Moving and shaking: From AmeriCorps to the One Wish Project

The Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles (VPC) honored Union Bank; ABC Family’s “The Fosters”; and Patti Giggans, executive director of nonprofit Peace Over Violence; during its Angel of Peace Awards on Sept. 30.

The event, which took place at the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes, was attended by the likes of philanthropists Gerald and Lorraine Factor; Sheila Kuehl, L.A. county supervisor candidate and former state assemblywoman; and L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer.

Presenters included Billie Weiss, associate director of the Southern California Injury Prevention Research Center at the UCLA School of Public Health; Pastor Kevin Sauls of the Holman United Methodist Church; Bob Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment; and VPC director Kaile Shilling. Bradley Bredeweg, executive producer and co-creator of “The Fosters,” appeared in person.

VPC comprises numerous organizations that share a commitment toward ending violence.

West Coast NCSY, formerly known as the National Conference of Synagogue Youth, celebrated its 60th anniversary at the Continental Club downtown on Sept. 14.

Lee Samson, founder of West Coast NCSY; West Coast NCSY executive director Rabbi Effie Goldberg; and West Coast NCSY executive board member Dina Leeds were in attendance along with an estimated 200 people.

From left: Marc Rohatiner and Lee Samson, founder of West Coast NCSY, attended the NCSY West Coast 60th anniversary celebration. Photo by David Statman

“Working with today’s teens and focusing on the future of the Jewish people, it can be easy to forget our rich legacy,” Goldberg wrote in an email to the Journal.

“This milestone event is a beautiful and humbling reminder of the leaders and trailblazers who came before us to pave the way for the incredible work we do in our communities.”

Established in 1954 by the Orthodox Union, NCSY engages Jewish teenagers and reconnects them with their heritage, according to the group’s website.

AmeriCorps, a national service program, celebrated its 20th anniversary on Sept. 12 at The Presidio Institute in San Francisco by honoring individuals who helped with its founding, including Los Angeles Jewish community member Donna Bojarsky.

CaliforniaVolunteers chief service officer Karen Baker and Service Trailblazer Donna Bojarsky. Photo by Justin Short/California Office of Emergency Services

“National community service has been my passion always,” Bojarsky said in a phone interview, adding that promoting service is key to “creating a more active and engaged citizenry.” Bojarsky is a public policy consultant and member of Temple Israel of Hollywood.

The event’s 20 honorees, dubbed Service Trailblazers, also included former first lady of California Maria Shriver.

The Rev. Robert Stearns has succeeded Pastor Jack W. Hayford as chairman of the Israel Christian Nexus, a nonprofit pro-Israel organization based in Sherman Oaks that brings together Jews and Christians in support of the Jewish state, according to a Sept. 29 announcement. 

“I have worked very closely with Robert for 15 years. He has an unusual ability to build bridges of respect and cooperation for the greater good,” Hayford, who will continue on as chairman emeritus, said in a press release. “The Nexus is in excellent care with him at the helm.”

Stearns, who formerly served as a special adviser at the organization and is the founder of the global, pro-Israel missional community Eagles’ Wings, will focus, in part, on college-campus advocacy.

He leads a team at the Israel Christian Nexus that includes Beth Jacob Congregation’s Rabbi Kalman Topp; Miri Shepher, co-founder of Life Alert and a board member of the Israeli American Council; Pastor Toure Roberts of One Church International and pro-Israel philanthropist Dina Leeds

“I am confident that with this dedicated team, we can do great work in the L.A. area and beyond,” Stearns said in a press release. 

Influential leaders outside of the organization are embracing Stearns’ appointment, including Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe, Israel’s Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel and the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez.

The new documentary short, “One Wish Skid Row,” by Jewish filmmakers Joseph Shamash, Andrew Lustig and Jeffrey Handel, screened at the Pico Union Project on Sept. 17.

The celebratory event served as the launch party for their organization, the One Wish Project, and drew approximately 70 attendees. Established in 2013, the organization produces films that focus on social change.

One Wish Project co-founders Joseph Shamash and Jeffrey Handel.  Photo by Shari Hoffman 

Set in Skid Row, the latest film marks a shift in focus for a soon-to-be nonprofit that has, until now, focused its attentions on Israel. The trio’s previous works, “One Wish for Iran, Love Israel” and “One Wish Jerusalem,” garnered attention upon their respective releases in 2013.

Shamash and Handel appeared at the event. Lustig was not in attendance.

Guest speakers included Ocean Park Community Center executive director and homelessness activist John Maceri, whose advice to the millennials — who made up the majority of the audience — was simple: “If everybody does a little, nobody has to do a lot.”

Speaking from the stage of the venue, Maceri said that millennials have the resources and social networks to solve homelessness. The most important thing, he said, is affordable housing.

The Santa Monica-based Ocean Park Community Center is a housing and social-services provider. The organization serves victims of “poverty, abuse, neglect and discrimination,” according to its website.

A cross-section of the community, including machers Lorin and Linda Fife and musician-producer Craig Taubman, attended the event. 

Musician Mikey Pauker performed.

The Pico Union Project was the home of Sinai Temple in the early 1900s before serving as the home of a Christian congregation for several decades. A few years ago, Taubman purchased it, which brought the building back under the aegis of the Jewish community as an events space.

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

Local groups receive volunteers to aid Holocaust survivors

A new partnership between national and Jewish service organizations will connect volunteers with Holocaust survivors beginning in September in several major U.S. cities, including Los Angeles. 

Through an initiative between the Corporation for National & Community Service, Jewish Federations of North America and the Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies, members of AmeriCorps’ Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) program will assist survivors — a population at high risk of isolation and institutionalization — with health care, transportation and other needs. 

In Los Angeles, Bet Tzedek Legal Services, which provides free legal services to the disadvantaged, and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, will each receive one volunteer through VISTA. Vivian Sauer, JFS director of program development, said the program is much needed.

“Holocaust survivors are an underserved community nationally,” she said. “But also, a lot of them are in poverty.”

According to Federation, there are about 113,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States today. About a quarter of them are living at or below the federal poverty line — compared to 9 percent in poverty of the overall population of seniors. 

The move is part of a broader campaign by the Obama administration to address the needs of survivors living in the United States. In January, it was announced that the administration would be appointing Aviva Sufian as be the first-ever special envoy for U.S. Holocaust Survivor Services, a new position in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

VISTA was founded in 1965 as an endeavor to battle domestic poverty through public service.  Volunteers make a one-year commitment to a project at a nonprofit agency or organization.

Through the new partnership, volunteers will be placed at 14 Jewish organizations in seven states: California, Illinois, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. A spokesman for Federation said the first round of recruitment marks the next step in the process for the partnership and that participation could potentially expand to other states in the future. 

AmeriCorps volunteers are generally between 18 and 25, the spokesman said, but any volunteer 18 or older is eligible to work on Holocaust survivor projects and should apply through the participating agencies. The organizations will be accepting applications through July 14, and the volunteers will begin working in September. 

Nancy Volpert, JFS director of public policy, said interest is strong.

“We’ve received quite a few resumes,” she said. “Certainly the response has been good to the position.”

JFS provides counseling, food and housing services to needy members of the community. Sauer said the agency was one of the two California organizations chosen because a large number of Holocaust survivors — roughly 1,000 — receive its services. 

Sauer said JFS’ VISTA volunteer will develop new programs for Holocaust survivors and reach out to members of the survivor community, including child survivors beginning to experience the age-related difficulties of their older counterparts.

“We need to make sure that the voice of the survivor community remains a key part of what we’re doing,” she said. “We’re very excited about the opportunity to be a part of this national initiative.”

Diego Cartagena, Bet Tzedek’s pro bono director, said the firm’s VISTA volunteer will focus on the intersection of two areas of law: Holocaust reparations payments and federal benefits payments. 

A law passed by Congress in 1994 prevents reparations payments from being counted as income when determining survivors’ eligibility for federal programs like Supplemental Security Income and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps). Because many people are not aware of the law, complications can arise easily, Cartagena said. To avoid similar conflicts in the future, the VISTA volunteer will be responsible for developing educational material to help Holocaust survivors understand their rights. 

“This is an effort on our behalf to try to be proactive about the issue, and make sure people are aware of it,” Cartagena said.

Budget cuts require united front

My in-box has been crowded these last days by requests that I sign on to this draft letter or that, all demanding that budget cuts proposed by House Republicans be restored. AmeriCorps fears it will be eliminated entirely. Federal help to states to defray some of the costs of special education would take a significant hit; so would the program that helps poor people pay for heating oil in the winter, a 66 percent cut. Mentoring for children of prisoners would be eliminated and Head Start cut by 15 percent. Community health centers would lose 46 percent of their current funding, and treatment of substance abuse cut by more than $200 million. PBS and NPR would be zeroed out. Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), chairman of the Interior-EPA spending panel, proposes to cut the Environmental Protection Agency by $3 billion; his goal, he says, is to keep the EPA from implementing greenhouse gas regulations through the remainder of the fiscal year, so that House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton has time to pass a long-term bill blocking greenhouse regulation.

To President Obama’s credit, his budget calls for targeted increases alongside his proposed cuts; given the constraints, there is much to recommend it. But the unpleasant truth is that all the key actors are dancing around America’s fiscal woes rather than dealing with them straightforwardly. We are where we are principally because we chose to fight two wars and massively increase expenditures on homeland security without raising taxes, not because the core budget is full of bloat. And, oh yes, there’s a recession.

The unsustainable deficit our country faces cannot — repeat, cannot — be adequately addressed by tinkering with the 12 percent of the federal budget that is consumed by discretionary spending, not even if all the cuts that have been proposed are, in fact, approved. Aside from the military and interest on our accumulated debt, the major components of our annual budget are Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. Ignore those and you leave the deficit inadequately addressed.

The American people by and large don’t get that. A modest majority of us want to reduce the deficit, but more than 80 percent of us oppose cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. We vastly prefer substantial cuts in foreign aid, which most Americans evidently think eats up about 20 percent of the federal budget. But foreign aid in fact nibbles with leftovers, claiming just about 1 percent of government expenditures.

None of what I’ve said so far will come as a surprise to people who follow such things even cursorily. And it surely will not shock the folks on Capitol Hill or the White House. They are reluctant to act because it is by no means clear how to make major cuts in either Medicare or Medicaid without significantly reducing the services those programs provide. And as to Social Security, it has for so long been called “the third rail” of American politics — touch it and you’re dead — that few people want to go there, even though fully half the Social Security problem would be resolved were we simply to eliminate the regressive wage base cap, and the Social Security system is intact for the next 20 or more years. Its contribution to the deficit? Zero.

Back to my e-mail inbox: When I get a petition to support PBS and NPR, the clear implication is that whatever else the budget includes, PBS and NPR deserve special treatment. So also AmeriCorps. So also the EPA — and on and on, each group lobbying for its own half-acre of support. We are divided, and they conquer, and that is no way to make things right.

I am very far from being an expert on the budget. I know a fair amount about hunger, about expenditures on the environment, and about education. For the rest, I rely on others — on Paul Krugman in The New York Times, on Bob Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and on my very own secret weapon, my brother, professor emeritus at the Harvard Medical School and one of the nation’s most seasoned experts on the costs of health care. I do, however, know a fair amount about political and community organization, and among the things I know is that unless the special pleaders learn to plead in unison, they will not only fail almost every time but will deserve their failure. Citizens cannot fairly be asked to engage in economic triage, determining whether homeland security is in more urgent need than scientific research, whether Head Start should be spared but NPR doomed. That way lies madness — and failure.

The Republicans propose to slash everything; as Krugman says, they want to eat the future, meaning our nation’s seed corn. The president wants the right hand to cut while the left hand invests, and though the details deserve debate, that may be the best we can do. But the affected programs and agencies? Evidently, their slogan is “Him, her — not me!” Let us instead take a page from the Egyptian revolution: The only solution is for us all to stand as one, lest, one by one, we fall.

Leonard Fein, a Boston-based writer and teacher, founded Moment magazine in 1975 and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger in 1985. He is a board member of Americans for Peace Now.