Klezmer musicians lead a procession of congregants to the new Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life. Photo by Oren Peleg.

Valley Outreach Synagogue home at last

Much like the ancient Israelites, the Jews of Valley Outreach Synagogue (VOS) have spent decades wandering the Los Angeles desert in search of a home. Now, they’ve finally reached the Promised Land. 

On March 19, in a ceremony 32 years in the making, 400 VOS members attended the grand opening of the Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life in Calabasas. Formerly a warehouse, the 15,000-square-foot facility, located at 26670 Agoura Road, has a library, a coffee bar, offices and a Meeting and Learning Center. Its high-ceilinged sanctuary seats 500 and features three flat-screens on the walls as well as a Jerusalem limestone-lined ark housing four newly donated Torah scrolls.

Funds for the $2 million facility were raised through private member donations, according to VOS Rabbi Ron Li-Paz. The nondenominational synagogue serves more than 2,000 Jews from some 600 families in the San Fernando Valley, Conejo Valley and Malibu-area communities.

In the past, VOS has held services in parks, backyards, schools, community centers, hotel ballrooms and churches. It has set up office space at five sites. And the adult choir has resorted to rehearsing in a bowling alley.

“I sometimes think of our community as spokes on a wheel,” Li-Paz, who has been at VOS for 21 years, told the Journal. “Everyone has been on the ends of the spokes. This allows us to bring them into a hub.”

The grand opening kicked off at noon with a lively procession from the parking lot to the glass doors of the new synagogue. Members took turns carrying the Torah scrolls through the asphalt lot in the shadow of the Santa Monica Mountains. Klezmer musicians played tunes while iPhone cameras documented the ceremony.

Once inside the new main lobby, Li-Paz led prayers to bless the newly placed mezuzot on the doorposts of its two main entrances. Then the former opera singer, who was cantor at VOS before becoming its rabbi, sang Shehecheyanu — a prayer that marks happy occasions.

The occasion tugged on heartstrings for many longstanding members. A teary-eyed Jack Bielan, who has been the musical director at the synagogue since its inception, was overcome with emotion when he addressed families in their gleaming new sanctuary.

“We are now in our house,” he said, pounding the podium for emphasis. “Valley Outreach Synagogue is an iconic, historic, world-class Jewish congregation. We’ve gotten this far together without a building for 32 years. We’re already seeing the infinite possibilities ahead of us.”

A musician who has worked with the likes of Seal and James Taylor, Bielan introduced a song he wrote called “We Have a Home.” He played piano and Bronwen Li-Paz, the rabbi’s wife, sang.

Rabbi Li-Paz said the synagogue has faced many “stops and starts” along the way to finding a home. In the past, chief among those has been the concern that getting a building would necessitate higher membership fees and restrict access to some potential members. Li-Paz said the new facility comes with no fee hikes for members.

“We’re committed to keeping the lowest dues structure that I know of for any synagogue,” he said. “It’s right there in our name. Outreach, to me, means that I want to break down barriers to Jewish life and not build them up. I think that’s why donors were inspired to give.”

Beyond functioning as a synagogue, the Valley Outreach Synagogue and Center for Jewish Life fills a void for his members, Li-Paz said. It will be a community center offering diverse programming beyond just prayer services.

“Religious real estate is the most underused real estate that I know of. Most hours of most days, spaces like churches and synagogues are dark and empty,” he said. “I wanted to build one that uses the space constantly for services, classes, art, plays and concerts.”

VOS already operates a home-based enrichment initiative called JEWELS (Jewish, Education, Wisdom, Ethics, Literacy and Service). Members currently host more than 20 programs, such as Jewish holiday cooking and art activities, in homes. These will continue at people’s homes and not the new center.

Anticipating the possibilities a new building would present, VOS recently contracted with Momentum Academies, a recreation company that specializes in after-school enrichment programming, to plan and execute a variety of programming for members of all ages inside the walls of the new facility.

Jennifer Maddux, Momentum’s director of operations, said programming like youth theater, homework club, adult exercise classes, bingo nights, health and wellness seminars, and current events discussion groups will be offered by Momentum’s staff of educators starting in April.

To Michele Berger, 72, a VOS member for more than 20 years, the opening of the building’s doors signaled something more than a new place for services or bingo nights.

“I think it’s wonderful,” she said, eyes darting around to other smiling guests. “Everyone has worked so hard for it, doing what they’re doing with the JEWELS program and now with the new building, helping grow Judaism in the community, encouraging families to lead Jewish lives. It’s helping to keep Judaism alive. We don’t want Judaism to die.” 

Ex-Justin Bieber neighbor suing over bodyguard’s ‘little Jew boy’ slur

A former neighbor of Justin Bieber is suing the American pop star, claiming that the singer’s bodyguard called him a “little Jew boy.”

Jeff Schwartz is seeking damages for emotional distress in his lawsuit filed last last week, according to the entertainment website TMZ.

According to the suit, Schwartz warned Bieber over Memorial Day weekend in 2013 to stop speeding around their Calabasas, Calif., neighborhood in his sports car because it put lives at risk, TMZ reported.

Next, the suit claims, Bieber’s bodyguards came out and one of them called Schwartz a “little Jew boy” before repeating, “What are you going to do about it, Jew boy?”

The slur allegedly was used months before Bieber egged Schwartz’s house. The singer pleaded no contest to a vandalism charge in the incident, was placed on probation and paid $80,000 to make repairs.

Bieber moved out of the Southern California neighborhood last year.

Calabasas Jews hoop it up

While Jews all over the world gathered on March 7 to retell the story of Purim, the nine Jews on the Calabasas high school boys basketball team celebrated differently: by playing in their first California Interscholastic Federation State Tournament.

The Coyotes, with five starters “who have been bar mitzvahed,” as their Jewish coach said, earned the No. 3 seeding in the Division III bracket and were scheduled (as of The Journal’s press time on Tuesday) to host Frontier High of Bakersfield at 7 p.m.

“I don’t know if there’s another public high school in the country with a basketball team with an all bar mitzvah starting five,” coach Jon Palarz said. He added that he considered holding practices on Sundays instead of Saturdays, but section rules prohibit it except for Jewish schools.

This is the first time the Coyotes (27-3, ranked 29th in the state by high school sports network MaxPreps) have reached the state tournament. Palarz, however, has been here before. He coached Campbell Hall in Studio City to State semifinal and quarterfinal berths in his three seasons there in the 1990s, and after that guided Lake Washington High in Kirkland, Wash. to the state semifinals.

In routing South Torrance High 69-39 to claim the section Division 3AA championship last week, the Coyotes displayed scoring depth as sophomore point guard Jeremy Lieberman led with 15 points, followed by senior center Holden Israel with 14 points. The three other Jewish starters are junior wingman Alex Monsegue, senior forward Joshua Cohan and senior guard Spencer Levy.

“It’s a unique aspect of our team camaraderie, our team culture,” Palarz said.

All five played on the varsity last year, when the Coyotes finished 20-9 and lost in the second round of the section playoffs. Palarz said the nine grew up together and many have played in the annual Maccabi Games.

The Jewish players are aware of their majority (nine Jews, six non-Jews), Palarz said, but it’s not something highlighted or stressed. Much like a baseball team might have all Latin starters and a basketball team might have all black starters, he said, the Coyotes are more than just a Jewish team.

“We’re proud of this heritage,” Palarz said, “but our team is the Calabasas High School team.”

Three Calabasas vandals were charged Tuesday with hate crime

Formal charges—including a hate crime allegation—were filed on Tuesday afternoon, May 17, against the three Calabasas High School students who were arrested for defacing their school with anti-Semitic and racist graffiti last month, a spokesperson from the Los Angeles County District Attorney told the Jewish Journal on Tuesday.

“Each will be charged with one count of felony vandalism with a hate crime allegation,” D.A. Spokeswoman Shiara Davila-Morales said.

The graffiti was found on Saturday morning, April 22. The three teens confessed to the vandalism on April 26 and were arrested the following day. They were immediately released into their parents’ custody. The court could decide to detain the students again while awaiting trial, but Davila-Morales said that was unlikely, given the facts of the case.

The three students, who are not being named because they are juveniles, are expected to appear in Sylmar Juvenile Court for arraignment on June 30, Davila-Morales said. They have been described by a spokesman in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department as “4.0 students” and are in the 11th grade at Calabasas High School.

The maximum sentence for a single count of felony vandalism is three years in confinement in a Division of Juvenile Justice facility, Davila-Morales said. If convicted of a hate crime, the students could receive longer sentences, though Davila-Morales did not say exactly how much more time that might mean.

Last week, a detective with the Sheriff’s Department involved in the case told the Jewish Journal that one of the vandals is Jewish.

As of last week, the students had not returned to their high school since confessing to scrawling the hate-filled graffiti, and the Las Virgenes Unified School District was still weighing the possibility of expelling the students.

An earlier version of this story suggested that the District Attorney’s Spokeswoman identified the students charged as those who confessed to sheriff’s department investigators last month. That was not the case. Furthermore, the story suggested that the students, if convicted, would go jail. The version above has been edited to correct those two inaccuracies.

Sheriff to push for hate crime charges in Calabasas anti-semitic graffiti case

Read more on this story here.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department will push for hate crime enhancements to felony charges of vandalism expected to be filed soon against three Calabasas High School students, an official from the Sheriff’s Department said Thursday.

The three 11th graders confessed to investigators on Tuesday to defacing their school late Friday night with extensive anti-Semitic and racist graffiti. The three students, all of whom have been described as “4.0 students” have not been named because they are minors.

The three were arrested Wednesday morning and released to their parents’ custody.

“We are going to file felony vandalism charges, with a hate crime enhancement,” Capt. Joe Stephen of the Malibu/Lost Hills Station said. The Sheriff’s Department investigation has not yet been completed, and the ultimate decision about whether to charge the students with a hate crime will be made by a Los Angeles County District Attorney.

Initial reports had said that the sheriff’s department would not pursue hate crime charges, but Stephen denied that the more severe designation had ever been off the table.

“Obviously those symbols and signs are despicable and shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone,” Stephen said of the graffiti, which included numerous swastikas, a spray-painted portrait of Hitler and the words “Whites Only” scrawled above a water fountain. “The Sheriff’s Department fully understands the magnitude and historical significance of those markings.”

In addition to any criminal prosecution, the students will face disciplinary action by administrators and school district officials.

Police say Calabasas High students were behind anti-Semitic graffiti

Read more on this story here.

Investigators from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department have identified three students at Calabasas High School as the alleged vandals behind extensive anti-Semitic graffiti found on school property on Saturday morning, April 23, a spokesperson from the Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday afternoon. The students have not yet been charged, and the case will be presented to a district attorney on Friday, according to Sgt. Mike Holland of the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department.

Names of the students to be charged will be released mid-day on Wed. April 27, Holland said.

The graffiti, which was removed before the start of school on Monday, included numerous swastikas on lockers, walls and pavement, and a spray-painted portrait of Hitler. News reports said that the graffiti also targeted groups other than Jews, including blacks and Latinos.

The scrawlings included the names of seven Calabasas High School students and two teachers at the school. All of the students targeted by the vandals are members of the school’s 11th grade class, and most, though not all, are Jewish.

This is not the first such incident at the school; in January 2010 a student who is Jewish found a swastika carved into the hood of his car. No one was charged for the incident. At that time, the school’s principal, C.J. Foss, suggested that it was a personal attack by one student against another.

Police did not release the names of the three students alleged to be behind the graffiti, but said they are also members of the 11th grade class at the high school.

“They’re all 4.0 students, on both sides,” Holland said.

Since the incident, the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department has interviewed more than 100 students, including those named in the graffiti and the suspects. Holland said that the three alleged vandals told investigators that they had been mistreated by their fellow students at the school, and specifically by the seven students whose names were found spray-painted on the school’s walls.

Holland said the three students told investigators that they believed the students named in the markings are Jewish.

Calabasas High School is a California Distinguished School and a National Blue Ribbon School. The student body has a large Jewish population.

Holland said the Sheriff’s Department will search the home of one of the three students on April 27. When the case is presented on Fri. April 29, the district attorney will decide whether to charge the students with criminal vandalism or a hate crime. All of them are minors, and none have prior criminal records.

Holland said that there is evidence suggesting that the suspects have indeed been “picked on” by other students over the course of the school year.

“It’s not as black and white as people think,” he said.

“These kids will be prosecuted for it, because their actions were illegal,” Holland said.

Students at the school have begun to receive tolerance training by a sherriff’s department program in the aftermath of the incident.


Three students arrested for anti-Semitic graffiti at Calabasas High School

Anti-Islam Petition Fails to Sway UCLA

“Islam is NOT a religion.”

“Please understand the danger that Islam poses to our society.”


These and many other similar comments appear alongside the names of more than 1,000 signatories to a petition calling for the Muslim Student Association (MSA) to be banned from the UCLA campus.

The effort, begun in early February, was led by the Calabasas-West Valley chapter of ACT! for America. Spurred by reports on conservative blogs about the 13th annual MSA Western Conference, which took place Jan. 14-16 on UCLA’s campus, the Calabasas group demanded the MSA be prohibited from gathering on campus on the grounds that the group was “advocating the overriding of the authority of the government of the United States.”

“Under the guise of free speech,” Shari Goodman, the Calabasas chapter’s leader, wrote to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, “they [MSA] have for years conducted a campaign to not only delegitimize the state of Israel at numerous campuses throughout the country, but they have also engaged in unprecedented anti-Semitism directed at Jewish students on American college

UCLA spokesman Phil Hampton said the university had been monitoring the petition and would not accede to the request to ban the MSA. “We believe the MSA and its leaders demonstrated exemplary leadership leading up to and during the conference,” Hampton said. “UCLA has a rich tradition of facilitating the free and open exchange of ideas. We do that in an environment that respects differences of opinions.”

Even allies in the fight against Islam have come out against the Calabasas chapter’s petition. David Horowitz, a conservative writer with little love for Islam (and even less for the free speech practiced at many American universities) slammed the petition on his Front Page Mag blog. Calling it “misguided,” even as he reiterated the basic claims on which it was based — namely that the MSA “is a creation of the Muslim Brotherhood” and a “sister organization of the terrorist group Hamas.”

Horowitz also reported that Brigitte Gabriel, the founder, president and CEO of ACT! for America, did not support the campaign by the Calabasas-West Valley chapter, one of 501 individual and autonomous chapters across the country. Gabriel could not be reached for comment.

Siblings show they have write stuff

As they practiced their haftorah portions, perfected their speeches and sent out invitations, Daniel and Lauren Deitch felt something was missing from their b’nai mitzvah preparations: Grandma Julie.

The Deitches’ grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, had promised to attend their Dec. 9, 2006, simcha. But her death six months earlier left the siblings with a void that seemed nearly impossible to fill.

To include her in their special day, the two were inspired to write and illustrate “We Will Always Remember” (Mishpucha Press, 2006), a book detailing their grandparents’ experiences during the Holocaust to be distributed during the ceremony. But what began as a mitzvah project to honor family and remember the Holocaust soon became much more. The Deitches, who live in Hidden Hills, wrote about the experience and won first prize in Areyvut’s annual B’nai Mitzvah Essay Contest for a poignant piece detailing their unique and very personal project.

The inspiration for the book was sparked during the shiva, when the Deitches’ parents took out the videotaped interview Grandma Julie had provided to the Shoah Foundation. After watching her testimony, Daniel, 14, and Lauren, 12, started to ask questions about her life, especially about her survival during the Holocaust.

“My grandma used to tell us stories about when she was … in the Holocaust,” remembered Lauren. “But she didn’t go that far with it.”

For their mitzvah project, the Deitches had originally planned to collect books for BookEnds, a local nonprofit that gathers children’s books through student-run book drives and places them in schools and youth organizations that lack reading materials. They’d been involved with the group in the past, and it seemed easy for them to continue the effort.

But the interest the siblings took in their grandparents’ lives made them reconsider their mitzvah project plans. When their publisher father suggested that they write a book about their grandparents, the Deitches decided to take on both projects.

Daniel and Lauren filled the gaps in their grandmother’s tales by digging up old photos, talking to family members, reading Holocaust-related books and visiting the Museum of Tolerance.

In their research, they began to understand their grandmother’s desire to protect them from the horrors she’d seen. At the same time, they uncovered a fascinating story. Their grandmother was the only one in her family to survive the Holocaust. She escaped a concentration camp in Hungary with her infant child and played up her fair features in order to pass herself off as a Christian.

Daniel and Lauren were also inspired to learn more about their Holocaust-survivor grandfather, Walter. He escaped from Germany as a child via Kindertransport, a British program that enabled Jewish children to escape to England, while his parents fled to Shanghai to survive.

Daniel and Lauren unveiled the book to their friends and family during the b’nai mitzvah ceremony. The siblings remember watching their guests’ faces when the rabbi revealed the book.

“Everyone started crying,” Lauren said.

To continue to honor their grandmother’s memory, the Deitches have arranged for the profits from book sales to go to The Blue Card Fund, a national charity that provides financial assistance to needy Jewish survivors of the Holocaust and their children.

For Daniel and Lauren, becoming authors has also meant serving as peer educators.

“I told my friends that I wrote a book about the Holocaust, and at least three of them didn’t know what it was,” said Daniel. Lauren had a similar experience.

In addition to sharing their knowledge and their book with their friends, the children gave copies of it to their principal and teachers at A.E. Wright Middle School in Calabasas. Another copy resides in the school library.

It was the personal aspect of the Deitches’ essay about their book project that won over the judges. “[Their project] took an experience that hit home for them, in terms of their grandmother passing away and their grandparents in the Holocaust, and it really added to their celebration,” said Daniel Rothner, founder and director of Areyvut.

Areyvut of Bergenfield

, N.J., a nonprofit that sponsors the annual essay contest, is dedicated to promoting charity, justice and social justice. In addition to its popular “A Kindness a Day” page-a-day calendar, the organization offers resources for b’nai mitzvah projects for students, educators and families. The essay contest, now in its third year, allows students to share their outreach experiences, speak for their peers and elevate their celebrations by helping others.

While their prizes for the essay include a Giving Certificate to be redeemed through Tzedakah Inc. and an iPod, the students feel the experience itself is more valuable than the prizes.

“Daniel and Lauren have done something that will be with them for a long, long time as they get older,” Rothner said.

For now, the Deitches will continue to educate others. “If people ask, ‘What’s the Holocaust?'” Lauren said, “we’re going to tell them.”

For more information on Areyvut, visit www.areyvut.org. For more information on BookEnds, visit www.bookends.org.

Calabasas evens playing field for special-needs kids

For children with physically limiting conditions like cerebral palsy or spinal muscular atrophy, something as simple as playing in a park can seem impossible. Swings can be unsafe, and climbing equipment is unaccommodating to many children reliant on wheelchairs and walkers for support and mobility.

Most slides, swings, forts and crawl spaces are designed for kids who can run, jump and climb. But when parks don’t factor in the limitations of special-needs children, it denies them a fundamental childhood experience.

Now the city of Calabasas is preparing a play area where the thousands of special-needs children living in the Conejo and West San Fernando valleys can play alongside all children their age. Brandon’s Village, the area’s first universally accessible handicapped playground, is scheduled to open on Oct. 28 at Gates Canyon Park on Thousand Oaks Boulevard, just east of Las Virgenes Road. Brandon’s Village is aimed at children with special needs, but the equipment is designed to be fun for everyone.

The opening of this playground — and others like it — reflects a movement spurred by parents of special-needs children who want to see their kids mainstreamed in all areas of life, from playgrounds to school to shul.

Brandon’s Village is the result of a partnership between the Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, the city of Calabasas, the Talbert Family Foundation and the Friedman Charitable Foundation. But at the center of it all has been Dina Kaplan.

Her passion to make the world accessible for her 12-year-old son, Brandon, who has multiple physical and developmental disabilities, has been the catalyst for a fundamental shift in how Calabasas looks at the children who play in its parks.

“In order to be an ADA-accessible playground, all that [cities] have to provide is access to get to the playground, like a ramp from the parking lot. They don’t have to provide access to the equipment,” said Kaplan, referring to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Fully accommodating equipment has not been the focus of playground planning, she pointed out, because most people don’t understand the need. “They don’t have kids with disabilities. It was just something they didn’t think about or know about,” she said.
Brandon’s Village joins eight other universally accessible playgrounds in the Los Angeles area, including Shane’s Inspiration in Griffith Park, Neil Papiano Play Park at the Los Angeles Zoo, Aiden’s Place at Westwood Park and Parque de los Suenos in East Los Angeles. Another playground for the East San Fernando Valley is currently under construction at El Cariso Park in Sylmar.

However, it was the Griffith Park playground, which opened in 1998 and was the first of its kind in Los Angeles, that inspired Kaplan’s vision for Brandon’s Village.

“Brandon had gone to Shane’s Inspiration when he was 5, and I’ve always wanted to bring that kind of playground to my community,” said Kaplan, a special-education attorney and executive director of The K.E.N. Project, a nonprofit that helps explain laws designed to protect special-needs children to parents and professionals.

Such playgrounds allow children with limited physical abilities to enjoy playing by themselves alongside typical children. Park features include high-backed swings; wheelchair-accessible modular play areas; a spongy, wheelchair-friendly ground covering; and low-lying slides and crawl spaces. Additional traditionally sized forts, slides and climbing opportunities make these mixed-use destinations popular among all children.

Kaplan and Joann Melancon, both cofounders of Las Virgenes Special Education PTA, first approached the city of Calabasas with the Brandon’s Village idea more than three years ago. The two mothers, both Jewish, took Jeff Rubin, the city’s community services director, on a field trip with other parents to visit Shane’s Inspiration.

Melancon said that she and Kaplan laid the groundwork together slowly, taking their time and building support.

“It ended up being a huge community building project. All over, people would ask what they could do to help,” she said. “People would be on the golf course talking about the project.”

While approval from the city was easy to come by, funding for the project initially proved more difficult. After Brandon’s Village was turned down for a grant by the state, Kaplan was despondent. Her brother-in-law, mortgage banker Bruce Friedman, asked her how much she needed.

“I said ‘I need a million dollars’ really flippantly, like it was 50 cents, and he said ‘OK.’ I was shocked,” she said.

Last January, Friedman and his wife, Wendy, donated $1 million from their Friedman Charitable Foundation, which funds children’s programs and scholarships for college-bound seniors. The donation is the largest in the history of Calabasas.

Once the money was in place, officials broke ground in May.

Brandon’s Village was created by Shane’s Inspiration, the nonprofit that established the eponymous Griffith Park playground in 1998 to honor Shane Williams, son of organization founders Catherine Curry-Williams and Scott Williams. Shane died from spinal muscular atrophy a few weeks after birth. Had he lived, he would have spent his life confined to a wheelchair.

Shane’s Inspiration has completed 10 playgrounds and has 55 in development around the world.
Tiffany Harris, executive director of Shane’s Inspiration, said that park planners need to put themselves in the body of a child with disabilities as they consider designs.

“I think they really need to stop for a minute and consider giving able-bodied children the opportunity to socialize with [special-needs children],” she said. “It really does become a wonderful opportunity to integrate these two populations and dispel some of the myths.”

For Calabasas, the addition of the playground to Gates Canyon Park is a source of pride.

This playground is “going to stand for the way this community and this region reacts toward kids with special needs,” then-Calabasas Mayor Barry Groveman said during a ceremony to honor the Friedmans’ donation in January.

“What I found so thrilling about the project is not simply what it does to enhance kids with special needs, but what it does for able-bodied kids” when they all play together, he said.

Growing a Shul in Calabasas

It is now two years since I moved to Calabasas to become the rabbi of a new Orthodox congregation. And there is no time like the eve of the Jewish New Year to take stock.

People said it couldn’t be done. Some believed there was not much hope for an Orthodox synagogue in this community bordering the San Fernando and Conejo valleys, where expensive homes pepper the steep hills, because members would have to walk to services, and outsiders would be deterred from moving here because of the high price of housing.

But as a congregational rav 10 years prior, I knew I had never been in a shul that failed to grow dramatically. In my circles, I see a fantastic yearning for Modern Orthodoxy. The yearning comes from two directions: traditional Conservative Jews who lament that their movement abandoned them, and Orthodox laity who prefer the Shabbat-observant Torah Judaism that synthesizes the best of secular culture with the authenticity of Torah values.

Many shuls search for rabbis who are devoted deeply to foundational values of Torah-true Judaism, and who also love what is good, wholesome and valuable in secular culture. Everywhere I have gone, I have seen a positive response to the effort to synthesize Torah values and the world around us. Could it succeed in Calabasas?

Young Israel of Calabasas began with only 10 families. Last year, by Rosh Hashanah, we had grown to 25 families after a year. And this year, as we mark our second year’s conclusion, we have grown to 40 families. Our growth has been noticed. The National Council of Young Israel honored us at this year’s national banquet in New York as one of the most exciting new Young Israel congregations in America. The Orthodox Union nationally honored us as a Synagogue of the Week.

We achieved these distinctions by realizing that, at this moment in time, the "old rules" are not going to work here. Not everyone will sit at a three-hour service. Some people want the rabbi’s sermon more. Some come to pray. Ashkenazim and Sephardim have different prayers, melodies and cultures — and the congregation grows by virtue of their union. Older families — retired individuals who have built congregations and sat on their boards — bring wisdom and one set of life experiences. The group’s largest-growing core — "mid-life" families in their 40s with children in elementary school, high school and even college — arrive with a somewhat different set of needs, priorities and talent sets. And the younger families in their 30s, who are starting to establish themselves in careers and houses and building new families, come with yet other needs, augmented by an untainted idealism.

The challenge for a rabbi who would bring Modern Orthodoxy to a community — from Calabasas to Timbuktu — is to recognize that Jews are not expendable and, although malleable and flexible, cannot be coerced into going where they will not go. This is most challenging. Jews who will not walk but insist on driving to shul on Shabbat — at this moment in their lives — pose a challenge to an Orthodox rabbi. On the one hand, they are not supposed to do that. Yet. Yet.

Yet I ask myself, "Why is this family driving past two Reform temples, three Conservative temples — and a shopping mall — to spend Shabbat morning at an Orthodox shul with an Orthodox rabbi, Orthodox Torah reading and an Orthodox rabbinic message in an Orthodox service?"

And, in several sermons, I have asked that question aloud and tried to understand. These families do not want to shoot an arrow at a wall and then paint a bull’s-eye around where it lands. Rather, they covet a rabbi who will tell them honestly: "Here is the bull’s-eye. Here is Judaism in the Torah’s perfection." And then, little by little, year by year, their archery marksmanship improves. And they really want to get closer to the mark. But they will proceed at their own pace.

There are Orthodox Jews who follow all the mitzvot, pretty much. They are not the drivers. The rabbi teaches, the rabbi cites sources, the rabbi schmoozes and the rabbi needs to know where and when to let the issue rest — for another day.

Much of my job is about validating people: Teaching Ashkenazim the richness of the Sephardic heritage. Who realizes that the Babylonian Talmud that we all study and teach our kids came out of Sephardic Iraq? Teaching that Sephardim gave us the Rambam and Ramban, the Code of Jewish Law and extraordinary foods, melodies and traditions. It is about dealing, on the other hand, with the resistance of certain families from Israel to contribute their equal share to a synagogue, to pay membership dues, to understand that the Senate Religion Committee still has not approved President Bush’s nomination for secretary of churches, mosques and synagogues — so the federal funds are not here, and people have to pay privately for their houses of prayer. It is about understanding the South African preference for Friday night services; the richness of Persian rituals, customs and foods; the unique needs of those who are single or divorced adults, especially on Shabbat; the psychology of Holocaust survivors.

This is the balancing act: for one, understanding the needs of a family in crisis, another questioning whether the congregation is adhering to one rule or another, a third asking that the sermon length be elasticized to assure the same ending time each week, a fourth coming only for the sermon and asking for it to be longer. It is about seeing that the people who come only for the sermon might stay after if a creative Adult Beginners Service is inaugurated. So you inaugurate. It is about seeing that there are 20 children between ages 7 and 13 wasting their time. So you create a Shabbat Youth Service for them, find a new experimental siddur and see the service through. This one wants a newsletter, and that one wants a weeknight Bible class on the Prophets (Nevi’im) that follows the account of the Five Books of the Torah. You add a Talmud class on a second weeknight, and it cuts the Bible class attendance because some of those regulars start coming on the other night instead. So you look at the situation, the people, and you move the Talmud class to Saturday afternoon, in between the afternoon Mincha and the nighttime Maariv service, and you end up increasing the attendance at the service, while restoring the turnout at weeknight Navi class.

Now, as our Young Israel of Calabasas marks the completion of a two-year spurt from 10 to 25 to 40 active membership families, we begin our biggest experiment yet. For two years, we prayed in a private home, not big enough, not enough members to rent nicer space. The nicest space in town is in the Hilton Garden Inn located a 25-minute walk down the hill, at the edge of the town center, The Commons. We know that drivers can get there, but would people agree to do the walk down the hill (and back up again) every week — and pay for the privilege?

This time — not just for the High Holidays but for every Shabbat in the foreseeable future — the Young Israel of Calabasas is leaving the ease and tightness of private quarters atop the hill, and "The Little Shul That Could" is finally going down the hill.

Dov Fischer is rabbi of Young Israel of Calabasas. His Web site is

The Battle Over Mesivta

At a shabby, deserted golf course in an isolated area of Calabasas, a half-started construction site sits idle, and some 31 yeshiva bocherim learn Talmud at the makeshift campus of Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman had opened the high school with nine students in 1997, hoping to transform it into a first-class yeshiva complete with dormitories, a beit midrash (study hall) and a basketball court. But, now five years later, his plans are stuck in the mud, because of a legal battle with a nearby homeowners association.

The protracted court case, which is now awaiting an environmental impact report (EIR) from the school, shows how badly a school building project can go when met with fiery opposition by the surrounding community.

The opposition first began in July of 1998, when one-third of the residents of Mountain View Estates — a gated community of million-dollar homes located a half-mile west of the yeshiva — signed a petition protesting the project and brought it before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Among their objections were noise, traffic congestion, airborne contamination from digging at the site and "negative impact on the visual quality" of the rustic neighborhood. Representatives of Mountain View’s homeowners association even staged a protest for visiting members of the county’s regional planning commission on at least one occasion.

Despite the residents’ objections the board granted Mesivta a conditional-use permit. But the fight wasn’t over. Following the ruling in 1999, Mountain View sued the County for awarding Mesivta the conditional-use permit without an EIR. Last year, the homeowners won in the appellate court, which ordered Mesivta leaders to cease construction until they could come up with a full EIR. Gottesman said he hopes to have the document completed by the end of the year.

Gottesman said he is "disappointed but not heartbroken" by the legal battle. "Our momentum has slowed down but it hasn’t been lost," he said. He hopes that the homeowners association’s new board of directors — rumored to be voted in soon — will be able to conduct better relations between the two groups.

But could the whole process have been avoided if Gottesman had worked with the homeowners’ group prior to embarking on the project?

Initially, Gottesman had been surprised at the objections. He had intended to be a good neighbor, he said, meeting with Calabasas city officials and representatives of the community of Hidden Hills — but not with those at Mountain View. After the battle began in earnest, Gottesman told The Journal in August 1998 that he could have done things differently.

"I admit it was a mistake on my part, not to get in touch with them earlier," Gottesman had said. "Now the hard-earned funds for teaching Torah are instead being used to pay legal fees."

Several current and former members of the Mountain View Estates homeowners association board were contacted for comment, but all declined to speak to The Journal.

Despite the unfinished campus, the school has managed to attract 31 students this year, split among the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Mesivta even graduated its first class of seniors last June, although there will be no such class this year because of the county’s restriction on enrollment for the 1999-2000 school year.

Currently, the school employs three teachers fulltime and eleven parttime, plus a trio of kitchen and ground staff. Most of the students live on campus in rudimentary dormitories, although a few commute in from the city with their teachers.

A majority of the infrastructure has been completed, Gottesman said, for what will be an 11-building campus, including grading the property, installing retaining walls and constructing the paved areas for several buildings. They have also put in a sewer system and conduits for water and gas lines.

That work, plus the initial purchase of the 8.5-acre property and legal fees, amounted of $2.5 million, Gottesman said — nearly all of the money raised to date. The rabbi said he has additional commitments that should bring in another $400,000, but will need to raise $6 million on top of that to complete the project.

"There’s a lot of money yet to be raised. We have no mortgage and we have taken no loans, but if we have to we will take out a construction loan," Gottesman said. "The advantage of the project is we don’t need one lump sum, because there are 11 small buildings instead of one big one, so we will be able to go in phases."

"I certainly see a challenge ahead but I am optimistic," Gottesman said. "I think as soon as people see action, action begets action. The action of construction begets the action of donation."

Bringing Back Memories

A woman in a peach-colored sweatsuit sits in a sunlit hallway at the Silverado Senior Living Center in Calabasas. Once she was a professor at a California State University campus, teaching English literature. Now, because of the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, she barely has a word to share, only a bemused smile for people she thinks she recognizes.

Can someone like this former professor possibly care that it’s Passover, much less enjoy a seder? The staff at Silverado answer with a resounding "yes." The center will hold its second annual Passover seder for its Alzheimer’s patients on March 29. Last year’s seder attracted more than 60 people, including residents, day-care patients and their families. The Jewish members of the Silverado staff who planned the event said they were amazed by the response.

"Last year, we had so many families come up and say how wonderful it was to see everyone acting appropriately, like there was no dementia in the room at all," said Cheryl Stollman, director of Silverado’s day program. "Many people talked about how their loved ones hadn’t been to a seder in years because it just wasn’t possible in their condition."

Stollman said the center put together an abbreviated version of the traditional seder, about two hours long, replete with everything from matzah ball soup to Maxwell House haggadot. Family members of patients and day-care visitors were encouraged to bring mementos of holidays past to share. The effect on the patients was profound and encouraging, Stollman said.

"Some people had not been to a seder in so many years we thought they would not care, but this turned out to be one of the things they remembered," she said. "It was good for the families, too. One resident died about a week after the seder. He had been a very religious man, and the family all commented on how wonderful it was to have one last seder with him."

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia disorders affect approximately 4 million people in the United States, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. The number is expected to grow as the world population ages — in particular the Baby Boom generation. Given these facts, the Jewish community will need to find ways to help families support affected loved ones during holiday celebrations.

Elizabeth Farr, a psychologist with a certificate in gerontology from Boston University, said Passover is a fitting time to work on including people who have memory problems in a family celebration.

"When we come to the seder, what we’re trying to do is regain a collective memory of what our forefathers and foremothers went through, and unless you’ve gone through some kind of past life regression, none of us really has that memory," she said. "So it’s kind of an even playing field."

She said she advises families of dementia patients to be creative in helping their relatives connect to the holiday.

"One idea is to have the loved one do an art project with a caregiver, to create something they can share at the seder, perhaps a memory of a past seder," Farr said. "They could also bring an object from a seder from their past, such as a seder plate or matzah cover, and place it where they going to be sitting so they have that as a reminder."

Safety issues are also key. Farr said to think about foods that could present a danger to people in the middle or later stages of dementia, who might see horseradish, not recognize it and try to gobble a large mouthful. Matzah can also be hard to swallow. Consult your rabbi to find out if it is halachically acceptable to serve frail guests egg matzah, which is softer.

Farr said people in the early stages of dementia could be asked to tell a story from a past seder. Many people with such disorders can remember the past more vividly than the present and would enjoy sharing these memories.

"Even a person in late-stage dementia can be guided to participate," Farr said. "The key is preparation. You need to give as much time to planning how to make people feel comfortable at your table as you do to planning your menu."