Robert Wexler to step down as AJU president


Robert Wexler. Photo courtesy of AJU.

After 25 years as president of American Jewish University (AJU) and its predecessor, the University of Judaism, Robert Wexler will step down at the end of the academic year.

“Leading such a remarkable institution for so long has been a great honor,” Wexler wrote in a Sept. 12 email to the Journal. “I truly appreciate the dedication of the men and women on the AJU staff and faculty, all of whom mean so much to me. It is they who have made AJU a major force in American Jewish life.”

Wexler’s involvement with the university began when he was 17 and an undergraduate student at the Bel Air campus, which was known as the University of Judaism until 2007, when it merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Institute. After his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1978, he returned as the assistant dean of students, ascending to the presidency in 1992.

Under his stewardship, the university opened the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in 1996 and merged with Brandeis-Bardin. He is credited with overseeing numerous campus construction projects and growing the university’s endowment from $5 million to more than $100 million.

Announcing Wexler’s departure on Sept. 12, AJU said in a press release it would soon begin to seek his replacement.

“American Jewish University has achieved a position of significant influence in the Jewish community and beyond,” Virginia Maas, chair of the AJU’s board of directors, said in the statement. “We hope to continue this record of achievement by conducting a nationwide search to identify a successor who will build on Dr. Wexler’s legacy of expansion and institutional growth.”

 

 

Reb Mimi Feigelson. Screenshot from JDOV

In L.A., Reb Mimi found herself, her soul family and a way home


In July of 2001, Reb Mimi Feigelson boarded a plane at Ben Gurion Airport bound for Los Angeles, where a full-time job at a university awaited her.

Rather than bless her good fortune — after all, she had no doctorate and hadn’t been searching for an academic position when the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at what is now known as the American Jewish University (AJU) offered her a job — she cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.

When we sat down to talk in August, days before she would move back home, she wondered no more.

“Sixteen years ago there was no possibility that was clear to the eye that I could live my life in Yerushslayim as an Orthodox rav,” she said. “I found that the Divine Mother picked me up out of Yerushalayim and transferred me to Los Angeles. L.A. was an incubator that gave me the ability to grow into the rabbi that I am today. The students that chose to walk with me, to challenge me, to trust me, to pray and cry and laugh and learn with me, they are those who helped me grow into being who I am, and prepared me for going home. Being in Los Angeles has given me the strength to live as who I am without apology.”

Reb Mimi (as she is universally known) was ordained by the Chasidic Reb Shlomo Carlebach in the early 1990s, a fact she kept hidden for many years because the Orthodox world was not ready to consider a woman rabbi, let alone a deeply spiritual Chasidic rebbe. She was “outed” as a rabbi in 2001, and found that Jerusalem’s rigid religious and social structure had no place for her.

So Reb Mimi signed a two-year contract to become the mashpiah ruchanit, the spiritual guide, at the Conservative movement’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordained its first class of rabbis just a few years before she got there.

But she always knew her stay in Los Angeles was temporary — she kept her watch on Israel time for 16 years — and in July she signed a contract with the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary in Jerusalem, which educates Israeli Masorti (Conservative) rabbis. She is now the mashpiah ruchanit at Schechter, the same position she held at Ziegler.

At Schecther, she has everything she needs: A beit midrash (study hall) to call home, a steady flow of students, inspiring colleagues and a Jerusalem address. Still, leaving Los Angeles was harder than she imagined it would be when she arrived.

During her sojourn in Los Angeles, Reb Mimi ushered more than 150 souls into the rabbinate, and inspired hundreds of other students and friends (myself included) whom she met at AJU, the Happy Minyan, B’nai David-Judea Congregation, on the streets and in the shops of Pico-Robertson, and in her many stints teaching around the city and throughout the country.

In addition to her classes and formal and informal counseling for Ziegler students and alumni, Reb Mimi held study sessions in her beit midrash in her Beverly Hills apartment, where tchotchkes and books and her joyous collection of jewelry and scarves exploded from every surface. Her Shabbat tisches filled Friday nights or the waning hours of Shabbat with nigunim (melodies), Chasidic tales and novel interpretations of Torah.

Reb Mimi brought something that Los Angeles didn’t even know it craved: Spirituality that is as substantial as it is ethereal, as academically and intellectually sound as it is soul-touching, embodied by a woman who defied every definition and convention we had all thought we needed — about what words we use to refer to God, about the logic of denominational divides, about what constitutes a family, about how many rings can fit on one person’s hands. (Each ring is connected to a person or event in her life, so why should she leave any off?)

Intellectuals, even skeptics, were drawn to Reb Mimi’s uncompromising intellect and her insightful interpretations of the texts, and found themselves drawn into the aura of meta-meaning she created; those who already had a soulful bent grew to understand that spirituality not based on wisdom and understanding can be vacuous.

With her kaleidoscopic couture and her ability to instantly cut beneath the surface, Reb Mimi drew people in and created deep connections. She now considers Los Angeles a true home, and she has people here she considers family in as literal a sense as possible.

A small cadre of Reb Mimi’s students became her soul children: They use her name as part of their own when called to the Torah; she has been present at the birth of their children; and the Shabbat blessings she offers them each Friday — in person or via Skype — is the most sacred moment of her week. Inspired by a Chasidic tale, she even started a savings account for her soul children, so tangible and real is the connection.

She has a soul brother she buried here, and she sat shivah for him, and now she is eternally connected to the land of Southern California.

Reb Mimi is grateful that God opened up a way for her to influence such a large segment of world Jewry. The fact that it is in North America and not Israel, and that it came through the Conservative movement and not her birth denomination of Orthodoxy, is both painful and irrelevant.

“It is painful that my denomination of origin cannot embrace the Torah I have to offer,” she said. “And at the same time, I answer to God. And I live well with myself answering to God. God’s world is so much greater than these denominations.”

Being in America, she said, challenged her and changed her.

She cried out to God, wondering why God had chosen to banish her from Israel, which she called home since moving there with her family when she was 8 years old.

“It has changed my Torah and my personal life. It has challenged my world of axioms, sometimes demanded of me to question my beliefs,” she said.

In many ways, she became a different person while she was here.

She shed 130 pounds, had long-needed double knee replacement surgery, and went from having long hair to a buzz cut (with one long, thin braid she never cuts).

She spent six years on a doctoral dissertation at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion that explores Jewish funeral rituals and how people can reclaim their own funerals as the last chapter in a life, and not the first chapter of death.

In her formal bio, she now goes by Rabbi Dr. Reb Mimi Feigelson — able to proudly embrace and advertise all the disparate parts of herself.

“I have learned to honor the gifts that God has given me and honor that path I have been asked to take. And that means I am learning in my life to create harmony of all my pieces,” she said.

Being in Los Angeles gave her a chance to re-examine the model of her brokenness: She shifted from thinking that the scattered shards of her soul needed to be collected, and instead realized they needed to be planted, like seeds.

And she can do that because, in Los Angeles, she found partners for her journey.

“Being here gave me a sense of being less alone. I used to say that I knew God loved me by virtue of the teachers I have. My life changed when I said I knew God loved me by virtue of the students I have. And that happened here, in Los Angeles,” she said.

The Orthodox world, and Jerusalem, have changed along with her. In the past decade, Orthodox women trained to answer halachic questions have gained acceptance, and women ordained as clergy are just getting a foothold in the Orthodox world.

Still, Reb Mimi remains a breed of her own: Her interest is in nourishing souls and saving lives, within a framework of traditional texts and halachic observance, but she is not one to offer verdicts on legal minutiae. So she knows her path will still be her own, and she is OK with that.
She is, finally, done apologizing for who she is.

“Jerusalem is still a hard city,” she said. “There is a way in which Jerusalem is still a city without compassion. But my dream to come home as I am is actually going to be fulfilled.”


Julie Gruenbaum Fax is a Los Angeles-based journalist who ghostwrites memoirs and autobiographies.

Sun., Sept. 10: Jewish Cuba Photography Exhibition

Events in Los Angeles – Sept. 8-14: Jewish Cuba exhibit, “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico”


FRI | SEPT 8

“SHEBREW SHABBAT!”

JQ International welcomes back “Shebrew Shabbat!” Celebrate Shabbat in style with women and queers from the local LGBT community and enjoy a kosher meal, drinks, friends and the chance to meet new people. The event is geared toward those who identify with the concept of “womanhood,” but JQ International welcomes all people regardless of gender identity and/or expression. 7:30 p.m. Suggested donation $15 or $10 and a bottle of wine. JQ International, 801 Larrabee St., Suite 10, West Hollywood. (323) 417-2627. jqinternational.org/shebrewshabbat.

SUN | SEPT 10

JEWISH CUBA PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION

Learn about the rebirth of the Jewish community in Cuba through the photography of Martin Cohen, Andrew Dunbar and Liza Asner. The event is part of an effort to enhance the visibility of the Jewish community in Cuba, consisting of three primary projects: a coffee table art book, a traveling international photography exhibition and an educational program. There will be wine, appetizers and music. 6 p.m. Free. RSVP to quinceproductions@gmail.com. San Fernando Valley Arts & Cultural Center, 18312 Oxnard St., Tarzana. cubajudaism.org.

FEDERATION FUNDRAISING

Join The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley or in central L.A. for a morning of philanthropy and phone calls in support of Federation’s 2017 annual campaign. For security reasons, all volunteers — who must be 18 or older to participate — are required to pre-register and sign up separately. Volunteers who have not yet made a donation to the campaign will be asked to do so at the event. 10 a.m. 19710 Ventura Blvd., Suite 105, Woodland Hills, or 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. jewishla.org/pages/super-sunday-too.

IMMIGRATION LAWS AND ANCESTRY PROGRAM

A lecture by a member of the Jewish Genealogical Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County will provide a short history of immigration and naturalization laws and provide general guidance in finding an ancestor’s documentation. 1:30 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest Drive, Thousand Oaks. (805) 497-7101. adatelohim.org/Jewish-Geneaological-Society-s/5694.htm.

ADVOCACY TRAINING PROJECT

The “Presenting Your Advocacy Message” workshop will assist you in crafting a message to help you communicate effectively about your cause. You will gain skills and tools useful in speaking, writing, social media and all forms of communication. The event is the first of six workshops co-sponsored by the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, the City of West Hollywood Women’s Advisory Board, Planned Parenthood Los Angeles and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. 2 p.m. $20; $110 for six workshops. Attendees of all six workshops receive a certificate of program completion from the city of West Hollywood. National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8536. ncjwla.org.

MON | SEPT 11

HARVARD PROFESSOR LAURENCE H. TRIBE

The USC Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life presents the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture featuring Laurence H. Tribe, a professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School. 4:45 p.m. reception; 5:30 p.m. lecture. Free. University of Southern California, 665 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 740-4996. dornsife.usc.edu/warschawlecture.

TUES | SEPT 12

UNIVERSITY WOMEN OF AJU

University Women of American Jewish University’s opening event is a morning gathering featuring Robbie Rowe Tollin and Diane Miller Levin, producers of the film “The Zookeeper’s Wife.” A light breakfast is included. 10 a.m. $36; free for University Women members. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1211. uw.aju.edu.

SEPHARDIC HIGH HOLY DAYS “PREGAME” FESTIVITIES

Experience unique Sephardic High Holy Days customs and practices, featuring a musical Selichot jam led by Liran Kohn. Includes Sephardic Rosh Hashanah seder cuisine and specialty cocktails. Hosted by Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA) and STTI Young Professionals. This event is for young Jewish professionals, ages 21-39. 7 p.m. $18; $30 at the door. Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, 10500 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets and details at bit.ly/sephardicpregame2017.

WED | SEPT 13

“NEVER AGAIN IS NOW”

The American Freedom Alliance presents the powerful and timely film “Never Again Is Now.” The documentary investigates the current rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, told through the eyes of Evelyn Markus, a woman who escaped anti-Semitism by coming to the United States in 2006. As a daughter of Holocaust survivors, Markus saw signs of the same disturbing trends returning to the Netherlands. She is confronting the hatred that drove her out of her homeland and is embracing her life’s mission of preventing the repeat of one of history’s darkest chapters. Q-and-A with Markus to follow. 6 p.m. buffet reception; 7 p.m. screening. $35; tickets available at eventbrite.com. Luxe Sunset Boulevard Hotel, 11461 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. americanfreedomalliance.org.

ANNUAL YALA REAL ESTATE COCKTAIL PARTY

Unwind and have a drink while mingling with other real estate professionals at Young Adults of Los Angeles’ annual young real estate cocktail party. Ticket includes food and one drink; a cash bar will be available. Tickets must be purchased by 5 p.m. Sept. 11. 7 p.m. $18; $25 for two tickets. Palihouse, 8465 Holloway Drive, West Hollywood. yala.org.

THURS | SEPT 14

ONE LAST TOAST: ATID HAPPY HOUR

The High Holy Days are almost here, so let loose one more time before you start the new year. Atid events are for Jewish young professionals, ages 21-39. 7:30 p.m. Free. The Wellesbourne, 10929 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 474-1518. atidla.com.

Brenner

“ANOTHER PROMISED LAND: ANITA BRENNER’S MEXICO”

The Skirball Cultural Center opens its new exhibition, “Another Promised Land: Anita Brenner’s Mexico,” which offers a new perspective on the art and visual culture of Mexico and its relationship to the United States, focusing on the important role in that relationship played by Brenner (1905–1974), a Mexican-born American-Jewish writer. Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. skirball.org.

MEGA HAFRASHAT CHALLAH

Join in this mega challah bake before Rosh Hashanah, and set the tone for the new year with a special prayer inviting parnasa and health into your home. 8 p.m. wine reception; 8:30 p.m. challah bake. $25; $36 at the door. IAC Shepher Community Center, 6530 Winnetka Ave., Woodland Hills. (818) 451-1197. israeliamerican.org/hafrashat-challah.

Teens work on their projects at the the Israeli American Council Eitanim Summer Hackathon at the American Jewish University. Photo by Avi Vogel

Hackathon challenges teens to think, act like a pro


The room is a flurry of activity. At each table is a group of 10 teens working on their projects. One group has a white board filled with a to-do list, ranging from pricing its product to establishing a user base. Another group stands around a laptop, as one member works on a virtual grocery store and the others take turns offering advice and criticism.

Welcome to the Israeli American Council Eitanim Summer Hackathon, held Aug. 3 at the American Jewish University. It’s a national program that strives each year to teach students professional skills to prepare them for college while providing a connection to Israel.

This year, more than 150 teens worked in groups to create innovative ideas with the help of professional mentors, leading to Demo Day, when the final projects went before the judges: Ilana Golan of Speaking Golan Ventures, Kfir Gavrieli of Tieks and Metuka Benjamin of Milken Community Schools.

The winning group designed an app to assist in Hebrew learning in school and at home. Second place went to a group that created a virtual reality experience for learning Israeli history.

“What we do here, and what we do throughout the year is give students the opportunity to engage in project-based learning with other American Jews and Israeli-American Jews,” said Orit Mitzner, National Director of Programs for IAC Eitanim. She added, “We want to give them real experience and we want them to learn about Israel not like they usually do, but through projects and innovation. We want them to lead, and we want them to innovate. And as you’ll see tonight, they already are.”

Each of the groups around the room was structured like a real company, with one student acting as CEO and the others serving in such roles as chief financial officer or programmer. The groups work on a business idea, then flesh it out. One group worked on an education game that could help students practice Hebrew language skills.

Mentors from various fields offer advice and critique the teens as if they were operating a real business. “It’s the kind of experience that you won’t get anywhere else” said Kobi Laredo, Cloud Technical Account Manager for Amazon Web Services. Like the other 14 mentors at the Hackathon, he moved from group to group, giving advice and feedback.

“It’s amazing seeing the ideas they come up with. I’ve helped one group with a virtual reality project, another with a social media application — it’s interesting.” Laredo said. “We [the mentors] bring in experience and background. But it’s [the kids] that get to shine and show their leadership and problem-solving skills.”

Although the teens’ projects won’t be developed, Mitzner said the skills learned along the way are just as important as a finished product. “We seek to engage these kids on four levels: through the self, technology, interpersonal level and mentorship,” she said.

“It’s really hard.” said Julian Wiese, the student in charge of software development for the educational game project. “We want to make a virtual space for kids to practice their Hebrew so they’re not just doing it through a book all day. It’ll be interactive.”

“It’s been a great but tough time,” said Cassidy Dalva, a student working as the chief operating officer of that same group. “The whole project has taught me a lot about working in business. And honestly, even though it’s a lot of work, we get some time to just hang out and make friends.”

As serious a program as the Hackathon is, it also enables teens to mingle with others who have similar interests. They socialize, listen to talks from other mentors, and dance.

Nitzan Stein Kokin (left) and Esther Jonas-Maertin. Photos courtesy of Nitzan Stein Kokin and Esther Jonas-Maertin.

One L.A. school: two German rabbis


Since its inception in 1996, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies of American Jewish University in Bel Air has had students from various countries, but until recently, never from Germany.

This year, however, the school has two German graduates, both women. Esther Jonas-Maertin completed her final year of the five-year program and was ordained, along with five others, on May 22. Nitzan Stein Kokin, a visiting student from Ziegler’s sister school in Berlin, Zacharias Frankel College, is completing her last year of studies and will be ordained in Berlin on June 18. Hers will be the first ordination of a Conservative rabbi in Germany since before World War II.

Though the women’s journeys to this point were different, they have one thing in common — besides their 42 years of age: neither was raised Jewish. Jonas-Maertin grew up in Leipzig when the Berlin Wall was still standing  and practicing any religion in communist East Germany was strongly discouraged. Her father is Jewish, her mother nonreligious. Stein Kokin grew up in a Protestant household in a small town in southwest Germany.

Despite East Germany’s aversion to religion, Jonas-Maertin became interested in Judaism at a young age, reading every book about it she could find. She recalled writing a paper as a teenager on the Jewish history of Leipzig. But her deep spiritual connection with Judaism came later. Specifically, she points to an exchange she had at 22 with her grandmother, a concentration camp survivor, at her grandfather’s grave on his yahrzeit. Although her grandfather also was a survivor, he died before she was born.

Jonas-Maertin took a stone from her pocket and placed it on the grave. She said this small act surprised her grandmother, who was unaware she was familiar with Jewish traditions.

“I had the feeling she recognized me for the first time,“ she said. “My gesture opened a door to a world I didn’t even know. Then [her grandmother] started to recite the Kaddish. I had no idea that my family was religious.”

That same month, an elderly Jewish man visiting his native Leipzig suggested she become a rabbi, given the depth of her feelings for the Jewish people. At the time, the idea seemed farfetched. After all, not only was Jonas-Maertin not a member of a congregation, she had never seen a rabbi, let alone a female rabbi.

Still, something had been kindled. She began lecturing on Jewish history to school groups and Christian congregations. She also switched universities to pursue a master’s degree in Jewish studies and comparative religion. Ten  years ago, she converted to Judaism. “I just confirmed something that was already there,” she said.

She began her rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem. “I found that some of the liturgical things weren’t resonating with me,” she said. She was so impressed by the accessibility and intelligence of the students she met from Ziegler — nearly all rabbinical programs require their students to do a year in Israel, so Jonas-Maertin was in a good position to meet students from various programs — she decided to continue her studies in Los Angeles at AJU.

Stein Kokin’s introduction to Judaism came from a high school religion teacher, a Protestant minister who, she said, was “very active in Jewish-Christian dialogue.”

In lieu of a traditional high school graduation gift, she asked her parents for a trip to Israel. She traveled with a youth group and was so intrigued that she decided to spend a gap year there, volunteering at an assisted living facility for disabled young adults. It was a good opportunity, she figured, to see if social work was a suitable fit for her. The other career she had seriously considered was ministry. She decided to study theology and determined that if she wanted to really understand Christianity, she needed to learn everything she could about Judaism as well.

During her year in Israel, she befriended a group of “deeply religious women.” She studied the Talmud and attended beth midrash. “Judaism became so much more personal,” she said. She converted in 1999 and made aliyah. Shortly thereafter, she met the man who would become her husband, an L.A. native who was a graduate student spending a year at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In lieu of a traditional high school graduation gift, Stein Kokin asked her parents for a trip to Israel.

In 2010, her husband got a teaching job in Germany. It was around this same time that the Zacharias Frankel College opened at Potsdam University. There was already a Reform rabbinical school at the university, but this new program would be Europe’s first and only Conservative rabbinical school.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, the dean of both Ziegler and Zacharias Frankel, will preside at Stein Kokin’s ordination. “I am going to wrap a prayer shawl around Nitzan’s shoulders,” he said.

While every ordination is an occasion for celebration, Artson said this one is particularly meaningful. “In returning liberal Judaism to Germany, I am restoring a lost object to its original location,” he said, referring to Conservative and Reform Judaism. “If I can ordain a German rabbi in Berlin, then I am showing that Hitler lost and we survived and thrive.”

Even though their personal situations are different — Jonas-Maertin is single; Stein Kokin and her husband have two children — both women said that having a fellow German in the program this past year has been a huge positive.

“It’s very tough to come in here and realize you are Jewish, so there is a certain amount of similarities [between German and American Jews],” Jonas-Maertin said. “But the culture is very different. That has become my struggle. We talk a lot about this.”

It’s also clear the two have immense respect for each other. “I think [Jonas-Maertin] is in many ways a real pioneer coming here all by herself and going through the program,” Stein Kokin said.

As for their future plans, Jonas-Maertin and Stein Kokin are applying for a variety of jobs. Jonas-Maertin would love to work in Germany some day, but with only two Conservative synagogues in the country, job opportunities are extremely limited. Stein Kokin is focusing her efforts in Los Angeles.

Of course, Stein Kokin still has her ordination next month. She said she doesn’t feel added pressure, given the historic significance of the occasion.  She feels lucky.

“I wrote my final thesis for rabbinic school on the first woman rabbi ever ordained, Regina Jonas, who was ordained in 1935 in Berlin,” Stein Kokin said. “She fought for being able to be ordained. She was very observant, very religious, halachah, kept Shabbat. She also believed in the full equality of men and women.

“That’s what I also believe. She is one of my role models. She was 42 when she perished in Auschwitz. I will be 42 when I enter the rabbinate. To pick up at her footsteps and receive my ordination in Germany … it’s not a weight. It’s a present I was presented with by life or circumstances or God or father, whatever you’re going to call it.”

Maya Avraham. Photo courtesy of YouTube.

Calendar: March 3-9, 2017


SAT | MARCH 4

UNPLUG L.A.

Join Reboot and Open Temple for an “Unplugged Party” in celebration of Reboot’s National Day of Unplugging. Your phone will be checked at the door. Step off the grid to listen to live music, play board games, visit the analog photo booth, and more. Event dedicated to the late Levi Felix, founder of Digital Detox and Camp Grounded; $3 of each ticket will be donated to Camp Grounded in his memory. 21 and older. 7 p.m. $18; tickets available at eventbrite.com. Electric Lodge, 1416 Electric Ave., Venice. nationaldayofunplugging.com.

A TOAST TO HEROES

Honor a group of 10 young Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers visiting Los Angeles who have been wounded in combat. Food, drinks and an open-bar after-party with a DJ spinning until midnight. All proceeds go to Lev Chayal’s program for wounded IDF soldiers. Black-tie attire. 8 p.m. VIP reception; 9 p.m. cocktails and buffet. $180 for individual reservations; $100 for young professionals ages 21 to 35. Tickets available at eventbrite.com. Venue TBA. levchayal.com.

SUN | MARCH 5

ALONG THE GOLDENEH LINE: JEWISH LIFE AND HERITAGE OF NORTHEAST L.A. AND THE SAN GABRIEL VALLEY

A chartered bus will take riders alongside the Metro Gold Line into the San Gabriel Valley on a tour that will focus on the area’s unique Jewish heritage and its contemporary community life. Wear comfortable walking shoes — the tour includes two miles on foot. Instructors include Stephen Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California since 1989, and Jeremy Sunderland, who is on the board of directors for the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California. Space is limited. Lunch on your own. 9 a.m. $58. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.

NEFESH B’NEFESH ISRAEL ALIYAH FAIR

The ninth annual Nefesh B’Nefesh Israel Aliyah Fair offers the opportunity to gather aliyah information under one roof. Professionals will discuss financial planning and budgeting, choosing a community, building a strategic job search plan, navigating the health care system, buying or renting a home in Israel, and more. 10 a.m. for retirees and empty nesters; noon for students and young professionals. Free. Shalhevet High School, 910 S. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. nbn.org.

“HIGH NOON: THE HOLLYWOOD BLACKLIST AND THE MAKING OF AN AMERICAN CLASSIC”

cal-hign-noon“High Noon” is more than a Western; it is also a story about the Hollywood blacklist. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Frankel will discuss his book about  screenwriter Carl Foreman, producer Stanley Kramer, director Fred Zinnemann and actor Gary Cooper, and how their creative partnership was influenced — and crushed — by political repression and agendas. Book signing to follow presentation. 2 p.m. $14; $10 for students and seniors; $6 for children; free for members. Autry Museum of the American West, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles.

THE LOS ANGELES BALALAIKA ORCHESTRA

The Los Angeles Balalaika Orchestra presents its 22nd annual concert, featuring the voice of Mark Goldenberg, cantor at Young Israel of Century City. 3 p.m. $35-$45. Herbert Zipper Hall, 200 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (626) 483-2731. balalaikala.com.

“VISIONS FOR A SHARED SOCIETY: THE ‘TRIBES’ OF ISRAEL”

Elana Stein Hain, director of leadership education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, will discuss the core values of some of the “tribes” that compose Israel today, and how a divided people build a shared society. Part of the Synagogue Collaborative Lecture Series. 4 p.m. $20. (Post-lecture dinner and discussion extra; RSVP only.) Temple Beth Am, 1039 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles. shalomhartman.org/LAcollaborative.

“LABSCAPES: VIEWS THROUGH THE MICROSCOPE”

“Labscapes” presents vivid images from the mysterious and usually unseen wonders that exist under the powerful lenses of the microscopes of some of the world’s most renowned researchers at Technion — Israel Institute of Technology. A special presentation by students will be followed by the grand opening. RSVP requested: jose@ats.org or (310) 254-9899. 5 p.m. presentation; 6 p.m. reception and exhibit. Through March 27. Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd., Los Angeles. ats.org/labscapes.

MAYA AVRAHAM

Before joining The Idan Raichel Project, Maya Avraham was a widely sought-after backup singer for Israeli superstars such as Eyal Golan, Sarit Hadad and Shlomi Shabat. She will sing some of The Idan Raichel Project’s greatest hits as well as her own songs. 7 p.m. Tickets start at $35. Gindi Auditorium at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 476-9777. wcce.aju.edu.

“FROM SHTETL TO STARDOM: JEWS AND HOLLYWOOD”

This panel discussion features Vince Brook of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television; David Isaacs, TV scriptwriter, producer and Emmy winner; Shaina Hammerman, Jewish film, literature, religion and cultural historian; Josh Moss, visiting assistant professor of film and media studies at UC Santa Barbara; and Ross Melnick, associate professor of film and media studies at UCSB. 6:15 p.m. dessert reception; 7 p.m. panel. Free. RSVP by March 3 at wbtla.org/shtetl or (424) 208-8932. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Irmas Campus, 11661 W. Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles. (213) 388-2401.

TUES | MARCH 7

GOOGLE FOR GENEALOGISTS

Learn how to use Google Earth and Google Maps to gather information about where your ancestors lived, and how to educate yourself and meet other like-minded individuals (and perhaps relatives) using Google’s social media. Mary Kathryn Kozy, who has been researching her family history for more than 35 years, will speak at this meeting of the Jewish Genealogy Society of the Conejo Valley and Ventura County. 7 p.m. Free. Temple Adat Elohim, 2420 E. Hillcrest, Thousand Oaks. (818) 889-6616. jgscv.org.

THURS | MARCH 9

ELON GOLD

cal-elon-goldComedian, writer and actor Elon Gold kicks off the Purim weekend with a night of comedy, drinks and a DJ. Also featuring Alex Edelman. 8 p.m. $40. Saban Theatre, 8440 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (888) 645-5006. sabanconcerts.com.

“THE AUSCHWITZ VOLUNTEER”

Explore the ethical and religious implications of the Holocaust at this event. Wine and cheese reception will be followed by a multimedia program and discussion about the Polish underground’s mission that sent officer Witold Polecki into Auschwitz to gain intelligence and build resistance among the prisoners. 7:30 p.m. $8. Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 440-1572. wcce.aju.edu.

Singer-composer Matti Caspi kicks off Israel pop series in L.A.


Israel has a vibrant music scene with artists representing a wide variety of ethnic and cultural traditions, but much of that music never makes it to the United States. An upcoming series of Israeli music concerts aims to introduce American audiences to some legendary Israeli pop musicians, as well as fresh faces on the nation’s music scene.

“Celebration of Israeli Arts” is a co-production of American Jewish University (AJU) and the Israeli cultural promotion agency Teev Events, and the bands were selected to give local audiences a taste of the variety of Israeli rock, pop and world-inspired music.

“It’s part of an ongoing vision to bring Israelis and Americans together in a concert venue and make it accessible to Americans,” said Genie Benson, executive producer of Teev.

The five concerts at AJU’s Familian Campus in Bel Air include famed composer and singer Matti Caspi; Alon Oleartchik, co-founder and singer of the influential band Kaveret (also known as Poogy); the young singer-songwriter Idan Rafael Haviv; Maya Avraham, known as a member of the Idan Raichel Project and now pursuing a solo career; and Sephardic brothers Guy and Roy Zu-Aretz.

The series kicks off on Nov. 19 with Caspi, a singer and songwriter who is regarded as one of Israel’s most beloved musicians. Active since the late 1960s, Caspi’s music ranges from jazz to rock to Brazilian-inspired songs. He is the recipient of the prestigious “Kinor David” (David’s Harp) among many other awards, and has inspired a generation of Israeli musicians.

With a honey-soaked voice and gifted piano-playing ability, Caspi has been a staple on Israeli radio for decades. He got his start in the Israeli military, forming a trio with two friends, Gadi Oron and Ya’akov Noy, called the Three Fat Men. They released Caspi’s first big hit, “Ani Met” (I’m Dying). During the Yom Kippur War, Caspi toured army bases with the late Leonard Cohen, who arranged his song “Lover, Lover, Lover” with Caspi.

During the 1970s, Caspi began a long collaboration with Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor. Caspi wrote the melodies and Manor penned the lyrics for some of his most popular songs, including “Hine Hine” (There It Goes Again). The pair also recorded the collaboration “Tov Li Ba’kibbutz” (It’s Good on the Kibbutz), which draws from Caspi’s upbringing on Kibbutz Hanita, where he was born in 1949.

 “My childhood was in a kibbutz in the north of Israel and I spent most of the time in the nature,” Caspi told the Journal in an email. “I used to listen to the radio once a week, which broadcast a special program about authentic music from all over the world. Those two things affected and influenced my ability to compose in a lot of styles.”

 Caspi has been incredibly prolific in recent decades, releasing dozens of records and collaborating with Israel’s most iconic artists. His most recent album, “Nefesh Teoma” (Soulmate), was released in 2010.

 Alon Oleartchik headlines the second concert in the series on Dec. 10. He was the co-founder, writer and singer for Kaveret (Poogy), perhaps Israel’s most famous and popular rock group of all time. Oleartchik will perform his greatest hits, including “Ba La Schuna Bahur Hadash” (A New Boy Came to the Neighborhood) and “Hi Holechet Badrachim” (She Travels the Roads).

 Oleartchik was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1950 and immigrated to Israel at the age of 6. His father, Edward Olearczyk, was a well-known songwriter in Poland who gave young Alon an early training in classical piano. Oleartchik eventually developed a mastery of a variety of instruments, including bass, piano and guitar.

 He first made his name as the bass player for Platina, an Israeli jazz band, and he was a co-founder, writer and singer in Kaveret. The members met during their Israeli army service and represented Israel in the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. Kaveret has had several successful reunion tours in the last three decades.

 The veteran performer says Israeli artists can serve as ambassadors for their country and offer a different perspective from what’s seen on television news or in newspapers.

 “We express our views through the songs, whether directly or indirectly,” Oleartchik said in an email. “When abroad, we find ourselves becoming spokespeople for our governments, and this is not easy. So most of us just sing and play and talk about other things and avoid politics. I think in the end, a more positive picture of Israel emerges as the world is exposed to different Israeli artists.” 

 The third concert features Israeli singer-songwriter Idan Rafael Haviv on Jan. 21. Haviv’s first two albums, 2011’s “A Little Bit Each Time” and 2013’s “To Lose Interest in Time,” both reached gold status. Some of his songs have become Israeli radio staples, including “Mechaka” (Waiting) and “Achshav o Leolam” (Now or Never).

Haviv also collaborated on the Idan Raichel Project’s songs “Ima, Aba Vekol Hashar” (Mom, Dad and All the Rest) and “Ba’Layla” (At Night), which was named song of the year in 2013 by Israeli entertainment magazine Pnai Plus.

 A self-taught multidisciplinary artist, Haviv has released music while also being highly involved in painting, visual arts, poetry, photography and more. His concerts are accompanied by original video content he shot and edited.

The fourth concert at AJU features Maya Avraham. Her March 5 show will include greatest hits from the Idan Raichel Project, with whom she recorded and toured regularly, and some of her solo songs and covers.

Avraham released her first album, “Rak Ratzit Ahava,” in 2008 and “La Yom Haze Chikiti” in 2015. She combines elements of world, Middle Eastern and pop music. Before joining the Idan Raichel Project, Avraham was a backup singer for some of Israel’s biggest music stars.

The final concert in the series, on April 2, is a Sephardic music production featuring brothers Guy and Roy Zu-Aretz. Guy, an actor and television host, and Roy, a musician and record producer, were raised in Jerusalem listening to the Ladino melodies and poems in their grandparents’ homes and synagogue. They trace their lineage from the Jews’ expulsion from Spain up to their parents’ aliyah to Israel. Their mother’s family comes from Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece, and their father’s from Libya, by way of Portugal and the Netherlands.

 “I knew how to play all the Sephardic romance songs when I was 6 years old,” Roy told the Journal in a phone interview. “I went to Juilliard in New York to study composition. When I was away from my land, I started to dig into myself. I saw music that I never noticed and I realized I was built up from this material.”

 He lived in Los Angeles for several years and opened a recording studio in Hollywood, where he wrote soundtracks for motion pictures. He has produced albums for some of Israel’s best-known artists, such as Hayehudim, Rita and Dudu Fisher.

 When the two brothers began producing Sephardic music concerts, Roy said, he was surprised by the high level of interest. At first, audiences were mostly older people and Orthodox Jews wanting to hear piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems). Then the concerts started to draw Ashkenazi Jews and younger fans.

 “People come crying, saying, ‘You’re showing something good in Sephardic culture.’ People felt like they’re not equal. It’s so rooted in them that they believe in it,” he said.

Roy credits the internet with the resurgence of interest in Mizrahi music, with young listeners able to discover music that previously had only been available to collectors.

“The melodies are so charming,” he said. “Music touches wherever words cannot.”

The “Celebration of Israeli Arts” concert series will be held at the AJU Familian Campus’s Gindi Auditorium in Bel Air. For tickets and information, visit 

Check it out: A new Jewish library for L.A.


The Burton Sperber Jewish Community Library at American Jewish University (AJU) in Bel Air opened its doors Sept. 25, printing out library cards at its circulation desk for the public for the very first time and welcoming dozens of children, parents and grandparents for an open house.

The nearly 2,000-square-foot space on the university’s Familian campus — complete with a charming kids reading corner, plush seating and ample table workspace — shares a structure already occupied by the Bel and Jack M. Ostrow Academic Library. An open-air courtyard separates the libraries, which share a catalog of over 110,000 print volumes, DVDs and audiobooks, from the administration building for the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. 

Four years ago, a parking lot was there — zero libraries. Now there are two. 

“We are now an official library,” Lisa Silverman, the Sperber Library’s director, said at the open house, grinning, seasonal shofar pendants dangling from her ears. 

Silverman previously was director at the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, serving for 19 years. She has been with the Sperber Library for over a year now, preparing for its launch. The opportunity to be a part of this new venture was too enticing to pass up, she said. 

“The unique opportunity to be able to open a Jewish library in the 21st century when the general direction of Jewish libraries hasn’t been positive and many have closed is very exciting to me. It’s the reason I left Sinai,” Silverman said. “It really gives me a chance to make my mark offering modern Jewish programming, leading book clubs and hosting authors. I came here because I want to start something.” 

The Sperber Library aims to fill a void in Los Angeles’ Jewish community. When the Jewish Community Library, located in The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ building, closed in 2009, the second largest Jewish city in the United States was left without a major Jewish community library. The Slavin Children’s Library, located in the same building, suffered the same fate in 2013, making way for the expansion of the Zimmer Children’s Museum.

Several thousand books from the old Jewish Community Library are now in the Ostrow Library. Most of the Slavin Children’s Library collection now resides in the children’s section of the Sperber Library, making up about 80 percent of its children’s books, Silverman said.

Prior to Sept. 25, members of the public not enrolled at AJU could check out works at the Ostrow Library. Despite the fact that it was an academic library, Silverman estimates that there were nearly 1,500 non-enrolled community members in the system, cementing her view that there is a demand for a Jewish community library with modern Jewish works. 

“Now those people will be switching loyalties and coming to my side,” she said. “The numbers showed that people wanted to use the library, but they couldn’t always find the newer, more popular stuff. [The Ostrow Library] also didn’t have a children’s collection.”

Now the Sperber Library — funded by a gift from Charlene Sperber, widow of Burton Sperber, who founded ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., the Calabasas-based landscape services company behind projects such as the gardens at the Getty Center and the rooftop community garden at Walt Disney Concert Hall — has an extensive children’s collection. Silverman will also attempt to maintain a collection of Jewish-themed or penned volumes with works published no earlier than 2000. Exceptions will include classics by the likes of literary heavyweights such as Philip Roth or Isaac Bashevis Singer. 

Most of the contemporary adult books in the Sperber Library are from the Sinai Temple Blumenthal Library, which two years ago shifted its focus to serving the temple’s day school and reduced its adult collection. Silverman, who was still at Sinai during that restructuring, helped facilitate the transferring and purchasing of many books from Sinai to AJU. 

Varied programming in the space will be the driving force behind Silverman’s attempt to shape the library into a cultural and social hub. Film screenings, lectures, book clubs, game room days, children’s book readings, Jewish origami workshops and readings with local authors highlight event programming already scheduled. 

The recent open house featured free entertainment that included live music, magicians, arts and crafts, BARK (Beach Animals Reading with Kids) therapy dogs and a documentary film screening.  

Robert Wexler, president of AJU, who was at the event, said he is convinced that the new library’s location, straddling the divide between Los Angeles’ Westside and Valley Jewish communities, makes it a convenient destination for two of the city’s most Jewish neighborhoods. He’s looking forward to witnessing the library’s impending impact on those surrounding areas.

“The mission of the institution is to engage Jewish life at all different phases of life. The Sperber Library helps us fulfill our commitment to serving the overall Jewish community and provide Jewish programming and learning,” Wexler said. 

Educational programming like “Grandparents Circle,” an ongoing discussion forum that the new library will host for grandparents to speak on raising their grandchildren with Jewish values, already has attracted the notice of open house attendees like Barbara Sampson, 80, a member of nearby Stephen Wise Temple. 

“My granddaughter has a Jewish father and a Catholic mother. I want to make sure as her grandmother I can do whatever I can to expose her to all I know about Judaism,” she said. “Everything I know, like traditions and values, I want her to know. I think this new library, with the children’s programming and all, will be great for helping me connect more with my granddaughter on Jewish values.” 

Rabbi Gary Oren, AJU vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, also feels that a built-in advantage the new library has is its affiliation with a university as opposed to a synagogue. 

“A university setting is familiar to most Jews as a place to come in, explore and work. The barrier a synagogue might put up for some people is definitely not up here,” Oren said. 

Since it began to take shape over the summer, Oren has also witnessed the new library’s benefits to students and staff alike at AJU.  

“There are exciting opportunities for crossover between community, faculty and students there,” Oren said. “We had a screening of a Holocaust documentary in the space and were able to bring in a graduate student to lecture to the public after the screening, which was certainly an exciting opportunity for the student. Also, I’ve seen staff take lunch breaks there to just sit comfortably and read. It’s just a nice place to be in.” 

Though Oren acknowledged that difficulties might lie ahead to maintain the public’s interest, he affirmed his belief that the Sperber Library is here to stay. 

“We know the challenges we face, competing with the internet and how accessible information is today. However, we’re committed to having the space open and available to the public. We will keep it up to date. We feel that it’s necessary and provides a service to the community and we’ll make sure that happens,” he said. “Books and Jews go together.”

Moving and shaking: Commencement ceremonies, Jews for Hillary and more


Three seminaries — American Jewish University (AJU), Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR-CA) were among the local schools holding commencement ceremonies last month.

At AJU, which held its 66th commencement on May 15 at its Bel Air campus, nine students received Master of Arts degrees in rabbinic studies. They were ordained in a ceremony the next day. Four students were conferred Master of Arts in Nonprofit Management degrees and 13 were awarded a Master of Business Administration through the Graduate School of Nonprofit Management, while seven students earned a Master of Arts in Education. Eighteen students received bachelor’s degrees.

Among those getting honorary doctorates were Valley Beth Shalom Rabbi Ed Feinstein, philanthropist Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer and Jeffrey L. Glassman, CEO of Covington Capital Management and chairman emeritus of AJU. John Magoulas, the associate chief development officer of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles who received an MBA from AJU in 2001, received the Mickey Weiss Award for Outstanding Alumni. 

HUC-JIR ordained eight students in a May 15 ceremony at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills. Rabbi Aaron D. Panken, the president of HUC-JIR, was the ordination speaker. Giving remarks were Cary Davidson, a member of the university’s board of governors and chair of the Western region overseers; Congregation Kol Ami’s Rabbi Denise Eger, president of the board of trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Daryl Messinger, chairman of the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees; and Congregation Or Ami’s Rabbi Paul Kipnes

Graduation exercises took place the following day at Temple Emanuel, with dean Joshua Holo offering opening remarks. A certificate of recognition was presented to Michael Zeldin, retiring senior national director of HUC-JIR’s schools of education, who also gave the graduation address. 

Seven students received the Master of Arts in Jewish Nonprofit Management, seven others were awarded Master of Arts in Jewish Education and eight students earned Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters. One student received a Doctor of Hebrew Letters. 

An honorary doctorate was presented to Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael, the Nathan and Sophia Gumenick Professor of Judaic Studies and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at the College of William and Mary. The Sherut La’Am award was presented to activist, philanthropist and author Buff Brazy Given

AJR-CA held its graduation and ordination on May 30 at Stephen Wise Temple. Seven rabbis and one cantor were ordained after they had received their master’s degrees a day earlier in an event at the school’s Koreatown campus. At the May 30 event, one student graduated with a certification in chaplaincy and another received a master’s degree in Jewish studies. Rabbi Laura Owens, the school’s interim president, gave the opening address. 

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer


Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Regional Director Amanda Susskind moderated a May 25 panel discussion titled “Challenges and Opportunities Facing Jewish and Asian-American College Students,” hosted by ADL’s Asian Jewish Initiative in Los Angeles. Panelists were Jerry Kang, vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion at UCLA; Heather Rosen, a graduating senior and student body president at UCLA; Riki Robinson, a student and program coordinator at the Center for Asian Pacific American Students at Pitzer College; and Varun Soni, dean of the Office of Religious Life at USC. 

From left: ADL Asian Jewish Initiative co-chair Vince Gonzalez, UCLA Vice Chancellor Jerry Kang, USC Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni, ADL Asian Jewish Initiative founder Faith Cookler, ADL Regional Director Amanda Susskind, UCLA senior and outgoing president Heather Rosen and Pitzer College student Riki Robinson.  Photo courtesy of Anti-Defamation League

Approximately 30 people were present as the panelists drew attention to the clash of identities — how students self-identify and how they are perceived — and what was described as a “wealth of diversity” within both communities.

Jewish students Rosen and Robinson said that some of the challenges Jewish students face come from within the Jewish community, while other challenges are external. On UCLA’s campus, Rosen said, “There’s a huge issue with politicization of identity, especially the Jewish identity.”

“A lot of times, because we are considered to be part of the white population, we are excluded from [progressive] conversations,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m an oppressor because I’m Jewish, because Israel is considered the oppressor and Palestine is considered the oppressed.”

Susskind stressed that there is no competition over who is more victimized. From her knowledge of individual instances, “The only allies Jews have had on campuses … have been oftentimes Asian, oftentimes South Asian.” 

“I want to [end] on an overarching positive,” Susskind added. “We have a lot in common among the Asian and Jewish cultures: the ancient cultures, the strong moms, the great food. And we want to see these alliances improved.”

— Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer


The Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) recently announced a $1 million donation from Jay H. Geller and his husband, Lowell Gallagher, to establish the Geller-Gallagher Leadership Institute (GGLI). 

From left: Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR Director Erik Ludwig, Jay Geller, Lowell Gallagher and HUC-JIR President Rabbi Aaron Panken. Photo courtesy of HUC-JIR 

The announcement was made at the Zelikow School’s honors reception on May 15, which celebrated eight individuals who received honorary doctorate degrees from the school. Geller is a Los Angeles attorney and member of the HUC-JIR Board of Governors, and Gallagher is an English professor at UCLA. 

The institute is being established “to engage in an open dialogue with professional leaders in the Jewish community to address challenges in the leadership pipeline,” said Erik Ludwig, the director of the Zelikow School. Although the institute will operate under the umbrella of the Zelikow School, it will be open to the general public. 

“Mentorship is really, really important to me,” said Geller, who is the chairman of the Zelikow School Advisory Council. “The reason why we started the institute was to create relationships and foster mentorships. The institute will work with professionals, lay leaders and students to develop those relationships.” 

The inaugural event of GGLI will be on Aug. 8. The speakers at the event will be Gali Cooks, executive director of Leading Edge: Alliance for Jewish Leadership; David Cygielman, founder and CEO of Moishe House; Jordan Fruchtman, chief programming officer of Moishe House; and Allan Finkelstein, former president of Jewish Community Centers Association of North America.

Of the eight honorees at the recent reception, two were from the Los Angeles area: Lori Klein, senior vice president of Caring for Jews in Need at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; and Lesley Plachta, development director of the Los Angeles Jewish Home Foundation. Lori Goodman, the chief development officer of CALM (Child Abuse Listening Mediation) in Santa Barbara, also was an honoree.

— Lakshna Mehta, Contributing Writer


American Jewish Committee Los Angeles (AJC-LA) elected Scott Edelman as its regional president during its 71st annual meeting and luncheon, held on May 23 at the Intercontinental hotel. He succeeds outgoing AJC-LA President Dean Schramm, who continues on as chairman of AJC-LA.

New American Jewish Committee Los Angeles regional president Scott Edelman. Photo courtesy of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher

“What attracts me most to AJC is its outreach to the non-Jewish world,” Edelman, a Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner and 2015 AJC-LA Judge Learned Hand Award recipient, said during his acceptance speech, as quoted in a press release. “We cannot take our freedom for granted; we live in perilous times. We must fight against anti-Semitism, all forms of bigotry, and the spread of radicalism and extremism.”

The meeting also marked appointments of new AJC-LA board members, including Glenn Sonnenberg, the current president of the board of directors at Stephen Wise Temple. Additionally, Reeve E. Chudd, Julie Bram and Cathy Unger were named AJC-LA vice presidents; Dan Schnur was named treasurer; and Eva Dworsky was named secretary. 

Additional new board members include Jonathan Anschell, Brian Cohen, James Dasteel and Marc Graboff.

Attendees at the event included L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Bob Blumenfield, and L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, among others.

Faithful Central Bible Church Bishop Kenneth Ulmer delivered the invocation and spoke about the importance of Black-Jewish relations.

AJC-LA Director Janna Weinstein Smith said she is looking forward to working with Edelman in his new role. “AJC is thrilled to have Scott, an accomplished Jewish community leader, serve as president of our region,” she said in a statement.


Samara Hutman, the executive director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH), traveled to Washington, D.C., on  May 6 to see photographs of Los Angeles-based Holocaust survivors on display in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda. The exhibit, which initially debuted at LAMOTH, is titled “Portraits in Black and White: Survivors and What They Carry” and features 20 black-and-white photos taken by photographer Barbara Mack.

Photographer Barbara Mack and LAMOTH Executive Director Samara Hutman visit Washington, D.C.  Photo by Bryan McLamara 

Two members of the Argus Quartet, violinist Clara Kim and violist Diana Wade, accompanied Hutman. Kim and Wade performed two pieces, “Found Missing” and “Tracks,” which students created as part of the Righteous Conversations Project at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles. Milken student Noah Daniel composed “Tracks” after learning from survivor Armin Goldstein

“The piece begins with an academic-sounding, exercise-like scale in order to portray the rigorous 14 hours a day Armin spent in school (apart from homework and studying), but also has a youthful joy as the waltz-like pizzicato comes in,” Daniel said, as quoted by LAMOTH. “It then moves into the period Armin spent in forced labor, as a lumberjack in freezing wind and snow. The augmented chord played by the violins as the piece accelerates creates the illusion of a train, as Armin is forced into a cattle car and taken to Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp in today’s northern Germany.”

Hutman praised the event and stressed the importance of students learning about the Holocaust. “This generation of students is the last one that will be able to connect in person with Holocaust survivors in our community,” Hutman said. “LAMOTH’s Righteous Conversations Project Music Composition Program gives students the opportunity to carry on the legacy of memory to future generations through music.”

— Avi Sholkoff, Contributing Writer


If you want to celebrate an organization that works to help churches, synagogues and mosques create sustainable gardens on their properties, what better place to do it than in the middle of a … sustainable garden?  Netiya’s “Not Just a Garden Party” on May 26 at the home of founder Devorah Brous and Laurence Weber brought together 90 supporters of the organization amid the home’s raised beds, fruit trees, aquaponic pond and chicken coop.

An interfaith gardening event organized by agriculture group Netiya.   

“Almost everything grows here in this part of the world,” Brous said in impassioned remarks to guests. “Yet 600,000 kids are food insecure in Los Angeles County.”

Netiya helps by converting congregations’ water-intensive crabgrass lawns into sites for fresh food production. So far, it has installed 16 food gardens at faith-based institutions and given 10 microgrants to L.A. congregations to grow food.

“These congregations are essentially the greatest source of ready-to-repurpose lands in the entire city,” Brous said. “Faith communities are literally the fertile ground to seed institutional scale change around the city.”

As night came and lights twinkled in the garden, performance artists entertained a crowd including Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light, Melissa Balaban and Adam Wergeles, Jack Weiss and Leslie Kautz, Brian Pass, Yuval Ron, Carolyne Aycaguer, Shep and Shari Rosenman, Rabbi Noah Farkas, Rabbi Ahud Sela and Jessica Ritz.  

— Staff report


Former Congressman Howard Berman discussed the Democratic Party platform on Israel at the Beverly Hills home of Ada and Jim Horwich during a “Jews for Hillary” event on May 31. 

A “Jews for Hillary” event was held at the Beverly Hills home of Ada and Jim Horwich on May 31.

“My sense from conversations with people who are very involved in Hillary Clinton’s campaign, more so than I am, is … a firm resolve to stand with American support for Israel,” Berman told the standing-room-only crowd that filled the Horwich courtyard.

Co-organized with activist Donna Bojarsky, the event brought out Democratic pols and community leaders en masse. 

“We really need a strong united Jewish community,” said Sarah Bard, Clinton’s Jewish outreach coordinator. “Hillary Clinton is going to fight hard to make sure the platform reflects her long record of support for Israel.”

“I think we got our marching orders,” Bojarsky called out to the crowd.

Spotted at the event were Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer, L.A. City Controller Ron Galperin, L.A. City Councilman Bob Blumenfield, Wendy Greuel, Zev and Barbara Yaroslavsky, Rabbi Naomi Levy, Sharon and Leon Janks, Rabbi Ken ChasenSam Yebri, Jesse Gabriel, and Rabbi Sharon Brous and David Light.

— Staff report

Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com

News reports revive AJU environmental debate


Nuclear expert Dan Hirsch made a promise in 1979 that would drag him into a three-decade fight he didn’t ask for, a fight that has since drawn in Boeing, an alphabet soup of regulators and, most recently, American Jewish University (AJU).

Hirsch’s students at UCLA had dug up some files detailing a partial nuclear meltdown in the Simi Hills in 1959 at a site bordering the 3,000-acre Jewish retreat known as the Brandeis-Bardin Campus. Hirsch immediately took the files to KNBC. 

When the story ran in 1979, a Thousand Oaks woman called Hirsch asking him to help, saying she believed the accident had caused her child’s leukemia. He promised he would.

“One tries to live up to promises,” Hirsch told the Jewish Journal in an interview. “But who ever could have conceived that it would have been a third of a century?”

Hirsch unwittingly lobbed an environmental hot potato that has been passed around ever since. In recent weeks, a new, yearlong investigation by KNBC4 has brought to the surface some once-confidential details, raising new hackles and painting AJU into an uncomfortable corner. (Four segments have aired thus far, all of which remain available on the station’s website, nbclosangeles.com.)

In response to the investigation, AJU announced to community members on Nov. 18 a new round of environmental tests it hopes will “reconfirm the safety of the property.”

AJU merged with the Brandeis-Bardin Campus northwest of Los Angeles in 2007, and with it inherited the site’s environmental baggage: The campus is adjacent to the Santa Susana Field Lab, an out-of-commission nuclear and rocket-testing site now owned by Boeing. On the north flank, closest to the Brandeis-Bardin Campus, is a tract called “Area IV,” where an experimental sodium reactor partially melted down in 1959.

That environmental disaster was just the beginning of the site’s woes.

Every time KNBC airs a segment, the reporter, Joel Grover, reveals disquieting details that raise alarm among the scores of Jewish Angelenos who have spent time at the retreat, which includes Camp Alonim. The report has included descriptions of the Santa Susana Field Lab’s nuclear burn pits, poisoned groundwater and radioactive gas released into the breeze.

The latest KNBC segment, which ran Nov. 19, revealed that the institute’s founder, Shlomo Bardin, called the sheriff in 1957 about sludge from the field lab that had ended up in a stream that bisects the educational campus. 

AJU has responded to the recent reports by saying the NBC4 I-Team is spinning tall tales, “relying on innuendo, partial information and speculation rather than evidence and facts.”

In a Nov. 21 statement to the Jewish Journal, AJU wrote, “Testing has consistently found the property to be safe — and nothing presented in recent news reports leads to a contrary conclusion.” (For the full text, click here.)

NBC4’s Joel Grover points to the site of the Santa Susana Field Lab from Sage Ranch Park in Simi Valley.

The statement adds that AJU is committed to transparency, and that “our entire staff takes our stewardship responsibilities very seriously.”

Previously, the TV station’s report charged the university with withholding information from its stakeholders — one segment in the KNBC series was titled “Camp Cover-Up.”

Now, documents uncovered by reporters Grover and Matthew Glasser are pushing AJU to reckon quite publicly with the land’s past, most prominently, its settlement agreement in a 1996 lawsuit BBI filed in federal court against Boeing. The results of that settlement remained confidential until KNBC obtained a copy.

In a related complaint uncovered by KNBC, BBI’s lawyers wrote that hazardous material produced at the field lab had “seeped into, and come to be located in the soil and groundwater of the real property.”

The settlement agreement BBI signed shortly after filing the lawsuit, published by KNBC, includes a sweepingly restrictive release of liability that curtails AJU’s current legal options. 

Jennifer Shaw, who witnessed the Santa Susana rocket tests from the balcony of her Simi Valley home in the 1980s, said that she tried to access the case files, but was told by the court they were sealed.

“Whoever Joel Grover got his stuff from has broken open a whole new area for this story,” she said.

For the parents and grandparents whose children are alumni of the camp or retreats on the property, the deluge of new documents is confusing at best, and, for some, a cause for concern.

KNBC reported that the Jewish youth program Diller Teen Fellows has cancelled a planned retreat at BBI following the reports. A representative of the program declined to comment.

When the first segment of the story aired in September, stakeholders at Milken Community Schools wondered if they should relocate retreats that traditionally have taken place at BBI. The school recently announced it ultimately decided to stick with the site, and a Dec. 4-5 Shabbaton is slated to take place there. 

The question was never about whether the site is safe, Milken Head of School Gary Weisserman said. He takes AJU at its word. But administrators admitted some parents might react negatively.

“We undoubtedly will have a couple of families who will decide not to send their child [to the Shabbaton], but that’s a choice that they’re making,” Weisserman said.

Parents can find some scientific justification on either side.

Hal Morgenstern, a University of Michigan epidemiologist who has studied cancer rates in the area around the field lab site, said his conclusions have been used by both sides: those seeking to prove the field lab was harmless, and those who doubt it.

The elevated cancer rates he found are provocative but circumstantial, he said.

Those who claim the land is safe read scientific studies on the topic as inconclusive, at worst. 

“All the evidence says, ‘Hey, you can relax about this,’ ” said Abraham Weitzberg, a nuclear engineer and former Santa Susana Field Lab official.

Weitzberg heads an organization called the Santa Susana Field Lab Community Advisory Group that generally vouches for the site’s safety. He also has papered the local press, including the Jewish Journal, with letters to that effect.

The debate has also rekindled the passions and rancor of both sides.

Weitzberg also maintains that Hirsch, the nuclear activist, is a puppeteer who has run a three-decade environmental witch-hunt. Hirsch, for his part, says Weitzberg is a Boeing mouthpiece, a claim Weitzberg finds ridiculous. 

Meanwhile, KNBC's Grover said on air that they will “stay with this story a long time.”

NBC investigation reopens contamination question at SoCal Jewish camp


For years, Victoria Tashman didn’t think much of the sonic booms coming from the Santa Susana Field Lab, just uphill from a storied Jewish retreat and campus not far from her Woodland Hills home.

“It was just part of growing up,” she said.

But in 2004, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her father mentioned it might be related to the site in Simi Valley. And when she caught wind of a yearlong KNBC investigation into the potential contamination, which aired this week, she forwarded it to her whole family.

Now, she’s wondering if her mother’s and mother-in-law’s cancers were also related to the site.

[ESHMAN: Brandeis Bardin needs to be transparent about contamination]

The three-part investigation unearthed a trove of documents indicating that Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI), which includes Camp Alonim, was scarred by nuclear and other contamination from the neighboring facility, now owned by Boeing.

“People were exposed; there’s no doubt about that,” Yoram Cohen, a UCLA researcher who studied the site, said during the Nov. 9 broadcast.

The investigation found that rocket tests and “burn pits” for nuclear waste, among other potential contaminants, may have resulted in toxic exposure for the camp. American Jewish University (AJU), which since 2007 has owned and operated the campus, has denied to both KNBC and the Jewish Journal that the thousands of children who attended the camp have been in danger from contamination.

A Nov. 10 email message from AJU president Robert Wexler sent to families affiliated with the campus called the KNBC story “deeply flawed and entirely misleading.”

But an internal report initiated by Brandeis in 1997, obtained by KNBC, indicated that the “property is contaminated, at both the surface and subsurface, with radiological and chemical contaminants.”

“I was reassured over and over the land was safe and that there was no need for me to see any of the materials,” Rabbi Lee Bycel, who directed the Institute from 2000 to 2003, told the Journal. Bycel said in the KNBC report that he would not have taken the job at BBI if he had known the extent of the contamination.

Located just south of the 118 Freeway, the Brandeis-Bardin Campus encompasses nearly 3,000 acres of mess halls, bunks, prayer centers and recreation facilities, including horse stables, a swimming pool and tennis courts. Its website states that it is the “largest parcel of land owned by a Jewish institution outside the State of Israel.”

The site’s perils came to the fore in 1959 when a nuclear reactor experienced a partial meltdown. Workers told the network they were instructed to open the exhaust stacks, allowing radioactive gas to waft toward surrounding areas.

For years afterward, Rocketdyne, the company that operated the site at the time, conducted rocket tests that emitted known contaminants.

In 1997, Brandeis reached a confidential $3.2 million settlement with Boeing, obtained by KNBC, with the aerospace company agreeing to buy a portion of the adjacent land in exchange for Brandeis waiving its right to all future lawsuits over the contamination. AJU did not confirm whether the details of the settlement, as reported by KNBC, are accurate.  

The Jewish Journal attempted an investigation into the contamination three years ago, but according to Journal editor-in-chief  and publisher Rob Eshman, was unable to find enough evidence to produce a satisfactory story (see Eshman’s column, p. 6).  

“We simply lacked the resources and expertise to pursue the story,” Eshman said. “KNBC fielded a team of Emmy-winning reporters and scientific consultants over a period of one year, and Joel Grover and his team are to be commended.” 

AJU continues to assert that the facility is safe and that it has done regular testing of the property.  

Throughout the Journal’s 2012 investigation, AJU refused to release results of tests it said prove that fact. After repeated requests by KNBC, AJU released a number of test results, but not all. 

Both AJU and KNBC are posting numerous documents related to the Brandeis-Bardin property on their websites.

“Based on an exhaustive records review and the conclusion of scientific experts, we found no cause for concern about the health and safety of the campers, staff or other visitors — past or present,” the AJU wrote in a Nov. 5 letter to KNBC. “Current testing confirms the safety of our property.”

But some members of the Brandeis-Bardin community aren’t so sure.

“Everyone is just guessing at this point,” said Robert Cohen, who spent several summers on the campus in the late 1960s and sent his three sons to Camp Alonim. “The only way to know for sure is to do an epidemiological study of the health of all the campers.”

At the age of 21, Cohen’s son Daniel was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Robert Cohen believes the cancer was a result of his son’s romps around the Alonim campus, where the boys’ bunks are just downhill from the field lab.

“Whenever there were heavy rains, the creek became a river, and mud from the hillside would be washed down,” the elder Cohen told the Jewish Journal. “I’m not a scientist, but that always bothered me.”

Bycel, BBI’s former director, stressed that he has the campus’ best interests at heart when he asks for a full accounting of the contamination.

“That’s what Brandeis taught us to do; that’s being loyal to the Jewish community,” he said. “You only question when you care.”

——-

For the Record (11/10/2015): Victoria Tashman's childhood home was corrected to reflect that she lived in Woodland Hills, not Simi Valley.  And her mother-in-law had cancer, not her brother-in-law.

Soraya Nazarian, AJU and the fine art of philanthropy


Soraya Nazarian has been taking sculpting classes at American Jewish University (AJU) for more than 20 years. She started sculpting at AJU in the late 1980s, and since then has become one of the most renowned Jewish artists in the world. 

Thanks in part to the resources of AJU, she has ascended to the top of her profession. Earlier this month, she decided to repay the institution.

On July 13, AJU announced that the Y&S Nazarian Family Foundation had presented it with a gift of $1 million to AJU to create the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Program in Fine Arts, which will operate under the umbrella of AJU’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education. The funds also will go toward constructing the Soraya Sarah Nazarian Fine Arts Pavilion on AJU’s Bel Air campus. 

“I have sincerely enjoyed the opportunity to take fine-arts classes, such as sculpture, at American Jewish University,” Nazarian said in a statement. “I am pleased to be able to give back to the community that has provided me with so much opportunity to learn and grow.”

Joanna Gerber, vice president for marketing and communication at AJU, said Nazarian’s endowment will create substantial improvements to the school’s fine-arts curriculum. 

“The fine-arts program has always been a really popular and well-intentioned program,” Gerber said. “So to receive this gift is a huge honor because it allows us to continue the work in a meaningful way. We’ll be able to expand our programs and continue with existing programs.”

The Nazarian family has helped advance Jewish culture and fine-arts programs at other universities in the past. In 2005, UCLA used a $5 million donation from the Nazarian Family Foundation to create the Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. In 2004, the family gave $1 million to USC to establish the Nazarian Pavilion in the Edward L. Doheny Jr. Memorial Library. 

Officials said AJU will use the gift primarily to address two distinct needs. An estimated 25 percent of the funds will be dedicated to refurbishing and redesigning the campus, including creating an archway in front of the Nazarian Pavilion. A timeline for these construction projects has not yet been established. The other 75 percent of the gift will go toward funding coursework, maintaining resources and facilities, and expanding the program into new disciplines. 

Nazarian’s sculptures are primarily made out of marble and are displayed in Los Angeles and Israel, including at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Haifa. She also displays her work at regular student shows at AJU. Her sensibility ranges from abstract to impressionistic, and her most prominent themes include her heritage, her identity and the natural world. 

Rabbi Gary Oren, vice president and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, said Nazarian’s sculptures are the result of intense commitment to her vision.

“Soraya is very dedicated to her craft, and the pieces that I have seen are magnificent,” Oren said. “They come out of her soul, they are powerful and extremely well done.”

Robert Wexler, AJU president, said the donation will help carry on a rich tradition of fine-arts education at the institution. When it was founded in 1947 as the University of Judaism, the curriculum was guided by scholar Mordecai Kaplan’s belief that there should be several different entry points into Jewish scholarship, instead of only traditional rabbinical study. 

“He understood that Jews are going to connect to Jewish life in many ways, including the arts, and when the university was founded, its fine-arts program was one-of-a-kind,” Wexler said. “This new emphasis is to try and re-create that connection with the arts, which we consider to be so important.”

Bringing music to AJU


“Once upon a time there was a legacy of producing original pieces in all the different arts, and for whatever reason, we’d strayed from that,” said Rabbi Gary Oren, dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education at American Jewish University (AJU), on a recent afternoon.  

The hilltop university’s Gindi Auditorium has been filled in recent years with famous speakers and thoughtful debate, but less frequently with high art. Officials hope the creation of a choir and collaboration with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony (LAJS) will offer a breath of renewed artistic life. 

For Noreen Green, LAJS director and conductor, the decision to approach AJU last year with the idea of linking up and starting a choir was an easy one. She had just finished a 20-year run working at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, where the symphony had performed frequently over the years, and wanted a new place for LAJS to stage a yearly concert.  

“We experimented last year with the ‘Classics to Klezmer’ concert, and it was really successful,” Green said. “The musicians love [it], and I love conducting on the stage — acoustically, it’s the best.”

The appeal of the Gindi was partly based on its sound, but history had a role, too. 

“There were so many people doing music out here — of course, [composer] Max Helfman. Part of my mission has been to kind of re-establish that excitement that was here as far as performing classical Jewish music,” Green said. 

Josh Feldman, AJU’s new director of the Institute for Jewish Creativity, is excited about the possibility of realizing the Gindi’s full artistic potential. 

“We’re in a process of rebuilding, and the choir and the symphony are both great examples of that. It’s a gradual process,” he said. “We’re looking to bring high-quality examples of both explicitly Jewish arts and culture, and culture [in general] to that space. More broadly, we’re hoping over the next 15 years to become one of the leading destinations for Jewish arts and culture in the country, and the Gindi is central to that vision.

“Arts and culture is for everyone, and I can’t think of better institutions than choirs or symphonies under great leadership that meet that sort of utility, where everyone can be a part of this, either by singing or playing, or to be listeners,” he continued.

For Green, her work at AJU requires her to wear two hats: one as the director of the independent LAJS, and another as the director of the university’s choir, an official program of the Whizin Institute. 

“Being the choir director is like being a mom. You’ve got to nurture them, and you’ve got to get them to do what you want them to do,” Green said, laughing. “It’s a different relationship with the choir and with the orchestra. I love both.”

The choir performed as recently as March 29, and the LAJS’ big spring concert will take place April 12 at 7 p.m. The concert will consist of three pieces, feature local composers Russell Steinberg and Sharon Farber, and run approximately 90 minutes.  The evening will be rounded out with a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s “Halil.”

Steinberg’s work, “Canopy of Peace,” was commissioned by the Schulweis Institute and weaves in text written by the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who died this past December. It’s a particularly personal piece for Green. 

“Rabbi Schulweis was one of my dear, dear mentors … There’s a real big hole in my heart since he passed away,” she said. “The performance is a couple of days before what would have been his 90th birthday.”

Farber’s piece is based on a poem called “Only a Book.” According to Green, “It basically describes the journey of the Jewish people and how they survived throughout the ages with only ‘The Book,’ the Bible.”

As for Bernstein’s “Halil,” she called it the most modern-sounding of the bunch. She’s particularly excited to have Israeli flutist Itay Lantner with the symphony to play in the flute-heavy piece.

For Green, the works are linked by some essential questions about art: What is the inspiration to write music? Is it text? Is it something that happens? Where does it come from?  

In her mind, all three pieces feature unique viewpoints on the subject. “It’s not just entertainment, you also learn something,” she said. “And you feel like you’ve come away with some knowledge about music, about Judaism.”

Or, as Feldman suggested, about life and the human experience. 

“For many of us, in our hardest or most joyous moments, it is a piece of music or a piece of art that explains for us … what that experience is in its vastness in a way that words can’t even begin to do,” he said. “Every time we put on the radio, we are a listener, and that makes us more than just a participant — we’re an active part of a community and dialogue.” 

If Feldman has his way, this will be the start of a long and fruitful relationship between LAJS and AJU. 

“AJU has a long legacy of arts and culture from its very beginning. There’s a strong belief that culture is a continued investment,” he said. “I heard a great rabbi say — Rabbi Sharon Brous — that if you can’t pray, you should sing. I think that there is a holiness to arts and culture.”

A day in the life of the (model) Knesset


American Jewish University’s (AJU) dining hall was abuzz with chatter on Jan. 18, when about 100 local high school students debated Israel’s proposed, controversial nation-state bill as part of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Model Knesset Day.

Upon arrival, students were assigned the identity of a current member of the Knesset and, by association, that member’s party affiliation. After introductions and a few activities, students were divided according to their appointed parties to eat dinner and discuss the law that would have formally defined Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. Introduced last November, it was shelved before the Knesset could vote on the legislation. 

“I’m personally against this bill because I don’t think that any country based on a religion will be a success,” one student said. 

Another responded, to a round of applause (and a few hearty whoops): “The idea that no democracy could be based on religion isn’t sound because democracies — including the United States, England, France, Russia and Germany  — are all based on sects of Christianity, and they’re pretty successful so far.”

The event sponsored by Federation’s Community Engagement Strategic Initiative was part debate, part workshop and part dinner buffet. It was the perfect complement to current events, according to Dan Gold, Federation’s vice president of Israel advocacy and education. 

“We got really lucky that Israel decided to have an actual election this year, so it’s timing up very perfectly,” he said.

It was meant to be engaging, too.

“All of you guys are proving that elections can be fun. Whoo!” an enthusiastic Dana Erlich, Israel consul for culture, media and public diplomacy, said to a Knesset’s worth of high-schoolers as the event started. 

Participating students came from the Diller Teen Fellows program, Israel Scouts (Tzofim), Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and Village Christian School in Sun Valley.

Barbara Charash, an AP government high school teacher at Village Christian School, attended the conference with 44 of her students — and would have brought more if space hadn’t been limited. Raised in a conservative Evangelical Christian home, she said her parents instilled a fervent support for Israel in her as a child that she continues to uphold today. In June 2013, Charash visited Israel for the first time with Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project, which brings Southern and Central California educators to Israel for a first-person experience. 

“I think it’s really important for Christian kids to be exposed to other teenagers that they normally wouldn’t interact with,” she said. “Speaking as a mom, we need to broaden our perspective in our worlds.”

One of Charash’s students, Nathan Magalit, 17, said, “I don’t know many other classes who have field trips like this or have connections like she does.”

He continued: “So far, it’s been very educational. When I entered here, I had a little bit of an understanding of the Knesset — basic facts, like it has 120 members and it’s unicameral.” But he said that he didn’t understand the cultural significance until the Federation event.

Magalit was assigned to the Likud Party, which, he said, “means we’re centrist-right … and we’re fighting for strong family values, strong military — almost like a Republican ideology.”

Hamilton High School sophomore and Federation Teen Advisory board member Sasha
Reiss was assigned to the centrist party Yesh Atid. Reiss, 15, said he was excited by the diversity represented at the event.

“I think it’s really cool that so many people are here who aren’t Jewish but still came here to learn with an open mind about Israel,” he said. 

After dinner, students were asked to return to the Knesset for a panel discussion. In this particular mock scenario, four student representatives were asked to debate Israel’s nation-state bill on behalf of their adopted parties. Moderated by Sinai Temple Millennial Director Matt Baram, students responded to a series of questions they had talked about previously in their discussion groups.

At the end of the discussion, all participants were asked to vote twice on the nation-state bill: first according to their party and a second time as themselves. The bill passed during the first vote by a very narrow margin; the second vote failed by a landslide.

“I think it’s important for teens to deepen their understanding of Israel and their empathy with the democratic process,” said Rabbi Hal Greenwald, assistant director of Federation’s Holy Land Democracy Project. 

“This is a Sunday on a holiday weekend [Martin Luther King Jr. Day], and they came out to learn about political science. I’m not sure I would’ve done that!” he said, laughing.

L.A. rabbi says mikveh at AJU is secure, calls Freundel scandal a ‘unique case’


In the wake of a scandal in which a Washington, D.C. Orthodox rabbi was arrested on Tuesday, Oct. 14, for allegedly spying on women undressing at a mikveh connected to his synagogue, Rabbi Richard A. Flom, a Los Angeles authority on the mikveh [ritual bathhouse] and a member of the Rabbinical Assembly executive committee, said the mikveh at American Jewish University [AJU], a community resource of the Rabbinical Assembly, is secure enough that people who use it for conversion, taharat hamishpacha [family purity] and other reasons, need not worry about someone illicitly watching them while they undress and immerse themselves in the mikveh pool.

[Related: Rabbi Barry Freundel arrested, charged with voyeurism]

Flom spoke to the Journal after the arrest of Rabbi Barry Freundel, 62, who has denied allegations filed Wednesday, Oct. 15, that he recorded at least six women showering at the mikveh at his synagogue. Freundel pleaded not guilty to a charge of voyeurism, a misdemeanor and was released without bond. Freundel “allegedly placed a hidden camera and recorder … inside…the changing-preparation area,” the website Failed Messiah reported, saying that he reportedly hid the recording device inside a digital clock.

During a phone interview on Oct. 15, L.A.’s Rabbi Flom addressed Freundel’s actions. “We don’t see how anything like that would be possible, or why anyone would want to do it.”

“We don’t want anyone to be turned off from utilizing this [the AJU mikveh] or any other mikveh because of these allegations. It’s probably a unique case that this story is about. At least I hope so,” Flom said.

“We don’t think anything like that could happen here, because we have multiple supervisors here, checking everything,” he added.

Freundel’s actions occurred at the Georgetown-based modern Orthodox community, Kesher Israel Congregation, where Freundel is the spiritual leader. The synagogue has posted a statement on its website that strongly denounces Freundel’s behavior.

“This is a painful moment for Kesher Israel Congregation and the entire Jewish community,” the statement from the synagogue’s board of directors reads.

Flom, a leader in the Conservative movement – the Rabbinical Assembly is the denomination’s rabbinical arm – said mikvaot are a place where women and men willingly undress fully under the assumption that no one is watching, and he therefore described Freundel’s alleged actions as “unfortunate.”

Flom did not want to speak further about Freundel out of respect for Lashon harah [gossip] laws.

“I have to tell you in all honesty I suspect there have been questions about this kind of thing for decades in regards to mikvaot,” Flom said.The utilization of it is a private and personal experience and people are vulnerable when they do it. Anybody who takes their clothes off and goes into a pool is vulnerable to the extent that they have taken their clothes off and are in a pool and not in their home – they are someplace else.”

The mikveh at AJU is one of several in Los Angeles. Others include the Mikvah Society of Los Angeles on Pico Boulevard and Chabad of Brentwood’s Brentwood Mikvah for women.

Moving and Shaking: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev


The Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently bestowed multiple honors on people with connections to the Los Angeles area. 

Patricia Glaser, a member of the university’s international board of governors, received an honorary doctorate on June 8 in Jerusalem. The Malibu resident also was honored for her contribution as a university benefactor in a separate ceremony the following day.

Glaser is a pre-eminent business trial attorney and the chair of the litigation department at Century City-based law firm Glaser Weil.

Daniel I. Schlessinger, president of American Friends of The Hebrew University (AFHU), said in a press release that Glaser’s “generosity and sense of Jewish communal spirit are immense.”

Additionally, Israel advocate and donor Mark Vidergauz received an honorary fellowship from the university on June 9 during the school’s international board of governor’s meeting in Jerusalem. Vidergauz is the founder and CEO of the Los Angeles-based investment bank Sage Group and a member of the Hebrew University international board of governors. 

An AFHU press release indicated that Vidergauz’s “tireless support for Israel” earned him the spotlight.



Haim and Cheryl Saban and Ben-Gurion University of the Negev President Rivka Carmi. Photo by Dani Machlis

Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) presented Holocaust historian Saul Friedlander with an honorary doctoral degree during the 44th annual board of governors meeting in Beer-Sheva, Israel, last month.

During the May 20 ceremony, BGU president Rivka Carmi said Friedlander is “one of the foremost researchers of the history of the Holocaust for his notable contribution in elucidating the enigma of the Jewish people’s survival in our age,” according to an American Associates, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev press release. 

Per the press release, Friedlander — the inaugural holder of the 1939 Club Chair in Holocaust Studies at UCLA, a 1999 MacArthur Fellow and 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner — expressed hope that his work on the Holocaust will have a lasting impact. 

“My dream that people will take from my work is the direction leading to compassion, understanding the suffering of others, and the will to live peacefully with others,” the honoree said in accepting the honor.

During the same event, BGU recognized social activist, philanthropist and psychologist Cheryl Saban with an honorary doctoral degree. Saban, who is married to Haim Saban, is an author and president of the Saban Family Foundation.

“My ability to give is going to continue for the rest of my life, but I really think that when one person is giving, it’s like putting a stone in a pond,” Saban said, according to a press release. “It’s a ripple that continues out. It’s infectious — it’s actually contagious in a good way. 

In conferring the honorary degree, Carmi praised the honoree’s contributions to the community and called her “a woman of vision.”

Also recognized with an honorary doctoral degree was Long Beach philanthropist James M. Breslauer, who was recognized for “personally spearheading the development of and funding for Israel’s new cyber technology center, CyberSpark, at the new Advanced Technologies Park, in Beer-Sheva,” the press release stated.



American Jewish University president Robert Wexler and Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

American Jewish University (AJU) President Robert Wexler presented Los Angeles Jewish Home CEO-President Molly Forrest with an honorary degree during AJU’s commencement ceremony on May 18.

Wexler highlighted the important role Forrest, as the leader of a nationally renowned provider of senior health care services, has played in bolstering the L.A. Jewish community. 

“Molly, the work you have done on behalf of our community is nothing short of remarkable. Step by step, you have made our local Jewish Home a model for communities around the country, both through your creative planning and your careful management,” Wexler said, according to a press release.

In accepting the degree, Forrest said, “I am incredibly touched and honored to receive this doctorate degree and thank the AJU for it. rI share the success of today with gratitude to many donors, staff, colleagues, volunteers and board members who give so much to make the Jewish Home what it is.”



Front row (from left): Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, and community leaders Elaine Harley and Mignon Moore.

Back row (from left): Rabbi Lisa Edwards of Beth Chayim Chadashim, City Controller Ron Galperin, NBA player Jason Collins, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, former Councilmember Bill Rosendahl, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell. 

Los Angeles’ LGBT Heritage Month kickoff celebration honored equality activists in the community on May 30 at City Hall.

This year’s honorees included NBA athlete Jason Collins, former L.A. City Clerk June Lagmay, homeless-youth advocate Carlos Sosa, Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Rabbi Denise Eger, and community leaders Mignon Moore and Elaine Harley.

The City Council gave a presentation about the activists and advocates, explaining the work they’ve done to more than 250 people in attendance. Mayor Eric Garcetti, City Controller Ron Galperin, Councilmember Mike Bonin and Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell participated in the ceremony, which was followed by a reception in the City Hall forecourt.

“LGBT heritage month is our opportunity every year to recognize the integral role of the LGBT community in our life and culture here in Los Angeles,” Galperin said.

Eger of Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood has advanced equality over her 26-year career. 

“It was a very significant event,” Eger said in a phone interview. “I think part of it has to do with the instrumental way the Jewish community has modeled learning to be tolerant, accepting and ultimately inclusive. And I think that is a huge issue. It wasn’t always inclusive. Now in the Jewish community in L.A., in particular, it still struggles, but even in the Orthodox communities, conversation is happening.”

Eger has worked with members of the government and City Council to address LGBT acceptance in Los Angeles and the world as a whole. Galperin called her and Edwards “two of our community’s most inspiring leaders — for their advocacy, scholarship and commitment to equality.”

“We’ve played a role in the Jewish community for that conversation to happen and for teaching other big traditions how to be inclusive,” Eger said. “We learn to work across color lines and ethnicity lines. It’s a model for the greater world.”

— Michelle Chernack, Contributing Writer



State Assembly candidates Jacqui Irwin and Rob McCoy participated in a dialogue at the New Shul of the Conejo on March 29. The New Shul’s Rabbi Michael Barclay moderated. Photo courtesy of the New Shul of the Conejo

Two candidates for the 44th State Assembly District — Democrat Jacqui Irwin and Republican Rob McCoy — participated in a debate on May 29 at the New Shul of the Conejo.

During the dialogue, which included an hour of debate and a meet-and-greet with audience members, the candidates discussed economic growth, education and their commitment to serving the community, according to Rabbi Michael Barclay. The district includes southern Ventura County.

Both candidates received enough votes in the June 3 primary election to advance to the general election in November. A third candidate, Republican Mario de la Piedra, did not take part in the debate.

The debate took place at the Center for Spiritual Living in Westlake Village, where the synagogue currently holds services. Barclay said there was a strong turnout for the event, with attendees filling half the sanctuary.

Since its founding 3 1/2 years ago, the New Shul has worked to establish a dialogue on spiritual, social and political issues relevant to the Jewish community. Last year, the synagogue invited three Jewish leaders from different denominations to discuss the community’s response to same-sex marriage. Barclay said these kinds of events create opportunities for Jews to become more educated on issues that affect them.

“I think it’s important for us to recognize that, in order for us to say we’re spiritual people, we have to be active people as well,” he said.

— Nuria Mathog, Contributing Writer 


Moving and Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email ryant@jewishjournal.com

Jewish Disability Awareness Month: Jews without Harvard


This is the time of year when the Golden Children of our tribe are being anointed by the nation’s finest colleges and universities. These kids have traveled a long road to glory — GPA, SAT, AP, interviews, essays, common apps.

For a full year, the only question they’ve heard from us adults was, “So, where are you going to college?” Within weeks, our kids will finally be able to answer with a single, solitary name: USC. UCLA. Wisconsin. Harvard. Dartmouth.

End of story, right?

Not quite.

The Jewish community is slowly waking up to the fact that not every 18-year-old will end up in a top-tier, four-year university. In fact, for a good percentage of our children, there really is no obvious place to go.

About 20 percent of the United States population has some disability. According to a report by the nonprofit organization RespectAbilityUSA, for many of these adults, those disabilities are a roadblock to higher education and job training. Some schools and communities have made great strides toward ameliorating this. Unfortunately, the Jewish community is not one of them.

“There is this unrealistic attitude that all our kids are going to Harvard,” Jay Ruderman, the head of the Ruderman Family Foundation, told me in a phone interview. “There’s a huge blind spot in the Jewish community when it comes to inclusion. If [Jewish leaders] themselves are not connected to a child through disability, they’re just missing it.”

Jo Ann Simons’ personal story is a good example. When her son, who has Down Syndrome, was in high school, he asked his mom when he was going to take the SAT. 

“I asked him, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘You need them to get into college. You’ve included me in a regular high school, now I want to go to college.’ ”

Simons had found great support for her son in Jewish Community Center programs and Jewish camps. But when it came time for post-secondary options, the Jewish community offered nothing.

After a great deal of effort, her son was able to enroll in a special program at Cape Cod Community College.

Simons’ son is now 34. Simons herself is CEO of the Cardinal Cushing Centers in Hanover, Mass., a Catholic charity that is developing an inclusive community  where people of all abilities will live, work, play and learn together. In addition to providing housing for people with disabilities, the center is developing 37 workforce housing units.

“In the Jewish world, the options are limited,” Simons said. “We’re judging ourselves on how many of our kids got into Harvard and Stanford, and we forgot that that’s not everybody’s pathway to achievement. America has moved beyond the Jewish community.”

Ruderman thinks he knows why the Jewish world has lagged behind, and he wants to change it. Ruderman’s family foundation deeply focused on disability issues in the Jewish world. It is a key backer of February as Jewish Disability Awareness Month. Post-secondary education is among the issues next in his sights.

“It’s crucially important, because if people are going to compete in the marketplace, they need that education,” he told me. 

It’s the relentless emphasis on “Jewish continuity,” Ruderman said, that relegates disability issues to a lesser priority.

“Our Jewish community is obsessed with the future of our community. It’s all about continuity. Unfortunately, they look at people with disabilities, and they say, ‘You know, they’re not our future. We’ll ship them over to public schools. This is something we’re not going to invest in, because they’re not our future.’ That’s really sad on the face of it.”

“I blame my fellow philanthropists,” Ruderman continued. “They’re not stating it out loud, but I know what’s behind it: The future is young, upwardly mobile Jews.”

But, Ruderman said, focusing on inclusivity actually attracts the cream of the next generation as well.  

“If you want to attract people, you have to be inclusive, or people will be turned off,” he said. “The older generation doesn’t get that.   This is a civil rights issue. We’re trying to change the mindset.”

One bright spot — perhaps the only one — is at American Jewish University in Bel Air. An independent organization called Live Advance LA, part of The Help Group, has set up shop there, and through AJU’s College of Arts and Sciences offers adults ages 18-25 with a spectrum of disabilities college-level classes, academic support, guidance and tutoring. 

Can this program or similar ones expand and spread to other communities? 

It has to happen.

“What I would like to see is a willing partner,” said Ruderman.  

“If there is a Jewish institution interested in post-secondary education, we’re willing to put significant resources behind it. Money is not an obstacle. The money exists in the Jewish community. Inclusion is less expensive than segregation, and segregation leads to poverty.”

Celebrate all those Ivy League acceptances, by all means. But don’t forget the potential in all our children, all of them, in their way, golden.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Jewish art spans city with ‘Sacred Words, Sacred Texts’


The Jewish art scene in Los Angeles is a small but vibrant community that spans generations, styles, and the full length and breadth of the city itself. Now, for the first time, three of L.A.’s preeminent Jewish institutions — Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), University of Southern California Hillel and American Jewish University (AJU) — have teamed up to produce a collaborative exhibition that stretches across three venues and features more than a dozen local artists. 

“Sacred Words, Sacred Texts,” which officially opened Oct. 6 with a reception at AJU, is an exhibition that celebrates Jews as a People of the Book: Torah, Talmud, Midrash and sacred poetry are all explored through various media by more than a dozen Jewish artists from the L.A. area. It was curated by Anne Hromadka, Sara Cannon and Georgia Freedman-Harvey.

A second reception — this time beginning at HUC-JIR and spilling over to the nearby USC Hillel — took place on Oct. 13, featuring a wide range of styles and forms, from a very traditional, literal sculpted Torah by Soraya Sarah Nazarian, to Will Deutsch’s instantly recognizable drawings, to a video installation by Jessica Shokrian featuring accompanying spices that guests were invited to sniff in a sort of avant garde Smell-O-Vision.

Hromadka said that one of her main motivations for the exhibition was to ask the question, “How are Jewish artists thinking of ourselves as keepers of the book?” 

She continued: “In thinking of ‘Sacred Words,’ I wanted to think about not just the words that we speak to each other, but what are some of the holiest words ever spoken in our tradition? And those are often the words spoken from God to us.”

Hromadka highlighted the work of artist Andi Arnovitz, a beautifully constructed sculpture made of Hebrew text featuring colorful flourishes that depict the battle between the houses of Hillel and Shammai, the circa first century BCE rabbis whose heated debates helped shape much of religious Jewish law and custom.

“The scrolls that make up the house are actually copies of pages from the Talmud,” Hromadka said.

She also spoke about a piece by Iranian artist Krista Nassi, who immigrated to the United States in 2006 after living in Iran post-revolution. The piece, a bold painting featuring sharp contrasts between darkness and light, and the text of the Shema, was apparently a personal one for Nassi. 

“She lived in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war,” Hromadka said. “Whenever there was shelling … her family would gather in one space in the house … and they would huddle. And what were the words they would say to comfort themselves? The Shema.”

Among those in attendance were participating artists Melinda Smith Altshuler and Isaac Brynjegard-Bialik. Altshuler, speaking briefly, highlighted her use of found objects in her work, which she credited to her father being in the scrap metal business when she grew up. He’d bring home “wonders” that she couldn’t help but love. Altshuler described her work, which included a piece that made use of old record sleeves, as being “like the anti-text, because they really have to do with addressing recording, which is what the written word is also, but with visual materials.”

Brynjegard-Bialik went into more depth about what the concept behind “Sacred Words, Sacred Texts” means to him. 

“What I’m trying to do is tell stories,” he said. “I’m very much into our narratives, our stories as a people. Most of my work is informed by biblical stories. And I always say my work starts with text. Maybe it’s a portion from the Bible, maybe it’s something from Talmud, maybe it’s a myth, as with the golem story.”

Brynjegard-Bialik’s beautiful pieces, which weave in images from comic books to create mythic takes on Torah and the Jewish experience, breathe new life into the often tired art of paper cutting. 

“It’s all about revisiting these texts, revisiting these stories, revisiting those things that inform us as a people, and trying to make sense of them,” he said. “The text becomes ours to own and to struggle with. What I try and do is put that struggle on the page.”

At USC Hillel, a jazz quartet played while guests, most of whom made the short walk from HUC, looked at more work by Brynjegard-Bialik, along with Hillel-specific artists like the appropriately named Hillel Smith and Carol Es. 

This display has more of a youth-oriented feel, between the comic book-influenced work of Brynjegard-Bialik, Smith’s selections — which ranged from a pop art T-shirt to colorful abstract prints — and Es’ warped, trippy paintings.

Among the artists represented at AJU are Corrie Siegel, whose map of Los Angeles was used as the artwork for the exhibition’s poster, and philanthropist Peachy Levy, whose generous gifts to many Jewish institutions, particularly camps, have helped fund arts programming for countless children over the years. 

Whichever location art lovers visit, they are guaranteed to see a wide cross-section of Jewish art from Los Angeles, a collection that fittingly captures the many artistic voices that make up our community, and asks powerful questions. The exhibition at all three institutions will continue through mid-December.

High Holy Days: Sermons take a chapter from writer’s book of life


In 1963, Richard Levy was in his mid-20s and in his last year of rabbinical school when he was sent on an internship to a synagogue in Jasper, Ala. About the time of Rosh Hashanah, not far away in the town of Birmingham, a bomb exploded at the 16th Street Baptist Church, an African-American place of worship, and four girls were killed.

Segregation ruled in the South and African-Americans lived in awful conditions, violence targeting blacks was common, and tensions between white and blacks were high. And there was Levy, finding himself on the pulpit during the High Holy Days, with an audience of Southern Jews looking to him for inspiration. 

Did this 20-something have the life experience to give an effective sermon under such turbulent circumstances? 

Levy, now a faculty member at his alma mater, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), found that he was able to inspire people, despite his age and the fact that the civil rights movement in the South was happening around him. And it changed him, too.

“My experience in Jasper as a student rabbi with contacts in the Jewish community added hugely to my own life,” Levy told the Journal in an interview.

Every year during the High Holy Days, prominent rabbis in the community offer up sermons that are stirring, emotional and meaningful. These clergy have been doing this for years, if not decades. 

But what of the student rabbis who give High Holy Days sermons? Every year, HUC-JIR, American Jewish University and the Academy of Jewish Religion, California — local rabbinical colleges where students embark on programs to be ordained as rabbis — send their students to congregations as part of internships, or student pulpits, that are intended to give them hands-on experience. This includes delivering sermons during the holiest time of the year.

Jaclyn Fromer Cohen, who is entering her fifth and final year of rabbinical school at HUC-JIR this fall, pondered the question of whether the limited life experience of students hinders their ability to give an effective sermon of such importance. Yes and no, she said. 

Last year, the 29-year-old from Brentwood gave the sermon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah at Pacific Palisades congregation Kehillat Israel, and she plans to return to the Reconstructionist synagogue this year to do the same. 

Cohen says she understands the ambivalence that congregants who are older — sometimes several decades older — might have sitting in a synagogue while a student in his or her 20s links life wisdom with Jewish text on the biggest days of the Jewish calendar. 

“You stand in front of the firing squad and hope for the best,” she said. 

The trick, Cohen continued, is to realize one’s age and limitations, rather than overcompensating for them and pretending to have lived more than one has — and to draw from what one has experienced, all the while remaining humble.

“I am very much aware of what I’ve been through, and I am very much aware of what I haven’t been through,” she said. “I am not going to speak in a way that says, ‘I’m a 29-year-old, and I have been through X, Y and Z, and now I will talk to you because [I know everything].’ I don’t think most people do that.

“But I do think what I try to do is I try to say, ‘Listen, I’ve had life experiences, the people I’m talking to have had their own, the person sitting next to the person I’m talking to has had their own. We come with our respective baggage and our respective things and our skeletons in the closet.’ And I try to honor that, and I try never to speak to things I don’t know,” she said.

This thinking has worked for her so far, she said, reporting that congregants offered positive feedback to her sermon that connected a contemporary issue — gun violence — with the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, which Cohen says is the “first mention of love in the Torah.”

Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, has given more than 40 High Holy Days sermons at one of the largest Conservative congregations in the area. He said that those who wonder if student rabbis have sufficient life experience to be giving High Holy Days sermons is a completely valid concern for an outside party to have.

Valid but also ultimately irrelevant, he argued. To give a good High Holy Days sermon — or any sermon, for that matter — one needs two things: an in-depth knowledge of Torah and an open heart, Feinstein said.

“It’s not you speaking, you are channeling Torah. If you are saying something important, from the heart, about the human condition, and you are talking about how Torah is bringing wisdom to this, then people will listen to you,” he said. “You can’t speak on your own. You don’t know. What do you know about these things? But you have something important from the world of Torah to say, and people have come to hear your Torah, and that’s what they hear.”

Sometimes students will make the mistake, however, of overcompensating for their age, said Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who works with rabbinic students on sermons as an HUC-JIR instructor on homiletics, a required course for students that focuses on the development of sermons. The mistake these students make is trying to make up for experience by overloading their sermons with traditional text that, to the unschooled people in the audience, sounds like a foreign language. In such cases, “sermons become academic presentations,” he said.

As for Levy — the rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus — his days of student pulpits are long behind him. 

In some respects, however, Levy says students have an edge over seasoned rabbis.

“Freshness always bring an advantage,” he said. 

And if the student takes that freshness, is humble, aware of his or her lack of life experience and still fails to connect? 

“They’re still students,” he said. “Hopefully people [will be] forgiving or understanding.”

LimmudLA Fest: Less is more


There are very few places where one could learn about the Jewish prison population, sing Kiddush with a Broadway legend and do tai chi — all in one weekend. 

All of these topics were among those explored at the first-ever LimmudLA Fest, a retreat full of learning that took place Aug. 16-18 at the Brandeis-Bardin campus of American Jewish University in Simi Valley.

The Limmud concept was the same as always: bringing a diverse group of Jews together for Jewish learning opportunities that are equally varied. This year, however, the location was also part of the attraction for the 180 attendees. 

Guests slept in cabins situated near rows of corn and surrounded by summer flowers in all shades of red and orange. The campground atmosphere, complete with ample sun and a pool, was well suited to participants looking for an environment that was as physically relaxing as it was spiritually engaging. (For a working journalist, however, the prohibition against writing during Shabbat made things a little challenging.) 

The event replaced the annual LimmudLA conference, normally held in February. Past conferences were held at an Orange County hotel and had to attract around 600 people to pay for the expenses of the venue, according to Aki Yonekawa, event co-chair. This smaller Limmud took place without a paid executive director, relying entirely on volunteers.

Having a Limmud event at Brandeis-Bardin just felt right, Yonekawa said. At previous conferences, participants lounged on the floors of hotel hallways playing the guitar, giving the impression that a group of camp people had been brought into a hotel. Yonekawa said people used to approach her and ask, “Why wasn’t [Limmud] at Brandeis?”

The result was a smaller event that allowed more spontaneity, she said. 

“We were a little bit more organic. We could be a little bit more flexible.”

Good thing, because some of her most memorable moments were not scheduled at all. Like when gospel singing teacher Sharon Alexander spontaneously led a song and everyone got to their feet and joined in. Or like when Theodore Bikel, the actor known for his numerous portrayals of Tevye in productions of “Fiddler on the Roof,” performed in the fest’s concert and led Kiddush. (He happened to be at the retreat as a participant.)

Limmud volunteers also took advantage of the change in scenery to suggest that presenters make their sessions more “experiential,” Yonekawa said. One session devoted to the study of the heavens in Judaism ended with stargazing, something that would have been impossible with the light pollution of an urban hotel. Arrangements of flowers that guests picked from the garden decorated the tables on Shabbat, and the kale and tomatoes they gathered were served as a salad with lunch on Saturday. 

Other elements of LimmudLA Fest strongly adhered to the values of the previous Limmud conferences, including the effort to welcome Jews from all backgrounds. Saturday morning saw people gradually emerge from their cabins in everything from summer dresses and khaki shorts to kippot and button-down shirts — all to attend an offering of services as diverse as their dress. 

There was a mechitza service and a “traditional egalitarian minyan.” In a small building with the doors thrown open to welcome latecomers and warm breezes alike, Jewish musician and songwriter Naomi Less and Storahtelling Inc.’s founding director Amichai Lau-Lavie encouraged participants to stretch, compliment their neighbors and sing along with drums and guitar in an alternative to traditional prayer called “Shabbat Morning With Storahtelling’s Lab/Shul.”

For those preferring textual analysis to prayer, Karen Radkowsky a founder and past president of Limmud NY, led a discussion about consumerism and Judaism. The discussion included a family with multiple generations in attendance, who shared perspectives on collecting possessions. A mother of a young teenager shared a story of back-to-school shopping in which the line between “wants” and “needs” was clearly subjective, while an older woman induced tears from the group by sharing her story of collecting photo albums throughout her life and passing them down through her family. 

The relaxed setting of LimmudLA Fest did not prevent it from tackling tough, timely subjects in its study sessions. Gregory Metzger, who has worked with prisoners as the director of Jewish Committee for Personal Service, shared his experiences with helping release Jewish prisoners and helping them make a meaningful life for themselves while incarcerated. 

He provided a bit of history as well, like how the cause of the first major crime wave among Jews in the United States was bigamy. Married Jewish men immigrated to America and then found wives while waiting for their original spouses to immigrate after them, he said. He also talked about how Jewish gangsters were involved in organized crime. 

With plenty of sessions taking place each day — some simultaneously — there was plenty from which to choose. Or, well, there was always the pool.

Convert: Rico Collins


Rico Collins, 39, was raised Southern Baptist in Jacksonville, Fla., but could never relate to the messages he heard in church as a boy. “It’s very fire and brimstone,” he said. “I didn’t like it.” 

Collins said he didn’t fit in with the other kids at church and felt alienated because he was gay. “In the ’80s, there was a huge anti-gay movement, and at almost every sermon they were bashing” homosexuality, he said. “I found it to be so negative. I knew I was gay at a young age and that this wasn’t for me.”

Collins turned away from religion. “I always had my relationship with God,” he said. “I guess you can call it Ricoism, but I knew organized religion wasn’t for me. I thought that [religious people] needed rules, and they needed someone to tell them what to do, because they wouldn’t do the right thing on their own. I abandoned it.” 

In 1991, Collins, a software engineer, moved to Los Angeles, and six years after that, he started dating Mark Goodman, who at the time was working as an actor and singer. Then, as Goodman went on to become a cantor and then rabbi at Valley Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Sun Valley, Collins would attend synagogue with Goodman. Yet, they didn’t feel comfortable saying they were partners: “I wanted to make sure I didn’t put his reputation or job in jeopardy,” Collins said. “There were only a few people who knew who I was in reality, but it was very ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’ ”

All that changed in 2006, when the Conservative movement declared that gay people could serve as rabbis and that it would be up to individual synagogues to decide whether to approve gay unions. 

That same summer, Goodman convinced Collins to check out Rabbi Neal Weinberg’s conversion program, which at the time was based at American Jewish University. Despite Collins’ resistance to religion, he went along with the idea, enrolled in the class, and began to study Hebrew, Jewish history and Jewish rituals. Over months of study every Sunday, he began to feel at home with Judaism. 

“I saw that it was something I really could be a part of,” Collins said. “It was something that was in me all along, and my resistance was just because I knew better. I knew better than what they were telling me in church.”

Following the class requirements, Collins began to observe the laws of kashrut and Shabbat. Because he was already a vegetarian, keeping kosher wasn’t too hard. “I was used to having restrictions on what I eat, so it was not that difficult a transition,” he said. “The thing that was hardest was Shabbat. I like to run, bike, lift weights and play on the computer on Saturdays. These are all the things you’re not supposed to do on Shabbat. It is a constant struggle.”

Collins completed the program quickly, but it wasn’t until 2007 that he decided to go before the beit din (rabbinical court) to complete his conversion, where he had to pass a written and oral Hebrew test. He said recently that he “aced it” and that, in the end, converting was “one of the most positive experiences of my life. There is an academic aspect to being Jewish. You have to know your stuff.”

Although he felt welcomed at Valley Beth Israel, Collins said that some of his own relatives were not so accepting. “I had some born-again Christians in my family. You have to be strong when you deal with them. … I was told I would go to hell, in a polite way.”

Collins’ immediate family, however, were fully accepting. “My mom and grandma were so happy I chose any religion,” he said.

Collins and Goodman have adopted three sons together, all of them now in their late teens. Two of the boys converted when they were children and now go to Hebrew school on Sundays. 

The family, who live in Burbank, are proud Jews. “I tell other people about it because they’re so curious, especially in Southern California. When you tell someone you’re Jewish, it starts a conversation,” Collins said. 

Through conversion, Collins said, he discovered his true identity. “I appreciate the fact that Mark led me to this point. I had to think about our relationship, and if he wasn’t in my life, would I still want do this? I think that’s why I hit the accelerator and went full throttle. I wanted to do it, regardless. This is who I am.”

Slavin Library collection dispersal benefits many


The 10,000 books, games, CDs and DVDs that once lined the walls of the Slavin Children’s Library at 6505 Wilshire Blvd. are on track to once more be made available to the public later this month.

Four institutions — American Jewish University (AJU), Chabad of Santa Monica, the Jewish Learning Exchange and the Tashbar Torat Hayim Hebrew Academy — have been given the bulk of the collection, with AJU receiving more than any other site. 

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which has had oversight of the now-shuttered library, will allocate any remaining items through a lottery to local Jewish groups that agree to make the collection open to the public.

The four groups that have received collections already satisfied the Federation’s criteria: Each already has a librarian and each plans to offer programming around the books and make the collection available to the public. 

According to Jonathan Jacoby, Federation’s senior vice president of Programs for Jewish Life, “The entire collection will be made available through various institutions,” with the exception of some outdated materials.

On March 14, Federation announced that it would close the Slavin Library, located in the lobby of Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard building, to make room for an extended space of the popular Zimmer Children’s Museum, which is also in the lobby. The new space, which has been empty since the library closed on May 19, will be called the Slavin’s Children’s Center when it reopens. Construction is set to begin on June 10.

In a March interview with the Jewish Journal, Zimmer CEO Esther Netter said that the new space will allow the museum “to offer additional classes, additional school field trips, parents and educator programming, [and] performances.”

AJU has been given between 2,000 and 3,000 books for the collection of its Sperber Jewish Community Library on its Mulholland Drive campus. 

Robert Wexler, AJU’s president, said that after he found out about the Slavin’s imminent closing, he contacted Federation and expressed interest in obtaining some of the collection to become part of a children’s section at Sperber. He added that each book AJU will receive was selected on the basis of its likelihood of being valuable to future patrons and its potential usefulness for Jewish children’s teachers and teachers in training.

“The collection will continue to expand annually,” Wexler said. “We have endowment funds available for future purchases of children’s books as well as appropriate audio-visual material and educational games.”

Merav Goldman, Federation’s vice president for Management & Administration in the EJF Strategic Initiative, said Federation will give the remaining portions of the collection in coming weeks to Jewish institutions that can make them accessible to the public.

“I’m hopeful that we’ll see in uptick in programming around Jewish books now that we’ve spread the wealth, so to speak, throughout the community,” Goldman said.

AJU’s Geller Fest spotlights the arts


In a new venture into presenting the arts, American Jewish University (AJU) will hold its first-ever Geller Festival of the Arts this summer, drawing names like Joan Rivers and Gideon Raff, the Israeli creator of “Homeland.”

Running June 16-20, the week’s four events all will be held in AJU’s Gindi Auditorium at its main campus on Mulholland Drive.

Gady Levy, vice president of AJU and dean of the Whizin Center for Continuing Education, said the festival honors Bruce and Jeanette Geller, major supporters of the Whizin Center. Bruce (1930-1978) was an award-winning screenwriter most famous for creating, writing, producing and directing the “Mission: Impossible” television series.

For the last several years, AJU sponsored a screenwriting competition in honor of the Gellers, which gave awards to three Jewish-themed screenplays. This year, Levy said, it was time to try new. 

The Geller festival will include two performances and two evening discussions (with Rivers and Raff), during which, Levy said, the two stars will “interact with the audience and answer questions in an open dialogue.”

The week will kick off June 16 at 7 p.m. with an evening of contemporary dance by BODYTRAFFIC, directed by Tina Berkett and Lilian Barbeito, and L.A. Dance Project, directed by Benjamin Millepied, a choreographer best known for his work in the movie “Black Swan.” Immediately following the performance, Berkett and Millepied will discuss the Judaism has had on their work.

On June 17 at 7:30 p.m., Raff, the Israeli writer of Showtime’s Emmy-winning series “Homeland,” will analyze the differences and similarities between the American show and Israel’s highest-rated drama of all time, “Hatufim” (abductees), on which “Homeland” is based. Raff created, wrote and directed “Hatufim,” and, according to the event’s Web site (wcce.aju.edu), Geller will also address the different markets that the two shows target.

Internationally renowned Israeli singer Noa (Achinoam Nini) will perform in concert in what will be the Los Angeles premiere of her world tour on June 18 at 7:30 p.m., accompanied by a quartet and her partner, collaborator and instrumentalist Gil Dor. (See related story on p. 10.)

And on June 20, the festival will conclude with the main attraction, comedian and actress Joan Rivers. The American comedy queen will deliver her lecture, “My Life in Show Business: 135 Years and Counting.” Rivers, 79, will discuss her life and her illustrious career. Following the lecture, she will take part in an on-stage interview and take questions from the audience.

“We have been trying to get Joan Rivers for a couple of years now,” Levy said. “We are looking forward to having her share both her comedy and life story — the influence of Judaism on her long career and her take on recent events.”

Rivers and her daughter, Melissa, are in Los Angeles filming the weekly WE TV series “Joan & Melissa: Joan Knows Best?”

For tickets or more information, call (310) 440-1246 or visit wcce.aju.edu.

Becoming Jewish: Tales from the Mikveh


Late on a recent Wednesday afternoon, Judith Golden and Suzanne Rosenthal perched at their desks in a small room in the depths of American Jewish University (AJU). It was a quiet day on campus; only a trickle of students occupied the new community library, the classrooms were mostly empty, and no one was paying attention to the comings and goings in the small office where the two women sat.

But just beyond, behind a closed door, a momentous occasion was unfolding, made real by the sounds of prayerful singing ringing out. The room quieted, then a jumble of people, including three rabbis, spilled into the office, all talking fast, bustling to complete some paperwork. The door opened again and a woman appeared, her short blond hair damp and dripping a bit. She appeared flushed but was smiling from ear to ear. 

“Welcome to the Jewish people,” one rabbi said, embracing the woman. She laughed, then looked like she might cry, then laughed again. A small group of family and friends gathered around as Rosenthal rushed over and gave the woman a bear hug. “How was the water?” 

“It … was … awesome.”

Newly minted as a Jew, the woman had just come from the Rabbinical Assembly Mikveh, the only community mikveh throughout the Pacific Southwest serving Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews alike. They come here for monthly rituals of cleansing, as well as for personal reaffirmations before weddings and other important rites of passage. But the largest numbers of people who immerse here are those converting to Judaism — as many as 300 to 500 annually.

Aged eight days to more than eight decades old, the lithe and the infirm alike come to this mikveh, in family groups and solo, always with a serious intention that leads to great joy.

In actuality, the facilities are quite plain, yet they feel, even to the uninitiated, imbued with the history of transformative magic that has taken place here. There’s a changing room for careful cleansing as preparation, and the mikveh itself occupies a small, mostly unadorned room. On the surface, it could almost be mistaken for a high-end spa, its blue-tiled tub built into the floor and lined with a railing. The mikveh, however, is divided into two pools, one filled 4 1/2 feet deep, enough for an adult to sink down and become fully engulfed by the wet. The second receptacle, connected to the first by a plugged hole but otherwise separate, contains the mayim hayim — holy water — water that must never, according to Jewish law, have touched metal. Many other mikvehs use rainwater, drained directly into a pool through non-metal pipes from a rooftop; here, because there’s no direct access to the outside, the mayim hayim is derived from ice melted inside the tub — 3,600 pounds are delivered every three months in 100 pound blocks — permissible because the transformation of ice into water means the liquid has been born anew and is as holy and fresh as the rain. Just before going under, the prospective convert pulls the plug to allow some of the mayim hayim to seep and infuse the water in the larger tank, lending its sacred power. The plug is closed again after the immersions are complete. 


Suzanne Rosenthal, left, and Judith Golden, the “mikveh chicks,” staff the mikveh office, aid with immersions and provide enthusiastic support. Photo by Susan Freudenheim

For each person who dunks — for a conversion, it must be done three times, each time followed by a prayer — the experience is, quite literally, life changing, the final step in becoming Jewish.

It’s a ritual as ancient as the Torah, but one that never gets old. And here, recognizing the emotional impact of the day, each new convert is treated as a very special guest, complete with an embrace from one or the other of the two “mikveh chicks,” as Rosenthal and Golden jokingly call themselves. They serve as guides and direct witness to a woman’s immersion, helping with the prayers and staying sensitive to the required nudity. (Men are witnessed either by a male rabbi, if one is present, or a friend or relative, or sometimes students on campus also make themselves available to help, when needed.) Two Jews must be present, but only one needs to physically view the process; the other can remain behind a curtain, along with family and guests. After each conversion, Golden and Rosenthal assume the role of greeters outside the dressing room. 

“We hug everybody,” Rosenthal said. “Men and women. And they love it.” 

“Part of our job is to be the first faces,” Golden added — each woman’s words spilling over the other’s, evidence of their amicable eight-year partnership in this small space. “The most important thing is the feeling of being welcomed and cared for,” Golden said.

The immersion is a graduation of sorts, only the final step after months or years of study and commitment to the Jewish People, its mitzvot (laws) and practices. For converts 13 or older, the immersion follows testimony before a beit din (Jewish court of law), three rabbis who confirm the applicant’s knowledge of Judaism and devotion to living a Jewish life. Going into the mikveh marks the final transition to a fully new identity, and the water is a metaphor both for a birthing and for the cleansing of a former life as a new one begins.

Each convert has a unique story, and these women are so open to conversation, they say, that they hear them all. 

“Our youngest were 8-day-old twin boys born of a surrogate in Northern California, who had two Israeli dads,” Golden said. “We did the conversion before the bris on the eighth day, and we had to have special permission from Rabbi Bergman,” she said, referring to Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, the rabbinic scholar who oversaw the halachic aspects of the AJU mikveh’s design in 1981. 

“Usually people don’t come to the mikveh before they are circumcised, but they had to get back to Israel and wanted to do the conversion here, because in Israel everything is Orthodox,” Golden said. 

While babies so young might seem fragile, the timing is, in actuality, very good, Golden said. But it takes some courage for the new parent: “You can’t hold onto the baby under the armpits, you have to just let go. I used to tell parents: ‘Drop the baby.’ And that’s terrifying for a new parent. So now I make sure I just say, ‘Release.’”

Golden and Rosenthal have many, many stories about children, reflecting the frequency of Jewish adoptions, use of surrogates or the circumstances of interfaith parents. Anyone 12 or younger can convert without going before a beit din, and the parent usually enters the water alongside the child. 

Golden recalled one non-Jewish parent who, after accompanying her children, decided suddenly to convert on her own, as well. She’d just addressed the beit din on behalf of her children, telling the rabbis of her own studies and her commitment to raising her kids as Jews. As a result, the rabbis readily agreed to her conversion without further requirements, so she, too, now became a Jew.

There have been some elderly converts, too; the oldest, Golden said, was a 91-year-old man, who’d met a Jewish woman while living at Leisure World, the seniors community. “It was important to her that she have a Jewish husband,” Golden said. 

So, what was he like?

“Old,” Rosenthal and Golden said in unison. 

“His wife was darling; they were in love,” Golden added. 

There is no special training for mikveh staff; rituals are learned and passed on just like at any other job. Both women say, however, that this is the best job they’ve ever experienced — every day is full of laughter and tears of joy. They’re not highly paid, they say, and they have to do everything, from tidying up the dressing room to finding new prayerful readings on the Internet. 

“What we get is emotional and spiritual currency,” Golden said; she has been here eight years, while Rosenthal has marked her ninth. Their primary role is to guide the prayers, witness the authenticity of the full dunk and provide whatever support is needed. Whenever possible, they ask people to come for a tour before their ritual so that they know what to expect and don’t lose time. 

Although regular hours are indicated on the outside door, Golden and Rosenthal, who job-share to extend the day and the resources, easily make accommodations to be available in the evenings and on Sundays, when possible. Each convert gets a minimum of one hour, and they allow somewhat less for other immersion rituals. Cost is $360 for an adult conversion; $250 to convert a child. For a personal reaffirmation, it’s $90, and for monthly visits, it’s $25. Cost of the rabbis for the Rabbinical Assembly beit din is included (other beit din may charge separately).

The stories Golden and Rosenthal tell easily could fill a book: “One of the most touching ones was a lady with cancer, at the end of her life,” Rosenthal said. “She was 58 years old and had always celebrated Shabbat with her daughters and her husband, who had died four years before. She was very ill, but she had gone through the beit din, and her two daughters were with her to go into the mikveh. 

“She went in, and she immersed,” Rosenthal said, “and one wonderful thing about the water is it’s very buoyant,” because of salt that’s added for maintenance purposes. “So she wasn’t sore in the mikveh, though she was otherwise in a great deal of pain. But when they went to lift her out, she passed out.

“I was holding my breath,” Rosenthal continued, “because we didn’t know if she was going to make it. Her nurse was here, and we all managed to get her back into her wheelchair, where she woke up.” They applied cold packs and did what they could to make the woman comfortable.

“She died four days later,” Golden said. “But she was Jewish, and that’s what she wanted,” Rosenthal said.

Among the stories the mikveh duo love best — and there are many of those — is one of a 17-year-old with autism whose parents weren’t Jewish, but, Golden said, “This was her path.”

The girl couldn’t speak, but she had pre-programmed an iPad with the three required blessings, one to be said after each immersion. The first is the blessing over the commandment to perform an immersion. The second is the Shehecheyanu, the prayer used for new and unusual experiences. The culmination, and always the most powerful, is the saying of the Shema, as the new Jew declares oneness with God. The young woman with autism pressed a button each time for the prayer.

“She was drop-dead gorgeous,” Rosenthal remembered, “and so excited; she walked around the campus screaming — that was the only sound she could make, and it was her way of expressing herself. 

“I asked her mother, ‘Can I put my arm around her?’ And her mother said, ‘Absolutely.’ So I hugged her, even before she went in to the mikveh. She turned around and grabbed my arm and squeezed it.”

It was one of those defining moments, a realization of the absolute reciprocity of spiritual gain that these two women share with each new visitor. As an entryway to becoming Jewish, they have become the embodiment of good things to come. And that young woman, impeded from so much, could appreciate the goodness that Golden and Rosenthal exude — just like everyone else.

After it was all done, the new Jewish girl turned to her mother, who interpreted her words that day: “There’s a whole lot of love here,” she told her mom. “And,” Rosenthal said, reliving the pleasure, “the mother repeated that to us.”

Mikvah

Jewish conversion 101


Conversion to Judaism is not easy. It requires a change in beliefs, actions and lifestyle. It involves extensive study, practice, a leap of faith, a shift in perception and some sacrifice. However, for those who feel it’s the right decision, it can be an exciting and rewarding experience. 

Before stepping into the mikveh — the ritual of immersion in water that is the culmination of the conversion process — prospective converts to Judaism must choose a movement, which will determine what kind of observance they want to follow and how they want to live their life as a Jew. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish,” said Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU). “It wasn’t an accident of birth.”

Most prospective Jews by Choice go through a Reform, Conservative or Orthodox conversion, and the rules vary for each. Anyone considering conversion must find a sponsoring rabbi as the first step, then participate in a period of study, which might mean organized classes or individual study with a rabbi or tutor. Who guides the convert will determine which beit din — a rabbinical court consisting of three rabbis — is the best one to complete the conversion. 

AJU offers an 18-week course for those considering conversion — as well as anyone wanting to learn more about the faith — that takes place at venues throughout Los Angeles. Students at AJU’s program learn about Jewish values, traditions and history, including Conservative traditions and observance. The Reconstructionist and Reform movements also approve these classes.

In addition to the classes, a Holocaust survivor speaks to the students. All candidates learn to read prayers in Hebrew and participate in a Shabbaton and in a scavenger hunt at Whole Foods for kosher products. Since the program got its start in 1986, more than 4,000 participants have converted to Judaism, Greenwald said. 

Although Greenwald does not himself give approval for prospective converts to go before the beit din, he said he meets with all of his students and helps them to connect with a sponsoring rabbi: “It’s a great challenge to give a person the tools and information that they need in only a few months to be able to feel genuinely a part of the Jewish community,” he said. 

“It’s cliché, but it’s true that converts make the very best Jews, because they are people that have chosen to be Jewish.” — Rabbi Adam Greenwald, executive director of the Louis and Judith Miller, Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University (AJU)

Rabbi Neal Weinberg, the former director of the AJU program, has led Judaism by Choice, another educational offering for those wishing to convert, since 2009. Weinberg’s classes include about 300 students each year and cover Jewish history, holidays, rituals, Zionism and the Torah. Classes, which instruct students for a Conservative conversion (see sidebar for more on Weinberg’s Judaism by Choice program), are offered either once or twice per week, for an average of three months. 

Since most students have busy lives, Weinberg acknowledged, he said he tries to make his classes entertaining. He demonstrates a brit milah (ritual circumcision) using a Cabbage Patch doll, holds a mock wedding with a chuppah (wedding canopy) and goes over the prayers. His classes are offered at synagogues in Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, Venice and the San Fernando Valley. “Anybody can take the program,” said Miri Weinberg, the rabbi’s wife, who helps run Judaism by Choice. “We don’t turn anyone away.”

The Weinbergs’ program includes Shabbat dinners and holiday-themed events for both current students and program graduates. He said that he expects students wishing to convert to attend synagogue consistently and keep a level of kosher. “I think there has to be a certain behavior,” Neal said. “I’d rather I be the one [teaching them] than having them go through the beit din and not passing. That could be painful. I’m a coach that prepares people for it.”

Most of the time, the participants in the Judaism by Choice classes undergo either a Conservative conversion or go before the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, a pluralistic beit din that is endorsed by Conservative, Reconstructionist and Reform rabbis. 

The Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) also offers an 18-week Introduction to Judaism course for prospective converts. This class, too, covers lifecycle events, history, holidays, prayer, Israel and theology. Many of the URJ’s candidates end up going through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din of Southern California, as well.

Rabbi Sabine Meyer, director of the URJ’s conversion program, said about 15 classes per year are offered throughout Los Angeles, all of them both rigorous and comprehensive. “Reform conversion is not conversion light. We do not convert people to Reform Judaism. We convert them to Judaism,” she said.

URJ has offered its introduction class for more than three decades, and Meyer has seen classes where up to 80 percent of the people have continued on to convert, but she emphasized that the class is not meant just for prospective Jews by Choice. “It’s for anybody who is interested in learning more about Judaism and the important tools that they need [to practice], if that’s what they want to do.”

Candidates for conversion in Los Angeles who would like to connect to a more traditional lifestyle can also prepare to go before an Orthodox beit din. The requirements for an Orthodox conversion typically require that the candidate observe kosher laws both inside and outside of the home, live within an Orthodox community, observe the Sabbath and study with a tutor. 

Rabbi Avrohom Union, the rabbinic administrator of the Rabbinical Council of California (RCC), which features an Orthodox beit din, said candidates must be sincere and “want to be part of the [Orthodox] community and adopt that lifestyle. We look to see that people approach this with a certain maturity and a solid [reason as to] why they want to do this.”

Applicants accepted to the RCC’s program are assigned a private tutor, and a candidate should expect to spend 18 to 24 months studying and participating fully in Jewish life before the process of conversion is complete, Union said. The most important aspect of the conversion, he said, is establishing oneself in a community. “Orthodox Jewish life tends to revolve around Shabbat. We want people working with us to be a part of that community. We don’t want them to feel different from someone who was born Jewish.”

Since entering into an Orthodox lifestyle can be a huge change for most candidates, Union said that he and the rabbis on his beit din “want people to get personal attention. For someone to make a transition from gentile to Orthodox Jew is a significant transition, and it’s not like a university course, where you simply learn the material, take the test and pass. It’s a process of personal growth.”

Any candidate who chooses to convert — whether through an Orthodox, Reform or Conservative program — should know their goals and understand the process as they enter into it. They also need to realize that being immersed in the mikveh is not the culmination of the learning — it’s just the beginning. 

“Becoming a Jew is not an event,” Miri Weinberg said. “It’s a process.”

Mayoral candidates Greuel, Garcetti go head to head


In the first debate between the two remaining Los Angeles mayoral candidates, City Controller Wendy Greuel and City Councilman Eric Garcetti attempted to convince voters there are significant differences between them, even as the two veteran politicians took identical positions on one issue after another.

The candidates spent a good deal of time on the evening of April 11 addressing questions about the city’s quality of life. A three-person panel on the stage at American Jewish University (AJU) asked about neighborhood development and traffic, and the moderator, KABC anchor Marc Brown, relayed questions about the city’s sidewalks and its spay-and-neuter law from people who submitted via Facebook.

Greuel and Garcetti both said they favor bringing football back to Los Angeles. Each also promised to end chronic homelessness in the city and pledged to ask for givebacks from the unions if elected mayor.

That last pledge would place the new mayor in the awkward position of trying to take back some of the raises that he or she voted to award to municipal workers in 2007, when both Greuel and Garcetti were members of City Council. Should Greuel win and make good on her promise, she would also be negotiating against some of the very same unions that spent millions promoting her candidacy during the primary.

But at the debate at AJU, co-sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and AJC Los Angeles (American Jewish Committee), Greuel said she is “independent enough to be your next mayor,” even as Garcetti labeled her the “chosen candidate of the downtown power brokers.”

With the election set for May 21, there weren’t too many fireworks at this event, but Greuel and Garcetti did throw some barbed attacks.

Garcetti questioned the math underlying Greuel’s claim to have identified $160 million in wasteful spending as controller; he also assailed Greuel’s proposal to increase the number of police officers by 2,000 over the coming eight years. Greuel stood by the $160 million number and called her suggestion to increase the city’s police force a “goal,” not a plan.

“I believe that if you don’t look forward to a goal, you’ll never get there,” Greuel said.

Greuel questioned Garcetti on whether he acted quickly enough in making known his opinion on two skyscrapers planned for Hollywood, the district he represents. Garcetti has opposed the plan, which was approved by the city’s planning commission late last month, but Greuel, who also said she opposed the plan, said her opponent had waited too long.

“Let’s resolve it before it comes to the planning commission,” Greuel said.

Garcetti defended his course of action, saying that he had always thought the project was too large but wanted to give the developers the opportunity to see if they could rally public support behind it.

When Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief and Publisher Rob Eshman, one of three questioners at the event, asked each candidate for the “vote-defining difference” that could help Angelenos decide between these two polished, Democratic City Hall insiders, Greuel pointed to their “different experiences,” arguing that her work in the public and private sector has helped to prepare her to be the best mayor.

Garcetti noted he has endorsement from all three leading candidates for mayor knocked out during the March primary. 

Just a day earlier, lame-duck Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had fired off an attack at the two candidates during his final State of the City speech, critiquing both candidates for not speaking out enough on schools.

Taking the mayor’s criticism to heart, Adrienne Alpert of ABC7’s Eyewitness News kicked off the debate by asking the candidates if they would support Villaraigosa’s 22 “partnership schools,” which are under the supervision of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) but receive additional support from private funds. Both replied that they would maintain the mayor’s support and focus on those low-performing schools.

And even if it was Greuel who came out with a stronger-sounding defense of “choice” on Thursday night, loudly proclaiming her support for the “parent trigger” law, which allows parents to vote out a school’s administration and bring in a new operator, Garcetti, who has been endorsed by the city’s teachers union, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), said he is also in favor of the parent trigger.

Converting: The best decision of her life


When Donna Levine told her mother she had converted, the response was that she would burn in hell. A friend encouraged Levine to join Jews for Jesus. She had to explain to this friend that, unfortunately, that wouldn’t work.

“I told her that if you are really serious about being Jewish, that you can’t belong to Jews for Jesus,” Levine said. “I told her I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that anyway.”

Levine, who converted through the Conservative movement in August 2000, was born in Kansas and raised in Florida. Judaism, for her, was completely different than being a Baptist, as she experienced it growing up. “You were not supposed to ask questions. When I was in Sunday school, I would get into trouble for questioning things. That was something I really liked about Judaism. Not only are you allowed to ask questions, but also you are encouraged to ask questions.”

Now 58, Levine lives in Arleta, north of Los Angeles. She has lived in Los Angeles for 37 years and managed dental offices for 30 of them. She attends Congregation Shir Ami in Woodland Hills, and now spends her time working on projects around the house and looking for employment.

Levine first became interested in the religion when she attended the bat mitzvah of a former employer’s daughter. She then met her future husband (now former), who was Jewish, and that gave her the push to decide to convert. She went to services with Rabbi David Vorspan of Shir Ami, and started taking classes at the University of Judaism (now American Jewish University). “Rabbi Vorspan let me know that if I needed any help or had questions or anything, that he was available for me,” she said. “I felt really comfortable with him, and he was so sweet. He didn’t know me, and yet he volunteered to help me out, and I thought that was really great.”

Levine began her conversion studies in March 2000, and decided to take the Conservative route because she thought that Reform Judaism was too relaxed and Orthodox too strict.

Attending the weekly classes was not the only aspect of Levine’s conversion process. She had to learn how to read Hebrew and to keep kosher, which she found especially difficult when going out to eat at restaurants. At the end of the five-month learning period, she was required to take a test and translate sentences from a prayer book from Hebrew into English. “I was very nervous about it,” she said. “Hebrew is not an easy language to learn.”

On the day of her meeting with the beit din, she received a certificate. Though she had been nervous about going before the rabbis, having Rabbi Vorspan there made her feel more comfortable. After she came out of her immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath), she said, she “jumped into synagogue life with both feet,” attending  meetings, helping to plan for the holidays, sending out letters and membership packets and serving as the synagogue board’s vice president and, finally, its president, from 2006 to 2008.

Although Levine’s mother wasn’t accepting of her daughter’s new religion, Levine said she learned not to bring up the subject with her. She also got support from a Catholic friend, and from her own son, who was 23 at the time she converted. “He said whatever made me happy was fine with him.”

By now, Levine has been a Jew for almost 13 years. She said that every day she celebrates her religion by “trying to treat everyone the way that I would want to be treated. That’s one of the main lessons of Judaism: Do you treat others as you would want to be treated?” And, she said, “I try to be active in my community as far as doing good work.”

Judaism has given Levine value that she never found in her former religion, as well as a whole congregation full of new friends. “I feel more spiritual and comfortable in my religion than when I was a Baptist. I love my synagogue and the people there. It’s like my other family.”

She added, “I feel like converting was the best decision of my life.”

The key to building community is social interaction, not ‘social networks’


In 2000, an urban congregation of 1,000 families found itself at a crossroads. The synagogue had a balanced budget and a beloved rabbi who was retiring after three decades, but its building was badly in need of repairs and the congregation was aging. To survive, the leadership felt they had to upgrade, so they took four steps: They hired a big-name rabbi, renovated the building, and put together an ambitious schedule of lectures and other programs to attract new faces. They also borrowed $1 million to pay for it all.

Here’s what happened: The showpiece rabbi didn’t fit the community and required a large buyout to end his expensive contract. The renovation, while successful, was also costly. And while the programming brought in lots of new faces, those people didn’t stick around to join the congregation. By 2010, the congregation found itself $1 million in debt and its 1,000-household membership had shrunk to just 350.

The congregation’s leaders called author and educator Ron Wolfson for help. His solution? Downsize the programming and start talking to one another instead. “You have to understand your population,” he told them. Programs are great, but if they don’t offer a return by building the congregation, what have you accomplished? “It’s all about people first and programming second,” Wolfson said. 

Wolfson tells this story at the start of his new book, “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” to illuminate the foundational belief he has developed from working with Jewish organizations across the country, from watching synagogue memberships decline and leadership struggle to find new ways to draw people in.

“I’m worried about the Jewish future, and I’m really worried about the future of Jewish institutions,” Wolfson said during a meeting last week at his office at American Jewish University (AJU), where he is a Fingerhut professor of education. This from a man so optimistic that he co-founded with Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman Synagogue 2000, a collaboration with some 100 congregations nationwide to find ways to revitalize their goals as they transitioned into the 21st century. A man who, following that gargantuan effort, co-led another revisionist endeavor, Synagogue 3000, which by definition offered hope that Jewish institutions, and Judaism, would last at least another thousand years. (Synagogue 3000 has now become Next Dor/S3K, of which Wolfson is co-president.)

These days, Wolfson says, he stays awake nights worrying that the traditional institutions for Jewish engagement — synagogues and Jewish community centers, among others — have lost touch with their own fundamental communal needs. He believes many of them are spending too much time and effort and money on programs and not enough on connecting.

What we need right now, Wolfson said,
 is relationships.

Not just passing acquaintances, but lifelong relationships that can develop within communities and that will lift us up and beyond our own individualism. Relationships based on listening to one another’s needs and on shared experience, and through commitments to work side by side and to join together in prayer. Relationships that require face-to-face encounters.

Jewish Lights Publishing will release “Relational Judaism,” Wolfson’s 12th book, on March 1. It offers concrete advice for professionals who, like Wolfson, worry about all the unaffiliated Jews who, at best, dabble in the Jewish community then drift away: Spend more time listening and talking with people.

“I’m going to speak to the Reform rabbis at the CCAR [Central Conference of American Rabbis] in Long Beach,” Wolfson said of the conference taking place March 3-6, “and, as I say in the book, but I’m going to say more bluntly to the rabbis, I don’t think they’re spending their time the right way. If you look at how much time they’re spending at lay-leader-mandated meetings they don’t really need to be at, or programming, or reading blogs, or whatever, and if they just doubled down on building relationships, including pastoral visits, then they would be creating connections that strengthen the commitment to the institution.”

For rabbis and professionals, Wolfson writes in the book, “I suggest a simple exercise: create a time chart over the course of two weeks to track how many hours are actually allocated. Ask a simple question: Is this time I am spending building relationships, strengthening our community? Is it absolutely necessary for me to be there? Might someone else be empowered to do certain tasks that can free me to do the work I uniquely must do to engage people with the Jewish experience?”

The rate of attrition at synagogues, Wolfson says, is directly related to how personally connected members are not only to other members, but also to the leadership.

Wolfson cites a Washington-based consulting firm called Measuring Success, founded by Sacha Litman, which gathers hard data to measure how well organizations are meeting goals. Working with the Jewish community, Measuring Success discovered two key indicators of Jewish engagement: 1. “Does participation in the organization impact Jewish growth?” And 2. “Does a member of a synagogue, or JCC, a school parent, or a donor to Federation recommend the organization to others?” Litman found that the second question, whether an individual would recommend the organization, could be a direct measure of how likely that person would be to remain affiliated.

“Most strikingly, a meeting with the rabbi for even one hour was associated in a jump of nearly 25 percentage points in scores,” Wolfson writes, citing Litman’s survey of members of more than 20 congregations in New York City, Montreal and Chicago, from 2009 to 2012. “Yet,” he quotes Litman, “rabbis only met one-on-one with about 10 to 15 percent of congregants during the course of the year.”

And, Litman told Wolfson: “Even though social connectedness is a top driver of engagement, the largest expenditures in synagogue budgets were early childhood programs and religious schools. Very few synagogues spend significant human or budgetary resources on building relationships among the adult members of the congregation.” 

These days in the non-Orthodox community, many people join congregations to educate their kids and then all too often leave. And even so, there are all kinds of do-it-yourself offerings in the Jewish community that help families go through the traditional rituals — without an institution. Wolfson points to businesses like the Shiva Sisters, run by a pair of Los Angeles women who offer full-service bereavement aid to anyone who’s lost a loved one, from finding clergy to finding a pet sitter. What’s missing, as Wolfson points out, is that meaningful connection that can come from feeling a part of something larger than oneself — from being part of a Jewish community. 

So, what’s a rabbi to do?

For role models, Wolfson turns to two sources: Chabad and Evangelical churches. “When I first came here [to AJU], in 1974, everybody was laughing at these Chabad guys,” Wolfson said, “but who’s laughing now? They’re just extraordinarily more successful than anybody who was in a position of power here in the mid-1970s imagined they would be. And their model is totally opposite of the other Jewish institutional model: ‘I’m going to serve you, welcome you, teach you, feed you, and then I’m going to build a relationship with you. And only then I’ll ask you for money.’”

The relationship develops first, through Shabbat dinners and shared conversations, before all else.

Ron Wolfson

Similarly, at Saddleback Church, the Evangelical megachurch in Orange County that draws as many as 20,000 people to services each Sunday, “You can go for years and not be a member. And they tell you in their materials, don’t feel obligated to give if you’re a guest,” Wolfson said, pointing to a brochure from the church, which he uses as a teaching tool for his students. “But once you say, ‘Yes, I want to join,’ you go through a four-session enculturation process of learning about yourself, your spiritual gifts and what you can bring to the church. Because [Pastor Rick] Warren’s whole approach is that it’s not about you, it’s about how you can serve God and community and so forth.” 

And at Saddleback there are expectations for members: “tithing, getting involved in certain ways, joining a small group and coming to services,” Wolfson pointed out. “They have expectations, which is something our institutions tend to shy away from. We’re just glad you’re here.”

It’s the obligations, Wolfson believes, that make the connection more real. “I think if people understood that the institution stands for something, that you’re not here just for a fee-for-service or transactional exchange, or to get your kid a bar or bat mitzvah, then I think you’d have a better shot at engaging people who are serious people. But we have to tweak the model, and I think we have to do it in a major way.”

Wolfson points to congregations like IKAR in Los Angeles or the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle, which are trying to build new models for engagement. At IKAR, members are expected to become involved in social-justice efforts, to be fully engaged as members of a larger effort for tikkun olam (healing the world) that seeps into every aspect of synagogue involvement. Community means advocacy as much as prayer, and the ties that come from working side by side strengthen the purposefulness of the Jewish life.

Kavana, which like IKAR is nondenominational and has a membership that is mostly — though not exclusively — in their 20s to 40s, is built on a cooperative model, with “partners,” rather than members, and where “partners share in the task of creating Jewish life for the group.” Rather than offering a way to join the congregation, the Kavana Web site asks, “How do you want to get involved?”

Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood, a Reform congregation in Los Angeles, said while he fully agrees with Wolfson’s premise that rabbis need to spend some time with each of their members, he admits that with some 3,000 congregants, about 2,000 of them adults, he can’t always know everyone well, despite his best efforts. 

“It’s very challenging, the time we need to devote to people, to shmoozing,” Rosove said, given that at Temple Israel he also has to manage a staff of 75 full-time employees and another 75 part-timers; and he needs time to write, to study and to spend a limited amount of time on outside activities, including family and friends. A rabbi’s life is hardly limited to office hours. So Rosove said that he relies as well on the rest of his senior staff. “We believe that even if I don’t know everyone well, we try to make sure that one of us does.”

Rosove also said that one solution is a matter of policy: “We say yes more than no.” As an example, he points to his own recent change of heart on performing interfaith marriages. Examining his position, he found that over time his feelings against marrying couples of different religious faiths had changed and by establishing agreements with the couples for continued Jewish commitments, he felt he could now comfortably perform the rituals. “I’d been saying no, but I think it was just an unconscious response,” Rosove said. “As a liberal community, we’re not going to survive unless we say yes more.”

Rosove said that many good ideas developed at Temple Israel have originated with staff, but have taken off only when lay leadership took ownership. He points first to Big Sunday — now a citywide, year-round effort of volunteer organizing that is a stand-alone nonprofit but which began as a Mitzvah Day effort at the synagogue. “No rabbi has time to do that,” Rosove said, but by “being wise and identifying David Levinson,” who continues to lead Big Sunday, the process of temple-wide involvement took off, growing further each year. “At first, David would come to me for advice, and I told him, ‘David, stop asking me. I trust you. If we disagree, so what?’ ”

The issue is to identify congregants’ strengths, be supportive and not micromanage. “The first issue is picking the right staff, and once you’ve got them, then great people will come to them,” Rosove said.

Other rituals involve creating links among new congregants from their first days in a congregation. At Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a Conservative congregation in Encino, the rabbis meet with groups of new members at several moments during the year, beginning with a “new member covenanting ceremony,” in August. At the ceremony, the members meet one another, a rabbi, the executive director and a lay leader. They share stories. And at the gathering Wolfson describes, Rabbi Joshua Hoffman told the group that belonging to a synagogue is a “sacred act” and then brought the group together inside the ark. At VBS, the aron kodesh, the holy ark, is large enough to enter, and inside it the rabbi offered a blessing — a unique experience, but also one that was shared, creating a special bond among the members of the group.

The need for lifelong relationships in Jewish life, of course, extend beyond the institutions, and “Relational Judaism” describes the importance of the work that must be done to ensure healthy relationships with all levels of interactions — with oneself, family and friends; in creating a Jewish life, in being in partnership with the larger community as well as the Jewish people, with Israel, the world and with God.

Wolfson comes to his belief that relationships are key through his own practice: He is, by nature, overtly friendly and enthusiastic. At a lunch to help guide a women’s group on new ideas for Passover seders last week, he stood at the door and personally greeted each person who entered to hear him speak. “It will probably be on my tombstone,” he joked, “I’m known for that: The guy who greeted all his students before he taught.”

It is a skill he says he takes pride in, a gregariousness he learned from his father and his grandfather before him. He remembers his “Zayde,” who owned a neighborhood grocery store in Wolfson’s hometown of Omaha, Neb., sitting every day at the storefront courtesy counter greeting each customer by name. “This was a guy who was illiterate, an immigrant from Russia, but he was amazing at relationship building.” 

“And then my dad,” Wolfson said, “who died just a couple of months ago, he was the guy you get on the elevator with, and by the time you get to the sixth floor, he knew your story, and you certainly knew his.” It was a style that sometimes embarrassed the young Ron, and even his mother, but ultimately, he learned the usefulness in creating a connection to the larger community, and not just the Jewish one.

“American individualism,” Wolfson said, “is a terrific thing, it really is; I wouldn’t trade it for a socialist system. But there’s a downside to it, and the downside is I could be holed up in my house with my guns in my closet, ready to protect myself from the terrible things out there, or I can embrace the idea that we’re not alone. And if we seek out relationships with community, with family, with friends, with God, something beyond ourselves, my belief is it can lead you to a life that’s filled with meaning. 

“And meaning is what it’s all about at the end of the day. A sense of purpose: ‘What did God put me on this earth to do?’ And if you don’t believe in God, fine, then, ‘What am I supposed to do with my talents and gifts?’ ”

As Wolfson wrote, the foundational principles of Judaism are based on relationships, or the Hebrew notion of  brit or covenant. We do not live our lives in isolation; we share our lives with one another, with family friends, the Jewish world, the larger world, and ultimately, with God. 

“Relational Judaism” is not a new idea, but it is, perhaps, one that needed refreshing. A reminder that we should spend time with people, not just our Facebook friends — to have social lives, not just “social networks,” to engage with our neighbors and fellow Jews as an investment in the survival of Judaism. This is the effort that rabbis must build upon, that lay leaders must emphasize, and, ultimately, it is an obligation that extends to us all.

“The idea of the covenant is, as Rabbi David Wolpe, author and rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, has noted, ‘the spine of Judaism,’ ” Wolfson writes. “We are constantly reminded of our covenantal relationship with God and each other. Shabbat is a sign of the covenant. The Passover seder reminds us that God keeps promises: V’hi she’amdah l’avoteinu v’lanu, ‘God who safeguards God’s promises to our ancestors and to us.’ The pageantry of the Torah reading service reenacts the revelation of the covenant at Sinai. The goal of the covenant is celebrated at the climax of the ceremony — the returning of the Torah to the holy ark: Etz hayim hi l’machazikim bah, ‘It is a tree of life for those who take hold of it,’ v’tomkheha m’ushar, ‘and those who support it are enriched.’

“In other words,” Wolfson writes, “those who embrace the covenantal relationship discover how to live a life of meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing.”

And for those who wonder whether it takes a place — a synagogue — to maintain the relationships built within those walls, Wolfson said, “I would hope that the friendships and relationships with the people you pray with, the people you do social justice with, the people you celebrate your life-cycle events with, beyond your immediate circle of family and friends, can, in fact, be a connection point to a greater sense of community, beyond that circle of friends.”

In other words, when members become partners, communities thrive.  

‘Brandeis-Bardin,’ on paper


From generation to generation, starting in 1950 and continuing today, one of the most important sites on the map of the Jewish community in Southern California was a stretch of rolling hills in Simi Valley.

The story is richly told in the pages of “The Brandeis-Bardin Institute: A Living History” by Jenna Leventhal (American Jewish University, $30), an “official” history. Published by the university that now owns the property, it is predictably upbeat but also, at moments, candid and forthright about the birth pangs and growing pains of a Jewish institution.

The key figure in the saga is Shlomo Bardin, a man who loomed large not only in the program he founded but also as one of the most charismatic Jewish leaders of his generation. Born in the Ukrainian town of Zhitomir in 1898, he served in the Red Army before making aliyah to what was then British-ruled Palestine. He pursued his university studies in Berlin, London and New York, always intending to return to Palestine to participate in pioneering the Jewish homeland. But it was in the United States that he was inspired in his life’s work by a fortuitous conversation with Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis.

“I was eager to win him over for my project — my [Haifa] technical high school, my [Haifa] nautical school, but I failed,” Bardin later recalled. “Instead he talked to me about a subject about which I know little and in which I am not at all interested — the young American Jew.”

So it was that Bardin opened a camp in 1941 to teach young American Jews about their heritage and destiny, first in New England, then in the Pocono Mountains on the Pennsylvania-New York border, and finally on a 2,200-acre site in Simi Valley. After the death of Brandeis in 1941, Bardin named the program he had founded after his mentor — the Brandeis Camp Institute (BCI) — and it was among the rolling hills near Santa Susana, Calif., that his vision was finally and fully realized. 

Still, the news out of Palestine in the late 1940s did not endear the pioneers of BCI to its neighbors, who feared the camp would be used to train Jews to carry out “sabotage and terrorism in Palestine.” Bardin felt compelled to confront the rumors: “[T]here will be no thoughts of sabotage in this cultural institute,” he explained; rather, it would be a place where campers “are not being trained for Palestine, but rather for America.”

Indeed, BCI quickly rooted itself in the Jewish community as a place where children, adolescents and adults could celebrate their heritage through study and prayer, singing and dancing, sports and recreation. “Jews do not go to [Brandeis] because they cannot go somewhere else, nor do they come to Brandeis in the continued fight for Jewish rights,” explained UCLA philosophy professor Abraham Kaplan, one of the steady stream of guest speakers who flocked to BCI over the years. “It was the first time that I had encountered a large group of other Jews who were together just to enjoy their Jewishness.”

Leventhal’s “Living History” will appeal to alumni of Camp Alonim and other participants in the rich and diverse programs at Brandeis-Bardin Institute, as it was renamed after Bardin’s death. Indeed, the book is a kind of scrapbook, full of nostalgic photographs and endearing anecdotes. But it is also a smart and discerning institutional history that sheds light on the controversy that attached to various successors to Bardin, including (now Jewish Journal columnist) Dennis Prager (“[T]he board became divided over the very specific brand of Judaism that Prager was imparting”), Ronald Brauner (“By his second visit to Brandeis, he had ‘fallen in love with the place,’ ” but he was reportedly “done in by a dispute”), and Deborah Lipstadt, the distinguished Holocaust historian who tendered her resignation after a board-mandated reorganization that, she feared, “would ultimately lead to administrative chaos.” 

Leventhal also touches briefly on some of the vexing problems that surfaced in the otherwise paradisiacal home of BBI. Leakage of radioactive contamination from the nearby Rocketdyne test facility, for example, that raised concern not only for the safety of children who attended Camp Alonim but also for its impact on the value of BCI’s real estate. Then the Northridge earthquake of 1994 brought down the historic Main House, a landmark structure that had served as “the physical heart of the property.” Nearly 50 years after BCI opened, the building (or re-building) of Brandeis-Bardin started anew.

Even in the darkest moments, however, Shlomo Bardin’s words provided some inspiration: “No matter how difficult a project seems to you, you must start it,” he would say, paraphrasing the Pirkei Avot. “You may not finish it, but the important thing is that you started.”

In 2007, the University of Judaism, located in the Sepulveda Pass, formally merged with BBI to become the American Jewish University (AJU), with the latter now called the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of AJU. Leventhal insists, however, that the vision and energy of its founder are still at work in the hills of Simi Valley.

“Remove all of the influence and substance generated by Brandeis-Bardin, and suddenly Jewish American life looks markedly different,” she concludes, “less vibrant and less able to maneuver the ever-changing currents of Jewish life in the twenty-first century.” To the author’s credit, and to the credit of the benefactors who supported the publication of this book, those “ever-changing currents” include not only the high-water marks but also some of the eddies and shoals along the way.

Letters to the Editor: Bill Kristol and his Emergency, Bigotry in AJU Ad?


Exposing Bill Kristol

Congratulations to Rob Eshman on a superb piece explaining clearly why Bill Kristol and his Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) not only do not help Israel, but are harmful to her interests (“Emergency?” Feb. 1). His thoughtful explanation is comprehensive, clear and completely accurate. In fact, I have spoken with a number of Israeli leaders across the political spectrum who have expressed to me exactly what Eshman stated in his thoughtful piece. They fear that: 1) the efforts to turn Israel into a partisan, wedge issue in the United States erode, rather than increase, American support for Israel; and 2) that these shrill tactics are crying wolf in a manner that will actually make real emergencies, which inevitably will arise, less believable to Americans who will not be able to distinguish ECI’s false and partisan cries for help from the real thing. It takes courage for Eshman to have written the piece. As someone who cares deeply about Israel’s security and survival, I salute him for it.

Mel Levine

Former Congressman (D-Santa Monica)

 

How does Rob Eshman find the message of Israel’s emergency condition to be bizarre? Has he not gotten the memo regarding Iran’s threat and the preparations to execute it? Did he miss the rain of missiles from Lebanon on northern Israel, and that from Gaza on the south, and the danger from Syria’s poison gas? Does he know of any other nation under perpetual threat of genocide, with frequent attempts to carry it out?

Louis Richter

Reseda

 

Rob Eshman is wise in calling out Bill Kristol. I hope he ignores the angry, defensive and obstinate critics of his column who take comfort in Kristol and others who distort facts and hide their donors behind Citizens United.

Eshman nailed it. These extremist operatives have turned Israel into part of the arch right-wingnut agenda of dividing the nation over guns, reproductive rights, taxes and wealth inequality, and manage to attract and ensnare well-meaning Jews into their brutish positions.

Jim Ruxin

via e-mail

 

Bill Kristol is doing a great job. Israel is constantly under siege from the liberal media, of which the Jewish Journal has become a part.  

Chic Lippman

Century City


Bigotry in AJU Ad?

Imagine an ad by the Republican right with a picture of a group of Mexican immigrants and the question: “Will they be the only Americans in 100 years?” No question there would be calls of racism and bigotry. At the lead would be liberal Jewish groups. 

The ad in the inside front cover of the Jewish Journal by American Jewish University (AJU) is no better (Jan. 25). We see the backs of two traditionally Orthodox Jews — large, round, black hats, payot, in a dark forbidding background. The headline: “Will they be the only Jews left in 100 years?” 

The message is clear: Ominous ultra-Orthodox are the future unless you support AJU, as it calls itself “a center for ingenuity and vision.”

AJU’s advertising is degrading and divisive. Its fear-based message fails to reflect the values of pluralism that AJU claims it aspires to instill in its students. 

Rabbi David Eliezrie

President, Rabbinical Council of Orange County

 

As a Modern Orthodox Jew and student at an Orthodox high school, I find American Jewish University’s (AJU) ad inflammatory and distasteful. AJU claims “education demands innovation.” I suggest looking to the Orthodox movement as a positive role model that promotes cross-denominational dialogue and interaction, philanthropy and community service, and commitment to morals and mitzvot

Since Judaism is not “one size fits all,” let us all be committed to working together, learning from each other and recognizing the contributions all Jewish denominations make to the “American Jewish scene.”

Sigal Spitzer, 10th grade

Shalhevet High School

 

American Jewish University President Dr. Robert Wexler responds:

Naturally, we are saddened by the prospect that anyone would see a picture of two Chasidic men peacefully davening and label it “ominous” or “insulting,” especially when the text of the ad speaks of the “remarkable resurgence of Orthodoxy.” After World War II, the expectation was that Orthodoxy could not survive the blow it had sustained during the Holocaust — but quite miraculously, it did just that. Now we are told that assimilation and intermarriage will spell the end of non-Orthodox forms of Judaism. The ad is intended to challenge all of us to defy sociological predictions, as Orthodoxy did so successfully, and to work to ensure the future of a vibrant American Jewish community. At AJU, we engage and celebrate all of the streams within Jewish life, Orthodoxy included!

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