From left: Sugar Ray Leonard and Linell and Robert Shapiro attend a Sept. 9 benefit for the Brent Shapiro Foundation. Photo courtesy of the Brent Shapiro Foundation

Moving & Shaking: Brent Shapiro Foundation benefit, AJWS fellows and Rabbi Naomi Levy

benefit event for the Brent Shapiro Foundation at Green Acres mansion in Beverly Hills on Sept. 9 raised more than $1 million.

The gathering was hosted by Linell and Robert Shapiro,  a defense lawyer, who established the foundation following their son Brent’s death at age 24 in 2005. Brent Shapiro was involved with alcohol and drugs since in his early teens. He went to rehab several times and was clean for 18 months before attending a party where he drank beer and took an accidental overdose of the drug Ecstasy.

His parents created the foundation to honor his life and promote prevention and awareness of chemical dependence. The foundation operates the Brent’s Club program that works in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. Brent’s Club serves more than 1,300 young people who are tested for drug use every year. None has failed a test so far. All graduates receive a college scholarship, and two of the graduates were honored during the event, receiving awards plus full scholarships.

“We started 12 years ago with 100 people in the club,” said Linell Shapiro, “and now we have expanded to six clubs and we are going to open two more in New York and Malibu. These kids appreciate what we are doing for them and it warms your heart to see them. Tonight is a celebration of Brent’s life. I’ve never known anybody who was so loved like he was. He is incredibly missed, and I know he is here with us tonight and loves the message of giving back.”

So far, 3,000 young people between the ages of 11 and 17 have participated in the program.

The event, hosted by Mario Lopez and Robert Shapiro, honored singer Demi Lavato, who has struggled with her own substance abuse. Also in attendance at the event were Priscilla Presley, Sugar Ray Leonard, Adrienne Maloof and Tracee Ellis Ross.

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

From left: Israeli Consul for Public Diplomacy and Culture Karin Eliyahu-Pery; Jewish National Fund (JNF) Board Member Gina Raphael; L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell; Deputy Chief of Mission at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles Eitan Weiss; and JNF Los Angeles Executive Director Lou Rosenberg commemorate the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Photo courtesy of Jewish National Fund


The Jewish National Fund (JNF) hosted events at fire and police stations around the United States to pay tribute to American first responders and commemorate the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

JNF built the 9/11 Living Memorial in the foothills of Jerusalem in 2009, and it stands as the only memorial outside of the U.S. that lists the names of all of the victims of the terrorist attacks. Designed by Israeli artist Eliezer Weishoff, the memorial is a 30-foot-high bronze sculpture of the American flag that morphs into a memorial flame and includes a metal beam from one of the original World Trade Center towers.

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles began delivering flowers to fire stations along with a postcard of the memorial on 9/11 three years ago and last year approached Daniel Friedman, JNF’s L.A. Israel advocacy and education department area director, about expanding the effort. 

JNF created a plaque with a photo of the memorial in Israel and this year hosted events in L.A., Baltimore and New York.

“It was a huge honor to be part of a special ceremony to recognize our first responders. [It] shows the amazing bond between the United States and Israel, two countries that have shared values of peace and religious tolerance,” Lou Rosenberg, JNF’s Los Angeles executive director, said in an email.

“I think that so often our first responders are taken for granted. These brave people put their lives on the line every day for the betterment and safety of their communities. So to be able to express our gratitude to these police officers, fire fighters and sheriffs was truly an amazing experience,” Friedman said in the email.

JNF hosted four ceremonies, one in Beverly Hills and three others in L.A. On Sept. 8, Beverly Hills Mayor Lili Bosse, Fire Chief Greg Barton and Police Chief Sandra Spagnoli were presented with the plaque. On Sept. 11, JNF visited the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office, LAPD headquarters and the West Los Angeles LAPD police station, where staff members were presented with the plaque in honor of their service.

Among those at the various events were L.A. County Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Chief Charlie Beck and Eitan Weiss, deputy chief of mission at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

“Israel has always stood, and will always stand, with the United States of America, just as the United States has always stood with Israel,” Israeli Consul for Public Diplomacy Karin Eliyahu-Pery said in an email. “Like true friends and allies, we come together in celebration of good moments and also on occasions of terrible sadness, such as today.”

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

From left: Israeli American Council Chairman Adam Milstein; Jewish Journal President David Suissa and Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Feinstein. Photo courtesy of Israeli American Council


panel discussion on Sept. 6 titled, “Israeliness: A Strategic Asset for the American Jewish Future?” featured Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Feinstein, Israeli American Council (IAC) Chairman Adam Milstein and Jewish Journal President David Suissa.

Approximately 80 people gathered at the IAC Shepher Community Center in Woodland Hills for the discussion, which also centered on the future of the Israeli-American community.

Feinstein expressed a fear that the next Israeli-American generation will have no ties to Israel and to Judaism.

“Here is my problem: In 20 years, whatever ‘Israeliness’ is will disappear,” he said. “They might eat falafel once in a while, might speak a little Hebrew, but that’s it. Israeliness is something that is based on memories that your children don’t have, so unless you do something about it, it will be Little Italy all over again.”

Milstein said the IAC was established by Israelis in part to keep the next generations of Israelis in America connected to their roots and to the essence and culture of Israel. He said membership in synagogues can be expensive and Israeli Americans who cannot afford the high cost have other options to feel connected to their Jewish heritage and maintain their connection to Israel.

“We see increasingly more Jewish Americans participate in our programs,” he said. “They love our Israeli culture and are delighted to discover many new ways to enhance their connection to Judaism and the State of Israel.”

— Ayala Or-El, Contributing Writer

Rabbi Noah Farkas

The American Jewish World Service (AJWS) has named two local rabbis, Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom and Andrew Feig of Alice and Nahum Lainer School, as Global Justice Fellows for 2017-18.

They are among 14 rabbis selected from across the country by AJWS, which promotes human rights and combats poverty in developing nations.

The six-month fellowship will begin in October and include a weeklong trip to Guatemala in January, when the rabbis will meet with leaders in the fight against poverty and the advancement of human rights. They will continue their advocacy work during a trip to Washington, D.C., focusing on laws and policies promoting human rights.

“Rabbi Farkas has been supporting progressive values in the L.A. area for years, with his leadership with RiseUp LA and many other initiatives,” said Lilach Shafir, AJWS director of international education and Jewish engagement. “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him again, at this intense level. Rabbi Andrew Feig is a community organizer and a leader in the interfaith field in L.A., and he brings a social justice perspective to bear on all of his work as a school rabbi in L.A.”

Rabbi Andrew Feig

In addition to his work with VBS, Farkas launched the Seminary Leadership Project, which has trained Jewish clergy to create social change through JOIN for Justice, and he is the founder of Netiya, an interfaith organization that works on food issues in Los Angeles.  In 2015, Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl appointed Farkas to the Los Angeles Homelessness Services Authority, which oversees the regional strategy against homelessness.

Feig teaches in Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s teacher preparation program, DeLeT, where he mentors student teachers both in and out of Alice and Nahum Lainer School, an L.A. Jewish day school. He previously worked at Milken Community Schools, where he was dean of students and a rabbinics teacher.

“I am very honored to be part of AJWS’ Global Justice Fellowship,” Feig said. “As school rabbi of Alice and Nahum Lainer School, my goal is to integrate the work of combining AJWS’ work with our school’s mission of developing students who recognize the dignity of every human being and have agency to stand against injustice.”

— Virginia Isaad, Contributing Writer

Rabbi Naomi Levy, leader of the spiritual community Nashuva, discusses her new book “Einstein and the Rabbi” with her husband, Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman. Photo courtesy of Bob Nankin


More than 300 people gathered on Sept. 10 at Temple Beth Am to hear Rabbi Naomi Levy, leader of Brentwood-based spiritual community Nashuva, discuss her latest book, “Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul.” 

The title of the book, Levy’s fourth, refers to a kind of mystery story that runs throughout the work after she found her way to an obscure letter whose author turned out to be Albert Einstein: “A human being … experiences himself … as something separate from the rest,” the great scientist wrote. “The striving to free oneself from this delusion is the one issue of true religion.” The letter inspired Levy to play the role of detective, eventually revealing a path to the soul.

The event was the first time Levy had ever been interviewed in public by her husband, Rob Eshman,  the outgoing editor-in-chief and publisher of the Jewish Journal. Their conversation was filled with humor and soulful contemplation, including stories of Levy’s journey to writing the book and of the couple’s life together.  

Eshman recounted that one of the messages of the book — that “the soul is tugging at us, telling us to grow, grow” —  influenced his decision to step down from his role at the Journal.

“It’s your fault,” he told his wife.

“Don’t blame me,” she said.

Adding to the discussion of the soul, Levy and Eshman talked about the concept of soul mates. They recounted their first meeting nearly three decades ago, when Levy was a new rabbi at Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and Eshman was a freelance writer.

If there had been online dating, they likely would have been a “mismatch,” according to Levy. However, during their first date — tea at Rose Café in Venice — “I knew I was home,” Levy said.

After Eshman cooked her an elaborate homemade meal for the first time, she said, “I didn’t know I was home; I knew I was in the Garden of Eden and I’ve never left.”

— Julia Moss, Jewish Journal Staff

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

Ruth Messinger: Social justice with a smile

The tirelessly ebullient Ruth Messinger was in town last week and took time for an interview and tea at Le Pain Quotidien in West Hollywood, talking virtually nonstop for an hour about her past 18 years as president and CEO of the international aid organization American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a role she will leave in July. 

Messinger spoke in full paragraphs, describing AJWS’ successes fighting challenges in the developing world. Her giant smile never faded, and she didn’t sound at all tired or angry at the injustices she’s dedicated her life to overturning; she remains just as enthusiastic and fully engaged as any new convert to the world of social justice. She spoke of helping women fight genital cutting in Africa, of funding lawsuits to ward off big corporations raping the land of indigenous people in Latin America. Of fighting for the rights of underpaid garment workers in Cambodia and child brides in India. Under her leadership, AJWS has grown its $2.5 million annual budget to $35 million, and today it awards about 550 grants each year, often in amounts of about $40,000, to organizations in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. AJWS funds social justice organizations in 19 countries and also advocates for those same groups of people through governmental channels inside the United States. 

Realistically, Messinger said, AJWS can’t fix every problem, but its goal is to give people “agency” and to find concrete ways to measure change. Take India, for example, where women younger than 18 can’t legally wed, but where families regularly marry off much younger girls. How do you stop that? It’s a matter of empowering women differently, she said. So AJWS funded a foundation that trains women to become taxi drivers, affording them financial independence. One woman, featured on the AJWS website, supports her whole family and says she can now choose whether to marry. These women’s cab driving also enables other women to travel without a chaperone.

“So women can call taxi agencies and say, ‘I want a woman.’ It’s now a huge, expanding field. And the woman gets to be in charge of her own life,”  Messinger said

Having just turned 75, Messinger will continue working for AJWS as a “global ambassador,” and it’s easy to see the value in keeping her on. She’s a glass-half-full kind of person: “People often ask me,” she said, “ ‘Isn’t this all very depressing?’ And I say, ‘No, there are depressing things in these countries, as there are in our own country. But we get to see people making live social change.’ ”

Messinger takes pride that AJWS is a Jewish organization focused on helping non-Jews around the world. Along the way, it is also teaching the far-flung people of the world who Jews are. She told the story of Sakena Yacoobi, a former Afghani grantee, whose organization deals with gender inequality in Muslim communities and Muslim-Hindu tensions, among other efforts. 

Early on in her time at AJWS, Messinger invited Yacoobi to speak to a group of potential donors at an event in New York. “I could see there was this one guy in the crowd who was thinking, ‘What are we doing here?’ And when I stepped up at the end and asked, ‘Are there any questions?’ his hand shot up. He said, ‘This is crazy. This is a Jewish group in New York, and you’re giving money to Muslim women in Afghanistan? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard. Why would you do that?’ ” Yaroobi, Messinger said, stepped up to the microphone to respond. “And she was wearing a hijab, and said, ‘May I answer him?’ I had no idea what was going to happen. And I said, ‘Of course.’ And she said, ‘Sir, I understand that you think it’s crazy for a New York Jewish group to be helping Muslim women in Afghanistan,’ and he said, ‘Yes!’ And she said, ‘Why don’t you imagine what it’s like to be a Muslim woman in Afghanistan taking money from New York Jews!’ The whole room burst out laughing,” Messinger said, “and I said, ‘I have nothing else to say.’ ”

AJWS has been working in Nepal since the earthquake last April, providing disaster relief long after other aid organizations left. It supports LGBT rights in Uganda and land rights activists in Honduras, where an activist and AJWS grantee, Berta Cáceres, was recently assassinated for her work. Messinger herself has personal relationships with the grantees, and regularly takes donors as well as rabbis to meet the workers and bear witness to what needs to be funded.

She often quotes the familiar Mishnaic tractate, “Save one life and you save the world,” and she loves the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “In a free society where some are guilty, all are responsible.” It is our duty, she says, “to make a difference.” 

Messinger got her start in the 1960s doing anti-war work and civil rights activism and “community organizing long before Barack Obama,” she said. She then became a New York City politician, representing the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a city councilwoman. From 1990-98, she was borough president of Manhattan, and in 1997 became the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York. She lost to the incumbent, Mayor Rudy Giuliani. 

Politics taught her, she said, that “change comes from the bottom up.” And she loved that being a politician enabled her to be directly involved in supporting her own community. AJWS has been the opposite, but offers “the excitement of learning about the rest of the world.”

She’s learned that even in the developing world, people “need much less guidance than Americans imagine. They may need training to set up a website; they may need the advice of a larger, more strategic organization to help, say, take the issues of Kenyan girls to the Kenyan legislature. But it pays to be humble, it pays to ask, ‘What’s on your mind?’ ”

After July 1, once her replacement, Robert Bank — who since 2009 has been an executive vice president and second in command of AJWS — steps up to the plate, Messinger’s primary focus will be engaging rabbis in the United States in AJWS’ causes. She will continue to take groups of them on trips to meet with grantees, but also make sure the rabbis bring the message back to America. Messinger recently took a rabbinic group to the Dominican Republic to meet with people native to the Dominican but of Haitian descent. People who are, in essence, stateless, rejected by the country where they were born. “They met individuals who were being harassed every time they went out of their house, being asked for their birth certificates, being told to go back to Haiti, where they’ve never lived.” The rabbis returned to their pulpits charged with gathering letters to lobby Congress to help.

“I’m pushing them,” she said of the rabbis, to take what they witnessed and spread the word. “They’re only human; they have congregational challenges, they have chaplaincy challenges, their roof is leaking, but a part of being religious leaders is to say, ‘Where should we be making a difference in the world? And isn’t that a piece of what we’re told to do?’ ”

She said her other continuing role for AJWS will be to represent the Jewish world in international interfaith work. “Over the years, as we’ve grown, we’ve had everybody from the World Bank to an ecumenical group in Geneva saying, ‘We’re putting together an interfaith task force, and we have Catholics and five Christian denominations, and we just asked a Muslim,’ and, they’ll ask, ‘Are there any Jews?’ And we want to be there in a better way.

“Looking at the whole world, the American Jewish community is remarkably privileged, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems in the Middle East, or poor Jews in New York, because there are,” she said, still smiling, as the conversation wound down. 

“But if you look at the world, there aren’t a lot of Jews who don’t have clean water or sanitation, and in the larger world, there are a billion people who don’t have clean water or sanitation. So the question is, can we think in terms of these different circles of obligation? Our own Jewish community, the world Jewish community, the town we live in, the Middle East; but then there’s this larger circle, and when you go to work there, you’re putting a good name on who Jews are in the world. 

“We are,” she said, “fighting anti-Semitism just by what we do.”

Moving and Shaking: AJWS Gala honors Barbara Boxer, Ezekiel Emanuel

“I don’t often speak publicly about my religion,” retiring California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said on the evening of March 13 as she took the stage to be honored at “AJWS at 30: Celebrating Our Global Leaders.” Boxer went on to describe how she inherited her drive for social justice from her mother, an immigrant from Austria who didn’t finish high school and her father, a child of immigrants who worked his way through college and law school, who “taught me to speak up and fight.” And so, as she prepares to leave Congress after 10 years in the House of Representatives and 24 in the Senate, she said, she’s just completed a memoir, “The Art of Tough” (due out from Hachette in May).  The evening celebrated three decades of work by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), during which time it has invested $270 million to support 550 international grantees fighting poverty and promoting human rights in the developing world. The evening’s honorees also included Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist best-known as the architect of Obamacare; Alejandra Ancheita, a Mexican land- and labor-rights activist and attorney; and AJWS president of 18 years, Ruth Messinger, who on July 1 will step down to become AJWS’s first global ambassador. The incoming president, taking the reins July 1, is AJWS executive vice president Robert Bank

Emanuel, who spoke of how “meaningful work and meaningful relationships” are what “make a good life,” is plenty famous in his own right for his prodigious writing and work in world health and was introduced by his equally famous brother, Ari Emanuel, Hollywood’s most renown agent and co-CEO of the mega entertainment, sports and fashion agency WME-IMG.

Ancheita dedicated her award to fellow AJWS grantee, Honduran human and environmental rights activist, Berta Cáceres, who was murdered earlier this month in her home. “This work is full of risks,” Ancieta said, acknowledging that she, too, has faced death threats while working to fight illegal mining in Mexico. 

The effervescent and normally outspoken Messinger, called to the stage by Bank, proclaimed herself “speechless” as she told of how her work at AJWS, following a career in New York City politics, has “enabled me to see the world in a different way,” to realize “what it means to feed the stranger and care for the hungry,” and she said, fundamental to her work at AJWS is dedication to B’tselem Elohim, “honoring the inherent dignity of every person.” Then, in announcing a fundraising goal of $18 million over the next five years for a new AJWS sustainability fund, Messinger acknowledged kickoff gifts of $5 million from Barbara and Eric Dobkin and $1 million from Lois and Dick Gunther.

The evening, which included performances by African-music vocal percussionists Adaawe and the Shakti Dance Company, performing South Indian classical dance, was co-chaired by Bill Resnick and Michael J. Stubbs, with Ari Emanuel and Norman Lear serving as honorary gala co-chairs. Also in attendance were Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism and Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism.

Ruth Messinger to step down as head of American Jewish World Service

Ruth Messinger will step down as president of the American Jewish World Service, the international relief organization she has guided to prominence since taking its helm in 1998.

Messinger, who during her tenure has raised the group’s operating budget to over $60 million from $3 million, will be succeeded in July by Robert Bank, the executive vice president, AJWS said Tuesday.

Messinger, 74, will remain affiliated with the organization, which provides disaster relief and funds development projects around the world, as a “global ambassador” and work on interfaith efforts and outreach to rabbis, the Forward reported.

Bank, a former lawyer who worked for the New York City Law Department and Gay Men’s Health Crisis, has worked at AJWS since 2009.

AJWS has been closely associated with Messinger since she became president.

“What I believe is that we’ve built an organization,” she told the Forward. “The organization has a clear and critical mission. The board’s decision to select Robert as the next president and CEO is based on his demonstrated capacity for public speaking, for fundraising and for bringing, frankly, who he is.”

Messinger was the Democratic nominee for New York mayor in 1997. She lost to incumbent Rudy Giuliani.Messinger, who has guided the international relief organization to prominence since taking over in 1998, will be succeeded by current executive vice president Robert Bank.


Philanthropist Larry Phillips, AJWS co-founder, dies

Larry Phillips, a philanthropist and businessman who was a founder of the American Jewish World Service, has died.

The American Jewish World Service in a tribute on its website called Phillips, who died on Sept. 11 at 88, “a visionary philanthropist who brought the dream of a Jewish organization dedicated to ending poverty and promoting human rights alive.”

He collaborated with Lawrence Simon, today a prominent professor of international development at Brandeis University, to launch AJWS in 1985. Phillips served as the organization’s earliest financial investor and first board chair, according to the organization.

“We owe our existence today to their passion, compassion and dedication to applying Jewish values toward building a more just and equitable world,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger said in a statement.

Phillip’s family founded the Phillips-Van Heusen fashion conglomerate, which his great-grandparents started as a pushcart business.

According to AJWS, Phillips joined the board of an international relief organization but felt isolated as the only Jewish trustee, which led him to found a Jewish organization to undertake humanitarian relief efforts.

Moving and Shaking: Harriet Rossetto, AJWS, TCRF and Israel Advocacy

Harriet Rossetto, the founder and executive vice president of Beit T’Shuvah, a residential treatment center and educational institution in Culver City, has been named a 2015 Advocate for Action by the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

ONDCP Director Michael Botticelli recognized Rossetto during a ceremony at the White House on May 20. Accepting the award, Rossetto discussed Beit T’Shuvah’s innovative approach to recovery treatment, saying she was honored to have the opportunity to share some of what she has learned over the years about addiction recovery with the White House.

“To be selected to work with the White House to reform drug policy is such an honor, and an incredible opportunity to help more people,” the honoree said in a statement. “Through work therapy, creative expression and social enterprise, we watch with great pride as each person breaks the bonds of addiction by recovering their passion and discovering their purpose.”

Rossetto’s career began with helping Jewish criminal offenders, and she founded Beit T’Shuvah with a one-time grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The center has grown into a nationally recognized facility that creates jobs for former residents, operates a full-fledged synagogue and houses more than 140 residents who have suffered from drug, alcohol, gambling and other addictions. 

Rossetto was one of nine individuals named for the annual honor by the White House. Beit T’Shuvah’s CEO and Head Rabbi Mark Borovitz, a former addict and felon — and Rossetto’s husband — congratulated the facility’s founder.

“Harriet is not only a pioneer in addiction treatment nationally,” he said, “but she is a hero to me personally.”

From left: Debra Barrath, Felicia Park-Rogers, Devorah Servi, Shari Rosenman, Shep Rosenman, Rep. Karen Bass, Julie Flapan, Rabbi Penina Alexander, Charles Carnow and Rabbi Aryeh Cohen convene for the AJWS 2015 Global Policy Summit. Photo courtesy of AJWS

Twenty-six Los Angeles representatives of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) traveled to Washington, D.C., to speak with members of Congress and others on behalf of women and the LGBT community for a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill.

“These passionate Jewish leaders have taken time off from their jobs, synagogues and studies to come to Washington to show Congress that we cannot stand idly by as the rights of women, girls and LGBT people around the world are violated,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger, who took part in the program, said in a statement.

The local participants were Rob Adler Peckerar, Penina Alexander, Gregg Alpert, Debra Barrath, Charles Carnow, Rabbi Aryeh Cohen, Caryn Espo, Julie Flapan, Amy Grossman, Ronni Hendel-Giller, Rachele Huennekens, David Lieberman, Rachel Marks, Shira Liff-Grieff, Joan Patsy Ostroy, Gamal Palmer, Felicia Park-Rogers, Shep and Shari Rosenman, Sadie Rose-Stern, Angela Salgado, Robyn Samuels, Devorah Servi, Farah Shamolian, Rachel Sumekh and Marcia Tilchin.

In total, 170 AJWS members traveled to take part in the AJWS 2015 Policy Summit, which took place May 11-13. During the trip, the group met with several members of Congress, including local Reps. Karen Bass, Ted Lieu, Ed Royce and Adam Schiff; and Reps. John Lewis (D-Ga.), Elliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.). Randy Berry, the first U.S. special envoy for the Human Rights of LGBT Persons; Patricia Morris, president of Women Thrive Worldwide; and Hilda Tadria, a women’s rights activist from Uganda, also met with AJWS representatives.

From left: Tower Cancer Research Foundation (TCRF) gala chairs Sally Magaram and Abby Levy and TCRF board chair Nancy Mishkin. Photo courtesy of TCRF

Tower Cancer Research Foundation’s (TCRF) May 6 Tower of Hope fundraiser at the Beverly Hilton Hotel raised $1.2 million for the Southern California-based cancer research fund.

The evening honored Skechers, with David Weinberg, chief operating officer of the footwear company, accepting the award; surgeon Kenneth Adashek; and cancer survivor and Athene Asset Management CEO James Belardi.

“We’re doing great work and funding such important research in our community — to be able to have that kind of an impact means the world to me,” Nancy Mishkin, board chair of the foundation, said in a press release.

The event, which drew more than 800 attendees, also featured the awarding of a $1 million TCRF Discovery Fund grant toward local mesothelioma research at the Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute. 

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, served as master of ceremonies.

From left: Honoree Dr. Daniel Lieber and co-chairs Helgard and Irwin Field. Photo courtesy of Howard Pasamanick Photography

“Israel Advocacy: A Celebration of Dr. Daniel Lieber and The Jewish Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project” on May 6 at the Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel honored Lieber, the founder of the project, which aims to strengthen the bond between Southern California and Israel by sending teachers of non-Jewish high -school students and members of the Jewish community on trips to Israel.

The event raised $270,000 toward The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Israel advocacy and education work, while drawing an estimated 320 attendees — including community leaders, doctors and medical professionals, and patients of
Lieber — to the Westside hotel. 

Lieber is a Santa Monica-based medical oncologist and son of the late Rabbi David Lieber, who was president emeritus of what is now American Jewish University. Actively involved in Jewish communal life, Lieber founded the Holy Land Democracy Project approximately 10 years ago. Since its inception, the program has impacted some 35,000 high school students. 

Helgard and Irwin Field (a Jewish Journal board member and former publisher), Roslyn and Abner Goldstine, Gila and Adam Milstein, and Julie and Marc Platt co-chaired the event.

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email

AJWS expands focus on Ebola prevention, education

When the magnitude of the Ebola crisis became clear in August, Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and her team contacted the 10 Liberian organizations AJWS supports to ask whether the agencies would like to change course from other social service activities to focus on the evolving emergency.

“We could alter your grant and increase the resources you have if you would like to become a part of a brigade of community health workers,” Messinger recalled offering the groups; she spoke on Nov. 18 with Rabbi Sharon Brous, founder of IKAR, before a small audience at the home of AJWS board member Bill Resnick and his husband, Michael Stubbs.

All 10 organizations agreed, and in August AJWS launched a special emergency response fund with the goal of raising $1 million, of which more than $850,000 has already been collected. AJWS’ aim is to combat a climate of fear and misinformation by disseminating accurate information to communities across Liberia, where AJWS has collaborated with and funded grass-roots organizations since 2003.

Prior to the Ebola crisis, AJWS primarily directed its grants toward organizations assisting marginalized communities — first the efforts of activist Leymah Gbowee, whose work with women helped end a civil war in 2003 and eventually earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, and later a range of organizations working to end discrimination against women and to provide underprivileged populations access to natural resources.

However, the fast-moving devastation of the Ebola epidemic necessitated an immediate shift in focus, Messinger said. Organizations such as Mano River Women’s Peace Network, Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, Foundation for Community Initiatives and Bassa Women Development Association have changed course to assist in the national effort.

Where AJWS normally focuses primarily on defending the rights of women, LGBT people and other marginalized groups, it is now working with its partner organizations to spread information about Ebola prevention and treatment , with people reaching out house to house or broadcasting over  the radio and by targeting community leaders, including local ministers and imams. To increase the availability of accurate information, workers from these organizations are also training other Liberians to be community health advocates.

The Ebola crisis “is much more than a health problem or a public health problem,” Messenger said. “It is a system-wide challenge to a barely shaped and formed government.”

By example, Messenger quoted a recent exchange with AJWS’ only Liberian staff person, Dayugar Johnson: “Our kids are out of school without knowing when they will return. There is a partial closure for a lot of things: Most clinics and hospitals are still closed, schools at every level are closed, some business are closed, etc.

“The Ebola outbreak has placed a lot of strain on me and my family,” Johnson added. “We have had to change our way of life and daily routine to the point that our neighbors who were not taking the outbreak seriously felt somehow offended when I asked their children and them to stay at their house and stopped the children from playing together.”

Since the outbreak began, this sort of skepticism about the existence of Ebola, its source and its treatment has made it difficult for health groups to implement a consistent and deliberate response.

Imagine if you were part of a group in your congregation charged with washing the bodies of the deceased, Messinger pressed, “and all of a sudden there are basically, and sometimes actually, masked personnel from a government you don’t trust or from the West telling you that these practices must stop immediately.

“It is a constant challenge for all of us to really put ourselves in the minds of other people and think about how they see this,” Messinger continued. “You would have to have a big level of trust and analytic understanding to believe that you should, in fact, suspend everything you do.”

For that reason, Messinger said, she finds it difficult to believe in the accuracy of the tallies of confirmed Ebola cases and of the deceased. Some Liberians, she said, are probably continuing to practice their traditional burial customs despite being urged otherwise.

Nevertheless, Messinger cautioned against the hysteria American politicians and the media here have helped create. “Everything you read about this crisis needs to be taken as both a piece of the truth and not at all the whole truth,” Messinger warned.

“The scariest thing about this, both internationally and locally, is that day by day, every second story about Ebola is exactly the same as a story about HIV or AIDS in the 1980s,” she said, referring to the widespread dissemination of false information and pseudoscience.

“Everyone who asks you about Ebola spreading in this country, there is just a very simple thing to ask them: Have you gotten your flu shot? You can go to any drugstore in Los Angeles and get your flu shot today, and you should do that, because many, many, many more people in this country will die of the flu than will ever see Ebola,” Messinger said.

At closing, Rabbi Brous emphasized that there is a silver lining to the United States’ renewed focus on African health and politics. “There is a humanizing element here that is very powerful,” Brous said, “and we who care about global human rights issues and humanity outside of our daled amot — as we say, our immediate circles — should actually be taking advantage of the heightened sensitivity right now, and instead of using it to be fearful about the spread of Ebola locally, [use it] to awaken people to a sense of responsibility globally.” Messinger and AJWS know this to be true. 

American Jewish World Service and ending violence against women

As musician Craig Taubman strummed some opening chords on his guitar, the audience was quiet, still reflecting upon the words of the community leaders and activists who had spoken earlier. 

For the first half of the performance — a rendition of Pete Seeger’s “God’s Counting on Me, God’s Counting on You” — Taubman provided the sole voice, a soothing yet powerful sound that reverberated throughout Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s sanctuary. But with Taubman’s encouragement, the audience collectively rose to its feet, people joining arms and clapping and singing. For a minute or two, the room filled with a single, harmonious melody. 

“That’s prayer, that’s activism, that’s what it’s all about,” Taubman said. 

His moving performance on May 10 was part of an interfaith vigil that bridged religious and cultural differences among community members and stressed the global need to end gender-based violence. The event, sponsored by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), honored nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram in April,
a crime that sparked international outrage and inspired the #BringBackOurGirls movement.

The vigil’s varied speakers found different ways to honor the missing girls’ strength and bravery. Arab-American TV host Maha Awad and Naomi Ackerman, an American-born Israeli actress, educator and activist, shared stories from several girls who had escaped their kidnappers. They said some had run for hours, terrified and exhausted, and yet, remarkably, were determined to finish their education in spite of the injustices they had faced.

Thema Bryant-Davis, a Pepperdine University associate professor who leads the Wow! Women of the Word Ministry of Walker Temple AME Church of Los Angeles, shared a poem she had written, “A Homecoming Message for the Taken Daughters.”

“They took you while you were yet a caterpillar, but you can still learn to fly,” she said.  

Other speakers called upon audience members to join the fight against women’s oppression through activism.

“The world cannot progress until women are free and equal in all societies,” said Grant Gochin, California honorary consul for the Republic of Togo, a country in West Africa.

Allison Lee, executive director of the AJWS Los Angeles branch, asked the audience to call upon Congress to pass the International Violence Against Women Act. The proposed legislation would require the United States to address violence against women and girls in its foreign policy.

“We are here as people of faith to say that our mutual traditions demand action,” Lee said.

At the end of the night, Nigerian R&B singer Meaku and producer David Kirkwood made a surprise appearance, performing a song called “Nucleus” that Meaku dedicated to the missing girls. Meaku said he was “humbled” to be present for the vigil and thanked the Jewish community for its willingness to give a platform to a cause that has deeply affected his country.

“We need to understand that we are a part of a nucleus,” he said, in reference to the title. “This is what we are; this is what we come from.”

Audience members — more than 130 total — said they were moved and inspired by the night of music and prayer. Sandy Savette of Santa Monica said she was “so happy” to see leaders coming together for an important cause.

“I am so impressed,” she said. “I am so energized by this evening.”

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick, who will begin working July 1 at Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation in Woodland Hills, said he looked forward to bringing the lessons of the night — particularly the awareness of global violence against women — back to his community.

“I think this is a fantastic event,” Botnick said. “As an activist, as a community leader, I’m a little saddened that there weren’t more people here.” 

AJWS goes to Washington

I always have an answer.

It is a tricky character quality, I admit — often amusing, but just as easily infuriating — and which one of the two you find it to be almost always depends on the question. Even when I’m not sure of something, I’ll concoct an argument to defend my position anyway. People like to tell me I should have been a lawyer. My mother (z”l) used to tell me to go to my room.

So it was deeply discomfiting and entirely out of character when, during the first meeting of Los Angeles’ inaugural American Jewish World Service Global Justice Fellowship, I found myself speechless.

“What commitment is there in your life that has no direct benefit to you or your family?” one of the organizers asked the group.

Almost everything I could think of — career, religious life, world of ideas, charity — provided some tangible or intangible benefit, whether in the form of recognition, reciprocation or prestige. Give to this organization and you belong; give to that organization and you’re a chair; give more and you’ll get a plaque, a name on the wall or your kid into school. There is so much giving that has a getting-in-return.

And while I do not believe that self-interest can diminish the impact of a gift, it disqualifies the act as benefit-free. According to Maimonides, there is a higher aspiration, a steeper spiritual stairway that comes with anonymous giving and human empowerment. The deepest expression of generosity, the great sage teaches us, should occur somewhere beyond the periphery of your own life; it should enlarge someone else’s status and your soul. 

As I reflected on my own giving record, I could count a few small things: tutoring a young girl at an East Los Angeles nonprofit, a few weekends spent volunteering at the Downtown Women’s Center, and some meals I had cooked and delivered to PATH, a collection of local agencies assisting the homeless. But I had been shamefully less than devoted to each of these pursuits, and so when I was asked, I felt I couldn’t give them as my answer.

Nine months later, to borrow a phrase from Joan Didion, I’m saying “Goodbye to all that.”

Earlier this month, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with 16 of my “fellow fellows” (that’s what we like to call ourselves), as well as a handful of other L.A. locals, for American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) first-ever Policy Summit, where we were joined by nearly 200 other activists from New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington to lobby members of Congress. For a fast and furious 48 hours, we attended more than 90 meetings with elected officials or their staffers, pressing them to pass the International Violence Against Women Act, a bipartisan bill that seeks to end gender-based violence against women and girls around the world. 

It was the culminating event in a yearlong fellowship that took us to Oaxaca, Mexico, last November, where we traveled not as tourists but as trusted partners. Our task was simple: Listen to their stories and then magnify their voices. 

If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?

Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, the vivacious Liberian woman whose nonviolent resistance movement ousted a corrupt despot, once said that true empowerment means sacrificing some of one’s own power in order to embolden others. 

In Oaxaca, we saw firsthand what happens when individuals forget that they are their brother’s — and their sister’s — keeper. We met Efemia, a quiet, unassuming woman whom we would never have guessed was nearly stabbed to death by her husband, whom she wed at 12, and who had to endure multiple invasive surgeries while he ran off scot-free. We saw what happens to impoverished, vulnerable communities when multinational corporations discover precious metals in their land — the toxic water, the dead animals, the dead end. Every single day, we saw things that enraged, enlightened and inspired us. We saw that all it takes to subvert justice is for good people to carry on unfazed.

Since its founding in 1985, AJWS has been in the business of global justice. It remains today the leading Jewish human rights and international development organization in the world, working in 19 countries with more than 550 non-governmental organizations. AJWS is audacious enough to dare to repair the world, yet humble enough to know that it cannot achieve that alone.

Three decades of international fieldwork combined with the deeply attuned leadership of Ruth Messenger has taught AJWS that the most promising partner in its tikkun olam effort is U.S. foreign policy. The transformation of whole societies can only occur through a combined effort of grass-roots activism and top-down policy change. So over the last several years, AJWS has been increasing its political engagement, shifting focus from extended volunteer experiences to the global justice fellowship, designed to foster and support sustained engagement by a new cohort each year.

Traveling on one of its effervescent and exotic trips is not meant to be the experience of a lifetime; it is meant to inspire the work of a lifetime.

But nothing could have prepared me for the strange paradox of asking my California representatives — Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Karen Bass — all of whom care about my voice because I represent a vote, to also care about the plight of hundreds of millions of endangered women and girls who might as well live on another planet, most of whom we’ll never meet and who have nothing whatsoever to offer us. 

That day at the Capitol was the first time in my life I got a glimpse of the world from the top of Maimonides’ ladder.  

And let me just say: The benefit is enormous.

We can stop violence against women and girls today

Last weekend, as I listened to the reading of the Purim Megillah, I was struck by its theme of reversals: The pompous king who decrees that men should have authority in their homes ends up taking orders from his wife; the villain Haman is hanged on the very gallows he erected for the hero Mordecai. 

The reversal that resonated with me most of all was that of Queen Esther: She was a young girl ensconced in the king’s harem — a victim of what we would today call sexual slavery; and yet, with the support of a trusted uncle and adviser, she finds the courage to stand up to the king and save the Jewish people from annihilation.  

While King Ahasuerus’ harem is a thing of the ancient past, sexual abuse and violence against women continue to this day. Around the world, one in three women is likely to be a victim of rape or abuse in her lifetime. Every year, 10 million girls under the age of 18 enter into early and forced marriages. Approximately 6,000 girls every day — around 2 million each year — fall victim to female genital cutting. 

But today, as in Esther’s time, reversals are possible. Just before Purim, my congregation held an event to learn what we can do to stop violence against women in the developing world. We watched a video about a Nicaraguan woman named Teresa, who is living proof that with support, women can overcome devastating circumstances and emerge confident and powerful. 

At 19, Teresa married an older man whom she quickly realized was violent. For the next 30 years, he raped and abused her. He molested all three of their daughters, waking them up night after night to rape them. She was terrified of what might happen if she spoke out.  She was afraid he would kill her and, even if he didn’t, she couldn’t imagine how she and her children would survive. She was financially dependent on her husband; their home and land were registered in his name. Certain she had no other options, Teresa stayed in this abusive relationship for decades. 

On the screen, we watched Teresa tell her story in Spanish with English subtitles. Not everyone in the audience could see the translation, so I stood up and read her story aloud. Halfway through, tears welled up and I began to cry. This story of abuse and sexual slavery wasn’t a parody like the Purim story — it was a real-life story, going on in our world. 

But just when it seemed that such suffering could never be overcome, Teresa began to tell us of her inspirational reversal of fate. Like Esther, Teresa found a way to take control of her life. She heard on the radio about an organization called the Association of Entrepreneurial Women of Waslala (AMEWAS), a Nicaraguan grass-roots group that seeks to reduce violence against women by educating them about their rights. She took her children to the AMEWAS shelter and, with their help, pressed charges against her husband. In 2011, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and AMEWAS helped transfer the title of their property to Teresa. Today, she and her daughters live on their land and earn a living from what they grow, free from violence and fear.

Millions of women around the world are suffering from violence like this — but it can be reversed, and it is within our power to help. This is why I am joining American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) “We Believe” campaign to advocate for passage of the International Violence Against Women Act (IVAWA), a piece of legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives last year. IVAWA would make sure that U.S. aid dollars are allocated to local groups such as AMEWAS. It would ensure that anti-violence programs also focus on increasing access to economic opportunities — including credit and property rights — so that women are not forced to stay in abusive situations because they have no way to earn a living on their own. Lastly, IVAWA would put the full force of the U.S. Department of State behind women like Teresa worldwide, by making it a top U.S. diplomatic priority to stop violence against women and girls.

 “And who knows,” Mordecai tells Esther in the Megillah, urging her to intervene on behalf of her people, “maybe it is exactly for this very moment that you are here in this place.” If we recognize that we are in our position exactly because there is something we can do to bring a little bit of redemption for people who are suffering — anything is possible. 

 We can all do something to end violence against women and girls today by asking our members of Congress to support IVAWA. We can call, e-mail, tweet and visit our representatives to tell them that we in the Jewish community care about this issue and want them to take action. 

By speaking out, we can help stop the epidemic of violence against women and girls, enabling women like Teresa to experience dramatic reversals in their lives. The potential to rise up and vanquish injustice need not remain in the realm of stories like the Book of Esther. The vulnerable can become powerful in our society today. 

American Jewish World Service launched the “We Believe” campaign to urge the U.S. government to take action to end violence against women and girls, stop early and forced marriage, and end hate crimes against LGBT people. Learn more at .

The International Violence Against Women Act of 2013 (IVAWA) was introduced in November 2013 by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D – Ill.). It’s the fourth time a version of this bill has been introduced since 2007. For more information, visit the Web site of Futures Without Violence, an advocacy group that has been pushing this legislation from the beginning. 

Rabbi Laura Geller is a senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills.

Jewish group condemns new Ugandan anti-gay law

After Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on Monday signed into law a bill assigning a life sentence to some forms of homosexual activity, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which has made LGBT rights its foremost issue, swiftly responded.

“By signing this draconian bill into law, President Museveni has demonstrated his disregard for the fundamental human rights of Ugandan citizens and has sanctioned hate and discrimination toward LGBT Ugandans,” AJWS president Ruth Messinger said in a Feb. 24 press release.

Under the law, someone convicted of “aggravated homosexuality” could face life imprisonment, and the law defines “aggravated homosexuality” as sexual activity with a person who is disabled, or under 18-years-old, or instances in which the offender is HIV positive, according to the New York Times report.

New York-based AJWS leader Messinger called Ugandan leader’s signing of the bill a “cynical maneuver…[designed] to consolidate his political power at the expense of the lives and dignity of LGBT Ugandans.”

AJWS, an international development and human rights organization, has been pushing back against the legislation for several years. On Feb. 10, believing that the Ugandan president would be susceptible to United States pressure and in attempt to cultivate support from American officials, representatives of AJWS and allied groups convened at Congresswoman Karen Bass’ (D-37th district) Los Angeles headquarters at Wilshire boulevard and Highland avenue, to voice their disapproval of the legislation.

The group represented the intersection of Jewish L.A.’s social justice and LGBT communities; participants carried signs that read, “We Believe Love is Not a Crime. Stand with LGBT Ugandans” as they marched into Bass’ L.A. office that afternoon.

On Feb. 10, an AJWS-led delegation expresses solidarity with the LGBT community of Uganda. Photo by Ryan Torok.

They met with Jacqueline Hamilton, the L.A.-based field representative of Congresswoman Bass, and they presented a letter that called on the Ugandan president to veto the law. AJWS had gathered the signatures of more than 300 rabbis for the letter.

Bass’ Web site illustrates her interest in the law, through a statement from December:  “I am deeply concerned regarding the harassment, discrimination and violence that Uganda’s LGBT community will certainly face should this legislation become law,” the congresswoman said in December.

Bass could not be immediately reached for comment on Feb. 24.

The bill is a revised version of a 2010 bill, which included a provision for the death penalty in connection to acts of “aggravated homosexuality.” The version that was signed into law this week does not include the death penalty provision.

Social justice organizations inside of Uganda plan to challenge the constitutionality of the bill in court, according to the AJWS press release.

Calendar December 7-13



The old country just got a little newer. Taking traditional sounds and themes and infusing them with some modern funk, the Grammy-winning band brings rhythm and timeless spirit to its audiences. With 25 years of experience and a growing fan base, the Klezmatics have changed the face of the Yiddish imprint on popular culture. They are making history, performing history, and you get to dance all the while. Sat. 7:30 p.m. $69-$108. The Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200. SUN | DEC 8


Here’s an opportunity to work off some of that Thanksgiving feast (not that you don’t look great). It’s a 5K run/walk that raises funds for the Los Angeles Jewish Home so that it can provide the finest care for its golden-years residents. From basic services to tai chi, the Home offers much to many. With a pancake breakfast and face painting after you finish, it’s a festive morning for everyone. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield is going, so you can, too! Sun. 7 a.m. (registration), 8:20 a.m. (opening ceremony), 8:30 (5K), 10 a.m. (breakfast). Free (seniors, 80 and over), $15 (youth), $35 (general, ages 13 to 80). Jewish Home’s Eisenberg Village Campus, 18855 Victory Blvd., Reseda. (818) 774-3324. ” target=”_blank”>


“Symphonic Prayers and Poems” is an opportunity to understand how the power of music transcends cultural and religious conflict. Highly acclaimed composer Mohammed Fairouz interweaves Aramaic, Jewish, Israeli, Arab and Western inspirations to showcase how strong and unique togetherness can be. Klezmer musician David Krakauer performs the West Coast premiere of “Tahrir,” a clarinet concerto written for him by Fairouz. Sun. 7 p.m. $30-$50. Royce Hall at UCLA, 340 Royce Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 825-2101. ” target=”_blank”> (310) 825-5387. 



Dec. 10 is International Human Rights Day, and American Jewish World Service (AJWS), along with many proud partners, is hosting a forum honoring what those rights mean for everyone, everywhere. A panel discussion moderated by Journal Executive Editor Susan Freudenheim will include AJWS President Ruth Messinger, Guatemalan activist Claudia Virginia Samayoa, Temple Emanuel’s Rabbi Laura Geller and Loyola Marymount political science professor Jodi Finkel. American folk musician Julie Silver will perform. Mon. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Emanuel, 8844 Burton Way, Beverly Hills. (310) 843-9588. “>

TUE | DEC 10


This one’s for all you thrill readers and big imaginers. Whether you were a fan of “World War Z” or “Daredevil,” Brooks (the son of Mel Brooks), Mark Waid and legendary producer Thomas Tull have collaborated on a graphic novel that might get a little dark. “Shadow Walk” follows a U.S. Special-Ops team as they discover the Valley of the Shadow of Death — the one we hear so much about from the Bible — which might be an actual place hosting a dangerous new energy source. Tue. 7 p.m. Free. Barnes & Noble at The Grove, 189 The Grove Drive, Los Angeles. (323) 525-0270.

Rabbi David Wolpe in Thailand: Have you ever seen a menorah dance?

Traveling reminds us that the old is distinctive and the new melds together. I had never been to Thailand, or indeed to any country in Southeast Asia. As the bus rolled through the streets, nothing in the facade of the 7-Eleven convenience store or the crushed muddle of Bangkok traffic proved startling. They were new phenomena, and modernity homogenizes the world: Golden Arches stretch from Boston to Bangalore. Suddenly though, rising from the Bangkok street was a reclining Buddha, long and languorous, golden and utterly unexpected. The old is distinctive and the new familiar: Buddhism is old. Rush hour is new.

The same question about what is truly old and what is new bubbles beneath the surface of Jewish life. Is it genuine or a newish fad to speak of Judaism as a crusade for economic equality? A traditionalist might say, in the manner of the paragraph above, tefillin old, social justice new. What is distinctive and therefore most precious about Judaism is its ancient legacy.

But that would be too hasty and censorious a judgment. Jews have never cared only for Jews. In the ancient Temple, the Priest would make 70 sacrifices, one for each nation of the world. Helping others mipne darchei shalom, because of the path of peace, is at least as old as the Mishna, a scant 600 years after the Buddha. Any cursory reading of the prophets teaches that economic justice and human rights may not be the sum of Judaism, but there is no Judaism without them. 

 So filled with ideas both old and new, incongruous as it may seem, a busload of Jews from across the United States rolled through the streets of Thailand arguing about the Jewish tradition. What does Judaism have to say about the equitable distribution of resources, or the rights to protection against violence and exploitation of sex workers? Is poverty in the village less onerous than poverty in the city? What was I, and the group from American Jewish World Service (AJWS) I was traveling with, doing in a nation with so little Jewish history? Jews have had a profound impact in numerous lands throughout the world, but the Jewish story of Thailand would fill, at most, a page — if the print were writ large. 

First there are delightful, surprising synergies. On my way into Bangkok, my guide was lamenting how the Buddhist calendar, because it is lunar, mandates a leap year every few years to balance things out. Crazy, huh? “Umm,” I said — thereby cementing Jews’ reputation for snappy repartee — “us, too.” 

We came during a 10-day festival of vegetarianism. Buddhists eat meat, the guide explained, but because they recognize that all meat eating involves death, they have regulations to remind them of that sad necessity of life. “Umm,” I said — invoking my now-familiar mantra — “us, too.”

Then he began to complain how little genuine Buddhist education most Buddhists receive. At this point I just kept quiet, because he was starting to think I was just copying everything he said. 

But perhaps nothing was quite so startling as seeing a traditional presentation, performed by a heavily made-up, costumed “queen” with delicate movements and slow, angled poses. The spectacle was a treat, but its name was better. “Menora” refers to the theater form and may have originated from a proper name. Still, however many Jews have lit a menorah, few can say they saw a menora dance.

AJWS is an organization whose stated aim is to realize human rights and help alleviate poverty in the developing world. But its mission is a specific kind of relief. Although traveling to some of the most bereft spots on the planet, its groups are instructed not to “give” anything to the people whom they meet. AJWS is not engaged in charity as traditionally conceived. The sole and significant exception is that we brought a bunch of T-shirts. That matters for reasons I will explain below.

A Thai woman from a group funded by AJWS offers hospitality to visitors. Photo by Angela Maddahi

Instead, AJWS identifies groups doing important work in their own countries, which are underfunded, and helps them with personal contacts and funds. The amounts are small by charitable standards — $15,000, $20,000 — but they can make a huge difference in the lives of struggling activists in poor countries.

Years ago, while I was teaching at Hunter College in New York in the 1980s, a rally to end apartheid in South Africa and a rally to free Soviet Jewry were both held on the same day. At the end of class, a Jewish student asked me which she should attend. I answered that she should go to the Soviet Jewry rally because, I explained, if you go to the Soviet Jewry rally, others will still attend the anti-apartheid rally. But if Jews flock to the anti-apartheid rally, who will be left to agitate on behalf of Soviet Jews? I added that at the next anti-apartheid rally, she should absolutely go. Ours are not the only causes worth fighting for. If we are only for ourselves we will never succeed in being ourselves.

The question of whom and how to help is urgent. Family first, but not only family. Helping outside your family is part of defining what kind of family you are. Additionally, the remarkable finding of recent surveys is that Jews who give to the Jewish community are also those most likely to give to general causes. In other words, giving is not a zero-sum game. The same people on the bus in Thailand who give time and money to remote villagers are deeply involved and invested in Jewish charities. The president of AJWS, Ruth Messinger, former president of the borough of Manhattan, is also a learned, involved and committed Jew. In her early 70s, she is still constantly traveling to the 19 countries AJWS serves, indefatigably shlepping, exhorting and instructing. Rabbis accompany the trips to provide Jewish perspective, teaching and values. The aim of AJWS is to help non-Jews as Jews.

Thailand is a place where the poverty is not as dire as in many other lands in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean served by AJWS. It is that rare country that was never colonized and, even in a fairly remote village, while there was no cell reception or Internet, we saw several people crowded around an old laptop playing a game and a delighted child with eyes fixed on an iPhone. This village’s livelihood, old and arduous, is the slow and painstaking accumulation of rubber from trees, which forms Thailand’s main industry.

But there is deep poverty, political oppression and an enduring need, and among the marginalized remains a yearning to be heard. Thailand is still a country where criticizing the king will land you in prison, and criticizing the government can get you “disappeared.” AJWS has sought out local groups that are working for human rights and fosters their efforts through encouragement and aid. A fishing village is trying to hold onto the profit from its labors and limit the coal production in its vicinity; a farming village seeks to retain the right to its land, held for generations. Funding does not decide these issues, but it helps to give the people a voice. 

Living conditions in the poor neighborhoods of Thailand can be seen in this makeshift house, yet the residents are generous and anxious to preserve their traditional customs. Photo by Angela Maddahi

In some parts of the world, encouragement means making alliances with people like Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee, an early recipient of AJWS grants who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize. It means rehabilitating child soldiers; fighting human trafficking; opposing the practices of forcing children to marry, sell their bodies or lose their parents. It means supporting war widows and promoting literacy in some of the most forsaken and poverty-stricken lands on earth. 

Like its neighbors, Thailand was devastated by the 2004 tsunami. Our guide spoke to us of the courage of the women he knew who identified the bodies, row upon row, from the towns and villages where they lived. He did not want to leave his house until his son, a month after the tsunami, forced him outside and back into life. The undercurrent of trauma continues to ripple through Thailand. Think of 9/11, which took place a few years before the tsunami, and recall that more than twice as many people died in Thailand than in the World Trade Center Towers, in a country with a population roughly one-fifth that of the United States. 

It is not lost on anyone, from the groups we help to the guides we employ, that we are Jews. In a particularly dramatic moment on our trip, one man, through a translator, told Messinger that he had heard good things and bad things about Jews, but he now knew what we stood for because other groups came right after the tsunami and never returned. He said, in a moment of delicious incongruity, that he was going to show his children the Holocaust movie “Life Is Beautiful,” which he had seen, so they would know more about Jews. Another man, in a group that included many Muslims (who make up a mere 5 percent of the population of Thailand), said he knew that in the world there were those who had political divisions, Muslim and Jew, but what mattered was that we were there to help. We gave T-shirts to the group, and I like to think that across Thailand (and all the countries served by AJWS), there are children with “Jewish” emblazoned across their chests. 

These moments may not be crucial in themselves. But in addition to doing good, seeds are sewn. A child from that fishing village, who took a picture standing beside a rabbi with a kippah, may grow up to have influence in Thailand. A lesbian activist, who heard a judge in our group talk about presiding over the same-sex wedding of her own daughter in the United States, may feel less starkly alone. In many of the nations where AJWS works, from Chad to Cambodia to Burma to Haiti, this may be the only time people see a Jew in the flesh. And they see we are there to help them. In the metaphor of Piju, our Thai guide, translator and a member of the staff of AJWS, we were not fireworks who burn bright and then vanish. On subsequent visits, years later, people still ask after those whom they have met. 

For the guides and hotel staff, (who miraculously created a challah following pictures on Google) an image of our Shabbat celebration — from candles to Birkat ha-Mazon to Havdalah in the humid night — serves as a mental image of the beauty of our tradition. 

Of course ambassadorship, however precious, is not ultimately the point. To do good for instrumental reasons is politics, not mitzvah. AJWS is there to help organizations that are fighting for the rights of the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the scared, the lost, the thwarted, the abused. The index of a society’s health all across the world is in its treatment of women, one of the pillars of AJWS activism. An impressive and persistent theme throughout the trip was that many of the groups we met with chose women as their spokespeople. We met a lawyer who came to speak to our dinner with her husband and daughter. When asked why she pushes against the government to secure land rights, a woman known by the nickname Thik said, “I decided I did not want to be a lawyer; I wanted to make law.” To encourage her and amplify her voice is to change the world for the better.

Working with 500 NGOs in 19 countries, the individual donations from AJWS are small. But to a struggling group, these grants of anywhere from $15,000 to about $25,000 can be the difference between advocacy and oblivion. Saving a single life is saving a world, the Rabbis remind us. It is not much, in the scheme of our good fortune, when there are so many worlds to save. As Ruth Messinger likes to say, “We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.”

Naam, from Southern Farmers Alliance, summed it up this way: “If I don’t start, then others won’t follow, so it has to be me.” Somewhere along the way, the alchemy of intimacy changed all of us. We began, “I see you”; moved to, “I feel for you”; and ended, “I’m with you.” Turns out Hineni can be said in every language on God’s good earth.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook/RabbiWolpe.

AJWS president Ruth Messinger applauds Supreme Court ruling on DOMA & Prop 8

American Jewish World Service President Ruth Messinger released the following statement today after the Supreme Court ruled in two cases related to marriage equality.

“We applaud today’s historic decisions by the Supreme Court to strike down discriminatory laws as a major victory for equal rights for LGBTI people in the United States,” said Messinger. “We believe that this is one of the necessary steps to ensure that the human rights of people of all sexual orientations are respected everywhere in the world.

“Too many people in too many countries are ostracized, threatened and assaulted just for living their lives and loving others of the same gender. In 76 countries, people can be arrested for having sex with someone of the same gender and in five countries the punishment is the death penalty.

“As the Jewish voice for LBGTI rights worldwide, we are proud to support LGBTI activists in Cambodia, El Salvador, Haiti, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Uganda and elsewhere. These defenders of human rights stand up for the dignity and rights of every person, and they put their lives on the line to defend the human rights of the LGBTI people,” said Messinger.

AJWS is the eighth largest funder of LGBTI rights worldwide. AJWS has granted nearly $5 million to support advocates for LGBTI rights and currently funds 50 organizations promoting the rights of LGBTI people in 18 countries.  

About American Jewish World Service:

American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is the leading Jewish organization working to promote human rights and end poverty in the developing world. We support more than 400 grassroots organizations in Africa, Asia and the Americas that promote the rights of women, girls and LGBT people; rebuild societies torn apart by war and natural disasters; and seek to secure access to food, land and water. In the United States, we mobilize our supporters to advocate for U.S. policies that help create a just and equitable world. We are inspired by Judaism’s commitment to pursue justice and repair the world, and we believe that Jewish history teaches us to respect and fight for the rights of others.

Growing the fruits of peace in El Salvador

Don Israel speaks no English, and I speak almost no Spanish. But I understood him well enough to realize that, as I began to plant one of the mango trees that would be placed in his field that day,  he obviously thought I was doing it wrong. Our mutual patience eventually conquered our communication barrier, though, and with time, I learned and understood. We went on to plant about a dozen mango trees together that morning.

Don Israel’s small parcel of land is in a rural village in the Lempa River region of El Salvador. I was there as part of a delegation sent by American Jewish World Service (AJWS), consisting of 16 extraordinary young people training to be rabbis, educators or leaders of Jewish nonprofits. (I was honored to be the scholar-in-residence for the group.) For 10 days, we labored alongside our hosts, planting trees, digging irrigation ditches and building latrines. But it became obvious fairly early on that our primary mission there was not to work (we were, after all, a fairly inexperienced work bunch), but rather to learn and to understand, as human beings and as Jews. Patience turned out to be our most important asset, as the story of the Lempa River region took time to comprehend. And though there is still much more to know, I left with at least the outline of a story of war and peace, of exile and return, of anxiety and hope, and of human courage and nobility. It is a story that has enriched my religious life and has expanded my sense of religious duty.

The story begins with an event that I had been embarrassingly ignorant about, the vicious civil war that wracked El Salvador through the 1980s. And although I had done some reading about it in anticipation of this trip, the event was still remote and emotionally inaccessible. But this changed suddenly and dramatically on our very first afternoon, as we gathered beneath the thatched-roof courtyard just outside Chungo Fuentes’ home. Fuentes is the bearer of the story, the embodiment of the memory.

Fuentes’ part of the story is rooted in the political dissent that had been growing throughout the 1970s among El Salvador’s lower economic classes. The dissent was fueled by bitter resentment against the military-backed government under whose rule the great majority of the country’s land was owned by fewer than 20 wealthy families, leaving much of the population struggling for sustenance. The Catholic Church became a major organizer of the political protest movement, whose voice was thwarted through the government’s rigging of elections, and the military’s tactics of physical intimidation and violence. The 1980 assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, a highly influential figure in the protest movement, helped to spark an all-out civil war between leftist guerilla groups and the Salvadoran military. Many rural villages whose civilian residents were sympathetic to the guerillas came under attack at the hands of military death squads, who killed indiscriminately, and who, in December 1981, carried out a horrific massacre of civilians at the village of El Mozote. (“Report of the U.N. Truth Commission on El Salvador” is an excellent source of further information.)

As this was unfolding, Fuentes led a group of nearly 1,000 villagers across the border into Honduras, and from there to the mountains of Panama, where they were granted political asylum. As he recounts the story for us, Fuentes speaks of the faith they all had that this exile would be temporary, and that they would return to their homeland one day. That day came 10 years later, in 1992, when the two sides signed a peace accord in which the government, among other things, agreed to distribute land to the common people, including Fuentes and his fellow refugees.

It is worth noting that all of us in the group reflexively drew parallels between the story we were hearing and our own national story. It was only the following week that we realized that we were far from the first to make the connection. The massive mural in town depicting the story dedicates one panel to the oppression at the hand of the government. It prominently features an image of the Egyptian pyramids.

As dramatic as it was, though, it was not primarily a story of war that we had come to El Salvador to learn and understand, rather a story of how people recover from war. It took time and required patience for the details of this story to come together, but when it did, what we learned is that recovery only happens when people on the ground are able to summon up the very best of what makes us human, and when people from the outside bring their core moral and religious convictions to bear on the situation of strangers.

The peace accords were far from a panacea. Yes, men and women now came to the Lempa River region to claim their new parcels of land. But as many of these men and women had been on opposite sides of the fighting, distrust and the potential for further violence came with them. In addition to which, no one had money to invest in farming, and nobody was trained in modern agricultural methods. The area lacked even the most basic infrastructure — to this day, in fact, most of the roads are unpaved, streetlights are few, there are no sanitation or postal services, and the nearest hospital is an hour and a half away — and on top of all of that, the new landowners were living, without any evacuation plan, right next to a river that regularly overflowed its banks. I can still see Fuentes holding his palm to his waist when he described the devastating floods of this past October.

That people aren’t fighting and aren’t starving in the Lempa River region today is due to a small group of residents who convened right after the war, pledging to create a peace zone in which grievances could be aired, but also that a commitment to putting aside past differences in the name of community-building would prevail. They pledged to go from village to village to hear what people most needed and also to enlist them in a voluntary cooperative through which they would become trained in sustainable methods of farming and environmental protection. They also would agree to work collectively to market their agricultural output, thus maximizing profit for all. They drew up an evacuation plan for the next flood (last October they succeeded in evacuating 7,000 people, losing not one soul to the disaster). A parallel women’s group created an NGO that provided micro-loans for war widows, enabling them to purchase livestock. (Today it provides all kinds of economic and social services to the women of the region.) People, scarred by years of poverty and war,  with every reason to be untrusting and suspicious of one another, instead formed a democratic, self-governing organization to forge a better life for everyone. Two of the organization’s directors today serve in El Salvador’s parliament.

But this is only one half of the story.

The other part is that none of this could have unfolded without outside help. There was plenty of evidence on the ground of the impact of USAID, most dramatically in the person of our local guide, Chema Argueta, who was plucked as a high school senior from a poor fishing village on the Jiquilisco Bay, trained for two years in Portland, Ore., in the management of natural resources, and returned to his community where he today humbly leads the effort to preserve the bay’s mangrove ecosystem, thus securing the future for the bay’s fisherman and their families. And then there was the ubiquitous presence of the AJWS, which has been making grants for community organizations in the Lempa River region for decades. One group after another gratefully acknowledged AJWS’ impact. It’s difficult to describe, by the way, the sense of pride we felt each time AJWS was mentioned by people who otherwise would never have had any contact with Jews, but who now know us as a compassionate, smart and forward-looking humanitarian partner. 

And this is the other half of the story we had come to learn: that visionary outsiders empower visionaries on the ground. It can’t happen any other way.

Torah study was woven through our 10 days in the country. Within our group we learned and analyzed texts concerning the halachic responsibility to respond to human beings in crisis, the imperative to extend justice to the disadvantaged, the command to preserve the dignity of those who are receiving aid, and the very complex question as to where tzedakah directed toward the wider human community fits within our tzedakah obligation toward our fellow Jews. As leaders and future leaders of Jewish institutions, we all intuitively understood how important this latter question is.

The story of the Lempa River region is far from over. Next year, hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. economic development aid will flow into El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Corp. (MCC). Local leaders are worried, though, that the MCC’s requirement that the recipient government invest the funds in a manner that will attract international private sector investment (not a bad plan in and of itself) might undermine their work by creating incentives and pressures on farmers to grow crops that will bring short-term profits but long-term soil depletion, or to sell their parcels to larger land owners, which will ultimately land them back where they were before the war. Good news might be bad news. Everything is complicated.

And of course, as the autumn approaches, everyone there will be keeping a wary eye on the water level in the Lempa.

On the plane ride home, I thought a lot about Don Israel, Chungo Fuentes,  Chema Argueta, and the many other men and women we met. I thought about the nobility of their common struggle, the fragility of their gains and the vulnerability of their livelihoods. And about the wise teaching of Rabbi Tarfon, who taught that while it is not ours to complete the task, we are not free to desist from it either.

For more information about American Jewish World Service, visit

Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Opinion: Fishing in Africa

To meet Ikal Angelei in a Wilshire Boulevard coffee shop, as I did this week, is to traverse oceans and travel through deserts. Angelei is an activist from Kenya specializing in the geopolitics of water, a 32-year-old powerhouse who just won a highly prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, said to be the “the largest award in the world for grassroots environmentalists.” The award, for which she was sponsored by the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) and which brings with it $150,000, was created by the late San Francisco-based philanthropic couple Richard N. and Rhoda H. Goldman, who in addition to their environmental advocacy were active supporters of the arts and Jewish culture.

It’s a long way from our world to Angelei’s, but hers is an important story for us all — raising issues of how our tax dollars are spent in faraway lands, how genocide can be prevented, how the effects of global warming have become very real to some people, and how one person can make a very big difference just by lending an ear and using her voice.

Angelei is fighting to save her land’s most important natural resource. East Africa’s Rift Valley and Lake Turkana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the source of some of the world’s oldest fossils, as well as for its crocodiles, hippos and other wildlife. The region is home to six tribes of indigenous peoples who are farmers, herders and fishermen, and who in recent years have begun to fight one another for resources for their crops and their cattle.

“These people don’t see borders,” Angelei told me. “They see the delta that once was in Ethiopia, and now it’s in Kenya. They don’t understand the difference.” Over the past 40 years, due to climate change, the lake has receded, decreasing water supply — and increasing the salinity of what is left — a problem both for animals and for people.

“Last year, we lost 124 people in one day of violence,” Angelei told me with a disarming equanimity. She said she was in the village of Todonyang, in the northeastern corner of the Turkana region, when the attack took place. “I work in that village, and I still sleep there. My family hates that I do.”

The intertribal violence will get worse and likely could turn into all-out genocide, Angelei predicts, if a dam called the Gibe 3 Dam is completed along the Omo River, the source of 90 percent of Lake Turkana’s water, the life source for a region whose indigenous population numbers about 500,000 people. The dam project, begun in 2006 in Ethiopia, is designed to provide hydroelectric power to both Ethiopia and Kenya, supported by both nations.

Normally, we might think that providing electricity is a good thing in a primitive region, right? The problem is the Gibe 3 Dam, often compared to China’s Three Gorges Dam, would, Angelei asserts, severely damage the lake and leave people without food or livelihood.

Think of the violence and destruction in the Sudan — of the advocacy work now being done to repair lives — and consider how that could be the future of this region of Kenya, an entirely preventable outcome if construction of the dam is reconsidered. Because when the plans for the Gibe 3 Dam were put in place, no independent environmental review was done. The fact is, the dam wasn’t being built just to bring electrical power to people, Angelei says; the project, funded in part by China and, initially, with money promised by the World Bank, was expected to encourage multinational corporations to get a foothold in the region.

For the moment, Angelei, this fearless young woman with an enormously bright smile, is attempting to bring a different kind of power — a voice — to her community. And she’s had some success. She is a community organizer, and she has told the story of the coming dam to tribal elders, chiefs and anyone who will listen. Before her, they knew nothing about it, despite its looming impact. Angelei described to me how she has sat for hours listening to elders tell their own stories, just so she could get a chance to share hers as well. And in the process, she’s brought together all six tribes with just one cause: halting the construction. In 2009, the locals created a “Lake Turkana’s People’s Declaration” allowing Angelei’s organization, Friends of Lake Turkana, to represent them.

Angelei and other tribal members took their mandate to Kenya’s leaders and convinced its parliament to endorse the first independent environmental review of the project. She also was instrumental in getting UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee to pass a resolution to halt construction of the dam until further review, and she convinced the World Bank, the European Investment Bank and the African Development Bank to withdraw consideration of financing of the dam. For the moment, her voice — the people’s voice — has been heard.

So what’s our part in all of this? Allison Lee, the L.A. regional director for AJWS, host for Angelei’s visit to Los Angeles, explained that U.S. tax dollars support aid to foreign lands through the U.S. Farm Bill, which is up for reconsideration right now in the U.S. Senate. What makes this related to Angelei’s cause is that our Farm Bill, as currently written, only supports food aid to foreign lands through delivery of food products from the United States. This does not allow for how our gift might affect food production there. U.S. food gets delivered to, say, Kenya, and as a result, local farmers can’t afford to price their own goods competitively. Add that challenge to drought, wars over rights to build a dam, and we’re all complicit in a potential collision of interests where the indigenous men, women and children on the ground get hurt.

What can we do? We can advocate for reform in the Farm Bill. We can support the Friends of Lake Turkana and their right to have a voice in determining what happens to their land. In doing so, we will help prevent genocide. These farmers and fishermen need our advocacy for their efforts, not our food. As Lee put it, “We need to recognize that Ikal [Angelei] and the people in Ikal’s village are best-suited to implement change.”

Maimonides taught us that the highest form of charity is to teach a man to support himself. Similarly, an ancient Chinese proverb instructs: “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and he can feed himself for life.” 

These people know how to fish. They want to care for themselves. What we have to do is figure out how to help people like Angelei to allow them to keep their resources and their ability to continue to do so.

Clergy lobby against foreign food aid cuts

Jewish clergy and educators lobbied Congress to maintain food aid to foreign countries.

The American Jewish World Service brought about 20 clergy, rabbinical students and educators to Congress on Monday to lobby against proposed budget cuts to the emergency food aid.

Participants in the delegation had joined AJWS Rabbinical Student Delegations to developing world nations.

The AJWS release did not say which Congress members had been lobbied. Congress is seeking to cut programs as a means of trimming the deficit.

Jewish group appeals to Obama on Sudan

The American Jewish World Service joined an appeal to President Obama to add sanctions to the incentives he has offered Sudan’s government to comply with peace deals.

“President Obama, When will you impose serious consequences for ethnic cleansing and mass atrocities?” said an ad that appeared June 22 in The Washington Post.

“We are pleased that the Obama administration is calling out bad behavior and that he will withhold incentives and move to not take Sudan off the terrorism list,” AJWS President Ruth Messinger told JTA.

“The only way to further call this guy out is if the U.S. increases sanctions on him,” she said, referring to President Omar al-Bashir.

One measure would be to increase pressure on China, one of the few nations still backing Bashir, to cut him off, Messinger said.

AJWS has taken the lead in promoting awareness of the genocide carried out by affiliates of the Bashir regime in the region of Darfur.

American Jewish World Service moves to J Space

American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit that provides humanitarian assistance to developing countries, recently signed a lease for office space in Los Angeles, and on May 6, a ceremony marked the organization’s move into the office.

At the ceremony, Ruth Messinger, president of AJWS, affixed a mezuzah to the doorpost of the new Los Angeles office, and Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR recited a blessing.

“This is a huge step forward for American Jewish World Service in Los Angeles,” Messinger said. “We’re a nice-size organization, doing what I think is very, very important work around the world, but this is a big country, and we had to figure out strategically where to be located.”

Until now, the West Coast administrative activity of AJWS — which promotes health, education, economic development and disaster relief in 34 countries in Africa, Asia and the Americas — has been done out of its office in San Francisco, along with limited operations in Los Angeles.

“Allison [Lee, Los Angeles regional director of AJWS], “has been operating AJWS-LA out of her house and car,” Messinger said.

The new space, known as J Space, is set up by the nonprofit Jumpstart to become a multitenant nonprofit center with shared office space for multiple Jewish organizations.

The office is located in a Westfield Corp.-owned office building in Century City.

Jumpstart co-founders Shawn Landres and Joshua Avedon also attended the ceremony. AJWS moved into one of the two closed-door offices at J Space — Jumpstart occupies the other — and the move reflects AJWS’ faith in J Space’s mission.

It was “not just [about] getting a physical space,” Messinger said, “but getting a physical space that has meaning.”

AJWS joins critique of White House on Sudan vote

The American Jewish World Service joined other human rights groups in criticizing the Obama administration for not exacting consequences on Sudan for elections seen as flawed.

In its statement Tuesday on this month’s Sudan elections, the White House said that “political rights and freedoms were circumscribed throughout the electoral process, there were reports of intimidation and threats of violence in South Sudan, ongoing conflict in Darfur did not permit an environment conducive to acceptable elections, and inadequacies in technical preparations for the vote resulted in serious irregularities.”

The White House said it “regretted” the problems and added that it remains committed to helping to implement the remainder of a comprehensive peace agreement that is to culminate in a referendum next year on independence.

The human rights groups depicted the White House’s statement as ineffectual, noting earlier pledges by Obama to hold President Omar al-Bashir accountable should he not abide by the terms of the peace agreement. AJWS joined the Save Darfur Coalition, Enough and Stop Genocide Now in pressing Obama to do more.

Their joint statement called on the administration to implement “pressure and consequences to reduce the risk of full-scale war and prevent further manipulation by spoilers in Khartoum during the run-up to the January 2011 referendum on independence for Southern Sudan.”

In a separate statement, AJWS President Ruth Messinger said “The administration must demonstrate that peace in Sudan is a priority worthy of the continued personal attention of the president, vice president and secretary of state.”

Kenya crisis puts Jews on alert

While the Jews of Kenya seem unscathed by the country’s political crisis, Jewish nongovernmental agencies that work there and elsewhere in Africa are bracing for the long-term effects of the sudden outbreak of violence.

Interethnic violence erupted Dec. 27 after the incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, declared himself the winner of the country’s presidential election amid evidence of widespread fraud. Opposition leader Raila Odinga maintains he won the election.

An estimated 500 to 1,000 people have been killed and more than 250,000 left homeless as a result of rioting and pitched battles between members of minority tribes, including Odinga’s Luo tribe, and members of the Kikuyu tribe, the elite clan that has controlled Kenyan politics since the country gained independence in 1963.

The unrest has shaken the nongovernmental organizations that work in eastern and central Africa. Rioting and roadblocks set up by vigilante groups have made travel impossible, and the violence has endangered workers.

Although the violence has eased somewhat this week, Jewish groups are on alert.

“People are afraid about the violence and are staying home and out of the street, and it is very difficult to reach people,” said Julia Greenberg, the director of grants for the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which funds the relief work of 14 organizations in Kenya.

The AJWS works mostly with groups in the slums of Nairobi, including Kibera, and in western Kenya, where the fiercest violence has occurred.

It wasn’t until Monday that the AJWS was able to regain contact with the groups it funds, according to Maitri Morarji, the program officer who oversees East Africa for the organization. The AJWS is assessing the needs of the groups it funds and may distribute small emergency grants to help feed people, Morarji said.

“Everyone is looking at security issues, and everyone is holding back new projects,” said Will Recant, the assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

Recant oversees the JDC’s international and nonsectarian projects, including the construction of the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village in Rwanda, which the JDC is building to house orphans of that country’s 1994 genocide.

A spike in gas prices over the past week resulting from the violence already has made the use of cars and buses difficult, Morarji said. Recant said he is concerned that the instability in Kenya will spark across-the-board price hikes.

Meanwhile, Kenya’s small Jewish community seems unscathed by the violence.

Nairobi has 400 to 500 Jews — mostly British, Australian, Canadian and American expatriates. The community has a synagogue congregation that meets weekly, according to the director of Chabad of Central Africa, Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila.

Bentolila is stationed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, about a three-hour flight from Nairobi, but he arranges for Chabad rabbis to serve Nairobi’s Jewish community on holidays. He said he has been in contact with Jews in Nairobi and in Mombasa, a resort town on Kenya’s coast, where a dozen or so Jews live.

“There is some high tension,” Bentolila said. “Kenya is a country which has always been stable. It’s a country where there are no revolutions. It is a noble country where people go to work every day and come home at night. They are not used to revolutions.

“For the last few days, the country has been upside down, but in Nairobi it was only in the slums,” he said.

In the residential part of town, where the Jews live, Bentolila said the streets were empty last week, but as the violence ebbed this week people began to return to their lives and livelihoods.

But, he cautioned, “They know things can turn in an instant.”

During the height of the violence, the key to remaining safe was staying vigilant and trying to avoid hot spots, said Daniel Pollack, a 21-year-old senior at Queens College in New York, who was in Nairobi when the violence broke out.

Pollack, who had gone to distribute money he raised to help repair a school in Kibera, left Sunday for Egypt. He said the U.S. Embassy told him to expect a war in Kenya.

“The embassy had called me and said stock up on food,” Pollack said.

“I saw a lot of destruction. I saw minivans burned out in the middle of the road, hundreds of shops burned and destroyed. When I would come home from Kibera, I would have to pick glass out of my shoes,” he said.

Pollack said he did not feel threatened immediately, even though he was within a 10-minute walk of the violence, “but you had to be aware.”

“I felt safe because I didn’t put myself in harm’s way,” he said, “but I could have easily gotten killed.”

Kenya has a history of calm in a volatile continent, with the country relatively immune to the tribal warfare that has torn apart other African nations. NGOs have used Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, as a safe hub from which to dispatch aid workers and materials into nearby countries.

In one example of the ripple effect of the unrest in Kenya, contractors seeking to transport goods through the country to landlocked Rwanda say they may need to find alternate, and longer, routes for their goods. The price of concrete already has risen as a result.

“We have heard from our contractor that we should expect a rise in cost,” Recant said. “If one pipeline breaks down, it has a ripple effect and everything is affected.”

Recant said the JDC would not abandon the Agohozu-Shalom project, but it may have to scale it back because of rising costs.

“We might not have a library,” he said.

At Save Darfur Rally: ‘Never Again, Again’

Some, like Seattle resident Julie Margulies, 50, flew thousands of miles to the nation’s capital to attend. Others, like high school student Adam Zuckerman, 18, from Portland, Maine, raised money to help bring friends — both Darfuri and Jewish — to Washington for the big day.

Toting signs of “Never again, again” and “Not on our watch,” Jews representing Hillel groups and day schools, synagogues and youth groups, community centers, Hadassah chapters and all denominations came from around the country to the National Mall in Washington for Sunday’s Save Darfur rally. (Please also see page 11, for one person’s experience of the rally.)

Participants included a delegation of more than 100 from Los Angeles. Another group of Angelenos attended a Darfur rally in San Francisco.

With the genocide in Darfur topping the Jewish community’s national agenda, an unmistakable Jewish presence ran through Sunday’s rally. Organized by the Save Darfur Coalition, a collection of 150 faith-based advocacy and humanitarian aid organizations initiated by two Jewish agencies, the roster of speakers included Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel; Ruth Messinger, president of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS); and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Other speakers included political heavyweights such as Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), minority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.); celebrities such as actor-director George Clooney, Olympic skater Joey Cheek and the Rev. Al Sharpton; and Sudanese representatives like Simon Deng, who recently walked from New York City to Washington to call attention to the situation in his homeland.

Their voices joined to oppose the genocide being waged by Arab militias against black Africans in a poor, desert-ridden region of Sudan known as Darfur. Since 2003, the government-backed militias have been decimating towns and raping, torturing and killing hundreds of thousands of Darfuris, leaving behind scorched earth.

Famine and disease are now endemic in the region, where refugees subsist in makeshift displaced persons camps. Officials in Chad nervously monitor the conflict, which they worry will spill over to their country. The situation in Darfur, which some estimate has claimed more than 400,000 lives, constitutes the first time the United States government has recognized genocide while it is still occurring.

Those behind the Save Darfur Coalition say Sunday’s rally aimed to galvanize a multinational peacekeeping force to stop the attacks and ensure that humanitarian aid can be delivered.

David Rubenstein, a coordinator of the coalition, elaborated on these goals in a memo to the White House that called for guaranteed access to food and medical aid in the region, a beefed-up force on the ground from the African Union, a more effective United Nations peacekeeping mission and a presidential envoy focused on Darfur.

Addressing the sea of faces in Washington, Saperstein challenged listeners to realize these goals.

“An ‘A’ for effort doesn’t do it,” he said. “Your legacies and ours will be measured not by efforts alone but by whether, in the end, we stop or fail to stop this genocide.”

Jewish participants like Joseph Milgrom, 92, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor from suburban Maryland, found the message particularly salient because of the Holocaust.

“I was standing in line and they were sending people right, left, right, left,” he said of his experiences in the Holocaust, the tears rolling down his cheeks. “I was sent to work. Everybody else in my family died.”

For these reasons and others, Jewish participants turned up in droves Sunday under hot and sunny skies. Rally organizers reported Jewish representation from all major cities along the Eastern seaboard and from as far away as Wisconsin, Oregon and California.

At least 100 traveled from Los Angeles for the rally through the joint efforts of the locally based Jewish World Watch (JWW) and the Jewish Community Relations Committee, among other participating organizations and congregations. Those on the trip included Rabbi Karen Bender and Saundra Mandel of Temple Judea and Peter Marcus, chair of JWW’s Community Action and Response Committee and a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

“We delivered 15,000 postcards and 1,000 petition signatures to the AJWS as part of its Million Voices campaign,” said Janice Kamenir-Reznik, co-founder and president of JWW.

Rally Director Chuck Thies estimated the day’s turnout at roughly 75,000 people.

Activism on Darfur has been a rallying cry among socially conscious Jews for months. In February, the issue topped the agenda of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ annual plenum, which sets national priorities for local Jewish community relations councils.

The AJWS also has taken a lead role, with Messinger making two trips to Darfur. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum issued a genocide alert for Darfur even before the government did. The AJWS and the museum formed the Save Darfur Coalition in 2004.

The weekend’s pre-rally lineup included a smattering of Jewish-led Darfur events. Last Friday morning, Messinger and JCPA’s executive director, Steve Gutow, along with a slew of others, succeeded in getting arrested while protesting on the steps of the Sudanese Embassy.

That night, the DC Reform Chavurah and Tikkun Leil Shabbat hosted a Shabbat service on Darfur. This was followed by three Havdalah services Saturday night, including one at the Jefferson Memorial; and a Sunday morning pre-rally brunch at the George Washington University Hillel, among other events.

Meanwhile, the Million Voices for Darfur campaign, also launched by the Save Darfur Coalition, deluged the White House on Sunday with 1 million handwritten and electronic postcards.

The extent of Jewish involvement has caused some to ask how much other faith communities have done.

“I don’t know on what basis we can quantify what someone else can or should do,” Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, commented at a recent Darfur event outside the United Nations. “But it would be shameful if we cannot get faith communities in our country to say this is one of the most important issues of our day.”

Even Sudanese participants noticed a disproportionate Jewish presence at the rally and in relief efforts in general.

“The people in Darfur know very well and welcome the support of the American Jewish community,” said Iessa Dahia, a Darfuri now living in Portland, Maine.

Karlo Okoy, a Sudanese pastor living in Lakewood, Colo., echoed the sentiment.

“The present Sudanese killing is exactly the picture of Jewish killing in Germany. They feel the same pain, that’s why they came heavily to help out the Sudanese community,” he said.

Other rallies were staged in Portland and Eugene, Ore.; St. Paul, Minn.; Austin, Texas; Tucson and Prescott, Ariz.; Boca Raton, Fla.; San Francisco; Seattle; Somerville, N.J.; Toronto; and Boulder, Colo.

Some 50 to 100 people from Los Angeles journeyed to the San Francisco rally, under the leadership of Rabbis Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea and Ken Chasen of Leo Baeck Temple, in a trip organized by the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, the Union of Reform Judaism and JWW.


Women’s Lib Rises in Wake of Disaster


A Developing Reputation

Special Report – A Jewish Appeal to Remember and Rebuild

This Time They’re Ready for the Wave

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee
Web site:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Pipes Bring More Than Water

Our aging yellow school bus slowly drove up a steep mountain in a verdant forest in Honduras. I wondered why the bus driver was stopping at a seemingly random spot on the worst road I have ever seen. There were coffee and cornfields left and right. A herd of cows meandered down the road. As I peered out the window at the chickens rampaging beneath the mango trees, I noticed that a small crowd of women and children was gathering to stare back. And then I realized that this was it — this section of road was a village and my home for the next six weeks.

This past summer I and 14 other high school students lived and worked in Cuesta del Neo, a tiny aldeo of 70 families in rural, mountainous Honduras. Our mission: to build a pipeline several kilometers long to bring potable water for both domestic and agricultural uses to the village, which had been devastated by Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

We volunteered with the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), a nonprofit organization devoted to ending poverty by furthering sustainable development and promoting international human rights.

The people of the village lived in immense poverty. There was one streetlamp that sometimes worked. There was one television, about four radios and, more often than not, there was no way to power them. There was no indoor plumbing. School was available to most young children in the village, but secondary school was a two-hour uphill walk if your family could pay for the uniforms. Books were virtually unavailable.

The men worked long hours farming, and the women worked even harder to keep their families fed. The village has not received government aid since 1983.

I expected the impoverished to be downcast and hardened, burdened with the pain of existence and the suffering that plagues them. Nothing could be further from the truth in Cuesta del Neo. The attitudes of the people reflected such vibrancy and exuberance that I could hardly believe these were the same people who struggle just to have enough food on the tables for their large and extended families.

We worked hard on the pipeline. Digging with shovels and pickaxes in waist-high mud is no joke. We worked with a nongovernmental organization called Proyecto Aldeo Global (PAG), which helps aldeos to develop agriculture, technology and education. PAG works with villages that have asked for help as a community, and as such all members are required to participate in the development.

A rotation of men came to work with us digging the ditch, and they were so adept with a shovel that we felt completely useless. While we made pitiful little scratches in the dirt, these men were carving Grand Canyons through forests of roots. We felt inadequate and in the way. Then one of my group leaders, a Peace Corps worker, explained that we were not there only for the actual labor, but also as motivation for the villagers — our efforts gave them hope. Together we cheered when the water rushed through the pipes for the first time.

Not only did we get the experience of the physical labor, but we also got the cultural experience of living in homes of villagers. We shared their food, their stories, their precious few photographs. We shelled beans that had been picked by hand and dried on clotheslines. They taught us Spanish and we taught them English — the most common sounds echoing through the adobe houses were “?Como se dice?”, “How do you say…?” and lots of laughter.

The American teens all practiced different forms of Judaism, from secular to Orthodox. We did our best to make keeping kosher and Shabbat easy. We ate only vegetarian food, cooked with new pots and did not travel or drive on Shabbat. One of our more creative innovations was an “eruv” made of dental floss. We took turns leading Shabbat services. We also studied Jewish texts relating to sustainable development, poverty and the responsibilities that accompany us as Jews.

My experience has helped me to understand that through an accident of birth, I am lucky enough to live in the United States, where I have the responsibility to make a difference. It seems a daunting task, but as Ruth Messinger, the president of the AJWS, has repeatedly said, “We do not have the luxury of being overwhelmed.”

As Americans, and especially as Jews, we are in a unique position to call attention to injustice and to work to correct it. Judaism does not require us to complete the task, but we are required to attempt it. I challenge us to do more — to end our complacency and to create opportunities for us to do good in the world.

For AJWS information, visit

Tikkun Olam


When it comes to helping victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is taking the adage, “teach a man how to fish,” quite literally.

As part of its long-term relief efforts for victims of the Dec. 26 tragedy, the group is working with its partner organizations in the region, including the Sanghamitra Service Society in Andhra Pradesh, India, which helps local fishing communities with sustainable development and disaster preparedness. The philosophy behind the group’s post-tsunami effort is the same as that behind general AJWS operations — long-term efforts through collaboration with groups in the region.

“We don’t just go in and leave. We go in and we develop,” said Ronni Strongin, a spokeswoman for AJWS, which already has raised more than $2 million in online contributions alone for tsunami victims.

The AJWS isn’t alone in its approach: While not ignoring immediate needs, other Jewish groups also are planning aid that addresses the long-range needs of areas affected by the tsunami, which is believed to have claimed at least 150,000 lives. (For how to help, see sidebar, page 21.)

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), which has raised more than $1.7 million, is taking a similar approach.

“Everybody comes in to provide emergency relief, and then they all leave and there’s nobody left behind to help rebuild the infrastructure,” said Steven Schwager, JDC executive vice president. “While a portion of our money will go for short-term emergency relief, a larger part of our money will go for infrastructure to leave something behind that the Jewish community can get credit for.”

That approach is likely to influence the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief, an umbrella of North American Jewish organizations, expected to convene next week at the JDC’s request. The group provides a central address and decision-making process for disbursement of Jewish relief aid.

Until then, the JDC plans to allocate funds it has raised to local agencies on the ground, like the International Rescue Committee in Indonesia. In India, it will send funds to the local Jewish community.

Nearly 40 Jewish federations are soliciting funds for the tsunami victims and plan to donate the money directly to JDC, according to the United Jewish Communities, the coordinating body of the federation system. The JDC is an overseas partner of the federation system. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has so far collected about $150,000, a portion of which will go to the JDC, and the remainder to an international aid organization.

Like other groups collecting relief money, Jewish organizations report that donors have responded quickly.

“The response has been very good,” said Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, which has collected more than $200,000 so far.

For its part, the Union for Reform Judaism announced that it is donating $100,000 to organizations helping tsunami victims. Further allocations from the union’s aid fund, which so far has taken in more than $300,000, will be made in coming weeks, the union announced.

Israel also is pitching in. Over the weekend, a 70-ton shipment from Israel arrived in Sri Lanka fromthe Israeli charity organization Latet, “to give” in Hebrew. The $300,000 airlift includes the most urgently needed equipment: 250,000 water purifying tablets, 1,000 water containers, medical equipment and medication. According to Sri Lankan sources, it is the largest aid thus far from civilian organizations. In addition, volunteers with ZAKA, the Israeli organization that collects victims’ body parts after terrorist attacks, have been identifying bodies in Thailand.

The aftermath of the disaster has allowed for a breakthrough of sorts for Israel’s chief relief agency. Magen David Adom officials have been involved in discussions with the International Red Cross on providing aid. That’s a first for the Israeli group, according to Daniel Allen, executive vice president of American Red Magen David for Israel, which raises funds for the Israeli group.

The International Red Cross has excluded Magen David Adom from such discussions in the past, and has forced the Israeli group to wear different uniforms. But Magen David Adom intends to build a self-standing field clinic in the disaster zone, and this time its workers will be able to wear their uniforms, adorned with a red Jewish star, when they arrive in the region next week.

In addition to increased collaboration between the American Red Cross and its Israeli counterpart, and pressure by the American Red Cross on Israel’s behalf, “no one was going to deny anybody the opportunity to help,” Allen said.

Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, also is soliciting funds to allow Hadassah medical staff in Israel to travel to the region to offer their services.

Chabad has also provided a variety of services in Thailand. Among its efforts, the local branch of Chabad paid for ZAKA volunteers to go to the resort island of Phuket to identify both Jewish and non-Jewish victims, and the three Chabad Houses in Thailand have served as crisis centers for Israeli survivors of the disaster.

On New Year’s Day, Chabad also sent five victims — four to Israel and one to Britain — home for burial.

Here in Los Angeles, Jewish institutions also are stepping up to the plate by sending aid, raising money, holding benefit concerts and educational and religious ceremonies.

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles has been working with the Sri Lanka consulate here to send aid. After Gamini Pemasiri,Acting Consul General of Sri Lanka in Los Angeles, made an urgent call for assistance to Ehud Danoch, the Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles, they arranged for an El Al cargo plane loaded with over 3,000 pounds of locally donated baby food, medicines and other emergency supplies to leave to Bangkok, Thailand, and then to be transferred to the hardest hit areas of Sri Lanka.

At schools around the city and Valley, teachers and educators talked to their students about the disaster that occurred over the holiday break. “Today is the first day of school since the tsunami disaster of one week ago…. What shall we say to our children?” Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, education director at Pressman Academy, wrote to parents. He said that teachers will address the tsunami and talk about pikuah nefesh, saving a human life. Others, he wrote, will talk about the idea of refuah, healing, and how we are obligated to help others in need. All teachers will talk about tzedakah, the need to give charity, and to do the right thing. They will also collect tzedakah each morning for the victims.

“Please give your child an opportunity to earn some money of his or her own, so that he/she can bring his/her own contribution,” the letter stated. And if a parent is making a donation online or writing a check, Malkus advised, “invite your children to watch so that they can learn the mitzvah of Tzedakah from their most important teachers.”


Holocaust Deja Vu

There was a time when Dora Apsan Sorell could have really used the $3,043 she received from the German government last summer. The check was meant to compensate Sorell for her slave labor during the Holocaust.

But the 83-year-old Auschwitz survivor and retired doctor who lives in Berkeley gave the money away as soon as it arrived. She donated it to the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which is among a handful of Jewish organizations trying to aid desperate refugees from the Darfur region of western Sudan.

Sorell, who learned about the crisis in Sudan from a television program, said the situation looks a lot like what happened to her and her family under Hitler. Now she is hoping that her gesture will help raise awareness among other Jews and motivate them to respond as well.

Since February, villagers in Darfur region have been murdered, raped and driven from their homes by a brutal band of government-backed, ethnically-Arab militias known as Janjaweed. Humanitarian groups and the U.S. government agree the government of Sudan is encouraging the ethnically motivated genocide campaign, but the world community has, as yet, done little to stop it.

Humanitarian and human rights groups have been sounding dire warnings about the genocide in Darfur since the situation escalated in February. And a growing number of Jewish groups and individuals have taken up the cause in recent months as well.

In looking at Darfur, Sorell has every reason to believe in the human capacity for evil. She lost her parents, two brothers and more than 40 relatives at Auschwitz. But this time, she believes, the world is supposed to know better.

“That a bunch of criminals can do this in the 21st century. That you can rape girls of 6 years old and kill their families and burn down their houses; it’s just unbelievable that the world can let this happen,” she said.

Sorell was born in the northern Transylvania town of Sighet. She was transported to Auschwitz with her parents, Herman and Zissel Apsan, and her brothers, Moishi and Yancu, in May 1944. Sorell last saw her mother when an SS guard drove them apart with a blow to Sorell’s arm. She believes the rest of her family was killed upon arrival.

Sorell survived at Birkenau, the concentration camp adjacent to Auschwitz, until December 1944. Then she was transferred to a forced-labor camp in Germany, where she worked in a munitions factory until the end of the war.

In the decades when Sorell and her family were struggling to start again, she said the reparations money would have been helpful. But even without it, Sorell built a life she is proud of.

“I don’t want to be a victim,” Sorell said of the reparations she gave away. “I’ve made it, after all.”

After the war, she was reunited with her high school sweetheart, Tzali Sorell. A member of the resistance, Tzali Sorell had been jailed before the Jews from Sighet were deported to the camps. He believes he survived because he was literally forgotten in prison. The two have been married for 59 years.

Trapped in communist Romania after the war, Sorell put herself through medical school and raised three children. She and her family were finally allowed to leave Romania in 1961, and after time in Europe and Brazil, they immigrated to New York in 1964.

She eventually became a tenured professor of rehabilitative medicine at New York Medical College. After they retired, the Sorells moved to Northern California to be closer to their grandchildren.

In 1982, when her first grandchild, Miriam, was born, Sorell began writing about her experiences in a series of letters. They now comprise the chapters of “Tell the Children, Letters to Miriam,” a memoir Sorell self-published in 1998.

For Sorell and her family, the past is as indelible as the number that was hastily tattooed on her left forearm by an SS guard at Auschwitz: A-7603. Even her 2-year-old grandson is aware of it. He shows Sorell that he is learning the alphabet by pointing to the “A” on his grandmother’s arm.

But Sorell knows that her past “is not just mine to keep,” she wrote in her memoir. “Being a survivor is a burden, and for me, it carries the responsibility to share it with others, to impart that experience to young people and acquaint them with the dangers of hatred and intolerance.”

Sorell estimated that she has spoken about the Holocaust to as many as 10,000 students in classrooms and summer camps, at the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and even at a prison program for men convicted of domestic violence.

Now she hopes that she can encourage others to speak out and give money to help the victims of Darfur.

More information about Dora Sorell is available on her Web site,

Jewish and multifaith organizations working to help the victims of Darfur include: The American Jewish World Service, Emergency Sudan Appeal,; Jewish Coalition for Sudan Relief, part of the Jewish Coalition for Disaster Relief,; and Save Darfur Coaliton,

Continued Help Could Harm

Like many other charitable groups, the American Jewish World Service (AJWS) is collecting money to benefit the victims of the devastating Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

But in addition to helping those hurt by terrorism, the New York-based humanitarian group has faced another concern in recent weeks: fear that heightened tensions with Afghanistan will threaten people the AJWS helps in the impoverished country.

Since 1999, the AJWS has been one of a handful of American groups funding more than 30 secret schools for females in Afghanistan. The Taliban prohibits girls from attending school and does not allow women to work.

The AJWS — which supports anti-poverty and community support projects in developing nations — is believed to be the only Jewish organization that funds projects in Afghanistan, a country controlled by the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime since 1996.

Ruth Messinger, the group’s president, said that in a U.S. war in Afghanistan, “the worst victims would be the people who we are helping, who are already victims of the Taliban.”

The women who teach in the underground schools do so at great personal risk, potentially subject to the death penalty if caught. They teach in private homes and assign girls different times to enter and leave so as not to draw attention.

Because of the longtime dangers of working in Afghanistan, the AJWS has never sent its own volunteers or staff there, although it does in most countries it assists. Instead, it works through a Western human rights organization whose identity cannot be disclosed for fear of repercussions from the Taliban.

The AJWS contributes approximately $100,000 a year for the schools, which serve more than 1,000 girls. The group also provides some funding for health programs for Afghan women, as well as some aid for Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

So far, the schools and health programs are continuing, and AJWS plans to continue its funding, Messinger said.

But as more and more Afghans and aid workers flee the country, the programs’ future is uncertain. And the AJWS is expecting heightened request for aid from the refugees in Pakistan.

Schools in the most jeopardy right now are those in and near Kabul, which is likely to be targeted by U.S. bombing, said Catherine Shimony, the AJWS’ director of international programs.

Already, an Afghan woman who lives in Pakistan near the refugee camps and usually travels several times a year to the United States to give updates about the schools, had to cancel a planned visit to New York.

In the past, the group has not been shy about advocating on behalf of other issues that affect beneficiaries. Last year, it persuaded several other Jewish organizations to lobby for debt relief for developing nations.

As the situation heats up, the AJWS is not sure whether to take a specific position on how the United States should react to the attacks, or simply keep trying to support the schools, Messinger said.

However, she said, she will continue to urge Americans to step up grassroots, anti-poverty assistance to troubled countries as a way of “improving our international position.”

“It’s always better to wage peace than to wage war,” she said.