Boycotting the boycotters: California’s legislature set to lead the way?

Dear businesses: If you boycott Israel, California will boycott you. 

That’s the message a bill by Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) is set to bring to the California legislature in January. 

His bill, if passed and signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, would direct the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (CalSTRS) to divest from any investments they have in companies that boycott or engage in political or economic “discrimination against Israel.” This would include Israel proper or “territories controlled by the State of Israel,” such as the West Bank, according to a press release put out by Allen’s office. 

CalPERS and CalSTRS have portfolios worth nearly $500 billion and are the nation’s largest public retirement fund and teachers’ retirement fund.

“The BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] efforts worldwide have grown, and there needs to be a response,” Allen told the Journal in a recent interview. “For our pension system to be investing in companies that actively are boycotting the State of Israel doesn’t reflect the desires of Californians.”

Allen, a Christian, has attended numerous Jewish and pro-Israel events in recent months, including in Washington, D.C., and he supports a number of pro-Israel groups. He refers to the West Bank as “Judea and Samaria,” the biblical names of the area that are often used by supporters of Israel who believe the West Bank is rightfully Israel’s.

“In this context, Israel is most important to California in terms of the bilateral trade that we have,” Allen said. “For me personally, Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It is our strongest ally on that side of the world and maintaining our strong, close relationship is extremely important.”

While the BDS movement’s effectiveness in the United States has been mostly limited to symbolic votes of support in student governments on dozens of American campuses, and within the Presbyterian Church and several academic associations, Europe is a different story. There, the movement recently achieved a major victory when the European Union, Israel’s top trading partner, mandated that some imported products originating from the West Bank be labeled “made in settlements.” 

While this move may have negligible impact on Israel’s overall trade with the EU, there are fears that growing opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank could lead the EU to target companies that do business in the area.

This isn’t the first bill of its kind. Earlier this year, Illinois passed a law barring its pension funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel. And South Carolina passed a law requiring state contractors to affirm they’re not involved in any boycott against Israel. Allen’s bill, however, would make California the first state to focus on both state pensions and contractors.

Nationally, President Barack Obama and the Senate tentatively agreed in June to a version of a massive trade bill with Pacific Rim countries known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which included language calling on the U.S. government to discourage its trading partners from participating in boycotts against Israeli businesses in “Israeli-controlled territories.” Congress is not expected to vote on the trade bill until after the November 2016 elections.

There is precedent in the state to Allen’s proposal — although it concerned the Iranian government. In 2007, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill introduced by Sen. Joel Anderson (R-San Diego) that ordered CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from any company that does at least $20 million in business with Iran’s petroleum or natural gas industries. The retirement funds are still held to the law despite Obama’s recent nuclear agreement with Iran, a clause of which seeks to “actively encourage officials at the state or local level” to “refrain from actions inconsistent” with the federal government’s lifting of its sanctions.

Allen, who is a partner in a money management firm in Orange County in addition to his full-time duties as state legislator, said he expects his bill to pass “with widespread support.”

One possible challenge, though, could be getting CalPERS and CalSTRS quickly on board, which did not happen with Anderson’s bill. Both funds opposed the legislation before it passed, and it took years to divest from any of the companies specified by the bill. Officials for the retirement funds argued that the financial losses and transaction costs of divesting would hurt their stakeholders. Eventually, in May 2011, CalPERS divested from four companies. So far, CalSTRS has divested from nine.

A spokesperson for CalPERS declined comment, but said the fund will review the legislation if and when it’s introduced. CalPERS’ official divestment policy states that due to its fiduciary duties, it’s generally forbidden from “sacrificing investment performance for the purpose of achieving goals that do not directly relate to CalPERS operations or benefits.”

Ricardo Duran, a spokesman for CalSTRS, said its staff “will not make a recommendation to the Teachers' Retirement Board until it is introduced and we have had an opportunity to analyze it.”

“I think that a lot of institutions like to resist change,” Allen said, “And there may be some resistance, but it’s something that I think needs to be done.”

On top of requiring CalPERS and CalSTRS to divest from companies boycotting Israel, Allen’s bill also would require companies or individuals with whom the state government contracts to “certify that they do not participate in boycotts or any discrimination against Israel,” his office said.

Much could be at stake. In 2014, California exported just over $2.3 billion in goods to Israel — including manufactured goods, electronics and agricultural products — making it the Golden State’s 18th-largest export partner. That year, Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed a nonbinding agreement to boost high-tech cooperation between California and Israel, aimed at solving problems related to water, alternative sources of energy and cybersecurity. In September, Los Angeles County and Beverly Hills signed separate nonbinding agreements to cooperate with Israel on matters such as water scarcity as well. 

Academy for Jewish Religion moves to Koreatown

For the first time since the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA (AJR-CA), was founded 13 years ago, the pluralistic institution that trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains has its own space. The school moved from Westwood into the Koreatown neighborhood of Los Angeles earlier this month.

“It just seemed like the right place, the right time, and that’s why we moved. And everyone is very excited about it,” said Tamar Frankiel, president of the transdenominational seminary.

With the move, AJR-CA has joined Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Jewish Journal in an office building at 3250 Wilshire Blvd., near Vermont Avenue. The 6,500-square-foot space, which includes six classrooms, eight administrative offices, a library and a faculty lounge, is adjacent to a large outdoor terrace area shared by the building’s tenants.

Several factors prompted the move from Westwood, where the school outgrew the campus it had been sharing on the property of the Hillel at UCLA. The incoming AJR-CA class is 40 percent larger than the 2013 graduating class, Frankiel said.  

While Koreatown is not exactly thought of as a conventionally Jewish area, times are changing: an increasing number of Jews are living and praying in and around Koreatown, including with the recent reopening of the renovated Wilshire Boulevard Temple. 

None of this has been lost on Frankiel. 

“We like to think that we’re moving to an urban neighborhood, a neighborhood growing in terms of Jewish institutions and accessible to different Jewish populations,” she said.

Unfortunately, some among the school’s 65 students will have a longer commute than before, Frankiel said. But there’s always public transportation — the location is near the Wilshire-Vermont subway stop and several bus stops. 

Frankiel believes the positives outweigh the negatives.

“Everyone who has been there has been like, ‘Wow! This is so great.’ So I feel wonderful about it, and so does everyone who has come to see the space.”

Orthodox woman, a first

In a groundbreaking appointment, the Academy for Jewish Religion, California (AJR,CA), has selected Tamar Frankiel as its new president, making her the first Orthodox woman to lead an American rabbinical school.

Frankiel, 66, is a professor of comparative religion and an expert on Jewish mysticism. 

The author of a widely used textbook on Christianity and several books on Judaism and Jewish women’s practice, Frankiel has taught since 2002 at AJR,CA, a transdenominational seminary at the Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center at UCLA. She has served there as dean of students, dean of academic affairs and, most recently, as  provost.

Founded in 2000 by a small group of L.A. rabbis seeking to approach Jewish study from multiple perspectives, AJR,CA trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains. It originally was affiliated with the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York, but one year after its founding, the West Coast school became an independent institution. 

According to Frankiel, AJR,CA now counts 65 students across three programs, some 40 of whom are rabbinical students. 

“We’re growing into a mature institution,” Frankiel said in a phone interview. “My job is to build on the foundation and bring more people into the orbit of AJR,CA.” 

Frankiel succeeds outgoing president Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, who also is Orthodox and who led AJR,CA beginning in 2008. Frankiel was appointed to the position Jan. 9 by the institution’s board of directors following a national search.

For an institution widely considered to be liberal, Frankiel said that “it’s perhaps unusual that two presidents in a row are Orthodox or observant.” She attributed that fact to the “pluralism of the school and the respect AJR,CA has for tradition.”

Graduates of AJR,CA’s five-year rabbinic training program should be fluent in both traditional and more liberal streams of Judaism, including Reform and Renewal, Frankiel said. 

“The depth of pluralism at the academy is quite amazing. Faculty from all different denominations teach there, and it’s the way I think Jewish life should grow and develop.”

As dean of academic affairs, Frankiel was instrumental in creating Claremont Lincoln University, a collaborative initiative between AJR,CA, the Claremont School of Theology and the Islamic Center of Southern California. AJR,CA received a Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to bring faculty from the three different faith institutions together for religious and textual study. The next step, Frankiel said, will be the production of an interfaith conference.

Raised in Ohio in a non-Jewish home, Frankiel converted to Judaism in 1979. She married Hershel Frankiel, a Polish Holocaust survivor, who was becoming more religiously observant at the time they met. Together they created a traditional Jewish home and raised five children in the Fairfax district.

Frankiel earned her doctorate in the history of religions from the University of Chicago and has taught at Claremont School of Theology, Stanford University and Princeton University. 

She wrote several books on religion in America, including “Gospel Hymns and Social Religion” and “California’s Spiritual Frontiers.” Her later works include “The Gift of Kabbalah” and “Entering the Temple of Dreams,” a Jewish guide to nighttime prayer and meditation for people of all faiths, which she co-authored with Judy Greenfeld. She also is the author of “The Voice of Sarah: Feminine Spirituality and Traditional Judaism.”

Jews still have big role in changing L.A. political scene

It was not so long ago that Los Angeles City Hall and the Los Angeles Unified School District school board were filled with Jewish elected officials. The first winning Jewish
candidate of the 20th century, Rosalind Wiener (later Wyman) was elected to the council in 1953. From then on, Jews translated their high degree of political interest, disproportionate turnout at the polls and generally progressive politics into remarkable electoral success.

At one point, as many as one-third of the City Council members were Jewish. During the height of the school busing controversy in the late 1970s, the leadership of the anti-busing movement, as well as the most active whites in favor of busing, were Jewish and fought each other over school board seats.

Today, Jews remain a key constituency in Los Angeles politics and generate plenty of strong candidates. The dramatic rise of Latinos in local politics, though, has carved out another niche for minority candidates that once largely belonged to African Americans.

On the City Council, three seats (Districts 8, 9 and 10) are likely to remain African American for at least a while longer and then may shift toward Latinos. Another four (Districts 1, 6, 7 and 14) are likely to be Latino seats. Of the remaining eight seats, Jewish candidates have good chances to be elected but are only certain to be elected in one, the 5th District.

Jewish candidates also have an excellent chance at citywide races for mayor, controller and city attorney. On the school board, the Westside and Valley seats and maybe one more are still fair pickings for Jewish candidates.

The City Council’s 5th District stretches from the Fairfax district to Bel Air and Westwood on the Westside and into the near portions of the San Fernando Valley. It was Wyman’s seat, and then it fell to Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss.

The 5th District is roughly one-third Jewish in a city with a 6 percent Jewish population. It regularly turns out the highest number of voters in city elections. (As one measure in the recent city elections, there were 185 precincts in the 5th District, compared to only 59 in the working-class Eastside 1st District. The more registered voters, the more precincts.) It has the highest level of education among the voters of any L.A. City Council district.

It’s a very tough seat to win, because there are so many strong Jewish candidates in the area. Those who win it have a good chance to move up. Edelman and Yaroslavsky became L.A. County supervisors. Feuer was nearly elected city attorney in 2001 and just won a state Assembly seat. Weiss has just announced his candidacy for city attorney in 2009. His candidacy opens up the 5th District seat in the same year.

Term limits in Los Angeles create the usual game of musical chairs. Until last year, all the elected officials were limited to two terms. In November, Measure R scrambled things by adding a term for City Council members, while leaving the three citywide offices at two terms. So Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Controller Laura Chick and City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo are all termed out in 2009.

City Council members who thought they would be termed out now have another term. Even with that extra council term, the citywide openings will draw some like Weiss to give up their seats to go for the gold. Chick is thinking of running for the 5th District seat, and the popular controller would be a strong candidate.

Weiss has collected the endorsements of two popular mayors, Villaraigosa and Richard Riordan. He is hoping to preempt major competition early on. A strong challenger would be Bob Hertzberg, who can draw on the Valley Jewish base, which outnumbers the Westside Jewish constituency.

The mayor’s endorsement may keep major Latino candidates out of the race, a relevant factor, given Delgadillo’s upset victory over Feuer, another 5th District City Council member with even more endorsements. Having endorsed Villaraigosa early in the mayoral campaign, Weiss earned that crucial mayoral support. Chick is closely allied with the mayor, having helped his campaign with tough investigations of former Mayor James Hahn and having formally endorsed him.

The school board elections offer another window into the changing Jewish role in Los Angeles. Jewish voters are immensely and intensely interested in public education, even when their children are grown or in private schools. As in the school busing controversy, Jews are on both sides of the power struggle between the school board and the mayor.

Marlene Canter, the school board president, has been the strongest critic of the mayor’s plan. David Tokofsky managed, sometimes narrowly, to hold onto his Eastside seat against Latino challengers but finally stepped down this year to be replaced by a mayor-endorsed Latina, Yolie Aguilar. At the same time, the mayor’s potential control of the school board likely comes down to a Jewish candidate endorsed by the mayor in the Valley’s 3rd District.

Incumbent Jon Lauritzen is being supported by the teachers union and is under heavy challenge from Tamar Galatzan, who is supported by the mayor’s reform coalition. Before joining the Los Angeles city attorney’s office, where she is a deputy city attorney, Galatzan was Western states associate counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. In the primary election, Galatzan outpolled the incumbent, 44 percent to 40 percent, setting up a tight race in the runoff.

So why are Jews on both sides of the school debate? Jews have long ties to the school board and to the teachers union. But on the other side, there is a long tradition of supporting reform in all its varieties, and Jewish voters provide the city’s most reliable bloc of pro-reform voting.

Valley Jews especially were friendly to Riordan, who has strongly backed Villaraigosa’s moves on education. And warm views of Villaraigosa himself, who has long cultivated the Jewish community, add to the mix. If Galatzan is elected, Villaraigosa will have his school board majority.

So as the rise of Latinos has moderately edged out the role of Jews in one way, the linkage to Villaraigosa (for Weiss, Chick and Galatzan) has brought Jews another advantage in a way akin to the Bradley alliance. This is, of course, typical of Los Angeles politics in that nobody makes it on their own anyway, but only in alliance with other groups.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton.

Thirst for Judaism binds group together across border

We were near the desert, somewhere past the Salton Sea, when Daniel (Dany) Mehlman, a 48-year-old Conservative rabbi, summed up the situation.

“OK,” he said, “we’re going to rendezvous with a man I’ve never met, go with him to a Mexican city I’ve never been to, then spend the weekend with people I don’t know.”

“Sounds perfect,” I said.

In El Centro, a California town about 100 miles east of San Diego, we met Jose Orozco — smiling, middle-aged, wearing a kippah. We followed him across the international border to Mexicali.

At a modest house in a residential area, Alfredo and Lupe Medrano came out, greeted us warmly and introduced us to their children and grandchildren, as well as to relatives and friends who come to the home every Friday night to celebrate Shabbat.

By sundown, the living room overflowed with several generations, from babies in arms to those older than 80, and everything in between.

There were at least a dozen in their teens and 20s. Kippot were distributed to the men, candles were lit, small plastic cups filled with wine, prayers recited. The brachot were led by Orozco and Lupe Medrano, as well as by Lupe’s daughter, Naara, and her friend, Nancy Fajardo.

During the Hamotzi, everyone either touched the braided, homemade challah or someone nearby, so that all were connected.

Mehlman had gone to the Mexicali home because this community wants Spanish-speaking rabbis to visit them and give them guidance. Through a series of connections, Orozco learned about Mehlman, who’s Argentine-born and has sponsored many conversions, and invited him for the weekend.

Mehlman teaches at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills and at the University of Judaism in Bel Air, in addition to being the spiritual leader at K’hilat Ha’Aloneem in Ojai and part-time rabbi at Beth Shalom of Whittier.

When Mehlman told me he was going to visit a group of Mexicans practicing Judaism on their own — no rabbi, no shul — it sounded fascinating; I asked if I could come along.

I wondered what had led these people — born into Catholic families — to follow Judaism. More than that, I wanted to see Judaism through their eyes. What do they feel when they say the prayers? What is the source of their faith?

This was not the first time I’d asked these questions. During the High Holidays, I had attended services at Beth Shalom, where a vibrant group of Latino converts has revitalized that shul.

I’d seen their dedication and commitment. But the Whittier group lives in Los Angeles, where it’s not hard to practice Judaism. The people in Mexicali, on the other hand, risked alienating themselves from their families and their society. Why?

This question was on my mind as I watched the three women — one middle-aged, two in their 20s — cover their heads, close their eyes, wave their hands and say the brachot.

Afterward, Mehlman led the kabbalat Shabbat service. Some could read Hebrew, others knew the prayers by heart. All sang niggunim.

The feeling was warm and affable, even joyous — a large extended family welcoming Shabbat. When the service was over, Mehlman asked that each person say a few words about the path that led him or her to Judaism and to this home.

Dr. Mario Espinoza, a Mexicali obstetrician-gynecologist, spoke about his certainty that he’s descended from Jews forcibly converted to Christianity centuries ago. He used the Hebrew word anousim (constrained people or forcibly converted) rather than Marranos, which means “swine.”

For Mexicans who trace their lineage to anousim, the Inquisition is not ancient history. It continued in Latin America, including Mexico, from the 1500s until the 1800s. During that period, those whose ancestors had been forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity were harassed, tortured and sometimes killed if they were discovered to have continued Jewish practices, which is why those practices continued in secret, if at all.

Espinoza commented that he has learned to read and speak Hebrew, and he brought with him several siddurim in Hebrew and Spanish. He and his wife, Lucia, who made the challah, are raising their four children as Jews.

Orozco said he grew up in Mexico and lives in El Centro, where he works for a social welfare agency. Recently converted to Judaism, he goes across the border regularly to spend Shabbat with the Medrano family and friends.

He said he’s been drawn to Judaism since childhood.

“When I was little,” Orozco said, “I’d listen to Jewish music, to Israeli music, and be deeply affected by it. I felt that this was the music of my heart, of my soul. I remember, as a child looking at photos of the Western Wall and crying.”

Several offered anecdotes that indicated that they, like Mario Espinoza, had ancestors who had carried on Jewish customs. Lucia Espinoza mentioned a grandmother who lit candles on Friday night. Lupe Medrano said that when she looked through her late grandfather’s effects, she found a tallit hidden in a box.

This visceral certainty about their Jewish roots may or may not be backed by hard evidence, but it’s what they feel, in blood and bone, fueled by family traditions — a feeling made all the stronger by the empathetic bond they have with those who, over the centuries, were unjustly coerced into professing a faith that was not theirs.

More than one person said that being at the Medrano house on Friday nights is like “coming home.” By being together on Shabbat, by performing Jewish rituals and saying the prayers, they’re confirming their deepest-held sense of who they are. They’ve looked into themselves — and at their family history — and have returned to their true nature, which had been overlaid with alien rituals and faiths for hundreds of years.

A few at the gathering were born Jewish. Michael Schorr, in his 70s, said that he was a child when his family left Poland before World War II. He was brought up in Argentina, has lived in Israel and now teaches engineering at a university in Mexicali.

L.A.’s gourmet kosher makeover

At the new Shilo’s steakhouse on Pico Boulevard, concentric circles of color surround the caviar: green onion on the outside, yellow egg yolk sprinkled on the inner rim, followed by chopped egg whites peppered with blinis and tortillas and topped ceremoniously by a mound of glistening fish eggs.

The Ikura caviar is red, which indicates that it’s kosher — culled from salmon, not the non-kosher black beluga that comes from sturgeon.

At The Prime Grill on Rodeo Drive, the short ribs are braised for 12 hours and then served with wild mushrooms and spicy mustard. The chopped Wagyu Steak Sliders look like little hamburgers but are eye-openingly delectable, made from hand chopped steak, while the Oh Toro sashimi is smooth and silvery and almost swims down the throat.

At Tierra Sur at the Baron Herzog Winery in Oxnard, venison is one of the most popular dishes, and the white bean soup is topped with “bacon” — a crisp, salty, flavorful meat that’s made from lamb so it will be kosher.

Welcome to Southern California’s new world of Gourmet Kosher.
As America has fallen in love with food over the last decade, the kosher world has not been too far behind. Kosher products and kosher gourmet ingredients abound, as do kosher cookbooks and cooking classes and a general interest in food, entertaining and all it entails. The kosher market has proved a profitable one, appealing to the religious, the newly kosher and others who may want nondairy, halal or simply food that is perceived to be cleaner.

New York, the capital of fine dining, boasts a number of established top-caliber kosher restaurants, among them Le Marais, Abigail’s, Tevere and The Prime Grill, which opened there in 2000 and has just opened in Beverly Hills, as well.

The arrival in Southern California of The Prime Grill — a trendier, classier place than its New York counterpart — and other restaurants, signifies that Los Angeles, a city that often lags foodwise behind New York, San Francisco and Chicago, might finally be catching up when it comes to kosher food.

In the second-largest U.S. Jewish city (behind New York) Los Angeles has a fair number — about 50 — kosher eateries, from bakeries to pizza stores to ethnic food and a number of fancier restaurants.

New restaurants are appearing that don’t ladle up the chicken soup and pastrami sandwiches of yesteryear, though delis with that fare still abound, more often known as “kosher style” and consumed by the non-kosher crowd in the mood for a good knish.

This gourmet kosher trend is aspiring to create a whole new world of fine dining, with chefs trained at top culinary schools (some of them do not observe kashrut themselves) who offer high-end cuisine and extensive wine lists in dining rooms designed by famous decorators.

Pricey and elegant, the hope is to bring high-quality dining to the kosher consumer and, at the same time, attract all the other food connoisseurs that vie for tables at Los Angeles’ top eateries.

But are Los Angeles’ kosher consumers ready for high-class dining? And is the mainstream “treif” world ready to patronize a kosher restaurant as a prime destination?

What does it take to be a kosher restaurant?

No. 1, of course, is adherence to the laws of kashrut, a complex system with innumerable subtleties and exceptions, but which at its most basic elements prohibits pork, shellfish and some other animals and fish and their byproducts. There are also restrictions regarding alcohol and produce and laws prohibiting mixing meat and dairy products. Any kosher restaurant must choose to be either fleishig or milchiks (the Yiddish words for meat or dairy), which means choosing between steakhouse or Italian, a deli or a pizzeria. Not both.

To be certified glatt or suitably kosher for the Orthodox (there are also some Conservative certifications), a restaurant cannot be open on Sabbath or Jewish festivals. And, further, to get a hashgachah — the outside certification provided for a fee by organizations such as the Rabbinic Council of California, Kehilla and Rabbi Yehuda Bukspan, to name a few of the top L.A. certifiers — the venue must have a mashgiach onsite — a supervisor versed in the laws who will ensure complicity.

Rabbi Yaacov Vann, director of Kashrut Services at the RCC, one of the top kosher certifiers in California, describes the need for a kosher restaurant to be a “secure system,” and he uses specific criteria to assess the risks of each establishment.

“How likely is there to be a problem?” he said.

Bakeries, like the famous Schwartz’s, for example, have a low-risk assessment, because there’s little differential between ingredients for kosher bakeries and non-kosher bakeries — flour, sugar, eggs — are all pareve. “There’s little risk to cheat,” he said.

Meat, by contrast, must come from a certified shohet, or butcher, and is more expensive than regular meat. (In September, a scandal rocked Monsey, N.Y., when a butcher was discovered selling non-kosher meat to the ultra-Orthodox community.)

All restaurants, of course, need more oversight than any bakery or pizzeria, and the bigger and busier the place, the more supervision it requires. Depending on the facility, the mashgiach may be the owner or someone who works in the store or an outsider — although the RCC is hoping to require all restaurants to have outside supervisors to minimize corruption.

All this can cost the establishment thousands of dollars a year. But the assurance of strict observance is the only way to bring in people who eat kosher.

There are no statistics on the number of Jews who keep kosher in Los Angeles, though an estimated 10 percent of the L.A. area’s roughly 600,000 are said to be Orthodox. But even those numbers don’t mean much to restauranteurs, because not all religious Jews eat out, some do but only infrequently, limited by such reasons as money, time, family values or weekends spent at home for Shabbat. Many Jews who care about kashrut will also eat at non-kosher restaurants but limit themselves to nonmeat meals, allowing themselves more flexibility on the weekends, when kosher restaurants are closed.

In other words, it’s impossible to gauge the size of the market for kosher dining, except to say that the clientele, until now, has been mostly Jews, friends of Jews or colleagues of Jews taken there for business meals. And everyone agrees, that despite many choices until now among kosher restaurants, there haven’t been enough good kosher restaurants here.

Key Jewish California lawmakers return to powerful roles in new Congress

The 2006 congressional election that brought the Democrats back to power on Capitol Hill was a moment filled with meaning for four Jewish lions of California politics — Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and Reps. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (Van Nuys).

After six years in the wilderness as the minority during the polarizing Bush presidency, they have suddenly been given an unexpected second chance to be at the center of national policy. And with the 2008 presidential race looking very competitive, both within and between the parties, the Jewish community in Los Angeles also finds itself back in the middle of things.

For Waxman and Berman, in particular, the moment is delicious because the highly disciplined House was a prison under Republican speakers, and the Democratic majority is now large enough to allow them to take their time planning hearings.

The key to the House of Representatives is the committee and subcommittee system. Members have little power individually, unless they are in the party leadership, but when they exercise their power through committees, they can move mountains. The majority chooses virtually all the committee chairs, and that means that each of these political figures will have a forum from which to issue subpoenas, run hearings and propose legislation.

Waxman has the premier spot as chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a perch from which he can roam throughout the government. The image of Waxman waving a subpoena must ruin the sleep of many White House staffers.

Undoubtedly, Waxman will explore the role of Bush administration officials in overriding the decisions of professionals in federal agencies, the secrecy that has surrounded government decision making, crises in public health and even profiteering in the reconstruction of Iraq. Administration officials used to being coddled by Congress will find Waxman a much tougher customer. Barely able to contain his readiness, Waxman noted that there was so much to investigate that it was only a matter of deciding where to start.

Berman is a member of the Judiciary Committee and its Subcommittee on Courts. Along with Judiciary Chair John Conyers, Berman has issued a call to close the loophole placed in the Patriot Act by Sen. Arlen Specter (a Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania) that allows the Justice Department to remove U.S. attorneys and replace them without Senate confirmation.

Two other Jewish Democrats from this area will have important roles in national security matters. Rep. Jane Harman (Wilmington) had a choice position coming her way as ranking Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, but conflicts with then-incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi (San Francisco) ended that dream, when the new leader passed Harman over for chair in favor of Rep. Silvestre Reyes of Texas.

Harman did land a position as chair of the Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing and Terrorism Risk Assessment. From that spot, her considerable experience in intelligence and national security will showcase her, while she tries to rebuild her relationship with the speaker.

Meanwhile, Rep. Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) has earned a choice seat on the Judiciary Committee and the chairmanship of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade. He has staked out a tough position on Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons, calling it a far greater threat than Iraq ever posed.

For Feinstein and Boxer, the world looks a little different. Individual senators are extremely important, regardless of their committee positions. But the Senate majority rests precariously on one vote, that of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a different sort of Jewish Democrat.

While winning re-election as an independent in very blue Connecticut, Lieberman appeared to be critical of President Bush’s Iraq policy. Once back in office, he has taken to implying that the president’s critics are lending “aid and comfort” to our enemies.

His fellow Democrats fear that he wants to join the Republicans and thereby swing control of the Senate back. Boxer, ever vigilant to electoral challenges as the more liberal of the two senators, can hear rumors that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger might run for her seat in 2010. And yet, even with these unknowns, as senators they have great authority and public attention.

The two Senators will not only have key committee positions (Feinstein on Intelligence and Appropriations, Boxer as chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee) but access to national media. Expect Feinstein to play a leading role in the Iraq debate and other military matters, and Boxer to be central to discussions about education, choice and the environment. Much of the social agenda of the Bush administration has been conducted quietly through administrative decisions (such as imposing limits on family planning in international programs), a situation that can only be rectified by active congressional oversight.

A great unknown is the political impact of America’s relationship with Iran on these leading Jewish Democrats. They have all become vocal opponents of the Iraq War, despite, in some cases, being initially supportive.

Iran presents a different case. Supporters of Israel consider Iran to be a profound threat, especially if it should acquire nuclear weapons.

Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney appear to be laying the groundwork for possible war with Iran. Based on the Iraq experience, few have much confidence in the ability of the Bush administration to handle this crisis well.

Yet Jewish Democrats will still want to make sure that Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not realized. Perhaps these California Democrats, some of whom are on pivotal national security committees or subcommittees, can craft a wise but forceful policy with Iran that can win public support and prevent another catastrophic foreign policy failure.

Having these long-serving members back in positions of power is going to make a real difference in national government. They have seen it all, from having great impact to being in the doghouse. Like athletes who know how hard it is to win a championship, they will be careful not to waste a second of their time at the top. They will question and probe, inquire and complain. An administration unused to being challenged will face oversight every working day.

But more than that is going on. Congressional elections always set the tone for the next presidential election, and 2006 has set the stage for 2008. California Jews, especially in the Los Angeles area, will play a significant role in that contest.

Come dive with me — Israeli skydivers training in SoCal

You do it … you can never go back,” Israeli Sharon Har-noy said recently of her passion for the sport of skydiving. She and teammate Adi Freid met with a reporter during a break from training at Perris Valley Skydiving, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Har-noy and Freid make up the only all-female Israeli skydive team in the advanced category, which includes just six teams. They came to Perris to prepare for their nationals, set for April 2007, and hopefully the world competition in Australia to follow. Their U.S. training tour, sponsored by Israeli American Dr. Avraham Kadar and his company,, included stops at Skydive Cross Keys in New Jersey, Skydive Arizona Eloy, as well as Perris, before they returned to Israel Oct. 19.

The team’s home drop zone, Paradive, at Habonim Beach, between Haifa and Tel Aviv, is only open four days a week, and it lacks the opportunities available in the United States. At Perris, they trained seven days a week on faster planes that could carry more people, and they utilized a wind tunnel that simulated skydiving. The teammates said that during one week of training at Perris, they got in 70 jumps and made progress that would have taken them at least three months in Israel.

In Israel, the pair train on the weekends. During the week, Freid is a senior psychology major at Tel Aviv University and Har-noy produces animated films for, an education service.

The pair, both now 24, met about 3 1/2 years ago at Paradive and became quick friends. They had both done diving before — Har-noy took her first jump at the drop zone after high school and continued on weekend breaks from the army, while Freid’s first skydiving experience was in New Zealand, during her post-military travels in 2002.

“Two girls in the drop zone, we had to get together and start jumping,” Freid said.

About a year ago, while on a trip to Perris, they met manager Dan Brodsky-Chenfeld, a world champion diver who is also Jewish, suggested they team up and start competing.

“To be a good skydiver you have to jump with someone good, and if there is no good people in the drop zone, then nobody can get ahead,” Har-noy said.

Among those helping them prepare is coach David Gershfeld.

“They have that finesse that … drive and energy … to get better and actively progress,” Gershfeld said.

Freid and Har-noy say the sport is safe, more so, they argue, than driving a car.And while Paradive closed for a month during the recent war, both women say they didn’t feel threatened.

“Maybe it’s easier to skydive in Israel because you are used to being afraid, or used to being in dangerous situations. Skydiving really isn’t that dangerous,” Freid said.

— Sara Bakhshian, Contributing Writer