Honor both sides to create an inclusive interfaith wedding


Interfaith weddings are an age-old quandry for Jews, but recent headlines suggest they may be becoming more accepted. Two prominent New York rabbis, trained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and members of the movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, announced in June that they would begin to perform intermarriages, breaking with the movement’s long-held prohibition.

As perceptions of intermarriage modernize, so do the wedding ceremonies celebrating couples about to embark on their lifelong journey together. There now are more options and variations than ever for couples looking to host an inclusive interfaith wedding.

Rabbi Keara Stein is the Los Angeles director of InterfaithFamily, a nonprofit designed to support interfaith couples exploring Jewish life while also seeking inclusivity in Jewish communities. Part of Stein’s role is to field requests that come through the officiation referral service at InterfaithFamily. She also personally officiates one or two interfaith weddings per month throughout Southern California.

As a general piece of advice, Stein said that no matter what, all aspects of the ceremony should be meaningful to the couple.

“A wedding, no matter what the religion, symbolizes the coming together of two unique individuals, and I want everything we do in that wedding to include that,” she said.

Stein outlined six tips for having an interfaith wedding that will make both sides feel comfortable while respectiving various traditions.

1. Create an educational program

The program not only should outline the timeline of events, it should explain the significance of the traditions the guests will be experiencing during the ceremony.

“This is not a spectator sport,” Stein said. “Everyone should be included. I encourage a couple to make a program for their wedding, and I usually help them do so by explaining the meaningful aspects of the different rituals.”

2. Choose rituals and readings that either are common to both traditions or do not offend either one 

Stein cited the example of lighting a unity candle or, in one specific recent instance, a couple who asked to be wrapped in a tallit along with a handmade blanket made by the bride’s grandmother.

3. Consider an interfaith ketubah

There are many websites devoted to ketubot — Jewish marriage contracts — and to the artists who create them. Many of these artists have created works of art, suitable for framing, with customized language that can honor any partnership, ranging from LGBTQ couples to interfaith unions. InterfaithFamily has several versions of inclusive statements for the creation of the ketubah on its website (interfaithfamily.com).

4. Have in-depth conversations with your parents

Stein readily admits the biggest hurdles for couples to overcome often arise from the parents on both sides.

“It can be very difficult for parents to come to terms with the fact that the [wedding] day might look different than they had initially imagined,” Stein said. “I like to have conversations with couples about how to talk to their parents about the types of rituals they want at their wedding.”

5. Find the right officiant 

“I speak with a lot of couples exploring which type of officiant they’re going to have, and I try to find out where their desire is coming from and what is driving their search,” Stein said. “Is it a deep appreciation for ritual, is it family pressure or is it somewhere in between?”

She has co-officiated wedding ceremonies, although it was a difficult decision.

“Some rabbis have hard lines against co-officiating with other religions. Ultimately, it has been one of the most beautiful, profound experiences for me because there have been couples who would not have had any other Jewish elements at their special day if I had decided against it.”

6. Talk to other intermarried couples

Stein highly recommends that couples planning an interfaith wedding should discuss with others in their community what did and did not work for them on their big day.

“Reach out to other interfaith couples through organizations like ours or synagogues in the area,” she said. “Talk to other people and see how they’ve done it. The wedding sets the stage for the marriage. All of the people attending a wedding are there to show support of a union, so show them what that means through inclusivity and love.”

Yom HaShoah in Israel [SLIDESHOW]


Ceremony at Yad Vashem

Old becomes new as couples personalize wedding ceremonies


In the months before his wedding, Jon Citel cringed at the notion of having his friends dance him to his bride at a traditional bedeken ceremony, where he would place the veil over her face.

The concept “was completely foreign to me,” he said. It “felt too traditional.”

But his bride, Ashley Novack, 26, was entranced by the tradition. “I love dancing, and this sounded like an amazing opportunity definitely not to be missed,” she said.

Rabbi Shira Stutman, director of community engagement at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington and the officiant at their wedding, had a suggestion: Reverse it.

“Subverting thousands of years of tradition, I would dance over to Jon,” said Novack, who called it one of her favorite moments of their 2010 wedding. “I was filled with love and joy as the remarkable women in my life encircled me and danced me over to Jon.”

Citel, 27, ended up loving it, too. “The sound of Ashley’s entourage approaching was thunderous and powerful,” he said. “I probably ended up liking it even more than Ashley.”

The Conservative-raised Philadelphia couple’s twist was by no means traditional, but it was an example of a growing practice of couples putting new spins on ancient wedding traditions. From adapting non-egalitarian parts of the ceremony to having friends officiate, it’s all part of a trend toward personalizing the wedding ceremony.

“It’s very important for people to incorporate their voices,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of the progressive Ikar community in Los Angeles. “That’s the way the old becomes new.”

Sara Cohen of Somerville, Mass., and her bridegroom decided to forego a rabbi, instead asking close friends to officiate at their 2009 wedding.

“We didn’t have a rabbi in our life that felt like ours,” said Cohen, 41. “The bigger reason was we really liked the idea of having people who know us really well do the wedding.”

They asked a lifelong friend of hers, a Jewish studies professor with Universal Life Minister credentials, and a close friend of his to perform the ceremony. But the couple also consulted with a rabbi about the ceremony, which included the traditional hallmarks.

There is no Jewish legal requirement that a rabbi or cantor officiate at a wedding; according to halachah, two witnesses are required to make the ceremony official. Having a rabbi can also add $1,000 or more to the cost of a wedding.

Some rabbis are nonplussed by the idea of clergy-free nuptials.

“It may make for a lovely ceremony, but it does not serve in any way to connect the couple in an official way to the Jewish community by someone who’s been ordained by the community,” said Rabbi Rex Perlmeter, the Union for Reform Judaism’s worship and spirituality specialist. “I think it’s sad and it’s a diminishment of connection to community and tradition.”

He also warned of the loss of premarital counseling by clergy.

But Perlmeter praised the notion of having friends participate in the wedding service in other ways. Couples long have had friends and honored guests recite the seven traditional blessings, but now couples are asking friends to add their own creative translations, blessings or even poetry readings to the blessings.

They are “personalizing it and rendering it unique,” Perlmeter said.

Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, rabbi in residence at Be’chol Lashon, an initiative of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco, says there are practical reasons to have a rabbi officiate, including smoothing over family squabbles.

“When the rabbi takes care of it, there’s a pastoral piece involved,” she said. “Weddings are very, very emotional.”

Ra’anan Boustan, Abusch-Magder’s brother-in-law and one of the officiants at Cohen’s wedding, dismissed such concerns. Laypeople can do those things just as well or even better than a rabbi, he said, particularly if, as in many cases, the rabbi doesn’t know the couple very well.

Noting that he and his wife didn’t know their officiating rabbi well, and did not have premarital counseling with him, Boustan says, “I don’t see that was terribly preferable to the three cases in which I married my best friend from college, my wife’s sister-in-law and a friend from childhood.”

More commonly, couples are making egalitarian adaptations to ceremonies that until recently largely had been ignored outside of Orthodoxy.

For example, Orthodox brides traditionally encircle their grooms seven times under the chuppah. It’s now common for many brides and grooms to circle one another; typically each circles the other three times, then they walk around once together.

Dual-ring ceremonies, long the norm in the non-Orthodox world, are no longer unheard of among Orthodox couples.

And the tisch—a traditional time for the men to get together, discuss Torah, celebrate and sometimes be silly while the bride and female guests hold their own party as they await the bedeken—has gone egalitarian, too, with the bride and groom each holding a separate, often mixed-gender tisch.

That’s one of several suggestions that Rabbi Dov Linzer, dean of the Yeshivat Chovevei Rabbinical School in New York, offers to give women a greater role in Orthodox wedding ceremonies.

Linzer also suggests that after the groom has put the veil on the bride, she wrap him in a tallit; that the couple’s Hebrew names include the mother’s as well as the father’s names; and that women are asked along with men to recite the seven wedding blessings, albeit the woman would do so in translation.

Julianne and Justin Miller of Canandaigua, N.Y., each had a tisch at their 2000 wedding and a double bedeken.

“At the first part of the ceremony, I put his kipah on him before he put the veil on me,” said Julianne Miller, 38.

Not only did that make the ceremony more egalitarian but, Miller says—in jest—it also was a chance to be sure she had the right groom.

Her husband is an identical twin.

“Before I put the kipah on him, I looked in the crowd to make sure I saw his brother,” Miller said.

Rabbi Julia Andelman, 36, and her husband, Eitan Fishbane, a professor at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, opted out of kiddushin, the betrothal portion of the wedding ceremony in which the bridegroom “acquires” his bride by giving her a ring.

“We wanted something equally binding for both parties, and God forbid the marriage would not work out, we wanted something that would not require a get,” she said, referring to the religious divorce decree. “You need a get to dissolve to kiddushin, so if you don’t have kiddushin, you don’t need a get.”

But the couple retained the “nisuin” portion—the seven blessings known as the “sheva brachot”—binding them together as husband and wife.

“There are certainly people who could argue we’re not halachically married,” said Andelman, a former congregational rabbi who directs the Engaging Israel Project in North America.

She and Fishbane also each wore a kittel, the white robe traditionally worn by men at weddings and certain other special occasions.

Some of the creativity at weddings stems from efforts to create meaningful ceremonies within a Jewish framework for same-sex couples, said Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, a senior Jewish educator at the Tufts University Hillel.

“There’s a little more permission to look outside the old box,” said Ruttenberg, who maintains a website, the Kiddushin Variations (http://alternativestokiddushin.wordpress.com/), with postings on rabbinic opinions regarding egalitarian ceremonies.

Aaron Dorfman and his bride, Talia Milgrom-Elcott, wanted to eliminate any portion of the ceremony that spoke of acquisition, including exchanging rings.

Instead they borrowed rings from other people and used those rings as exchanges. This way, the rings “could not be perceived as halachically effecting legal acquisition because they were not ours to give,” Dorfman said.

As a sign of protest that most U.S. states don’t sanction gay marriage, the couple, who live in New York, borrowed from a Passover tradition: As seder participants reciting the Ten Plagues traditionally spill a drop of wine for each plague in recognition of the pain of others, they spilled some of the ceremonial wine before drinking it to signal some diminishing of joy.

Bishop Eddie Long apologizes for Torah scroll ceremony


Baptist Bishop Eddie Long has apologized for a church service in which he was wrapped in a Torah scroll and called a king.

Last week during a service at the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., Ralph Messer, a Messianic Jew and self-described rabbi, ordered congregants to wrap Long in a Torah scroll and then lift him up on a chair bar mitzvah-style while he held the Torah scroll, which was identified as being rescued from Auschwitz. The church has 25,000 members, according to its website.

A video of the service has been viewed some 600,000 on YouTube.

“The ceremony was not my suggestion, nor was it my intent, to participate in any ritual that is offensive in any manner to the Jewish community,” Long wrote in a letter sent Saturday to Bill Nigut, Southeast Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Nigut released the letter on Sunday.

In an article in the newspaper last week, Nigut was critical of the ceremony, saying it “in no way represents any Jewish ritual that I’m familiar with. We do not proclaim individuals to be kings.”

In the letter sent to the ADL, Long also said “I sincerely denounce any action that depicts me as a King, for I am merely just a servant of the Lord.”

Long was sued in Sept. 2010 by four former church members who alleged he used his position to coerce them into sexual relationships, according to the Journal-Constitution. The suit was settled in May.

Nigut told CNN that he thought the apology was “very heartfelt, sincere.”

“I was very gratified by Bishop Long apparently recognizing what our concern was,” Nigut also said.

Take Me Out to the Bar Mitzvah…


Roger Owens has been pitching with the Dodgers for 50 years, ever since the team moved from Brooklyn. His accuracy is uncanny, and he remains a crowd favorite. He throws under the leg, behind the back and even two at a time, sometimes more than 30 rows back.

Owens, also known as the “Peanut Man,” started tossing peanut bags at Dodger games when the team began playing at the Coliseum in 1958. And Owens, who knows more than his fair share of nutty jokes, also makes a good side income making guest appearances at various bar and (sometimes) bat mitzvah celebrations.

“Everyone wants to do something different,” he said. “They want to reward their son for all the hard work, studies and learning about his Jewish heritage and his grades at school.”

With baseball’s season opener less than a month away, it doesn’t take much to organize a grand-slam celebration that reflects your child’s love of the game.

The idea of a blockbuster bar mitzvah celebration at Dodger Stadium was played for laughs in the 2006 film comedy, “Keeping Up With the Steins,” complete with Neil Diamond booked to sing the national anthem. But there are ways to put on a baseball theme that won’t break parents, which can include a day at the stadium, complete with hot dogs, ticket booths, an organ playing “Charge!” and appearances by former baseball greats.

Locations

Renting space at either Dodger Stadium or Angel Stadium is not as expensive as one might expect. The Stadium Club or Dugout Club at Chavez Ravine can be had for just $650, said Jill DeStefano, partnership management executive with the Dodgers. However, costs for food or beverages are separate, and prices can range from $35 to $100 per person.

Renting out the field is also an option, albeit a much more expensive one, she added.

Angel Stadium’s Diamond Club, Knothole Club, Homeplate Club and Music Garden in Anaheim cost nothing to rent, according to Ron Lee, division manager of premium services. Once again, the cost comes from food and beverages, plus security. Aramark, the professional services company in charge at Angel Stadium, also allows clients to rent the field at a minimum of $25,000.

Still, the teams are accommodating — as long as the celebration isn’t on a scheduled home game or in October (“It’s empty because we want to be in the World Series,” DeStefano said). May and November are popular months at Dodger Stadium, but the baseball season is tricky, because the team doesn’t know its playing schedule until the year before.

Julia Erling, an Aramark catering sales specialist, said November through March work best at Angel Stadium, but annual Motocross events eliminate renting the outfield in January and February.

But if everything works out and the stadiums are available, “The sky’s the limit,” DeStefano and Lee said.

In Los Angeles, one can pay for batting practice, either on the field or in the indoor batting cage, or pitch in the bullpen, complete with radar gun. Both parks can have videos playing on the giant outfield screens and have DJs hook up their equipment to the stadium sound systems.

Food

Andrew Atwell, Aramark’s West Coast senior executive chef, said all options are available: plated food, buffet or “action stations,” in which the cooks interact with the guests. “It’s all in the presentation,” he said.

Action stations could be anything, Atwell said: fish, salad, a carving station or dessert featuring crème brulee. To keep with the theme, hamburgers could become sliders, complete with condiment bar with different cheeses, lettuces and grilled onions. Hot dogs could have onions, sauerkraut, horseradish, cheese, peppers or salsa.

If guests specifically wanted kosher food brought to Angel Stadium, Atwell said Aramark would contract with kosher caterers and have the food brought.

Levy Restaurants, which provides catering at Dodger Stadium, has used Kosher on Wheels for its kosher catering needs.

Special Guests

After he’s introduced as a surprise guest during the celebration, Owens, the Peanut Man, walks out wearing his own uniform, carrying a box filled with plenty of bagged peanuts to toss. He then makes a two- or three-minute speech during which he tells the guests about how great it is to be at the party, recites what school the honoree attends and areas in which he or she excels (baseball, usually) and how proud the parents must be. He’ll crack some peanut jokes, then stick around and sign autographs.

DeStefano said former Dodgers, such as Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and “Sweet Lou” Johnson, have made appearances, “but they’re more for the adults.” Getting current Dodgers (Russell Martin is a popular request) is more difficult, because the team might be on the road or the player might not live in Los Angeles during the off-season.

Erling said stadium tours are offered, and former Angels pitcher Clyde Wright (1966-73) might be the tour guide. Player appearances are subject to availability, but expect to pay at least $5,000 for a current player and $1,500 for a former player.

Theme Touches

If a stadium party is out of reach, event planners suggest leaving details for a baseball-themed party up to the imagination. Ticket booths, seating assignments that resemble ballpark tickets, table centerpieces that look like baseballs or include team names and logos are common.

Paula Gild of Gilded Events suggests costumed performers dressed as concessionaires bringing out the hot dogs, popcorn, Cracker Jacks and other stadium-type foods.

For more information, visit:
Los Angeles Dodgers
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Roger Owens

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Death to Fanatistan!


By the time comedian Elon Gold took the stage to emcee the rally for the raising of the Israeli flag on Wilshire Boulevard, the street had filled with 3,000 or more people — a sea, or at least an inlet, of humanity waving little plastic blue-and-white flags as loudspeakers pumped out Israeli songs and their American Jewish equivalent: selections from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Gold looked out upon the patriotic multitudes and uttered his welcome: “Hello everyone, I’m Elon Gold. For those of you who don’t know who I am, I’m the Jewish Jerry Seinfeld.”

That’s right — the profound, important gathering to raise the Israeli flag in front of the Consulate General of Israel for the first time ever was hosted by a standup comedian and began with a joke. I, for one, am proud of that.

I’m proud of it because while the display of the flag affirms, as several speakers pointed out, our connection as Jews and as Americans to a strong, secure State of Israel, the symbolism, I think, goes even deeper.

“This is a great day for us,” said Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan when it was his turn to speak.

Dayan conceived of hoisting the flag in front of the consulate when he first came to Los Angeles a year ago. He was told the idea was a nonstarter: Any number of people were leery of the security risks involved in publicly identifying a building with Israel.

As I wrote in this space two weeks ago, Dayan not only vowed to fly the flag, but to raise it in a very public spectacle. Not a few Jewish leaders tried to dissuade him, convinced that L.A. Jews are only good for one mass rally every 20 years, if that.

Besides, they wondered aloud, what’s so big about a flag?

Sunday afternoon proved Dayan right.

I stood on a camera platform and looked east on Wilshire Boulevard beyond Crescent Heights Boulevard, watching the crowd grow to 3,000, or more. Two-dozen spectators broke out into an impromptu dance of “Hava Nagila” under a massive billboard advertising the HBO show “Entourage.” Several protesters entered the mix waving signs — “No More Wars for Israel! Mearsheimer & Walt R Right” — before being escorted out by police, to loud cheers from the crowd.

A large V.I.P. section — it seems at least one-third of the Jewish community is V.I.P. — was filled with many local politicians. Busloads of schoolchildren came, from Valley Beth Shalom, Milken, Stephen S. Wise, Sinai Akiba and others. Temples sent delegations. Israelis themselves turned out en masse — when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told the assembly “Shana Tova” and “Am Yisrael Chai,” he was speaking the native language of at least half the people there.

“This city stands with Israel in security and safety,” Villaraigosa said. “We must reaffirm in one voice our support for the Jewish state.”

To reinforce the point, a contingent of churches came, a black gospel choir filled the stage, the Mexican Consul General sent a delegation and a musical ensemble. The different representation was enough to make the point: This isn’t just a Jewish thing.

Then came the ceremony itself.

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Councilman Jack Weiss, accompanied by a Marine, raised an American flag on one tall steel pole.

The gospel choir sang “God Bless America.” If you weren’t thinking of the Jewish immigrant Irving Berlin who wrote that song, you couldn’t appreciate the beautiful irony of the moment.

State Assembly Speaker Karen Bass raised the California flag on another pole. The mayor and Dayan, accompanied by two Israeli soldiers in uniform, raised the Israeli flag on the center pole.

I was close by then, maybe 5 feet away.

Some 30 men, women and children were blowing shofars as the flag went up. The young Israeli soldiers were smiling: It was a cool moment. The mayor looked solemn, as if he were in shul carrying the Torah.

And the consul general? He was choking back tears. I think if a line of cameras hadn’t been pointed at him, he’d have lost it. His grandfather died in the Holocaust, and now, 60 years later, he had managed to raise a flag that represents security, refuge and the possibility of peace to full, public view.

And then Elon Gold cracked another joke.

“The shofars are still blowing,” the comedian said from the dais. “At this point they’re auditioning for the Philharmonic. I don’t think you’re gonna get in, guys.”

That’s when it hit me why I was so moved — not because of the show of support, not because of the consul’s tears, but because of the jokes. It’s not that the flag represents Israel, it’s what Israel, at its best, represents. That, for me, was the deeper symbolism displayed on Wilshire Boulevard last Sunday. In a world filled with fanatical ideologues of all political and religious stripes, Israel has managed to endure not just as a refuge, but as a democracy, a land of tremendous freedom, creativity and, yes, humor. It is imperfect and imperiled. It has plenty of home-grown fanatics and anti-democratic forces to battle — but that battle has been joined since before its founding, and, to its credit, continues.

As much as the flag represents Israel, it represents these values, values that every passerby, Jewish or not, should want promoted and defended. Waving on Wilshire Boulevard between the Stars and Stripes and the Bear Flag, the Israeli flag is the perfect — pardon the expression — middle finger to all the fanatics out there.

And that’s no joke.

Sweet somethings for that special day


While the image of a wedding cake at the center of a reception table is iconic, many couples and their guests will admit they are not exactly “layer cake” kinds of people. For this reason, having a sweet table is a must, not just alongside a cake but sometimes instead of one.

“I am seeing a huge movement away from traditional wedding cakes,” wedding planner Melissa Barrad said. “In fact, I am seeing lots of cupcakes, especially among couples who are normally not huge fans of cake. I have seen everything from chocolate fondue fountains to chocolate-covered strawberries. I recently had clients who were fans of Krispy Kreme donuts who picked them up the morning of the wedding and arranged them in tiers.”

While cupcakes, from mini to maxi, have gone from “Sex and the City” trendiness to the shelves of most bakeries across the city (including Hansen’s Cakes, where Patrick Hansen notes couples will buy different flavors in large quantities and arrange them in tiers), Krispy Kreme is a surprisingly easy option. In fact, all ingredients are kosher and the mix is certified kosher. While not every Krispy Kreme kitchen is kosher certified, the company’s Web site can aid fans in locating kosher shops.

Delice Bakery is noted for traditionally elegant sweet table fare such as bakery-style cookies and petit fours, and Hansen’s Cakes is now offering brownies, cookies, fudge and other sweets boasting a “home-made” consistency.

Schmerty’s Gourmet Cookies in Santa Monica features a Bukspan-certified collection of classic kosher flavors, while New Jersey-based Mya Jacobson offers cookie-loving couples throughout the United States their cookie fix through her Feed Your Soul Cookies, which offers cookie adornments for everything from the bridal showers to party favors to the sweet table, with ribbons and wrappings that color coordinate with the wedding. Sweeter still, a portion of the proceeds from the purchase will be donated to a charity of the couple’s choice.

It is also important to remember that there may be people out there who love other types of cakes, such as homespun and decadently rich bundt cakes. From the Hollywood gifting suites to the sweet table, bundtlets from Nothing Bundt Cakes in Thousand Oaks have caused a great deal of excitement, thanks to their unusual presentation as well as their prolific array of flavors red velvet, white chocolate raspberry, lemon, cinnamon swirl and an ever-changing offering of seasonal and specialty flavors.

Of course, there is also the notion that if you want to do the job right, do it yourself. Many couples are doing just that to, literally, make the culmination of their wedding day their very own.

“The sweet table is a wonderful way to incorporate favorite family cookie recipes to further personalize the wedding,” Barrad, who founded event planning company I Do … Weddings, noted. “I have also seen mini-cup cakes and petit fours adorned with baby pictures of the couples.”

If your sweet tooth extends to jelly beans, licorice and sour gummies, Munchies in the heart of Pico-Robertson features kosher candy and chocolates as well as dried fruits and nuts in bulk.

No matter how you serve up your wedding, you ultimately want your guests to leave with a good taste in their mouths. Though you’re dealing with many individuals with individualized tastes, all the options guarantee you will be able to do just that.

Krispy Kreme
www.krispykreme.com
(800) 4KRISPY

Delice Bakery
http://www.delicebakery.com/

Hansen’s Cakes
http://www.hansencakes.com/

Schmerty’s
http://www.schmertys.com/

Feed Your Soul Cookies
www.feedyoursoulcookies.com

Nothing Bundt Cakes
www.nothingbundtcakes.com

Munchies
http://www.lamunchies.com/

Location, location, location


Your congregation is there for you when you need it, but there are times when you’re tempted to think outside the synagogue such as your wedding.

Destination weddings in spots like Hawaii or the Caribbean are a romantic way to start a new life with someone, but changes in the economy and fuel prices are forcing many couples to rethink the concept of getting “married away.” While money may be no object for some couples and their families, they also have to now consider how far their invitees will be willing to travel to be a part of the big day.

Couples living in Southern California are lucky to have some of America’s best wedding escapes just a few hours’ drive away. And better still, many of them either cater specifically to Jewish clientele (from kosher catering to sourcing a rabbi and chuppah) or else are just so fabulous that they have boasted a Jewish following for years.

The best place to start and finish is a wedding location that speaks to your shared personality as a couple and respects your faith. Whether your wedding planning is a solo effort, includes family or a wedding planner, you should do your homework to determine which Southern California locations are willing to help you with the essentials, especially as Jewish weddings have different requirements than other faiths.

“The great thing about Jewish weddings today is that except in cases of ultra-Orthodox weddings couples can choose elements to the wedding day that truly represent who they are as a couple, especially when approaching how they want to do the ketubah signing, blessings, kosher food, use of challah during the service and other traditions,” said wedding planner Melissa Barrad, who founded event company I Do…Weddings! in 2003. “You should ask prospective venues and caterers about any specific directions they have with kosher food. As there are more opportunities for better kosher food and caterers in Los Angeles, be sure hotels will either allow you to bring in food from your caterer of choice or have the capabilities and certifications to prepare the meals in-house. Also look into such details as rooms with high ceilings for the raised chairs and the horah, and rent a sturdier chair for the bride.”

Barrad also advises couples not to neglect the issue of raising a chuppah at the site, as the structures can be difficult to find and some synagogues won’t rent theirs to non-members. Also, if some hotels do offer a chuppah for rent, look at it to see if it will fit into your wedding aesthetically.

However, she notes that many couples are making their own; craft stores and home improvement emporiums offer a wealth of materials that will enable couples to make their own design for the same cost as or less than a rental. She also suggests asking venues to provide photos from other Jewish weddings it has hosted and access to other Jewish couples who have exchanged their vows there.

Once you have all the right questions at hand, here’s a short list of exceptional California venues to consider, including several that provide a variety of services for Jewish couples:

Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina

The Sheraton San Diego features a stunning new wedding lawn adjacent to a marina that’s perfect for erecting an outdoor chuppah, as well as an extensive selection of indoor and outdoor event space with panoramic views of the San Diego Bay and downtown San Diego. The hotel’s on-site wedding planners will cover every detail required for kosher-style weddings, while all four catering managers on staff are proficient in Jewish weddings and the cultural specialties involved with these events, from the ketubah signing to the horah.

Hard Rock Hotel San Diego

Even with its rock ‘n’ roll spirit and location at the entrance of the buzzing Gaslamp Quarter, the Hard Rock Hotel San Diego has the goods and gear Jewish couples want. One of its unique spaces for a wedding is Woodstock, the hotel’s 9,200-square-foot outdoor urban garden, which can accommodate up to 1,000 people as well as a chuppah, dining tables, lounge area and a large dance floor. Before, during and after the wedding, the couple and their guests can party like rock stars, thanks to the 420 suites, 17 “Rock Star” VIP Suites, nightlife destinations created by Rande Gerber and a Nobu restaurant by celebrated chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa.

The Prado at Balboa Park

Prado not only offers the splendor of its Balboa Park location, but is owned by a Jewish family (the Cohns). While they don’t offer strictly kosher meals, the management is sensitive to various dietary restrictions and has made a variety of accommodations for the many Jewish couples who have wed there.

The Viceroy

In Palm Springs, the Viceroy is ideal not only for its hip Hollywood Regency ambiance but also its hands-on approach to wedding planning.

Saddle Peak Lodge

Although Saddle Peak Lodge is not specifically kosher, the management notes that about half of the weddings they do are for Jewish couples, and they offer a list of nearby resources and vendors to assist couples with their wedding’s special needs. It is also a fitting place for film-buff couples to start their own personal history. Built in 1880 as a hunting lodge, it became an escape for the elite of Golden Age Hollywood, including Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable. Saddle Peak also takes advantage of nature’s bounty on many fronts, from a kitchen that uses sustainable ingredients from local farms and vendors to a backdrop of trees, waterfalls and the majestic Santa Monica Mountains.

Westlake Village Inn

Halfway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, the Westlake Village Inn is well suited for couples seeking the detail-oriented luxury of a boutique country inn. There are several garden settings to choose from, from the Lakeside Gazebo to The Waterfall. Couples yearning for the look and feel of a “wedding away” in Europe will love the Mediterraneo Gazebo where a slightly raised Romanesque gazebo takes a “chuppah-like” effect, or the Tuscan Garden.

Lodge at Sonoma

Those who’ve dreamed of a wine country wedding should look into The Lodge at Sonoma, offering the perfect balance of country inn warmth, boutique hotel glamour, Northern California architecture and wine country trappings.

L.A. bakers suggest ways to make picking your cake a little sweeter


In Los Angeles, with today’s foodie culture in full tilt, there is no “one-size-fits-all” option when it comes to choosing a bakery to create the perfect wedding cake. And since it is the bride who usually makes the cake decisions, she’ll soon realize that it can be as complex as finding (and fitting into) her perfect wedding dress.

In fact, there are so many cake trends coming from all directions it would even make Martha Stewart’s head spin. Patrick Hansen of Hansen Cakes, Julien Bohbot of Delice Bakery (the only French bakery in the United States that is certified kosher by Kehilla of Los Angeles), Leigh Grode of The Cake Divas and San Diego-based wedding planner Melissa Barrad, all have very different notions on what the “it” cakes are this year and how to go about getting the “right one.” However, they all insist couples consider the cake basics knowing your budget, your crowd and yourselves before committing. There is also one critical, often-overlooked step they all touch on repeatedly-being sure ahead of time your venue of choice will allow you to bring in food from your caterers and bakery since rules vary from hotel to hotel and venue to venue.

“Doing different-flavored tiers offers your guests options, especially if the wedding cake is going to be your only dessert,” advised The Cake Divas’ Grode on the importance of offering something for everybody. “We usually suggest picking two flavors so the guests will have even amounts of each choice and won’t run out of either flavor. It is usually best to offer one chocolate choice and one non-chocolate choice.”

Grode notes that for many couples, classic white-on-white cakes are not only traditional, but also traditionally crowd-pleasing because of their simplicity. That being said, she notes that this year’s bridal customers are approaching her with such hot-button flavors as caramel, Meyer lemon and almond. Although she says buttercream frosting is beloved from a flavor standpoint, there are times when, based on the shape and design of the cake, the fondants (hard, sheet-like frosting), dark chocolate or whipped cream may be preferable. For strictly kosher clients, meanwhile, her bakery offers several good common sense alternatives.

“For kosher clients, we can create a pareve cake, or we can create a faux cake for display and the ceremonial cutting and then allow the client to provide sheet cakes from their favorite kosher bakery,” Grode said. “You can have a smaller cake for the strictly kosher guests, or have the entire cake made kosher.”

In terms of what will be, well, the icing on the cake, Grode observes that black-and-white designs within the frosting and cake toppers are making a comeback. Couples are further personalizing their cakes by replacing the familiar bride/groom topper with sleek monogram designs, crystals and family heirlooms. She also notes that creating cake layers with different shapes for a modern look is often requested.

Although Hansen’s Cakes has been a Fairfax Avenue fixture for decades, the favorite destinations of celebrities and studios still stands as one of the most trend-setting cake studios in town so much so that there are also Beverly Hills and Tarzana locations to meet the heavy demand. Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this all-things-to-all-people bakery has actually had a kosher kitchen (certified by Kosher Overseers Associates of America) from the very beginning.

The soft-spoken Hansen, who recently assumed the helm from father Gary, notes that the all-time wedding cake classics white cake with white buttercream and chocolate chocolate chip aren’t going anywhere. However, he says what’s new and exciting in wedding cakes are cake fillings (ranging from cream cheese-based preparations to custards and mousses) as well as cakes with a decidedly healthy twist.

“People are becoming more inventive with sauces used on and inside the cakes,” Hansen said. “Yet the most exciting new trend we’re seeing is the demand for cakes that are gluten-free, sugar-free, vegan and with no trans fat. The market is definitely shifting toward healthier alternatives.”

Although Hansen’s Cakes offers a full complement of frosting styles, Hansen says their fresh-made buttercream is the hands-down winner. Frosting style notwithstanding, he says couples need to come into the store fully prepared.

“If couples come to us ready with their dietary issues to the number of guests to what they have in their budget, to what hotels, synagogues and venues will allow them to bring in our products, we will be flexible and be able to work with them as well as their rabbi, if needed, on a very personalized level,” he said.

While Patrick Hansen’s particularly sweet on buttercream, Delice Bakery founder Julien Bohbot’s all about taking on the hard stuff marzipan, fondant and icing as they have their practical side as well as an adherence to authentic French dessert preparations.

“I do marzipan, fondants and icing styles of frosting because the cakes will hold up better, both during the delivery process from bakery to venue and during the dinner itself,” Bohbot affirms. “The look is sleek and smooth, verses buttercream, which often needs to be touched up every time it hits another object. Our cakes remain beautiful all night long. While other bakeries offer sponge cakes and cream, we can guarantee that what customers sample and order in our store will be what they get on their wedding day. If you want a cake that will be remembered for its elegance, less is more.”

Pico-Robertson’s Delice Bakery features a distinctively European experience, with such options as Opera, Tiramisu or Mont Blanc Cake, all with recipes true to their origins. Although customers can request multilayer cakes in different flavors, multiflavor cakes will cost much more from an ingredients and labor standpoint at Delice. However, as Delice is also noted for its diverse array of sweet table options, Bohbot suggests one way to approach offering guests a choice is to substitute one traditional cake with customized individual cakes for each guest who has confirmed attendance.

Wedding planner Barrad, of I Do …Weddings!, says she has observed myriad trends from different bakeries from satellite cakes (ensuring kosher layers will not be touching non-kosher layers) to couples ordering cakes made with fresh seasonal fruits. However, as dancing always follows the wedding dinner, she recommends fresh, lighter alternatives to deep dark chocolates, such as lemon and citrus-based cakes for summer and heartier flavors like pear/spice for fall and winter.

When it comes to the tradition of saving a slice for the first anniversary, some controversy remains. Based on her own personal and professional experience, Barrad does not recommend the practice. Instead, she suggests approaching your bakery about doing a small reproduction of the cake for the first anniversary and notes many bakeries she’s worked with will do that service for free or a small, reasonable charge.

Hansen and Bohbot can produce a mini-anniversary cake for a fee, but they also say cake preservation can be done as long as you wrap the cake pieces securely with plastic and foil over that. Bohbot says storing wrapped cake pieces in a bakery box also helps. But everybody can agree on one thing cake is best enjoyed on the big day.

Obituaries


Harold Ackerman died July 30 at 96. He is survived by his son, Jerrold; and daughter, Tobi Chinsky. Hillside

David Alper died Aug. 2 at 84. He is survived by his wife, Estelle; daughters, Elizabeth Keran and Joan; and sons, L. Andrew and Robert. Hillside

Jeanette Brauner died July 22 at 91. She is survived by her daughters, Sharon Mathes and Gail; two grandchildren; and brothers, Milton and Mervin Koplof. Malinow and Silverman

Mae Brenner died July 30 at 99. She is survived by her daughters, Lori Keir and Judy Kutchai. Hillside

Dorothy Chait died July 22 at 93. She is survived by her daughters, Judy Standel and Rose; four grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Sophie Chudacoff died Aug. 4 at 97. She is survived by her daughter, Rhea Clinton, and her grandchildren, Evan and Arthur. Mount Sinai

Eugene Hugh Costin died Aug. 1 at 80. He is survived by his wife, Mitzi; daughter, Cathy; and sons, Rob and John. Hillside

William Cotlow died July 28 at 90. He is survived by his wife, Rosalie; and daughters, Judy (Richard) Julien, Marion (Dwayne) Morris and Leslee. Hillside

Arthur Alan Diamond died July 10 at 72. He is survived by his uncle, William; and cousin, Andrea (Martin Suart). Mount Sinai

Edward Efron died Aug. 4 at 69. He is survived by his wife, Vida; daughters, Elizabeth (Randall) Redondo, Tamara (Mathew) Palumbo, Shoshana (Bruno) and Jennifer (Sig Summer); sons, Daniel and Louis (Evie); one grandchild; and brother, Albert. Malinow and Silverman

Phyllis Fannie Engel died July 27 at 83. She is survived by her husband, Morris; sons, Micheal and Hartley; and brothers, Jack and Allan Chisuin. Hillside

Harris Solomon Frankel died Aug. 1 at 91. He is survived by his wife, Esther; son, Mark (Jodi); daughters, Rycilly Lynch and Eileen; and eight grandchildren, Guthrie, Cody, Kendrick, Danny, Evan, Jason, Bryan and Joel. Mount Sinai

Cyrille Friedman died July 23 at 94. He is survived by his daughter, Sandy Weimer; son, Sam (Laurie Stein); two grandchildren; and brother, Oscar Schwartz. Malinow and Silverman

Robert “Bob” Friedman died July 12 at 87. He is survived by his wife, Eleanor; sons, Alan (Vivien), Mike and Ben (Barbara); eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren. Chevra Kadisha

Dr. Marvin Gilbert died Aug. 4 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Nancy; daughter, Tamara (Surja) Tjahaja; sons, Randall and Jason (Barbara Fain); and five grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Jack Goldberg died July 27 at 95.He is survived by his son, Loren Gould; sister, Selma Mannheim; and friend, Dwight Griffith. Mount Sinai

Sally Goldberg died July 31 at 69. She is survived by her husband, Leon; sons, Mark (Becky) and Craig (Sandy); three grandchildren; sister, Beverly (Stan) Berlowitz; and brother, Elliot (Linda) Weinstein. Malinow and Silverman

Sarah Goldberg died Aug. 2 at 101. She is survived by her daughters, Fana Spielberg and Devorah; son, Jack; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Florence Goldstein died July 19 at 93. She is survived by her son, Barry (Keng Wah); daughter, Linda (Gary Brown); grandchildren, Lisa Faite and David; and sister, Renee Pyle. Mount Sinai

Lea Halpern died July 25 at 83. She is survived by her daughter, Leora (Alan) Lanz. Malinow and Silverman

Norma Hammer died Aug. 1 at 82. She is survived by her daughter, Lynne (Elliott) Smith; son, Matthew (Teri) Haymer; five grandchildren; and brother, Leonard Kolkey. Mount Sinai

Victoria Horowitz died July 21 at 89. She is survived by her husband, Harry; sons, Stanley and Lawrence (Diane); grandson, Josh; and sister, Lily Weiwrich. Mount Sinai

Katrina Kane died July 18 at 27. She is survived by her father, Andrew (Sarah); mother, Maggie (Ron) Jacobs; brothers, Nick Forland and Brad; sister, Sabrina Jacobs; grandmother, Valerie; and uncles, Robert Garson and Peter. Mount Sinai

Howard Katchen died July 25 at 72. He is survived by his daughter, Tracey. Malinow and Silverman

Ethel Kipperman died July 17 at 98. She is survived by her son, Steven (Stephanie); grandchildren, Gia and Lara; and great-grandchildren, Alyssa and Cassie. Mount Sinai

Bette Korber died July 20 at 86. She is survived by her daughter, Sue (John) Benco; son, Richard; five grandchildren; four great-grandchildren; and brother, Sid Clayman. Mount Sinai

Paul Krasne died July 27 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Nan; daughters, Susan (Steve) Nozet and Linda (Marvin) Dratsinsky; grandchildren, Dana and David; sister-in-law, Jane (Chuck) Fedalen; and brother-in-law, Lloyd (Mary) Goldwater. Mount Sinai

Lucy Israel died July 22 at 86. She is survived by her husband, Joseph; daughters, Rosalind (Larry) May and Sharon (Charlie) Balot; and four grandchildren. Malinow and Silverman

Eliahou Moshe Irani died July 8 at 89. He is survived by his wife Florine; sons, Moshe and Abraham; daughters, Carmella and Vera; and eight grandchildren. Eden Memorial Park

Edith Lane died July 30 at 89. She is survived by her son, Robert. Hillside

Rubin Lazar died Aug. 1 at 79. He is survived by his wife, Serene; sons, Mark (Rachel) and David (Sascha); daughter, Robin; and eight grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Charles Lewis died July 26 at 82. He is survived by his wife, Hilda; daughter, Gail (Ken) Jacobs; son, Mark (Fiorenza); and grandchildren, Evan and Sloane. Mount Sinai

Jennee Marks died July 28 at 35. She is survived by her daughter, Breanna; parents, Maxwell and Sophia Litt; and sisters, Tracy (Troy) Christman and Lissa (Lee) Bass. Malinow and Silverman

Eva Nadel died July 28 at 83. She is survived by her son, Harry; and two grandchildren. Groman

Solomon Oziel died July 19 at 85. He is survived by his cousin, Clara. Groman

Said Pakravan died July 11 at 77. He is survived by his wife, Mary; sons, Uri, Danny and Pejman; daughter, Dalia; brothers, Sion and Amir; 12 grandchildren; sisters, Farokh and Toura. Chevra Kadisha

Dr. Jordan Matthew Phillips died July 29 at 85. He is survived by his wife, Mary; and stepdaughter, Vanessa Page. Hillside

Leon Pitson died July 28 at 96. He is survived by his nephew, Jack (Miriam); niece, Pearl (Dr. Rick) Syres; and cousin, Stella (Albert) Soulema. Malinow and Silverman

Else Reissman died July 27 at 91. She is survived by her niece, Susen Kay; and nephew, Mark Herschthal. Malinow and Silverman

Arthur Rubenstein died July 18 at 94. He is survived by his son, Howard (Lauri) Roberts; daughter, Sue (David) Northrup; granddaughter, Rachel (Tim) Davidson; and great-granddaughters. Mount Sinai

Richard Sagerman died July 22,at 73. He is survived by his wife, Audrey; son, Eric; daughter, Nancy; brother, Marvin; and four grandchildren. Groman

Jean Schrager died July 30 at 101. She is survived by her son, Sheldon; and granddaughter, Lisa Elkin. Hillside

Pauline Seewack died Aug. 2 at 100. She is survived by her daughter, Marilyn Katleman; son, Larry (Lois); seven grandchildren and their spouses; and nine great-grandchildren. Hillside

Blessing Semler died Aug. 3 at 92. She is survived by her sons, Allen (Sherry) Haynes, Ronald (Lisa) and Barry; ex-daughter-in-law, Mary; 16 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Mount Sinai

Marilyn Shapiro died July 20 at 77. She is survived by her good friends, Bonnie Franklin and Judy (Dr. Michael) Bush. Mount Sinai

Dr. Jack Sinder died July 25 at 88. He is survived by his daughter, Penny; son, Marlon; and friend, Nira Roston. Malinow and Silverman

Stuart Speiser died Aug. 3 at 65. He is survived by his wife, Elaine; sons, Jeremy and Robbie (Claudia); granddaughter, Sophie; and brothers, Arnie and Franklin (Liz). Mount Sinai

Allan Summit died July 30 at 92. He is survived by his daughters, Rennie (Rudy) North, Susan Rem and Laurie (Barry) Weichman; five grandchildren; seven great-grandchildren; and brother, Aaron (Beverly) Sumetz. Mount Sinai

Pauline Surks died Aug. 2 at 95. She is survived by her daughter, Maxine; and son, Brian. Malinow and Silverman

Melvin Zwicker died Aug. 3 at 87. He is survived by his wife, Helen; daughter, Erica; one grandchild; and sister, Ella. Groman

Henna party adds colorful touch to the happy couple


Sareet Rimon grew up knowing she wanted to have a henna party when she got married. For the local singer it meant carrying on a Moroccan tradition that had been honored by her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

“This is such a beautiful and spiritual ceremony and has such a deep meaning,” she said. “The henna ceremony is supposed to bring good luck to the new couple. Every one in my family has done it, and one day I hope to do it for my children as well.”

Since Sareet and her husband-to-be, Adam, planned to marry in Israel, they wanted to celebrate beforehand in Los Angeles with friends who would not be able to attend the wedding. The bride-to-be hired a henna party planner and sent out invitations to 300 people for an opulent event at the Biltmore Hotel.

Sareet and Adam each chose three different outfits made of silk and velvet, some featuring gold embroidery, which they would change into at different points during the course of the evening. The bride even entered the ballroom in a hand-carried silver carriage.

Sareet admits she felt like royalty that night. “I felt like a queen,” she said.

The henna ceremony, once celebrated primarily by Jews from Morocco and Yemen, has grown in popularity in Israel. And now increasing numbers of young Sephardi and Ashkenazi brides in the United States are honoring this colorful practice.

The ceremony is performed about a week before the wedding and symbolizes the bittersweet separation of the young bride from her family.

Leaves of the henna plant are crushed into a powder, which, when mixed with water, becomes a dough that will stain a person’s skin orange for about two to three weeks if left on for two hours or more (other colors are achieved by mixing in leaves or fruits from other plants).

Known as mehndi in India, the practice dates back to at least 2000 B.C.E., and its use in ceremonies can be found from South Asia to North Africa. In India and other countries, henna is arranged in intricate lacey or floral patterns on the hands or feet, which can mean good health, fertility, wisdom, protection or spiritual enlightenment.

The henna ceremony is a purely cultural celebration and has no religious significance for Jews, said Yona Sabar, a UCLA Hebrew professor.

“Its purpose was to drive away the demons by disguising the bride and groom with the henna,” he said.

Moroccan Israeli singer Claude Afota, who performs at local henna ceremonies, said that the Jews in Arab countries adopted this ceremony from their Muslim neighbors.

“Back home in Morocco, everybody used to do a henna before a wedding or even a bar mitzvah,” he said. “When I immigrated to Israel, it was not as popular as it is today. Only Moroccan families used to have this ceremony as well as Yemen Jews. Nowadays, it seems that everybody is celebrating it.”

After Judith Bloomental was invited to several henna parties, she was inspired to start her own business,

Will ‘Bro Mitzvah’ find roots in African American community?


Decked out in a black tuxedo, a brimmed hat set fashionably on his head, Douglas LeVandia Ulmer Jr., better known as DJ, walked down the aisle to the beat of two African drummers.

This was the night of his 16th birthday, and his mother, Lillie Hill, was celebrating his coming of age as an extraordinary black young adult with what she dubbed a “bro mitzvah.”

Hill knew that 16 marked a turning point in DJ’s life. And while she had looked into several African rites of passage, she believed the Jewish bar mitzvah ceremony, with its emphasis on family heritage and good deeds, gave her the best blueprint to validate her son’s dedication to family, school, community and church and to pass on her family’s values of education, worship and social outreach.

“This was a way to give him a stepping stone to build upon as he crosses into his adult life,” said Hill, who grew up as the youngest of 10 children in rural Indianola, Miss., and is a trained social worker who is currently teaching.

At the black-tie celebration, held last July at the West Palm Beach Marriott in Palm Beach, Fla., with about 45 people in attendance, DJ was embraced by his grandmother, mother and three sets of aunts and uncles from his extended family. They spoke lovingly of his hard work at Palm Beach Lakes High School, his mentoring of youngsters through the Children’s Coalition and his youth group work at SunCoast Church of Christ in Lake Worth. DJ’s father, Palm Beach County firefighter Douglas Ulmer, had died almost two years earlier.

A church elder, Lowrie Simon, presented DJ with his own Kente cloth, a colorful woven stole depicting his African and slave heritage as well as his family’s now predominant professions in education and psychology. Mayor Thomas Masters of nearby Riviera Beach gave the keynote talk, focusing on the troubled fate of many African American young men.

“It was very emotional; my family doing something so special,” DJ said.

Hill believed that she had created the bro mitzvah herself, learning only later of the Disney Channel’s 2006 episode of “That’s So Raven,” in which Corey finagles a bro mitzvah at the Chill Grill for the monetary rewards. Later in the episode, Corey reconsiders his motives, donating the gifts to charity.

And just last October, unaware of Corey’s fictional bro mitzvah and DJ’s real one, Paul Marx, professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of “Utopia in America” (Burke Publishing, 2002), wrote an opinion piece in the New York Jewish newsweekly, The Forward, advocating a ritual for 13-year-old black inner-city youths that could help steer them away from gang life.

Purposely refraining from calling it a black bar mitzvah, Marx suggested the ceremony be held during Kwanzaa and fall under the Kwanzaan principle of kuumba.

“Its principle is that blacks should do as much as they can to leave their community more beautiful and beneficial than they inherited it,” he wrote.

He envisioned a ceremony encompassing a serious initiation in which boys would cross a symbolic chalk line and take a vow committing themselves to certain ways of behaving. There would also be plentiful gift giving.

Marx didn’t receive his hoped-for response, but he said he is inclined to try again.

General guidelines for throwing a bro mitzvah are readily available on eHow.com, but most people are unaware of the ceremony, and it remains rare, at best.

And while Jews and non-Jews alike laud the bar mitzvah as a powerful ritual in which the Jewish community stops and takes stock of its youngsters at a crucial juncture in their lives, both Jewish and African American educators question whether a ritual can successfully be adapted from one religion or culture to another.

“I think it’s very tricky,” said Julie Batz, director of programs for Jewish Milestones, a nonprofit that serves as a community resource for San Francisco Bay Area Jews preparing for life-cycle rituals.

Batz believes that the essence of a bar mitzvah as a rite of passage — an exploration of identity; a connection to heritage; an intellectual, spiritual or physical challenge, and a gathering of witnesses — is transferable.

“But when you get to the specifics, when somebody’s studying Jewish texts or learning to lain [read] Torah, I think that doesn’t translate, and it’s difficult cross-culturally,” she said.

But everyone agrees that there is a definite need for a rite of passage ceremony in the African American community.

“The whole concept of black manhood has been kind of devalued. We have racism on one side and lack of self-valuation and self-affirmation on the other side,” said Yitz Jordan, otherwise known as Y-Love, the black Chasidic hip-hop artist whose debut album, “This Is Babylon,” was released March 1.

Jordan, who knew from age 7 he wanted to be Jewish and who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost 10 years ago at age 20, pointed out that becoming a bar mitzvah, a son of the commandments, is actually a universal concept.

Jordan bases his statement on the Noahide Laws in Genesis, which, advocating such commandments as don’t kill and don’t steal, form the basic building blocks of morality and which are applicable to all humanity.

“According to commentaries in the Talmud, the nations of the world are commanded to do this when they’re 13, so really there is no cultural misappropriation,” he said, after checking with authorities at Brooklyn’s Yeshiva Darkei Noam.

But others, such as Maulana Karenga, professor of black studies at Cal State Long Beach and creator of the pan-African holiday, Kwanzaa, feel strongly that the ritual should come from within the African culture. “There are literally hundreds of rites of passage for young black men around the country,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange.

Karenga, whose Organization Us created Majando, a rite of passage model used by various churches and institutions across the United States, favors rituals that don’t deal with real or imagined pathology but rather address the ancient motive of transforming boys into men.

Advertise joys of Judaism to others during simcha


Bar mitzvah audiences are no longer what they used to be. No more the simple Saturday morning minyan — a tight cluster of worshippers — who halfway through the service are thinking of the pickled herring and egg salad to follow. Today in many synagogues, the ceremony has all the excitement of the UCLA-USC football game, followed by a groaning banquet table. And the religious demographics are closer to UCLA-USC than Hebrew U.-Brandeis.

It is an interfaith moment, so to speak: A wonderful opportunity to display our theological wares. Today, by the time the frenzied parents have satisfied their social obligations, they’ve included beside relatives, co-workers, the child’s friends and family members — some of whom worship on Sunday, not Saturday.

Given the condition of Judaism in 2008, a bar mitzvah is an ecumenical stew. It’s not only the non-Jews who wonder about the significance and meaning of the ceremony, but even some of our fellow Israelites stare with wonder and, sometimes, awe.

That’s why a booklet of origins, explanations and exegesis is useful. Not only does it highlight the mechanics of the ceremony, but with a touch of subtlety, as well as modesty, it allows us to point out the contributions of Judaism to the overwhelming Christian culture in which we live — a contribution unknown to most of our fellow Jews as well as their non-Jewish friends.

From the world of entertainment to Nobel Prize-winners and from Hollywood to MIT, disproportionately you find the Jew. It is one of history’s puzzling enigmas — there are more Brazilians than Jews, but Brazilians rarely make the headlines.

Although the bar mitzvah booklet cannot explain this mystery, it can, via a description of the ceremony and history, educate and advertise the joys of Judaism, an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. It helps to remind the world that for better or worse, politically correct or not, God has chosen us to carry the light out of Zion.

In addition to a brief history of the Jews, the booklet should go something like this:

Introduction

The ceremony that we will witness today marks the passage of a Jewish girl or boy from childhood into adulthood. From this day on, he is ethically, morally responsible for his behavior — literally, a son or daughter of the commandments. Contrary to the common wisdom, our Bible is jammed with 603 commandments, in addition to the familiar 10.

The youth undertakes a heavy obligation: These commandments, dealing with every aspect of behavior, make the point that Judaism is a creed of deeds that are more important than faith, more important than prayer.

We realize that some of our friends, both Jewish and Christian, may never have attended a bar mitzvah ceremony, therefore we offer this guide to the morning’s activities. It’s full of tradition and still the foundation of our Judeo-Christian culture.

The Service

The bar mitzvah ceremony usually takes place within the setting of the normal Saturday morning Shabbat service, which consists of traditional prayers that go back centuries. The highlight of the Saturday ceremony — the highlight of every service where the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, is read — is the removal of the sacred scroll from its draped alcove.

The Torah is carried by the rabbi or a congregation member around the aisles of the synagogue as the worshippers sing a joyful song of praise and thanksgiving. Congregants crowd around “The Law” to kiss it, to touch it with their prayer shawl or their prayer book. This exuberant procession is also a sign that the bar or bat mitzvah, who has thus far been in the wings, is ready for the spotlight.

After the appropriate blessings, the honoree will read directly from the Torah scroll. Not a simple task even to a student of Hebrew, because the ancient lettering has no vowels.

Besides the Torah chanting, the child — after a blessing — sings a passage from the haftarah, the prophetic section of the Bible. The haftarah is the home of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Amos and company, who spoke for justice and care for the downtrodden before it was politically popular. After all, it was an era where swords beat love at every encounter.

The bar mitzvah child follows his haftarah performance with yet another tuneful blessing. The challenge of the day, you see, is musical as well as scholarly.

Then finally, after deciphering and reciting passages from a 3,500-year-old language and delivering the equivalent of three arias from “Il Trovatore,” you’d think our young student could take a bow. Not yet.

He must then present an exegesis on the Torah and haftarah he has just chanted.

When he completes this final task, there’s no applause, but everybody grins and relaxes. Once the bar mitzvah child finishes his speech, the normal services are resumed.

Our Blessing

Luckily, we live in the United States, where Judaism flourishes because of freedom. We don’t have to whisper our haftarah. We don’t need a sentry by the synagogue door on the lookout for the mob and the hoodlums.

The bar mitzvah boys that preceded this one in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and other dark times studied in stealth and recited their lessons in fear. But our honoree can shout to the heavens.

Our Passover haggadah tells us: “Now we are slaves in Egypt; next year may we be free men.” Well, today we are free — free to sing the Torah and haftarah with passion, like David the sweet singer of Israel.

Dimly surrounding our honoree are the less fortunate bar mitzvah children of other lands and other times. He sings for them, too.

Ted Roberts, a longtime b’nai mitzvah teacher, is also a Jewish humorist and commentator whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Disney Magazine and Hadassah.

There is more going on than just a ceremony and a party


I have a confession to make.

I punched out my brother at his bar mitzvah. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.

I was sitting at a table with him and a couple of cousins, and he told this joke I didn’t find very funny. I looked at this smirk on his face, and I just couldn’t stand it. When he did it again, I lost it.

It was strange and very unlike me. It’s not as if I was getting into fights all the time. I was a pretty mellow kid.

Now, compare that to a story a friend relayed to me recently. He told me about the first time his son put on tefillin. The bar mitzvah boy said that he felt as if God was standing right next to him. Deep stuff.

So while my brother got punched out at his bar mitzvah — by me — this other kid met God. Of course, some kids start getting into trouble at this age, while others really start to excel as students.

Why are people so prone to intense experiences at or around this right of passage? Is it just a coincidence, or is there something deeper going on?

Albert Einstein, no dummy himself, once asserted that God does not play dice with the universe. I think he was right.

Most rabbis, when talking or writing about b’nai mitzvah, mention becoming a grown-up, gaining a higher ability to discern between good and evil, becoming responsible for one’s own actions, being counted in a minyan, etc. While all these things may be true technically, they are a little counterintuitive.

Why is a 12- or 13-year-old kid suddenly an adult? They sure don’t look grown up; most aren’t even done growing yet.

It turns out that all Jewish rules, holidays and mitzvahs are actually a reflection of a kabbalistic cosmic reality. For example, Shabbat corresponds to the day of the week most opportune for spiritual renewal, the time when all the energy for the next six days comes in.

Men put tefillin on their heads and left arms to influence their hearts and minds in a more positive direction. Most people probably assume that their soul is with them entirely at birth, but Kabbalah disagrees. In the 15th century, Rabbi Issac Luria, known as The Ari, explained how a person’s neshama, or soul, comes down from heaven in stages, and that 12 or 13 is when one of the largest pieces finally comes down.

Sounds odd, I know. But check this out for yourself. Pick a memory from your childhood, any memory will do. Focus on it. Most people will find it kind of fuzzy and dreamlike.

Now, think of an event a few years later, during your teen years. Suddenly, those memories become as crisp as HD.

The Zohar, the principal kabbalistic text written in the first century C.E. by Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, teaches that your soul is actually your intellect. Taken one step further, your brain is simply a processor that your soul uses, much like a computer. So, before b’nai mitzvah age, you are simply “not all there.”

Ever had a conversation with a 5-year-old? Explains a lot, doesn’t it?

So, once a person is “all there,” it makes sense that he or she can be held accountable for his or her actions. And of course, this is also where the roller-coaster of teen years begins.

Soul newly complete, we are bombarded with new thoughts, intellect and desires. It’s a wild, sometimes confusing ride.

But becoming responsible for one’s actions is not the only change. We also become responsible for our tikkun, the rectification a person is supposed to go through during his life.

Rabbi Luria wrote about this in detail in his ground-breaking Shaar HaGilgulim (Gates of Reincarnation). Apparently, a person is responsible for fixing his character flaws, learning certain lessons and paying back debts from prior lifetimes.

Everyone has their own challenges in life regarding career, relationships, parents, substance abuse, you name it. According to Luria, all these challenges are heaven-sent to allow a person to iron themselves out, so to speak. And it all begins at b’nai mitzvah time.

Most Jews would probably be surprised to learn that reincarnation is a Jewish concept, but it is. In the Midrash and in the Zohar, it is explained that Abel was reincarnated into Noah, then later into Moses, and that the 10 martyrs killed by the Romans were being punished for slandering Israel when they “spied out the Land” in their incarnations as the tribal heads.

So, when a kid turns b’nai mitzvah age, there is a lot more going on than just a religious ceremony and a good party. According to the sources quoted, the ceremony is an acknowledgement of much deeper things taking place in one’s soul, when one’s true self is present for the first time, along with all the things that go along with that.

Of course, none of this excuses me for hitting my brother during his big moment. Stewart, if you’re reading this, I really am sorry.

Matt Lipeles is a nice guy and doesn’t hit anyone these days — even if they really deserve it. He can be reached at malipeles@earthlink.net.

Can public menorah lighting ceremonies pull in unaffiliated Jews?


On the third night of Chanukah, at 6 p.m., a parade of 40 cars topped with electric menorahs, some four feet high with flickering lights, will wind its way about six miles under police escort from southwest Houston to The Galleria shopping center, where several thousand people will gather for a celebration and the lighting of a giant seven-foot menorah carved out of ice.

“Jews are thrilled to see a menorah. It brings them Jewish pride,” said Rabbi Moishe Traxler, Chabad of Houston’s director of outreach, who co-designed the $1,000 deluxe, metallic-painted car menorahs, based on a 12th century design by the Rambam. Traxler oversees the lighting of the ice menorah’s oversize candles.

Public lightings of Chanukah menorahs in the United States have grown exponentially since 1974, when Rabbi Abraham Shemtov of Philadelphia’s Chabad-Lubavitch Center lit a small menorah at the foot of the Liberty Bell at Independence Hall.

The following December, a 22-foot-high mahogany menorah, known as the “Mama Menorah,” was lit in San Francisco’s Union Square, its idea conceived by Northern California Chabad founder Rabbi Chaim Drizin, among others, and its design and construction funded by rock music promoter Bill Graham.

To many Jews, these public celebrations — many with oversize and unconventional menorahs carved of ice or built of LEGOs — create a fierce sense of Jewish pride. And given that Chanukah is the ultimate anti-assimilationist holiday, many Jews and non-Jews alike believe the exhibits establish the menorah as a universal symbol of religious freedom.

To others, however, the public menorah displays raise controversial legal issues regarding separation of church and state, as well as issues regarding the religious significance of the menorah and the true interpretation of the Talmudic commandment to publicize the holiday miracle.

Chabad now sponsors thousands of public menorah lightings worldwide (www.hanukkah.org/events), according to Chabad-Lubavitch spokesperson Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, but not all lightings fall under their auspices.

At The Promenade in Westlake Village, on the fourth night of Chanukah, about 25 third-graders, from Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Haverim in nearby Agoura Hills, dressed as dreidels, candles and cruses of oil, will sing “I am a Latke” and other Chanukah songs preceding the lighting of a nine-foot menorah.

Since the mall opened 10 years ago, Beth Haverim has sponsored this “Chanukah pageant,” which, according to Rabbi Gershon Weissman, carries out the Talmudic commandment pirsumei nisa, which in Aramaic means “to publicize the miracle,” as well as makes the Jewish community feel supported.

“People come up to me afterward and say, ‘Thank you, rabbi, thank you for putting this up in the mall,'” Weissman said.

That was exactly the purpose in the 1980s when the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, began actively campaigning for his Chabad emissaries stationed worldwide to sponsor public menorah lightings.

As Schneerson wrote in 1982, the public display “has been an inspiration to many, many Jews and evoked in them a spirit of identity with their Jewish people …. To many others, it has brought a sense of pride in their Yiddishkeit.”

Controversy — and multiple lawsuits — erupted, however, most initiated by the Jewish community itself, which believed that public displays violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which separates the institutions of church and state. But in 1989 the Supreme Court, ruling on a 18-foot menorah that Chabad-Lubavitch had erected in a government building in Pittsburgh, decided in Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU that the publicly displayed menorah did not endorse a particular religion but rather, placed next to a Christmas tree, was a secular symbol that was “part of the same winter holiday season.”

The Union of Reform Judaism, however, continues to maintain a policy of separation of church and state, opposing all government-sponsored, government-funded religious displays on public property, according to rabbi and attorney Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

The Talmud “says, ‘Put the chanukiah in your own window.’ It doesn’t say to put it in someone else’s window,” she said. Additionally, Feldman said, placing a chanukiah next to a Christmas tree gives the erroneous message that the two are somehow related.

United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, in a resolution on separation of church and state in the United States passed in 1997 and still in effect, maintains the same policy, according to Richard Lederman, United Synagogue director of social action and public policy.

Over time, however, many non-Orthodox clergy have tempered their positions.

Years ago, Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, said he would have given “an absolute and definitive no” to the concept of public menorah displays. Since then, though he remains offended by calling the menorah a secular symbol, he said he has witnessed how beautiful many of these ceremonies can be.

“There’s value in public lightings to remind all of us that [Chanukah] is a religious holiday — and is not about shopping,” he said.

Many synagogues, as well as Jewish federations, hold menorah lightings on their own property.
For the past 40 years, Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El in Tucson, Ariz., has lit a 12-foot oil menorah that sits permanently on the synagogue’s front lawn, facing a main thoroughfare.

“The basic mitzvah of the holiday is publicizing the miracle,” said Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon. He added that by holding the lighting on private property overlooking a busy street, the synagogue is fulfilling that commandment without in any way violating principles of church and state.

Cohon believes that the public display has had a positive effect on the community, even “rekindling the Jewish spark” in a few people who have later become temple members.

For many rabbis, that’s precisely the point, no matter the size of the community.

On Dec. 17, at Universal Studios’ City Walk, up to 10,000 people, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are expected to attend the fifth annual Chanukah celebration and lighting of an approximately 18-foot menorah sponsored by Chabad of the Valley, representing 19 Chabad centers in the Los Angeles area.

Prager won’t apologize after slamming Quran in Congress


Conservative pundit Dennis Prager has come under fire from Muslim and Jewish groups after he attacked an incoming Muslim congressman who plans to bring a Quran to the House swearing-in ceremony on Jan. 4.

But Prager said he stands by statements made in his column published Nov. 28 on the Townhall.com Web site and has no intention of apologizing to Rep.-elect Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) or his critics.

“I called on [Ellison] not to break a 200-year tradition,” Prager, who is also a radio talk show host, told The Journal. “He thinks it’s important, and I think it’s important.”

“If you are incapable of taking an oath on [the Bible], don’t serve in Congress,” Prager wrote, adding that if Ellison brought a Quran to the ceremony, it would do “more damage to the unity of America and to the value system that has formed this country than the terrorists of 9-11.”

Ellison’s decision to carry a Quran into the ceremony has infuriated some conservatives, who draw a fine line between constitutional rights and American tradition. However, Ellison has some defenders in the GOP. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) told McClatchy Newspapers that Ellison’s ability to hold the book of his choice while he takes his oath embodies freedom of religion.

Prager is also being taken to task for equating Ellison’s proposed use of the Quran at the swearing-in ceremony with a racist toting a copy of Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” “On what grounds will those defending Ellison’s right to choose his favorite book deny that same right to a racist who is elected to public office?” he wrote.

Prager defends the Quran-“Mein Kampf” parallel in his Nov. 5 column, saying he was presenting a slippery-slope argument and was not defaming Islam. He writes thatpeople who draw such conclusions are “deliberately lying to defame me rather than respond to my arguments. A slippery slope argument is not an equivalence argument.”

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called for Prager, who broadcasts locally on KRLA-AM 870, to be removed from his recent appointment to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Prager’s five-year term as a presidential appointee to the council expires on Jan. 15, 2011.

CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad wrote in a letter to Fred S. Zeidman, council chair: “No one who holds such bigoted, intolerant and divisive views should be in a policymaking position at a taxpayer-funded institution that seeks to educate Americans about the destructive impact hatred has had and continues to have on every society.”

The Anti-Defamation League labeled the Nov. 28 column as “intolerant, misinformed and downright un-American,” adding that Prager’s recent appointment to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council holds him to a higher standard.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, wants Prager to apologize directly to Ellison, who converted to Islam from Catholicism as a 19-year-old college student. “The notion that the exercise of your first amendment rights should be banned because someone else might misuse your words or misinterpret your actions violates two centuries of Supreme Court rulings,” Saperstein said.

Prager is a popular speaker among Jewish groups around the country,
commanding appearance fees upwards of $10,000.

While most of these groups, contacted this week by The Forward newspaper,
declined to comment on Prager’s remarks, several said they would reconsider
inviting Prager barring an apology from him.

“There’s lines you draw, and Dennis probably crossed the line,” Stephen
Hoffman, president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, said in
an interview with the Forward. “Just because we can get by with the first
Five Books and some people say it’s okay doesn’t mean it’s okay for the next
guy to stand up and say if they can’t swear on a Christian Bible, they’re
not qualified. He’s pandering… [and] I wouldn’t want the Muslim community to
bring in a panderer. So that’s what we’d have to think about.”

In his Nov. 28 column, Prager claimed that all members of Congress, including Jews, use a Christian Bible for the swearing-in ceremony.

However, members of Congress are sworn in together in a simple ceremony that only requires that the representatives raise their right hand. Individuals may carry a sacred text, but its presence isn’t required. Representatives can bring in whatever they want, said Fred Beuttler, House of Representatives deputy historian.

In his column, Prager also claimed that no “Mormon official demanded to put his hand on the Book of Mormon.” In 1997, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Oregon), a Mormon, carried a Bible that included the Book of Mormon to his swearing-in ceremony.
But Ellison’s use of a Quran isn’t without precedent. In 1999, Osman Siddique became the first Muslim to serve abroad as a U.S. ambassador, and he took his oath using both a Quran and a Bible.

Prager told The Journal that he would have no problem if Ellison brought along a Bible in addition to the Quran. And while he agrees that Ellison has the constitutional right to use only the Quran, Prager thinks the incoming freshman should consider the cultural and historic implications of his act.

“It’s an unbroken tradition since George Washington, and he wants
to substitute it with his values,” he said.

Prager said he will not take Saperstein up on his call for an apology to Ellison. Instead, he believes groups like the ADL and the Religious Action Center have wronged him.

“I think Saperstein owes me an apology,” Prager said. “It’s chutzpah … arrogance on his part.”

To read Dennis Prager’s column on Ellison, click here.

Milken School head gets the surprise of her life


Rennie Wrubel had no reason to suspect.

The board members, the 800 students on bleachers, the officials from the Bureau of Jewish Education and private foundations — they had come to Milken Community High School to hear Gen. Shaul Mofaz, minster of transportation and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel.

Right?

Mofaz, as it turns out, was a decoy. The surprise honoree was Wrubel herself, who received the Milken Family Foundation’s Jewish Educator Award for her work as Milken’s head of school for the last 10 years.

“I just have one question,” a stunned but composed Wrubel asked when she was finally able to lift herself off her seat. “Is that really Mofaz?” (It was.)

The annual Jewish Educator Awards, with a $10,000 prize, is awarded in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to five Los Angeles day school teachers or administrators annually.

“I want to recognize and celebrate a person whose intelligence, whose leadership, whose commitment and compassion have made a profound difference in our community, a person who has positively impacted thousands of young people’s lives,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which gave the naming gift and maintains close ties to the high school.

As Milken stood at the dais to announce the award, Wrubel wondered why he was talking about appreciating excellence in education, when the assembly was about Israel. Colleagues whispered that perhaps the digression was to recognize the school as a whole, since Wrubel surmised that he couldn’t be presenting a Jewish Educator Award, because she would have been informed of that.

Then Milken asked for “the envelope.” The school orchestra went into a drum roll and an audible wave of anticipation passed among the students. When he announced that Dr. Rennie Wrubel was the recipient of a Jewish Educator Award, Wrubel slumped in her seat, open mouthed — and the gym exploded.

That kind of reaction, and its ripple effect through the wider community, is what Milken Foundation officials are going for with the dramatic presentation of the awards.

“The surprise element evolved as the best way to get everyone’s attention and to make it most memorable to the students and to other people in the room,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. “We’re trying to get the community behind teaching, behind educators, and trying to get kids to understand that educators are recognized and appreciated and that kids should consider this as a profession.”

Sandler and a caravan of BJE and Milken Foundation officials presented the four other awards in one packed day in late October. Videos of those emotional assemblies will form the centerpiece of an awards luncheon in Bel Air on Dec. 14.

At Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, second- and third-grade teacher Beverly Yachzel received her award in an intimate gathering of the student body and teachers at the small school.

Tami Rosenfeld, a fourth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, didn’t know her family was hiding out in the back of the sanctuary for the occasion.

Rabbi Simcha Frankel, a teacher at Cheder Menachem Elementary School in Los Angeles, at first demurred from coming to the stage, but the cheering boys coaxed him up.
Bluma Drebin, Bible department chair and teacher of mathematics at the YULA girls’ high school, elicited whoops and hollers from the girls.

But even by the Milken Foundation’s standards, the ruse around Wrubel’s ceremony was unusual.

The elaborate scheming behind the assembly was the work of Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the parent organization for Milken Community High School.

Benjamin arranged for Consul General Ehud Danoch to come to the school, under the pretense of recognizing the school’s ambitious new Tiferet Israel Program, where 40 tenth graders will go to Israel for four months this winter and spring.

Then, three days before the assembly, Benjamin got a call from Mofaz saying he would be in town.

She jumped at the chance, and pulled off the last-minute schedule change for Mofaz to speak to the students.

Mofaz and Danoch both addressed the students, congratulating them on their continued commitment to fostering the bond between Israeli and American teens.

For several years, Milken Community High School has participated in an exchange program with its sister school in Tel Aviv, sending delegations each year to live with families.
This year a larger delegation will live in dorms, continue their Milken education and learn Jewish history and heritage both in the classroom and on field trips to the places they learn about.

In 11th and 12th grade, the same group of students will continue to have special classes aimed at teaching them to be advocates for Israel, and they will become part of the Israeli Consulate’s speaker’s bureau.

The fact that the assembly honoring Wrubel ended up being so focused on Israel was appropriate, Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise, said, since one of Wrubel’s strongest passions is for connecting the kids to Israel.

For information on the awards visit www.mff.org.

Married . . . at last!


I got married for the first time at 50. The groom was 51. Yes, we are both Jewish. We met online.

I am tall, thin, blonde, green-eyed, and have a little turned-up nose. My
father-in-law’s first comment, across the Thanksgiving table, was, “Doesn’t she look like a shiksa?”

My husband is an inch shorter than I am and round. He is also handsome, smart, funny and very logical. But I married him because he is a good person and I love him very much.

I decided when I was about 46 that I really wanted to get married. The question became where to meet men who really wanted to get married, too. I decided to try online dating. I had already done everything else.

It was not love at first sight. It was interest. It was let’s see what will happen. We both had dated enough to know the difference between passion and real caring.

It took three years, but we did it. The short version:

We met in November of 2000. The cats and I moved in with him in 2001, and I gave him an ultimatum. We got engaged in June of 2002 and were planning to marry in December 2002, although I had yet to see a ring.

Thirteen weeks before the wedding, he fell and shattered his shoulder. We postponed the wedding. I told him he had until my birthday, in August, to do the ring, or it was over. This was it.

It took him eight months, but he did it. Three days before my birthday, he took me to dinner, and proposed a second time, this time with ring in hand.

This was August 2003, and we were going to get married August 2004. We would have a year to arrange the wedding. That was the plan. The next month, my then-91-year-old mother fell and wound up in the hospital, so the wedding was moved up to December.

I had three months to plan the wedding. I was crazed, to say the least. It turned out that my little, humble then-83-year-old aunt knew the owner of a hotel, which shall remain nameless, kayn ayin hora, poo poo. It was a fabulous hotel, famous for its weddings. We had a place. Then we had a date, invitations, a dress, a menu, a klezmer band and a dance band, and a lot of tuxedos.

In addition to planning a wedding in three months, a full-time job, I was also working and taking a class. How I did it, I don’t know. But I was almost there. We divided the wedding planning, sort of. My husband chose all the food and liquor. I handled the cake and flowers, the logistics of the day, the arrangements for out-of-towners, the rehearsal dinner, the auf ruf and half of the visitor packets. (My husband did the maps and the sites of interest.)

The day finally arrived. Hair and make-up call, 6 a.m. Both my husband and I have backgrounds in the entertainment industry, but this was the biggest production either of us had to pull off. He had produced and directed theater, and I had produced and directed reality TV. But this was something else.

I was drugged out of my mind the morning of the wedding. Not serious drugs, but Advil combined with terror can have a mind-numbing effect.

I had only my maid of honor, my cousin Patty, in the suite with me as I got ready. The ketubah signing was done privately with the rabbi in a separate room with only my two attendants and the two male witnesses present. It was beautiful.

It was getting scarier and scarier. Patty and I retired to the bridal suite to await the final call. The hotel’s coordinator lined everyone up, then called up to the room. They were ready for me.

Patty and I took the elevator down. We stepped out. I looked back at the mirrored elevator doors as they were closing on 50 years of being single. I looked at myself and affirmed, “I’m doing this.”

I just wanted to get through the chuppah. I got into line, at the end, next to my then 84-year-old father. This was a dream. This was unreal.

The music started and the bridal procession began. The coordinator was counting the beats. The aisle was 80 feet long. My father and I had rehearsed this, but there was no need. He was a natural. The music changed. I heard, “Now,” and I said to my Dad, “Right foot.”

Talk about a deer in headlights. I saw my cousin Jenny smiling. She stood up first, and everyone followed suit. All these people were standing up for me! I was the bride!

The ceremony was great, I thought. I loved the rabbi’s words of wisdom, although I had to watch the video about four times to remember what he said.

It was an awesome wedding, filled with Jewish rituals — the hora, the chair dance, the brachot over wine and bread. Then, after the first course, the mezinka, the dance honoring the mother upon the marriage of the last child. I am an only child, my husband, the last of four. His mother was deceased. We danced around our three parents, unbelieving that their “old” children were finally married.

In case you are wondering, married life is great. It is not a sitcom, it is not a romantic comedy — it is real life. Whatever you were before, you bring to marriage. Marriage is not a date — you see each other in the morning, someone takes out the trash, and you pay the bills.

But you do it together. At last.

Mierel Verbit is a writer and teacher who lives with her husband and cat in Santa Monica. She can be reached at mierelverbit@yahoo.com.

Classnotes: Milken High School rededicates Torah scroll


A Torah scroll that twice survived extinction was ushered to its new home in the Lainer Beit Mirdash of Milken Community High School on Oct. 19.

The scroll was rescued from Eastern Europe by Shlomo Bardin, founder of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. In October 2005, the scroll survived a brush fire that struck Brandeis. Over the past year, faculty, parents, staff, alumni and every current student participated in restoring the scroll by sponsoring and penning letters on the parchment, under the guidance of scribe Neal Yerman.

At the dedication ceremony, Rabbi Gordon Bernat-Kunin, Milken Upper School rabbinic director, passed the Torah along a line made up of upper and middle School students, faculty, administration and clergy.

“Our Torah of Milken is integrated and pluralistic, connecting Jewish learning and values to the wisdom of the broader world — to science and literature, history and technology, arts and basketball,” Rabbi Bernat-Kunin told the audience of more than 800 made up of students and faculty. “It is a Torah of passionate machloket, spirited dispute, bearing at least 70 faces, if not more.”

The ceremony included three aliyot: one for Stephen S. Wise Temple Senior Rabbi Eli Herscher and education director Metuka Benjamin; one for parents and temple leadership; and a final one for the school’s department chairs.

Three students — Maytal Orevi, Judy Reynolds and Marci Blattner — read from the Torah during the aliyot.

For more information visit www.wisela.org.

Grants for Growth

Eight Southern California day schools received grants from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) to aid in capacity building, increasing enrollment and striving for excellence.

Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, Kadima Hebrew Academy in West Hills and Orange County’s Morasha Jewish Day School and Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School received School Improvement Journey challenge grants. In the first year of the two-year grant, the schools will undergo institutional assessment by a national firm, followed by expert coaching to build a business plan from the assessment. The second year helps schools begin implementing plan.

“Receipt of the grant means several things to Kadima,” explained Dr. Barbara Gereboff, Kadima’s head of school. “That we will have the benefit of a national cadre of experts to guide our planning for the future; that our entire Kadima community will have the chance to really pause and reflect over a two-year period about our future direction, and that we will be given the tools needed to move our school to higher levels of excellence.”

The Jewish Community School of the Desert in Palm Desert and Valley Beth Shalom Day School in Encino both received Pipeline Grants that provide the schools with coaches to help increase recruitment and enrollment from early childhood programs into elementary grades.
The Southern California Yeshiva High School in La Jolla, a two-year-old boys’ high school, received a New Schools Grant for operational expenses and to fund a coach to work with the board and head of school on mutually agreed upon priorities.

For more information visit www.peje.org.

Acting Classes …

The Jewish Children’s Theater is offering Sunday acting and drama classes at the Westside Jewish Community Center, starting this month, for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The classes are taught by Deena Freeman Brandes, who played April Rush on TV’s “Too Close for Comfort.”

Freeman Brandes teaches through acting exercises, theater games, improvisation and a commercial workshop. Over the summer one of her students shot his first TV commercial, and several were cast in plays and student films. For information call (310) 556-8022 or (310) 497-0437 or e-mail dbrandes@pacbell.net.

… And the Production

The Kol Neshama Performing Arts Conservatory for girls will premiere the first episode in its Camp B’nos Yisrael DVD series at a benefit reception on Nov. 6 at the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. Founded seven years ago by television and theater director Robin Garbose, Kol Neshama offers Orthodox girls an opportunity for artistic expression in a traditional yet professional setting.

This past summer about a dozen girls filmed “Inner Nature Hike” at Topanga State Park as a follow up to last year’s pilot of “Together as One,” a Wizard of Oz-esque saga at Camp Bnos Yisrael.

The benefit, open to women only, will honor Kol Neshama teacher and actress Judy Winegard, a former Broadway performer.

For more information, visit www.kolneshama.org or call (310) 659-2342.

Ignorant No More

This month, tenth graders at New Jewish Community High School (NCJHS) became the first Jewish day school class to participate in an Anti-Defamation League (ADL) workshop, “Confronting Anti-Semitism.”

“The ADL program had a strong impact on me and my friends, because we were still talking about it after we left the classroom. We couldn’t believe that things like Holocaust denial and questioning the right of Israel to exist still happens in our world,” said 10th grader Molly Williams.

The first part of the program explores the roots and history of anti-Semitism through to what anti-Semitism looks like in the post-Holocaust era. A follow-up workshop deals with how to face the anti-Semitism of today.

“The class made me realize that a huge cause of anti-Semitism is ignorance, and the easiest way to combat it is through education,” said 10th grader Simone Zimmerman.

Along with the NCJHS students, 40 Israeli students were there through the Federation’s Tel Aviv- Los Angeles partnership.

For more information, visit www.adl.org or call (310) 446-8000.

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


The resignation of a longtime leader of one of the largest Reform congregations in Ukraine has thrown the spotlight on a bitter controversy over homosexuality within the post-Soviet Reform movement.
 
Boris Kapustin, 70, founder and chairman of the Reform congregation in the Crimean town of Kerch, quit his post in September.
 
While Ukrainian Reform leaders cite Kapustin’s age and health concerns as reasons for his resignation, Kapustin said his resignation stemmed from his opposition to the movement’s acceptance of same-sex commitment ceremonies.
 
“I don’t want to participate in a movement that has organized a chuppah for lesbians, which happened in Moscow this year,” Kapustin said.
 
He was referring to Rabbi Nelly Shulman, who officiated at an April 2 commitment ceremony for a lesbian couple. It is believed to be the first Jewish, same-sex commitment ceremony in the former Soviet Union.
 
A strong backlash greeted the move by Shulman, who insisted she officiated at the ceremony on her own private initiative and was not backed in any way by her group, OROSIR, the umbrella organization of Reform Judaism in Russia.
 
In a strongly worded statement, the Chabad-led Federation of Jewish Communities, the largest stream in the former Soviet Union, urged a boycott of the Reform movement. There were also repercussions within the Progressive movement, as Reform Judaism is referred to in the region.
 
In late April, Zinovy Kogan resigned as chairman of the movement’s Moscow-based umbrella group. In August, a Reform congregation in the Ukrainian town of Pavlograd wrote to all Reform synagogues in the country, urging them to “renounce all religious contacts with the people who committed that crime,” a reference to the lesbian ceremony.
 
Responding to the wave of criticism from their communities, the six Reform rabbis working in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have agreed to ban such ceremonies for the time being, saying that post-Soviet citizens, including Jews, are not yet prepared to accept the Reform movement’s liberal approach to homosexuality.
 
Homosexuality was only decriminalized after the fall of the Soviet Union 15 years ago. According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.
 
Rabbi Alexander Dukhovny, the Kiev-based leader of the Reform movement in Ukraine, said that Reform Jews who criticize the ceremony “completely misunderstand Reform Judaism, which teaches tolerance and respect toward the choice of each and every individual.”
 
Nevertheless, when Dukhovny is approached by same-sex couples who want to arrange such a ceremony, “I tell them that neither our community nor society is ready for this.”
 
Esfir Mikhailova, recently appointed as Kapustin’s successor in Kerch, refused to speculate on this aspect of Kapustin’s resignation.
 
“At our board meeting, Kapustin told us he decided to retire because of his age and problems with health,” Mikhailova said.
 
Dukhovny praised Kapustin’s role in building a “strong congregation” in this Crimean town of 160,000.
 
The Kerch Progressive congregation, which Kapustin founded in 1997, has 1,000 members, virtually all the town’s Jews and their families. It is considered a leading light among the 70-odd Reform communities in the former Soviet Union.
 
A retired Soviet navy officer, Kapustin is credited by many local Jews with building a strong and unified Jewish community. That is a rarity in a region where Jewish life is often plagued by infighting among Chabad, non-Chabad Orthodox and Reform groups.
 
Also rare is the congregation’s monopoly over local Jewish life. Kerch is one of a handful of Reform communities anywhere in the former Soviet Union that owns its own building, a 19th century synagogue returned to the congregation as part of a government program of religious property restitution. The community restored the building and reopened it in 2001.
 
Chabad does not have a presence in the town.
 
“This is one of the largest and the best functioning, congregations in Ukraine,” said Alexander Gaydar, executive director of the Association of Progressive Jewish Congregations of Ukraine.
 
The congregation runs religious, cultural, educational and charitable programs; youth and women’s clubs; senior center; family Sunday school; Jewish museum, and theater group. Funds come from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Almost everyone in the Kerch community credits Kapustin’s leadership for the congregation’s success.
 
Kapustin’s son, Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin, 26, was ordained a year ago at the Leo Baeck College in London. The youngest of the six Reform rabbis in the former Soviet Union, he serves the Reform congregation in Kkarkov, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
 
Neither he nor Reform Jews in Kerch believe the elder Kapustin’s resignation will harm the congregation he built.
 
“Boris Kapustin has retired, but he built a good basis for the congregation, which will continue to develop,” Dukhovny said.
 

According to a recent poll, 37 percent of Russians still believe gays and lesbians should be criminally prosecuted.

Iranians Open Shul in Garment District


With a new Torah in their arms, about 100 local Iranian Jewish businessmen sang Hebrew songs and danced down a busy street in downtown Los Angeles’s garment district June 13 to celebrate the official opening of a new synagogue, where many Iranians have their businesses.

As a DJ blasted Israeli music and kebab dinners were served, congregants packed the elegantly decorated 700-square-foot sanctuary, known as the “Downtown Synagogue,” to give thanks and pray. The shul is situated inside a store, alongside fabric outlets, on Cecilia Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.

“Baruch Hashem, we are very pleased with the new synagogue,” said Avi Cohan, a local Iranian businessman who is one of the founders of the Downtown Synagogue. “It looks just amazing with the nice chairs, and it’s perfect for many of us who wanted a place for prayer at the end of the work day.”

Prior to the festivities, approximately 25 Iranian Jewish business owners gathered at a local textile warehouse, where they each pledged to donate between $260 and $1,500 for each of the last Hebrew letters Cohan was writing to complete the synagogue’s Torah. The Torah was made in Israel for the congregation, and funds still needed to be raised to cover the cost.

Cohan had reason to boast about the new synagogue, whose initial dozen or so congregants first began to assemble in his downtown office to recite Mincha and Arvit prayers nearly 12 years ago. The congregants formed the initial Downtown Synagogue because they were often unable to beat the rush hour traffic to arrive at daily services at synagogues in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.

“It’s very convenient for me, because sometimes during the week, I’m in downtown and need a place to pray, so I go there because there is always a minyan, and it’s close by,” said businessman Dara Abaei, an Iranian community activist.

Cohan and other founders said they wanted to create a place of spirituality, as well as a social center, in the business district, which also has an Iranian shul in the jewelry district, between Broadway and Hill streets.

“Our main goal was to little by little get businessmen in our community to close their businesses on Shabbat and bring them closer to God,” said Cohan. “Many are also, unfortunately, too busy during the day to make it to a synagogue to say the Kaddish on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, so our synagogue provides them with a place to do that.”

Although the afternoon ceremony marked the official opening of the synagogue space, Cohan said congregants have unofficially been holding services at the Cecilia Street location for the last two years.

Contrary to most shuls, the Downtown Synagogue is open only on weekdays and closed on Saturdays and High Holidays. Between 50 to 60 people regularly attend. On Tuesdays, congregants also hear a devar Torah by Rabbi Yosef Shem Tov of the Torat Hayim Kohel in the Pico-Robertson area.

The move to create a formal space for the group began in 2003, when local Iranian businessmen Ezri Namvar and Solomon Rasetgar stepped forward to furnish the rent-free store situated inside a building they co-owned. Namvar and Rastegar recently sold the building housing the synagogue, but they said the current owner, who is not Jewish, has continued to permit the congregation to stay there without paying rent, Namvar said. The new owner was not available for comment.

Cohan said approximately $15,000 was raised through direct contributions. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who generally generate the revenue for synagogues through membership fees, Iranian Jews have traditionally raised such funds by auctioning off aliyot during services or asking individuals for direct donations.

Namvar said his family has always strived to keep Judaism alive in Los Angeles and worldwide by supporting Jewish groups, regardless of their specific denominations.

“Our passion is for Jewish education, and we try to help organizations that promote Jewish education, whether they are Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” Namvar said.

For more information on the Downtown Synagogue call (213) 215-6061.

 

Where in the World Is ‘Paradise’?


When the controversial film “Paradise Now” is introduced at the March 5 Oscars ceremony, the live and television audiences may wonder not just whether it will win, but exactly where it came from.

In the listing by countries of the five nominees for foreign language film honors, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gives the origin of “Paradise Now” as “Palestine.”

In various Academy news releases, the designation has been “Palestinian Authority.”

The final word isn’t in yet, but Academy decision makers are “leaning toward” the term “Palestinian Territories,” said John Pavlik, the academy’s director of communications. The alternatives reflect the geopolitical uncertainties and sensitivities of the Middle East, as well as the flexibility of Academy rules. As in the Olympic Games, only internationally recognized countries are eligible to enter the foreign language film competition, but this year’s list of 58 entries includes such entities as Hong Kong, Puerto Rico and Taiwan.

On the basis of such inclusiveness, the Academy two years ago accepted the film “Divine Intervention” as the entry of “Palestine.”

The Israeli consulate in Los Angeles has been caught up in the controversy about the film, which explores the motivations and doubts of two would-be suicide bombers assigned to blow up a Tel Aviv bus. Its director, Hany Abu-Assad, and the leading actors are Israeli Arabs.

Yediot Acharonot, the Israeli mass circulation daily, published a story summarized in a paragraph below the headline:

“Powerful Israelis and Jews in Hollywood exert pressures on American Academy members in a bid to prevent ‘Paradise Now’ from winning Oscar. Meanwhile, Israeli diplomats get academy’s commitment not to present film as representing Palestinian state.”

The article got more fanciful as it was picked up by the foreign media, such as the Turkish online newspaper, Zaman. It reported that two Israeli diplomats “have already been guaranteed by the Academy that it will not show the Palestinian film at the Oscar ceremony,” apparently referring to brief clips used to introduce nominated movies.

The original Israeli article identified the Israeli diplomats as Consul General Ehud Danoch and Gilad Millo, consul for public affairs. It also cited sources at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, who “condemned attempts to hinder ‘Paradise Now’s’ chances in the Oscars, saying these efforts may tarnish Israel’s international reputation as state that advocates freedom of speech.”

Millo categorically denied the report.

“We have had no contact or involvement with the Academy on this film,” he said. “We are focused on more important matters.”

Pavlik said that no “communications” had been received from the Israeli consulate or Jewish organizations regarding “Paradise Now.”

However, Pavlik did not dismiss the possibility that interested individuals had passed on their views on the film to Academy leaders and members in social settings, adding that clips of all foreign language nominees will be screened, including “Palestine Now.”

American Jewish organizations, with few exceptions, have stayed away from the controversy. One reason may be that few persons, Jewish or otherwise, have actually seen the film. Furthermore — and politics aside — the film is generally considered to be of high quality, has received excellent reviews, and was crowned with a Golden Globe as best foreign film of the year by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

According to a survey by The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, neither the Simon Wiesenthal Center nor the Anti-Defamation League, usually quick to react to any anti-Israel slights, have mounted any protests.

The film and its director were warmly received at a sold-out audience of nearly 500 at the University of Judaism.

However, there has been criticism by StandWithUs, a Los Angeles-based advocacy group, as well as by the American Jewish Congress and the Republican Jewish Coalition. Most active has been the U.S.-based Israel Project, which has widely circulated a letter by Yossi Zur, whose 16-year-old son was killed by a suicide bomber. The letter urges the academy not to award an Oscar to “Paradise Now.” A petition to withdraw the nomination of the film entirely has been signed by 24,000 people, according to the Israel Project.

One observer noted that Israel’s official Oscar entry, “What a Wonderful Place,” presents a considerably worse picture of Israelis than does the Palestinian film. The Israeli entry did not receive a nomination.

 

Wedding Gowns: A Long-term Commitment


All brides have this much in common: They love their wedding day, and it always goes by much too quickly.

Of course, there is little that you as a bride can do to make your wedding day last longer, but there are things you can do to make sure the beauty of your gown remains — if not forever, then at least for a long time.

When you bring your gown home from the shop, take it out of the garment bag and hang it where it will be safe from children and pets — perhaps in a spare room or from a hook you put into the ceiling for that purpose.

If it will be several weeks until the wedding, you can protect it from dust with a clean sheet or freshly washed unbleached muslin.

On the day of the wedding, all too often someone steps on your bridal gown or you catch it on something. Put several safety pins into the underside of your gown where they will not be seen but will be handy for just such accidents and prevent further damage.

Also, know whether your gown is made from a natural fiber such as silk or an artificial fiber such as polyester. Then if you spill something on your wedding day you will know whether you will be able to remove the stain. Water or club soda can remove coffee, tea, mud or blood from polyester, but silks and rayons are water-sensitive and you may make permanent spots if you put water on them.

If the stain is grease, lipstick or another cosmetic that is not water-soluble, you can try using a moist wipe on polyester (test it on an inside seam first to be sure it will not disturb the color of your gown). On silk, it is probably safer to camouflage spots with something white and relatively harmless such as baking soda, cornstarch or baby powder. Wite-Out or white shoe polish is tricky and is definitely not a good idea for use on silk.

Most importantly, remember that no matter how entranced you are with your gown, your family and friends will be focused on you. They will be looking at you and not at any spots or tears on your bridal gown.

Once the wedding is over, it may be hard for you to give up your gown right away, but it should be professionally cleaned and preserved. If not, it will yellow from exposure to light, air and any stains, especially if they are caused by red wine or mud, which will bond with the fibers. Even if you do nothing else, take your dress out of the plastic garment bag, which can emit fumes that yellow the gown even more quickly than air, and wrap it in a clean sheet or freshly washed muslin.

It can also be difficult to find a cleaner who understands just how important your gown is to you. Look for someone who specializes in cleaning and preserving wedding gowns and ask lots of questions. Does the company do the work, or does it send the dress to someone else? How long has it been in business? What precautions does the company take to protect delicate trims and decorations? How does it guard against latent stains caused by alcohol and other sugar-based stains that do not dissolve during ordinary dry cleaning?

Ask if you can inspect the gown after it is clean and if the service uses tissue with an environmentally safe, archival container that will not discolor or damage the fabric of your gown. Ask if the service seals the box or leaves it open and why. Does the service guarantee the gown will not be stained or discolored when and if it will be worn again? Does the guarantee depend on an unbroken seal? Today or 25 years from today, who will honor the guarantee?

Be sure you are comfortable with the answers to your questions. After all, you want to give your gown, an heirloom for the next bride in your family, the care that will keep it perfect.

Sally Lorensen Conant is the wedding-gown expert for

When Just ‘I Do’ Just Won’t Do


The traditional Jewish wedding ceremony as we know it has evolved over thousands of years. But suddenly, today, in what seems like a nanosecond out of all of recorded Jewish history, couples standing under the chuppah are seeking a whole new script.

It’s in to take the traditional text and tweak it. Couples from Judaism’s most conventional communities and those independent souls who call themselves Jews but don’t identify with any particular movement are customizing the details of what they and their officiants will say on their wedding day.

It’s not exactly a revolution. Brides and grooms are not tossing aside the spiritual significance and solemnity of the occasion, nor are they inventing new rituals. On the contrary, customs such as the couple spending a brief period privately after the ceremony (yichud) — for a long time observed only among more traditional groups — are now being adopted by community members of varying stripes. But the tendency among virtually all but the most conservative groups is to make sure that the promises made to and by each partner are personally relevant and come from both the heart and mind.

Yesterday’s Jewish wedding words are seen as issued from another world — a world where women were viewed as second-class citizens, at best, or property, at worst. When a bride left her family to marry, a legal contract was prepared, transferring, among other things, the responsibility for her upkeep. It was hoped that companionship, love, mutual respect and all that other good stuff that we 21st century, enlightened people strive for in a marriage, would naturally accompany this official transmittal. But if it didn’t, tough break.

Modern women see themselves as anything but property. And with divorce rates already ridiculously high, why start a marriage with words that don’t describe the real deal?

Traditionally and in Aramaic, the groom spoke the only words that would be considered a vow. The woman was silent. In more modern circles, a double-ring ceremony and a feminine version of the same sentence were and are often employed.

Then there’s the ketubah, the binding contract that made the marriage legal under Jewish law. Since reading all or part of the ketubah aloud to those gathered at the ceremony is customary, the words, though sometimes very personal, become part of the public pageantry.

So if you belonged to an Orthodox shul and wanted your rabbi to officiate at your wedding, he would supply an Orthodox ketubah. I have one of those. Even back in 1973 I thought the wording of the ketubah seemed quite archaic, and I still laugh when I recall the groom’s statement, “I will work for thee.” We were working together at the same job, for the same salary.

I didn’t quit my job after the honeymoon to sit at home and eat bonbons. We were a team, a partnership dedicated to each other as we led a Jewish life and saved some money so that someday we could have the all-American, Jewish dream: enough money to have a couple of kids, a house and a synagogue membership in the suburbs.

For the most part, a Conservative rabbi or cantor who officiates today will still require the couple to have a ketubah, but with what is called the Lieberman clause. This is an addendum that came into being because of the hardship endured by many Jewish women wishing to obtain a get (Jewish divorce) but denied one by a begrudging husband. While nobody wants to enter into a marriage with the thought that it will not last forever, this clause equalizes the get playing-field.

What are some of the words currently being spoken by Jewish couples under the chuppah? Here are some samples:

“Be my husband (wife, partner) according to the laws of Moses and Israel and I will cherish, respect and support you in the faithful manner in which sons (daughters) in Israel cherish, respect and support their wives (husbands, partners).

“We promise to be ever-accepting of one another while treasuring each other’s individuality.

“As husband and wife, we will build a wonderful family in a home filled with trust, warmth, laughter and love.”

If you are planning your wedding, my first words of advice are to consult with the person who will officiate. For your next step, visit sites such as ketubahcollection.com, ketubah4less.com, artketubah.com, ketubaworld.com and e-ketubah.com. Dozens of possibilities, from the most traditional Orthodox to texts with a definite liberal leaning, are there for you to consider.

Just remember that in order to avoid any conflicts with the clergy, wording for the ketubah and your part of the ceremony must be cleared in advance with your rabbi or whomever will be officiating. One wrong word could cause 1,000 problems.

While most couples still choose to use a ketubah in one form or another, an alternative document — a B’rit Ahuvim certificate — is becoming more common in Reform circles. It is described as a covenant between equals, a loving partnership between companions. For a better understanding of this Talmud-based agreement and a Reform rabbi’s take on the traditional route to wedlock via a ketubah, see www.adventurerabbi.com on the Web. Rabbi Jaime Korngold, the adventurous, Colorado-based rabbi who presides over weddings, commitment ceremonies, bar and bat mitzvahs and other Jewish events both indoors and al fresco, has some enlightening insights to share.

My advice to couples planning an intimate ceremony with their parents and a few close friends and relatives: Feel free to add all the psalms, prayers, poetry and personal reflections that you feel like expressing on your special day.

But if you opt for a grand affair, please keep your words brief. The rest of the Jewish ceremony can last a long time, and gathered guests who have traveled many miles to share your happy day will be hungry. The only words left to say are, “Let the party begin!”

Pearl Salkin is a freelance writer living in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Italy’s Top Chefs Join to Spice Up Wedding


Famous chefs gathered from all over Italy to cook for the wedding of Max Willinger, son of Faith Willinger, a well-known wine and food journalist who has lived in Florence for almost 40 years. She was overwhelmed by the culinary community who volunteered to cook the wedding feast.

We attended the wedding, probably the first such event ever to take place in Italy, because it was conducted by a woman rabbi, Barbara Aiello, and a Catholic priest, Don Enrico. It was held in a 17th century church in the small village of Panzano, between Florence and Sienna.

We have known Max for more than 25 years, and it has been a joy to watch him grow into an adult. He was born in New Jersey but moved to Florence with his mother when he was 2 years old, and they never returned.

Max graduated from the University of Florence, and he has been working in the television industry and living in Milan for the past 10 years. That is where he met his bride, Giada, an attorney. After dating for several years, they decided to marry.

When it came to planning the wedding, they mutually agreed that they would have an interfaith wedding. Max is Jewish; Giada is Catholic, and they began their quest to find a rabbi and priest who would marry them.

They spoke to several rabbis in Milan, but when they met Rabbi Aiello, who heads Lev Chadash, the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, they knew that she would be perfect for the responsibility to conduct the service.

Progressive Judaism in Italy combines halacha with the modern world. Italian Jews who once described themselves as “secular,” because there was no alternative to ultratraditional Orthodoxy, now have a choice. Progressive congregations welcome interfaith families and recognize the children of Jewish mothers or Jewish fathers as Jews.

Lev Chadash is the first and only Progressive synagogue in Italy, and Aiello is its first woman rabbi. She believes that by conducting interfaith marriages, these couples are more likely to embrace their Jewish heritage.

The couple spoke to the young priest who leads the Catholic church in Panzano, and he also agreed to participate in their interfaith wedding.

With this major decision accomplished, the couple knew that planning the festivities would not be a problem. They just gave that responsibility to the “food maven,” Max’s mother, to help supervise and plan the event.

The festivities began on Friday night with a prewedding party for both families to meet. They were all staying in a small hotel in Radda, a village close by, but the festa took place in a 12th century castle in Panzano. The invitation was for 8 p.m., but it wasn’t until 9:30 that everyone finally arrived, and then the bride and groom made their grand entrance.

The buffet dinner was fantastic — a large U-shaped table took over one room. It was filled with enormous platters of the most delicious food. Fresh mozzarella was delivered that afternoon from a farm just outside of Naples, and Dario Cecchini, the Tuscan butcher well known throughout Italy, served his famous Polpetoni With Red Pepper Mostarda. There were several salads, one with green beans, tuna and arugula and another made with fresh farm greens, tomatoes, mozzarella and Tuscan bread.

A Sicilian gelato maker arrived from Florence and brought his freezer filled with lemon sorbetto and gelato that he served in the traditional cones. The owner of the famous Antonio Mattei Biscotti di Prato came with platters full of biscotti, and, of course, he shared the recipe with everyone.

The festivities went on until early morning with singing, dancing, speeches and lots of music. The wedding ceremony took place the next day at sundown in the lovely, small church located in the center of Chianti. Many of Max’s relatives from the United States attended the wedding, and Giada’s family arrived from Milan, along with lots of their college friends.

The rabbi and the priest met weeks before to organize the ceremony and agreed on how to conduct the interfaith ceremony. The young priest, who has been with the local church for two years and was raised in the same village, wore his traditional brocaded robe, while the rabbi was covered with a large tallit and had a kippah over her short hair, as did all the male guests.

During the ceremony, the priest spoke in Italian, while the rabbi spoke in both Italian and English, each explaining to the bride and groom, as well as the guests, the significance of all the rituals that they performed.

The rabbi spoke about the traditions associated with a Jewish wedding. Then the chuppah, a canopy consisting of a large wool tallit held together with wooden polls at each corner, was carried in by Max’s stepfather, Massimo; his uncle, and Giada’s father and sister. The seven blessings were recited, the traditional wine glass was broken and these two young people were wed.

After the wedding ceremony, the bride, groom and the guests drove through the hills in a wedding procession of cars to Castello Di Ama, an important winery in Tuscany, for the outdoor reception and the formal sit-down dinner

Again, Faith had gathered together her chef friends, and Dario, the Tuscan butcher, took charge of organizing the wedding feast. Although it had rained earlier, it was a lovely, warm evening. The guests were greeted in the contemporary sculpture garden of the winery, where they were served Italian sparkling wine and were invited to enjoy the antipasti. Served on a long table, they consisted of platters with sliced smoked meats, grilled veggies and an assortment of cheese.

Lorenzo Guidi, who had arrived earlier from his restaurant, Nanamuta, in Florence, had a big pot filled with boiling olive oil and was deep frying small pieces of pizza dough, known as coccoli. As soon as they were brown and crisp, he placed them in paper cones for the guests to enjoy.

Inside the villa there were two large dining rooms set for dinner. We began with two pasta dishes. Chef Antonello Colonna of Ristorante Antonello Colonna just outside Rome prepared Strozzapretti con Pepperoni Rossi, Funghi, and Pecorino Romano (pasta with red peppers, mushrooms and cheese), and another pasta course of tagliatelli with a sauce of fresh-stewed cherry tomatoes. The main dish was bistecca.

Dario Cecchini prepared Bistecche Fiorintina (rib steak) on a big wood-burning grill outside the dining room. Between courses, while the meat was browning, everyone visited Dario, who stood on a table top next to the grill and recited poetry that he had written for the bride and groom.

At about 2 a.m., the dancing began, and then the wedding cake arrived, consisting of layers of puff pastry filled with fresh fruit. It was placed on a formal table in the garden, where Giada and Max invited guests to help celebrate their marriage with a glass of sparkling wine while they cut the cake. It was a wonderful wedding that will be remembered by all the guests for many years to come.

Dario’s Polpetone (meatloaf rounds) with Red Pepper Jelly

2 pounds ground beef
1 small red onion, finely diced
2 eggs
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4-cup bread crumbs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil
Red Pepper Jelly (recipe follows)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

In a large bowl, mix the beef, onion, eggs, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper. Knead and shape into one very large, almost volleyball-size, meat ball.

Line a deep roasting pan with foil and brush with olive oil. Bake in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Then lower the heat to 375 F and cook for one hour. Serve hot or cold.

Dario’s Red Pepper Jelly

1-2 pounds sweet red peppers (about 4 large) (4 pounds: 7 large)
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chili powder or 1 small red chili
Pinch crushed chili
5 cups sugar
1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
6 ounces liquid pectin

Wash and cut up peppers, discarding seeds and stems. Place few at a time in food processor and chop fine. In a large pot, combine chopped peppers, vinegar, salt, chilis. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to a simmer and slow boil for 10 minutes. Add sugar and lemon juice, mixing until sugar dissolves. Bring to a boil. Stir in pectin and bring to a boil, stirring constantly for exactly one minute.

Remove from fire and skim off foam with metal spoon. Ladle into hot, sterilized jars and seal immediately.

Makes about six (eight-ounce) jars of Red Pepper Jelly.

Spaghetti with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes.

1/4 cup olive oil
1 onion, quartered and thinly sliced
3 cups cherry tomatoes
3 garlic cloves, peeled
1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Pinch of sugar
1/4 cup grated parmigiano
1 pound spaghetti
Olive oil for finishing

Preheat the oven to 250 F.

In a large roasting pan, heat olive oil and add onion, tomatoes and garlic. Bake, uncovered for 45 minutes. The tomatoes should keep their shape and become caramelized. Shake the pan every 15 minutes so they do not stick.

After 30 minutes, sprinkle with rosemary, salt, pepper and a pinch of sugar. After another 20 minutes, sprinkle half of the grated parmesan and toss gently.

Cook the spaghetti in boiling water and drain in a colander. Add to the tomato mixture and toss. Pour olive oil on top and serve with grated parmigian cheese.

Serve immediately.
Serves six to eight.

Biscotti (Twice-Baked Almond Cookies)

Known as cantucci in parts of Italy, these almond cookies are baked twice, resulting in a crisp, flavorful biscuit.

This recipe is versatile; try replacing hazelnuts for the almonds or add chocolate chips, poppy seeds or even dried fruit. You can also substitute some whole wheat flour for the white.

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
3/4 cup toasted, ground unpeeled almonds
1/2 cup toasted, whole unpeeled almonds
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon anise or almond extract
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar
1 egg white

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Place the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and fennel seeds in a mound on a floured board. Surround the outside of the mound with the ground and whole almonds. Make a well in the center. Place the eggs, anise and vanilla in the well. Beat the sugar into the eggs, blending well. Quickly beat the egg mixture with a fork, gradually incorporating the flour and almonds to make a smooth dough.

Divide the dough into three to four portions. With lightly oiled hands, shape each portion into an oval loaf shape. Place the loaves two inches apart on greased and floured baking sheets. Brush with the egg white and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until lightly browned.

Remove the loaves from the oven and use a spatula to transfer them to a cutting board and cut into half-inch thick slices. Place them cut side down on the same baking sheet and return them to the oven. Leave the biscotti in the oven for five to 10 minutes per side or until golden brown. Transfer to racks and cool.

Makes about six dozen.

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Cookbooks, 1988) and “The 30-Minute Kosher Cook” (Morrow, 1999). Her Web site is members.aol.com/jzkitchen.

Winners and Schmoozers


When I heard that the Jewish Image Awards were going to be held at the Beverly Hills Hotel, all I could think about was that scene in the movie “Troop Beverly Hills,” when Shelley Long’s character, Phyllis Nefler, took her Wilderness Girls to one of the bungalow suites after a storm drenched their campsite.

I really wanted to see the bungalows and be a part of the “I can afford to stay here” world, but there wasn’t time. Still, I was entering the kind of Los Angeles that people in other states fantasize about: After I handed my car keys to the valet and began to walk into the posh, pink hotel, the artist currently known as Prince scurried — yes, scurried — past me. No, he didn’t happen to be an honoree.

The Oct. 10 ceremony marked the fifth year for the Jewish Image Awards, sponsored by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC). Honoring Jewish contributions on television and in film is a pretty cool concept, even if it looks like an exercise in preaching to the choir.

I took my spot on the not-exactly-red carpet between a gaggle of guys from VH1 and the stylish female reporter from People and waited.

As the minutes ticked by, people began arriving: celebrities to the left, non-celebrities to the right. The room began to fill beyond capacity and I felt claustrophobic — a sudden move by the all-too-close gentleman in the kippah would have propelled me headfirst into a very large MorningStar Commission banner.

For my interviews, I decided a Jewish-themed question was in order. I settled on: What was your Rosh Hashanah resolution?

(What? You were expecting Edward R. Murrow? My question was downright investigative compared to the guy from VH1 who asked everyone, “Who is your favorite ‘Desperate Housewife’?”)

Creative Spirit Award winner Hank Steinberg, creator of the CBS hit, “Without a Trace,” said his resolution was to be a better woman … and put a lead character who is Jewish on his next show.

“The O.C.’s” Peter Gallagher, said he was truly honored to be receiving the award for Male Character in Television, and that his alter ego, Sandy Cohen, would resolve this year to “do everything he could to make the family stronger than ever.”

But the wit-at-work winner had to be “Stacked” star Elon Gold: “I try to do as many Jewish events between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur [as possible].”

“It’s part of a whole Aseret Yemei Teshuvah tour,” he added, referring to the 10 days of repentance. “Any charities…. I’ll host any kind of dinner functions that go to Jewish causes. I’ll present at the Jewish Image Awards to score points before that book is sealed.”

Unfortunately, just as I was about to get some deep resolution insight from SNL alum and MorningStar Commission board member Laraine Newman, the lights began to flicker on and off, signaling the beginning of the ceremony, and Newman had to hurry inside.

For its Israeli-Palestinian conflict storyline, “The West Wing” won for Television Series.

Lauren Lazin, the Oscar-nominated director was Television Special winner for “I’m Still Here: Real Diaries of Young People Who Lived During the Holocaust.” He hopes to raise enough money to get the show, which aired on MTV this past spring, into every high school in the country.

“Sister Rose’s Passion,” about a nun who challenged Christian anti-Semitic teachings, took the award for Documentary Film. Cross-Cultural Production went to HBO’s “Everyday People,” about the gritty life of workers at a Brooklyn diner.

Actor Martin Landau won for Male Character in a Film for his work in “The Aryan Couple,” where he played a steel magnate who makes a deal with Heinrich Himmler to save his family. (Filming took place inside one of the actual Gestapo bunkers.) Landau said he was glad that his next TV role, that of Sol Gold, is a departure from his usual casting as an Italian or Irishman.

Actress-advocate and cancer survivor Fran Dresher, who received the MorningStar Commission Marlene Marks Woman of Inspiration Award, talked about working on congressional legislation that would increase awareness of women’s gynecological issues.

Barbra Streisand and Dustin Hoffman got Best Couple in a Film for their portrayal of Ben Stiller’s parents in “Meet the Fockers.” But no one got to meet these two celebs, who were both no-shows.

One of the best nonceleb moments was the recognition for nine Angelenos who are devoted to the arts, including very excited Skirball docent Marilyn Minkle.

It was, in the end, an evening that could only help one’s Jewish image — even if I had to miss out on both the bungalows and Barbra.

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Community Briefs


Soulful ‘Hatikvah’ Ends Wiesenthal Farewell

It was an unscripted, final moment that may have best captured the Monday memorial at the Museum of Tolerance for Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died last week at age 96.

The ceremony had been held outside. As long lines of mourners waited amidst rows of folded chairs to return into the museum, an elderly, white-haired man began singing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” in a loud, lone voice. A ripple of applause followed after Gedalia Arditti, a 77-year-old Greek Jew, belted out the song’s last word — “Yer-u-shal-a-yim!”

Then, Arditti yelled out: “I was there! And I walked those four miles — from the train to Mauthausen!”

He knew that it was for him and for the millions who didn’t survive that Wiesenthal had labored all his life.

The event drew more than 500, including politicians, diplomats, Holocaust survivors and their adult children. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered a short appreciation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, paused several times while introducing the evening’s speakers. A co-worker said it was a combination of emotion combined with very little sleep. Cooper had traveled to mourn Wiesenthal in Austria and attend his burial in Israel. And the center’s senior leadership was coping with the loss of not just its namesake, but a world figure.

“It’s a difficult evening,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center founder and dean, during the main eulogy. He said that Holocaust survivors “walked a little taller,” knowing that Wiesenthal was hunting their tormentors.

Hier also had a frenetic week, responding to media inquiries from around the world and attending the premiere of his new documentary, “Never Again,” which disturbingly chronicles the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. The special early screening at the Directors Guild in West Hollywood occurred the day that word came of Wiesenthal’s death. The museum staff, too, had scrambled, putting together an exhibit on Wiesenthal’s life. (See article about exhibit on Page 64.)

“I see that there is a great stirring in heaven,” Hier said at the memorial, “as the souls of the millions murdered during the Nazi Holocaust get ready to welcome Shimon ben Asher who stood up for their honor and never let the world ever forget them.”

The memorial attracted Argentine, Belgian, Croatian, Israeli, Spanish and Turkish diplomats. Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss said the Vienna-based Nazi hunter had been a longtime role model to young Austrians.

“They don’t need many heroes, they just have to pick their heroes wisely, and Simon Wiesenthal was one of them,” Weiss said.

A Buddhist peace group from Japan created the large floral arrangements for the memorial event stage. Seven boys from Yeshiva University High School carried in a Torah scroll named in the Nazi hunter’s honor. The ceremony ended with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and ended again in the hopeful notes of the survivor’s song. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Valley Cities JCC Makes New Death-Defying Escape

Like Houdini, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center — ever on the verge of a permanent shutdown — has made another death-defying escape.

For the past four years, executives at the JCC have fought without pause to prevent the center’s closure and sale by its debt-ridden parent, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. A couple months back, Valley Cities’ fortunes took a sharp turn for the better, when a buyer/savior stepped forward to purchase/save the property. That deal fell apart for undisclosed reasons.

Now, an anonymous donor has agreed to obtain the property from the center’s parent group for an estimated $2.7 million, insiders said. The benefactor has promised to help underwrite the costs of renovating Valley Cities.

Details of this latest effort were not immediately available. The earlier deal, like the present one, called for the renovation of Valley Cities, along with the possible relocation to the center’s property of an unnamed Jewish group.

At the time of the failed original deal, several developers had expressed interest in building senior housing on the property adjacent to the JCC.

The latest Valley Cities deal is in escrow and is expected to close soon, board President Michael Brezner told The Journal. He declined to release specific details.

Relieved center supporters have formed new committees for fundraising, programming and planning, he said. The hiring of a program director is also under consideration.

“I am excited about our rebirth in the community and more excited for the people of the community,” Brezner said. The donor “has secured our future for another 50 years.” — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Terror Alert System

As the High Holidays approach, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and New York are streamlining their security communications through the Secure Community Network (SCN), a new alert system tying 55 major Jewish organizations to local police and federal agencies.

“We’re the first community to take measures like this,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “We’re a unique community in this regard, because we’re a prime target.”

SCN uses e-mails, pagers, cellphones and home and office numbers to alert community leaders to potential terrorist threats. Alerts also can deal with rumor control regarding false threats. The information comes through SCN’s liaisons with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the New York City Police Department — and, soon, the Los Angeles Police Department.

When leaders of 55 major Jewish organizations are alerted by SCN, each group decides how quickly it will pass on the alert to its members. Individual synagogues, day schools and Jewish community centers are not designated as primary contacts for SCN alerts, which currently go only to major Jewish organizations.

“That’s a problem,” said Stephen Hoffman, SCN board co-chair and a former United Jewish Communities president. Because of these limitations, “we’ve encouraging local communities to get their own security going,” Hoffman said during a conference call last week with reporters.

SCN’s leadership includes former FBI Assistant Director Steven Pomerantz, a security consultant who last week met with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Local security concerns and security measures have increased due to the arrests in Torrance of two robbery suspects with alleged ties to prison-based Islamic gangs. Their targets included two Pico-Robertson synagogues and the Israeli consulate, according to sources.

The alphabet soup of groups backing SCN include UJC, the Anti-Defamation League, both AJCs (American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress) and the three major denominational groups — the Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Each pays a $200 annual fee toward SCN’s $500,000 yearly budget, which Hoffman said comes largely from private donations. — DF

Israeli Official Lauds Gaza Pullout Benefits in L.A. Visit

Top Israeli officials got an uncharacteristically warm reception at the United Nations this month, following Israel’s pullout from Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then returned to Israel, while Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited Los Angeles for two days to meet with Jewish and government leaders here.

Following a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, Shalom briefed a receptive audience of more than 100 invited guests on the immediate aftermath of the Gaza disengagement.

“There is a real change in the attitude of the world to the State of Israel, and we see it even in our relations with Arab neighbors,” Shalom said during the event last week at The Jewish Federation headquarters. Shalom described this change as the beginning of “the dropping of the iron curtain between Israel and the Arab world.”

He cited diplomatic breakthroughs with Pakistan and Tunisia as an immediate expression of this new attitude. “What needs to be done in these days is to strengthen the moderates and weaken the extremists,” he said.

Syria and Iran, however, still remain a dangerous threat, Shalom said, expressing concern over Iran’s potential to become a nuclear power: “Israel can’t live with the idea that this tyranny will have the nuclear bomb.”

Despite limited, yet hopeful Arab-Israeli diplomatic progress, Shalom also pointed to some “worrying” developments in Gaza, in particular the increased strength of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and ongoing arms smuggling.

“When we ended the withdrawal, we hoped the Palestinians would take the lead,” he said. Overall, though, the withdrawal presents “a glimmer of hope.”

Shalom concluded his talk to The Federation by announcing that Schwarzenegger has approved the opening of a California economic interests office in Israel. Approximately 20 other states already have such ventures.

During his visit, Shalom also met with community business leaders and with state officials to encourage investment in Israel and to strengthen California-Israel ties.

In addition, the governor and Shalom agreed to establish a joint committee to explore cooperation in the fields of high tech, agriculture, solar energy, the environment, biotechnology and homeland security. — Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Chabad Telethon Raises Record $6.2 Million

The 25th annual Chabad Telethon raised $6.2 million during its nine-hour run last week. As expected, the Sunday event was marked by young Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students dancing as if in a spiritual mosh pit, while the tote board numbers rose.

“Some of them had so much energy they came out every five minutes,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, West Coast Chabad spokesman and son of its leader, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin. “It was an incredible evening, an incredible outpouring of love and support from people all over the country.”

The telethon was broadcast live on the Internet and on four TV stations in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and on the Asian community-driven KSCI in Los Angeles. In the first hour of the telethon, radio talk show host and Jewish moralist Dennis Prager commented that “Chabad helps everybody, so I guess everybody can help Chabad.”

Eight hours later as the telethon wound down, the still-standing Prager donned a rebbe’s black hat, while playing the accordion. Other prominent faces who appeared included L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, attorney Marshall Grossman, actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Leonard Nimoy, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and The Moshav Band. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a taped greeting.

The telethon included 25th anniversary reflections and old TV footage of the May 1980 fire that destroyed Chabad’s West Coast house in Westwood and killed three people.

“That’s how the telethon was born,” the film’s narrator said.

The $6,216,193 raised eclipsed the just-under $6 million raised at last year’s telethon. The money will go to Chabad’s 200 community centers, schools and addiction-treatment centers and also to hurricane relief. — DF

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The Silver-Haired Bar Mitzvah Boy


“I’d like to order a cake for a bar mitzvah,” I said to the lady behind the counter at the kosher bakery. “Please put on the top, ‘Mazal tov, Spencer.'”

“Your son’s name is Spencer?” she asked.

“No, my husband’s name is Spencer,” I replied.

“But you said this is for a bar mitzvah.”

“Yes,” I said. “My husband’s bar mitzvah.”

My husband was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah in 2001, more or less on the sixth anniversary of his conversion to Judaism. People started asking Spencer when he was going to have a bar mitzvah when his hair was barely dry from the mikvah.

He started studying Hebrew the following year, and, after mastering the alephbet, signed up for a class that made its way through the siddur and into the Torah. He also led services a couple of times at our temple.

Still, he put off scheduling a bar mitzvah, even as the encouragement edged into arm-twisting. I finally pinned him down to a date by tying it to my dad’s 70th birthday, which would get the whole family together.

Spencer had attended plenty of b’nai mitzvah ceremonies by then, and his goal was more or less to “do what the kids do.” Our temple, Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles, has very few bar mitzvah ceremonies, so it could offer Spencer a Shabbat morning service to himself.

He led the service as shaliach tzibbur, chanted 16 verses of Torah, opened the haftarah reading and delivered a d’var Torah.

“Today I am a silver-haired man,” he told the congregation.

It was wonderful to look out from the bimah and see family members and most of our friends filling the shul. Spencer admitted afterward that while he’d been pushed into having his bar mitzvah, he was ready to be pushed. He felt a real sense of accomplishment and an intensified connection to Judaism.

Although men and women of all ages and backgrounds have undertaken adult bar mitzvah during the past 30 years or so, the phenomenon typically has focused on women who weren’t called to the Torah as girls, as exemplified by The Journal’s recent story on the ceremony involving 31 b’not mitzvah at Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. Relatively few men who grew up Jewish think about pursuing bar mitzvah, especially if they went through the process as youngsters.

But as I listened to Spencer give his drash, I found myself thinking what a satisfying experience adult bar mitzvah might be for some men who had less-than-compelling bar mitzvah experiences as youngsters.

Just as Spencer came late to Judaism, so do a lot of people who grew up Jewish come late to an evaluation of their own spiritual needs and connection with Judaism as a faith. What might have been a forced, pro forma ritual at 13, might have real meaning at 35 or 45 or 55.

I’ve heard that many Jewish men, well-educated and professionally accomplished, don’t want to go through the humbling experience of learning or re-learning Hebrew and Bible cantillation. But even if that’s true, I can’t imagine a better way for a Jewish man to model pride in his Jewishness and respect for learning to his community and his own children. The man who swallows hard and opens a Hebrew primer may cause ripples that stir generations to come.

Nor do I think even the busiest temple is unable to make room for a solo adult bar or bat mitzvah. The adult ceremony, which usually isn’t followed by a big party, lends itself well to a Shabbat afternoon service or even a holiday Monday.

Inspiring as group adult b’nai mitzvah can be, there’s something to be said for taking on the same task the children do. A parent-and-child duo might also work if the timing is right.

If I’ve planted a seed, just remember two things: Wear a dark jacket, because you’re going to sweat. And bring Kleenex, because your spouse is going to cry.

Ellen Jaffe-Gill is a cantorial intern at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey and editor of “The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom” (Citadel Press). Her e-mail address is matmid@earthlink.net.

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