Janet Halbert with Janusz Kowalski in 2016.

I thought I knew my family’s Holocaust story — until I met this man

I was in the middle of an email exchange with my Israeli cousin, Miriam, when she unwittingly dropped the bombshell.

I had written to her early last year to tell her that I would be making my first visit to Poland. I knew she had traveled to the small town that was the childhood home to our fathers’ brothers who are now deceased. So I asked her for details.

Writing in Hebrew, Miriam shared the address and a photo of the building where our fathers lived. Then, several emails later, she added a detail. “There’s a man in Warsaw whose parents saved my parents’ lives during the Holocaust,” she wrote, “in case you’re interested.”

Had I understood correctly?

I grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust. My father, Samuel Halbert (Halberstadt), narrowly escaped the Nazis, thanks to a counterfeit passport, but his parents, a sister, and her husband and son were murdered in Treblinka. In my childhood, my father suffered nightmares about the war. He so hated Poland that he wouldn’t even admit he was born there. His mantra was that the Poles were hateful, evil and eager to kill Jews.

Certainly, I had heard about righteous gentiles, selfless people who found ways to save Jewish lives. But my own relatives’ lives? How had I never known?

My plan was to join a Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Los Angeles adult delegation to March of the Living, the program that takes thousands of Jewish teenagers to Poland each spring to bear witness and remember. I already had scheduled an extra day to visit Siedlce (pronounced SHED-litz), my father’s birthplace. Now I made an additional plan: to meet the man my cousin told me about, Janusz Kowalski.

I was so excited to hear his story that the meeting became a focal point of my journey. Painful as it was to stand at Treblinka and Majdanek, at Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau, knowing that I would encounter this righteous man somehow made it all the more bearable.

I felt that most acutely on the day the 12,000 march participants gathered at Auschwitz. During a memorial ceremony, a video of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, was projected on giant monitors. His voice booming through the loudspeakers, he acknowledged Auschwitz as the place where “millions perished, and no one lifted a finger.”

No one lifted a finger. In my head I was screaming, “That’s simply not true!” His words irked me, in part because I was so focused on what I would be doing soon — meeting a Polish man who actually had done something.

A few days later at my Warsaw hotel, I met my guide, Dominika, a Polish-Jewish woman who was around 30 years old. She and her husband drove me the 43 miles to Siedlce. When my father was growing up there, it was a lively center of Jewish life, with some 15,000 Jews, two Yiddish newspapers, several synagogues, even a Jewish hospital. The Nazis murdered nearly all of Siedlce’s Jews in Treblinka. And now, set within the drab, Soviet-era cinderblock buildings, Dominika pointed out the scattered black stone monuments honoring Polish resistance fighters, some of them Jewish.

We also found the apartment house, pictured in my cousin’s photograph, where my grandparents, Herc Halberstadt and Jenta-Gitla Liberant Halberstadt, lived. I tried to imagine my grandparents living here, my father walking these streets as a boy. We visited sites where two synagogues had stood before they were destroyed by fire during World War II. She pointed out where Talmud Torah, the religious school, had stood. We walked through the lone remaining Jewish cemetery, among four that once existed, in search of my great-grandmother’s grave.

Then we drove back to Warsaw, where we had arranged to meet Janusz Kowalski at a cafe. Janusz is 85 years old. Dressed in a dark suit, he immediately struck me as spry and sharp. I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

Janusz grew up in Warsaw. His father, Witold, was a postmaster. Janusz was 9 years old in the summer of 1939 when, anticipating the German invasion, his father sent his mother, Maria, along with Janusz and an older brother, to a vacation house near Bialystok for their safety. The father stayed behind in Warsaw.

When the Germans invaded, the mother and children fled for their lives. They hoped to return to Warsaw but, in the chaos on the streets, couldn’t penetrate the crowds fleeing the city. They were on the outskirts of Siedlce when they encountered a column of German tanks. Suddenly caught in the crossfire, Janusz watched helplessly as German gunfire killed two nearby Polish soldiers and then his brother, who died on the spot as Janusz watched in horror. Another bullet struck Janusz’s mother in the arm.

After a German medic helped bandage Maria’s arm, the pair — unable to retrieve Janusz’s brother’s body amid the gunfire — took refuge in a nearby town. The next day, German soldiers threatened to kill his mother, but she begged them to spare her for Janusz’s sake. A Polish noble family took in Janusz and transported Maria to a hospital in Siedlce.

There, her condition worsened, her arm becoming so infected that doctors considered amputation. Despite frantic efforts, she couldn’t reach her husband, Witold, who was in Warsaw, unaware of what had befallen his wife and children. Maria finally prevailed upon a patient who was being discharged to make contact in Warsaw with her husband, who rushed to Siedlce to reconnect with her.

First retrieving Janusz from the home where he had been sheltered, Witold made his way to Lochow, the place where the tank battle had occurred. There, he learned that a Jewish man had buried his son and the two Polish soldiers, on orders from the Germans. Witold found the man, who escorted him to the grave. The grieving father expressed gratitude for the man’s kindness. It was Witold’s first close encounter with a Jewish person, and it left a positive impression.

Soon after, he had another. Witold was at a barbershop in Siedlce when he struck up a conversation with a Jewish doctor, the head of Siedlce’s Jewish hospital. Hearing Witold’s story, the doctor offered financial and medical help.

Witold, grateful, was quick to reciprocate, volunteering to transport letters and money to Jews suffering under Nazi occupation in Warsaw.

I instantly felt that I was in the presence of a righteous man, a godly person. Almost without hesitation, speaking through a translator, he launched into his story — as if he had been waiting years for someone to ask.

As the war raged around them and Maria recovered from her injuries, the Kowalski family relocated repeatedly, ultimately to a bare-bones one-room apartment in Siedlce. Because the building lacked running water or toilets, the Germans were unlikely to seize it for themselves.

That was where the Kowalskis’ fate intersected with my family’s.

As it happened, my aunt and uncle, Israel and Rachela Halberstadt, lived across the street. At some point, they met the Kowalskis. Rachela was working as a nurse at the Jewish hospital when German soldiers opened fire there, killing nearly everyone: doctors, nurses and patients. Rachela managed to flee and hid in the bushes until the Germans moved on.

Traumatized, she showed up at the Kowalskis’ door. Fully aware that hiding a Jewish person under Nazi occupation meant risking their own lives, they agreed to take her in.

Not that there was anywhere to hide Rachela in the small flat. With Janusz sleeping in the kitchen, his parents sleeping in one bed, and Rachela in another, hiding under the blankets when she had to was all she could do to conceal herself.

Janusz was 11 years old when his parents took in my Aunt Rachela. They sheltered her for two years. To hide her Jewish identity, she assumed a Polish name, Jadzia.

There were close calls. Once, after Rachela inadvertently opened a window and a neighbor spotted her, a German soldier knocked at the door to inquire. Janusz, the only one home at the time besides Rachela, pretended he was alone, even sitting on the bed to conceal her, trying to hide his fear.

Maria and Rachela were the same age. They grew close, sometimes crying together over events raging outside, such as the time German soldiers abruptly shot an elderly Jewish man drawing water from a nearby well.

To pass time, Rachela, a talented knitter, spent long hours in the apartment making sweaters. Maria sold them, passing off the work as her own, to bring in extra income.

Since the apartment had no running water and no toilet, it fell to Janusz to dispose of the waste. Rachela, who couldn’t risk stepping outside, regularly expressed gratitude to the boy for taking on that task.

Meanwhile, Rachela’s husband, my Uncle Israel, was facing his own difficulties. Taking refuge in a series of Warsaw hideouts, he repeatedly found himself back on the street, alone, bereft and afraid. When Maria learned of his predicament, she contacted a brother-in-law and persuaded him to create a hiding place in his Warsaw flat. While Rachela hid with the Kowalskis, Israel spent 18 months concealed at the relatives’ place, along with eight other Jews.

In 1944, with Russian forces closing in on Siedlce, the Kowalskis and Rachela fled to the countryside. When they encountered a troop of German soldiers, they feared Rachela’s Jewish appearance might raise suspicions. Those anxieties were heightened when the commander asked Maria in German to cook dinner for his men. Only Rachela understood both Polish and German, so she stepped in as translator. Fortunately, the soldiers were too focused on filling their bellies to ask whether she was Jewish. The soldiers moved on the next day.

Within days, Russian troops arrived and liberated the area. My Aunt Rachela parted with the Kowalskis and made her way back to Siedlce, where she reunited with my Uncle Israel and others who had been in hiding with him in Warsaw.

The Kowalski family relocated to a different part of Poland. It wasn’t until four years later, in 1948, that Witold and Maria met again with Rachela and Israel. (Janusz was away, serving in the military.) The Halberstadts came to visit with their new baby — my cousin Miriam — just before they emigrated to Israel. Grateful for everything the Kowalski family had done, the Halberstadts made a generous proposition. They offered the Kowalskis their Siedlce home.

The Kowalskis refused to accept the gift.

Sitting in the café in Warsaw, I was stunned. Stunned by the selfless acts of this man and his parents. Stunned that they had refused compensation for their heroism. Stunned that seven decades later, I was sitting across from Janusz, hearing this story for the first time.

Then Janusz pulled out an olive wood box and opened it, displaying its contents: a medal, with words in Hebrew: “A sign of gratitude from the Jewish people.” And beneath that, their names: “Kowalski Witold, Maria & Janusz.”

It had been presented to Janusz’s parents in the 1950s by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, where the Kowalskis are among more than 26,000 individuals honored as chasidei haumot haolam, righteous among the nations, for risking their lives, liberty or positions to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Now, sitting in that Warsaw café, I was stunned by something else: No one had ever told me this story.

While my father had spent years disparaging Polish people, my aunt and uncle knew better. Perhaps they thought my father had told me. For years, they had kept in touch with Janusz’s parents, routinely sending financial support from Israel, even when they themselves were strapped. My cousin Miriam and her children visited Janusz in 1994, and in recent years she has provided occasional financial support. Janusz told me that the money helped him to pay for repairs at the grave of his brother, the one killed by German gunfire.

Kowalski in 2014.

Kowalski in 2016. Photo courtesy of Janet Halbert.

In the café, he pulled out something else: a folder filled with photos Miriam had sent him over the years, including pictures of my Israeli cousins at Miriam’s wedding, her children and her grandchildren. As he spoke of them, it was as if he were speaking of his own family. In a way, he was.

After the war, Janusz went on to pilot planes in the Polish military. Later, he spent a decade as a provincial governor of the district that includes Siedlce. In that capacity, he oversaw the maintenance of the area of the Treblinka death camp, a responsibility whose significance he clearly took seriously. He also worked to support the repair of neglected Jewish cemeteries.

He now lives with his wife, who is seven years younger. Although I asked him to bring her along, he declined, explaining that she doesn’t share his interest in the past. I asked Janusz if, as a child, he had fully understood the danger of the situation. He told me he was sure his parents had lived with great fear, but they understood the importance of what they were doing.

“We were characters in a play,” he said, smiling, “and each of us understood our role.” He said he had experienced more fear later in life, flying poorly equipped airplanes.

As we stood to leave, Janusz gave me a warm hug. An hour earlier, we had been strangers. Now, we both understood the close bond that linked us. He told me to be in touch on my next trip to Poland, but I knew I was unlikely to return.   

People often ask: Where was God during the Holocaust? Where is God whenever people face calamities? The answer I prefer is the one I once heard from the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino: God is the response.

On my trip to Poland, I learned about the Kowalski family’s response. They didn’t need to help my aunt and uncle, who were strangers. But because they acted, they gave life to my cousin Miriam, and her three children, and their nine children. Indeed, if not for the Kowalskis, none of those people, would be alive.

"If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

“If not for the Kowalskis, none of those people would be alive.” Photo by Miriam Halberstadt Segev

I have thought of Janusz many times, especially in recent months amid the news of travel bans and deportations. At my synagogue, IKAR, one recent Shabbat, Rabbi Sharon Brous made the connection even more explicit in a sermon. She reminded us of the thousands of righteous gentiles who risked life and liberty to save Jewish lives during the Holocaust. “We work very hard to honor them, and we should,” she said. But in this moment, she said, the best way for us to pay respects to their memory is for us to stand up for those who are vulnerable,  “to strive to become righteous Jews.”

My father died in 1982. I’m not sure if he knew of the righteous acts of the Kowalski family. If he did, he never told me. I wish he had. There were so many painful events he simply wouldn’t talk about. In any case, I’m so thankful I had the opportunity to meet Janusz.  It changed my life and reminds me every day about the steps we all can take toward making a difference in another person’s life.

Janet Halbert, a Los Angeles CPA, is a longtime social justice activist. She was founding treasurer of Bend the Arc (formerly Progressive Jewish Alliance) and serves on J Street’s national finance committee.

Photo from KadimaDaySchool.org

Kadima Day School shifts tuition model

In an effort to increase enrollment and woo new families, Kadima Day School in West Hills is implementing a tuition model that will eliminate financial aid for families in need and replace it with lower costs that will make the school more affordable for most Kadima families.

Beginning in the 2017-18 academic year, the annual tuition for children in early education (ages 2 to 5) will drop 11 percent, to $11,600; the cost for children in kindergarten through fifth grade will drop by 43 percent, to $13,900; and it will drop the same percentage for grades six through eight, to $14,900, according to a Kadima Day School press release.

The initiative is being financially supported by the Evenhaim family, the school said.

Shawn Evenhaim, a member of the board of trustees at Kadima, a Conservative school, said his family’s support — now in the millions of dollars, cumulatively — represents an investment in the future of Jewish day schools at a time when they are facing enrollment decline because of rising tuition costs and non-Orthodox families having fewer children.

“It’s a huge investment on our end. We decided to do it, and there were many reasons we decided to do it,” Evenhaim said. Not least, he added, is the experience of his own children at Kadima.

“We saw the impact on our three boys,” he said.

Nonetheless, because so many families at Kadima are on tuition assistance, the new model will result in some families paying more than they have been with financial aid, said Kadima Head of School Greg Kovacs.

“We’ve done a lot of number crunching,” he said. “We’re looking at about just under 20 percent who will see an increase in their tuition, while the rest of population will see around the same or a slight decrease.”

Kovacs told the Journal the school will continue to make quality education its top priority even as the cost of tuition decreases. There are plans to cut costs through instructional changes, such as one teacher handling different student ability levels within the same classroom, as opposed to multiple teachers leading multiple classes for each level.

The school also will integrate learning, such as a general studies teacher incorporating Judaic studies into the curriculum.

“Some say lower tuition means less quality of education. It’s not the case here. We’re putting as much energy and time into securing the best quality of teachers,” Kovacs said. “That’s the motivation, the balance of quality education with accessible tuition.”

Shawn Evenhaim. Photo courtesy Miller Ink.

Shawn Evenhaim. Photo courtesy Miller Ink.

Evenhaim is founder and chief executive officer of Los Angeles-based California Home Builders and chairman emeritus of the Israeli American Council. In 2014, Evenhaim and his wife, Dorit, donated $1.2 million to the school — its full name is Kadima Day School Evenhaim Family Campus — for grants to help middle-income families that did not have children enrolled in Jewish day schools at the time.

Even high-earning families like the Evenhaims find day school tuition so high as to be unattractive, especially if the family has more than one prospective Jewish school student.

Indeed, families with annual incomes of even $200,000 can be eligible for financial aid at Jewish day schools. The problem is high-earning families do not want to apply for financial aid because they do not see themselves as candidates for it, Evenhaim said.

“We attracted a lot of kids through that [2014] grant and I’m very happy it was successful, but then I realized a lot of people are not even applying for these grants. They think, ‘Look, I make a good income,’ ” Evenhaim said.

Fran Amkraut, a Kadima board member and parent of four children who attend the school, said her children have received financial aid, and they are not alone — approximately 75 percent of the 250 students there currently receive some sort of tuition assistance, according to Kovacs.

Amkraut said she understands why some would not want to apply for aid.

“I find financial aid to be intimidating, tedious, laborious. I think for some families, I can’t speak for [all of] them, I find it believable it would be a reason some would not apply. It’s a headache,” she said. “People are not comfortable with numbers and paperwork. People who are new to the country, community or economy might not know where to start.”

A large portion of the student population at Kadima is Israeli. Evenhaim is Israeli and grew up with Judaism all around him. For Jewish children growing up in the multicultural United States, Jewish day school plays an important role in shaping young people as they grow older, he said.

He said he hopes other Jewish day schools follow suit and make tuition more affordable.

“This is a big-picture issue. It is not just about Kadima,” he said.

Kadima’s new tuition plan compares favorably with other Jewish schools. Annual tuition at Valley Beth Shalom Harold M. Schulweis Day School, which is Conservative and offers kindergarten through sixth grade, is $24,950. Kindergarten-through-sixth-grade tuition at Wise School, which is Reform and located at Stephen Wise Temple, is $28,885.

In non-Orthodox communities, it’s definitely on the low end,” Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations at Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), said of the new tuition costs at Kadima, one of 37 Los Angeles-area schools accredited by BJE. “I don’t think we have other schools that are anywhere near that.”

Prum Hess said that enrollment in Jewish day schools has dropped about 5 percent, to 9,500 from a peak of 10,000 in 2008.

Emblematic of the enrollment decline was the closure last May of Temple Emanuel Academy Day School.

Evenhaim said he hopes the lower tuition will entice new families, who in turn become eventual supporters of the school.

“My goal is to create a model where the school sustains itself and we’re not relying on a few donors but are creating families who are not just sending kids to Jewish education,” he said, “but are becoming supporters of Jewish education.”

The second annual Camp Neshama attendees come together in the lodge of the Dovid Oved Retreat Center in Running Springs. Photo courtesy of Pico Shul.

Moving & Shaking: Pico Shul goes skiing, BJE and AFOBIS celebrate

Pico Shul went to the mountains over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend with a shabbaton organized by the Orthodox congregation and the young professionals group JConnect.

The three-day retreat, called Camp Neshama, was held at the Dovid Oved Retreat Center in Running Springs, Calif., which is owned and operated by Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, the local branch of the international religious Zionist youth movement.

More than 30 young professionals took advantage of the surroundings, spending the weekend skiing and snowboarding at the nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort, sledding on tiny hills inside the grounds of the retreat center and enjoying communal kosher meals.

“People go to what they want, or they can hang out, relax and make new friends and talk, and have conversations into all hours of the night,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, spiritual leader of Pico Shul, said in a Jan. 15 interview as people prepared for car rides back to Los Angeles.

The weekend was the congregation’s second Camp Neshama. The inaugural event was held last Labor Day.

A Friday night dinner kicked off the retreat. On Saturday, people spent daylight hours doing yoga, going on nature walks and attending a lecture on relationships by Bookstein’s wife and Pico Shul rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein.

On Saturday night, people wore wireless headphones to listen to two stations of music — one with Israeli dance tunes and the other with contemporary pop hits — and boogied silent disco-style.

Decked out in ’80s-style snow gear, artist, yoga instructor and writer Marcus Freed was among those who braved the slopes on Sunday before reconvening with the rest of the group in the afternoon for lunch.

The event culminated with a farewell breakfast Monday morning. Shelli Carol, a tutor from Palo Alto, said she appreciated the philanthropic Alevy family for sponsoring the gathering, adding, “I spent my weekend having way too much fun and not getting enough sleep.”


Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu speaks at a ceremony honoring seven firefighters who volunteered in Israel. Directly behind him are (from left) councilman Bob Blumenfield, fire chief Ralph Terrazas, city controller Ron Galperin and councilman Paul Koretz. Photo courtesy of Council District 4.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas joined Los Angeles City Councilmembers David Ryu, Bob Blumenfield, Mitchell Englander and Paul Koretz at City Hall on Jan. 20 to honor seven local firefighters who traveled to Israel in November to fight the deadly blazes that erupted there.

The seven men, six from the city fire department and one from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, took time off from work and paid their own expenses to travel to Israel with the Emergency Volunteers Project, an Israeli government-backed organization that trains emergency responders abroad to assist in Israel in times of need. The organization counts 950 volunteers trained since 2009.

The men were LAFD firefighters Elan Raber, Shaun Gath, Aaron Brownell and Ben Arnold, LAFD engineer Dennis Roach, retired LAFD apparatus operator Mike Porper and L.A. County Fire Department firefighter Jake Windell.

The major fires that broke out across Israel, from both arson and natural causes, left more than 1,000 people homeless and caused about a quarter of the city of Haifa to be evacuated.

The firefighters also were honored the same day at the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

“The state-to-state relationship, as well as the personal friendships that have developed between the first responders in Los Angeles and Israel, serve as a reminder of the strong ties between the two countries,” a statement from the consulate said.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, Consul for Political Affairs Yaki Lopez and Consul for Public Diplomacy Maya Kadosh attended the ceremony at the consulate.

Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


From left: Errol Fine, chair of the West Coast board of AFOBIS; Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg; AFOBIS board member Lee Samson and his son, Daniel; and Benjy Maor, director of global resource development at Beit Issie Shapiro. Photos courtesy of American Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro.

The American Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro (AFOBIS) West Coast regional gala 2016 was held at Sinai Temple on Nov. 17.

ms-sharon-cermakThe event honored Sharon Cermak, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, with the AFOBIS humanitarian award.

“I’ve always done work with kids with disabilities and I think Beit Issie is one of the premier institutions for work with children, so being honored by Beit Issie, by a Jewish organization, really meant the world to me,” Cermak said in an interview.

Cermak currently is involved with a program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, adapted from an initiative at Beit Issie Shapiro, that creates a sensory-friendly environment for children with autism receiving dental care. As part of the program, soothing music is played, the dental office lights are dimmed, and a vest is placed on patients so as to apply deep, comforting pressure to them.

“We’ve developed something at Beit Issie Shapiro, a butterfly vest, which provides children with a ‘hug’ from a butterfly,” Cermak said. “The vest on the chair wraps around the child and provides deep pressure, which is calming for children [and] helps kids be calmer.”

Beit Issie Shapiro is an Israel-based organization that serves children living with disabilities. Located in Ra’anana, Israel, the organization offers early intervention and medical services as well as special education programs to children living with autism, and it develops technologies that improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg attended the event and said the organization demonstrates that Israel is more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Beit Issie Shapiro is a glowing example of Israel as an innovation nation imbued with compassion, combining high-tech and high heart,” Grundwerg said. “As a global leader of innovative therapies and state-of-the-art services for children and adults with disabilities, Beit Issie Shapiro is an unparalleled ambassador for the State of Israel.”

Additional attendees included Avishai Sadan, dean of the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Headquartered in New York, AFOBIS raises funds to support Beit Issie Shapiro.


Attendees at the Builders of Jewish Education gala included (from left, top row) Philip Miller, Gil Graff, Alan Spiwak, Adrian Miller, Larry Miller and Jerry Katz, as well as (from left, bottom row) Judy Miller, Judy and Louis Miller, and Caryn Katz. Photo courtesy by Mark Lee.

Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), the central agency for Jewish education in Los Angeles, honored 20 members of the philanthropic Miller family and recognized professionals Phil Liff-Grieff and Monise Neumann on Jan. 18 at Sinai Temple.

“It was phenomenal,” Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations at BJE, said of the evening. “We honored an amazing family that really is a role model from generation to generation — l’dor v’dor — and two professionals who are the epitome of creativity, professionalism and caring.”

More than 530 people turned out at the event, which raised more than $500,000.

Funds raised will benefit the BJE March of the Living program, which is in need of additional staff historians to accompany teenagers on the upcoming March of the Living trip to Poland and Israel, as fewer and fewer survivors are alive or physically able to go.

The funds also benefit the BJE Hebrew Language Proficiency Project, which is focused on maximizing day school students’ acquisition of Hebrew language skills. The Journal reported in 2015 that the program has “had an impact on 2,000 students, 65 teachers and 27 Hebrew coordinators and lead teachers.”

Members of the Miller family honored included the patriarch and matriarch of the family, Louis and Judy Miller, the namesakes of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.

Marjorie Gross, Natalie Roberts, Angel Schneider and Sheila Baran Spiwak co-chaired the event, which saw the Daniel Raijman Ensemble perform and Dr. Mark Goldenberg serve as emcee.

ms-landresShawn Landres, co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, a Los Angeles-based incubator of Jewish innovation, in December was elected chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission (QPC), which oversees the nation’s oldest and largest local government innovation fund.

He is serving a renewable one-year term.

Landres has served as a member of the commission since 2013. He was first appointed by former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in 2013 and reappointed by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl in 2015. He chaired his first meeting on Jan. 23.

Landres also serves as board co-chair of Jumpstart Labs.

In addition, the father of two is a senior fellow at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and chair of the City of Santa Monica’s Social Services Commission.

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

Moving and shaking: Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny, BJE and more

Temple Beth Am held an installation ceremony for Rabbi Cantor Hillary Chorny and recognized Associate Rabbi Ari Lucas on Dec. 13.

Chorny, who was raised in San Diego, joined the staff at the La Cienega Boulevard Conservative congregation as cantor in August. She is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, where she completed her Cantorial Investiture, Rabbinical Ordination and a master’s degree in sacred music.

Lucas, a New Jersey native, has been part of the Beth Am community since 2012, and the event marked his promotion from assistant rabbi to associate rabbi. “It was a wonderful moment for the entire community to celebrate a great relationship, and we’re excited about what we are building here,” he said in a phone interview with the Journal. 

Among those who attended the ceremony at Temple Beth Am were Cantor Nancy Abramson, director of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music at JTS; Beth Am President Mike Cohn and Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld.

Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) honored former board presidents Earl Greinetz (2002-2005) and Elaine Lindheim (2005-2008) Jan. 8 during its annual gala, raising more than $400,000 in support of the Jewish education nonprofit in the process.

Milken Family Foundation, in recognition of its annual Jewish Educators Award, which honors outstanding educators, also received honors. 

From left: Gil Graff, BJE executive director; Rhea Coskey, gala co-chair; honorees Elaine Lindheim and Earl Greinetz; Janet Farber, gala co-chair; and Alan Spiwak, BJE president. Photo by Mark Lee. Moments to Remember

“It was a wonderful bringing together of the community, which is really what BJE is all about,” Miriam Prum Hess, BJE’s director of donor and community relations, said in a phone interview.

The event was held at Sinai Temple in Westwood and drew more than 400 community members, day-school leaders and others, including Jay Sanderson, CEO and president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; Les Bider, Federation board chairman; Susie Fohrer Dehrey, Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles executive vice president; and Samara Hutman of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.

Among those representing the education community were Robert Wexler, American Jewish University president; Joshua Holo, dean of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion campus in Los Angeles; Ron Reynolds, California Association of Private School Organizations executive director; Jody Myers, CSUN professor of religious studies; UCLA professors Todd Presner, Sarah Abrevaya Stein and Mark Kligman; and Leon Janks and Gary Weisserman of Milken Community Schools.

Dr. Noachim Steve Marco has been hired as Los Angeles Jewish Home’s chief medical officer.

“The Jewish Home has a well-deserved reputation of providing the highest quality of care to those it serves,” said Marco, former vice president of medical affairs at Northridge Hospital Medical Center,  as quoted in a Jan. 9 press release. “I hope to help facilitate that ongoing mission as the Home continues to expand, providing services to seniors in the community and in-residence.”

Dr. Noachim Steve Marco. Photo by Steve Cohn

The Los Angeles Jewish home is a provider of senior home-care services for more than 5,000 individuals every year through its community-based and in-residence programs.

President and CEO Molly Forrest welcomed Marco to the team in a statement: “In addition to his impressive medical credentials and experience, Dr. Marco brings to the Home the compassionate care that we are known for,” she said. “We are privileged that he has joined the Home’s clinical staff and know the seniors he cares for will greatly benefit from his medical skills and knowledge.”

Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS) has received a $40,000 grant from Bank of America Charitable Foundation as part of a foundation initiative that has allocated $930,000 to 28 Los Angeles-based nonprofit organizations that are “helping individuals with basic human services and building better financial lives,” according to a Jan. 12 JFS media release.

A social services agency, JFS is using the funds toward its JFS Family Violence Project and its Shelter Services program. The former “provides essential counseling and assistance for survivors of domestic abuse,” according to a statement. “In 2013, JFS Shelter Services helped a total of 421 adults and 218 children toward self sufficiency.”

Debby Barak, JFS board president, welcomed the grant.

“Through the Family Violence Project and our Shelter Services program, JFS plays a critical role in providing hope and opportunity to victims of abuse, regardless of religion, ethnicity or background,” Barak said, as quoted by the release. “This generous donation from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation will enable us to continue to assist victims of intimate partner violence, allowing them to regain their independence and rebuild their lives.”

Raul Anaya, Los Angeles market president at Bank of America, praised the work of JFS.

“Bank of America shares Jewish Family Service’s mission to help people across basic human services and strengthen the health of our community,” he said, as quoted by the release. “Our grant to JFS will help the agency provide critical supportive services to survivors of domestic abuse, putting them on a path to financial stability while meeting their immediate needs.”

The Bank of America Charitable Foundation provides grant money to agencies that work in the areas of jobs, housing and hunger.

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

The Mensch List: A survivor marches with the living

Sidonia Lax, now 86, survived the Holocaust but won’t let that define her. “I am a thriver,” she said. A stroll through her Sherman Oaks home is proof — her walls overflow with decades of family photos and mementos of her work as a member of the Sherman Oaks Neighborhood Council and other organizations. 

The most striking objects in her family room, however, are a bright red apple and a poster showing her giving a speech. The caption reads, “In 2048, on Israel’s 100th anniversary, Sidonia Lax will be speaking to an entire generation.” When Lax speaks, you cannot doubt it. 

Since 2007, she has literally led the charge of the BJE — Builders of Jewish Education’s March of the Living, which brings high school seniors from all over for a march at the Birkenau concentration camp in Poland and then leads them to Israel for Independence Day. Although the March of the Living has taken place since 1988, Lax put her stamp on it when her grandson (then a senior at Milken Community High School) wrote a letter imploring her to get involved.  

During her first tour, she realized she had the power to make the March even more relatable to the participants. “Until I spoke the sentence, ‘I slept here,’ for the first time, the memory was not real,” Lax recalled recently. “Elie Wiesel said that when you hear a witness, you become a witness. My objective is to be one witness who inspires thousands of other witnesses, who can relay what lessons they learn to others.”

While Lax said she works out every day to be fit enough to make the journey in the spring of each year, she also puts her heart and soul into a scholarship program bearing her name that enables more Jewish teens with limited financial resources to make the life-changing trip. Her ultimate goal with the march participants is to redefine what “Holocaust” means on a collective level.

“I want to shift the paradigm of the word ‘Holocaust’ so it represents life and not death, and how meaningful it can be when you thrive and take charge of it,” Lax continues. “Our visit to Poland is not just intended to show how people died, but how we lived. We had a rich Jewish life and community before the war. I believe you have to touch people before you teach them about something. Therefore, I show them an apple before I tell my story.”

After three months of living in squalor in the Jewish ghetto of Przemysl, then-14-year-old Sidonia’s parents had heard that fresh apples had been smuggled inside. Her father perished as he tried to get his daughter one of those apples. As Lax details this, she points to the apple on her table and then to an artwork that juxtaposes an apple with her concentration camp number and an image of herself at age 14 with her parents.  

Lax said that in sharing her story, she also receives something special back from the kids. “The March has taught me to think like an 18-year-old, because I know what their passions and interests are,” she said. “The experience has rejuvenated me completely, and because of this, I don’t see myself as old. In my opinion, only a fine aged cheese is old. I need to stay well to be there for those kids.”

Sandy Hook anniversary prompts Jewish institutions to review security

On Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook Elementary School with a semi-automatic rifle and two semi-automatic handguns, he easily broke through the school security system.

Cameras dotted the school’s perimeter and the school even had a “sally port” system, which restricted entry to the building in a holding area until a guest was identified.

But the windows encasing the sally port were not bullet resistant. Lanza shot through the windows and murdered 20 schoolchildren and six adult staffers before taking his own life.

What have Los Angeles’s Jewish institutions learned from Sandy Hook and other mass shooting events?

On Dec. 10 and Dec. 12, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles hosted, “Seconds Count,” a training session for K-12 schools in active shooter response. The program was organized in conjunction with the LAPD and BJE (Builders of Jewish Education). School and synagogue faculty, staff, administrators and security experts attended the training to share security strategies and to learn best practices from LAPD officers.

The Tuesday event was held at Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard office building and drew about 40 people. The Thursday event was held at New Community Jewish High School and drew about 50.

Seated at multiple tables in a workshop-style environment for the Dec. 10 training, local Jewish educators were asked to brainstorm how they would improve their own security if money were no object.

One person suggested constructing a building without windows to the outside. Another would increase the number of armed security guards. Others suggested more mental-health resources and self-defense training.

Two themes, though, ran through the morning training. First, to prevent a massacre on the scale of Sandy Hook, each school must develop and repeatedly drill its own security plan.

Second, central to that security plan must be a communication system among staff, faculty, and students. According to multiple security experts present at the session, schools can quickly use their speaker system, as well as walkie-talkies and text messages to facilitate a lockdown procedure.

“They all do fire drills exceptionally well, and almost none of them do lockdown drills at all,” said Cory Wenter, director of safety and security at Wilshire Boulevard Temple.

Wenter, a former U.S. Marine who served on President George W. Bush’s security detail at Camp David, believes every Jewish school in Los Angeles is “very vulnerable” to an active shooter, defined as someone attempting to kill people in a confined space, usually with a firearm.

“No one knew Sandy Hook until it was Sandy Hook,” Wenter said. “No one thought about Virginia Tech or Columbine or any of those other things until they became that case study.”

Jason Periard, Federation’s director of community security, said that every school and synagogue must make sure that it’s not the “weakest link” in terms of security.

Periard, who spent 21 years in the Marine Corps and has worked as a criminal investigator for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), said that on Aug. 10, 1999, before Buford Furrow opened fire, wounding five people at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, he scouted other Jewish centers to survey security.

After observing the Skirball Cultural Center, American Jewish University (then the University of Judaism), and the Museum of Tolerance, he decided to check out other Jewish facilities.

“They were too hard a target,” Periard said. “[He] saw security guards out front with guns so he kept moving.”

Buford settled on the JCC because it had plenty of people and almost no security. Furrow walked into the JCC’s lobby carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a pistol and fired 70 shots.

At the training session, attendees debated amongst themselves the effectiveness of different types of security. How can school administrators ensure a secure environment that’s also open and conducive to learning?

According to both Periard and Wenter, the balance between security and not making a space feel like a prison is difficult, but possible to navigate.

Do armed guards improve security?

Cathy Riggs, an LAPD officer, thinks so. As does Marvin Goldsmith, the VP of Security at Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “Armed guards are a necessary component of security,” Goldsmith said.

One step every institution should take, Periard added, is to train front desk staff to identify suspicious behavior.

“You put somebody on the phone in the front of a school, generally speaking, you teach that person people skills, right? But you don't teach them tripwires, which is behavioral analysis,” Periard said.

“If the bad guy shows up at your facility and he’s doing what’s called the casing or walkthrough, he’s probing you,” continued Periard. “He comes up to your lady at the front office, and she starts asking him a lot of questions, like, ‘Sir why are you here? Why are you asking me all these questions?’ He backs off and goes to the next facility.”

The Mensch List: Strengthening day schools

When Al Ashley first began peeking inside Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools to review their business practices, it was partly for personal reasons: He wanted to make sure his three children would get a sound education.

“I thought, hopefully, it would be a benefit to our children, our friends’ children and the community,” recalled Ashley, 88, a Brooklyn-born CPA. 

That was 30 years ago. Since then, Ashley’s volunteer efforts with BJE — Builders of Jewish Education have blossomed into a pro bono second career helping day schools reform and strengthen their financial systems. Over the past three decades, Ashley has spent thousands of hours creating fiscal and operational guidelines that the BJE has compiled into two editions of its “Guide to Governance, Finance and Tax Issues for Jewish Day Schools and Yeshivot,” which is now distributed nationally. His work has made a profound and lasting impact on Jewish education in Los Angeles and beyond, colleagues say.

Just don’t praise Ashley too publicly (he initially shied away from being interviewed for this article). “I’ve always liked to stay in the background,” he said with a dismissive wave and a smile.

Ashley honed his expertise in money matters during a 45-year career in the entertainment industry — first, as treasurer of the Ashley-Famous Agency (now ICM Partners), founded by his brother, Ted Ashley; then, as chief financial and administrative officer of Warner Bros. television distribution operations. When he began joining his wife, Hilda, at BJE meetings in the early 1980s, he brought with him a principle upon which he had come to rely: Always do things correctly, the proper way. 

Story continues after the video.