Yiscah Smith Photo courtesy of Yiscah Smith.

Transgender Jewish Educator Shares Her Rebirth in Torah


Chana Rosenson first saw Yiscah Smith from across the room at the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, where Smith was teaching and Rosenson was spending a year visiting as a rabbinical student.

Something about Smith struck Rosenson. She turned to a friend and said, “I don’t know who she is, but whatever she’s got I need to get for my soul.”

Smith soon became Rosenson’s teacher and mentor, and on a recent late-June evening she sat in Rosenson’s living room in Calabasas to lead a class on Chasidic wisdom and Jewish text. There was no institutional sponsor or promotional message for the event. Instead, Rosenson explained to her guests, “I just wanted to share her with as many people as I possibly could.”

Just over 25 years ago, when Yiscah Smith was still Jeffrey “Yaakov” Smith, with a long beard and six children, she left a life as a Chabad educator in Jerusalem. After 10 years living a secular life in the United States, Smith returned to religious life as an observant transgender woman and a nondenominational Jewish educator.

At the recent gathering at Rosenson’s home, Smith sat in front of a semicircle of about a dozen people from various L.A.-area neighborhoods and congregations, wearing an ankle-length blue dress that matched her eyes, her dark hair falling to her shoulders. For two hours, she wove together Torah passages, Chasidic teachings and her own personal journey in a lesson that was part Torah study and part self-help seminar.

“Authenticity is a process,” she said. “Trust the process — that God does not want you to live anybody else’s life.”

Underscoring her sermon was the idea that making peace with oneself is a prerequisite for fully understanding Jewish wisdom.

“God, Torah and the truth are aligned only when one is honest with oneself,” she said.

Smith came by that lesson the hard way. In an interview shortly before her lecture, she spoke with the Journal about her personal journey.

Jeffrey Smith grew up in a nonobservant Jewish household in New York. After visiting Israel for the first time as a college student in 1971, Smith became inexorably attracted to Jewish spirituality.

“I began to encounter my soul, and I really, passionately wanted to inquire more and practice more,” she told the Journal.

But she had known from early childhood that she identified more as a female than as a male. Delving deeper into traditional Judaism, she faced a spiritual paradox, trapped between her gender identity and her religious one.

“The more I started to access that place of inner truth, the more I felt like a fraud,” she said.

Back in the United States and studying toward a master’s degree in Jewish education at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan, Smith soon discovered the Chabad Lubavitch movement and became a regular at its headquarters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Smith recoiled from the movement’s strict gender roles but was attracted to the community it provided.

“The day I put on a black fedora and long black coat, the day I stopped shaving my facial hair to grow out a beard was one of the saddest days I can remember,” Smith wrote in her 2014 book, “Forty Years in the Wilderness: My Journey to Authentic Living.” “I looked in the mirror and all I could think was, ‘What have I become?’ ”

Still living as a married man, Smith moved to Jerusalem but soon found she no longer could keep up the charade. She built a home “that outwardly looked like the model Orthodox Chasidic family,” regularly hosting dozens for Shabbat dinner. Meanwhile, Smith said she felt increasingly isolated and alienated as a woman living inside a man’s body.

“There was no place for a transgender,” she said. “There was no place for me to go to the rabbis and engage them in the narrative of, Where do I fit in as a woman who senses I’m in someone else’s body? Where does Jewish law identify me? Where do I sit — what side of the mechitzah? Who do I study with? Who do I dance with?”

Smith went through a divorce in 1991m moved to the United States, and spent a decade living a secular life, languishing without community or direction.

“I felt I had the key out of the prison, but I did not yet have the wherewithal to actually put it in the door and let myself out,” she said.

She was working as a barista at a Starbucks in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2001 when her 50th birthday came around and she decided she’d hit her “spiritual rock bottom.”

“That was the day that I decided, ‘I can no longer breathe any more breath into someone else’s body,” she said. “I had no more energy left to live a lie.”

Smith resolved to live as the woman she’d always known she was. One of her first acts after beginning her transition was to light the Shabbat candles, an act traditionally reserved for women. Though Smith’s childhood home had been mostly secular, both her mother and grandmother had lit Shabbat candles.

“I didn’t even have to really think about it — where else do I begin but light the Shabbat lights?” she said.

After that, “it just all came back,” she said. “That’s the road I’ve been on since.”

For the past 16 years, Smith, 66, has made “a daily commitment” to “becoming faithful to my inner core, my inner self, the image of God.”

These days, Smith teaches Chasidic texts at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem and lives in Nachlaot, a warren of cobblestone alleys with a large population of American expatriates.

Though she no longer defines as Orthodox, she observes Jewish law as best she can. She hopes to carve out a new understanding in halachah that will account for a transgender woman living a Torah lifestyle. Despite the challenge, she’s confident that hers is a winning battle.

“The halachah has a flexibility to it,” she said. “It’s like a rubber band. It stretches, it contracts, it expands, with time it moves. And I didn’t trust that process because I myself was so insecure. Now, I’m able to say, ‘The rabbis need to address what’s really going on.’ And if it means a different interpretation, if it means an addendum, then that’s what we do. The halachah is strong enough. It has weathered 3,400 years of changes.” 

Chabad Telethon raises $4 million


Hollywood stars and dancing rabbis came together for the 32nd annual Chabad “To Life” Telethon on Sept. 9. Held for the first time at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, the high-profile fundraiser raised approximately $4 million for Chabad of California.

“At Chabad, there’s no greater joy than the joy of giving,” declared Larry King, whose hosting duties and interviews were recorded days earlier at KCET in Burbank and shown on screens straddling the stage.

KTLA Morning News’ Sam Rubin, “Good Morning Arizona” anchor Stella Inger and comedian Elon Gold co-hosted the event live, playing to a small studio audience at the Art Deco theater.

The three-hour telethon aired locally on KTLA 5, from 8 to 11 p.m., and was carried nationwide by cable and satellite providers, as well as stations in San Diego, San Francisco, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.   

Actor Jon Voight, one of the evening’s main celebrities, remains an active supporter of Israel and Chabad, having appeared in multiple telethons. 

“I’ve had many major roles in motion pictures, but one of my favorite roles is taking part in Chabad’s” yearly telethon, he said. 

Onstage throughout the evening, Voight was in good spirits, surrounded by a house band, a rotating crew of people working the phone banks and an active tote board. He danced with black-suited Chabadniks young and old. “I’m learning new steps every day,” Voight said. 

Then, catching his breath, he delivered his spiel, asking viewers to call the phone number that appeared on the bottom of their television screens and donate what they could. 

In addition to Voight, speakers included actors Tom Arnold, David Arquette and Howie Mandel, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilmen Paul Koretz and Dennis Zine, Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles David Siegel and philanthropist Stanley Black.

Among the featured performers were 11-year-old piano prodigy Ethan Bortnick, Chasidic rock-and-pop duo the 8th Day and Chasidic singer and composer Lipa Schmeltzer. 

The $4.03 million raised on Sunday — last year’s telethon raised $4.2 million — will benefit the international Chasidic movement’s social services and programs, including summer camp scholarships, support for children with special needs, community outreach centers, crisis intervention and drug and alcohol rehabilitation. 

Seated near L.A. Clipper forward Trey Thompkins at the phone bank, actor-comedian Arnold made his pitch for Chabad. Never shy, Arnold highlighted his past as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict when requesting donations in support of Chabad’s drug rehabilitation services.

“They do wonderful work there and they help everybody,” Arnold said.

Highlights from the Chabad “To Life” Telethon: 

7:58 p.m.: Backstage, two minutes until showtime, production assistants scramble to prepare performers, including Voight and dancing rabbis, for their cue. 

8 p.m.: A message from King segues into Bortnick’s piano performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The rabbis follow — young men grab one another’s hands or shoulders, kicking up their feet as they dance in circles. 

8:12 p.m.: Dressed in black sneakers to match his suit, comedian Gold warms up the crowd: “You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the Chabad Telethon, but it helps,” Gold says.

8:55 p.m.: King interviews Arquette about what it took to get sober. Building “a connection to God” and learning how to manage self-critical thinking both played a role in his road to sobriety, Arquette says. 

9:10 p.m.: Consul General Siegel, City Councilman Koretz, County Supervisor Yaroslavsky and philanthropist Black share the stage with Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad. Black announces his own pledge for $250,000.

9:35 p.m.: Looking out at the theater’s numerous empty seats, Arnold quips from the phone bank, “How about a hand for all of Clint Eastwood’s chairs out there,” referring to Eastwood’s controversial speech at the Republican National Convention.

9:40 to 10 p.m.: Entertainment attorney and Chabad Telethon co-chairman Marshall Grossman pledges $25,000. Television producer Kevin Bright (“Friends”), who was not in attendance, pledges $180,000 and Ralphs supermarket representative Jose Martinez hands over a jumbo-check for $20,000.

10:10: An interview between King and TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal president David Suissa is screened. “Chabad means ‘love’ more than anything,” Suissa says.

10:55 p.m.: The tote board jumps to more than $4 million for the evening’s final total. The rabbis return for a final dance — until next year.

Rubashkin Revenge: Ethical Certificates at Center of Dispute


About eight months ago, when Katsuji Tanabe agreed to display the Tav HaYosher certificate in the window of his one-year-old restaurant on Pico Boulevard, the head chef and owner of Mexikosher knew that the “ethical seal,” issued by the Modern Orthodox social justice organization Uri L’Tzedek, would inform customers that he treats his workers with respect and in accordance with California labor laws.

Tanabe didn’t know that in displaying the certificate he was also, in effect, choosing a side in a mostly covert battle between two segments of the Orthodox Jewish community.

On one side is Uri L’Tzedek, a four-year old nonprofit promoting social justice causes that has been supported by a handful of prominent Jewish foundations, including the Joshua Venture Group, Bikkurim, and the Jewish Federations of North America. On the other are an unknown number of individuals who are acting independently and largely anonymously.

At Mexikosher, the certificate hung in the window for between four and six weeks; during that time, Tanabe said he received phone calls from individuals identifying themselves as being from “different Chabads,” and threatening to boycott his restaurant if he didn’t take the certificate down.

Tanabe, who said he hadn’t changed any of his policies to earn the Tav, decided to remove it.

“I don’t talk about politics or religion in the restaurant,” said Tanabe, 31, who describes himself as “Mexican-Japanese-Catholic.” “We only talk about food.”

Although the pushback against the Tav appears to be coming primarily, if not exclusively, from individuals affiliated with the Chabad Lubavitch movement, there is no evidence that any official encouragement came from Chabad, according to the organization’s leaders and those involved in the anti-Tav efforts.

The headquarters of Chabad of California is located on Pico Boulevard, within blocks of a dozen Kosher-certified restaurants, including at least one that displays the Tav. In a recent interview, the group’s CEO, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, said he hadn’t heard of the Tav or Uri L’Tzedek until very recently, and that he knew of no coordinated effort to oppose the program.

“If there’s any such conspiracy it’s deep underground,” Cunin said.

The battle between Uri L’Tzedek and the mostly nameless Orthodox Jews threatening to boycott the 100 restaurants nationwide that participate in its signature program may be taking place in the shadows, but it illuminates a rift within American Orthodoxy stemming from the 2008 raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa.

Uri L’Tzedek established the Tav Hayosher in 2009 as a free certification. To qualify, employers must demonstrate that they calculate worker’s hours accurately, pay wages—including overtime – promptly and in full and grant breaks to their employees, as required by law. Studies have shown that many food-service businesses – both kosher and non—fall short of these basic legal requirements.

Over the last few months, multiple owners of kosher-certified businesses who display the Tav have been urged to take it down.

“People are threatening the 100 Tav owners around the country, saying they are going to hurt their business and boycott them,” Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, wrote in an email to The Journal on July 9.

The hardest-hit are in Los Angeles, Yanklowitz said, where Tav-certified businesses have received more complaints than in any other city. Yanklowitz said three local restaurants chose to drop the certification in the face of this controversy. As of July 20, nine Los Angeles-based businesses were listed among the certified restaurants on the Tav’s website.

The issue appears not to be the Tav certification, per se, but rather that in 2008, Uri L’Tzedek was the instigator of a boycott of products from the Agriprocessors meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa, in the wake of the massive immigration raid that closed down the plant.

Aron Markowitz, 31, a self-described “Chabadnik” who has a book of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings on his desk in his Wilshire Boulevard office, is among those who’ve objected to the certificates. He said in an interview that he first heard about the Tav less than a month ago, and, initially, the principle behind the Tav certification sounded to him like a good idea.

Community Briefs: Greek and Jewish Concert, British Chief Rabbi Address Jews, Solar Power


Greek and Jewish Concert Benefits College

For nearly two centuries, Thessaloniki, Greece, reigned as the largest Jewish city in the world. Sephardic Jews expelled from their homes by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain found refuge there and even referred to the area as the “Mother of Israel.”

Dario Gabbai was one of thousands of Sephardic Jews living in Thessaloniki in the 1940s. But like so many others, his time in Greece was cut short. By April 1944, Gabbai found himself riding in a cattle car with his family to Auschwitz.

The Nazis had invaded, and the city would never again be the same: More than 95 percent of its Jewish population would be lost. Among them were the Jewish students at Anatolia College.

Today, Anatolia College functions as an elementary school, secondary school and a private nonprofit university in Greece, chartered by the state of Massachusetts and accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges. But back then, the more than 90 Jewish students enrolled in the institution perished.

On Monday, approximately 300 people — Jews and Greeks alike — gathered at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel for “An evening of Greek and Jewish Music,” hosted by former Massachusetts governor and presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and his wife, Kitty. The fundraiser will benefit the college, helping create two memorial classrooms at the school, as well as support Holocaust education at the institution and in the city at large.

“We wanted to do it in memory of them,” said Kitty Dukakis, referring to the Jewish Anatolia students who were lost during the Nazi invasion.

Kitty Dukakis, who is Jewish, said the idea for the event began when she visited the school’s campus nearly two years ago but also stemmed from seeing the traveling photo exhibition, “Hidden Children in Occupied Greece,” which told the stories of 16 Jewish children in Greece who managed to escape death during the Nazi occupation, thanks to the Christian families who were willing to take them in.

“It was there that Kitty and I said … ‘Maybe we can do something. Bring the two communities together again,’” Michael Dukakis said at the start of the evening, while noting that he himself was often mistaken for being Jewish on the campaign trail, although he is in actuality Greek.

Consul General of Israel Yaacov Dayan and Consul General of Greece Dimitris Caramitsos-Tziras joined the Dukakis family on stage before the music started.

“We will not be silent. And when we speak, we do it on behalf of all the silent communities around the world,” Dayan said.

Craig Taubman, a local Jewish artist who has also composed music for television and films; Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, a Greek-born tenor and cantor at the Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago; the Rev. John S. Bakas, dean of the Saint Sophia Cathedral and the Greek Orthodox Community in Los Angeles; and Anna Vissi, a leading Greek recording artist, made up the eclectic group of Jewish and Greek musicians who entertained the crowd for the evening.

Gabbai, now 86, sat in the front row of the concert hall, far from the Nazi crematorium he was once forced to work in but managed to survive.

“It was a very beautiful evening, a good time” he said. “The singing brought me back to many younger days.”

Lilly Fowler, Contributing Writer

British Chief Rabbi to Address World Jewry in Webcast on Commandment to Learn Torah>/b>

Thousands of Jews at 350 locations worldwide will hear a lecture this Sunday by England’s Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in a synchronized webcast to commemorate the biblical commandment of gathering Jews to learn Torah.

Sacks’ lecture about freedom, hope and unity is sponsored by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), the adult educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, in honor of the upcoming Passover holiday and the Hakhel year, or Jewish year of gathering. In biblical times, the entire nation would gather in the Temple’s courtyard every seven years to hear the words of the Torah.

People from six contents and numerous time zones will gather at Chabad houses and other Jewish centers at the same time on March 29. Groups will begin assembling as early as 6 a.m. in Australia and as late as 9:30 p.m. in Europe and Israel. Groups will gather at around 11:30 a.m. in several locations throughout California.

Rabbi Sacks’ lecture is the second in JLI’s four-part “Unity Lecture” series. The first was given in January by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who is best known for his Hebrew translation and commentary on the Talmud.

The next lecture will be delivered in June by Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chief rabbi of Tel Aviv and former Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.

Sacks has been chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth since 1991 and is widely recognized as one of the world’s leading contemporary exponents of Judaism.

For times and locations, visit www.unitylecture.com.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Solar Power to Light Eternal Lamps

Twelve Southern California synagogues will simultaneously flip the switch on new solar-powered Eternal Lamps on Tuesday, April 7, at 10 a.m., in honor of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recite a special prayer over the sun.

Jews bless the sun in a ritual known as Birkat Hachamah once every 28 years, when tradition holds the celestial bodies are aligned just as they were when they were created. The Southern California Board of Rabbis, with a $10,000 grant from the South Coast Air Quality Management District, is celebrating the ritual by installing solar panels in synagogues to illuminate the Eternal Lamp, or Ner Tamid, which stays lit above the ark containing the Torahs at all times.

“Birkat Hachamah and Passover are times of spiritual renewal for the Jewish community, and we believe that harnessing solar energy is a powerful symbol of that renewal,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, one of the participating synagogues, will celebrate the event with distinguished guests and a children’s choir. The synagogue will bury a time capsule containing children’s essays and pictures about their hopes and visions of what energy sources we will be using by 2037 — the next time the Blessing of the Sun ceremony will be celebrated and when the time capsule will be reopened.

For a list of participating synagogues and more information, visit www.boardofrabbis.org.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Senior Writer

Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin dead in Mumbai attack


(JTA) – A Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the dead after Indian forces retook a Jewish center in Mumbai, India from terrorist gunmen.

The deaths of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, were confirmed Friday by the director of American Friends of Lubavitch, Rabbi Levi Shemtov.

Earlier Friday, CNN quoted local Indian media sources as saying that five hostages at the building were dead; the hostages were not identified.

Conflicting reports following the takeover of Mumbai’s Chabad-Lubavitch house in the terrorist attacks in India, which left more than 140 dead, prompted confusion and anxiety surrounding the fate of the house’s occupants, including the Holtzbergs.

Four Israelis were among those freed from the Trident-Oberoi luxury hotel along with other hostages late Friday morning, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

As many as two dozen Israelis, some of whom are thought to have been in the house, remained unaccounted for late Thursday night.

complete coverage on mumbai chabad attackGunmen armed with automatic rifles and grenades struck 10 separate locations in Mumbai on Wednesday night in coordinated attacks at sites frequented by Westerners, including hotels, restaurants and a railway station. Witnesses said the gunmen — who killed more than 120 people, set buildings ablaze and took hostages — targeted Americans, Britons and Jews. Mumbai’s Chabad house was among the targets.

On Thursday afternoon, Indian commandos surrounded the Nariman House, where Chabad is located, with plans to storm in and release the hostages. There reportedly were four terrorists holed up inside with six hostages. Indian special forces reportedly killed one terrorist in the building.

Earlier Thursday, the hostage takers released the Holtzberg’s 2-year-old son and the building’s cook, who said that the couple was alive but unconscious.

The Israeli consul in Mumbai told Israel Radio on Thursday that the consulate was working to locate approximately 25 Israelis known to be in Mumbai who had not contacted their families at home.

The terrorists also took hostages at the Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi luxury hotels. The identity of the attackers is not known. A little-known organization calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility.

One terrorist inside the Chabad house called an Indian TV channel Thursday afternoon and offered to enter into talks with the government to release the hostages, Reuters reported.

The Chabad house is located at 5 Hormusji Street in Mumbai. India is a popular destination for young Israeli backpackers, who often make the trip after their army service. The Holtzbergs moved to Mumbai from Brooklyn, New York in 2003 to do Jewish outreach work in India.

One Indian TV channel said five or six Israelis were also among the 100 to 200 hostages being held at the Oberoi hotel, Ynet reported. Some 10 to 15 Israelis are said to be held hostage in sites throughout the city, the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Ynet.

Concern about the fate of the Chabad rabbi and his wife mounted throughout the day, with the Brooklyn-based organization issuing calls for prayer to Jews the world over. The National Council of Young Israel also sent out an alert asking Jews to pray for the rabbi and his wife.

“One friend of Gavriel Holtzberg reported receiving an e-mail from the Mumbai rabbi at 11:30 p.m. local time,” Chabad.org reported. “The Israeli Consulate was in touch with Holtzberg, but the line was cut in middle of the conversation. No further contact has since been established.”

On Thursday morning, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Chabad rabbi’s toddler son was rushed from the house in the arms of one of the Jewish center’s employees, Sandra Samuel.

“I took the child, I just grabbed the baby and ran out,” said Samuel, 44, who was identified as a cook.

She said that the rabbi, his wife and two other unidentified guests were alive but unconscious, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Wise moves jazz up Chabad telethon



Telethon promo

When the 2008 Chabad “To Life” telethon kicks off at 4 p.m. Sunday on KCAL 9, it promises a new look courtesy of a show runner with an unusual background.

Daniel S. Wise, 44, is an Orthodox rabbi who for several years had his own yeshiva in Troy, N.Y. Lately he has been pursuing a career in musical theater and related arts ventures.

“I don’t like the idea of making a living from religion — it interferes with the religion,” he said during a telephone interview.

“I’m not a rabbi because I don’t work on Shavuot,” he joked.

Wise was invited to help polish the Chabad production, which first aired in 1980. The telethon will still feature plenty of the traditional celebrity guests, he said, including several hours live with Larry King. But it also will have more filmed segments, shot around the globe, which tell Chabad’s story.

There will be more prerecorded music, too.

“Underneath a lot of the speeches, we’re creating an underscore,” he said. “There will be original compositions, some based on Jewish melodies and some that are original but based on Jewish style.”

The telethon will also feature more klezmer bands and “two of the best Russian dancers in America,” Wise said.

In general, the behind-the-scenes production staff will be more specialized and experienced in specific duties than in the past.

But this won’t interfere with the joyful, spontaneous dancing that is so much of the telethon’s appeal and reason for success. Last year’s telethon netted nearly $7.2 million.

Educated from a young age in Chasidic and Lithuanian yeshivas in Brooklyn, Wise didn’t even have a television at home. Still, he freelanced comedy bits to “Saturday Night Live.”

“I had the chutzpah to find out who was the producer and call up,” he recalled. “So they put me through to Lorne Michaels’ secretary, and I said I have something and don’t worry, he knows me. I showed up at his office and the secretary said to leave it. I got a call back, and then a letter to sign and a check later. I used the name Jeffrey Daniels because at the time it was a little taboo for a yeshiva boy to write for television.”

While taking violin lessons at The Juilliard School, Wise became interested in musical theater. He has since followed two paths in that field — as a creative producer, responsible for some projects from conception to staging, and as an international presenter of successful Broadway shows.

He was involved in bringing a successful English-language production of “42nd Street” to a 2,500-seat Moscow theater in fall 2002, and he helped organize a Chinese production of “Rent.” Wise also put together an international concert tour for rock pioneer Chuck Berry, which was staged like a theatrical production. As a result of their friendship, he’s now producing Berry’s first album of new material in decades.

But Wise is especially proud of “Shlomo,” a musical based on the life of “Singing Rabbi” Shlomo Carlebach, which he co-conceived, wrote the book for and produced. It debuted in early 2007 as a National Yiddish Theatre presentation at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. A Broadway engagement and national tour are in the works, he says.

“We discovered his life had a theatrical arc,” Wise said. “He had a life story that was also the story of the Jewish journey from the ashes of the Holocaust to the 1980s and 1990s. And the music is electrifying and transformative.”

The Chabad “To Life” Telethon airs Sunday, Sept. 14, 4-10 p.m. on KCAL 9.

Allies and foes scrape through Palin bio for Jewish material


ST. PAUL (JTA)—A small Israeli flag propped up on a window frame. A Pat Buchanan button sported briefly as a courtesy. A prospective son-in-law with a biblical name.

Little about the Frozen North is Jewish outside the realm of fiction (see Mordechai Richler, Michael Chabon, “Northern Exposure”), so when Republicans pitch Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, John McCain’s vice presidential pick, to the Jews and Democrats try to undermine her, both sides tend to reach.

Picking through the trivia and smears for substance, there’s this: Palin, 44, has genuinely warm relations with her Jewish constituents—6,000 or so—and appears to have a fondness for Israel. She also comes down on the strongly conservative side on social issues where Jews tend to trend liberal.

“Governor Palin has established a great relationship with the Jewish community over the years and has attended several of our Jewish cultural gala events,” Rabbi Yosef Greenberg, the director of Chabad-Lubavitch in Anchorage, wrote in an e-mail after McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee and longtime Arizona senator, announced that she was joining his ticket.

“Governor Palin also had plans to visit Israel with members of the Jewish community, however, for technical reasons, the visit has not occurred yet.”

Palin is likeable enough that she got props from Ethan Berkowitz, the Jewish former minority leader in the Alaska House of Representatives who appears poised to become the first Democrat to represent Alaska in the U.S. House of Representatives since Nick Begich disappeared in a snowstorm in 1972.

“I like her and this is an exciting day for Alaska,” Berkowitz told JTA.

Republicans have been scouring the archives to uncover evidence of Palin’s outreach to Jews and to Israel.

Her single substantive act is signing a resolution in June marking 60 years of Alaska-Israel relations, launched improbably in 1948 when Alaska Airlines helped shepherd thousands of Yemeni Jews to Israel. However, she did not initiate the legislation: Its major mover was John Harris, the speaker of the Alaska House.

The paucity of material led the Republican Jewish Coalition to tout the appearance of a small Israeli flag propped against a window of the state Capitol in an online video in which Palin touts the virtues of hiking Juneau.

In an e-mail blast, RJC executive director Matt Brooks offered the screengrab as an answer for “those of you who have had questions regarding Sarah Palin and her views on Israel.”

In a seemingly equal bit of stretching in the other direction, some Democrats played up an Associated Press report that Palin—then the mayor of the small Alaska town of Wasilla—had sported a Buchanan button in 1999 when the Reform Party candidate visited there.

“John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans,” said an e-mail blast from the campaign of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee for president, quoting U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), Obama’s top Jewish surrogate. “Pat Buchanan is a Nazi sympathizer with a uniquely atrocious record on Israel, even going as far as to denounce bringing former Nazi soldiers to justice and praising Adolf Hitler for his ‘great courage.’ ”

The problem was that Palin had corrected the record as soon as the AP report appeared, noting in a letter to a local newspaper that had published the account that she wore the button as a courtesy. In fact, in the 2000 election, during the GOP primaries, she was an official of the Steve Forbes campaign.

The hunger for Palin-Jewish news extended beyond partisan politics. Pulses quickened among some in the Israeli media when the McCain campaign revealed Monday that Palin’s 17-year old unmarried daughter, Bristol, is pregnant and that her fiance’s name is Levi. (It was revealed later that his last name is Johnston, so no seders in the immediate Palin family future.)

The National Jewish Democratic Council focused on a more substantive difference between Palin and the U.S. Jewish community: her staunch social conservatism.

“For a party which claims it is trying to reach out to the Jewish community, McCain’s pick is particularly strange,” NJDC director Ira Forman said in a statement. “On a broad range of issues, most strikingly on the issue of women’s reproductive freedom, she is totally out of step with Jewish public opinion. The gulf between Palin’s public policy positions and the American Jewish community is best illustrated by the fact that the Christian Coalition of America was one of the strongest advocates of her selection.”

Palin backs abortion only in cases where a woman’s life is at risk, opposes stem cell research and believes creationism should be taught in schools alongside evolution.

Perhaps the most damning feature of her resume on Jewish issues is its thinness—her broader problem as well. Berkowitz, the Jewish congressional candidate, poked a little fun at the resume by citing Palin’s enthusiasm for guns and hunting.

“As far as Republican vice presidents go, she will be a much better shot than Dick Cheney,” he said. “But this is John McCain’s choice and an insight in terms of his judgment.”

Ben Chouake, who heads NORPAC, a New Jersey-based pro-Israel political action committee and one who is close to the McCain campaign, says he learned that McCain favored Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the one-time Democrat and Al Gore’s vice-presidential pick in 2000, until the last minute but caved to arguments that Lieberman would alienate the Republican Party’s conservative base.

“I don’t know anything about her, but I’m not concerned because she is the governor, who is someone with executive experience,” Chouake told JTA.

Palin has served less than two years as governor and, as NJDC noted, has “zero foreign policy experience.”

Greenberg, the Chabad rabbi who has not endorsed a candidate, suggests that she makes up in soul what she lacks in experience, referring to her fifth child, Trig, a Down syndrome baby born just four months ago.

“I was personally impressed by Governor Palin’s remarks of hope and faith when she gave birth to a child with special needs,” he said. “We all feel that the Governor is a remarkable, energetic, and good person.”

(JTA staff writer Jacob Berkman contributed to this report from New   York.)

Fate of Santa Monica apartment building embroils rabbi and residents in legal battle


One late afternoon in October 1978, Hertzel Illulian, a Chabad student from Brooklyn, was silently praying mincha outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Tehran. He took three steps back after reciting the Amidah, the service’s central prayer, and found himself surrounded by a wall of men, secret police dressed in street clothes.

They threatened to cart him off to jail, eventually dismissing him and taking a local Iranian Jew instead.

This was a period of massive unrest in Iran, as pro-Ayatollah Khomeini supporters engaged in often violent street demonstrations against the shah, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, who had imposed martial law and whose tanks and troops patrolled the streets. But Illulian, then 19, didn’t feel scared.

“I was courageous,” he said. “I had the purpose to save Jewish children.”

He was an official Chabad student shaliach, or emissary, working on behalf of the Brooklyn-based National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education, and armed with the coveted blessing of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneersohn. This was the beginning of his now-legendary mission to help transport about 3,000 young Jewish Persians, most ranging in age from 12 to 19, using I-20 student visas, from an increasingly dangerous Iran to safety in the United States.

Today, Illulian, a rabbi active in the Los Angeles Persian community, finds himself embroiled in a different kind of revolt. It’s taking place in the normally laid-back city of Santa Monica. And while the two factions aren’t lobbing Molotov cocktails or overturning and burning cars, emotions are running at a fever pitch, and angry accusations are being vehemently fired off in both directions.

On one side are the residents and supporters of the Teriton, a 28-unit, three-story garden apartment building designed by architect Sanford Kent in 1949, which sits on almost an acre at 130-142 San Vicente Blvd. It is around the corner from Ocean Avenue, across the street from Palisades Park and the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean.




Built in the midcentury Modern Vernacular style, with a flat roof and smooth stucco exterior, it actually consists of two low-rise buildings surrounding an L-shaped landscaped courtyard. It was sold for an estimated $10.5 million last April.

On the other side is Or Khaim Hashalom, a nonprofit religious organization, whose name means Living Light of Peace, and which was incorporated last January. It allegedly purchased the building.

The members want to evict the existing tenants, tear down the building and replace it with 40 units, plus a synagogue and possibly a day care facility for refugees from the Middle East, according to real estate and land-use attorney Rosario Perry, the group’s spokesperson and lawyer. Illulian identifies as the organization’s spiritual leader.

In this current confrontation, as opposed to the life-threatening danger he experienced in Tehran over 30 years ago, Illulian appears less confident. “I didn’t know it was going to be such a thing,” he said.

On its face, this “thing” — first brought to light in a series of stories on The Rip Post, a blog and Web site written by veteran Los Angeles journalist Rip Rense — is a typical battle between developers and tenants, between advocates of free enterprise vs. supporters of slow or no growth.

But ever since a “notice for pending demolition permit” sign was posted without prior warning on the Teriton’s lawn on Nov. 10, 2005, both sides have mobilized forces and escalated the battle, invoking what many say are self-serving interpretations of city and state laws. The demolition sign was posted in November at the time of a sale that ultimately fell through.

Particularly perplexing is the role of Illulian. He is a rabbi so observant that he doesn’t eat or drink anything outside a kosher sukkah during the entire eight-day harvest festival. He is a rabbi so revered that Iranians he rescued in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as Los Angeles attorney Philip Nassimi Alexander, utter accolades like, “He’s a great man, a truly great man.”

Yet as the rabbi of Or Khaim Hashalom, his new nonprofit organization, he is so vague and seemingly dismissive of what should be an exciting and worthwhile venture, that many people suspect its true mission may be less than magnanimous.

Here’s what’s happening (See timeline below for specific dates):

The tenants and their supporters are claiming that the Teriton is eligible to be designated a Santa Monica city landmark. If this occurs, residents such as 85-year-old Kit Snedaker, a former food and travel editor of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, who is retired and living on a fixed income and selling items on eBay to make ends meet, could remain in the two-bedroom apartment she shares with her cocker spaniel, Joe. So could Louis Scaduto, an architect who spent five years on a waiting list before he moved into the Teriton in 1997. Nathalie Zeidman, 91 and suffering from cancer, could also stay, as well as about 50 others, young and old, retired and working, some paying current market rates, others living in lower-cost rent-controlled apartments.

Building Battle Timeline

Nov. 10, 2005

“Notice for pending demolition permit” is posted on the Teriton’s lawn. K. Golshani and Asan Development are listed as the applicants. Because a building older than 40 years old is slated for demolition, it is automatically placed on the next city of Santa Monica Landmarks Commission meeting agenda.

Nov. 14, 2005

The Landmarks Commission, in its monthly meeting, reviews the Teriton’s eligibility. Chair Roger Genser requests the item be returned with more information. The demolition permit is subsequently withdrawn.

Jan. 30, 2006

Or Khaim Hashalom files with the California Secretary of State’s office as a religious nonprofit corporation.

April 2006

Tenants receive notice that Or Khaim Hashalom has purchased the Teriton and that rent checks should be made payable to Pacific Paradise Realty, the new management company. Kathy Golshani is listed as the contact.

July 2006

Landmarks Commission places Teriton on its July 10 meeting agenda.

July 7, 2006

Rosario Perry, attorney representing Or Khaim Hashalom, sends a letter to the Santa Monica city attorney declaring that under state law, Government Code Sections 37361 and 25373, the Teriton cannot be designated a landmark because it is owned by a religious nonprofit.

July 10, 2006

Representatives of both sides speak at the Landmarks Commission meeting. Barry Rosenbaum, senior land-use attorney for Santa Monica, points out that Or Khaim Hashalom has not yet held a mandated public forum but that the City Attorney’s Office will examine the statutes. Meanwhile, Landmarks Commissioners approve a motion to obtain more information on the Teriton property.

Aug. 11, 2006

Or Khaim Hashalom holds a public forum at the Gateway Hotel in Santa Monica to explain why the Teriton is exempt from landmark designation and to allow the public to respond.

Sept. 11, 2006

The Landmarks Commission unanimously votes to nominate the Teriton for landmark designation, pending further study. Perry announces that if the Teriton is approved as a landmark, he will file a lawsuit on behalf of his client.

Nov. 13, 2006

Landmarks Commission, on the basis of a more detailed historical assessment, as well as a recommendation from the Santa Monica Planning Division staff, will make a decision regarding the Teriton.

Landmark or Historic District Designation Criteria:
http://www.qualitycodepublishing.com/codes/santamonica/view.php?topic=9-9_36-9_36_100&frames=on

California Code Section 37361(c):
http://www.aroundthecapitol.com/code/code.html?sec=gov&codesection=37350-37364

— JU

The Teriton, as a building more than 40 years old and slated for demolition, is automatically being evaluated for landmark status. That process began in November 2005. But whether it meets at least one of the six criteria necessary for landmark designation — from exemplifying elements of the city’s cultural history to representing a significant example of a notable architect’s work — is questionable.

An impartial preliminary historical assessment, prepared by an outside consultant selected by the city and presented at a Sept. 11 Landmarks Commission meeting, states: “Nonetheless, because of its lack of individual historical and architectural merit, the property does not appear eligible for local landmark designation and, therefore, no further investigation into its historical and/or architectural significance is warranted nor recommended at this time.”

Despite that, the Landmarks Commission nominated the Teriton for landmark status, pending a more detailed report, as well as a recommendation from the city Planning Department. Commission chair Roger Genser defended the decision, noting that the commission also relied on a 1983 report by noted architectural historian Paul Gleye, which points to the Teriton’s significance as part of the San Vicente Courtyard Apartment Historical District.

Concurrently, Or Khaim Hashalom, through lawyer Perry, is claiming that the Teriton is exempt from landmark designation under California law, because it is owned by a nonprofit religious entity. The statute (Government Code Section 37361(c)), which allows religious organizations to alter or destroy historic buildings, was passed in 1994 in response to a decision by the Catholic Archdiocese of San Francisco to close nine parish churches that had been damaged in an earthquake. It was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2001. The law has been used only once previously in Santa Monica, on behalf of the First Church of Christ Scientist, a pre-existing religious establishment, at Fifth and Arizona streets.

In a mandatory public hearing Aug. 11, Or Khaim Hashalom laid out its case. Perry, flanked by what he introduced as the organization’s executive committee — Illulian, another bearded rabbi in full Chasidic garb and five other kippah-wearing men — claimed economic hardship and an inability to pursue the nonprofit’s religious mission if the Teriton isn’t demolished and a larger building constructed.

Perry told the residents in attendance, “You are giving up your homes so people can come here, but we feel that you are more able to re-adjust to new housing than refugees from the Middle East.”

He entertained inquiries and comments from the audience. However, in response to specific questions about Or Khaim Hashalom, including its history, purpose and standing as an actual synagogue, Perry answered, “We are not here to answer questions about our organization.”

That’s the frustration. No one connected with Or Khaim Hashalom is forthcoming, and no factual and consistent information about the organization is available.

Various legal documents list three different addresses for Or Khaim Hashalom: Perry’s office, Illulian’s office and a lighting company on Jefferson Boulevard. On one deed of trust, Perry is listed as both the president and the secretary. On another, Rouhollah Esmailzadeh, the owner of the lighting company, signed as president. Illulian himself, after some hesitation, said he thought Or Khaim Hashalom’s president was “A.J.,” referring to Esmailzadeh’s son. He added, “I don’t know the technicalities. You have to ask Rosario [Perry].”

Many, like Teriton resident Scaduto, believe that Or Khaim Hashalom is “a blatant case of fraud.”

Rabbi Illulian’s response to this accusation was: “I think it’s unfair, just because people want to stay in this building and pay the price they paid 20 years ago. We’re doing everything within the system … legally, with God’s help.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Marx of Santa Monica Synagogue, who attended the hearing, was affronted by what he saw as a display of black-hatted rabbis paraded out to make a clear business venture look like a pious endeavor.

“Do they think everyone is an idiot?” he asked.

What about the claim of bringing in refugees? Illulian, who was raised in Milan, Italy, by parents born in Tehran, has a bona fide track record in this area. It was his idea to bring almost 3,000 young people out of Iran, working tirelessly from 1978 to about 1982 to accomplish it.

Sholem Hecht, rabbi of the Sephardic Jewish Congregation and Center in Queens, N.Y., who accompanied Illulian on his first trip to Tehran and assisted in the rescue, said, “There’s no question he played a very special role in the history of Iranian Jews in America.”

But in 1982, Illulian moved to Los Angeles, married and changed his focus. He became rabbi of Chabad Persian Synagogue in Westwood. Later, about six or seven years ago, he recollects, he founded and moved to JEM, Jewish Educational Movement, which is located in the former YMCA building Beverly Hills and which hosts a synagogue, as well as sports, educational and arts programs and camp experiences for youngsters. He is currently JEM’s rabbi.

Illulian is no longer affiliated with Chabad. According to Rabbi Chaim Cunin of Chabad of California, “He was dismissed some 10 years ago for personal reasons, which were not made public.” Cunin refused to elaborate. Illulian said he believes he was not dismissed.

Illulian has eight children ages, 14 to 24, and lives in Beverly Hills.

While he has worked in his family’s former furniture business in the past, he says he is a full-time rabbi. Still, he maintains an office in a medical building on Wilshire Boulevard near Crescent Heights Boulevard. Records from the Los Angeles County Assessor’s Office show he purchased a commercial office building on Wilshire Boulevard in December 2005 for $4.4 million.

When questioned about his new plan to bring in refugees, Illulian is vague. But according to Rezvan Armian, a social worker at Jewish Family Service in Los Angeles who oversees Iranian immigration, individual people cannot resettle immigrants; it must be done through HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) and the U.S. Department of State.

“Hertzel Illulian resettle? There is no way,” she said.

Illulian, however, claims he is helping small numbers of Jews escape from Iran and has been quietly doing this work since 1982. “I can’t say exactly what I’m doing, because I can’t endanger the lives of Jews in Iran,” he said.
So how are these ventures being financed? Who is paying for the claimed refugee rescue work? Who is funding the purchase of the Teriton? How does Or Khaim Hashalom expect to cover demolition and construction costs?

According to Illulian, the backers are supporters of Or Khaim Hashalom who wish to remain anonymous. Because it’s a religious nonprofit, the organization does not have to make its financial records public.

The building’s seller, Erwin Mieger, president of Teriton Investors LLC, said the buyer of the Teriton was a single individual. He also confirmed that the person who was trying to buy the building in November, when the notice of pending demolition sign was erected and before Or Khaim Hashalom was incorporated, was the same person who purchased it in April.

Dennis Golob, the Los Angeles attorney who represented Mieger’s company in the transaction, identified that buyer as Rouhallah Esmailzadeh, listed on one document as Or Khaim Hashalom’s president. Golob said he was unaware of the involvement of any religious organization. When told about Or Khaim Hashalom, he replied, “That’s really, really interesting.”

Or Khaim Hashalom, however, is the name listed as the owner in documents at the Assessor’s Office and the Recorder’s Office.

A number of roads also lead to a building on Westwood Boulevard. That’s the address of Novin Kathy Golshani, a real estate broker and owner of Pacific Paradise Realty, who represented the buyer in the transaction. She also requested the demolition permit, according to Santa Monica records.

Two people listed as local partners on Golshani’s Web site are also involved. An attorney at the same address, Douglas Weitzman, also represented the buyer. The name of a contractor, Asan Development, owned by Sasan Samimi, was also listed on the demolition permit request.

“So many buildings are torn down all the time, and there is no noise about it. I don’t know why this is such a big deal,” said Golshani, whose Web site promises, on its list of 10 commandments of real estate, “We shall walk away from any illegal and unethical transaction.”

Ultimately, the Teriton’s eligibility for landmark status will be decided by the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission at its Nov. 13 meeting. A determination on whether Or Khaim Hashalom fits the definition of a religious entity and meets the requirements necessary for landmark exemption will be decided separately by the City Attorney’s Office.

According to Barry Rosenbaum, city senior land-use attorney, “There are serious unresolved questions of whether the property owner is entitled to the protections of the statute.”

As for Illulian, he strongly prefers to focus on his early work in the late 1970s and early 1980s and on the thousands of Persian Jews whom he helped resettle both directly and indirectly and who are now living in Los Angeles. He sees himself as the man behind the extraordinary growth of “Tehrangeles.”

Illulian refers to the tumult surrounding the Teriton as “a little thing.” He said, “That’s not the important part of my life. I’d rather forget about it.”



Teriton resident Kit Snedaker, 85, with Cocker Spaniel Joe in her two-bedroom apartment in the Teriton. She has lived there since 1979.

People, Motifs Blend at The Shul


 

At the crossroads of four Miami Beach communities is a thriving Chabad synagogue that welcomes Jews of all stripes. The Shul of Bal Harbour — locally known as The Shul — is a thriving community, which draws an unusual blend of Jews from around the world.

A significant number of people who attend its services are first- and second-generation Sephardic immigrants. So many Latin Americans attend services that Shabbat announcements are made in Spanish as well as English. Like many of the more than 2,000 Chabad centers worldwide, a share of the community is not Lubavitch but “Chabad friendly.”

Even with its immense and striking architecture, the palpable sense of achdut, or unity, is perhaps what most distinguishes The Shul, which serves the communities of Bal Harbour, Bay Harbor Islands, Surfside and Indian Creek Village.

Rabbi Sholom Lipskar has served as The Shul’s spiritual leader for more than 20 years, and his sermons clearly reflect a Chabad perspective. Likewise, he and his wife, Chani, teach classes with that same outlook. Yet in what is also traditional Chabad fashion, they welcome all, as evidenced by a Sunday evening barbecue I attended during my weekend stay.

The Shabbat Torah service underscored this tangible sense of unity. A “calling gabbai” with a Galitzianer accent (along the lines of “baruch elokeni”) preceded a beautiful Torah reading by a Mizrachi member. Services in the cavernous main sanctuary were momentarily suspended while members of the Sephardic Hashem’s Minyan next door recited a resounding blessing over Kiddush.

Rabbi Joseph Oziel, who leads the minyan, also conducts classes in English and Spanish.

The Shul’s powerful sense of Jewish solidarity is well-documented. In May 1995, it hosted a meeting of the annual Sephardic Rabbis Convention, which featured an address by Rabbi Eliahu Bakshi-Doron, then the the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel.

Similarly, The Shul’s architecture integrates diverse elements from various Jewish communities. Three great old-world synagogues inspired its unique design.

The majestic, gothic cage-like bimah was inspired by the Old Synagogue of Kazimierz, Poland. The first 12 letters of the Hebrew alphabet surround the cage, recalling the ingathering of the 12 tribes of Israel with the Torah as their unifying force.

The picturesque arches and courtyard echo the Rema Synagogue of Krakow. The ark, whose triangular design draws from the Rema’s entrance, holds a Torah scroll dedicated in February that was penned in Florida.

The Shul’s twin domes, hanging lamps and open women’s balcony are reminiscent of the Great Synagogue in Warsaw.

Also of note are the more than 100 glass mezuzot created by sculptor Donnie el Berman, a congregant who also designed its evocative Wall of Souls that greets guests as they enter the building. Constructed in 1997 from 9 tons of Jerusalem stone, the 18-by-36-foot piece features cantilevered asymmetric rock outcroppings.

Within the stone itself, nine natural earth tones create a “mosaic of complementary textures and color,” Berman said. Together, they suggest a “natural landscape painting of the hills of Jerusalem.”

A large cavelike alcove is adorned with asymmetric, bent carved panels of pale-green glass that feature the names of Shul members’ departed relatives. In two side alcoves, dedication plaques memorialize the loss of life during the Holocaust and conflicts in Israel.

A wealth of fascinating, subtle details is also found throughout the wall. The word zachor (remember) is etched above. Thirty-six autumnal colored leaves from around the world appear to fall as the memorialized souls ascend toward heaven.

Scattered within its inner archways, Berman faintly carved text and images — icons of Jewish faith and continuity, including Torah passages, rabbinic teachings and a fragment of a Dead Sea Scroll.

The words “Ani ma’amin/I believe” appear in one arch. In another, tiny images recall the Tomb of Rachel the Matriarch and the ancient harps played in the Temple. Replicas of ancient Canaanite graffiti describe the Jewish people as the “foundation of the world,” a reference echoed in the biblical book of Jeremiah.

Observers recognize Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith, as well as a map depicting both the historical inheritances allotted to the biblical tribes and sites in contemporary Israel. Musical notes signify what Berman described as “souls murdered in the Holocaust who continue to sing in perpetuity.”

When asked about his choice of materials, Berman said he incorporates glass in his work, because as compressed sand, it comes from the earth.

“Jerusalem limestone is our holy stone where our forefathers walked,” he said.

The entire structure is held up by steel, which Berman pointed out translates to barzel in Hebrew. Barzel, he said, is an acronym for Bilchah, Rachel, Zilpah and Leah — Jacob’s wives and their handmaidens, who gave birth to the ancestors of the 12 tribes.

“Those are our mothers. That’s who we come from,” Berman said. “These carvings are faded in to represent our heritage, our origination thousands of years ago.”

The Shul of Bal Harbour is at 9540 Collins Ave. (305) 868-1411;

Lenin, Meet Noah


Fall was just beginning to turn the Moscow air crispy when the lot of us — 10 high school seniors and three faculty members of Yeshiva University Los Angeles Girls’ School — trudged down the stairs of our Intourist Hotel in the late ’80s, and began our walk of several miles, not to the better-known Chabad Lubavitch Synagogue or to the Moscow Choral Synagogue, but to another shul in the city’s north.

Marina Roscha was discreetly tucked away, just out of view from the street it shared with a major hospital. Its old frame building was as unobtrusive as its beginnings. It had been built in those first few years of post-Revolution confusion, when it was still possible to act without Big Brother noticing. (Although it had withstood decades of Communist rule, it was firebombed — twice — since our visit, and only recently rebuilt as a Jewish community center.)

The minimum mandatory age for the local attendees appeared to be 85. Besides us, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the famed Israeli thinker, davened there that Shabbat morning. After services, many of the men gathered around a table to study Mishnah. The class had invited Steinsaltz to speak, so I listened in as he addressed them in Yiddish.

“Yidden, this morning we read the portion about Noah. Do you know what the lesson of this portion is in a nutshell?” Not waiting for a response, he continued: “There are two lessons. One is that it is possible that a person can wake up and find that the entire world has gone mad, that he is the last sane person to survive. Two is what you should do when this happens.

“Let me tell you a story. After World War II, I returned to Paris to look for family. The last thing I expected to find was a shul to pray in on Shabbat. In fact, there was such a shul, and I joined a handful of old, broken survivors for davening. Ten years later, I returned, and sought out the same shul. Certainly, I thought, all the old ones would have passed on, and the shul would have closed. Instead, I found more people than a decade before. There were some middle-aged people, and even a few children.

“Another decade or so passed. How delighted I was to find that the shul was now bustling with people of all ages, with children running everywhere.

“A week ago, I visited again, and found fewer congregants than before. They told me that the shul had become so big that it had spawned two breakaway shuls, and siphoned off many people! Those few beaten-down survivors had succeeded in creating a vital community!”

He looked hard at the faces of the men who had known nothing but communist oppression for the last 70 years.

“What do you do when you are the only sane person left, when there is nothing but madness around?” he asked. “You keep to your principles. You keep doing what you know God wants you to do. You may discover one day that you have triumphed, and single-handedly rebuilt a better new world.”

Although these old men were hardened by adversity, there was hardly a dry eye among them. They recognized the message as the summation of their lives. To Lenin goes much of the “credit” for inventing state-controlled terror as an instrument of imposing the government’s will. Individuals simply did not matter. And religion had to be crushed to make way for more progressive ideas.

Many of us find ourselves crushed under the weight of a world burdened with a new variety of madness. At the same time, the principles and practices that offered Jews dignity and purpose in other stormy times are often attacked as outdated and insufficiently progressive.

Noah showed that tenaciously clinging to the truth can be profoundly lonely, but crucially effective. Ultimately, he got the best of Lenin. It just took a while to find out.

This column originally appeared in The Journal on Oct. 19, 2001.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein directs Project Next Step for the Simon Wiesenthal Center and holds the Sydney M. Irmas Chair in Jewish law and ethics at Loyola Law School.

Give Matzah a Hand


I still remember the first year we served shemurah matzah at our seder…. It was in the early 1960s and we were living on a ranch in Topanga Canyon. We received a letter from Chabad offering us a box of shemurah matzah for our seder, no charge, all we had to do was pick it up in Westwood. We had never heard of shemurah matzah, and thought that it was a wonderful idea. When we arrived to pick up the matzah, the Chabbad rabbi explained their meaning and that everyone at the seder should have the experience of seeing and tasting this matzah.

Shemurah matzah is matzah baked by hand from wheat that has been guarded from the time of harvest. This is to ensure that the flour does not come in contact with any moisture. The matzah is baked within 18 minutes. This is done to avoid any possibility of fermentation

Because we were having 25 people each night of Passover, we asked him for three boxes. He was so surprised, and said he thought is was wonderful that a young couple living on a ranch with five children were having that many guests for their seder. Every year since, we have included shemurah matzah for our seder. It is always interesting to hear our guests’ comments on which type of matzah they prefer. And it always brings on a discussion about the history and importance it plays during the Passover holiday.

After many years of getting our shemurah matzah from Chabad it has become available in kosher markets, as well as large supermarkets.

Mrs. Matriarch


Miriam Cunin walks past the wall of books and the plastic-covered sofas in her living room toward a narrow table packed with photographs. Across the middle, there is a row of picture frames, each containing a black-bearded male and a bewigged woman, along with various numbers of children.

“This is Larchmont, Malibu, Cheviot Hills, Beverlywood, Pacific Palisades, Brentwood,” she says, tapping each one as she goes down the row.

Cunin, wife of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, the head of West Coast Chabad, is immensely proud of her children and the communities they lead. She can boast that all 13 not only stayed on the path of Chabad Chasidus, but that they themselves are already, or will become, leaders in Southern California communities.

It is a feat not many can boast, and to Cunin the formula is deceptively simple.

“We just shared our information about how wonderful it is, how fortunate we are to be connected to the Rebbe,” she says of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and his mystical approach to Torah and good deeds. Then, with the confident smile and accompanying shrug of one who has figured it out, she invokes a mantra that comes back several times in the conversation: “Once you know, you know.”

This kind of clarity and faith seems to underlie much of how Cunin approaches her role as an educator and role model in Chabad.

She is a young looking 55, elegantly put together and much calmer than one would expect from a mother of 13 and grandmother of, knayne hara, many grandchildren (don’t bother asking how many, she doesn’t count).

She speaks quickly and quietly, a slight hint of her Parisian birth and Yiddish-speaking upbringing accent her speech.

She is as understated and gentle as her husband is bear-like.

Rabbi Cunin says his wife’s equanimity, stemming from a reserve of deep faith, has balanced the family’s energy level. He says he always tried to keep business out of the home, which worked well with Miriam Cunin’s desire to maintain some privacy for her very public family.

“She is a calm bastion of strength and faith,” Rabbi Cunin says of his wife, whom he married when she was 17.

Still, as is the case with most Chabad couples sent as emissaries, Miriam Cunin has been an integral part of building West Coast Chabad, the mission the Lubavitcher Rebbe entrusted to the young couple.

“We felt so privileged that the Rebbe would give us such a mission,” she says.

The Cunins have built West Coast Chabad into an empire of myriad Chabad Houses, dozens of schools, camps and programs and the annual Chabad Telethon. Along the way, Rabbi Cunin has encountered his share of controversy.

“We believe in the same things, we have the same goals and ideals,” she says of her husband. “It is painful that it has to go through a period of controversy, but I know we are doing the right thing, and truth will prevail. We’ve always felt that way,” she says.

Her role in Chabad varies widely, but includes teaching classes on marriage and family, organizing monthly luncheons for Chabad women and occasionally the international convention for Chabad women, when it is in Los Angeles.

Her son, Rabbi Chaim Cunin, who publishes Fabrengen magazine for Chabad, always has his mother — a gifted wordsmith, poet and artist — read all the copy before the magazine goes to press.

She also ends up spending a lot of time on the phone, advising women who seek her help.

“I might make a call for a luncheon but all of sudden they need something, and it turns into a wonderful opportunity to help someone,” she says.

Her son points to his mother’s private accomplishments, as well. She spends every Friday afternoon going to old age homes, where she lights Shabbat candles with 70 or 80 patients who consider her a daughter (some patients with dementia actually think she is their daughter). She brings new mothers prayers and a care package.

And then, of course, there is the job of being a mother and bubbie to a family the size of a small company.

He says a day hardly goes by when his mother doesn’t run into a grandchild somewhere — and she always know what is going on in that child’s life. She has a list of birthdays and anniversaries for her entire family, and on each occasion she calls the whole family to remind them to call each other. No birthday passes without a cake and a present from Bubbie.

Every Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the new Jewish month, the entire family comes for dinner to the Westwood duplex the Cunin’s have lived in since they moved from the Fairfax area, soon after they arrived in Los Angeles.

“We grew up as such a team, such a unit,” Rabbi Chaim Cunin says of his family: two girls, six boys and then five more girls, in that order.

Shira, 15, is the second to youngest and good friends with one of her oldest nieces — who is in Shira’s class.

“There’s always something new going on, always a new talent and there’s always an excitement to it, because of the love that is expressed, and because of the ways of Chasidus that give deeper meaning to everything,” Shira says. “There is an inner joy of life that plays out in every detail.”

She says her mother’s pure faith helped pull the family through a three-year period when her father was in Russia, working to secure the release of the Lubavitcher library the government continues to hold.

Miriam Cunin’s family goes back several generations in Chabad, hailing from the eponymous town of Lubavitch in Russia. Her grandfather was a rabbi in Communist Moscow, and she was born in Vienna, while her parents were en route from Russia to Paris after the Holocaust. When she was 7, they came to Crown Heights, N.Y., Chabad’s postwar headquarters.

“My family has so many experiences, and we know this is the right way. It’s wonderful when you can live in confidence that what you are doing is right.”

After all, “once you know,” she says with a smile and a shrug, “you know.”

Rabbi vs. Rabbi


Last Monday night, shots were fired into the front window of the Living Judaism Center (LJC) in Marina del Rey and into a car belonging to center board member Harris Toibb.

Toibb is a major supporter of LJC, which is involved in a public legal battle for control of the property at 2929 Washington Blvd. in Marina del Rey, currently occupied by LJC and formally known as Chabad of the Marina. The struggle has pitted two charismatic leaders against each other, and brings into question the right to dissemination of Chabad Torah teachings in Los Angeles.

At press time there was an active effort within the Chabad community to bring both parties to a mutually agreed beit din (rabbinical court), which will bring a resolution between the sides. If both parties agree to go to the rabbinical court, all civil litigation will be revoked.

The skirmish between Rabbi Shmulik Naparstek of the LJC and Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin of Chabad of California has been percolating for some years. The trouble began in October 2000 when Barron’s magazine published the article "Unholy Gains: When stock promoters cross paths with religious charities, investors had best be on guard," in which Naparstek admitted that he received a gift of stock from Australian financier Joseph Gutnick. (No charges were ever filed against Naparstek, and he denies any wrongdoing.)

For the next year, Cunin and Naparstek traded letters over the matter, and in January, Cunin fired Naparstek. Naparstek then filed for control over the synagogue, and on March 4, Cunin’s legal team filed a counter-complaint in the Los Angeles Superior Court accusing the Chabad of the Marina of ties to "an alleged international stock manipulation scheme." (Both men commented through their lawyers for this article: Rex Julian Beaber, attorney for Naparstek, and Marshall Grossman, chief counsel to Cunin and Chabad of California.)

Cunin’s counter-complaint also alleges that Naparstek was conducting unauthorized Chabad activities at the Toibb Gan Israel Preschool in Playa del Rey on Nov. 13, 2001, when Friends of Chabad of Marina del Rey hosted a mixed-seating gala banquet honoring former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gov. Grey Davis. The complaint accuses Naparstek of knowingly violating Cunin’s policy prohibiting banquets where men and women sit together.

Because Naparstek did not act in accordance with the directive given to Chabad rabbis in California, according to the counter complaint, he would no longer be considered a Chabad shliach, or emissary, and should consequently vacate the LJC’s facilities and turn over all books and records to Chabad of California.

Naparstek denied the accusations. In a fax obtained by The Journal that Naparstek sent out on March 10 to "fellow shluchim and members of ‘Anash’ [the Chabad community]," Naparstek alleges the "unauthorized activities" at the Playa del Rey school were well within the range of traditional Chabad activities, and that the money raised to build the school had been earmarked by its donor, Toibb, to go to outreach activities as well. "At the time," Naparstek wrote, "the only known charge against me by Rabbi Cunin was my ‘crime’ in succeeding to disseminate Yiddishkeit in Playa del Rey."

Toibb, who sponsored the dinner that resulted in Naparstek’s dismissal, said that he was aware of Cunin’s directive that Chabad Houses not hold dinners with mixed seating. "That is why the event that took place was hosted by my wife and myself. We hosted the event, we paid for the event and it was for Friends of Chabad of the Marina," as opposed to Chabad of the Marina itself, Toibb said. "I went so far as to get advice from rabbis that were close to Cunin to make sure that the procedure that I did would not result in anything controversial."

In Naparstek’s first complaint filed in the Superior Court on Jan. 31, 2002, and in the aforementioned fax, Naparstek alleges that Cunin abused his power as head Chabad rabbi in firing Naparstek without due cause and attempted to take over properties that Naparstek had raised the vast majority of funds for and are controlled by an independent board of directors. (According to Beaber, Naparstek allegedly resigned from the LJC board of directors eight months ago, and though Naparstek is president of the LJC, he does not have a vote on the board.)

Both parties claimed through their lawyers and in the documents that the other subverted the Jewish judicial system imposed to deal with disputes, resulting in complaints being filed in civil court.

The issues, however, are about more than just property. This battle for power underscores larger concerns about Cunin’s role as the chief Chabad rabbi in California, and what it means to be a Chabad institution in California. It also raises questions about the ownership of synagogue buildings when the synagogue is disassociated from its parent group.

Cunin came to California in the mid-1960s, appointed by the Lubavitcher Rebbe as the head shliach, and set about changing the landscape of Judaism in the West Coast. He opened the first Chabad house in Westwood, and has since, with the Rebbe’s permission, appointed hundreds of emissaries to more than 100 Chabad centers, reaching communities as diverse as Fresno and Las Vegas. To millions across America, he is the dancing bearded man in the spotlight at the Chabad Telethon, a televised fundraising event that raises millions of dollars for Chabad’s projects in California, which include a drug rehab facility and other social welfare and educational programs.

Naparstek arrived in California from Israel in 1984, and began work as Cunin’s personal assistant. In 1987, he worked part time for Cunin while running Shabbat services in the Marina on the weekends. He did so with Cunin’s blessing, and eventually he left Cunin’s employ to begin working full time setting up a community in Marina del Rey.

Beaber alleges that Cunin urged Naparstek to make Chabad of the Marina a separate corporate entity to Chabad of California. Chabad lawyer Grossman confirms that like many Chabad houses in California, Chabad of the Marina is a separate corporate entity, but Cunin is still its chief spiritual leader.

Among other things, Naparstek set up a preschool, a synagogue, an after-school Talmud Torah, and a day camp for his congregants in Marina del Rey, acquiring some $2 million worth of property along the way for those purposes.

Grossman contends that even if Chabad of the Marina were a separate corporate entity, Cunin acted well within his rights as head shliach of California to request that Chabad House act in accordance with the directives handed down by the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, and to fire those that did not.

"The code of conduct that Chabad rabbis are required to respect, has been set forth over several years, by a succession of Chabad Rebbes, such as Rabbi Schneerson and these teachings guide Chabad rabbis all over the world," Grossman said. "Occasionally, there is a Chabad rabbi who thinks he knows how to do it better, but when you are part of an organization, particularly a religious organization, your responsibility is to follow the dictates of that organization, and that is true whether you are a Chabad rabbi or Reform rabbi or Conservative rabbi. It is not uncommon for rabbis in any branch of Judaism, who sway, to be relieved of their duties."

Yet, even if Cunin had the right to relieve Naparstek of his duties, Beaber contends that he has no right to take over the properties of the LJC. Beaber told The Journal that he has sworn declarations from all but two of the people (who Beaber could not reach because they were on vacation) who donated to Chabad of the Marina over the years, that their intention now, and that their intention when the money was donated, was that it go only to Naparstek to fund his buildings and activities at Chabad of the Marina. The donors said that they knew of Cunin and Chabad of California, and did not want their donations to be used by them. The declarations also maintain that the motivating factor in their donations was Naparstek, not the name Chabad.

Grossman alleged that the properties belong to Chabad of California, since Chabad of California provided seed money to Chabad of the Marina and gave Chabad of the Marina $15,000 grants on two separate occasions, and since it was always known that even though Chabad of the Marina was a separate corporate entity, it has always been part of Cunin’s Chabad empire. "Whatever funds were raised in the name of Chabad, were Chabad funds. Period," Grossman said. "Whatever funds were raised in the name of the LJC, unassociated with Chabad, are not Chabad funds. This is not some free-standing McDonalds that is operating independent of every other McDonalds, this is a Chabad synagogue."

Beaber maintains that Chabad of California did not provide the seed money for Chabad of the Marina.

The shootings that occurred on March 18 came at the height of the dispute, but whether they were related to the conflict or were simply random acts of vandalism remains to be seen. Toibb believes that the shootings were acts of unrelated neighborhood violence. Beaber told The Journal that the LJC identified to police agents acting on Cunin’s behalf as their primary suspects in the vandalism. On behalf of Chabad and Cunin, Grossman issued the following response: "Whoever committed this criminal act should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Any accusation by the LJC that Rabbi Cunin had any knowledge of these events is false and made for an ulterior purpose."

Word within the Chabad community is that neither party in this case is completely blameless, and that it is imperative for the well- being of the community that this dispute be settled in a fair and unbiased manner. Given Chabad’s history of dynamic entrepreneurialism, observers hope both parties will achieve a mutually satisfactory resolution.

Sin City Shaliach


The table is sumptuously laid out for 16, with appetizer plates and enough silverware to promise a multicourse meal. With smells of chicken soup and sounds of seven children playing, it’s just a typical Friday night in … Las Vegas.

What’s a nice Jewish family like the Harligs doing in Vegas?

Rabbi Shea Harlig, father of seven and founder of the Desert Torah Academy, is first of three Chabad shlichim (emissaries) sent here, and he doesn’t find anything unusual about living in the center of Sin City.

"Half of the people who come here [to Las Vegas] don’t live here … they don’t want to be here for Shabbos," Harlig, 35, tells The Journal. Some of the seven guests around his Friday night table are perfect examples of people not in Vegas for its pleasures: a businesswoman from New Jersey who got stuck here on a marketing conference, an author brought in by the Jewish Community Center to discuss her new book.

Harlig is a man of many firsts. His family was the first to observe Shabbat here. They were the first to arrange for the shipment of fresh kosher meat to be sold in Vegas. They established the first Vegas synagogue to have three daily minyans. When they came here 10 years ago, the kippah-wearing Rabbi and his bewigged wife, Dina, 31, stood out for their conspicuous display of Orthodoxy, in a city that conspicuously displays anything but.

Today, the Harligs are proud that all those firsts led to the mini-Chabad empire that they have built up in Vegas. It’s come a long way from the small in-house gathering the Harligs used to host when they arrived in the city, armed only with the blessings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and a bit of seed money provided by Rabbi Shlomo Cunin, West Coast director of Chabad Lubavitch.

Now, the center of Vegas Chabad is a $1.5 million building, which was donated by Sheldon Adelson, owner of the luxurious Venetian on the famous Strip. This building houses the school (complete with a state-of-the-art computer lab, physical education instruction and 120 students), a mikvah, offices and a shul. On any given Shabbat, one finds a surprising number of men sporting black hats and long beards, and the services are spirited in a way that is reminiscent of shteibls in religious enclaves like Crown Heights — not hot and sunny places where palm trees line the streets and bright lights beckon to reckless endeavors.

There are also two other Chabad houses in different suburbs, as well as various social, welfare and community services. "Many people realize that in order to keep Judaism going, you need Chabad outreach activities," Harlig says. "Although they might not be prepared to practice everything, they understand that you have to give the next generation an awareness of Judaism — and that is what Chabad does."

Harlig — a self-avowed driven man — says that his job running Chabad of Las Vegas doesn’t allow him to keep a regular schedule or take time off. "There is always someone else who needs help or needs counseling, and some days it’s a struggle. But I have friends from yeshiva who went into business, and they are struggling too. The difference is that I am struggling to do holy work, and I would rather struggle to do that."

For an ambitious man, Harlig is deceptively low-key. "Sometimes people ask me, ‘Did you believe this was going to happen?’ I didn’t know what to expect. My job is just to look around and see what needs help and what needs improvement."

He’s always looking: buying bus tickets home for Jews who lost every last cent at the gaming tables, bailing out newly indigent gamblers from jail, even helping people find jobs. He plans now to expand his adult education programs and to acquire a 9,000-square-foot building for another Chabad house in Summerlin, a suburb of Vegas.

It’s a long way from Brooklyn, Harlig’s hometown, where he grew up knowing that he wanted to be a rabbi, and it was only a matter of where to go to help Jews return to their faith. He considered moving to Copenhagen, but then decided that Las Vegas would be more of a challenge.

The Harligs’ work has made being religious in Vegas less challenging, but they struggle to give their children the same kind of Jewish education that they would have received had they stayed in Brooklyn.

To this end, Rebbetzin Dina, who is an efficient, creative and energetic educator, holds "a.m. and p.m." Torah contests with her children every Shabbat, where the children compete to give the best retelling of the parsha during Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. The children play "Torah Torah Mitzvah" instead of "Duck Duck Goose," and they sing hearty renditions of the Chasidic songs that they learned in camp back East, where they spend most summers.

But as there is no religious high school for them in Las Vegas, the Harligs have resigned themselves to the fact that, come high school, their children will have to be sent back to New York for a "real" Yeshiva education.

Yet, in true Chabad style, Harlig imagines that all problems will be solved with the coming of the Messiah. "I envision when Moshiach will come, all the hotels will be big yeshivas. All the rooms will become dorm rooms, the big dining rooms will be where we will eat and the casinos will become learning halls. That is why I think these hotels were all built — so that they can become yeshivas."

Ask the Rabbi


It’s late on Sunday evening at KFI 640 AM’s &’9;Koreatown station, and within the confines of an overly bright fluorescent-lit radio booth, a tall man with Phil Donahue-white hair and a scraggly reddish beard worthy of the Norse god Thor sits alone at the mike.

Dressed in dependable Chabad wear — white dress shirt, black slacks, yarmulke and tzizit hanging out — Rabbi Chaim Mentz is an unexpected voice, booming out of the radio in a heavy Brooklyn accent.

"You got questions, I got answers!" Mentz enthuses in a gravelly voice.

Mentz, or "the Rabbi," as his listeners fondly address him, also raises questions, every Saturday and Sunday night, when he conducts something of a live farbrengen, minus the Absolut Vodka. With a spritz of humor and little egotistical radio jock pretension, he tackles some serious issues.

"Who are our friends in the Middle East?" he asks his callers. After the commercial break, he ups the ante: "Give me four names of countries in the Middle East helping us."

Merv from Los Angeles starts listing countries: "Israel, Egypt, Iran… "

"Iran!" responds Mentz. "I don’t know what world you’re living in where Iran is your friend!"

"Israel," states a woman caller. With disgust, she then sizes up her view of the U.S. coalition with several Arab nations: "They’ve been taking our money and spitting in our face. They won’t help their own people."

Which is exactly where Mentz wants the conversation to go. "America has been giving billions to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and they’ve done nothing," he says on the air. "When you’re not letting us bring soldiers to your land, you’re helping bin Laden."

Notice how Mentz himself has not mentioned the word "Israel" once during the show.

It’s all a delicate balance. Look around the recording booth, and you will find Sunday’s newspaper, an Osama bin Laden "Wanted" poster; but you will not find a soapbox — it’s just not the rabbi’s style. His style can be summed up in a word that is also a place, a state of mind: Brooklyn.

The Crown Heights-raised rabbi is a follower of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, whose practical wisdom informs the way Mentz dissects moral ambiguities.

Mentz’s discourse comes wrapped in that jocular, boisterous bluntness common to his native borough. At times, he becomes theatrical, as only a New Yorker can, singing along with the patriotic tunes on his bumper music or reminding listeners, "We can’t forget Sept. 11."

"I’m just here to shed light," Mentz told The Journal in his thick Big Apple accent.

Leading? Manipulative? Perhaps, perhaps not. What is certain is that Mentz’s humor-leavened backdoor approach makes for compelling radio. Take the way Mentz addresses the anthrax panic and the accompanying 24/7 news, both of which he believes are overblown.

THE RABBI: "We had a scare over here at KFI. A little coffee powder, and they’re calling the FBI."

PHIL FROM DOWNEY: "Fear is a very natural emotion. Fear is what keeps people alive. I’m glad they evacuated Congress. I wouldn’t want 500 dead congressmen."

THE RABBI: "You don’t see anyone panicking over breast cancer or food poisoning, and more people die from that. This is exactly what the terrorists want from us. Their whole realm is negative."

AMY FROM WHITTIER: "I’m wondering if I’m weird. I’m not afraid at all. My husband and I are going out to help stimulate the economy."

THE RABBI: "Take it with a grain of salt, and just be careful."

Mentz’s gregariousness is evident in the way he kibbitzes with colleagues at the studio between segments. On this Sunday night in October, Mentz is in especially good spirits — earlier, his beloved Yankees defeated the Seattle Mariners. He can barely contain himself on the air, and during the breaks he banters with other KFI alpha males the way sports-lovin’ men do, in that nearly foreign, mile-a-minute dialect of numbers, surnames and nicknames.

Mentz later remarks how at home he feels at the radio station. When throwing parties, his co-workers will often pick up a cake from Schwartz’s Bakery for him.

"Even if the food isn’t kosher, they invite me down because they just want me to be there," Mentz says, beaming.

The rabbi’s salt-of-the-Earth style has endeared him also to high-profile people. Laura Bush has conversed with him on several occasions. Mentz has also interviewed Hadassah Lieberman, the then-vice-presidential candidate’s wife, and discussed the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s attempt to negotiate with the Taliban with Bill O’Reilly of Fox News Channel’s highest-rated program "The O’Reilly Factor." According to Mentz, Vice President Dick Cheney’s camp contacted him to schedule an interview after the rabbi’s conversations with the first lady.

Mentz once reported from a rave to expound on the values of American children today. As DJs pumped two-step beats by techno groups like Propellerheads, Mentz interviewed a handful of the 15,000 revelers, some of whom were high on Ecstasy.

"I was easily the oldest person there," he reports.

Mentz, 42, lives in Bel-Air with his wife, Charna, and their five children, ages 4 to 13. Since 1985, Mentz has led Chabad of Bel Air services at his home. KFI notwithstanding, Mentz’s only previous broadcasting experience was "Basic Judaism," a public access show he hosted on Century Cable in the early 1980s.

"I built my synagogue through that show," Mentz says.

In his two years at KFI, he has received only eight pieces of hate mail: two from gentiles; six from older, secular Jews who felt that Mentz sounded "too Jewish." Which amused Mentz, because it is his very ethnic appeal that attracts much of his younger Jewish audience.

But Mentz estimates that the bulk of his listeners are non-Jews, such as those who greet him with an Anglo-twanged "Shalom, Rabbi!"

It’s about 11:30 p.m. Mentz tells listeners about his recent brush with a Muslim man at a Ralphs supermarket who inquired which synagogue Mentz led. Mentz fibbed, telling the stranger that he did not belong to a congregation. The rabbi begs his audience to judge him — did he do the right thing? Once again, by presenting a micro-scenario, KFI’s rabbi has snuck his listeners into a wider discussion: in this case, racial profiling.

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "You did the right thing. If that happens again, you should ask, ‘Why do you want to know? Do you plan to convert or to bomb me?’"

THE RABBI: "We live in a very strange time. Thanks for your call."

TRICIA FROM L.A.: "I love you, Rabbi."

Catch Rabbi Chaim Mentz on KFI 690 AM Saturdays, midnight-3 a.m.; and Sundays, 10 p.m.-midnight.

Ask Moses and You Shall Receive


According to the Rabbi Chaim Cunin, director of AskMoses.com, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson anticipated the Internet and the role it would play in our everyday lives as far back as the late 1970s. But it was not until 1998, when Chabad Lubavitch supporter Yuri Pikover reiterated the importance of maintaining an online presence, that Cunin and his staff at Chabad’s headquarters took notice.

“He kind of opened our eyes,” Cunin said. “We started analyzing what was out there already, and we wanted to go a little further. We wanted to reach the people who were not interested, but curious, at best.”

Chabad’s AskMoses.com Web site features 60 rabbis working 24 hours, six days a week, to address the ethical, spiritual, and practical concerns of both Jews and non-Jews alike. No question is too big or too trivial, say the rabbis, who field about 20 to 40 conversations an hour.

“It enables people who otherwise would not have the opportunity to ask questions, due to their distance in terms of geography or religious affiliation, to ask them,” said Rabbi Dov Greenberg of Chabad of the Conejo in Westlake Village, one of the spiritual advisers at AskMoses.com. The site operates on a $475,000 budget derived from donations that help to pay for wages, technical development and support.

“We realized that there’s nothing that can compare to a live conversation with a rabbi or rebbetzin,” Cunin said, noting that Chabad sought to recreate the accessibility and the guidance offered by the outreach organization’s global network of centers.

“We wanted to take that energy and that phenomenon and apply it to the Internet,” Cunin said.

In addition to Greenberg, other locals working shifts on the Web site are Rabbi Eyal Rav-Noy of the Institute for Jewish Literacy and Rabbi Yisroel Schochet of Long Beach. Rabbi Simcha Backman, site manager and director of Chabad of Glendale, and his staff keep the interchange live around the clock by enlisting Chabad rabbis in Israel, Canada, Taiwan, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand.

Traffic at AskMoses.com passed the millionth-visitor mark over Passover. With more than 1,000 conversations taking place each day, Chabad will add six additional sites in Hebrew, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian and German, with a total of 420 rabbis online. The first of these international sites, based in Argentina, will be up within three months.

“The Internet is a miracle,” Cunin said. “It’s amazing that we can be connected and share info like that.”

Visit AskMoses.com 24 hours a day, every day except Shabbat at www.askmoses.com.

Also taking flight on the Web is a new page established by Orthodox Union (OU). Each week, subscribers receive e-mails on the weekly Torah portion and upcoming Jewish holidays (www.ou.org/forms/shshreg.asp). Links also connect visitors with candlelighting times, a rundown of OU kosher-certified products, recipes and trivia questions.

Visit the OU’s Shabbat Shalom at www.ou.org/shabbat/ .

rJon Voight and Other Jewish Mysteries


One of the enduring mysteries of Los Angeles Jewish life is Jon Voight. Each year, Jews turn on their televisions to see the Oscar-winning actor, who isn’t Jewish, dancing the hora with a Chassidic rabbi, appealing to viewers to give money to the rabbi’s cause, and generally looking like a yeshiva bocher on Simchat Torah. And each year, Jews turn to one another and ask: What’s that all about?

And it’s not just Voight. Whoopi Goldberg, Tony Danza, Edward James Olmos and Carroll O’Connor, among dozens of stars, all turn up at the studios of the annual Chabad Telethon to show West Coast Chabad founder and telethon creator Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin their heartfelt support. This year, Vice President Al Gore will add his voice to the fund-raising appeal either in person or by satellite. And Bob Dylan may show up again. Bob Dylan.

For weeks before the telethon, Los Angeles is awash in giant billboards that feature a stylized image of the dancing rabbi. One year, he popped up on every Vons grocery bag. It’s a level of publicity beyond the dreams or abilities of most Jewish organizations in town. Come telethon time (this year, it’s on Sunday), the high profile pays off with big bucks. The telethon brings in about $4 million, according to Chabad Lubavitch.

But along with the high profile comes, of course, the carping. As much as people love to love Chabad, there are those who love to hate it. The whisper campaign of allegations can be deafening. It’s important to note that none of the worst charges that have arrived on our desk come with any hard evidence.

Rabbi Cunin has stepped on some local toes, most notably in his handling of the Westwood Bayit and the Beverly Hills menorah controversy. It is not being naive to take those actions at their face value, balance them against the positive side of the ledger, and draw your own conclusions.

Some cite these examples as reasons enough to despise Chabad. And, if you’re looking for reasons to disparage the entire bunch, surely among Chabad’s 150,000 active members worldwide and its 250,000 supporters and 3,000 emissaries you’ll find some. But each Chabad operates as a kind of franchise, sinking or swimming on its own. Locally, Chabad’s supporters point to its outreach efforts, its readiness to help Jews in need, its schools and drug treatment facilities (including an impressive new one opening in West Los Angeles), its annual Passover and High Holiday workshops for all local Jewish day schools, as reason enough to give a little or a lot. We know people whose lives have been saved or whose faith in Judaism restored by generous Chabad assistance.

Whatever your take on Chabad, anyone who watches TV on Sunday will have to admit: they have managed something close to a media miracle. If 20 years ago a devout, bearded rabbi had asked you whether a relatively small group of Jews in traditional black garb who adhere to an Orthodox, non-egalitarian interpretation of Jewish practice could raise millions of dollars on television and attract Hollywood and music industry stars, you would have said, Yeah, right, and how about an Amish game show while you’re at it. But Cunin pulled it off. And this is how: his organization knows how to convey its passion for Jewish life. As synagogues and Jewish institutions have long known, that is no easy task. Rabbi Cunin, his able family and fellow Chabadniks can make Jerry Lewis seem like a wallflower. To those Jews who find this embarrassing, we can only say, Don’t worry, Jon Voight knows we all don’t wear black and dance by a tote board.

But since the first mitzvah mobile rolled across the land in the late 1960s, Chabad has always been there for Jews who are searching for a way back into their faith. Our cover story documents how more and more Jewish rock stars and musicians belong in this category.

Hence Dylan’s surprise appearances at the telethon. Chabad keeps the admission to Jewish ritual and learning free and easy. Come when you can, leave when you want, pay if you wish. In the meantime, sing, dance, pray, nosh and — on Sabbath and Simchat Torah — have some schnapps. The geniuses trying to outsmart Jewish apathy and assimilation can do worse than look closely at Cunin’s Chabad. Maybe they can start by turning on the TV. — Rob Eshman, Managing Editor

Gene Lichtenstein will be back next week.

Sunday Night Fever


You’re flipping the TV dial, and you come across something so incongruous that you’re riveted: Bob Dylan and Jon Voight enthusiastically dancing the dervish-like kazatzka with Chassidic Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin.

It could only be the Chabad telethon, where religious fervor mingles with Hollywood marketing savvy; where stars don yarmulkes and dance the night away with kapote-clad Chassids. The latest celebrity-studded show takes place Sunday, Aug. 29, 5 p.m. to midnight on KCOP-TV Channel 13, when millions of viewers in some 20 markets will help raise more than last year’s tally of $4.3 million. Anthony Hopkins will show up, via a prerecorded segment, to support the Chabad Drug Rehabilitation Center, which, he says, is non-sectarian and boasts one of the highest success rates in the country. “You’ve seen me play [various roles] such as Hannibal Lecter,” he says, “but today I’m playing Anthony Hopkins and I’m here to ask you to help Chabad.”

Chabad Telethon: Chai on Life


For many, the High Holidays have already been officially ushered in — not with the blowing of the Shofar, but with the sound of Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin’s voice hosting the annual Chabad telethon.

This year’s broadcast was especially symbolic. After all, it was the 18th Chabad telethon — 18 being the numerical value of the letters in the word chai, which means life. In fact, the evening’s official motto was “L’Chaim To Life!”

Most are acquainted with Cunin — Chabad’s charismatic West Coast director — and his mission: to raise money for Chabad’s social and educational outreach programs. Sharing hosting duties with Cunin this year were actor Fyvush Finkel and movie producer Jerry Weintraub, the telethon’s longtime chairman.

The live UPN broadcast rewarded viewers and pledgers with a cavalcade of Jewish entertainers, including guitarist Yoffi Piamenta (dubbed “the Jewish Jimi Hendrix”), who closed out the program with a roof-raising rendition of “Mosiach.” Celebrities appearing in studio to sing Chabad’s praises included Sid Caesar, James Caan, Robert Guillaume, Elliott Gould and Bernie Kopell. Comedian Steve Allen played some piano, then worked the phones with his wife, actress Jayne Meadows.

Valley High


When Chabad decides to open a new center, itdoesn’t bother with demographic studies, focus groups or testmarketing.

In the words of Rabbi Mordechai Einbender,associate director of Chabad of the Valley, “We just make a pot ofchulent and hope people come.”

Usually, they come.

They’ve been coming in droves since Chabad openedits first center in the San Fernando Valley 25 years ago. Thenational Chassidic outreach organization, headquartered in Brooklyn,will celebrate its Valley presence at a March 29 banquet that willfeature Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel as a keynote speaker and honorRochelle and Gary Finder.

From its beginnings in a storefront office behinda pizza shop in Encino, Chabad of the Valley has expanded into amultimillion-dollar operation with nine Chabad houses and 75 rabbisand staff members. With everything from religious outposts inWestlake and Northridge to a shtiebl in already Orthodox NorthHollywood, Chabad of the Valley serves hundreds of Hebrew-schoolstudents, preschoolers and adults.

“We’re talking about more than a success ofnumbers. Generations of kids who would have gone to public schoolsnow, because of Chabad houses, have felt the glow of attachment to aliving Judaism,” says Einbender, known as Rabbi Mordy to the hundredsof people who pass through his Tarzana synagogue. “We are basicallyfostering Jewish identity where it would have been hidden behind awhite picket fence of the American dream,” he says.

Einbender’s handsome office is in the 2-year-oldGutnick Institute-Chabad of the Valley Headquarters, the flagship ofthe Valley enterprise. It is a thoroughly modern facility thatincludes a main sanctuary/social hall, preschool, Hebrew school andoffices. The state-of-the-art mikvah, or ritual bath, is equippedwith everything from matching towels and bath pillows to a wheelchairlift.

As at all Chabad centers, there are no membershipfees here — although those who get involved no doubt end up donatingthe equivalent or more. And that policy leaves the door open tovirtually everyone, from those searching for spirituality, to drugaddicts looking for a way out, to the downtrodden who just need a fewbucks.

“Physicality is sometimes superior tospirituality,” Einbender says. “Don’t tell someone who doesn’t haveshoes on his feet, or money in his pocket to buy a cup of coffee orsandwich, to believe in God. That is the antithesis ofJudaism.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean Chabad shies awayfrom spreading the Word. All Chabad rabbis are known as shluchim, oremissaries of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.It is their mission to spread goodness and kindness in the world, “tolook at every Jew as a diamond and to be there to inspire continuinggrowth on one’s own level of Yiddishkayt,” says Rabbi Moshe Bryski,executive director of Chabad of the Conejo. And, of course,ultimately to hasten the coming of the Moshiach, the Messiah.

It is Chabad’s messianic bent that often evokesscowls and snorts from even committed Jews, but it is also whatimbues shluchim with a kind of tunnel-vision zeal that allows them toignore that derision and move forward with splashy public displays ofJewish pride.

“We never underestimate the value of touching asingle Jew at a single moment,” says Rabbi Menachem Bryski, Moshe’sbrother and programming director for Chabad of the Valley. “Otherpeople will see it as being too aggressive, too forward, but,ultimately, it gets results.”

In the Conejo Valley, one of the fastest-growingJewish communities in Southern California, the results have beenpromising.

“Right now, the challenge is just keeping up withgrowth,” Moshe Bryski says. “Whatever we put out here is gobbled up,and we just need to keep producing more and more programs, and weneed more and more space.”

Chabad of the Conejo often co-sponsors programswith the local federation and other Jewish organizations.

In Ventura, Rabbi Yakov Latowicz has also made ita priority to work with other groups. He has helped fledglingcommunities in Camarillo, Ojai and Oxnard form Hebrew schools and newcongregations — none of them Orthodox. He has also set up an artexhibit, and he frequently lectures to packed audiences.

“Many Jews who have come here have basically –perhaps not consciously, but in effect — moved away from Jewisheducation, Jewish culture,” says Latowicz, who’s been with Chabad ofVentura for 10 years. “If we promote Jewish consciousness in general,people tend to get more involved.”

But Eugene Radding, a member of the Reform templein Ventura and a supporter of Latowicz and Chabad, says that Venturais not quite the Jewish wasteland Chabad makes it out to be.

“We have 2,400 families on our [UJA-Federation ofVentura County] mailing list. This is a pretty substantial Jewishcommunity, and Chabad is just a very tiny part of it,” says Radding,who is on the federation board.

He says Chabad’s main impact is that it has addeda much-needed Orthodox presence. The divergence between Radding’s andLatowicz’s perceptions is a common one between Chabad leaders andthose outside the movement. While Chabad makes claims of transforminga community, others see it as adding but a small component. ButBryski says that part of that confusion stems from an ignorance aboutwhat Chabad does — in fact, what Chabad is.

“It’s hard to put a finger on what Chabad is andwhat Chabad is not,” Bryski says. “We represent different things tomany people. To some, we’re a community center; to some, we’re aschool; to some, we’re a social-service agency; to some, we’re asynagogue. To some, we’re Orthodox, and to some, it doesn’t matter,”he says, standing in the midst of Chabad’s Valley empire. “I don’tknow that we necessarily need to be defined. And that’s fine.”

For more information, call (818) 758-1818


L.A. 5758 Briefs

Protecting Jewish Values

Everyone hasthe same complaint about Sinai Temple Sisterhood’s second annualsymposium: They can only attend two of the seven break-out groups.Now that’s a problem organizers can smile about.

“Challenges, Threats and Pathways: ProtectingJewish Values,” on March 24 at the Olympic Collection, is an all-dayevent meant to “give people some insights, some ideas, somethought-provoking concepts to think about as they live their lives inwhatever they do, at the workplace or at home,” says Dorothy Salkin,vice president of Sinai and co-chair of this event.

Speakersinclude Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism; JewishJournal columnist Marlene Adler Marks; author Naomi Levy, above ; CarolLevy, executive director of American Jewish Congress, PacificSouthwest region; David Wolpe, left , rabbi of Sinai Temple; andan impressive array of psychologists and social workers.

Tuesday, March 24, 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., OlympicCollection, 11301 Olympic Blvd., West Los Angeles. Sessions andluncheon are $36 in advance, $50 at the door. Call (310) 474-1518,ext. 778, to reserve.

–J.G.F.

Really, Truly Pluralistic

“I’m not sure how to get across how amazing andrare it is that an Orthodox rabbi is coming to a Conservativesynagogue to speak to us and to teach us,” says Ed Feinstein, rabbiat Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.

Rabbi Daniel Landes — who shocked Los Angeleswith his pulpit exchange with Rabbi Harold Schulweis of VBS severalyears ago — will spend next Shabbat at VBS to talk about Pardes, thepluralist school in Israel he now heads.

“Pardes is one of the only places in the worldthat is truly nondenominational, a place that has found a way to makecommon ground,” Feinstein says. “And that common ground is learning.We may not daven the same way, we may believe differently, but we canlearn together.”

Friday, March 27, through Saturday, March 28,at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd
., Encino. A specialinvitation is extended to friends and alumni of Pardes. Anyoneinterested in Shabbat hospitality can call the VBS office at (818)788-6000, ext. 108.
— J.G.F.

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