Israel flying high with NASCAR


There is not a long and storied history of Jews in motorsports. The cast of characters is limited and filled mostly with names like Jody and Tomas Scheckter, François Cevert and Peter Revson, all of which likely means little to the average American, and less to the average American Jew. Even Kenny “The King of Speed” Bernstein, a Motorsports Hall-of-Famer, isn’t well known outside racing circles. Perhaps the most iconic Jewish racer was Paul Newman, a man far better known for his acting and activism. And if you narrow the story’s scope to Israel, it becomes so short it could be a haiku: Chanoch Nissany /did not race in the Grand Prix /how good could he be?

So it might have come as some surprise if you happened to catch the trials for this year’s Daytona 500 and caught an odd sight on the track. There, among the cars emblazoned with the logos of corporations like Target, Burger King, GEICO, FedEx and Miller, was the No. 49 car, a bald eagle on its hood, clutching the flags of Israel and America in its talons, with the words “United We Stand” above its grille.

If your first instinct is to suspect that this development is AIPAC’s latest foray into public relations, or that a pro-Israel billionaire like Sheldon Adelson decided to drop a couple million on a car to bring his message to the masses, you’d be wrong. In fact, the No. 49 car was conceived in a partnership between Robinson-Blakeney Racing and America Israel Racing, and their background might surprise you.

Speaking on the phone from North Carolina, America Israel Racing (AIR) co-founder Rich Shirey wasn’t hesitant to say that there’s “not one Jewish person on our team.” Shirey was raised Baptist in a home where, he says, they were always taught to stand behind Israel. Shirey, who has no background in racing, says the idea for America-Israel Racing came out of a desire “to show the world, and Israel, that a majority of Americans do support Israel.”

After being inspired to do something in support of Israel, Shirey got in touch with his friend, AIR co-founder Mark MacCaull, a former NASCAR engineer, to try and make his idea a reality. In Shirey’s mind, there was no better way to raise awareness about Israel than through NASCAR racing, the sport he loves. “Fortunately enough, Jay Robinson of Robinson-Blakeney Racing was coming up out of the Nationwide Series,” NASCAR’s second division, “to the Cup Series, and we went and met with him and it just was a perfect fit,” Shirey said.

“Everybody we have on our team, from the air team to the driver, to the crew chief, to the team that actually owns the racing team … everybody is 100 percent on board with this,” Shirey said. Even driver J.J. Yeley, when told what would be on the hood of his car, was hugely supportive. “When J.J. found out what we were trying to do … he was ecstatic.”

With Robinson-Blakeney and Yeley on their team, Shirey and MacCaull knew there were still many hurdles ahead. “Everything we do, NASCAR has to approve of,” said Shirey. And while the sport’s governing body has been very supportive, there’s still the matter of funding a race car, which is no small feat.

“We’re not rock stars or movie stars or anything like that, we’re just ordinary people,” said Shirey. “We have enough money to run Daytona, and Phoenix, and there’s a good possibility we’ll be in Las Vegas, but we definitely need to get funding.”

While AIR has been collecting donations on its Web site, americaisraelracing.com, the real struggle is “to try and get some corporate sponsors on the car.” But despite having yet to find a big-name sponsor, Shirey remains hopeful. “In America right now, things are tight for everybody.”

More than anything, Shirey wants to get the message out that America and Israel need each other and that, at least in the world of NASCAR, Israel is a true friend to America. “We’re two countries that are a lot alike in everything we do. They’re our closest ally in an area of the world that’s not real friendly to the West. And we need Israel as much as Israel needs us.”

Beauty can arise from tragedy


In mid-July, our 26-year-old son, Micah, lost a lifelong friend, whom he had gone all through school with at Adat Ari El and Milken. On that day, Micah went to a birthday party for his friends Arash Khorsandi and Daniel Levian, two Persian Jews in his intimate circle of about 20 friends from his high school class. The bonds among these kids have only grown stronger since they all returned from college.

Micah left the party early because there was a reunion at Camp Alonim that evening that he did not want to miss. We spoke to him and asked about the party, “Lots of drinking, but I got to spend some good time with Daniel Levian, who kept kidding me, ‘Micah, I knew you’d be one of the white boys to show up.'”

Since the seventh grade, the Milken friends have always joked with one another about their Persian and Ashkenazic backgrounds. My son and all his Ashkenazic friends used to refer to the Persians as the Persian Posse. No one could have predicted the lifelong friendship that would flourish among all of them.

Late the next afternoon, Micah called sobbing: “Daniel Levian was killed in a car accident leaving the party last night. His brother is in critical condition.”

As the events unfolded, it was a story that could only be measured against the biblical account of Job. It was everyone’s worst nightmare. Daniel and his brother were passengers. They had taken a taxi to the party and intended to take one home. But as they were leaving, they accepted a ride home with another friend, who survived the accident with minor injuries. Daniel’s brother initially was given a 2 percent chance of survival; he has since come home and is expected to make a full recovery.

Arash and Daniel had been inseparable best friends since the seventh grade. I remember Daniel as an outgoing, engaging roly-poly kid and Arash as a talkative little guy with big, expressive eyes. They grew up to be two swarthy, handsome, successful young professionals with slick black hair raised to stylish points above their scalps — Daniel a real estate investor and Arash a lawyer.

Following Daniel’s death, Arash immediately began working through his sorrow. Just days after the accident, he gathered his friends to meet as a group with a psychotherapist. He followed up with a Friday night Shabbat dinner attended by those who had been at the party, because they all recognized that they needed to be together.

The conversations that ensued began with memories of Daniel, but then transitioned into why Daniel had died; what vulnerabilities they all could encounter; and for which actions could they take responsibility. Faced with Daniel’s death, they were forced to admit that the out-of-control consumption of alcohol among their generation was the fatal mistake. As they spoke further, they realized that many of their generation of young Jewish professionals, including themselves, were living in excess, not only with alcohol, but also through materialism. They spoke about their value system, which ultimately returned them to their Jewish roots.

Since July, about 30 young people, Persians and Ashkenazim, have begun to meet regularly to create the LEV Foundation, inspired by their love and their loss of Daniel Levian. Lev, which means “heart” in Hebrew, is what they often called Daniel.

Recently I sat in as Arash and another close friend, David Chasin, came to The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to present the LEV Foundation to Federation President John Fishel and ask for guidance and infrastructure support. David is a participant in The Federation’s Geller Leadership Project. The two described Daniel’s personality and values, and through pictures and stories, they brought him right into the room with them. They proudly told Fishel they were not looking for money; the group, their friends and families would be the funders.

The LEV Foundation envisions itself as built upon multiple pillars. One of them would be social service projects designed to protect young Jews from driving drunk by offering free taxi service to pick them up and take them home. The group even worked out ways that kids’ cars could be driven home so no one would feel they had to drive in order to hide their behavior from their parents.

Another pillar would be advocacy, tackling the issues of excess so apparent in this generation.

Another would be about values, offering Shabbat dinners alternating between Ashkenazic and Persian traditions, Torah study, Israel travel and funding. During this phase of The Federation presentation, Arash and David commented that every one of the 40 young people involved in the creation of this foundation are either day school graduates or Birthright Israel alumni.

I thought about the millions of dollars the Jewish world has invested in day schools and Birthright. If there has ever been a return on the community’s dollars, this effort is the best demonstration. When the critical need arose to face this tragedy, these kids had the knowledge, the values, the tools and the path on which to place their sorrow, so that from it they could work to create a better world. These are our community’s children, of whom we can be very proud.

I thought about all the comments I had heard over the years in the kids’ day schools about the Persian, Israeli and Russian populations.

“Oh, the school is becoming so Persian! The school is becoming so Israeli!” Together, these kids prove that their parents were wrong. As they are showing us, the schools have turned out Jewish kids who can bridge the gaps between them themselves by celebrating one another’s cultures, knowing they are all deeply connected as Jews and friends who share many common experiences.

As Arash and David walked out, I could see Daniel Levian being carried on their shoulders: He wasn’t the tall, thin young man with slick black hair. He was the roly-poly, engaging kid I remembered, and I realized he belongs to all of us.

Gary Wexler, a former advertising agency creative director, owns Passion Marketing, a consulting firm to nonprofit organizations worldwide, including major Jewish organizations in the United States, Canada and Israel.

Hitler’s carmaker: How General Motors helped jump-start the Third Reich’s military machine


James D. Mooney thrust his arm diagonally, watching its reflection in his hotel suite mirror. Not quite right. He tried once again. Still not right. Was it too stiff? Too slanted? Should his palm stretch perpendicular to the ceiling; should his arm bend at a severe angle? Or should the entire limb extend straight from shoulder to fingertips? Should his Sieg Heil project enthusiasm or declare obedience?

Never mind, it was afternoon. Time to go see Adolf Hitler.

Just the day before, May 1, 1934, under a brilliant, cloudless sky, Mooney, president of the General Motors Overseas Corp., climbed into his automobile and drove toward Tempelhof Field at the outskirts of Berlin to attend yet another hypnotic Nazi extravaganza. This one was the annual May Day festival.

Tempelhof Field was a sprawling, oblong-shaped airfield. But for May Day, the immense site was converted into a parade ground. Security was more than tense, it was paranoid. All cars entering the area were meticulously inspected for anti-Hitler pamphlets or other contraband. But not Mooney’s. The Fuhrer’s office had sent over a special windshield tag that granted the General Motors’ chief carte blanche to any area of Tempelhof. Mooney would be Hitler’s special guest.

As Mooney arrived at the airfield about 3:30 p.m., the spectacle dazzled him. Sweeping swastika banners stretching 33 feet wide and soaring 150 feet into the air fluttered from 43-ton steel towers. Each tower was anchored in 13 feet of concrete to resist the winds as steadfastly as the Third Reich resisted all efforts to moderate its program of rearmament and oppression.

Thousands of other Nazi flags fluttered across the grounds, as dense column after column of Nazis, marching shoulder to shoulder in syncopation, flowed into rigid formation. Each of the 13 parade columns boasted between 30,000 and 90,000 storm troopers, army divisions, citizen brigades and Hitler Youth enrollees. Finally, after four hours, the tightly packed assemblage totaled about 2 million marchers and attendees.

Hitler eventually arrived in an open-air automobile that cruised up and down the field amid the sea of devotees. Accompanied by cadres of SS guards, Hitler was ushered to the stage, stopping first to pat the head of a smiling boy. This would be yet another grandiose spectacle of Fuhrer-worship so emblematic of the Nazi regime.

When ready, Hitler launched into one of his enthralling speeches, made all the more mesmerizing by 142 loudspeakers sprinkled throughout the grounds. As the Fuhrer demanded hard work and discipline, and enunciated his vision of National Socialist destiny, the crisp sound of his voice traveled across an audience so vast that it took a moment or two for his words to reach the outer perimeter of the throng. Hence, the thunderous applause that greeted Hitler’s remarks arrived sequentially, creating an aural effect of continuous, overlapping waves of adulation.

General Motors World, the company house organ, covered the May Day event glowingly in a several-page cover story, stressing Hitler’s boundless affinity for children.

“By nine, the streets were full of people waiting to see Herr Hitler go meet the children,” the publication reported.

The next day, May 2, 1934, after practicing his Sieg Heil in front of a mirror, Mooney and two other senior executives from General Motors and its German division, Adam Opel A.G., went to meet Hitler in his Chancellery office. Waiting with Hitler would be Nazi Party stalwart Joachim von Ribbentrop, who would later become foreign minister, and Reich economic adviser Wilhelm Keppler.

As Mooney traversed the long approach to Hitler’s desk, he began to pump his arm in a stern-faced Sieg Heil. But the Fuhrer surprised him by getting up from his desk and meeting Mooney halfway, not with a salute but a businesslike handshake.

This was, after all, a meeting about business — one of many contacts between the Nazis and GM officials that are spotlighted in this multipart JTA investigation that scoured and re-examined thousands of pages of little-known and restricted Nazi-era and New Deal-era documents

This documentation and other evidence reveal that GM and Opel were eager, willing and indispensable cogs in the Third Reich’s rearmament juggernaut, a rearmament that, as many feared during the 1930s, would enable Hitler to conquer Europe and destroy millions of lives. The documentation also reveals that while General Motors was mobilizing the Third Reich and cooperating within Germany with Hitler’s Nazi revolution and economic recovery, GM and its president, Alfred P. Sloan, were undermining the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and undermining America’s electric mass transit, and in doing so, were helping addict the United States to oil.

For GM’s part, the company has repeatedly declined to comment when approached by this reporter. It has also steadfastly denied for decades — even in the halls of Congress — that it actively assisted the Nazi war effort or that it simultaneously subverted mass transit in the United States. It has also argued that its subsidiary was seized by the Reich during the war. The company even sponsored an eminent historian to investigate, and he later in his own book disputed many earlier findings about GM’s complicity with the Nazis. In that book, he concluded that assertions that GM had collaborated with the Nazis, even after the United States and Germany were at war, “have proved groundless.”

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Wilshire: Boulevard of Sanctuaries


Wilshire Boulevard’s stature as the grand concourse of Los Angeles is due in part to its many architecturally distinct synagogues and churches. Those located in the Wilshire Center district, between LaFayette Park and about Western Avenue, are some of the most notable and serve some of the city’s oldest congregations.

The boulevard in the 1920s was the natural place for the institutions and their members to relocate. They saw that, in the future, downtown’s narrow, congested streets would no longer be the center of the community. Los Angeles was turning into a driving city, and Wilshire became the nation’s first Automobile Age thoroughfare. Religious establishments that wished to be part of the exciting future moved to Wilshire Boulevard.

On the boulevard of big dreams they constructed edifices on a grand scale to suit the surroundings. It was in the same era that architects gave Los Angeles proud, new symbols of aspiration, such as the marvelous City Hall and the museum-quality Bullock’s Wilshire department store. The new houses of worship also aspired to greatness. Their membership typically numbered in the thousands, and the pews were filled with mayors, judges, publishers and other movers.

Congregations didn’t need to advertise their addresses, just the corners: Wilshire at Berendo Street for Immanuel Presbyterian, Wilshire at Harvard Boulevard for St. Basil’s Catholic Church, Wilshire at St. Andrews Place for St. James Episcopal. They formed a community that crossed denomination lines. During the years around World War II, the Christian churches joined for an annual procession on Easter Sunday. At the conclusion of services, worshippers would jam the sidewalks to watch cars promenade along Wilshire.

Neighbors took care of one another. The congregation at Wilshire Boulevard Temple welcomed offers to hold High Holy Days services in the larger sanctuary at Immanuel Presbyterian, a few blocks to the east. The temple also held services inside the gorgeous Wilshire Christian Church, built at Normandie Avenue on land donated by the Chapman family, for whom Chapman University is named.

Likewise, when the original St. Basil’s burned down, Wilshire Boulevard Temple invited parishioners to worship in its sanctuary until a new Catholic church was finished. At the dedication of new St. Basil’s in 1969, Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin sat as an honored guest at Mass alongside John Francis Cardinal McIntyre.

Congregation B’nai B’rith had been the leading downtown synagogue at the time its members voted to relocate at Wilshire and Hobart boulevards. The new Wilshire Boulevard Temple served some of the city’s most respected and influential Jews.

At the dedication in 1929, banker Marco Hellman presented the ark, and Jack Warner, one of the studio-owning Warner brothers, bestowed colorful murals depicting the history of the Hebrew people painted by Hugo Ballin. The artist, whose work also decorates Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the lobby of the Los Angeles Times Building, painted on canvas in his Santa Monica studio, then mounted the murals around the 100-foot-high, mosaic-inlaid dome in the octagonal sanctuary.

Placing such prominent artwork in the synagogue was not typical of the time. But Rabbi Magnin hoped it would add warmth and an element of mysticism to the surroundings. The temple’s architecture by David Allison and Abraham Edelman is regarded as a work of art in itself. With Italian and Belgian marble, carved mahogany and inlaid gold, it is the only Wilshire Center religious home listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Allison was the Wilshire architect of choice in the 1920s. He is credited with designing the cathedral-like First Congregational Church on Commonwealth Street, across from LaFayette Park, the similarly regal Wilshire United Methodist near Windsor Square and the imposing First Baptist Church off the boulevard behind Bullock’s Wilshire. Allison also contributed the design for several of the original Italianate buildings at UCLA, including the stunning Royce Hall.

Like Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Immanuel Presbyterian opened in 1929. The acquisition of the land five years earlier had stirred up controversy among the members. Some opposed the idea of giving up the prestige of being downtown to start over as a country church. Today, Immanuel Presbyterian is the most Gothic-looking structure found along Wilshire, dark and brooding with a soaring bell tower and windows by the historic Judson Studios and Dixon Art Glass Co. Gothic chandeliers hang inside the massive sanctuary, capable of seating 2,000 worshippers.

These days, the congregations in mid-Wilshire are not as large as at the district’s peak. But their establishments all stand as important monuments to the dreamers who saw where Los Angeles was headed and knew how to get there.

Adapted from “Wilshire Boulevard” by Kevin Roderick, to be published next year.

Death Stalks Family


A local American Israeli family, which lost a daughter in an airport shooting rampage last July 4, is in renewed mourning for a son who died Nov. 26 following a car accident.

Nimrod Hen, the 18-year-old victim, was the brother of Victoria "Vicky" Hen, 25. She was one of two people shot and killed by an Egyptian-born gunman while working at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport.

Avinoam and Rachel Hen, the parents of Vicky and Nimrod, and a surviving third child, Udi, were reported in deep mourning and unwilling to speak publicly.

"What can I tell you except that it’s a terrible tragedy?" Joseph Knoller, a family spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times.

Nimrod Hen died of injuries sustained in a Nov. 16 accident, in which he apparently swerved to avoid a car coming out of a Chatsworth mall parking lot and crashed into two parked cars and a fire hydrant.

He resided with his parents and graduated in June from Chatsworth High School. He was described by school officials as a popular and outgoing student.

Vicky Hen, the oldest of the three children, had been working at the El Al ticket counter for less than two months when she was slain by Hesham Mohammed Hadayet, who in turn was killed immediately by El Al security guards.

The FBI has not issued a final report in the case, to the frustration of Hen’s family and Israeli officials, who view the shooting as an act of terrorism.

The Hen family, whose roots in the historical Israeli city of Safed go back 700 years, immigrated in 1990 to California, where the father built up a automobile parts supply business in Canoga Park.