New Tel Aviv center aiming to reduce anti-gay violence


Israel’s association for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is launching a center in Tel Aviv to combat anti-gay violence.

The center, which opens Wednesday, will collect data on violence against gays and offer members of the LGBT community legal and psychological support, according to Haaretz. It also will aim to have people available to accompany LGBT individuals who go to report anti-gay crimes to the police.

“Unfortunately, we still undergo difficult experiences of physical and verbal violence in every government institution,” Shay Deutsch, chairman of the LGBT association, told Haaretz. “Everywhere, we get complaints from members of the community who suffer from discrimination or humiliating treatment.”

The center is opening on the third anniversary of an attack on a gay club in Tel Aviv that left two people dead. The center will be named for Nir Katz, one of the victims. It is expected to cost approximately $100,000 per year to run.

Making it easier for LGBT Jewish kids to be open, honest


Someday, maybe every gay Jewish youth will have as easy a time coming out as Elias Rubin did.

“I came out a few days after I figured it out myself,” said the 11th-grader from Valley Village. “Everybody was totally supportive and accepting.”

That was when he was in eighth grade. Rubin, now 17, didn’t see the point in keeping it a secret, whether at home or at school.

“Everybody knows, everybody’s OK with it, and we just go on with our daily lives,” he said.

Not all gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens are so lucky. Nine out of 10 LGBT students have experienced harassment at school, and more than one-third have attempted suicide, according to the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org), a collection of video testimonials in support of LGBT youths and in response to harassment and bullying.

A number of Jewish schools and youth organizations in the area are doing their part not only to provide resources for students struggling with their sexuality, but also to ensure inclusive environments where they can thrive.

At New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, about 15 students attend weekly meetings of the B’tselem Elohim / Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA). The Hebrew refers to the idea that humans are created in God’s own image. Members of the group, now in its second year, have discussed articles from current events and watched videos from the It Gets Better Project.

“The mission is to raise awareness about homosexuality, bisexuality and transgender issues today, all the while encouraging acceptance in our community today,” said Sivan Lipman, the NCJHS group’s faculty adviser.

Milken Community High School in Bel Air has a GSA as well. Members are organizing a Day of Silence on Nov. 18, modeled after a national day of action in which students take some form of a vow of silence to call attention to bullying and harassment of LGBT youth in schools, according to Stephanie Monteleone, Milken’s group adviser.

“The students who started the GSA felt there was a need for increased awareness about homophobia and how that impacts our community as well as establishing a support network for students who identify as LGBTQ,” she said in an e-mail.

Milken’s middle school also includes a unit on diversity during which the film “Hineini: Coming Out in a Jewish High School” is shown.

Simply providing access to information is one easy way to help LGBT students, said Joel L. Kushner, director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation. Based in Los Angeles, it has a massive online collection of resources at huc.edu/ijso.

“It’s really important for Jewish settings … to have the information so that a child can … know that ‘oh, I can be Jewish and not an abomination — you know, from the Leviticus 18:22 verse — and my community will still accept me,’ ” he said.

He said he has seen progress when it comes to openness and awareness in schools and camps, but it needs to be taken to the next level. That means doing education for teachers and not waiting until high school to talk to kids about LGBT issues, he said.

Rabbi Jacob Pressman Academy of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles has taken that to heart. Its middle school offers a human development class that starts by teaching sixth-graders about bullying, teasing and how people get targeted for their differences. By the eighth grade, students are sharing their personal stories and smashing stereotypes, from racism to LGBT issues, said counselor Inez Tiger, who teaches the class.

“We just want to create an open, inclusive dialogue,” Tiger said.

Students watch “Straightlaced,” a documentary that examines gender biases, and there are gay speakers who are part of panel discussions. Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, the head of school, also discusses the biblical issues surrounding homosexuality.

Much has changed since Tiger first offered the class.

“I would say it has transformed from when it started 10 years ago, when some parents wouldn’t let their kids come to this section of the class, to now, when they don’t even opt out at all,” she said.

One of the next challenges is turning tolerant spaces into inclusive ones, according to Asher Gellis, executive director of JQ International, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides programs and services for the LGBT Jewish community.

“Understanding that LGBT community members can come and participate and won’t be discriminated against is ‘tolerant.’ Being inclusive is offering LGBT-specific services. They have particular needs,” Gellis said. “Do you have a welcoming page on your Web page? Do you have LGBT role models? Are you offering support for parents of LGBT kids? It’s a complicated dynamic.”

Sara-Jean Lipmen, Southern California regional programs manager for the Reform movement’s North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), understands this. While part of the group’s response has been simple — “We have an intolerance for intolerance,” she said — leaders realize there’s more to consider.

“For example, we’re looking at doing one event, possibly this year, that is gender-segregated. The regional board is already talking about what happens with the teens who may want to be with a different gender than they are biologically,” Lipmen said, referring to transgender identity. “It’s something that we’re keenly aware of.”

JQ’s Gellis said he has worked with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth, NFTY and Pressman Academy on LGBT issues. Overall, he’s pleased to see how far things have come in the last 25 years.

“The changes are quite dramatic,” he said. “It went from a period of growing up in the ’80s and having no queer Jewish role models — it was a subject that was never discussed — to a conversation that is happening at Shabbat dinner tables, happening on the pulpit and happening in the classroom.”

Preparing for Same-Gender Weddings


All eyes will still be on New York in the coming weeks as the state prepares for marriage equality. I learned a lot in the run-up to wedding mania here in California in 2008, so I thought I would share some tips with those in New York.

Clergy, officiants and recorders: Meet together with your county registrars, who will issue the licenses. Help form a task force to work out the first days, when the big rush will happen. Help them think through their own bureaucracy and, yes, how the forms should and must change. We did that here in Los Angeles County. Our County Clerk Dean Logan and his team met with us and worked directly with a group of us to help ease the rush of the first weeks.

Clergy and other officiants: Know how you will change or modify the words of the ceremony. Will you say husband and husband? Partners for life? Spouses? Will you keep antiquated vows, like love, honor, cherish and obey? Does anyone really still use obey? I certainly don’t.

Couples who plan to get married: Consult an attorney and a tax professional.  There are many fiscal implications in getting married. Sign a prenuptial agreement; it doesn’t mean you don’t love each other. In fact, just the opposite. It does mean you love one another enough to imagine that if it didn’t work out, you have the basics outlined.

The federal government doesn’t yet recognize our unions, and so while you might be married in New York, your federal income tax is as a single. Being in love and getting married doesn’t mean you have to be financially stupid.

Even if you have been together for a long time, consider some premarital counseling. That piece of paper and that ring change things. Don’t just assume it will all be the same. It won’t! You will see yourselves differently, and others will see you differently.

One of the most interesting phenomena of the marriage ceremony is that it takes two unrelated people and makes them next of kin — like blood family. So, poof! You are related! It is a different way to think about this marriage bond. That is why others see you differently. You are a family in a new way, even if you have been together for decades.

Remember, if you are having a wedding ceremony — complete with flowers and cake and maybe a rented hall and caterer — your officiant should be given an honorarium as well. Don’t just assume the local pastor will be available. He or she will have many weddings to perform. The officiant may have a fee. Be prepared. It is not a free service. This is how people make their living, just like the baker, the travel agent who books your honeymoon and the guy in the tuxedo shop who rented you the tuxedos. There is paperwork that has to be completed.  So don’t bristle if your rabbi, cantor, minister or priest has a financial requirement for this service.

Expect everyone to want to attend! In my almost 25-year experience of being a rabbi and performing hundreds of weddings for gay people (both legally recognized and not), the gay weddings are better attended than the straight weddings. Everyone wants to be there! So plan your numbers and your guest list accordingly!

These are just a few tips. But there are many others. On my blog, which can be found at rabbieger.wordpress.com, I will cover a few more. Happy weddings!

Jewish groups to be vetted for LGBT workplace policies


A national initiative is underway to examine gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender workplace policies at Jewish non-profit organizations.

The Human Rights Campaign Foundation, which advocates for LGBT equality, announced this week an extension of its workplace equality project in the Jewish non-profit sector. Organizations will be examined for their workplace policies regarding LGBT employees, and areas that need education will be highlighted.

The HRC notes that employees can be fired for their sexual orientation in 29 states, and for their gender identity or expression in 38 states. Information on current practices at nonprofits is largely unavailable. This project will serve as a pilot to expand workplace equality into other non-profits and small employers.

“The continued marginalization of LGBT Jews in some quarters is especially disheartening for those of us who believe in the power of a fully inclusive Jewish community that embraces every person as having equal and infinite merit,” said Lynn Schusterman, chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which provided the lead grant for the project.

Supporting grants come from Morning Star Foundation, Stuart Kurlander and an anonymous donor.

An initial report is expected to be released in 2012.

Russians & Gays & Lesbians, Oh My…


Paul Koretz, a 44-year-old politician, owns up to an unusual distinction. He is the only member of the city council in the 15-year history of West Hollywood to have a wife and family at home.

Anywhere else in the country, being married with young children would be considered a plus for an ambitious office holder. In tolerant West Hollywood, his status is not a handicap, just an anomaly.

While Los Angeles as a whole acclaims itself the world capital of diversity, nowhere is the mix as singular as in the pistol-shaped, 1.9-sq.-mile enclave sandwiched between Beverly Hills and the Hollywood section of Los Angeles.

Allowing for overlaps between categories, half the city’s 38,000 residents are Jewish, 35 percent are gay men, 3 percent are lesbians, 19 percent are senior citizens, and 12 – 15 percent are Russian immigrants. West Hollywood may be the only city whose official 1998 population survey included check-offs for bisexual (7 percent) and transgendered (1 percent) taxpayers.

But West Hollywood is more than a demographer’s delight. It includes Southern California’s most vibrant night life, mainly along the fabled Sunset Strip. When snooty Beverly Hills rolls up the sidewalks at night, the action is just warming up at the Strip’s rock and roll clubs, comedy shows and tony restaurants. “We’re the Left Bank of Beverly Hills,” says Scott Svonkin, Koretz’s right-hand man.

After some rough times, the economy is now booming. Luxury hotels and swank night spots are going up while design-oriented businesses are encircling the landmark Pacific Design Center, dubbed The Blue Whale for its shape and color. It’s gotten to the point where city officials must restrain developers from encroaching into residential areas.

The city has an enviable range of social service programs for the elderly, immigrants and the AIDS-infected, and relations between the diverse citizenry and law enforcement agencies are, by all accounts, remarkably harmonious.

Back in 1984, harassment of gays by Los Angeles city police and fear that rent controls for apartment dwellers might be abolished led to an unusual gay-seniors alliance that pushed through incorporation of West Hollywood. The city now contracts for law enforcement with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which puts deputies through a sensitivity training course before assignment to West Hollywood.

When it first became a city, West Hollywood was dubbed the “Gay Camelot” by the press, which marveled at a municipality run by a five-person city council (one of whom serves as mayor on a rotating basis) with a three-man majority of gays.

Since then, the makeup of the council has fluctuated. At one time there were three Jews on the council, now there is one; at another time, there were three councilwomen, now there is none. The present council again has three gays, one senior, and Koretz, who has served since 1988.

On Super Tuesday, Koretz squeaked through in a very tight race to become the Democratic nominee for the State Assembly in the 42nd district.

In the heart of West Hollywood lies Plummer Park, where on any day hundreds of Jewish immigrants from all parts of the former Soviet Union play chess, or cards for modest stakes, which are quickly hidden when strangers, who might conceivably enforce the park’s anti-gambling rules, walk by. Anti-smoking rules are uniformly ignored as well.

The only monument in the United States to the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar stands nearby, with inscriptions in Russian Cyrillic script, English and Hebrew.

Most of the 5,000 to 6,000 Russian Jews settled in West Hollywood in two major immigration waves, 1978-79 and 1988-92, and their arrival led to inevitable frictions.

“Initially, the greatest conflict was between elderly Russian immigrants and the established Jewish seniors,” says Koretz. “The American Jews complained that the Russians, using their official ‘refugee’ status, were getting more of the social services and affordable housing than the old-timers.”

It also took the Russian housewives some time to learn not to cut into supermarket lines for fear that — as in their homeland — the stores would run out of supplies.

But more spectacular than the grumbling between two sets of elderly Jews was the encounter between the wildly different cultures of the Russian and gay communities.

There was hardly any physical violence, but “there would be a lot of screaming, and since they couldn’t understand each other’s language, we had a lot of misunderstandings,” says Rabbi Naftoli Estulin, who runs the Chabad Russian Immigrant Program and Synagogue.

Helen Levin, director of the city-funded Russian Cultural Center, explains that “in the Soviet Union, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by seven years in prison. You can’t expect people raised in that way to be open-minded and relaxed about openly gay behavior. They’re changing, but it’s a long process in education and tolerance.”

In general, it has taken American Jews some time to adjust to the Russian immigrants, adds Levin. “The Americans expected a race of heroes, like Natan Sharansky. But most Russians didn’t come for ideological reasons, but to make a better life for themselves and their children.”

While Levin’s cultural center is a more integral part of West Hollywood than the Chabad center, both offer a range of education, language, job training, counseling, social service, youth and senior programs. Since the immigrants must become U.S. citizens within seven years of arrival or lose their benefits, there is a heavy emphasis on citizenship training classes.

But, in line with Jewish custom, the two Russian centers don’t speak to each other. For a while, there was an annual confrontation as each center sought to stage its Chanukah festival in Plummer Park. A modus vivendi has now been reached in which each organization stages the festival in alternate years.

Otherwise, a cold peace prevails between the two centers. “Rabbi Estulin can’t tolerate a woman who raises her voice and is independent,” says Levin. “I can manage my relationship with anyone and have an understanding with every agency, but not with Chabad.”

Estulin shrugs off the relationship problem. “They see me with a beard and they think I’m from another world,” he says. “I’m just one of the boys, one of the guys.”

Community


Before therewas “Ellen,” Chastity Bono, Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS, or AIDSitself, there was Beth Chayim Chadashim. The year was 1972, and mostlesbians and gay men were deep in the closet. For four gay Jews whoshowed up for a rap session at Metropolitan Community Church in LosAngeles, there was no other place to seek spiritual solace. But, aswelcoming as Rev. Troy Perry was, MCC was still a Christian place ofworship. Many gay and lesbian Jews felt deeply alienated from thesynagogues in which they had grown up, but there were no shuls wherethey felt comfortable to be who they were and love who theyloved.

Supported by Perry, the four Jews decided to formtheir own synagogue and to seek affiliation with the Reform stream ofJudaism, which they felt would be the most friendly toward theircause. In this quiet way, inside a gay and lesbian church, was bornthe world’s first and oldest synagogue with outreach to the gay,lesbian and bisexual community. Next month, it will mark thecompletion of its 26th year. This Sunday, as part of its ongoingcelebration of its first quarter century, BCC will host theappearance of Rabbi Alexander Schindler at Leo Baeck Temple in LosAngeles. Schindler, president of the Union of American HebrewCongregations from 1973 to 1996, was instrumental in BCC’s gainingacceptance to the Reform movement in 1974, the first congregation oflesbians, gays and bisexuals to become part of any mainstreamreligious denomination.

Also speaking at the event Sunday (via videotape)will be Rabbi Erwin Herman, Pacific Southwest Council and newcongregations director for UAHC when BCC’s affiliation wasconsidered. Herman reached out during BCC’s early days, offering theresources of his North Hollywood offices to the fledgling synagogueand helping to secure the use of Leo Baeck Temple before BCC found apermanent location. But finding a rabbi to officiate at its firstHigh Holiday service was a problem. “Several rabbis locally turned usdown,” he recalled. “They were afraid of being misperceived as gayrabbis.” But a rabbi from Washington, D.C. agreed to conduct theservices without pay.

Securing UAHC affiliation was even more knottyproblem. “Some of the more liberal, respected rabbis within ourmovement were totally opposed to it,” Herman said. “Their attitudewas [BCC] wasn’t necessary. They said: ‘Our temple will welcomethem.'” Others took refuge in biblical text that cites homosexualityas an abomination.

BCC was ultimately admitted to full UAHCmembership in July 1974. Still, it wasn’t until 1977 that it had itsfirst permanent home at 6000 W. Pico Blvd., a modest one-storybuilding with a purple facade, where it still resides today. Notuntil 1983 did it welcome its first permanent rabbi, Janet RossMarder.

Marder, now director of UAHC’s Pacific SouthwestCouncil, said many people assumed she was a lesbian at first,although she was married and about eight months pregnant at the time.Marder, who remained at BCC until 1988, was rabbi there during theearly years of the AIDS epidemic, when each week seemed to claim thelife of another congregant. “Those were traumatic years,” she said.BCC focused its efforts in those dark days on educating the largerJewish community about AIDS through a program that later became LosAngeles Jewish AIDS Services, and continues today as part of JewishFamily Service of Los Angeles.

Much of the Jewish gay, lesbian and bisexualcommunity was closeted then, with many listed on the membershiproster only by first name and last initial. Now, says Rabbi LisaEdwards, who has led the congregation since1994, there is almost noone who isn’t “out,” at least at BCC. With new medicines, there havebeen fewer deaths from AIDS recently, but there are still many BCCmembers who are HIV-positive, the rabbi said.

Cantorial Soloist Fran Magid Chalin (left) and Rabbi LisaEdwards.

 

Edwards, slender, soft-voiced and much youngerlooking than her 46 years, grew up in a Chicago suburb and received adoctorate in English literature from the University of Iowa beforedeciding to become a rabbi. She interned at BCC while completing herstudies at Hebrew Union College and became a full-time rabbi there in1994. One of her predecessors, former BCC Rabbi Denise Eger, left toform another Reform gay, lesbian and bisexual synagogue, CongregationKol Ami, in West Hollywood in 1992.

Despite the pain and loss caused by AIDS, theatmosphere at BCC is more often one of joy and celebration ratherthan sorrow. Often close to 100 of its 270 members crowd into thesmall sanctuary for Friday night services. “There’s not a singleperson who is there because someone is dragging them,” said MarkLevine, chair of the temple’s education committee and a teacher of apopular BCC Jewish history class. “That’s why our services are veryspiritual. There’s the same kind of a feeling that there was insummer camp. People are out there actively participating.”

BCC has brought a lot of people back to Judaism,added Levine. “I can’t tell you how many people that are closetedbefore they come out almost give up their Judaism. What BCC hastaught gays and lesbians is that it’s okay to be both.”

What finally helped him bond most deeply with BCC,Levine said, was when his partner died of AIDS a few years ago. RabbiEdwards and Cantorial Soloist Fran Magid Chalin were able to help himthrough the ordeal, even attending the funeral in Chicago. At a moremainstream synagogue, the relationship between the men might havebecome an issue, but at BCC, it’s not only accepted, it’s celebrated,he said. “It’s interesting to have to go to a gay synagogue to makegay not part of the discussion.”

A BCC wedding celebration, left to right: Rabbi LarryEdwards, brides Tracy Moore and Rabbi Lisa Edwards, and Rabbi LauraGeller.

Although BCC is associated with the Reformmovement, it attracts members of all denominations — and nodenomination. Levine believes the synagogue may also have among thelargest number of Jews by choice of any synagogue in the city –probably over 20 percent. Many left the church and embraced Judaismbecause they felt they had more leeway to question in Judaism thanChristianity, he said.

Even among the gay and lesbian community, thereare still battles to fight and prejudices to overcome. As a bisexual,Chalin has encountered it from both the gay and straight communities.Now in a monogamous relationship with a man, she spent 15 yearsidentifying as a lesbian, and has made it part of her mission to makebisexuality better accepted at BCC and elsewhere.

Another contribution that Chalin has made to BCCis making the synagogue, which has always catered to adults, morewelcoming to children. Chalin, who has a 3-year-old boy, Eli, saidBCC was always proud that it was a place that people didn’t choose tobelong to simply in order to find a place for their children’s bar orbat mitzvah. With more congregants having children throughalternative insemination, adoption, previous relationships andmarriage, the synagogue is taking its first steps to create achildren’s program. Eventually, Edwards hopes there will be Hebrewschool and a bar and bat mitzvah program. “For a long time, the focusof our community was in dealing with the loss from AIDS,” Chalinsaid. “Now we’re looking at having children in our community andcaring for aging parents. We’re finally coming of age, so theseissues that affect the larger mainstream community also affectus.”

The backward glance that Rabbi Schindler plans tocast on BCC’s accomplishments this Sunday will also scan the unpavedroad ahead. “The job isn’t totally done,” he said. Homophobia remainsentrenched, even among enlightened Jews, and gay marriages are stillnot legally recognized, even if some rabbis choose to perform them.Although gays and lesbians are increasingly accepted as members ofcongregations, Schindler said, “it doesn’t go quite as far inaccepting them as youth leaders and rabbis. There, the old[homophobic] demons reappear.”

Rabbi Schindler will speak on Sunday, March 29, at7:30 p.m. at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.The topic is “One in Every Minyan: Jewish Outreach to Gay, Lesbianand Bisexual Jews.” For information, call BCC at (213) 931-7023 ore-mail them at BCC25@aol.com.

 

The Life of the Party

Vice President Gore reaffirms theadministration’s support of Israel

By Robert Eshman, Managing Editor

From left, Vice President Al Gore, AIPAC LosAngeles chapter Chair Hentu Amis, Israel Consul General Yoram BenZeév and American Jewish Congress Los Angeles chapterPresident Barry A. Sanders

If the multicultural panel of speakers were thehonored guests at the American Jewish Committee and AIPAC’s50th-birthday party for Israel last Saturday evening, then thekeynote speaker — Vice President Al Gore — was the icing on thecake.

The event was a hybrid: part love-in for Israel,part exercise in coalition building, part political rally for the manwho aspires to be our next president. Gore himself made the lastpoint apparent when he began telling a joke about the first Jewishpresident of the Unites States. “This, obviously, takes place in2008,” he said, prefacing the joke.

For organizers, the fact that representatives ofthe African-American, Latino and Asian-American communities, as wellas elected state and local officials, turned out was testament enoughto the event’s success.

Those looking for harder news heard the vicepresident disclose details of an earlier meeting in Washington withRussian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who has just beendismissed from office by President Boris Yeltsin. The foremost topicon the agenda, according to Gore, was Russian arms sales to Iran, asubject that has worried Israel and its supporters.

Before Gore entered the room to an extendedstanding ovation, the 430 people in attendance — AIPAC and AJCmembers, state and local elected officials, and students — heardspeaker after speaker avow his or her affection for Israel andappreciation for the Jewish community.

“The black, Asian-American and Latino communitieshave always been a bedrock of support for Israel,” said CongressmanHoward Berman, in introducing three of the evening’s four mainspeakers: toy magnate Charlie Woo, president of Chinese-AmericansUnited for Self-Empowerment; Genethia Hudley-Hayes, executivedirector of the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition; and AntonioVillaraigosa, speaker of the state Assembly.

Woo praised Israel for better representingAmerican values than his own homeland, and he thanked AIPAC and AJCfor “volunteering to stick with us” when the White House fund-raisingscandals cast suspicion on the dual loyalties of Chinese-Americandonors. “They defended our rights as citizens in the Americanpolitical process.”

Woo ended his speech by quoting from the Mishneh:”At 50, you have gained the wisdom to offer counsel to others,” hesaid.

Hayes, who had traveled to Israel on anAJC-sponsored trip last year, said that the country derives “strengththrough diversity,” just as Los Angeles does. She recounted meetingswith Ethiopian Jewish children, then referred obliquely to theproblems within Israeli society. “I remember how their faces mirroredmy face,” she said. “A democratic Israeli state is theirpassion.”

Villaraigosa spoke more personally of growing upin a mixed Latino-Jewish neighborhood of City Terrace andexperiencing the kindness of Jewish neighbors. The son of immigrants,raised by a single mother, Villaraigosa said that his AJC-sponsoredvisit to Israel in November 1997 reaffirmed his belief in “thevindication of the indomitable spirit.”

Reflecting on all the speaker’s comments later,AJC-Los Angeles chapter President Barry Sanders said theydemonstrated that “support for Israel is not just from Jewish people;it’s across the board.”

Gore, for one, didn’t need to be won over. Praisedby former national AIPAC Chair Larry Weinberg as a lifelong supporterof Israel, Gore appeared to be among friends, employing the kind ofbackpats, hugs, asides and self-deprecating humor that have become aClinton trademark.

He drew applause for pledging continuedadministration support for the peace process, but the supportiveaudience withheld initial applause when Gore, prompted by a commentfrom Weinberg, lauded the administration’s achievement in gettingChernomyrdin to commit to ending arms sales to Iran. “These peoplearen’t pushovers,” said an AIPAC official. “They want to hear aboutverification and timelines and conditions.”

Gore was on firmer ground in recounting hisattachment to Israel. Using intermittently flawless Hebrew, he quotedbiblical scripture, poet Chaim Bialik and Hebrew prayers, praisingIsrael as a “story of redemption and freedom for all oppressed peopleeverywhere.”


Education

Town Hall Meeting

Parents gather to discuss the issuesconfronting Los Angeles’ public schools>

By Beverly Gray, Education Editor

What about the public schools? With increasingnumbers of Jewish parents opting out of the public school system, theJewish community, whose support for public education is legendary,has tended to shift focus to Jewish and nonsectarian privateschools.

But last Sunday, March 22, a Federation-sponsoredEducation Town Hall brought the issues of public education backbefore the community.

More than 160 parents and educators of allethnicities gathered at Roscomare Road Elementary School to questiontop administrators, ranging from Ruben Zacarias, superintendent ofthe Los Angeles Unified School District, to a representative fromMayor Riordan’s office, to several widely respected public schoolprincipals.

The kickoff was a rousing call-to-arms by DelaineEastin, state superintendent of public instruction, who had a readyanswer for those in our state who say they can’t be worried about theschooling of other people’s children. Said Eastin, withcharacteristic fervor: “Think about that next time you’re on anairplane. This country runs on other people’s children.”

Eastin left quickly — to catch a plane –outraging one woman in the audience who wanted immediate comments ona long list of educational trouble spots. Her rant — “I want to hearabout Compton! I want to hear about the Unz Initiative!” — attractedsome sympathetic nods of agreement.

In later sessions, political issues such as thecontroversial Unz Initiative — which sets stringent limits oneducation in a child’s native language — resurfaced. But mostparents seemed more interested in the specific problems facing theirown children. A young mother asked about the procedure for enrollinghe
r children in magnet programs. The grandmother of a child withcerebral palsy brought up issues related to special ed.

Although debate in the four sessions on topicsranging from “20 Choices in Public Education” to “Life AfterElementary School” was polite, discussion in the hallways sometimesgrew heated. An angry former teacher who now heads the Coalition toSave the Children could be heard telling anyone who’d listen, “Godhimself couldn’t teach with 40 kids and no books.” And there was atelling moment when two attendees stood face to face, one demanding,”What about the teachers?” and the other insisting, “What about theparents?’

Parents found in the Town Hall a rare opportunityto attach faces to the names behind the huge public schoolbureaucracy. Loren Grossman, a Venice mom currently busing her twosons to a highly gifted magnet in Mission Hills, lobbied educationofficials for her own pet project: the creation of a Westside HighlyGifted Center. “I met all the people I’ve been sending letters to forthe last year,” said Grossman.

Though the event was sponsored by the Commissionon Urban Affairs of the Federation’s Jewish Community RelationsCouncil, there was nothing particularly Jewish about the Town Hall’sagenda. In the past, said Helen Katz, chair of the JCRC’s Task Forceon Education, task force events have been directed at Jewish parentswho are trying to make informed choices for their sons and daughters.This time around, the focus was on the needs of the school-agepopulation as a whole. “It’s important for Jewish parents to get theperspective of the other people in the community,” Katz said.

The Wonder Years

Early childhood educators are those heroic soulswho wipe noses, soothe hurt feelings, clean up paint spills, andmanage to perch gracefully on pint-sized chairs. But their hiddenagenda lies in introducing Jewish values and culture to their youngcharges. It’s a tall order.

That’s why the Bureau of Jewish Education sponsorsan annual conference at which early childhood educators can hear new,creative ideas, delve into the latest academic research, andgenerally recharge their batteries. This year’s Early ChildhoodSpring Institute, held on Monday, March 16, at Valley Beth Shalom,drew some 850 teachers from the 65 BJE-affiliated preschools in thegreater Los Angeles area. Surprise — many educators discoveredsimilar experiences and questions when it comes to working with smallchildren.

For some 50 teachers, the conference highlight wasa discussion session led by Dr. Ellyn Gersh Lerner of Temple Emanuel,who outlined the special issues faced by “Parent and Me” teachers.The overflow crowd freely chimed in on such pressing topics as how toeducate parents while keeping their toddlers amused, and what to dowhen nannies and housekeepers come to class as parental substitutes.The more things change, the more they same to be the same.

Tova Goldring, who teaches “Mommy and Me” at GanIsrael of Tarzana, noted that this year’s conference marked the firsttime the unique needs of programs such as hers have been addressed.Goldring said, “The teachers who were there were so excited to bewith people who do what they do.” In fact, at session’s end, therewas talk of organizing monthly meetings so that the shared encounterscould continue.

Because the conference’s theme was Israel at 50,several presentations dealt with the Jewish homeland. A delegationfrom Stephen S. Wise showed how its “Windows on Israel” curriculummakes Israel a vital year-round presence for its pupils, while theVBS demonstrated some of its schoolwide approaches.

One of the most ambitious workshops dealt withIsrael in a far less sunny light. Called “The Dark Side of the News:In Israel and In Our Community,” it featured two veteran preschooleducators, Bea Chankin and Dafna Presnell, who admitted at the outsetthat they had far more questions than answers. Their goal was to findapproaches through which young children can be given emotionalsupport at times of war and natural disaster.

Presnell, director of the Stephen S. Wise NurserySchool, lived through numerous close calls while growing to adulthoodin Israel. She broached the fact that children, who are taught inpreschool to “use their words” instead of coming to blows, have ahard time reconciling the contradiction when adults go to war.

Chankin, who earlier in the day had received oneof this year’s Lainer Awards for distinguished early childhoodeducators (the other recipients were Marian Milman and Bea Prentice),stressed that it is the teacher’s first responsibility to makehis/her students feel safe.

Both acknowledged that because popular classroomholidays such as Chanukah exalt military heroes, it sometimes may behard to convince children that the way of the peacemaker also hasvalue in Jewish tradition. The session wasn’t nearly long enough tofully debate this thorny topic, but attendees left with a stack ofuseful handouts, along with more questions than they hadanticipated.

Another out-of-the-ordinary session was titled”Growing Up Jewish. It was an opportunity for a small group to sharetheir own stories. One woman grew up in Mexico, the child of Jewsfrom the Middle East. A second described the public schools inNorfolk, Va., where she was one of the few Orthodox Jews enrolled. Bycontrast, another was raised in a family where the “religion” wasSocialist Zionism. The range of personal stories reinforced the ideathat Jews come in many varieties. But all agreed that high standardsof ethical behavior were intrinsic to their concept of being Jewish,and all felt duty-bound to transmit these standards to theirstudents.

— B.G.

 

Taking a Stand

Who should speak for the Jews of LosAngeles on hard issues that arouse diverse and passionate feelingswithin the community? Maybe nobody — say someleaders.

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

When is an issue a Jewish issue? Should the JewishFederation or its departments only take stands on obviously “Jewish”issues and only when there’s a clear consensus in the Jewishcommunity?

These are perennial questions at the Federation,and they came to the forefront last week, following the abruptresignation of a Jewish Community Relations Committee commissionchair.

Douglas Mirell, who had chaired the JCRC’s UrbanAffairs Commission for the past several years, tendered hisresignation in a five-page letter to JCRC Chair Carmen Warschaw. Init, he accused her of “stacking” a March 11 JCRC executive committeemeeting so as to obtain the outcome she wanted, and then curtailingdebate and preventing a possible stand by the JCRC on a key stateballot initiative.

Warschaw’s reasoning: Proposition 227 — theso-called “English for the Children” initiative that will appear onthe June ballot — didn’t fit the profile of an issue the JCRC oughtto tackle. It simply wasn’t Jewish enough.

Mirell disagreed. “Consonant with what I believeto be the desires and intentions of Federation leadership, yourtenure as a JCRC chair has witnessed a steady and precipitous declinein the willingness of the JCRC to straightforwardly and unabashedlylead the Los Angeles Jewish community,” he wrote.

At a previous meeting, the Urban AffairsCommission (UAC) had taken a 22-2 (with one abstention) vote againstProposition 227, which would require, with few exceptions, that allCalifornia public-school children be taught only in English. It wouldeffectively end most of the s
tate’s bilingual-education programs.Mirell and his supporters opposed this.

“I don’t believe this is of particular Jewishinterest, except that Jews are being impacted by it,” Warschaw saidof Proposition 227. “It’s an American or California issue that weshould know more about, but it’s just not a Jewish issue.”

When she made the ruling that the issue would notbe considered, Warschaw said, she thought that it would be lesscontroversial than if she had asked for a vote. “If they didn’t likemy ruling, they could have asked for a vote, but no one did.”

But Beverly Hills School Board President VirginiaMaas, a UAC member who was present at the meeting, thinks thatWarschaw should have allowed the issue to be heard. “I think she hadthe votes to support her position not to bring it to the JCRC board,”said Maas, who believes that 227, which she supports, is relevant tothe Jewish community, since about 65 percent of Jewish childrenattend Los Angeles public schools.

Warschaw agrees that the issue is “terriblyimportant” and the Jewish community should be well-informed aboutboth sides of 227, and there are many public forums for this purpose.But, she said, the JCRC should confine itself more narrowly to issuesof Jewish concern. “I think the Federation and the JCRC should takepositions on issues that really pertain to and affect the Jewishcommunity,” she said.

JCRC Executive Director Michael Hirschfeld echoedWarschaw’s sentiment, saying that in cases where there is nounanimity, taking a stand can sometimes be difficult. “Thisparticular ballot issue, I think, totally lacks consensus in theJewish community and possibly in other communities as well,” hesaid.

For his part, Mirell said that he couldn’t thinkof anything “more core to Judaism” than education. “I don’t thinkthere is anybody who would deny the importance that students whograduate from our schools can speak and write fluently in English,”he said. “The debate about the best way of ensuring that is criticalto this community and every other community.”

Mirell’s letter raises the larger question ofwhether the JCRC, a department of the Federation, should take a leadon controversial positions, as it has from time to time in the past,or merely serve as a gatekeeper on issues of Jewish concern.Previously, the JCRC’s executive committee took stands on a number ofissues, including opposing the nominations of Clarence Thomas andRobert Bork to the Supreme Court. But those stants enjoyed widespreadsupport. Two years ago, amid some angry debate, the JCRC recommendedthat the Federation oppose Proposition 209, the controversialanti-affirmative action initiative over which the Jewish communitywas deeply divided. After much discussion, the Federation finally didso. Many participants in that fight questioned the appropriateness ofthe JCRC taking any stand at all.

After all, one observer noted, it seemspresumptuous for a group of political activists to serve as the voiceof the Jewish community — especially when there are deepdivisions and personal interests (of a large minority) at stake. It’soligarchy at its worst.

In some communities, such as San Francisco, theJCRC is an independent body and, consequently, has more leeway toweigh in on controversial issues. But, as part of the Federation, theLos Angeles JCRC’s actions are more constrained. As FederationPresident Herb Gelfand sees it, the JCRC’s role isn’t to take aposition, but to recommend one to the Federation — and only onmatters of clear Jewish interest. Bilingual education, he said, “isabsolutely not a Jewish issue.”

Since the Federation is a consensus organizationrepresenting 519,000 Jews, it shouldn’t take positions on Jewishissues where there is no unanimity, Gelfand added. When theFederation took a strong stand against Israel’s conversion bill lastyear, he said, “there was no question in my mind that this was notonly a Jewish issue, but there was a very large consensus againstit.”

Gerald Bubis, a member of two JCRC commissions andthe Federation board and executive committee, believes that the JCRCshould be an independent entity. “As a committee of the Federation,it is not able to fulfill its function of sometimes taking unpopularstands.” The Federation, by definition, has a dilemma, he added. Itsmajor function is to raise funds to provide “the bloodline” forserving Jews, while its other purpose is to build community. One isoften at the expense of the other, he said. “If 90 percent of themoney is coming from 10 percent of the people, [the Federation is]going to be very concerned about what the 10 percent feel. If youlose $10 million from the very dissatisfied people, you’ve destroyedthe very system you put in place to support Jews.”

Israel at 50 Bash at

Pan Pacific Park

By Ruth Stroud, Staff Writer

It’s being called the biggest community-widecelebration of Israeli Independence Day outside of Israel. No, it’snot the two-hour CBS TV special on April 15. It’s the IsraeliIndependence Day Community Festival.

Jointly sponsored by the Jewish Federation and theCouncil of Israeli Organizations of Los Angeles (CIO/LA), the May 3event is expected to draw as many as 50,000 people to a multiculturalJewish blend of live entertainment, ethnic foods andcelebration.

This is the first time that the CIO/LA, which putson the annual Israeli Festival for Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day),and the American Jewish community in Los Angeles are putting on ajoint celebration.

The establishment of Israel is “the second-mostimportant event, after the Exodus from Egypt,” said Morrie Avidan, amember of the steering committee overseeing the Pan Pacific Parkcelebration. “That’s why this Independence Day is so important. Wewant to make it like a Cinco de Mayo for the Jews.”

Plans for the event include:

* More than 200 booths, including a “heritagepavilion,” roughly the size of a football field, with arts, cultureand food of the Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities.

* Entertainment, including Israeli popularsinger-composer Danny Sanderson, Israeli musician Lisa Wanamaker, thePini Cohen Band, the Keshet Chayim Dance Performers and the ZimriyahChorale, among others.

* Dignitaries, including Israeli Minister ofInternal Security Avigdor Khalani, a decorated Yom Kippur War hero,who will be part of a formal commemoration ceremony.

* The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s DepartmentGolden Stars, a five-person skydiving team, will parachute out ofhelicopters and then hand out Israeli and American flags to thechildren.

* Children’s events, such as rides, games, apetting zoo, arts and crafts, and special entertainment

The festival may be worth checking out just forthe kosher eats, which will include everything from falafel to sushi,from kugel to hot dogs.

Festival director Yoram Gutman, who directed theIsraeli Festival in the past, expressed the hope that thousands ofpeople would show up at Pan Pacific Park. “This is our biggestopportunity to identify with Israel and show our support,” Gutmansaid.

The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. onMay 3. There is no entrance fee, but parking will be $5. Pan PacificPark is located two blocks east of Fairfax on Beverly Boulevard. Formore information, contact Susan Bender at (213) 761-8120 or Gutman at(818) 757-0123.

South Bay Celebration

The South Bay is p
lanning its own IsraeliIndependence Day celebration for Sunday, April 26, from 1 to 5 p.m.,at the Torrance Cultural Arts Center. At least 2,000 people areexpected. Impresario Sam Glaser will emcee. Booths, pageantry, artsand crafts, and entertainment will be part of the mix. Eventco-chairs are Rabbi David Lieb of Temple Beth El and Center and ReneeSokolski. The Jewish Community Israel 50 Jubilee, as the event iscalled, is being sponsored by the Jewish Federation South BayCouncil, six South Bay synagogues, the Torrance Hilton and The DailyBreeze.

For more information, call (310) 540-2631.

 

 

 ‘Long Way Home’ WinsOscar

It’s the second Academy Award for theWiesenthal Center

The headline honors went to “Titanic” and thestars of “As Good As It Gets,” but Oscars in two less glamorouscategories illustrated the continuing impact of the Holocaust and itsaftermath on filmmakers.

“The Long Way Home” took the prize as the bestdocumentary feature for producers Rabbi Marvin Hier and Richard Trankof the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The film chronicles the fate of Holocaustsurvivors in the immediate postwar years and their desperate attemptsto reach the Jewish homeland.

In his acceptance speech, Hier, the dean andfounder of the Wiesenthal Center, dedicated the award to “thesurvivors of the Holocaust, who walked away from the ashes, rebuilttheir lives, and helped create the State of Israel.”

Host Billy Crystal seemed dumbfounded at thepresence of the yarmulke-wearing Hier, saying: “What a night, whenyour rabbi wins an Oscar. Unbelievable.”

It was the second Oscar for the Wiesenthal Center,whose first documentary, “Genocide,” won in 1981. The production teamof “Long Way Home,” including writer-director Mark Jonathan Harris,is rushing to complete the official film of Israel’s 50th-anniversarycelebration, titled “If You Will It.”

The dramatic, true story of a diplomat who paidwith his career for saving thousands of Jews won an Oscar for theshort film “Visas and Virtue.”

It honors Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japaneseconsul in Vilna, Lithuania, in 1940. As throngs of desperate Jewsbesieged his office to escape the expected Nazi onslaught, Sugihara,against the direct orders of Tokyo, wrote out thousands of visas toenable Jews to escape to safety via the then neutral SovietUnion.

The film was produced by Irish-American ChrisDonahue and Japanese-American Chris Tashima, who plays the role ofSugihara in the 26-minute film.

There were the usual Hollywood/Jewish insideasides during the Academy Awards. In one, Robin Williams, acceptingan Oscar as best supporting actor for his role in “Good WillHunting,” thanked Bob and Harvey Weinstein, heads of the film’sMiramax production company.

“My thanks to the mishpoche Weinstein,” said thenon-Jewish Williams. “Mazel tov.”

In his opening monologue, Crystal spliced himselfinto a scene from “The Full Monty,” during which candidates displaytheir qualifications for a male stripper’s job. As Crystal pretendedto drop his pants, the camera panned to the long, amazed stares ofthe “judges.” A prolonged silence ensued, finally broken by Crystal,who asked, “Too Jewish?” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Open-Door Policy


They are your brother, your cousin, your lawyer, your best friend, or possibly yourself. Yet, while there are as many gays, lesbians and bisexuals in the Jewish community as in any other, they often feel like outcasts in their own faith, afraid that they can’t be open about their sexuality and a committed Jew as well.

Am Echad, a group that formally became part of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles in March, aims to help change both the perception and the reality of being homosexual or bisexual in the Southern California Jewish community. The organization, whose name means “one people” in Hebrew, will, for the second year, have a booth at the Christopher Street West Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival (CSW) this weekend (June 21-22), at the corner of San Vicente and Santa Monica boulevards in West Hollywood. The importance of visibility was underscored by Am Echad co-chair Bruce Maxwell.

“I think it’s very important that many gays, lesbians and bisexuals feel that they don’t have to go back in the closet to get involved with the Jewish Federation Council or with any other Jewish organization,” Maxwell said. “Many people come to [Jewish] events with their spouse or partner, but, if you’re gay or lesbian, you have to think twice about whether you can safely support something because you’re not sure if you can bring your partner.”

By providing a safe place for gays, lesbians and bisexuals to come out as committed Jews and be visible in their own community, Am Echad “puts a face to the stranger,” said Maxwell.

At last year’s CSW Festival, Am Echad gathered 250 names of people interested in volunteering and contributing money to the Federation. Some were already affiliated with synagogues and other Jewish organizations, but many were not.

“For some, for the first time, they felt that ‘maybe, I can be who I am and be part of the larger Jewish community,'” said Stuart Leviton, Am Echad’s campaign chair.

Several groups within the Federation are co-sponsoring the Am Echad booth at CSW, including the Federation’s Metro and Western regions, the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance and the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

“It’s a tremendous step the Federation has taken in recognizing this community,” said Jan Simons, who chairs Am Echad’s Public Relations Committee.

Am Echad is the first gay and lesbian outreach group that has been made an official part of any federation across the country, Maxwell said. At least three similar groups are beginning efforts to affiliate with federations in San Francisco, Philadelphia and South Florida, he said.

The initiative to bring this organization into the Los Angeles Federation came from the Metro region, said Federation executive vice president John Fishel.

“There are large numbers of residents of this community who are positively identified as Jewish and are part of the gay and lesbian community, and who would like to be more…active in Jewish life,” Fishel said. “We thought that it was a good thing, and we’re encouraging it.”

For more information about Am Echad, call the Federation’s Metro office at (213) 852-7759. n