Letters to the editor: Islamic extremism, contamination at Brandeis-Bardin and more

Hydra vs. Islam

As a friend and fan of Rabbi Reuven Firestone, I was disappointed by “Heads of the Hydra” (Nov. 20). He writes: “Let’s be clear. This terrible violence is not about Islam. That accusation is a canard. It’s an excuse, a pitiful substitute for careful analysis and consideration.”

He downplays Islamic textual support for violence by citing equivalently violent verses from the Bible — as though they’re on the same footing. They’re not. Long ago, Jewish legal authorities confined application of those verses to biblical times. Muslim legal scholars have yet to do the same with their holy books. 

He also excuses Islam by blaming terrorism on pathologies afflicting Muslim youth, including victimhood, alienation, corruption and hopelessness. But countless children worldwide suffer similarly — without the same terrifying results. To cite one example: Palestinian-Christian teens don’t aspire to kill Jews. Why? It’s about religion.

A religion is the totality of the expressions of people who speak and act in its name. In the Greek Hydra myth, Hercules’ cousin helps him kill the monster. We Jews stand ready to help our Muslim religious cousins kill their Hydra. Our first act is to help them see their monster for what it is.

Jon Drucker, Los Angeles

Contamination of Information, Continued

In Rob Eshman’s Nov. 13 column, “Brandeis-Bardin Needs to Be Transparent About Contamination,” he references a link to the letter that American Jewish University (AJU) sent to Brandeis/Alonim families, in which AJU asserts that Brandeis-Bardin is safe. In that letter, AJU referred to people who raised questions as “disgruntled ex-employees.”   

I am one of the former employees that phrase seems to reference. Questioning my love for Alonim is hurtful, considering I was born there, my sandek for my bris was Shlomo Bardin, my bar mitzvah was there, my wedding was there. I spent nearly every summer and winter break of my life there. The friends I made there are my friends today.

In 1995, Brandeis filed a lawsuit against Rocketdyne (now Boeing) for the release of hazardous materials “disposed of and released into the soil, air, and groundwater.” In 1997, just before the trial, Brandeis settled confidentially. It never made sense to me how the institute could have it both ways — that Brandeis filed a contamination lawsuit, yet the public, as well as Brandeis employees, were told the land was safe.

KNBC did not invent the issue of contamination at the Santa Susana site. As late as June 13, 2014, there was an article in the Los Angeles Times headlined “Santa Susana Toxic Cleanup Effort Is a Mess.” That was the focus of the NBC report: Boeing — Rocketdyne — Nuclear Cleanup. 

This is not a “for or against” Brandeis/Alonim issue. AJU needs to be fully transparent and release any test results. That’s the only way we will know if, as AJU said in its letter, Brandeis is safe.

We all want to see Brandeis/Alonim continue and thrive. 

David Dassa, Los Angeles

Modern, Meaningful

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, in her powerful opinion piece “A View From the Women’s Section” (Nov. 13), not only describes the practices embraced by large segments of the Orthodox communities throughout the world, it also answers the question: Who is Modern Orthodox? 

She poignantly conveys that her actions, as practiced by many other families, ultimately define Modern Orthodoxy. Proclamations by the Rabbinical Council of America are not conclusive. Those of us who are committed to halachah know who we are and those who understand our commitment define us as Orthodox. There is an admonition in the Talmud that rabbinic rulings should not impose decrees on the public that they know the public will not be able to abide. Where the exclusion of women from spiritual leadership is not tolerable among multitudes of those who define themselves as Orthodox, it is wise not to render such decrees.  

Esther Macner, Beverly Hills


A story about gap years in Israel, “Filling the Gap: The Case for a Post-High School Year in Israel” (Nov. 13), misspelled the name of student Mati Hurwitz and misidentified the school he is attending, Yeshivat Har Etzion. Also, the story suggested Masa Israel Journey will provide funding for thousands of students attending such programs this year, instead of throughout several years.

The article “Aviva Plans for an Inclusive Future” (Nov. 13) mischaracterized the boy in the photo caption as having been adopted with Aviva’s help, when, in fact, the couple’s pending adoption of another child is through Aviva.

News reports revive AJU environmental debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents can find some scientific justification on either side.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John O. Varble, Brandeis-Bardin ranch manager dies at 83

The legacy of John O. (Johnny) Varble, who died on Oct. 19 at 83 on the Brandeis-Bardin Campus of American Jewish University, will live on forever. Johnny was a dedicated and beloved member of the Brandeis-Bardin community for more than 40 years, leading the ranch staff, and welcoming and supporting all who visited the campus. Johnny also was an award-winning horse trainer and breeder. I had the privilege of working with him for three years and of being his friend for many more. Johnny lived by a set of values that permeated all he did in life, and his devotion to Brandeis-Bardin was unparalleled.  For thousands of people, he represented the heart and soul of Brandeis, and for several individuals, he was a mentor who greatly impacted their lives.

Johnny loved the land; he loved Bardin’s vision, and he loved how the place touched so many people — men and women, boys and girls of all ages. He was shaped by a work ethic that reflected a responsibility to the 3,000-acre campus; he knew every inch of it — where every pipe was and every building. Johnny knew how to fix anything, how to put out fires, repair buildings and the million other things that kept Brandeis functioning. He did not do this because it was a job — he did this because he took great pride in Brandeis and the values that had shaped the place.

He taught not through words, but by actions. Watching him was a great lesson in how to live a meaningful life. He loved his wife, Wendy, who was the center of his life, and he enjoyed all that they shared together. The only thing that could make him get him off a horse or stop working or walking the land was returning to the beautiful home that he and Wendy built. He enjoyed the sunrises and the sunsets. He worked hard, yet always had time to help someone else. He was a great listener.

Johnny’s public persona was that of the quintessential cowboy — self-sufficient, independent, kind and a man of few words.  Yet as soon as you entered into conversation with him, you saw the inner character that shaped his identity. He was a highly intelligent, thoughtful and sensitive human being. He treated people with respect and with honesty. He was not particularly tolerant of laziness, or of people who lacked a deep commitment to the place he loved; he knew that the magic of the place came from just taking time to be there — away from televisions and computers and just walking the land, where he had spent his childhood playing.

Johnny shared a deep bond with the men and women who worked side by side with him, all of them immigrants from the village of El Palmar in Mexico, who have lived and worked at Brandeis for decades. He knew they also loved the place. For them, he was a father, a mentor, a friend.

Like so many others, my wife, Judy, learned a lot about horses, and about life, from Johnny, her teacher and friend. Long before he would allow her to ride a horse on a trail, he showed her how you treat a horse, the nature of the relationship, the discipline required. He understood horses, and they understood him. Like human beings, animals know authenticity — and that’s what was at the core of Johnny Varble.  So many people learned great lessons about life from their time with him on the trails, in the corral and on the roundups.

I will never forget the many conversations I had with Johnny about life, about perspective, about what really matters. This man, who was not Jewish, truly understood the core of Jewish values — and the impact the Brandeis-Bardin Institute experience had on so many people. I always left him having gained a new insight, admiring this man who, like all of us, was made of flesh and blood, yet was able to see the larger picture and live his life in a way that was good to life.

Einstein once said: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” Johnny chose the latter. He saw the miracle of nature, of daily life, of human beings, of horses and in the work that provides an inner satisfaction. For those who had the privilege of knowing Johnny Varble, his life and his values, he will always be with us. We are grateful for the miracles that Johnny Varble created each and every day. Our lives will always be enriched because of our friendship with him.

Johnny is survived by his wife of 25 years, Wendy; three sons — Chico, John Jr. and Rich; and five grandchildren.

Rabbi Lee Bycel is president of CedarStreet Leadership and served as president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute from 2000 to 2003.

Teaching in the Temple of Nature

Gabe Goldman wanted to believe in miracles, wanted to believe in the power of prayer, wanted to believe that God had spoken to prophets. But Goldman, an Orthodox Jew, felt burned out on Judaism. He would perform the rituals with perfect technique, but no heart. A change, he thought, was in order.

At the time, a little more than a decade ago, Goldman held a prestigious job as curriculum director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Cleveland. He earned $70,000 annually, enough to own a comfortable home and provide for his wife and four children.

With his wife’s blessing, Goldman dealt with his personal crisis by resigning his position, with no other job lined up or even a clear game plan. A hiking and canoeing aficionado, Goldman wanted somehow to combine his love of nature with a rebirth of his love for Judaism. Along the way, he would lose his house to foreclosure and discover a mystical grandfather figure whom he followed, like a disciple, through the wilderness.

Today, the 54-year-old Goldman directs outdoor Jewish education at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. In the newly created position, the former yeshiva student and published author helps other Jews deepen their appreciation of ecology, their religion and themselves. Goldman has taught Brandeis campers to weave a palm-branch sukkah, to light the Havdalah candle by rubbing sticks together and to fashion Shabbat candles from plaster castes of animal tracks.

The world outdoors, however, isn’t simply something to admire, enjoy and appreciate in Goldman’s view. The tall trees, colorful flowers and sun-baked hills all reflect God’s finest handiwork. According to Jewish tradition, flora and fauna are so sacred that Jews could learn all the Torah’s lessons simply by opening their hearts to the plants and flowers.

“There is one doorway to spirituality that remains open 24 hours a day, every day of the year,” said Goldman, a muscular 5-feet-8, 170-pounds. “This is the doorway of nature, the most ancient of all spiritual doorways.”

For Brandeis, the hiring of Goldman is recognition of Judaism’s connection to nature and also an attempt to take advantage of the institute’s 3,000 acres of open space, executive director Gary Brennglass said. Goldman moved to Southern California in May with his wife and 17-year-old son — his other children are grown.

“Gabe is a brilliant teacher with a national reputation,” Brennglass said. “He’s an engaging personality who can relate to our youngest campers in our day camp and to our oldest participants in our elder hostel. We’re lucky to have him.”

Goldman has planted fruits and vegetables with college students in the organic garden and led first-graders on egg hunts in the camp’s chicken coops. Future projects include Rosh Chodesh hikes the first Sunday of each month and Sunday programs in the gardens for Brandeis alumni and families.

Goldman is perhaps most in his element when he leads Saturday morning Shabbat hikes around Brandeis’ grounds, which feature dramatic vistas of 12 rugged peaks. On a recent outing, Goldman led a dozen adults near colorful peacocks and through fields of yellow flowers. Goldman asked participants to close their eyes and reflect on the magnificence surrounding them. Nature’s complexity, interconnectedness and beauty are so divine, Goldman said, that they helped convince the great Jewish patriarch Abraham of God’s existence.

The spiritual bliss that Goldman can reach today contrasts sharply with the despair that led him to give up his comfortable life in Cleveland years ago. Not even his own religious erudition could put his spiritual unease to rest: He had penned his dissertation, at the University of Connecticut, on the teaching principles enunciated in the Torah and Talmud.

He eventually lost his house and saw his salary plummet to below $20,000 annually. But pursuing his quest for meaning, he said, saved him from a life of quiet desperation.

Within a year of walking away from his respectable career, he began studying native American culture and survival skills with a Maine wilderness guide named Ray Reitze Jr. Reitze, whom Goldman affectionately calls “Grandfather,” taught him to see and experience the connection between nature and spirituality.

Among other things, Goldman learned to shed anger by hollowing out his ego. He also discovered the ability to transcend the limitations of time and space by entering a dimension of spirituality. On a 1995 canoeing trip with Grandfather, for instance, Goldman put a bird’s feather on his chest, fell asleep and then felt himself flying above the island where they camped. Another time, he “visited” a friend’s apartment in another city and described, in detail, her dining room and her home’s décor without ever having stepped a foot in it.

In time, Goldman began organizing retreats for Jewish groups in the Allegheny National Forest and elsewhere. In 1997, the New Jersey YMHA Camp hired him to bring Jewish nature programming to its six camps.

Four years later, Goldman founded the Jewish Environmental and Nature Education Institute, a 4-year-old Pennsylvania-based nonprofit organization that has conducted hikes and other programs for more than 30,000 Jews nationwide. The institute distributes his book, “Guide for the Spiritually Perplexed: A Jewish Meditation Primer.” (The book also can be obtained at www.outdoorjewishadventures.com.) Goldman hopes eventually to relocate the institute to Southern California.

At Brandeis, Goldman is entirely in his element when he works with small numbers of students, mentoring them in Jewish text and survival skills.

“I was incredibly moved by Gabe Goldman,” said Lisa Cooper, who recently went on a Goldman-led Shabbat hike with her husband. “He had an incredible ability to bring a sense of spirituality and God to nature and make it personal. You were outside but you felt totally present with Shabbat and the morning prayers.”

But nature, Goldman added, doesn’t exist simply for our enjoyment or to prove the Creator’s existence. Halachic law requires the Jewish people to become stewards of the land and to protect the natural resources and animal life that God gifted to humanity. To live in harmony with God’s creatures is to live in harmony with oneself and with Judaism.

Sharon Pearl first met Goldman at a camp in 1999 and found herself captivated by his teachings. Pearl, now a Jewish meditation teacher-in-training under Goldman’s supervision, credits him with changing her life.

“Through his teachings, I learned that there was a whole world beyond what I could see and hear, that God really exists,” Pearl said. “I leaned to trust myself and that I don’t have to listen to the voice of self-doubt that holds me back from living my life to its fullest.”

Goldman said he feels like he’s living his life to its fullest at Brandeis. Surrounded by breathtaking beauty, a supportive staff and campers hungry for his wisdom, Goldman said he has found a place he plans to call home for a long while.

“Brandeis-Bardin is unique. I haven’t found anything like it in the U.S.,” he said. “I couldn’t be happier.”


Couples Camp

It was 6:00 on a Friday evening. My wife, myself, and 50 complete strangers had just managed to light two candles, each on one tiny table, without burning ourselves. Our names, printed in a groovy font, glistened under the nametags hanging around our necks. We were sitting in a circle, introducing ourselves and saying what the experience reminded us of. Was it any surprise that two-thirds of us answered, “Camp?”

In some ways, that was an apt description of the Cotsen Family Foundation’s Newly Married Couples Weekend at Brandeis-Bardin. Surrounded by the woods of Simi Valley, we were assigned cabins and warned about snakes. Our meals were communal and ended in songs and a distinctive version of Birkat Hamazon, the grace after meal. Everything was circles, from discussion sessions to the “Circle of Community” room we met in; to the Israeli dancing; to the not one, but two songs comparing someone’s life to a circle (Chapin and Taubman) found in the Brandeis-Bardin songbook.

And, just like every camper I know, we were there on someone else’s tab. The Cotsen Foundation, endowed by philanthropist and former Neutrogena CEO Lloyd Cotsen, makes it possible for five groups of couples in their first 18 months of marriage to enjoy such a weekend annually, free of charge.

The Foundation also made possible our übercounselor, Rabbi Scott Meltzer, director of Education for the Brandeis-Bardin Institute and leader of 13 of the 14 Cotsen Weekends to date. Never without a knitted kippah, sandals and pager, he offered guidance through the thorny woods of newlywed life, using as his compass everything from rabbinic teachings to personal anecdotes to his dry, thoughtful wit. And like any good camp counselor, Metlzer kept us steadily programmed and somewhat hazy about our purpose in being there. That he saved for the last day.

On Saturday, our Torah service involved all 25 couples sitting knee-to-knee to form a long line of laps, across which an entire Torah scroll was unrolled. Saturday night was given over to the talent show.

As at the camps I attended, this talent show featured a lot of acoustic guitar. But when “Dodi Li” and “Shalom Rav” ended, “Twist and Shout” and “Everything’s Gonna Be All Right” began, thanks to some real guitar veterans. In fact, despite the connotation of “Newly Married,” the weekenders ranged in age from twentysomethings to fiftysomethings. And not all were on their first marriage, either. One multigenerational clan included a remarried father, his new wife, his two daughters, and their respective new husbands. I hope their rabbi gave discounts for hitching in bulk.

At a certain point, of course, the camp analogy wears thin. No camp I ever attended allowed couples to room together, albeit with separate beds. The couple dynamic seemed to reduce the usually raucous level of “Jewish Geography” and “Do you know’s?” heard when two or more Jews are gathered. In fact, the weekend seemed more designed to bond us as couples than as a group. And in no rec hall, mess hall, or cafeteria did I ever have such excellent food.

What, then, was the purpose of giving the 50 or so of us this experience? Like our counselor rabbi, I’ve saved it for last. The mission of the Cotsen Weekend, according to Meltzer, is “to get newly married couples together, give them an intense Jewish experience, then cut it short — so they’ll be hungry for more in their own lives.” By giving us a space, a time, and an occasion to explore our values, our lifestyle, and our stories, this camp empowered us to make Jewish choices and bring those choices home together. On a deeper level than I thought possible, we returned to urban life as happy campers.