David Gregory’s Jewish roots, and how they define him


It was not a sentence I expected to hear from the 6-foot-5, seemingly gentile giant who was towering over me. “Hey, I’m a nice Jewish boy from the Valley,” David Gregory revealed as we chatted at NBC Studios in Burbank.

The year was 1995, and I was senior producer of a network program that had begun featuring reports from Gregory, then a 24-year-old local TV reporter.  He explained that his father was Jewish, his mother was not, and that he’d been raised in a Reform congregation and had become a bar mitzvah.

I filed that information away in my head, and then watched as Gregory made a meteoric rise in the ranks of broadcast journalism. By the time we celebrated his 30th birthday together in 2000, he was guest-hosting the show on which I worked. That same year, he married Beth Wilkinson, who’d been one of the prosecutors in the Timothy McVeigh Oklahoma City bombing trial, which Gregory had covered. Wilkinson is a churchgoing Methodist and did not convert, but she agreed to raise their children Jewish. 

After covering George W. Bush’s presidential campaign, Gregory was named White House correspondent for NBC News, a position he held until late 2008, when he became moderator of “Meet the Press.” It was the pinnacle of success for the hard-driving, ambitious Gregory. By August 2014, however, after years of sliding ratings, bad press and behind-the-scenes contention, Gregory and NBC parted ways.  

Some years ago, I’d heard through the Jewish grapevine that Gregory had joined an informal Torah study group in Washington whose members, at various times, included journalists Jeffrey Goldberg, David Brooks and Franklin Foer, along with ambassadors Michael Oren and Martin Indyk. Bush had heard the same rumor, and one day asked Gregory, “How’s your faith?”

That question has now become the title of Gregory’s thoughtful and compelling first book, “How’s Your Faith?  An Unlikely Spiritual Journey.” He writes movingly about his often-difficult childhood as the son of Don Gregory, a sometimes-intimidating film and theatrical producer (who changed his last name from Ginsburg), and Carolyn Surtees, an account manager who struggled for years with alcoholism, culminating in her arrest for drunk driving while 15-year-old Gregory sat in the car.

Gregory’s book chronicles his serious study of Judaism and spirituality in recent years with Modern Orthodox scholar Erica Brown, and writes honestly about the continuing challenges he and Wilkinson face in raising their three children: son Max and twins Ava and Jed.

I spoke with Gregory as he embarked on a five-month national book tour.

Steve North: You grew up attending the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills. How often did you go, and what was that scene like?

David Gregory:  The whole environment there could be easily mocked, but was actually really warm and gives me great memories. High Holiday services were at the Directors Guild building, with the all-glass façade and the plush lobby, and the Oscars and pictures on the wall. It was such a lovely auditorium. 

Red Buttons was there, and other character actors and commercial actors. I have this distinct memory of heavily jeweled Jewish women in Beverly Hills and how good they smelled during the High Holidays!

My sister and I went to Hebrew school there during the week and to Sunday school for years. Rabbi Scott Sperling would talk about the Torah and we would sing, but he would also encourage me at playing baseball, with my Steve Garvey batting stance. He understood that that was a way to keep me involved.

It was a good experience that gave me a sense of identity and cultural awareness. Also, I grew up in the San Fernando Valley — I was born in Tarzana, lived in Encino and Van Nuys. I was surrounded by Jews; I went to school mostly with Jews, so I was in the thick of the Jewish community there.

SNAnd what was the level of Jewish observance in your home life?

DG: What I remember most is going to [visit] our family in New York. My father’s mother was a Shefrin, and the Shefrin family was very organized, with many relatives in New York and New Jersey. We became very close to all those cousins when I was a kid, and we often spent Passover with them.

At home in Los Angeles, we celebrated Christmas and we did not observe Shabbat in any way. I have some faint memories of Passover seders at my dad’s house. I was bar mitzvahed, my sister was bat mitzvahed, and those were certainly meaningful events, although not as meaningful as my adult path.

SN: What do you remember about your bar mitzvah?

DG: The really warm part was having a Shabbat dinner for the out-of-town family … the relatives from New York and some friends. It was the beginning of what I’ve come to adore about Friday night, which is that very special family meal that feels different.  

Also, my bar mitzvah was kind of over the top. It had a New York theme — I wore a white dinner jacket and a red bowtie and came into my party to Sinatra singing, “New York, New York.” So that part was kind of funny. It was certainly an enjoyable time, and I think about it a lot now, because our oldest son, Max, will be bar mitzvahed in the middle of November. 

SN:  You say that you felt a longing for more spirituality in your life as early as age 11. How did that manifest itself?

DG: I understand my spiritual journey as an adult, in part, to first make sense of what happened during those years. The absence of a spiritual life or belief manifested itself at that time in a kind of emptiness.

My mother’s drinking was the backdrop of our life, and we were building a relationship with our dad after they divorced, but I was afraid of him and felt intimidated by him, although I relied upon him a lot. I think I just felt very much independent, on my own and a little bit lost. As I started to grapple with the anger and embarrassment and confusion about my mom’s drinking, I didn’t have anywhere to turn. I felt lost and afraid, during the anxiety of adolescence.

SN: I must say, I had the opposite experience, with a solid family life and an adolescence immersed in the Jewish community … in synagogue, Hebrew school, youth groups and summer camp … there were always friends, counselors, rabbis.

DG:  And for me, the Jewish community was not a source of strength or comfort. I had a sense of it being who I was, but not completely who I was. Ethnically, I came to the world a little different. My last name is Gregory; I have an Irish-Catholic mother, and not to traffic in stereotypes about how Jews look, but I’m very tall, I had red hair and freckles. … I looked like an Irish kid. I did go to Camp Kinneret in Agoura Hills, a day camp, but it wasn’t a religious camp.  

So for me, I wasn’t a part of the Jewish community other than just being Jewish. You’re describing an inclusion in Jewish community that was actively organized around you being Jewish and doing Jewish things. I just had Jewish identity because most of the people I knew were Jewish!  But it didn’t go beyond that.

SN:  So you had the option to not identify as Jewish, if you chose to. You know, in Yiddish, there’s a saying that it’s “shver tzu zein a Yid,” it’s hard to be a Jew. Why choose that?

DG: Well, the fact that I didn’t hide that I was Jewish was a big part of my life. But my identity was more about my father. I remember having a conversation with him when I was working as a reporter in Sacramento [in 1994]. It was Yom Kippur; I went to services, but I wasn’t going to fast. And my dad said, “I can’t tell you what to do, but I think it’s important that you fast.” And I was sitting in my apartment thinking, “What does it mean to me to be Jewish?” I needed to figure out the answer to that question. I’m not going to be this, or do this, just because it would please my father. So I felt that pull, and I had to figure it out for myself.

SN: You don’t really address the issue of patrilineal descent in the book. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements consider you fully Jewish, but the Orthodox and Conservative movements still use the traditional “Jewish mother” threshold.

DG:  I thought a lot about this in the early going. I remember saying to Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, “Do you think I ought to officially convert?” And he looked at me and he said, “Exactly who would you be doing that for? For some Orthodox or Conservative rabbis at the beit din who would convert you? Why?”  

I guess I feel now that I live a Jewish life. I’m trying to become a better Jew, and I think I have a legitimate place within the Jewish community. I have a commitment to the Jewish people moving forward; I’m trying to raise Jewish children and, hopefully, Jewish grandchildren. I feel I’m who Moses was talking about just as much as anyone else, when he said, “For all those who are gathered here, and for those not gathered here, as well, you’re to take heed of God’s commandments.”

So, in that sense, I’m not terribly worried about who I’m Jewish for, within the Jewish community. I know who and what I am.

SN:  What has it been like for you to delve into Jewish texts and thought on an adult level?

DG: It’s been incredibly satisfying. What I’ve discovered is, if you want a relationship with God, you have to get to know each other a little bit, and you can do that by listening to God through the text, and understanding who and what He is … as unfathomable as God may be.

SN:  President Bush’s question to you, “How’s your faith?” can be taken in different ways.  Are we defining faith here as a belief in God? If so, what kind of God? Because, as you know, the Jewish view ranges from the Orthodox interventionist Supreme Being who brought us out of Egypt and remains involved in the world to this moment, to the Reconstructionist concept, which dismisses a supernatural God and focuses on the force in the universe that impels us to have a conscience and do mitzvot. 

DG:  It’s a really thoughtful question. I have come to know God in a personal way, a God who is present in my life and active inside of me, who bears witness and who inspires me, who I think is at work in the world. I don’t real-
ly know the answer to the level of intervention. I just know that God is present, in both joy and in pain. I don’t know that God is capable of keeping bad things from happening, maybe God was at a certain point, but I think the realm of the supernatural is to experience transcendence … to experience God’s love … to know who and whose I am. 

SN:  When most people lose their jobs, they have to tell their family and friends, and it can be embarrassing. You lost your dream job in the most public way imaginable. How did your newfound knowledge about Judaism and spirituality come into play when that happened last year?

DG:  In the beginning, it helped with a sense of perspective. I felt the love around me, I felt God’s presence, I knew I was at peace and that I was OK. It helped me stay above the fray. I thought about what kind of behavior I wanted to model for my kids at that moment. 

So when I was writing the tweet announcing that I was leaving NBC, I looked at it as an opportunity to behave in a way that God expects me to behave, and to seize the moment. Rather than be bitter or mad, I thought, “Here’s an opportunity to try to be big, to be the person I’m trying to be.” So in that way, I think my faith was present, I think God was present for me.

But faith didn’t always hold me. I’ve gone through real struggles with identity over this past year, thinking, “Who am I? If I’m not this person who has some celebrity and this fancy title and is on television and the trappings of all of that, do I still matter?”

I made mistakes, and I was unhappy at various times, and I have to admit, that’s where my faith didn’t hold me, because I hadn’t become as grounded in faith as I hope to become. 

That whole period has been incredibly humbling to me, because it said to me, “You have to get right with the fact that who you are, is not what you lost.” 

SN:  When it first became known in Washington that you were attending a Torah study group, someone wrote an article titled “David Gregory Finds Religion.” I’m guessing you might describe it a bit differently.

DG:  I think what I have found is a truer identity in faith. I have reconnected with the faith I grew up with, and I’ve come to better understand what it means to be a person of faith and to have a deeper spiritual identity. I’m rooted in my religious faith and tradition more than I was, and I’m deeper along the path of spiritual growth.

What I’ve discovered is that who I am today is not as important as who I am becoming. I hope I’m moving in the direction of becoming the person that God intends me to be. But that’s now the work of my lifetime.


Steve North is a longtime broadcast and print journalist.

Burbank shul stunned by rejection of preschool permit, plans appeal


With a new rabbi and a growing waiting list for its preschool, Burbank Temple Emanu El has been preparing in recent months for long-awaited growth by seeking the city’s permission to expand its preschool and Hebrew school.

But when a request to use an adjacent home owned by the Conservative synagogue as an educational facility was denied by the city’s five-person planning board in a 3-2 vote on Aug. 11, Rabbi John Carrier was stunned at the setback. He told the Journal the synagogue soon will appeal the decision to Burbank’s City Council.

“We made plans that mitigated any concerns about extra traffic or parking at that house,” said Carrier, who has a daughter attending the preschool and another one in the Hebrew school. “We played everything by the rules.”

Nevertheless, facing complaints made by several neighbors and expressing concerns about noise, car traffic and preservation of the neighborhood’s residential character, three board members — Undine Petrulis, Christopher Rizzotti and Kimberly Jo — voted down Emanu El’s request. Kenneth San Miguel and Doug Drake voted to approve the permit.

The synagogue believes that expanding its preschool and Hebrew school would create an opportunity to attract new families. Emanu El has about 100 families today, up from a few years ago when it was contemplating merging with another congregation because of declining membership and financial difficulties. At 60 students, the preschool housed in the synagogue on North Glenoaks Boulevard is at capacity.

Had the board approved Emanu El’s request to use as an educational facility the house it owns at 407 Bethany Road, it would have allowed the synagogue to educate another 20 students, approximately the current size of its preschool waiting list. Synagogue leaders said the home was donated to the temple about 12 years ago by a longtime member who hoped that it would eventually be used for classrooms.

Burbank Temple Emanu El (white building in the background) wants to convert the interior of this house, which it owns, into school classrooms. Burbank's planning board turned down the synagogue's request. 

Emanu El’s proposal, which the temple began preparing for the planning board late last year, was to remodel the interior of the house while leaving the exterior largely unaffected, so as to maintain the aesthetic appearance of the street, which is lined with residential homes. A longtime presence in the neighborhood, the synagogue has operated out of its current building since the early 1970s.

Assuring the planning board in meetings this summer that the expanded preschool would not impact traffic flow or parking in the community, the synagogue received the blessing of Burbank’s community development department, a city agency that reviews and offers recommendations on proposals made to the planning board. 

In an Aug. 11 memo to the board as part of its recommendation for approval of Emanu El’s request, two officials from the department noted that 24 preschools already exist in residentially zoned areas of Burbank, that four had received conditional-use permits to use existing facilities as a preschool and that they had “not found any data or records to suggest that there is likely to be any significant impacts from parking [or] noise.”

Carrier, who became the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi in years when he joined the congregation in July after receiving ordination from American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, spoke in front of the planning board on Aug. 11. In the meeting (video of which is available online), he invoked the biblical commandment in Deuteronomy to educate children (recited daily in Jewish prayer services) as a primary reason Emanu El needs use of the home as a school.

“What this expansion allows us to do is to live that, to fulfill that precept,” Carrier told the Journal. “We have the right to expect the same consideration that has been received by dozens of other organizations in the city.” 

From a financial perspective, increasing the size of the synagogue’s preschool and Hebrew school would introduce the congregation to new families, who in turn may choose to become paying members. Stacy Schnaid, the synagogue’s vice president, wrote in an email to the Journal that Emanu El’s proposed expansion “is vital to our synagogue from a social, spiritual and financial perspective.”

“The preschool brings in young families who become part of our temple community,” she wrote. She also told the planning board that the preschool welcomes families of all backgrounds; about 25 percent of the students are not Jewish.

Still, at the Aug. 11 meeting, vice chair Petrulis cited several concerns that weighed on her mind, including additional traffic and noise, and said that the board is “trying to preserve our neighborhoods.” 

“The school is already there,” Petrulis said at the meeting. “But adding another 20 percent I think is detrimental.”

One resident who lives near the synagogue and voiced to the board his opposition to the temple’s permit application, characterized Emanu El’s proposal as a “game changer” and said that Burbank “has an obligation to maintain the neighborhood as it [was] when I [bought] it.” 

Rizzotti, a board member and real estate agent, implied that converting the home for use as a school could reduce property values or impact the ability of neighbors to market their homes if they have to disclose that they live next to a preschool. He suggested at the meeting that it may be time for Emanu El to find larger facilities elsewhere. Jo, who also declined the request, expressed her affection for the synagogue but also suggested it may want to consider moving into a larger building. 

Rizzotti told the Journal that he would have liked to have been provided with figures on how many residential homes in Burbank had been converted for use as a school — the community development department only provided statistics showing that 24 preschools already exist in residential zones, not identifying those that were essentially residential structures.

“If you told me there were 10 single-family homes converted into preschools, that’s a factual basis statement that possibly I can take into consideration,” Rizzotti said in a telephone interview.

The city agency that recommended approval wrote to the Journal that it was unaware of other single-family homes in Burbank receiving the permit that Emanu El is seeking but would conduct additional research upon appeal.

 Drake, a board member who voted to approve Emanu El’s request, told the Journal that he had to weigh neighbors’ complaints with his “100 percent” agreement with the community development department’s findings that Emanu El’s request would entail no significant disruption of the street’s residential character. 

“You have the neighborhood — they have been here for quite a while. The temple has been there for quite a long time as well and is a fixture of the neighborhood,” Drake said. “I didn’t feel that it would be disruptive enough to vote against it.”

This is not the first time that Emanu El has had proposals for expansion denied by the city. In 1995 and 2001, the synagogue attempted — and failed — to increase its preschool and Hebrew school capacities. But Emanu El’s current leadership points out that in both of those proposals, the synagogue requested building a two-story structure, a more ambitious request than utilizing the interior of an existing adjacent one-story home.

“We already have a preschool, so it’s not like we are trying to do something new in a residential community,” said Leeron Dvir, the synagogue’s preschool director. “We are not trying to build a second story, we are not trying to turn it into a huge facility. It’s going to look like a home from the outside.”

Schnaid, discussing the synagogue’s upcoming appeal to the city council, said she expects that the planning board’s ruling will be overturned if the council “fairly and properly” considers the facts. That appeal is expected to be filed within the coming days or weeks. 

Survivors to mark 75th anniversary of Kindertransport


On the evening of Dec. 2, a small group of elderly men and women, some with their children and grandchildren, will gather at a Burbank mall to mark the 75th anniversary of a heartbreaking, yet uplifting, episode of the Nazi era, known as the Kindertransport (in English, Children’s Transport).

Susanne Goldsmith, 82, will be there, and so will Abraham (Abe) Sommer, 89, to recall the events of 1938 and 1939, when nearly 10,000 young Jews from Nazi-dominated Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia climbed aboard trains to find refuge in Great Britain.

In a world that generally closed its borders to Jews fleeing Hitler, the British offer to admit the children, following the mass pogrom of Kristallnacht, was a rare humanitarian gesture, but it carried a wrenching price.

The offer allowed for the admission of children only between ages 2 and 16, but not their parents or older siblings. Each family had to decide whether to send young children to be cared for by absolute strangers in a foreign land, with no assurance that parents and children would ever be reunited.

The first Kindertransport carried 200 children from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin that was destroyed by Nazi mobs during the Nov. 9-10 Kristallnacht. The group arrived in England on Dec. 2, 1938, less than a month after the night of arson and murder.

On Dec. 10, at the main train station in Vienna, 7-year-old Susanne Weiss (later Goldsmith) and her 9-year-old brother, Peter, bid their parents goodbye, in the first Kindertransport from Vienna, which was organized by British Quakers.

Goldsmith, now a resident of Burbank, recalled, “I cried all the way” — or at least until the train crossed the border into Holland, where a group of Dutch women distributed a then luxurious repast of thick slices of rye bread slathered with butter and sprinkled with chocolate.

Abe Sommer, who now lives in West Los Angeles, came aboard on the last Kindertransport to leave Vienna on Aug. 24, 1939. It arrived in London on Sept. 1, as newspaper boys were shouting that Germany had invaded Poland. Two days later, Britain and Germany were at war, spelling the end of the Kindertransport.

Even given the innumerable victories, defeats and catastrophes in the ongoing commemorations of World War II, the Kindertransport events still retain their hold on the imagination, particularly among writers and artists.

One who could not forget was TV producer Deborah Oppenheimer. When her mother was 11, she boarded a Kindertransport train in Germany, amid tearful assurances that the family would soon be reunited. Along with 90 percent of the evacuated children, Oppenheimer’s mother never saw her parents again.

Whenever Deborah tried to ask her mother about that part of her life, the mother broke into tears, so the child stopped asking. But after her mother’s death, Oppenheimer decided to find out all she could about the Kindertransport.

Viennese children on their arrival in London. Photo courtesy of the Austrian National Library

The result was the film “Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport,” which won the 2000 Academy Award for best documentary feature.

“At first, the kinder (shorthand for the Kindertransport evacuees) didn’t want to talk about their wartime experiences, feeling that these were insignificant compared to the suffering during the Holocaust, which claimed the lives of 1.5 million children,” Oppenheimer said in an interview last week. “Many didn’t start opening up until they reached their 70s or 80s.”

Oppenheimer, now executive vice president of Carnival Films and appointed last year by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, explained the appeal of their story today:

“It is difficult to grasp the idea of 6 million murdered in the Holocaust,” she said, “but everyone can understand the suffering of a child suddenly ostracized by all her classmates or abruptly separated from her parents.”

Once the kinder arrived in England, their fate was decided by the luck of the draw.

Some found loving foster parents who scrimped to feed an extra mouth; others were exploited as servants. Some were housed in baronial estates, others in freezing holding camps waiting to be adopted at weekly “cattle market” inspections.

Goldsmith and her brother were among the lucky ones. Their new foster parents turned out to be a wealthy Jewish couple who picked up their new charges in a Rolls-Royce and housed them on a large estate along with eight other evacuated children.

“Our parents made it to England after the war started; we never asked how,” Goldsmith recalled. “They looked haggard, like refugees, and neither Peter nor I wanted to live with them.”

The family ties were eventually restored, and parents and children arrived in New York in early 1940. The Big Apple didn’t appeal to the family, but they couldn’t decide where else to relocate.

At that point, young Peter reminded his father that he had always enjoyed Giacomo Puccini’s opera “The Girl of the Golden West,” set in an imaginary mining camp during the California Gold Rush.

In short order, the family crossed the continent and settled in San Francisco.

Abe Sommer was less fortunate. On arrival, he was housed on a large farm in central England in one of many tents for refugees — shelters that did nothing to keep out the cold in the winter.

In 1943, Sommer joined the Pioneer Corps, an engineering auxiliary attached to the British army. For two years after the war ended, his assignment, ironically, was to supervise German prisoners of war.

He moved to Palestine in late 1947, worked on a kibbutz, and 10 years later moved to Los Angeles and established an automotive electrical shop in Beverly Hills. In 1994, he retired to his home in Beverlywood.

Sommer married a fellow Kindertransporter and after her death married another women with a similar background.

These days, the one-time refugee children try to keep in contact through the loosely organized Kindertransport Association (kindertransport.org), with small membership clusters in major cities in England, the United States, Australia and Germany.

There are no figures available on how many of the original kinder are still living.

In the Los Angeles area, one of the main activists is David Meyerhof, a retired teacher living in Burbank, whose 92-year-old mother is a Kindertransport alumna from Germany.

He and Goldsmith organized the local 75th anniversary commemoration, which will include a program of music, poetry and oral history, Meyerhof said.

The Dec. 2 event, part of the Temple Beth Emet Chanukah program, will start at 7:30 p.m. on the second floor of the Burbank Media Center Mall, in front of the Burlington Coat Factory store at 245 E. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank. The public is invited.

For additional information, contact David Meyerhof by e-mail at dmeyerhof@yahoo.com or by phone at (818) 261-2060.

YeLAdim yaks with Disney’s Adam Bonnett


How cool would it be to pick what everyone else gets to watch on television?

Well that’s what Adam Bonnett, Disney Channel and Jetix senior vice president of original programming, gets to do — every day.

He helped bring shows like “Hannah Montana,” “That’s So Raven” and the “Suite Life of Zack and Cody” to television sets around the world. And he knows his stuff: Before working at Disney, Bonnett was director of current programming for Nickelodeon, and he helped created “Kids Choice Awards.”

YeLAdim was invited to Disney Channel headquarters in Burbank to talk with Adam about his job, the Jewish themes on the network and what goes into creating hit television shows.

YeLAdim: So what does the senior vice president of original programming do?
Adam Bonnett: It means I develop the series — animated and live action — that air on [Disney Channel and Jetix]. And I take pitches for new ideas. When I’m exited about something, I get the network excited about it and develop that script into something we want to shoot as a pilot. We shoot it and test it and show it to kids and get feedback on it.

Y: What’s the best part of your job?
AB: Seeing the excitement of a kid and how passionate they are. If I developed “Everybody Loves Raymond” or “According to Jim,” adults watch, but they don’t have the passion that kids have. They don’t look at these characters like they are friends.

Y: What’s the hardest part of your job?
AB: There’s not a lot of margin for error. We don’t come out with pilots the way networks do. The other challenge is staying ahead of the curve. Kids are changing. They are very sophisticated. There is a demand for pop culture and wanting to grow up, but still loving being a kid…. That’s why you have “Hannah” and “High School Musical.” We’re in production year-round.

Y: What were your favorite shows growing up?
AB: “Laverne and Shirley” — I identified with them being outsiders, because I felt that way as a kid. A lot of the Garry Marshall stuff, the broad physical humor in “Three’s Company.” That’s what I grew up with, and that’s the kind of humor I like to put into the series that I develop. I also grew up watching “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island,” so you take a show like “Suite life” that takes place in a hotel.

Y: With its revolving door of guest stars.
AB: I see a lot of “Love Boat” and “Fantasy Island” in a show like that. You look at a show like “Hannah Montana,” and I remember thinking how inspirational it was to see a character like Ritchie Cunningham break the rules and be a little naughty because of The Fonz. I see a lot of that in our show –but it is Disney Channel friendly. I watched a lot of shows that were empowering to girls, like “Charlie’s Angels,” and I see a lot of that in shows like “Kim Possible” and “Hannah Montana.”

Y: Cory on “That’s So Raven” had a bar mitzvah — or what he called a “bro mitzvah” — last year, “Even/Stevens” had a Chanukah episode. How do you decide where to insert Jewish themes?
AB: We try to portray all different types of kids on our shows, whether they are Jewish or Christian or Muslim, which we did on the “Proud Family.” The honest answer is that writers and execs like to draw on personal experiences. And a lot of producers are Jewish. With Cory, the exec producers are Jewish; writing for an African American character, but they draw from their own experience. I haven’t spoken to him about it, but [likely] when he was a kid, he wanted a bar mitzvah mainly to make some money like every boy — they don’t get what the bar mitzvah is about till it’s over. Ron Stoppable [“Kim Possible”] had a bar mitzvah — we did one with Gordo on “Lizzie Maguire.” It was interesting with “Evens/Stevens,” we did a Chanukah episode, but it was a blended family. It comes from the writer’s personal experience — regardless of the character’s religion.

Y: And it’s great that London Tipton on “Suite Life” keeps bringing up all the presents she received for Chanukah.
AB: Again, Jewish writers. The wonderful thing about London’s family is that we never met them, and we kind of never know where this is all coming from. There’s another character on “Suite Life,” Barbara Brownstein, who is Cody’s girlfriend, but she’s Asian and her parents are Caucasian — which shows that Barbara is likely the adopted child of a Jewish family. The irony is that London uses Yiddish expressions, but goes to a Catholic school with Maddie Fitzpatrick [“High School Musical’s” Ashley Tilsdale]. It’s not about having a Jewish agenda — just showing all different types of kids.

Y: Are you surprised that girls have found a kinship with Maddie and London on “The Suite Life,” or was that always planned?
AB: It was always the plan. We wanted to create a dynamic where the girls were frenemies — friends and rivals — because we had never done that before. We didn’t see it with Raven and Chelsea [“That’s So Raven”] or with Lizzie and Miranda [“Lizzie Maguire”].

Y: What’s your first Disney memory?
AB: Probably “Mary Poppins.” I remember seeing animation and live action blended together. Then you look at something like “Lizzie” and you see the melding of live action and animation.

Y: What’s coming up this season on The Disney Channel?

Beth Emet Works to Save a Mother’s Life


The 200 closely knit families of Burbank’s Temple Beth Emet, heeding the precept that all Jews are responsible for one another, are accustomed to providing aid and comfort quietly and inconspicuously. But the congregation has been galvanized to very public action by news that the mother of fellow congregant Roni Razankova’s mother, a citizen of Macedonia, has contracted liver cancer and needs urgent medical attention in the United States.

“I’ve never seen my congregants move like this,” Temple Beth Emet Rabbi Mark Sobel said. He reported that Razankova’s predicament — a single woman alone in Los Angeles, newly connected to her Jewish heritage and newly inaugurated as an American citizen, trying to save her mother’s life from 7,000 miles away — has resonated with temple members.

In fact, as soon as Razankova shyly confided the news just before Mother’s Day, the 50 religious school students began rolling out butcher paper and writing get-well wishes to mail to Macedonia to Rachel Razankova, 64. At the same time, the rabbi and the congregation, with the full support of the board of directors, brainstormed ways for their not particularly wealthy congregation to raise money. They created the Rachel Fund and, in about a week, with people taking shifts to photocopy, fold, stuff and stamp, succeeded in mailing out more than 500 letters explaining the situation and seeking contributions from synagogues throughout California and across the United States.

Still, a miracle may be needed. Obtaining a humanitarian visa, which is necessary to bring a foreign citizen to the United States for medical care, is not easy. Razankova, 40, who lives in Valley Village and works as an office manager for an insurance company, must show that she can pay for her mother’s medical treatment, estimated at $50,000 to $100,000. And while donations are coming in — including $100 from Congregation Har Shalom in Fort Collins, Colo., and $25 from an individual in Burke, Va. — to date only $10,000 has been raised.

Meanwhile, an attorney and fellow congregant, who wishes to remain anonymous, is volunteering his services to help expedite the visa. In a two-pronged approach, he has prepared a packet of necessary documents for Rachel Razankova to take to the United States Embassy in Macedonia, part of former Yugoslavia, and has sent a duplicate packet to the State Department in Washington, D.C. At the same time, the office of Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) is requesting a visa from the U.S. Embassy in Macedonia.

The time element is crucial. Liver cancer moves aggressively, and Rachel Razankova is not able to get the treatment she needs from the single oncology clinic in Macedonia; it is severely overcrowded, underequipped and lacking in adequately trained personnel. Roni Razankova said that her mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer two years ago and, suffering what may have been a severe allergic reaction to the chemotherapy drugs given her, sank into a 24-hour coma and almost died.

Dr. Marina Vaysburd, a hematologist/oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Outpatient Cancer Center and Medical Center, has reviewed Rachel Razankova’s available records and made multiple unsuccessful attempts via e-mail and telephone to consult with her doctors in Macedonia. Vaysburd has agreed to see the patient once she comes to Los Angeles, to confirm the diagnosis, an important first step, and help as much as she can. “I am trying to save my mother’s life,” Roni Razankova said.

She was a lawyer and part-time journalist in the city of Stip, Macedonia, and moved to Los Angeles nine years ago, attracted to the freedom and different lifestyle. Her move here also marked the beginning of a spiritual journey, as people began to ask about her religion, a question she never encountered in secular and communist/socialist Macedonia.

“I was raised to believe in government and country, not God,” she said.

She was intuitively drawn to Judaism before discovering that her family was Jewish on her mother’s side. For the past six years, she has studied with Sobel, becoming a dedicated member at Beth Emet and, recently, a religious school teacher for fourth- and fifth-graders. Without family in the United States, she has adopted — and feels adopted by — her synagogue.

“Temple Beth Emet is the best temple I have ever seen in my life,” she said. “I’m going to be there forever.”

For more information, contact Rabbi Mark Sobel at Temple Beth Emet, 600 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank, CA 91505. (818) 843-4787.

 

Suit Filed Over Police Shooting of Israeli


Nearly 20 months after Assaf Deri, an Israeli national, was shot and killed by Burbank police in a North Hollywood alley, his parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in L.A. Federal Court against Burbank and Los Angeles, both cities’ police departments, and officers involved in the incident.

“The conduct by Burbank police officers was clearly outrageous,” said attorney Robert Jarchi, who is representing Deri’s estate and parents, Pinchas and Yehudit Deri. “Burbank police officers targeted my clients’ son because of his Middle Eastern appearance.”

Deri is Jewish but could be perceived as a Muslim, the lawyer contended.

Police claim Deri was a suspect in a multiagency task force investigation into drug-trafficking, gangs and organized crime. But Jarchi insisted their claims are absurd.

“Assaf Deri was not involved in drug dealing or any other illegal activity. He didn’t drink or do drugs,” Jarchi said. “Police killed an innocent man who was just sitting in his Jeep. Anyone could find themselves in that position.”

The coroner’s exam found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Deri’s system. The civil complaint, filed last week, also alleges violations of Deri’s federal and state civil rights, negligence, assault and battery and false arrest.

This wrongful death lawsuit comes one month after the L.A. district attorney’s office cleared Burbank undercover officers, Scott Meadows and Sgt. Jose Duran. The duo also was cleared last February by their department’s shooting review board, which found they were “defending themselves against death or serious injury.”

The long-delayed report, by the district attorney’s justice system integrity division also ruled that Meadows fired in self-defense, after Deri, 25, allegedly tried to drive his borrowed Jeep away from approaching officers. Meadows, whose leg was grazed by the Jeep during the incident, received medical treatment at a local hospital. Duran, the D.A.’s office found, had discharged his weapon to protect his partner.

LAPD robbery homicide detectives handled the field investigation because the shooting happened in Los Angeles. The North Hollywood alley where the incident occurred lies behind a row of apartment buildings on Oxnard Street near Los Angeles Valley College.

According to the LAPD investigation, Deri was the target of daylong surveillance on June 25, 2004, by Burbank police.

Meadows and Duran followed Deri as he drove into the alley and parked with his engine idling, behind one of the buildings. At about 10:30 p.m., Duran decided to stop Deri after deciding he was monitoring their surveillance of him.

The two Burbank officers allegedly approached Deri’s jeep and ordered him out. The officers claim Deri then drove toward Meadows. In self defense, they opened fire.

Meadows reportedly shot 13 rounds and Duran 10 rounds. According to the autopsy, Deri was hit nine times, including five shots to the head. Paramedics pronounced Deri dead at the scene at approximately 10:37 p.m.

The Deri family’s suit alleges Burbank police violated Assaf Deri’s constitutional rights by illegally detaining and shooting him to death. The suit also alleges Deri’s father, who was visiting from Israel, was wrongfully imprisoned during a warrantless search of his son’s North Hollywood apartment several hours after his death.

“Burbank officers compounded the problem by going to Assaf’s apartment without probable cause in a desperate attempt to find something to justify this fatal shooting,” Jarchi said. “There they made a fruitless search and ended up illegally detaining and handcuffing my client’s father.”

The federal suit specifies no dollar amount, but last year, the family submitted a $51 million claim against the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank, which both cities rejected. The family is seeking general and punitive damages for the loss of their son and his future support and reimbursement for the transport of the body to Israel, funeral and legal expenses, as well as compensation for counseling, lost wages and medical expenses incurred by Deri’s father.

The family is represented by Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, which has taken on local police cases before, including that of a Los Angeles woman who received $7.6 million after she was broadsided by a car being chased by LAPD officers and the case of a Long Beach man who was awarded $6.7 million after being shot by Long Beach police.

The city of Burbank, representing the police officers, denied any wrongdoing in the case. Los Angeles officials declined to comment pending a review of the lawsuit.

 

Community Briefs


Suit Seeks $51 Million in Israeli Immigrant’s Slaying

The family of an Israeli immigrant fatally wounded by Burbank police has filed a $51 million wrongful death suit against the cities of Burbank and Los Angeles. Assaf Deri, 25, died June 25, 2004, when Burbank undercover officers shot him in a North Hollywood alley.

The fatal shooting occurred when plainclothes officers approached Deri, after “boxing him into an alley with their vehicles,” according to the suit. A coroner’s report concluded that Deri died after officers shot him multiple times.

Officials said the shooting occurred after two officers approached Deri’s car on foot while conducting a narcotics investigation in an alley near Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Oxnard Street. Police said Deri, who was alone in the car, accelerated the vehicle, hitting and slightly injuring one of the officers. The officers then opened fire.

The shooting remains under investigation by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office. However, the city of Burbank has denied any wrongdoing. Its shooting review board determined that officers acted “within policy,” and that they were “defending themselves from death or serious injury.”

The suit asserts that Deri “was not engaging in any illegal or suspicious activity, and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” It also states that Deri had no previous criminal record.

In addition, the suit alleges that officers were quick to draw their weapons because Deri looked Middle Eastern. The suit charges that Deri “was killed because of his race and national origin [Middle Eastern], and his religion [Jewish] and/or his perceived religion [Muslim].”

Later the night of the shooting, police reportedly went to Deri’s apartment and handcuffed his father, who was visiting from Israel, and his girlfriend, according to family friends. Officers allegedly roused them at midnight, told them that Deri was dead, then held them there overnight without allowing them to make phone calls.

The suit says that officers “conduced a fruitless search for contraband and/or illegal activities without probable cause and without reasonable suspicion.”

The family went public late last week with its legal action. But the claim was apparently filed late last month, just prior to the one-year anniversary of Deri’s death.

The Burbank City Attorney’s Office said it is preparing a statement in response. The city of Los Angeles, where the shooting took place, has already rejected the claim, according to attorneys. — Howard Blume, Senior Editor, and Jim Crogan, Contributing Writer

GOP Jewish Coalition Raises USO Funds at Gathering

About 500 Jewish Republicans chastised liberals at an annual bash that paid tribute to U.S. troops in general and the Bob Hope Hollywood USO in particular.

The July 10 gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley was put on by the Southern California chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC). One-fourth of the each $100 ticket was set aside for the USO.

Jewish moralist and radio talk show host Dennis Prager told the crowd that traditionally liberal-voting Jews should remember that the Democratic Party today is not the same one it was in the Depression.

“Roosevelt is dead,” said Prager, who singled out anti-war activists for criticism. “What exactly ended the Holocaust if not war? Do you know how South Koreans would be living if not for war?”

He also accused liberals of failing to denounce “this resurgence of Nazism called Islamic fascism. You can’t say, ‘It’s the wrong war in the wrong time at the wrong place,’ and then say, ‘Hey, I support the troops.'”

Speakers generally did not comment on Israel’s planned withdrawal next month from the Gaza Strip.

The 21-year-old RJC has 20,000 members nationwide, said Matthew Brooks, the national group’s executive director. Brooks added that there is “nothing more important” right now than creating Jewish support for John Bolton, President Bush’s controversial nominee for U.N. ambassador. The event attracted Jews from GOP chapters in Santa Barbara, Orange County, Sacramento and Fresno.

Prager clearly enjoyed his receptive audience, saying, “It’s so eerie for me to actually speak with people I agree with.” — David innigan, Contributing Writer

Here’s Mud in Your Face

A teacher reaches some students with poetry. Others are inspired by idealism, or by the team spirit of athletics or by the imagined universe of books. But if putting Dead Sea mud on your face does the job, so be it.

That’s part of how Catholic schoolteacher Theresa Yugar connected her religion class students to Israel at Sacred Heart High School, a girls school in East Los Angeles.

As for Yugar, she developed her own connection through a program that sends Catholic educators to Israel. The Holy Land Democracy Project is run by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. The goal is to combat negative perceptions of Israel.

Last year, the program was conducted as a pilot project in five Catholic high schools. This year, another seven high schools came aboard, with seven religion or social studies teachers spending March 28 to April 10 in Israel. They followed up the trip with a weeklong course for their students in May, emphasizing Israel as a Middle East democracy.

It worked for Yugar, who was in the second group of teachers in the program. When she wanted to share her new-found bond with Israel, she decided this spring to use a piece of the land — some mud.

“They thoroughly loved it,” said Yugar. “They’re girls. They’re totally girls.”

Participating high schools include those located in poorer areas, such as Sacred Heart and Verbum Dei in South Central L.A., plus more middle-class campuses, such as Mary Star of the Sea in San Pedro, and tony Villanova Preparatory in Ojai.

At a June awards ceremony, organizers handed out $1,900 in Israel Bonds as prizes for student essays, art projects and poems that arose out of their teachers’ post-Israel class assignments.

Traveling to Israel was “an experience that will take a very long time to sort out,” religion teacher Mary Killmond of Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills told the audience at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

“Going there inspired me,” said Jeanine Di Cesaris, a social studies teacher at the all-girls Pomona Catholic High School, who traveled to the Israel on the first trip last year. “It wasn’t like going to Hawaii. Israel stayed with me. It becomes a part of you.”

The Federation would like to expand the program to Catholic schools in Mexico. — DF

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Wrongful-Death Claim in Burbank Shooting


The family of an Israeli immigrant killed by Burbank police is pursuing a $51 million wrongful-death claim against the cities of Burbank and Los Angeles. Assaf Deri, 25, died a year ago when Burbank undercover police officers shot him in an alley in North Hollywood.

Attorneys for the family said they filed their claim late last month, just prior to the one-year anniversary of Deri’s death, but the filing could not be verified on Friday, when the family went public with the legal action.

On June 25, 2004, plainclothes officers approached Deri after “boxing him into an alley with their vehicles,” according to the claim. A coroner’s report concluded that Deri died after officers shot him multiple times. The incident remains under investigation by the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office.

The Journal previously reported that Burbank police characterized the shooting as self-defense. Officials said that the shooting occurred after two officers approached Deri’s car on foot while conducting a narcotics investigation in an alley near Coldwater Canyon Avenue and Oxnard Street. Deri, who was alone in the car, accelerated, said police, hitting and slightly injuring one of the officers. Out of fear for their safety, officers opened fire. The police have declined to speak in detail about the case pending the conclusion and release of the official investigation.

The claim asserts that Deri “was not engaging in any illegal or suspicious activity, and was not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.” It also states that Deri had no previous criminal record. In addition, the filing alleges that officers were quick to draw their weapons because Deri looked Middle Eastern. Deri “was killed because of his race and national origin (Middle Eastern) and his religion (Jewish) and/or his perceived religion (Muslim),” in the words of the claim.

Later that night, police went to Deri’s apartment and handcuffed his girlfriend and his father, who was visiting from Israel, said family friends. Officers allegedly roused them at midnight, told them that Assaf Deri was dead, then held them there overnight without allowing them to make phone calls. The claim states that officers “conduced a fruitless search for contraband and/or illegal activities without probable cause and without reasonable suspicion.”

 

From Three to One?


Can one Jewish Community Center (JCC) serve a population as vast as that of the San Fernando Valley?

That is the question facing Jewish communities from Burbank to Calabasas, and so far, the answer is a resounding no — even from some of the people who launched the idea in the first place.

“I don’t think the goal is to have one site for the entire Valley, nor do I think Westside can serve all of the city,” said Nina Lieberman-Giladi, executive director of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). “But we can’t do a good job [anywhere] until we can do so in [a] fiscally responsible manner.”

Granted, the JCC singled out for this honor is not your typical center. Dubbed the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, better known as the West Valley JCC, the facility houses the Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex, completed in 1999.

The sports complex includes a teen center (unstaffed because of recent cutbacks), two workout rooms and a 12,000-square-foot auditorium/basketball court. The $4.5 million sports complex was built with separate funds raised by The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance.

The Milken Campus is also home to the offices of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, as well as the Valley offices of the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Family Service and a host of other agencies, thus making it the hub for the organized Jewish community in the Valley.

The idea of one center is supported by some statistics: namely, membership numbers from the centers. The number of household units, which comprises both individual members and family memberships, has declined.

At North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, membership units dropped from 275 to 200. At Valley Cities in Van Nuys, membership dropped from 200 to 170 units. Although the West Valley JCC also experienced a precipitous drop of approximately 500, at 1,000 household units, it still outdistances the other centers.

Yet proponents of keeping the other two Valley centers open argue that there are equally solid reasons why the Milken Campus cannot substitute for locally grown centers.

According to Pini Herman, former Federation planning and allocations research coordinator and currently with Phillips and Herman Demographic Research, a 1997 survey performed for The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles revealed that of the 248,000 Jewish families living in the San Fernando Valley area, about half had at least one member who visited or participated in a program at their local Jewish community center in the prior year.

“That’s about 120,000 people … who used the centers. Of course, not everybody uses [the Milken Campus] at the same time, but what if there’s a special event? It’s an inadequate facility when you’re talking about a midsize city showing up for even one day of the year,” Herman said.

Herman noted that the San Fernando Valley area also contains more Jews of middle and lower incomes than elsewhere in Los Angeles.

“What we found in the survey is the Valley was the only area where the median income did not increase but remained stagnant or even below every other area of the city of Los Angeles [compared with prior surveys],” he said.

“Jewish community centers provide middle-income families, the predominant families in the Valley, with affordable Jewish services like camp and preschool they may not be able to afford otherwise,” Herman said. “That’s why the Valley has been disproportionately hit” by the centers’ impending closures, he said.

There is also the simple problem of geography. On the best day with no traffic, it takes 20 minutes to get from Van Nuys (home of Valley Cities JCC) to West Hills, where the Milken Campus is located, and 35-40 minutes from the North Valley JCC in Granada Hills.

Even that assumes people are only driving from center to center. It does not take into account the people already commuting to North Valley or Valley Cities from areas like Santa Clarita.

The situation is especially tough on working parents who rely on the JCC for their preschoolers and to provide after-school care for children of all ages.

“I live in Northridge and work in Studio City, yet they want me to take my kids to [school] in Woodland Hills? It just wouldn’t work,” said Andrea Goodstein, a television news producer and an active North Valley JCC member.

Goodstein is the leader of the movement in the North Valley to retain the site and its services. A mother of two children under the age of 6, she said that the JCC holds a unique position: “Where else would I send my daughter to camp? There are no camps for 2-year-olds.”

A Valley Cities parent, Nelly Neben, echoed Goodstein’s sentiments: “So many Jews and non-Jews come to the center for after-school care because it is safe and wholesome. The children take on a sense of community and belonging, and there are no other places that provide that. For the growth of the children, they need a place like the center.”

Even if the West Valley JCC was conveniently located for the entire Valley, there is the issue of capacity: the preschool is full and the after-school program is close to full, according Ronda Wilkin, outgoing center director.

So what is the solution? According to Marty Jannol, JCCGLA president, the time has come for “thinking outside the box” and looking at alternatives.

“Across the country Jewish community centers have operated from a central location and served the community in ‘centers without walls,'” Jannol said. “Who’s to say we can’t rent space for a preschool and run it so Jewish parents who want to send their children to a Jewish nursery school can do so?

“One of the resistance points in the community is that we’re wedded to a way of doing business that may not be effective. It’s our desire to provide more programming, not less, but if we’ve learned anything it’s that the community doesn’t want to be tied to a facility that is undermanaged and in poor condition,” she said.

Jannol also said that in the future, centers will need to take a different approach in order to attract more members.

“For example, Valley Cities is located in a very stable Jewish population,” she said. “There are large Israeli and Orthodox communities in the area, and neither are being sufficiently served. If research supported it and if we rebuilt the building on that piece of real estate, we could have a very viable center, a two-story building with perhaps separate facilities for men and women.”

Supporters of the two centers facing closure say they will not give up without a fight. North Valley JCC members have formed an advisory board and are discussing their options. Valley Cities’ advisory board will hold a fundraiser Jan. 9. Each group hopes for a reprieve similar to that granted the Westside JCC.

Richard Rosett, a past president of the Valley Cities board, said he hopes the effort does not come too late.

“For years we heard from The Jewish Federation that is was not for the centers to go out and do major fundraising,” Rosett lamented. “I’m not here to go to battle with The Federation; we want to be able to work together.

“For whatever reasons, this difficulty is happening, and now the centers need to go out and start getting the … Michael Eisners to make annual donations to the centers. We have to get the people within our community in Los Angeles to step up and assist.”


Here is what is happening at the four JCCs in the San Fernando and Conejo valleys:

The Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus will remain
open. Teen services at the Milken Campus are suspended indefinitely. Ellen
Glutner, chief operating officer of the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los
Angeles, moved her offices to the West Valley JCC on Jan. 2 to help oversee the
Milken site.

The preschool at the Conejo Valley JCC will remain
open.

Supporters of the Valley Cities JCC will hold a “Save
the Center” rally on Wednesday, Jan. 9, from 5:30-7 p.m. at the center, 13164
Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Entertainment and child care will be provided. For more
information call (818) 786-6310.

The North Valley JCC has formed an advisory board that
hopes to develop a plan to save the center. For future updates, check the Web
site: www.savethejcc.org.

A Losing Battle?


Burbank is a unique place, a small Midwestern town accidentally transplanted next to Hollywood. While most outsiders equate Burbank with NBC studios, Carson and Leno, townsfolk see it as a small haven amidst the chaos of Los Angeles. It has its own city hall, police, firefighters and school district, and all are determined to maintain that hallowed but oft-forgotten value: civic pride.

One of the ways it maintains this pride is with a strong sense of tradition, including the invocation before Burbank City Council meetings. The invocation has been under the auspices of the local ministerial association for more than 50 years. Because for much of that time the city was primarily white and primarily Christian, the prayers have tended to follow suit, often ending in “in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ” or similar conclusions. Unlike other parts of the San Fernando Valley, the assumption of most longtime Burbankians is that you are Christian unless proven otherwise.

As a reporter for the local paper in Burbank during the early 1990s, I was quite familiar with this attitude, even writing about it in two columns (from which I received some interesting hate mail, the mildest telling me to “go back to Israel where you belong”). This was a city where if you were Jewish you weren’t so much discriminated against as ignored. No menorah or Stars of David among the City Hall decorations in December or at the local mall, no Passover goodies beyond a box of matzah at the smaller markets, and forget about finding a decent pastrami on rye, much less a kosher bakery. Other non-Christian cultures fared about the same.

So it came as a shock to the Burbank City Council when, about a year ago, Jewish Defense League (JDL) chairman Irv Rubin filed a lawsuit seeking to prohibit the city from using prayers invoking the name of Jesus Christ. Rubin had attended a council meeting in November 1999 on an unrelated matter involving the expansion of the Burbank Airport. The meeting began with a sectarian prayer given by a Mormon minister and was followed by the John Burroughs High School choir performing “Silent Night.” Rubin was already involved in a lawsuit in Rosemead brought by a Catholic man, Alejandro Gandara, against that city’s government for allowing sectarian prayers (including Buddhist chanting) before their meetings. When the JDL’s outspoken leader was finally allowed to address the Burbank City Council about the airport, he took the opportunity to blast city officials for both the invocation and the performance by the choir.

“I told them they were breaking the law and violating the First Amendment, but they did not take me very seriously,” Rubin said. “I talked about how for many years, in the name of Jesus Christ horrible acts of cruelty and barbarity have befallen the Jewish people and what it feels like as a Jew to have to say a prayer like that. I told them we are supposed to be an inclusive society and their policy is really exclusionary, but they did not care.”

Rubin filed suit shortly thereafter, and on Nov. 16 of this year, a Superior Court judge found in his favor. The ruling by Judge Alexander H. Williams III stated that “the prayer in this case violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution” which is found in the First Amendment and prohibits the government from taking any steps to effect the establishment of religion. The court then issued an injunction prohibiting the inclusion of sectarian prayers at the City Council’s meetings.

“The Court fully understands the reluctance of the City Council and the Burbank Ministerial Association to dictate the content of prayer,” read Williams’ ruling. “All that is required is an advisement that sectarian prayer … is not permitted under our Constitution.”

Burbank city officials find this ruling unacceptable and intend to appeal.

“The issue was whether the government should tell people how to pray and we don’t think that’s the government’s role,” said City Attorney Dennis A. Barlow.

“What [the judge] told us is that we have to tell people, ‘This is what you can and cannot say,’ and that doesn’t seem right. Also, he didn’t tell us what happens to the city if following this ruling someone gives a sectarian prayer. We often have Rabbi Paula Reimers [of Temple Emanu El] come, and she speaks in Hebrew; is that sectarian? I spoke with the ministerial association, and they are very concerned; they asked if they should bring a toothbrush with them in case they get arrested. It puts the council in a very difficult position.”

Barlow said he had never heard of any prior complaints before Rubin’s. Aaron Levinson, director of the Valley office of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), said he, too, had never received any formal complaints in his four years as director but after hearing about the case did offer in a letter to City Manager Robert “Bud” Ovrom and the City Council to send the ADL’s suggested guidelines for prayers at city council meetings. Barlow responded to the letter on behalf of the council but made no reference to Levinson’s offer.

“We’ve written to different cities, including Burbank, saying this had been brought to our attention and offering to provide written guidelines,” Levinson said. “Some responded and some did not. [Barlow] wrote back and pointed out that they have a rotating cadre of religious leaders giving the invocation that reflects the religious diversity of the community. However, in the ADL’s opinion, to invoke the name of Jesus in a City Council meeting just as one might do with another religion’s deity is to violate the separation of church and state.”

In terms of the ongoing case, ADL officials have chosen not to join Rubin in the lawsuit, believing there are better ways to resolve the issue. For his part, Rubin said he has been disappointed in the lack of support from the Jewish community, in particular local clergy in Burbank. The city boasts a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Emet, a Conservative synagogue, Temple Emanu El, and a new Chabad congregation. Temple Beth Emet’s rabbi, Mark Sobel, said he could see both sides of the issue but agreed with the spirit behind the lawsuit, if not Rubin’s methodology.

“I see Irv’s point. I understand the prayer was not inclusive and that prayer before government bodies should be as inclusive as possible,” Sobel said. “However, I also agree with the ADL [spokesperson] who would have tried to get the matter settled quietly, meeting with people privately to discuss possible solutions and coming to a consensus.”

Sobel, who is a member of the Burbank Ministerial Association, said he believes that fellow clergy intended no harm by their prayers.

“I understand as a member of the clergy how easy it is after many years to fall into a habit of giving the prayer that you are used to,” Sobel said. “On the other hand, when I have spoken to the City Council and used Hebrew, I always translated so people did not feel disenfranchised. The mysteries of faith don’t need to be alienating.”

Sobel said he is concerned that the city’s appeal of the lawsuit may lead to problems for local Jews.
“I think the city of Burbank fighting the lawsuit is going to elicit responses from elements who will take this as a signal for anti-Semitism,” he said. “I hope not, but it could, and then we will deal with them with our allies who are true Christians.”