she caught up, and Jacques, who will be working at Ohio State University Hillel, is certain she made the right decision.

"One of the hardest things was to recognize that I had the power to choose however I wanted to envision my life and what that could be. It was very scary breaking out of what my entire life I had imagined it would be," Jacques said.

Chazan Eva Robbins wonders what would have happened if she had found her voice when she was 20 rather than in her 40s.

Robbins, who was ordained as a cantor at AJR this year at the age of 57, began leading services when she and her husband, Rabbi Stephen Robbins, founded Congregation N’vay Shalom in 1993 and there was no money to pay a cantor.

"I never would have suspected that in my late 40s I would have discovered my voice and my life’s work," said Robbins, who mentored privately with Stephen S. Wise’s Cantor Nathan Lam, AJR’s dean of the cantorial program, before the school opened.

Robbins and Judith Greenfield, a cantor at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, made history at AJR’s graduation by becoming the first two cantors ever ordained on the West Coast.

Robbins admitted that at first she "wasted a lot of energy" resenting her parents and teachers for not recognizing and encouraging her musical talent early on.

"But I finally got past it. Things happen when they are supposed to, and I realized that my voice was being saved for the right time," she said. "I really feel like Hashem has been there for me, guiding me and opening these doorways when I never would have expected it."