Outstanding Graduate: Michael Sacks — Leading the way

As a key leader in a number of organizations at Sierra Canyon School in Chatsworth, it’s hard to imagine that Michael Sacks ever felt left out. After all, the 18-year-old senior is student body president, chapter co-founder and co-president of Future Business Leaders of America, team captain of the speech and debate and mock trial clubs, and business director and opinion editor of the school paper, The Trailblazer. 

And yet …

“As an observant Jewish student at a secular school, I often felt as if I was the ‘odd one out’ for keeping kosher, observing Shabbat or missing school on Jewish holidays,” he said. 

The answer for Sacks was United Synagogue Youth (USY), the Jewish youth group associated with the Conservative movement for which he now is international president.

“USY provided me with a community of empowerment, one that truly allowed me to become comfortable with my Judaism and with myself,” said Sacks, a former regional vice president and president and international board member.

As president, he travels to the East Coast a few times per year to help set up conferences and communicate with the organization’s leadership. Sacks also serves as representative of six states in the West, including Hawaii, making sure “all operations on a youth level are continuing on a day-to-day basis.”

His personal initiatives at the organization involve connecting USY alumni with present members. Sacks said he is creating an alumni college database of former USY members to help prospective college students navigate the application process. And for two years, he has worked on USY Speaks, which he said “reaches out to every single congregation that has a USY chapter in the country, urging the congregational leadership to afford a past or present USYer [a chance] to speak about his or her experience in USY.” 

[Next Grad: Sepora Makabeh]

Along with his work at USY, the Calabasas resident attended Camp Ramah in the Berkshires, a Jewish summer camp in New York, where he was a counselor-in-training for children with special needs. 

An accomplished student, Sacks will attend Harvard in the fall. When he’s older, Sacks wants to work for an institution like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund. “I always thought those were cool,” he said.

In addition to his keen interest in government, Sacks is passionate about social issues. He is the chapter president of the Human Rights Watch Student Task Force at his school, where he sets up speeches, conducts informational sessions and leads social action campaigns. In 2011, he founded Bridging the Gap, a club that brings in speakers to talk about the Middle East conflict. 

Sacks said his ultimate goal in life involves making an impact on the world that extends far beyond the confines of Southern California. “I realize that I have been blessed with opportunity at every step of the way,” he said, “and I hope to make the best of those opportunities.”

Girls admit to syrup swastikas, mother investigated

Three teenaged girls admitted to defacing a Northridge home with swastikas this week, but will not face criminal charges, according to investigators with the LAPD’s Devonshire Division. However, the mother of one girl could face a criminal charge for driving the girls to the scene.

“That is the direction of the investigation now, to find out whether or not the mother’s actions are criminal in nature,” LAPD Capt. Kris Pitcher said.

On Tuesday morning, April 3, a Northridge Jewish family awoke to find three swastikas and the word “Jew” written in maple syrup on their front walkway. The homeowner, who spoke with The Journal on condition of anonymity, said maple syrup also covered his front door as well as two cars parked in front of the home. Feces were also found near the home’s front door and toilet paper was strewn in the property’s trees.

A second nearby property was also defaced with toilet paper.

Police confirmed the three teenaged girls were responsible, but they could not be charged with a crime because the syrup, feces and toilet paper had caused no permanent damage.

“It was a very unfortunate incident, but it did not amount to a criminal act,” Devonshire Division’s Lt. Silva Atwater said.

Without a criminal charge, police also could not charge the girls with a hate crime.

“Hate crimes enhance the penalty for an already existing crime when it can be shown,” said Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

The girls’ actions will instead be recorded as a “hate incident.”

“It goes down in the stats and everything else, however … there is no prosecution,” Pitcher said.

The three teenage girls obliged a police request to appear at the Northridge station on April 4. They admitted to defacing the homes, and they left the station later that afternoon, Atwater said.

An LAPD press release issued after the interviews describes the defacement as “an ill-advised prank.”

Whether the mother knew what the girls’ plan was is still being investigated, Pitcher said.

The homeowner, who had initially reported that his home was in Chatsworth, said the three girls were former friends of his teenage daughter and that they attend the same school.

“What it comes down to, these are three stupid kids doing a stupid act,” he said.

Northridge home defaced with swastikas

[UPDATE Apr. 10: Girls admit to syrup swastikas, mother could face charge]

[UPDATE Apr. 5: Girls admit to syrup swastikas, mother investigated]

The Los Angeles Police Department’s Devonshire Division is investigating the Tuesday morning vandalism of a Northridge home as a hate crime.

Three swastikas and the word “Jew” were written in maple syrup on the home’s front walkway. Feces were also found near the home’s front door and toilet paper was strewn in the property’s trees, according to the homeowner.

LAPD Sgt. Humberto Najera said the victim’s residence was hit with what appeared to be a prank, but police are investigating the incident as a hate crime and as an act of vandalism because the graffiti was anti-Semitic.

“We don’t treat these things lightly,” Najera said.

The incident took place sometime between midnight and 6:30 a.m. on April 3, according to the homeowner, who works out of a home office with a window that overlooks the front yard. He first noticed the toilet paper in a tree.

“I went outside to make sure there wasn’t additional damage, and when I opened up the door there was feces on the doorstep, maple syrup all over my door and on the doorstep and walking up to the door, two swastikas and the word ‘Jew’ and a third swastika,” said the homeowner, who spoke with The Journal on condition of anonymity.

The homeowner, the son of a Holocaust survivor, posted an image of the vandalism on Facebook. The photo has since gone viral.

The homeowner, a father, believes the incident could be related to three teenaged girls – former friends of his daughter.

He said that another house in the neighborhood, about three-quarters of a mile away, was vandalized with toilet paper around the same time. He added that his daughter is a friend of the daughter of the other victimized family.

The victims have not yet contacted the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

“We’re always concerned when we see swastikas,” said ADL Senior Associate Director Alison Mayersohn, who planned to follow up with police officials Wednesday morning.

The homeowner described his neighborhood as ordinarily “very quiet,” and said he could not recall other incidents of anti-Semitism taking place in the area. He was, however, jolted by this incident.

“It’s 2012 and we’re still dealing with people hating Jews because we’re Jews,” he said.

Survivor, rabbi recall horror of Metrolink train crash

Richard Slavett normally takes the 4:36 p.m. Metrolink train from Glendale to his home in Thousand Oaks, but last Friday his daughter-in-law was flying in from the East Coast and he decided to go home early.

Slavett, 69, owner of the Glendale Tire Co. of Glendale, caught the 3:45 p.m. train instead, took an aisle seat at the rear of the train, and fell fast asleep.

The next thing he knew he was lying face down at the front of the compartment following a horrific crash between his Metrolink train and a freight train, which killed 26 people and injured 138.

Next to him were two bodies, one bleeding profusely. Slavett painfully crawled to retrieve his briefcase, and a lunchbox holding the day’s cash receipts.

“It was like a scene from a disaster movie,” he said.

Agonizingly, Slavett crawled to the exit, until two men carried him to a nearby boulder. An hour later he was taken to the triage area and there LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and County Sheriff Lee Baca, who both know Slavett, came over to comfort him.

Three hours later he was transferred to Kaiser Permanente Hospital in Woodland Hills. Miraculously, he had no broken bones, but suffered an excruciatingly painful torn groin.

Despite the pain, Slavett managed to attend a dinner Monday evening, marking his installation as lieutenant governor of the California Kiwanis.

Now slowly recovering, the father of three and grandfather of six said, in a voice chocked with emotion, “I got to get well fast so I can go back to singing in the choir at Or Ami [in Calabasas].”

Rabbi Leonard Muroff was driving to his home in Agoura Hills after conducting services at Temple Ner Tamid in Downey, when he heard that families of those thought to have been on the train were told to assemble at Chatsworth High School and wait for news.

As a full-time chaplain with Vitas Innovative Hospice Care, he immediately changed course and headed for the high school.

The place was jammed with families and friends, some standing in stunned silence, others close to hysteria, alongside aid workers from the fire department, sheriff’s office, Red Cross, and the mayor’s crisis team, headed by Jeff Zimmerman.

Working alongside a Protestant and Buddhist chaplain, Muroff worked to pinpoint the locations of the injured, scattered throughout some 20 hospitals, from Simi Valley to the USC-County Hospital.

Muroff encountered some Jewish families, although the faith of the affected families made no difference to the three chaplains.

Around midnight, officials of the Coroner’s office received a list of those who had died in the crash and began to notify the waiting relatives.

What do you say to the bereaved in such a moment, Muroff was asked.

“There are no magic words,” he answered, “no easy phrases like ‘he has gone to a better place’ or ‘God will embrace her’.”

“All you can do is let them cry it out, say that you are with them, that they are not alone.”

Muroff pulled a 17-hour shift, interrupted only by morning prayers at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills. He returned to the high school bearing 13 bagles with cream cheese, supplied by the temple.

Muroff, 48, is a native of Toronto and has been a hospice chaplain for two years, previously with the Jewish Homes for the Aging.

There have been many emotional and agonizing moments during that time, he said, but nothing had been as intensive as the 17 hours at Chatsworth High.

q 4 u re metrolink

The Fastest Therapy in the West

First there was speed dating. Now, there’s speed healing.

Welcome to The Ten Minute Method, a new form of condensed counseling offered by a Chatsworth therapist that promises to be both fast and affordable at $18 a session.

You may be thinking: 10 minutes? That’s just long enough to rearrange the throw pillows on the couch, pick at your cuticles as you fixate on a poorly framed Matisse print and hear, “We have to end now,” as your shrink eyes the clock on the end table. Not so, according to Richard Posalski, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage, family and child counselor who invented The Ten Minute Method.

“When people know they only have ten minutes, they’re prepared to crystallize what’s going on with them in a straightforward manner,” says Posalski. “In conventional therapy, roughly 75 percent of the time can be just venting and never getting to the problem.”

After 30 years in the business — Posalski was a social worker for the Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles and a member of the field faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before going into private practice — he says less “clutter and confusion” helps him use his intuition to get “right to the heart of the matter.” The therapist describes his counseling style as “Jewish pragmatic.”

So far, he’s conducted about 80 10-minute sessions and has helped patients with a wide range of problems, from one woman’s question about how to handle her sister’s holiday visit, to a mom’s inability to let go of anger at her son’s little league coach. Sessions, both in person and over the phone, deal with “everyday” issues, the type of concerns people are always approaching Posalski with at parties, as in: “This dip is great. By the way, have you ever treated anyone deathly afraid of flying?” Being approached at social events only reminds the counselor that most people have at least one question they’d love to ask a professional.

“There are all kinds of people that want help but would never get into therapy. Either it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, or maybe for the average person, the notion of having their psyche probed is a deterrent,” he explains.

If the idea of a 10-minute therapy session calls to mind those massage therapists who set up chairs at holiday office parties or in front of the health food store, that’s no coincidence. In fact, that’s how the counselor got the idea, watching a masseur set up his chair in the lobby of a local bed and breakfast. He thought, with limited time and resources wouldn’t a talk be as good as a rub?

“I just want to help people feel better,” he says. “And you don’t have to feel crazy to take advantage of a therapist.”

Posalski’s Web site is www.The10minutemethod.com. He can be reached for appointments at (818) 773-9988.


Togetherness Through Mitzvot

In a rustic little corner of Chatsworth, flanked by trees and horses and dry, dusty land, sits the nerve center of the oldest interfaith program in the San Fernando Valley.

From its offices in a building owned by a United Methodist church, the Valley Interfaith Council (VIC) has, for 37 years, quietly provided an outlet for religious organizations to pool their resources and feed the hungry, shelter the homeless and support the elderly while allowing Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims an opportunity to learn tolerance by sharing mitzvot.

The list of services provided by the VIC is impressive. It is contracted by the City of Los Angeles to provide support services for senior citizens in the east, northeast and mid-Valley areas, which it does through three senior centers in those areas. Various other programs provide about 2,000 seniors with transportation, hot meals and in-home services each day. More than 30 participants and caregivers are served by the VIC’s two Alzheimer’s day-care programs while an estimated 318 low-income seniors and disabled persons receive assistance each year through the Handyworker Program. The program uses volunteer builders and other skilled workers to help make accommodations such as ramps and widened doorways for wheelchairs at participants’ homes.

In addition to their work with seniors and the disabled, the VIC provides funds and manpower for a myriad of essential agencies in the Valley, including Meals on Wheels; the Food Pantry Coalition (which includes Sova Kosher Food Pantry and Encino B’nai B’rith); the Alliance for the Care of Abused Children; and the Interfaith Family Assistance Program which, among its other functions, helps at-risk families to obtain health insurance coverage through the state’s Healthy Families program.

"The Valley Interfaith Council is based on the premise of pluralism, an honest pluralism that says, ‘Your faith has validity for you, my faith has validity for me,’" said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, assistant dean of the Los Angeles School of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a 25-year member of the VIC. "That’s different than the kind of naive pluralism we call ‘brotherhood,’ where I know I’m right but will put up with people who are wrong, or the simple-minded pluralism that says we’re all basically the same.

VIC wants people who have a real commitment to their faith and tradition, but are open to bouncing their concepts against other people’s concepts, which is really the religious challenge in an advanced democracy."

Jews have had a strong presence in the VIC from its inception, Goldstein notes. The organization grew out of a committee formed in 1964 by church and synagogue members to fight for fair housing practices for Jews and other minorities. Since then, membership has waxed and waned, growing to 398 active members in 1996 and falling to about 225 dues-paying members currently. However, recent events have provoked more of an interest, and the VIC has embarked on a campaign to increase its membership for 2001. The events of Sept. 11 have not changed the organization’s focus.

"Our mission has always been to foster understanding between people of all religions and backgrounds, and that stays the same," said VIC President Katherine Rousseau. "There’s just a little more stress on people in our country. The suffering of the families has affected us all."

The one positive change to come out of the recent tragedy, Rousseau said, is a greater emphasis on dialogue between Muslims and people of other faiths.

"We’ve been doing this work for years, and now we see it happening all over the country — people coming together for interfaith services," she said.

The Valley Interfaith Council, along with the ADL and the West Valley JCC, will sponsor a series of dialogues titled "Diversity & Religion" to run six Tuesdays beginning Oct. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus, 22622 Vanowen St. in West Hills. For information on these and other VIC programs and events, call (818) 718-6460.