Documentary explores UCLA alumna’s past as a child prostitute

In David Sauvage’s documentary short, “Carissa,” a 31-year-old graduate of UCLA’s law and business schools visits a rundown hotel on Fresno’s “motel drive,” where underage girls work the streets. “I feel so torn up that I come back here and it’s still the same, or worse,” Carissa Phelps says. When she herself was 12, and homeless and hungry, a man brought her to this motel after buying her a hot dog and a Pepsi. So began her life as a prostituted child, when she was exploited by a number of men, including a pimp who brutally raped her.

The 23-minute film, which screens with other shorts during DocuWeek Aug. 22-28 at the ArcLight Hollywood, also recounts how a juvenile hall counselor saw potential in Phelps and encouraged her to keep a journal. It recalls how the counselor and other teachers praised Phelps when she taught herself algebra from a textbook and how they encouraged her to turn her life around. The short also describes how Phelps eventually earned an MBA and a law degree in order to help prostituted children and how she now works as an activist and fundraiser to clean up motel drive and transform the surrounding neighborhood.

The powerful but unsentimental movie, which was executive produced by Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth”), is one of four shorts to screen at DocuWeek, the International Documentary Association’s showcase of qualifying films for Academy Award consideration. Another short, “Baghdad Twist,” chronicles a Jewish family’s past in Iraq.

In a phone interview from Fresno, Phelps — whose mother is of Jewish descent — said she had never told the entirety of her story to anyone before she met Sauvage in a study group at UCLA’s graduate business school three years ago.

“I would start shaking, and couldn’t speak,” she said of past efforts. “But I knew I wanted to go back to motel drive with a camera. Somehow, I needed to have my story documented.”

Her chance came when she heard Sauvage say he intended to create financing for a movie as his summer MBA project in 2005. “You should make your movie about me,” she told him. Sauvage, who at the time did not know she had been abused, cavalierly replied that unless she had been a child prostitute, he wasn’t interested.

It was a flip response, but Phelps said, she nevertheless intuited that Sauvage was the right person to tell her story.

“I thought David was essentially kind, a great storyteller, and that he was coming from the right place,” she said. “And a big part of that had to do with his family background.”

The director is the son of filmmaker Pierre Sauvage, whose 1988 documentary, “Weapons of the Spirit,” describes the town in France where 5,000 Christians saved 5,000 Jews from the Nazis, including Pierre and his parents. When David was growing up, the Holocaust and rescuers were frequent topics of discussion at home. As a teenager, David found the conversations all too frequent, which gave him a kind of cynicism but also a moral prism through which to view the world.

The childhood discussions “awoke me … to the horrors of which people are capable, [and they] probably had a lot to do with my reaction when Carissa came to me with her story,” Sauvage said. “I was moved, yes, but I was not entirely shocked. In fact, it was my nonchalance that I think enabled us to move forward. Carissa knew she had in me someone who could understand the darkest parts of her story without flinching.”

Phelps said that because her mother was “adopted out” to a non-Jewish family, getting to know the Sauvages “was a chance to connect to a culture I never got to be a part of.” Going back to Fresno for production, however, proved challenging for Phelps. She said the film’s cinematographer had to drive her to the motel drive location because she physically couldn’t force her body to steer in that direction.

Eventually, she was able to speak on camera (Sauvage said he modeled his interviewing techniques on those of his father, “who knows how to let a moment breathe”). Phelps described how her mother dumped her at juvenile hall when she was 12 and how caring staff at another facility helped her start to believe in herself.

Sauvage also interviewed one of Phelps’ pimps, who said johns didn’t care that Phelps was 13; as well as the woman who recruited Phelps to work for an even more violent pimp (who is now serving 144 years in prison).

Both Phelps and Sauvage believe the film focuses less on Phelps’s victimization than her rescuers and her own desire to help at-risk girls. “In a very real and strange sense, I was tackling my father’s theme on a much smaller scale,” Sauvage said.

For more information about “Carissa,” which screens as part of the Program B Shorts at ArcLight Hollywood, and DocuWeek programs at the ArcLight Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, visit

The trailer

Is circumcision a requirement for conversion?

I called Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn at his home in Kansas City, Kan., where he’s rabbi at that city’s New Reform Temple. Was it true that he had told the group in Mexicali that it wasn’t necessary for adult converts to Judaism to have a brit milah (ritual circumcision)?

“That is correct,” Cukierkorn said. “I did tell them that. Brit milah is appropriate for babies, but not for adult men, for whom it’s a gruesome and painful ritual. If an adult doesn’t want to undergo it, he should not be required to do so.”

“I get criticized for my attitude,” said Cukierkorn, who’s originally from South America. “I’ve had arguments with my own colleagues over this. I say that if we Reform rabbis emphasize ritual too much, we take the focus away from our main mandate, which is to make the world a better place in which we all behave in a more ethical manner.”

On the contrary, said Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who heads the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at the University of Judaism and has sponsored many conversions, the brit milah is a fundamental ritual, and adult men are required to undergo it in order to convert.

“In the past, there have been varying standards,” Weinberg said. “Some rabbis said one thing; some said another. But now, accepted standards for conversion have been established through the Sandra Caplan Community Bet Din, to which many non-Orthodox rabbis of Southern California are signatories. According to the Caplan Bet Din, brit milah is a requirement for men who were never circumcised as babies.”

Weinberg said that if a non-Jewish male had been circumcised at birth, conversion requires a symbolic ritual, according to Jewish law: hatafat dam brit.

Weinberg smiled mischievously. “Just a small prick,” he said, “enough to draw a single drop of blood.”

Rabbi Suzanne Singer, director of the Union of Reform Judaism’s regional Introduction to Judaism Program, said that a sponsoring Reform rabbi has flexibility when it comes to this issue, depending on what the convert wants to do. She pointed out that whether or not there is a brit milah, there’s always a ceremony in which the convert is conferred a Hebrew name, which — when there is no brit milah — becomes the method by which he’s welcomed to the covenant.

Marlon Franklin, 37, recently underwent a brit milah. Born into a Catholic family in Venezuela, he directs commercials and promotions for Spanish-language television. This past year, he converted after participating in the University of Judaism’s introductory course given by Weinberg.

“The [brit milah] wasn’t bad at all,” Franklin said. “Dr. Sam Kunin explained everything, both before and during the procedure. I had local anesthesia, so I could see what was going on. It was excellent, no complications, no problems.”

Franklin said he was very conscious of the ancient, spiritual nature of the ritual, which made it “an awesome experience.”

Kunin is a “retired urologist and full-time mohel” who said he has performed more than 10,000 circumcisions in his life — about 1,000 on adult men. What did Kunin think about Cukierkorn’s comment that it’s a “gruesome and painful experience”?

“Doing a brit milah on an adult has gotten a bum rap,” Kunin said.

“I’ve had men drive home afterward. In most cases, a day or two later they’re back at work. If you do it right, there should be no problem.”

“I don’t understand the fuss people make,” he said. “In Africa now they’re circumcising thousands of adult men for AIDS prevention. If it were such a big deal, don’t you think word would get around and the men would stop doing it?”

Bedouin life from a child’s eye view through a camera

A young Bedouin boy casually leans against a rough-hewn wooden table, his kaffiyeh blowing in the wind. Laid before him are some of the traditional tools of Bedouin coffee-making, essential to their culture of hospitality. A mortar and pestle for grinding the beans, a large cast-iron pan for roasting them, and a bacraj, or coffeepot.

Behind him is a section of a cinder-block wall, a sign of the permanent housing that is gradually replacing traditional Bedouin tents. English writing appears across the chest of the Western-style sweatshirt he wears beneath his jalabiyya jacket.

The photograph is part of an exhibition titled, “Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” which continues through Sept. 30 at the Venice Arts Gallery. According to Kim Frumin, the educator, artist and Fulbright Fellow who designed and implemented the project, this and other photos in the exhibition accurately show the fluidity between tradition and modernity at Abu Kaf. Frumin sees the boy’s relaxed pose, amid artifacts ancient and new, as epitomizing a “great harmony … between the past and the future” in the children’s lives.

The seeds of this project were sown in the summer of 2003, when Frumin visited Israel on a community service trip. Walking through the Bedouin village of Wadi El Na’am, Frumin felt like the “pied piper of 35 millimeter film.” Fascinated by the camera slung over her shoulder, the children followed her around, excitedly calling out in Hebrew: “Take my picture!”

Frumin was intrigued by the fact that “in a village without water or electricity … the children were so excited about the camera.” Concerned with escalating tensions between the Negev Bedouins and Israel over land disputes and access to basic services, she thought about ways she might help create bridges between the cultures.

“I realized that my experience and expertise lay in art education and in working with different cultures,” she said.

With the children’s excitement for photography fresh in her mind, Frumin decided to use art “as a tool for communication and expression.”

From December 2004 through April 2005, Frumin worked with 10 youths at a school in the recently recognized Bedouin village of Abu Kaf. The students practiced taking and developing pictures — none had ever used a camera before — and examined photographs taken by other children around the world.

Frumin and the children also “spent a lot of time with the idea … of how the camera gives you new eyes to see everyday things in new ways,” she said. “I hoped that spending time examining and reflecting on their community would foster a pride in their unique culture and a love for Israel.”

Though shy at first, the students quickly became eager to write and talk about their culture.

“The project tapped into a wellspring of thoughts [and] feelings about their community and their traditions,” Frumin said. They also “knew they had a unique perspective to share, the experience of being a Bedouin child,” a notion that was very “empowering” for the children.

In another photo, a young girl is counting on her fingers as she kneels for prayer. Frumin explained that “she is praising Allah the prescribed number of times and is showing how kids remember to count the correct number.”

The principal of the Bedouin school, Ali Abu Kaf, has been so impressed by the children’s “work, their ideas … and the power of their writing and photographs,” that he suggested Frumin undertake an expanded second round of the project. This time, however, he’d like the Bedouin children to partner with children from Jewish kibbutzim in the area.

As Frumin said, “the project would be a ‘living together’ — not just tolerating each other or existing together — project.” Frumin hopes to begin this second round in February or March and is “actively looking for sponsors.”

“Passages Between the Past and Future: Photography by Bedouin Children of Abu Kaf, Israel,” through Sept. 30. Venice Arts Gallery, 1809 Lincoln Blvd., Venice. (310) 822-8533.

When Birthday Party Blowouts Blowup

The wedding invitation convinced me that modern moms and dads have officially lost their gumballs regarding children’s birthday parties. “Master Jacob Estroff” read the ivory parchment envelope; it took a moment to register that the addressee was in fact Jakey, my 5-year-old. The bride-to-be (Miss Sophia Rosenthal) was Sophie, his toothless classmate.

The party lived up to its invitation. There were bridesmaids, groomsmen and, of course, a mini groom and a mini chuppah. There was even a wedding cake taller than the birthday bride herself.

In all fairness, Jewish parents come by it honestly. We’ve barely cleared labor and delivery before we’re expected to be on the phone with the caterer ordering bagels and lox for 200 for the bris or baby naming.

It seems a natural progression to plan a three-ring circus in the cul-de-sac when that bundle of joy turns 6. It’s just that somewhere between the petting zoo, the pony rides and the moonwalk we end up with an empty wallet, a giant headache and a kid who is so overwhelmed by the hoopla, he can barely enjoy his big day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we bail on our kids’ birthday parties altogether. On the contrary, these annual rites of passage are much-anticipated events in our children’s lives. But going to the opposite extreme isn’t the answer either.

Fortunately, it’s perfectly possible to plan a kid-friendly birthday bash without compromising our values, sanity and pocketbook. All it takes is a little panning for gold.

You know when you take a big clump of mud and swoosh it around in a pan until a few glistening specks of gold are all that remain. Well, we’re going to do the same thing here. Only instead of mud, we’re going to swoosh a big, mushy mess of modern birthday party madness.

Are you swooshing yet? Do you see those overpriced invitations and goody bags spilling over the sides into a bucket by your feet? Great, keep swooshing. But don’t go peeking at those golden nuggets yet. Not until we’ve spent some time looking at the slush in the bucket, and have a clear grasp on what exactly our child’s birthday party does not need to be (regardless of what parenting magazines, party planners or other parents might think):

  • It does not need to be a reflection of our parental prowess. We accomplish lots of amazing feats as parents. Getting our children out the door and into school every morning; keeping them safe, healthy and happy. Our child’s birthday party is but one little parenting accomplishment in a year of millions; it’s hardly a manifestation of our maternal savvy.
  • It does not need to be a Martha Stewart masterpiece. Have you ever bought a magazine based on the teaser “foolproof birthday party ideas” only to realize a page and a half in that you are a fool for buying the magazine in the first place? Not only is making tulip-shaped cupcakes not foolproof, but it takes a degree from the World Culinary Institute. Besides, our kids couldn’t care less if their cupcakes are shaped like tulips or toilets, as long as they’re yummy, icing-soaked and flanked with the right amount of candles.
  • It does not have to be an unprecedented concept. Do you know that sinking feeling we get when we learn another kid is having a birthday gala at the same secret site we’ve booked for our own child’s party — only a week earlier. “The nerve!” we think to ourselves. “I’ve had that inflatable jumpy place booked for a year and that parent stole the idea right out from under me.” But the reality is our kids love playing on inflatable jumpy stuff. They would do it day in and day out if we’d let them. I must ask you this: Would you turn up your nose at an opportunity to go to a spa just because you did the same thing last weekend? I think not.
  • It does not need to go off without a hitch. For my niece’s sixth birthday, my sister-in-law booked a highly acclaimed magician, months — if not years — in advance. You could taste the excitement as the guests counted down the seconds until he arrived. And then they counted some more. And some more. Until it became painfully evident that the magician had taken his vanishing act to the next level.

That’s when they started building Oreo towers. Those kids went through package after package of double stuffs until they’d constructed a bona fide chocolate cookie Camelot. And then it was time to go home. “Thanks, that was fun,” the children told my catatonic sister-in-law as they exited.

Lesson learned? Despite a catastrophic birthday party disaster, my niece turned 6, the guests were happy and we had a family memory that would last years beyond the applause after a perfectly executed magic show.

OK then. I think we’re finally ready to peek at the golden nuggets. At those few precious, glimmering things our child’s birthday party should be. They look something like this:

  • A fun, memorable day spent with family and friends.
  • A means of making them feel happy, proud and loved.

  • A celebration of their development, uniqueness and existence.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated Jewish parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her first book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? The Essential 411 on Raising Modern Jewish Kids” will be published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House in 2007.

Our Uri

Hours before the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah went into effect, Israel Defense Forces tank commander Uri Grossman, the son of acclaimed Israeli novelist David Grossman, was killed by an Hezbollah anti-tank missile. This is an excerpt of the eulogy David Grossman delivered at his son’s funeral:

At 20 minutes to three in the morning, between Saturday and Sunday, our doorbell rang. Over the intercom, they said they were from the army. For three days,
every thought began with a negative: He won’t come. We won’t speak. We won’t laugh. He won’t be that kid with the ironic look in his eyes and the amazing sense of humor. He won’t be that young person with understanding beyond his years. There won’t be that warm smile and healthy appetite. There will no longer be that rare combination of determination and refinement. There won’t be his common sense and wisdom. We won’t sit down together to watch “The Simpsons” and “Seinfeld,” and we won’t listen to Johnny Cash, and we won’t feel the strong embrace. We won’t see you going to talk to your brother, Yonatan, with excited hand movements, and we won’t see you hugging your sister, Ruthie, the love of your life.

Uri, my beloved. For your entire brief life, we have all learned from you. We learned from the strength and determination to go your own way. To go your own way even if there is no way you could succeed. We followed with amazement your struggle to get into the tank commanders’ course. How you never compromised with your commanders, because you knew you would be a great commander. You were not satisfied to give less than you thought you could. And when you succeeded, I thought, “Here’s a man who knows his own abilities in such a sober and simple way. Here’s a man who has no pretensions or arrogance, who isn’t influenced by what others say about him, whose source of strength is internal.”

From childhood, you were like that. A child who live in harmony with himself and those around him. A child who knew his place and knew that he was loved, who recognized his limitations and strengths. And truly, from the moment you forced the army to make you a commander, it was clear what kind of commander and person you were. We hear today from your comrades and your subordinates about the commander and friend. About the person who got up before everyone else in order to organize everything and who went to sleep only after everyone else had. And yesterday, at midnight, I looked at our house, which was quite a mess after the visits of hundreds of people who came to console us and I said to myself: “Nu, now we need Uri, to help us get everything together.”

You were the leftie of your unit, and you were respected for it, because you stood your ground without giving up even one of your military assignments…. You were a son and a friend to me and to Ema. Our soul is tied to yours. You felt good in yourself, and you were a good person to live with. I cannot even say out loud how much you were “Someone to Run With.” Every furlough you would say: “Dad, let’s talk,” and we would go, usually to a restaurant, and talk. You told me so much, Uri, and I felt proud that I was your confidante.

I won’t say anything now about the war you were killed in. We, our family, have already lost in this war. The state of Israel will have its own reckoning….
Uri was such a quintessential Israeli boy; even his name was very Israeli and so very Hebraic. He was the essence of Israeli-ness as I would want it to be. An Israeli-ness that has almost been forgotten, that is something of a curiosity.

And he was a person so full of values. That word has been so eroded and has become ridiculed in recent years. In our crazy, cruel and cynical world, it’s not ‘cool’ to have values, or to be a humanist, or to be truly sensitive to the suffering of the other, even if that other is your enemy on the battlefield.

However, I learned from Uri that it is both possible and necessary to be all that. We have to guard ourselves, by defending ourselves both physically and morally. We have to guard ourselves from might and simplistic thinking, from the corruption that is in cynicism, from the pollution of the heart and the ill-treatment of humans, which are the biggest curse of those living in a disastrous region like ours. Uri simply had the courage to be himself, always and in all situations — to find his exact voice in every thing he said and did. That’s what guarded him from the pollution and corruption and the diminishing of the soul.

In the night between Saturday and Sunday, at 20 to 3 a.m., our doorbell rang. The person said through the intercom that he was from the army, and I went down to open the door, and I thought to myself — that’s it, life’s over. But five hours later, when Michal and I went into Ruthie’s room to wake her and tell her the terrible news, Ruthie, after first crying, said: “But we will live, right? We will live and trek like before, and I want to continue singing in a choir, and we will continue to laugh like always, and I want to learn to play guitar.”

And we hugged her and told her that we will live.

We will derive our strength from Uri; he had enough for many years to come. Vitality, warmth and love radiated from him strongly, and that will shine on us even if the star that made it has been extinguished. Our love, we had a great honor to live with you. Thank you for every moment that you were ours.

— Father and Mother, Yonatan and Ruthie.

Translated from the original Hebrew by professor William Cutter, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

A Mother’s Pride

A few weeks ago as the school year ended, my daughter stood on the bimah in the chapel of our synagogue and, with four of her fellow fifth-graders, led her Jewish day school’s Monday Tefillah services. Four girls and a boy shared the honor, and their radically varying sizes bespoke the varying growth spurts that characterize this awkward age. Likewise, their maturity and ability to address their classmates ebbed and flowed during their short moments in the spotlight. But what brought that poignant mix of mother’s pride and prejudice home, watching her among her friends in this holy setting, was just how different and alike my Rachel is from the rest. For, even as she blends in beautifully, she cannot help but stand out — my daughter was born Chinese.

Rachel is a Jewish American girl from China. My husband Richard Core and I enrolled her, starting at age 4, in Temple Israel of Hollywood schools full time. Like every other kid there, she has become somewhat fluent in conversational Hebrew, knows the prayers by heart and has learned her Judaica lessons well. She is not the only Asian girl in her school — there are three, all adopted (two from China, one from Vietnam) — and she says she feels no different from anyone else. But among the mix of mostly Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews that make up our community, she adds a special spice. And in her own discreet style, I believe she has helped teach her friends to be colorblind in ways that could last a lifetime.

Rachel will become bat mitzvah in slightly more than two years, and she has been preparing for that moment since pre-school. As a fourth-grader, she read from the Torah at a day school service, and earlier this year, she gave a d’var Torah before the upper grades. I attended both events, of course, and each time I cried.

To see my child leading prayers is a rite of passage that evokes the deepest emotions. I know I would probably cry to see any child of mine connect with the ancient rituals, taking on the mantel of our ancestors, and I am pleased that Rachel embarked upon this path in the safe, exploratory confines of her school. But when I look at Rachel in this context, I think, also, of her divergent origins, of her birth parents whom we likely will never meet, of her own genetic ancestors and their traditions that she carries, within her as well, in ways that are both conscious and not.

It is a gift to share our lives with a child of mixed culture, because nothing is obvious. As we think ahead to her bat mitzvah ceremony, we are thinking of ways of acknowledging Rachel’s special heritage, whether in the food we serve — how bad could a kosher Chinese buffet be? – or the flowers, or maybe a special prayer. We will give thanks for the good fortune that made her part of our family, for the coincidence of adoption possibilities that led us to a foreign land to meet our daughter.

We will remember, too, as we see her accept the responsibilities of becoming a Jewish adult, that she is also becoming a woman of Asian and American heritage, and that whether she wants to or not, throughout her life she will be opening the eyes of those who look upon her. Rachel does not see herself as anything but one of her group, and she’s mostly right in that. But the other day, when I watched her from afar, on the bimah, saying the Shema, I could not help but be reminded of how far we have come from the state-run orphanage filled with loving caregivers in Southern China, where Richard and I met her more than a decade ago.

Keeping Your Head If Your Child Intermarries

When you first learn that your child is — or might be — marrying someone who’s not Jewish, you may not feel like celebrating. This can be a difficult and stressful occasion instead of the joyous one you had hoped for. To help you, here are a series of tips from people whose children have intermarried, as well as from outreach professionals and counselors.

  • When your child first tells you about her engagement, congratulate her and express your love for her. First impressions are very powerful, and if you react coldly to the news, your child may remember your response for a long time.
  • As soon as you have an opportunity, congratulate your child’s partner and express your love for him. This can be a powerful way to welcome your child’s partner into your family.
  • Treat your child as an adult. If he feels that you are speaking to him as one adult to another, and not as an anxious parent to a child, he’ll be more receptive of your opinions.
  • Assume that your child has good judgment. If you think she is ignoring something, don’t tell her. Ask her if she has thought of it. You won’t always agree, but knowing that she and her partner are thinking things through will help. Don’t lecture or be judgmental.
  • Accept your child’s partner for who he is. Pushing people to be different creates resistance to change. People are much more likely to change when they feel respected and accepted.
  • Remember that it’s not your fault. If your child chooses a partner of a different religion; it’s not because you didn’t give her a strong Jewish identity or because she’s rejecting you. She’s choosing a partner of a different religion because she fell in love with the partner, and the partner’s religion — or your parenting — had very little to do with that decision.
  • Learn about the religion and background of your child’s partner. The more you know about where your child’s partner came from, the better you will understand your child’s and his partner’s religious decisions. If you are knowledgeable about your child’s partner’s religion, it’s more likely your child will listen to your perspective. Notice any and all similarities between their values and your Jewish values and discuss these similarities with your child’s fiancee and her family.
  • Let your child know you want to be involved in her life. Ask what her plans are and ask to be included and informed. Be truthful about what you would like, but understand that your wishes won’t always be fulfilled.
  • Be honest about your feelings for Judaism and talk about them. Let your child and her partner hear how Judaism works in your life and why it has an important place for you. Before you discuss what Judaism means to you, it may be helpful to make a list of those Jewish practices and values which are meaningful to you.Once you clarify for yourself where your commitments to the Jewish religion and the Jewish people lie, you are better able to communicate with your children on this important and sensitive subject. Also be honest about your doubts and complaints about Judaism.
  • Invite your child and his partner to share in your holiday observances and celebrations and to accompany you to temple when you go. Invite them to help you prepare for these occasions, thus providing an opportunity to teach about the holidays, their rituals and symbolic foods. You can be an ambassador to Judaism.
  • Celebrate your child and her partner’s efforts to participate in Jewish rituals. Don’t criticize them for not observing the way you do.
  • If possible, invite the family of your child’s partner for a small gathering just before or just after the wedding. Both are good opportunities to share your mutual joy over your children’s wedding.
  • If your child is having an interfaith wedding ceremony, offer to assist with one of the interfaith aspects, like helping them find someone who will create an interfaith ketubbah (marriage contract). This gesture of acceptance can create a lot of good will.
  • Don’t bring up grandchildren immediately. Your child has enough to worry about with planning a wedding, and this may add to the stress level or touch on a sore subject between you and him. However, if your child and his partner have started talking about children, it is OK to offer your input about how you would like them raised. Our children do want to please us and gently explaining your wishes can affect your child’s decisions.

(Compiled by the staff of


Ordinary Child
Dear Rabbi Feinstein: Thank you for your article on “Perfectly Imperfect” (May 5). As educators, we wholeheartedly appreciate your position on making space for the ordinary child.

In our experience as day school educators, we struggle with balancing the parents’ desires for their child’s academic excellence, while supporting each student’s individual capabilities. We make space for our students to be three-dimensional, recognizing their strengths and weaknesses, and encouraging them to stretch where they can.

As you so eloquently say, “God offers a process of repair and renewal and return.” One of the challenges we encounter with perfection is encouraging students to make their next best choice and to reflect on the lessons of their mistakes. As students acknowledge their mistakes and make choices that increase their wisdom, they are making meaning from their experiences that will enhance their lives.

Kedushah and menschlikheit reside very closely in our hearts and in our teachings with both students and parents. We want our students to hear the voices of empathy, generosity and curiosity as they make positive and healthy choices throughout their lives.

Amy Bryman
Cheryl Hersh, Middle School Principal
Inez Tiger, Middle School Counselor Pressman Academy

As a convert to Judaism, it was reassuring to read your series of articles on those like me who chose to become Jews (“Did It Stick?” June 2). As a lapsed Catholic with many Jewish friends growing up on Long Island, early on, I was attracted to the ethics and worldly focus of Judaism. Following a course of study at Temple Emanuel in New York City, I converted in 1967, and my first wife and I raised our three children in the Jewish tradition.

In 1992 on the eve of her bat mitzvah, my youngest daughter asked if I would be bar mitzvahed with her. That glorious day came to pass at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, with Rabbi Harvey Fields observing that in the 130-year history of the temple, there was no record of a father and daughter having a b’nai mitzvah. At the party afterward, when Tessa and I greeted everyone, I said that I had checked around the room, and I was the only person who had had a first holy communion and a bar mitzvah.

In my life in Los Angeles with my wife, Wendy, inspired by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller at UCLA and through my work with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, enriched by interfaith activities, Judaism has strengthened and complimented my struggle for civil liberties, human rights, peace and justice.

Stephen F Rohde
Los Angeles

John Fishel
I read with interest recently your column reported by Marc Ballon, concerning John Fishel (“A Private Man,” May 26). What he left out in his analysis is John Fischel’s relationship with his professional staff.

For me, he was both a role model and a mentor. He provided an opportunity for me to learn a great deal about Jewish communal service, about leadership and dedication to the Jewish people. He was forceful in his ability to set forward a vision for those of us who worked with him concerning his expectations of our performance and his commitment to excellence.

We strived together to work toward a better Los Angeles Jewish community, and we did so under the guiding leadership of a man who dedicated himself toward not only building a stronger Los Angeles community but a stronger Jewish community worldwide.

From these very important core values we took a tremendous amount of inspiration in carrying out our daily activities. He should be commended for all that he has done on behalf of the Jewish community and continues to do.

I know that I would not be in the place that I am today without John Fischel’s interest in who I was, what I wanted to achieve and how I could create a path toward my own professional leadership. I am proud to say that I served for eight years as a senior executive under his tutelage, and that today with his help, I am able to serve as a large city executive in the Jewish community of South Palm Beach County.

William S. Bernstein
Boca Raton, Fla.

[Raphael J.] Sonenshein’s logic and mischaracterizations undermine his arguments (“Israel: Between Iraq and a Hard Place,” May 26). Sonenshein writes, “Wars often start because of such mutual misperceptions.”

The first such misperception that could lead to war is that the Bush administration “might even believe that confrontation [with Iran] would increase their public support.” Yet he also writes that the Bush administration is “capable of taking action with or without public support.”

The second such misperception that could lead to war is that the Iranians “have concluded that the [Bush] administration is so weakened that it can be challenged easily.” This may be true, but it’s not due to the actions of the Bush administration (no matter how incompetent). Rather, it is due to the constant bombardment by the media (including Sonenshein) attacking the Bush administration as being incompetent.

Israel is facing real dangers. The Journal could be a valuable contributor to real solutions by publishing more articles with serious ideas for debate and less articles for Bush-bashing.

Kenny Laitin
Los Angeles

Pearl Foundation
The fact that the Daniel Pearl Foundation is — as stated in your June 2 article (“Quartet of Movies to Tell Pearl’s Story” — trying “to address the root causes of his murder” by promoting “cross-cultural understanding” between the Western and Muslim worlds is very sad. Sad because those of us who haven’t suffered such a loss cannot imagine the grief suffered by Pearl’s parents and how they’re trying to deal with it, and equally sad because people of good will in the Western world still haven’t grasped that one cannot address the “root causes” of jihadist Islam (meaning to make them stop hating and killing Jews and other infidels) by “journalism, music and innovative communication,” any more than Nazism’s desire to slaughter Jews and enslave humanity could have been addressed by such means.

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

In the June 2 issue, “Quartet of Movies to Tell Pearl’s Story,” the Daniel Pearl photo should have been credited to the Daniel Pearl Foundation.

Wandering Jew misquoted Irving Brecher in the story, “A Man for All Seasonings,” by Hank Rosenfeld (June 2). Brecher did not say he loved Langer’s deli “for their double-baked rye” bread. He said he loved the deli for its pastrami. We regret the error.


First Person – Like Any Other Child

By his size and handsome impression, our son, Max, appears to be like any other boy his age, however when you meet him in his wheelchair, you quickly learn that he is severely disabled, both cognitively and physically. He’s unable to talk, use a device to communicate, propel himself or use his hands. You realize that he’s dependent on others in every aspect of his life. Yet, that didn’t stop our family and friends from all over California, our community and Max himself from celebrating his becoming a bar mitzvah. In January, 160 people gathered for a Havdalah service at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes to recognize our son’s turning 13 and to share in the joy and inspiration he has stimulated within each of us.

As my wife, our 9-year-old daughter and I proudly joined Max to sit on the bimah, Rabbi Isaac Jeret and Cantor Sam Radwine conducted a beautiful service filled with tradition. Music, an aliyah, prayers and sensitive words recognized the significance of the evening. With the intent of highlighting the joy of the occasion rather than focusing on the uniqueness of the situation and Max’s disabilities, the service was purposely kept simple and accented with lots of singing. On the bimah, we sat in a semicircle just one step above the congregation. With Max seated between my wife and me, and, with our daughter, the rabbi and the cantor all sitting alongside us; we were so close to family and friends that I felt as if we were at home, in our living room, for a family event. It was a warm, supportive and loving environment that everyone was able to share in, up close and personal. My wife and I, the cantor and the synagogue president each were called for an aliyah. Then, as Max is fortunate to have a 92-year-old great-grandmother, four grandparents, six aunts and uncles and seven first cousins, each was called upon to participate in the Havdalah ceremony. Max’s grandparents held the candle, his cousins held the Kiddush cup and his sister and great-grandmother held the spice box. The support of our families was overwhelming.

Appreciating the sensory stimulation, Max laughed and smiled throughout the 45-minute service. Building on the moment, I shared an interpretation of the relevant Torah portion to speak of how our family has matured from having Max in our lives and experiencing his disabilities. Max has taught us, both figuratively and literally, the value of being kind, doing mitzvot, not taking things for granted, liking people for who they are and recognizing that there is purpose and meaning for everyone in what we do and in everything that happens. I acknowledged that through Max’s disability, he has demonstrated a kind of strength we all need to make the best of situations, to welcome and invite diversity and to appreciate how people, even when they cannot communicate in the ways to which we are accustomed, can enjoy life in different ways.

For me, Max’s bar mitzvah was a very emotional event. It was not just the occasion of his becoming a bar mitzvah that was momentous. It was the feeling and recognition that our son, who doesn’t understand and is not easily included in regular activities and holidays, was being recognized and confirmed. For several years, I had found myself becoming very emotional during bar and bat mitzvahs as the 13-year-old would read from the Torah and recite his or her speech. I couldn’t imagine how we could enable Max to have the opportunity to experience such a crucial life-cycle event. However, about nine months ago (prior to Max’s bar mitzvah), my wife and I had a conversation with Cantor Radwine. We talked about a simple, creative and musical service to recognize Max turning 13. Then, following a discussion with Rabbi Jeret, we decided to have a bar mitzvah; the date was set for a Saturday night when we could all share in the experience of Havdalah. So, there we were, with Max, my wife and daughter on the bimah and I could not have been happier.

As with any bar mitzvah, the service and reception is tailored to child’s abilities and interests. The reception, in the motif of a carnival atmosphere, was dinner with live background music. The theme for the evening, inspired by a Yiddish proverb, was “Each child carries his own blessing into the world.”

“Inclusion” for the disabled has many different meanings. In the broadest sense and as demonstrated in our son’s bar mitzvah, it means to open doors and provide experiences and opportunities for people of all abilities. The value of inclusion is in the pleasure we know the recipient receives. Equally as important, however, is the value that the community experiences from the event — particularly the support we offer one another.

Max’s bar mitzvah celebrated our rich Jewish traditions; recognized Max within the community; reflected on the significance of life, family and friends; and illustrated how, thinking outside the box, we can celebrate life-cycle events with people of all abilities.

Anton Dahlerbruch is deputy city manager of the city of Beverly Hills.


7 Days in The Arts

Saturday, May 13

The beat goes on today at the annual Santa Monica Festival. Head down to participate in a drum circle; hear multicultural music, including a concert by Bucovina Klezmer; and enter the Eco Zone. The city steps up its commitment to environmental responsibility this year, with totally solar powered stages and a host of activities centered on caring for the Earth, including an outdoor adventure challenge course for kids, and a mobile TidePool Cruiser.

11 a.m.-6 p.m. Free. Clover Park, 2600 Ocean Park Blvd., Santa Monica. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt =””>

Sunday, May 14

When a lovely young woman becomes possessed by a dybbuk, it takes a minyan to cast out the demon. In Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Tenth Man,” they only have nine, until they pull a troubled man off the street to help with the Jewish exorcism. But he’s got his own demons. The play opens this weekend at The Skylight Theatre.

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.). $20. 1816 1/2 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. (310) 358-9936.

Monday, May 15

Great American music takes center stage this evening, with a tribute to the works of celebrated lyricist Dorothy Fields. Michael Feinstein, Marvin Hamlisch and others perform “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” a celebration of the life and lyrics of Fields, who wrote the titular hit, and numerous others including “The Way You Look Tonight” and “I’m in the Mood For Love.” A post-performance cast party will follow. The event benefits L.A.’s Center Theatre Group’s discount ticket programs, and is hosted by Corina Villaraigosa.

8 p.m. $200 and $500. 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles. (213) 972-3139.


Tuesday, May 16

S.T.A.R. Sephardic Tradition and Recreation goes big this Lag B’Omer, and invites the community to join in. This evening they’ve rented out the Santa Monica Pier for a citywide Jewish celebration, complete with rides, kosher food and live entertainment.

5-9 p.m. $8. Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica. (818) 782-7359. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt = “”>

Wednesday, May 17

Bring your child — or your inner child — to L.A. Artcore’s exhibition of Ursula Kammer-Fox’s “Play Mates,” on view through May 31. Kammer-Fox has created a number of whimsical sculptures of made-up creatures for this show, and she explains, “I perceive one of life’s demands to be that we escape our prisons. This body of work represents my escape from the prison of constant seriousness, and the esthetics of higher education.”

Noon-5 p.m. (Wed.-Sun.). Free. LA Artcore Center, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles. (213) 617-3274. ” width=”15″ height=”1″alt = “”>

Thursday, May 18

Lauded short story writer Deborah Eisenberg discusses her latest collection, “Twilight of the Superheroes: Stories” on KCRW’s Bookworm program this afternoon. Host Michael Silverblatt will engage Eisenberg more specifically on the subject of writing about the post-Sept. 11 American sensibility.

2:30-3 p.m. KCRW 89.9 FM.

Friday, May 19

Silliness reigns at the Academy tonight, as it presents a special cast and crew reunion and screening of the classic comedy “Airplane!” Writers-directors Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker and actor Robert Hays, among others, are scheduled to attend the discussion. No word on the jive-talking Barbara Billingsley.

8 p.m. $3-$5. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Samuel Goldwyn Theater, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills. (310) 247-3600.

Who Loves You?

A bright and otherwise articulate second-grader was having night terrors. Well after midnight, she’d awaken screaming hysterically something about death. So her parents brought her to see me, the rabbi.

“I know kids, but I’m not a therapist,” I complained.

“But she trusts you,” they responded.

So I agreed to speak to the child and see what I could do.

“Sounds like you’re really scared at night,” I began.

“Yeah,” she agreed, playing with the knickknacks on my desk.

“Did something happen that made you so scared?” I inquired.

“No, nothing really,” she put me off. Then after a pause, “Well, my dog died.”

I jumped on this, “That’s terrible! Your poor dog died. You must be really sad about that.”

“No,” she parried, “he was really old and really sick and really smelly, and I didn’t like him very much.” And then, “But when he died, I started thinking about my grandma who died.”

Having been put off once, I proceeded more carefully, “And what was that like?”

“Well, I was only 3, so I don’t really remember her very well. But I started thinking that if grandma could die, and grandma was mommy’s mother, well, that means mommy could die. And that made me really scared.”

The knickknacks were set aside, and we were both paying attention now. She was such an open and forthright kid, I thought I’d go a bit further: “What do you think about when you’re so scared?”

“Well, you know, if mommy died, who would take care of me?”

“That is scary.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think about at night and that’s why I start crying.”

Of course you’re crying. At age 7, you’ve discovered the single-most-terrifying element of the human condition and your world is no longer so secure and bright. Of course you’re crying. We’ve all cried those tears. But we know something else about being human. And you know it, too.

“Tell me something, who loves you?”

“That’s a silly question … lots of people love me!”

“Like who?”

“Well, mommy and daddy, my grandpa, and my other grandma and grandpa — I call them Nana and Papa, my Uncle Jack — he’s really funny….”

“Wait a second,” I held her back and reached to find a piece of coloring paper and a marker. “Start writing. Make a list of all the people who love you.”

So we started the list again. “Mommy, Daddy, Grandpa, Nana, Papa, Uncle Jack….” Soon the list grew long, including teachers, doctors, babysitters, the lady at the bakery who gave away cookies. Even the rabbi made the list.

“Here’s what I want you to do. Keep this right next to your bed. When you wake up in the middle of the night, and you start thinking those scary thoughts about death, read the list. Read the list of all the people who love you. Read it out loud. Let’s see what happens.”

She read the list every night before bed. And sometimes in the middle of the night. And the night terrors stopped.

This week’s Torah portion gives us the central affirmation of Jewish prayer — “Shema Yisrael.”

Before saying “Shema Yisrael” in the morning, tradition requires that we gather together the tzitzit, the fringes of the tallit. We wrap them around the fingers and hold them close as we affirm our faith.

There are several authoritative interpretations of this custom. But now I have my own, taught to me by this insightful young woman. As we gather the fringes, we gather all those who love us and all those we love into our hands. We gather them into one, as we say the word “echad” — to affirm the oneness that gives us the courage to face all the terrors of being human and continue to live with hope and with faith. The custom is, as well, to elongate the word echad — hold the syllable, ehcaaaaaad — long enough to include them all, all those we love, and all whose love touches us. To feel their collective love is to feel the presence of the One who loves us.

Ed Feinstein is senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and author of “Tough Questions Jews Ask — A Young Adult’s Guide to Building a Jewish Life” (Jewish Lights), which was recognized as a finalist for 2004 Jewish Book Award.


A Mother’s Wish for Her Daughter’s Day

Aaaah, to be a Jewish parent 1,000 years ago. Sure you had to worry about anti-Semites trying to exterminate your people, dying from the flu and wild animals eating your children for lunch, but what a breeze to plan your child’s bar mitzvah. No invitations to send, no DJs to hire, no out-of-towners to house. And, best of all, no agonizing over The Speech.

I’m not talking about your child’s discussion of her Torah portion. After all, your Uncle Harry and Aunt Rose from Florida do not expect a 13-year-old to shed new light on a religious text that has been analyzed by theologians for 2,000 years. I’m talking about your speech to your child — where you have 60 seconds to sum up your feelings about a moment that was 13 years in the making. What makes that speech — The Speech — particularly difficult is that the subject is adulthood, but your 21st-century child is light years from becoming an adult.

Things were different 1,000 years ago. People could legitimately be characterized as “children” or “adults” and age 13 was a logical dividing point: marriages would follow a bar mitzvah by a year or two and life expectancy was relatively short. Today, despite our tradition that sets the 13th year as the start of adulthood, 13 is not the end of childhood or the beginning of adulthood. Instead, it is the start of a new stage — teenager. Neither an adult nor child, a teenager is like Dr. Doolittle’s Push-Me, Pull-You: Sometimes he seems to be pushing toward adulthood, and at other times he is pulling back toward childhood.

Because parents are speaking to a new teenager about an adulthood that is still far away, The Speech is difficult to write. A parent in 1005 C.E. had it easy: “Son, mazal tov on your bar mitzvah. May you marry one of your cousins next year, have a dozen children and take good care of our goatherd. Amen.” What we should say in 2005 is not as clear.

I have given The Speech a lot of thought lately. Not because I am faced with writing one in the short term (my daughter’s bat mitzvah is in October 2007), but because several friends are choreographing bar mitzvahs this year. When they are not agonizing over invitations and caterers, they are stressing out over The Speech.

One friend called to lament that her rabbi suggested that she write a speech that spoke to her “hopes and dreams” for her child.

“What should I say?” she implored.

I suggested some sappy boilerplate that would satisfy her rabbi, the congregants and her child. But after I hung up the telephone, I realized that the clichés I suggested, the ones that we routinely recite to our teenagers at their bar and bat mitzvahs, really don’t represent the anxiety over the teenage years that rests deep inside our parenting souls.

Of course, I won’t embarrass my daughter at her bat mitzvah by sharing the stress that I will surely feel as I watch the sun set on her childhood. I will undoubtedly tell her that my hope for her is that she retain the special spark she demonstrated from the moment of her birth through her 13th year. But, just between you and me, here is The Speech I would like to give to my daughter on Oct. 13, 2007.

The Speech

“When a ‘friend’ offers you your first hit of marijuana, I hope you say: ‘No, thank you. I am not mature enough to try a drug. I plan on trying it just once during my senior year in college after it has been screened by a reputable lab not to contain any dangerous substances.’ But if either curiosity or peer pressure overtakes you and you are inclined to say ‘yes,’ I hope that you are at your friend’s house, and her incredibly responsible parents are upstairs watching TV (very quietly), and you start coughing so hard that the parent’s race downstairs to make sure you are OK. (And you are so mortified at being caught that you never experiment with drugs again.)

“I hope that you don’t attend parties in homes where the person responsible for making the mortgage payments and paying the water bill is in Hawaii.

“I hope you learn early on that the angst endemic to the teenager years is temporary and that your life is full of possibility.

“I hope that you never go through that phase where you are embarrassed to be seen with your parents.

“I hope that you always want me to tuck you in.

“I hope that you never get in a car with someone who has been drinking, doing drugs or has had their driver’s license for less than 10 years.

“I hope that you continue to think tongue piercings are gross, smoking is stupid and Britney Spears doesn’t know how to dress.

“I hope that your middle school girlfriends unanimously decide that back-stabbing each other is cruel, and treat each other like actual friends.

“I hope that you don’t have a boyfriend until you are at least 16, and that he doesn’t have anytime to fool around with you because he is too busy studying (because he wants to get into Harvard), practicing the piano and running in marathons to raise money for worthwhile charities. And when you break up after the prom — because you listened to my advice that you should go to college emotionally free to date other people — I hope that it is you who did the breaking up because I don’t want you to suffer the excruciating pain caused when someone you love dumps you.

“I hope that you are always healthy, are the only teenage girl on the planet to love every inch of her body, and count spinach and oranges among your favorite foods.”

“I hope that everyone who meets you throughout your life loves and respects you as much as I do.


Wendy Jaffe is a freelance writer. She can be reached at

Fourth Bar Mitzvah No Piece of Cake

“Fourth bar mitzvah. This must be easy for you,” my friend Maureen says.

“I’m a loon,” I answer.

“But you’ve already done this three times.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

It doesn’t matter, because I still have to make sure that Danny learns his eight aliyot and his haftarah, writes his d’var Torah, d’var haftarah and personal prayer and fulfills our synagogue’s mitzvah requirements for a Gold Kippah.

It doesn’t matter, because I still have to compile a guest list, pick out invitations, type an address list and deal with delinquent R.S.V.P.s. I still have to find a party venue, decide on decorations, sort through 13 years of photographs for the video montage and order kippot. And I still have to needlepoint a tallit bag and atara (collar) for the tallit.

It doesn’t matter, because each child is different, and each bar mitzvah strikes a different point in our family’s trajectory.

“Every bar mitzvah is the same, and there is none like any other,” Morley Feinstein, our senior rabbi at Los Angeles’ University Synagogue, says.

Seven years ago, with our first bar mitzvah, Larry and I were dealing with a 5-, 7-, 9- and 13-year-old. The biggest challenge was getting the four boys in and out of outfits for the Friday night dinner and service, the Saturday morning bar mitzvah and the evening celebration. And keeping track of 12 pairs of black socks in three different sizes.

Seven years ago, with Danny in kindergarten and Zack just 13, we were bemoaning the loss of our last preschooler and apprehensive about entering the turbulent world of teenagers.

Seven years ago, my father was alive.

Now, Danny can legitimately see a PG-13 movie, and Larry and I qualify for AARP membership. There are no more children, only teens and a post-teen.

“It’s bittersweet,” Larry says.

“No, it bites,” I reply.

And so, refusing to acknowledge this familial tectonic shift, I concentrate on how many tricolor light sticks to order and how to create place cards that resemble bookmarks. I concentrate on buying new towels for the bathroom and new plants for the living room. And I concentrate on finishing the atara.

“I don’t want this bar mitzvah to happen,” I tell Rabbi Feinstein, blinking back tears.

But beyond my distractions and denial, I can see that this rite of passage, which was created in the Middle Ages, has a life and insistence of its own. That this is the natural and ineluctable progression from Danny’s bris, where Larry and I promised to bring him up to a life of Torah and good deeds and, eventually, marriage. And a time when Larry and I will hand down the Torah to our grandchildren.

And beyond my distractions and denial, I can sense something transcendent happening as Danny prepares for his bar mitzvah, which, seemingly contradictorily, celebrates both change and continuity, and which connects Danny to both his ancestors and his descendants.

“What is unique about Judaism is that we mark the beginning of adulthood with acts of learning and acts of loving kindness, rather than some physical activity,” our cantor, Jay Frailich, says.

Indeed, rather than banishing our adolescent to some isolated wilderness, tempting as that sounds, we surround him with family and friends to mark this rite of passage publicly. And with months of preparation, with time to contemplate, question and, in my case, complain, we mark this rite of passage consciously. Danny is not slipping unaware into adolescence, nor Larry and I into immutable middle age.

And so, I begin to think about what I want to say to Danny on the bimah. This child who was born with an innate sense of right and wrong; who can hold his own with three older brothers, actually commanding their respect; who sticks up for other people.

This child who reads sections of three newspapers daily; who loves to debate and watch the Dodgers; who hates George Bush.

This child who became an adamant vegetarian at age 8; who wants to be a litigator, economist or therapist; who loves poker and “Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader”; who is a world-class worrier.

This child who constantly says, “If I weren’t here, you and dad would have a hole in your heart, and you wouldn’t know why.”

But he is here. And he is becoming a bar mitzvah.

Beyond my tears, I am grateful that Judaism gives us the ritualistic framework to stop and take stock of life’s significant transitions.

Beyond my tears, I am grateful for this son who has filled an unknown hole in my heart. And for this family that nourishes and sustains me, and that now can keep track of all their own socks.

Jane Ulman is a freelance writer who lives in Encino with her husband. She has four sons.


Does Autism Offer Special Gifts?

“Identify yourself,” Seth says when meeting someone new. “Oh, my deepest apologies,” he’ll tell you, his curled hand over his heart as he delivers a deep bow, if he thinks he has made some kind of error.

Sometimes his face comes very close to yours to get your attention, telling you something that just cannot wait. “I am Sethman, not Sethy,” he reminds us.

“I am an adult. Live long and prosper,” he continues, using a Spock phrase right out of “Star Trek,” talking out loud using the priestly hand gesture, arm outstretched, reminding himself that his favorite TV characters Spock and Captain Kirk are Jewish. In fact, he tells those around him that they are Jewish.

We call his phrases “Seth-isms.”

It was not that many years ago that if you told someone your child had autism they would tell you their child is artistic, too. No kidding! And what about those well-meaning people who would tell you how God chose your home to place this special soul, knowing that you would love and cherish him or her.

How could we be so lucky?

Today we would submit that Seth is probably the best thing that has ever happened to us … or one of the best things anyway. We never have to worry about him ripping off hubcaps. A stickler for following rules, often profoundly shy (unless he knows you) he runs for the hills if he hears foul language on television. But way back when … make no mistake about it; those early years were a real challenge.

The Seth of today is almost always a joy for us. But he’s still so very different, unique.

Seth has often been told he looks like Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves. That has prompted him to declare that he wants to be an actor. After all, since Ben Affleck and Keanu Reeves are actors, then he should be one, too. That’s logical, isn’t it?

Twice a week he leaves the gates of his transitional program at The Help Group and strolls over to Valley College where he takes an acting class — his favorite thing to do. Popular in his class, he is often used as a straight man. And since Seth can quickly memorize lines and seems to have stage presence, why not become an actor? Stranger things have happened, maybe.

At home you will often see him playing soundtracks from movies while seemingly conducting, using his index fingers for a conductor’s baton.

“I love conducting,” he’ll tell you excitedly.

He’ll pantomime words used by comedians while staring into the mirror, all the time conducting.

Do-gooders might tell you that having a special-needs child is like taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up in Alaska. Hogwash! Taking a vacation to Hawaii and winding up on Mars is more like it — even when you end up treasuring the results.

As we faced those challenges we gained strength from my research into the life of Albert Einstein, a very unusual human being. In 1988, I began to look into his life, having long ago heard about his quirks and thinking what oddities genius reveals. What if Einstein was like this, too? After all, Einstein’s parents had been very worried about him when he was a baby. His head was unusually large (something being studied today as many children with autism are born with unusually large heads). His grandparents thought he was a dolt. He was a late talker, did poorly in school, was a loner, solitary, suffered from major tantrums, had no friends and didn’t like being in crowds.

What if Einstein had some form of autism? After two years of research with Dr. Edward Ritvo, a highly respected child psychiatrist at UCLA who is now retired, I had come to believe Einstein did have autism. Einstein was unusual his entire life. I spoke about Einstein at autism conventions and wrote about him in my last book. If Einstein did have autism and could do what he did in spite of his autism, or, perhaps because of it, what did this mean for others diagnosed with it?

The number of people now diagnosed with autism is staggering, especially in light of the fact that, not long ago, few had even heard the word. About 1.77 million people in the United States or one out of every 33 boys (boys are diagnosed approximately four times more often than girls) or 166 people per 10,000 have autism.

What was a very rare syndrome in the 1960s is pervasive today. And the numbers keep rising.

Have you heard of Sue Rubin?

Sue is a nonverbal young woman in her mid-20s who has autism. Sue, once thought to be “severely retarded,” is nothing of the kind. Through something called Facilitated Communication, a somewhat controversial form of therapy, it was discovered that Sue was brilliant in mathematics. Sue received a hefty scholarship for college and wrote a screenplay in 2004 titled “Autism Is a World.”

What about Ben Golden?

He is a young man in his mid-30s, nonverbal and autistic. He and his family moved to Israel several years ago. Like Sue, Ben also communicates using Facilitated Communication. That is how his family came to understand just how much their son really knew. Today, people come long distances to visit with Ben. He tells them about themselves and gives them guidance. Those who visit with Ben are frequently in awe. He seems to know things about those who come to see him. Psychic? Who knows. But apparently he’s quite gifted, and his essays can be found on the Internet.

Ben, Sue, Seth — a few names of some unique special-needs people. In the grand scheme of things, maybe it is those with special needs and differences who have the answers. Wouldn’t that be something!

Illana Katz, a former staff writer for Jewish Heritage, has written six books, two of which focus on autism.


A Kidney for Chana


Chana Bogatz is 5 years old, and she loves cutting and pasting paper, playing with her brothers and sisters and having “Happy Birthday” sung to her.

In those ways she is a normal child, in other ways, she is not. She has never eaten food through her mouth — only through a feeding tube inserted in her nose. Her hair is long but patchy, and her face is bloated. She is the size of a 3-year-old. She speaks in half-words, not sentences, because she has never been to school, so her vocabulary is underdeveloped. She has spent most of her short life in hospitals. And if she doesn’t find a kidney, she could die.

This month, Chana’s parents, Yehudis and Moredechai Bogatz, launched a citywide appeal to find someone who could donate a kidney to their daughter. Neither of them have the blood type necessary (type O) to make them potential donors, but they are hoping that someone will respond to the “Save Chana” flyers they have hung in shop windows all over the Jewish areas of Los Angeles or the Web site they have set up, and be inspired enough to help Chana.

“If she gets a kidney, she is going to have a normal life,” said Yehudis Bogatz, who moved to the United States from Israel four years ago. “She is a very smart kid even though she has had a lot of complications, [but once she has had the transplant] she will be able to go to school and learn and do things.”

Chana is one of the estimated 60,000 people in the United States waiting for a kidney transplant, and one of 14,313 in the Western states. The need for kidneys has doubled in the past 10 years, according to Dr. Robert Metzger, president of the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. Statistically speaking, two-thirds of those in need will be on the waiting list for two to five years before a matching kidney becomes available on one of the national organ donor databases, like the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). The kidneys registered on these databases generally come from cadavers.

But those wanting to bypass UNOS can attempt to find a living donor. Since a donor’s remaining kidney will perform all kidney functions, there is little risk involved for the donor. There is also a greater chance that the recipient’s body will accept the kidney, because there can be a better tissue match between the living donor and the recipient than there could be between a cadaver and the recipient.

The Bogatzes’ attempt to find Chana a kidney is the latest chapter in her long and difficult medical history. Three weeks after she was born, she was diagnosed with a sole, malfunctioning kidney. She began dialysis when she was 3 months old, but at 10 months, the veins used for dialysis were exhausted and could no longer sustain the treatment. At that point, the Israeli hospitals could do no more for her and, on one day’s notice, the Bogatzes moved with their six children — a seventh has been born since — to Palo Alto, Calif., so that Chana could receive treatment at Stanford Medical Center.

In 2001, she received an infant cadaver donor kidney, which was meant to be a “bridge” until a regular kidney became available. For a short while, the kidney worked, but after a year, it failed and she needed to continue dialysis once again. She was in dialysis for 20 hours a day. But eventually she lost the ability to respond to the dialysis. Last year, the Bogatzes moved to Los Angeles so that Chana could receive treatment at UCLA Medical Center.

Although her life is spent in and out of hospitals, Chana does as best she can. While on dialysis, she takes her scissors and paper and sits quietly amusing herself by cutting. She always pulls up her sleeve to show her doctors her one remaining “good” vein so they can poke it with their needles. She was — and still is — conscious and proud of the feeding tube in her nose, and will run to get either parent to put a new bandage on it if it starts to become loose. She also learned how to adjust the various tubes and catheters going in and out of her body, often surpassing her mother’s knowledge of how to work them.

For the Bogatzes, coping with their daughter’s illness has meant many changes to their lifestyle. In Israel, both Moredechai and Yehudis Bogatz worked as high school teachers. In addition, Yehudis wrote and produced plays for the school she taught at, and wrote a book titled “No Different Than You” (Feldheim) about Yehudis’ sister, Shevi, who died of kidney failure one year before Chana was born.

Both parents have yet to secure gainful employment — Moredechai Bogatz can’t speak English, and even though Yehudis Bogatz did start working as a teacher, the demands on her time ferrying Chana to and from the hospital made regular employment impossible. They live in a two-bedroom house in the Fairfax neighborhood, and rely on the support of organizations like Chai Lifeline and Tomchei Shabbos to meet their needs.

Now the Bogatzes main focus is making a happy home for their children, have them love each other and be proud of Chana. They see the illness as a blessing, and they try to focus and draw strength from positive things.

“When I first heard I had a sick baby, I was crying and crying, but my goal was that my family shouldn’t fall apart,” Yehudis Bogatz said. “So things don’t have to be perfect by me — I don’t care if the house is messy — as long as the kids are happy and Chana is happy, and that we are all together.”

For more information on Chana Bogatz, visit, or call (800) 728-3254. Suitable donors must be between 18 to 45 years old, have type O blood and be in good health. There is no cost to be screened and donor’s medical expenses will be fully covered.


Turning The Pages of Childhood

"Mommy, will you read to me?"

My 10-year-old daughter asks me this question every night. Even if I’m exhausted, or just want some time to myself, I almost always say yes. Before I turn around, she’ll be 11, then 12, then a teenager.

She will no longer need her reading fix with Mommy. "Time will not be ours forever," as Ben Jonson wrote back in 1607, when the printed word was still a new invention. I want to make this time with my daughter last.

My husband and I also have three sons who are older than Yael, which means I have clocked 15 solid years of reading aloud to our children. Because we have worked to instill a love for the written word in them, Yael’s requests to have me read to her make me feel that we have succeeded.

I take special delight in being asked to read to a child who has already read on her own for several years. (And her brothers all did the same thing.) Admittedly, if we allowed them to watch TV or play computer games for hours on end, the children may well have preferred to experience some frenetic galactic explosions on the screen to having me read to them. But we didn’t, and we have been rewarded richly for it. Over the years we have enjoyed countless delicious reading experiences together: Roald Dahl’s magical "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"; E.B. White’s timelessly charming "Charlotte’s Web"; Beverly Cleary’s series about the irrepressible Ramona and Henry Huggins; and so many more.

I also take particular delight in reading to my children when they are already independent readers because I missed this kind of quiet growing up. Memories of my childhood are filled with the theme song to "Bonanza" bouncing out from one bedroom where my father watched, competing with the canned laugh track of "The Odd Couple" in the den, where my Mom and I watched. We watched others live imaginary lives more than we talked about our own real ones, and sat passively more than we engaged with one another.

I’m secretly happy that my kids complain — not about wanting to watch TV — but about a lack of books in the house. This, despite the groaning weight of books, often double-stacked, on every inch of bookshelf space we have in every room in the house. Their reading appetites are insatiable. Even when I read to Yael, one or two of her older brothers sometimes drift in to the room and take a seat. After all, who could resist this exchange between Charlotte and Wilbur — no doubt the most endearing spider and pig to ever grace the pages of a children’s book:

"Why did you do all this for me?" Wilbur asked. "I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you."

"You have been my friend," Charlotte replied. That in itself is a tremendous thing. I wove my webs for you because I liked you. After all, what’s a life, anyway? We’re born, we live a little while, we die. A spider’s life can’t help being something of a mess, with all this trapping and eating flies. By helping you, perhaps I was trying to lift up my life a trifle. Heaven knows anyone’s life can stand a little of that."

Who could ever tire of reading exquisite children’s writing like this, with elegant philosophy thrown in?

My husband and I may have fostered our kids’ love of the written word by reading to them when they were small, but they have continued to develop the passion on their own. Sure, it may partly owe to a Nintendo-deprived existence, but so what? In learning to love to read, they have also learned to love learning for its own sake. They have made this gift their own, and it will enhance their lives for as long as God grants them time on this earth.

As much as their reading thrills me, sometimes, even I have to pry their faces out from behind of a book. Even reading, taken to extremes, can become an isolating activity. I can’t always stop them from reading in the car, under the kitchen table, in the bathroom and, of course, under the blanket late at night, but there are a lot worse problems a parent can have.

When our kids are all grown up, I hope that their memories of our reading together, snuggling on the couch or in bed, will be among the most meaningful of their childhoods. I know that they already are for me. If I’m lucky, Yael will continue to ask me to read to her for many chapters yet to come.

Judy Gruen is an award-winning humorist and columnist for Religion News
Service. More of her columns can be found at

Give Your Kid a Hug — a Paper One

Open your lunch box. Peek inside. Surprise! Mom scribbled you a note and drew you a little picture showing you she cares.

As a little girl, Michelle Krouss used to open her brown paper bag to find a little note with a smiley face from her mother, brightening up her day. Now the Jewish mother of two, Krouss created Paper-Hugs, a napkin decorating kit complete with soy crayons and fun stickers for parents who want to start the tradition with their kids.

“Parents work really hard today,” Krouss said. “This is a nice way for parents to connect in the middle of the day, giving their child a hug when they are not with them.”

When her son was in preschool and had a hard time separating from his mommy, Krouss remembers buying generic stickers and decorating napkins for her son to take to school. The comforting notes eased the separation, and that’s when she decided to develop Paper-Hugs for other parents.

Krouss created the concept and recruited her partner, Susan Conwiser, to handle the financials.

Working with a graphic designer, they fashioned creative stickers with messages and notes like, “We’re having your favorite tonight” and “You mean the world to me.” The sticker booklet also has words of encouragement and reminders like, “Good luck on your test” and “Return library book.”

The kit includes 40 bordered napkins, three crayons and 80 colorful stickers to personalize and send along with your kids a few times a week for up to three months.

With the school kit taking off, Krouss and Conwiser are in the process of developing decorating kits for grandparents and a camp kit for summers.

Krouss’ son, now 9, still gets a Paper-Hug in his lunch box a few times a week. “Don’t do it everyday,” warned his mother, “that way, they are not expecting it.”

Not embarrassed by his mother’s love, her son will read them and tuck them back into his bag and bring it home to mom. “He’ll throw away everything but that napkin,” Krouss said, “and that means a lot.”

With Mother’s Day coming up, a Paper-Hug kit makes a great gift for mom from the younger kids in the family. “It’s different. It’s not a piece of jewelry; it’s something you are giving back to your child,” Krouss said.

Paper-Hugs. $12.95. For purchase and/or more
information, go to

Donor Pool Swim

Few days have haunted me like April 15, 2002. It was the day Time magazine screamed out from its cover that women cannot have it all.

Like a slap to the face, the writer reported that the biological odds are against getting pregnant after 35 and that stories of women conceiving into their 40s are anomalies, and nothing more.

I was approaching 33 and panicked. My biggest fear was becoming one of those women who troll the Bay Area’s Jewish singles scene, frantically searching for a husband. So I visited my doctor.

Dr. Silvia Yuen strode into her Sutter Street examination room.

"How are you today?" she asked.

"OK," I began, "but I read that Time magazine article."


"Yeah, so what I’d like to do is freeze some of my eggs."

I wanted insurance that my biological clock wouldn’t blur my dating judgment. Putting eggs on layaway would take off the pressure, I told her.

She offered me a fertility clinic brochure, but cautioned that while the freezing and thawing out of sperm had been perfected, the science wasn’t yet there for women and their eggs. Frozen embryos were the best bet, she said, but they’d require committing to a sperm — a step I wasn’t ready to take.

But the discussion got me thinking. How is a woman supposed to choose the right man when he’s reduced to a Petri dish?

My good friend, I’ll call her Beth, had to find out. After trying to get pregnant for more than a year, she and her husband learned that he’s shooting blanks. They mulled over their options and turned to California Cryobank (CCB), the mothership of sperm banks. Around for more than 25 years, CCB is spreading its seeds in all 50 states and at least 30 countries worldwide.

Agreeing on a donor was trying, Beth admitted: "We thought we’d found the perfect one, but when we pulled up his baby photo, he looked like a frog!"

Then there were those her husband rejected.

"I found one who was great, but he said he was too tall," she said. "I’m thinking about the best donor to help us have a child, and he views the sperm as competition."

Beth waved me over to her computer, selected a file named "Little Swimmers," and introduced me to their chosen sperm: Donor 5378.

I asked how she honed in on 5378, and she navigated to the donor catalog. Up top it read, "Click here to view our list of donors with at least one Jewish ancestor."

There were only 13 choices, and 5378 was off the menu, sold out.

Later, I called CCB. I wanted to know about the demand for Jewish sperm, why there’d been such a run on 5378.

"People choose on all different criteria," said Marla Eby, vice president of marketing. "It’s almost the same as what they encounter when looking for a mate."

High demand for Jewish donors, she said, prompted CCB to create the special search field Beth had used.

But how Jewish can a sperm be? I appreciate wanting a compatible gene pool, but it’s not like the little swimmer comes equipped with Torah knowledge or understanding of Jewish mothers and good deli. If halacha says a baby born to a Jewish woman is Jewish, does the donor’s background matter?

For Beth and her husband, it did.

"The spirituality and values of the Jewish culture is so much of who I am and who [he] is," she said. "Knowing that the sperm was Jewish … made us feel like we were connected."

This approach is common for Reform Jews like Beth, said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, chair of bioethics at the University of Judaism. But in the Orthodox community, he said, the opposite is true.

Based on a 1950s decision by Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, non-Jewish donors are recommended to prevent incest and to protect against Jewish genetic diseases.

Beth felt safe knowing sperm at CCB is genetically screened.

I caught up with Dr. Cappy Rothmann, the co-founder and medical director of CCB, to see what he made of my sperm-shopping query.

"I don’t understand. I just try to help the best I can."

He asked about my interest in this topic, and I admitted my age. Before saying goodbye, he offered, "Next time you’re in L.A., come see me."

I hung up the phone, hoping I’d never have to.

Jessica Ravitz is working on her master’s degree in journalism at UC
Berkeley. Her e-mail address is

Funding Our Jewish Future

Imagine a world in which every newborn child receives a voucher toward early childhood Jewish education and a free trip to Israel.

That’s what philanthropist Michael Steinhardt asked 4,000 delegates to the North American Jewish federation system’s General Assembly to consider earlier this month.

The "Newborn Gift" would be part of an overall investment in strengthening Jewish education that Steinhardt is proposing. He told delegates that he was willing to contribute $10 million to the project, which he called the Fund for Our Jewish Future — on condition that his contribution represent no more than 10 percent of the total fund.

In other words, the former Wall Street tycoon was challenging the audience to raise at least $90 million for Jewish education in the Diaspora.

Many in the room found Steinhardt’s speech groundbreaking — and highly relevant.

Chip Koplin of Macon, Ga., said the speech gave him the chills. Koplin said that of all his experiences at this year’s General Assembly — his first time in Israel — Steinhardt’s speech "is going to have the most profound effect on me."

"As an American challenged with the struggles of a small, Southern Jewish community" trying to sustain Jewish identity, Koplin said he could relate to the speech.

The speech came as federations struggle to fund their local and overseas needs amid flat campaigns. Still, federation leaders didn’t appear to worry that Steinhardt’s appeal would undermine their own efforts.

"He made the speech to a convention of North American federations, so clearly he is looking" to partner with them, said Jacob Solomon, executive vice president of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. In fact, the federation system encourages such visionary ideas, Solomon said.

Steinhardt said the proposal is a response to decreasing Jewish identification among non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews.

Steinhardt mustered a litany of statistics to prove his point. Some 49 percent of American Jews identify as secular; only 20 percent give to Jewish causes, down from a post-World War II period when half the community gave to Jewish causes; and the number of American Jews is dwindling, according to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, Steinhardt said.

"This part of the Diaspora community — its majority — is in crisis," Steinhardt said. While most Jewish activists focus on threats to Israel, in some respects the Diaspora is "far more vulnerable," he said.

"We don’t know enough about our religion to take true pride in it. We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," Steinhardt said.

He also bemoaned what he called a glaring lack of Jewish leadership and innovative ideas.

By contrast, he pointed to the birthright israel program, which offers free trips to 18-26-year-olds who have never been on a peer trip to Israel. Steinhardt is one of the program’s major funders.

"Birthright has been nothing less than a transformation in Jewish life," he said. However, "the future of the program is tenuous — not because there are no young people who want to partake of this venture," but "simply because there’s not enough money to pay for them."

While the federation system raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the Israel Emergency Campaign, it has difficulty raising "a fraction of that amount" for birthright, Steinhardt said.

Steinhardt called for a "Jewish renaissance for our young people." He said his agenda would focus on the "centrality of Israel for the Jewish soul," the "pre-eminence of Jewish peoplehood," encouragement of vibrant rabbis, the principle of charity and the "imperative of a Jewish education."

"Our survival depends on the next generation being educated," Steinhardt said.

The audience, which buzzed with electrified chatter after the speech, seemed to feel the same way. Many rushed the stage to shake Steinhardt’s hand.

Passing out flyers outside the auditorium, Jewish students stated that they would raise $500,000 for Steinhardt’s proposed fund.

Federation leaders largely praised the initiative but noted that the challenge is significant. They rejected the idea that the appeal might undermine their own fund-raising efforts.

Robert Schrayer, vice chairman of the United Jewish Communities, the federation umbrella organization, sounded a note of optimism.

"Can he do it? Yeah, I think there’s a large amount of money available in the American Jewish community for a cause like this," Schrayer said.

John Ruskay, executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, praised the effort but took a wait-and-see approach.

"We need to have more details" on what such a plan would entail before commenting on its chances for success, Ruskay said.

As far as Steinhardt is concerned, the project is an imperative.

"The Jewish future of our children" is at stake, he said. "We owe our children nothing less."

Part-Time Work, Full-Time Families

Around the time Sally Priesand was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Conservative women began to press the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) to ordain women. In contrast to the matter-of-factness with which Priesand’s ordination took place, the ordination of women in the Conservative movement was accomplished only with a certain amount of kicking and screaming on the part of some JTS faculty and members of the denomination’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA). It took more than a dozen years from the first manifesto of Conservative women demanding equal status in the synagogue in the early 1970s to Amy Eilberg’s ordination in 1985.

Women form slightly more than 11 percent of the RA’s membership today, with both JTS and the University of Judaism (UJ) ordaining them as rabbis. They’ve had some of the same effect on the Conservative rabbinate that Reform women have had on theirs, though in some ways, Conservative Judaism has some serious catching up to do.

"The decision to work part time is not encouraged and not understood in the Jewish community," said Nina Bieber Feinstein, who in 1986 became the second woman to be ordained at JTS. She noted that the RA did not list part-time jobs in its newsletter until recently, and then only for the East Coast.

"I’ve been paying dues to the Rabbinical Assembly every month, and I’ve never received an iota of help," Feinstein said. "Every time I find a job, it’s on my own or through networking."

Feinstein, a mother of three whose eldest child was born before she was ordained, has never worked full time or held a pulpit at a mainstream synagogue; she’s currently associate rabbi at Beit T’Shuvah, the Westside congregation for Jews in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse, working three days a week.

She and her husband, Ed, associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, decided early on that his would be the dominant career. The decision to stay with part-time work "has been one of the banes of my career, though it’s been good for my children," Feinstein said. "At least for myself, I know I made the right decision."

As in Reform circles, female rabbinical students and rabbis are seen as civilizing forces.

"I think women rabbis have had a profound effect on the demystification and democratization of the congregational perception of the rabbinate," said Tracee Rosen, a former rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and current rabbi of Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, who was ordained at UJ three years ago. "My own experience was that we also had an effect of reducing the testosterone-laden competitiveness of classes in the seminaries."

Sherre Zwelling Hirsch, a Conservative rabbi ordained in 1998 who serves Sinai Temple in Westwood, remembered a prayer vigil held at JTS after an accident injured students at the school. During the event, she recalled, a male rabbi told her, "If there weren’t women here, this would never have happened."

Issues of balance between work and family life are present in the Conservative movement as well and are carrying over to men, with large Conservative synagogues having trouble filling pulpits.

"Traditionally, male rabbis gained status based on synagogue size: the bigger your shul, the more important rabbi you were," Rosen said.

"Now, I think there’s more of a realization … that for many of us, there are some positions that aren’t worth the personal sacrifices, no matter how much money they are willing to pay."

Mark Diamond, who administers the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, notes that the Conservative movement has yet to see a woman at the helm of a major congregation, though the first women were eligible for such jobs 10 years ago. Conservative Judaism eventually will view women rabbis as leaders, he said, "but it’s a very slow process."

Hirsch, the mother of a infant son who said she’s frequently called about positions that would represent steps up the career ladder, is more upbeat, saying that women will break through the glass ceiling and eventually lead large congregations. Male Conservative rabbis "want women to ascend; they know it’s deeply important to the Conservative future," she said. Conservative congregations are "not exactly where I want them to be," Hirsch said, "but they’re a long way from where they were."

Mind, Body and Soul

What do women want? Happiness, family and to shed those last 10 pounds. Women can learn how to accomplish all this and more at an educational conference produced by women and designed to meet the needs and wants of women.

"Exercising Your Mind; Minding Your Body," the fourth annual Women’s Community Conference, offers Southern California women a unique learning experience. A joint effort of the Hadassah Southern California Northern Area and the University of Judaism (UJ) department of continuing education, the daylong event on Sunday, March 10, aims to expand women’s spiritual and physical knowledge. Speakers, ranging from UCLA professors and Los Angeles-area rabbis to pediatricians and clinical psychologists, will tackle topics such as "The Women’s Revolution in Judaism," "What Color Is Your Diet?" and "Families and Other Unusual Life Forms."

"We want to explore health and spiritual topics that are meaningful to today’s Southern California women," said Roz Kantor, Northern Area chairperson. The conference is for women of all ages, from all Jewish movements and also non-Jewish women.

The more than 5,000 Hadassah Southern California Northern Area group members range from newlyweds in their late 20s to grandmothers in their late 80s. To accommodate the interests of all the women, the conference will present insights into all stages of a woman’s life. A new mother may be interested in seminars like "Using the Jewish Tradition to Raise Caring Kids" and "The Challenge of Raising a Challenged Child," while a mother of grown children may be drawn to "Midlife Challenges Not Midlife Crises" and "This Can’t Possibly Be My Life."

The conference not only will explore the different stages of a woman’s life, but also the different elements. Seminars will cover a woman’s mind, body and soul.

"We have something for everyone. Talks on diet and nutrition, women of the Torah, Israeli politics, stem cell research and even herbal medicine," said Debbie Kessler, the Women’s Community Conference co-chair. "Since its inception four years ago, the conference has aimed to educate women on multiple aspects of their lives."

The international Hadassah organization, over 300,000 strong, started as a women’s study group in 1912 and contributes much of its funds to Jerusalem’s Hadassah College of Technology. And so, the leaders of the Northern Area Chapter, felt it only appropriate to create an event dedicated to self-education.

"Since education is a cornerstone of our organization, it seemed fitting to start an educational day — a day for women to come together and learn," Kantor said.

To further enhance the day’s educational component, Hadassah invited the UJ to co-sponsor the event. "UJ is a renown Jewish educational institution right here in our area, and it made sense to join forces with them," Kantor said.

The UJ also saw the cooperation as an easy match. "Our mission is to provide a multitude of opportunities that enrich the lives of various segments of the population. To work with a group such as Hadassah was not only a pleasure, but a true fulfillment of this mission," said Gady Levy, UJ continuing education dean.

Levy emphasized the university’s excitement over the joint venture. "The conference provides our community with such a meaningful day of education, and the caliber of this program is something we’re very proud of," Levy said.

The UJ not only lends the conference academic prowess, but physical facilities. In past years, the conference was limited to 175 attendees, but this year’s university campus venue enables the conference to increase to 300 participants. "The event just keeps getting better and bigger. We have so many women who return every year, and now we can accommodate both returning and first-time attendees," Kessler said.

The 300 women will begin their day with a kosher continental breakfast, attend one of four morning seminars, have a kosher box lunch and then choose one of four afternoon seminars. The conference also features three keynote speakers (at the start, middle and end of the day), as well as a book sale and signing.

"Hadassah is a dynamic, 90-year-young organization, and we welcome and encourage all women to come to the conference and be a part of us," Kantor said.

The conference will run from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel-Air, and is open to everyone.

Registration is $40. Same day walk-up attendees may attend on a space-available basis, and sign-language interpreters will be provided. For more information, contact Hadassah Southern California Northern Area at (818)783-3488.

Bundles of Joy

The stork has been awfully busy lately.

It seems as though everyone I know is having a baby. A couple I haven’t heard from in months sent a postcard with a picture of what I thought was a Sharpei puppy — it turns out the little boy’s name is Jesse. I didn’t even know they were expecting.

Of course, in the bargain, I’ve lost all my friends. They’re no fun any more. They’re very busy doing not very much. They can’t go anywhere, especially if they’ve got more than one child. When they do get out of the house it’s all they can talk about and, honestly, there isn’t that much to say about a little baby. You see these people with the 1,000-yard stare at Blockbuster, returning the overdue videos they haven’t had time to watch, despite the fact they’ve been home every night for months.

I’ve been to visit a lot of these babies. I don’t understand how The Gap can be in a sales slump with all the baby gifts I’m buying. If you’re not one of the parents, there’s not much for you to do. You look the kid over, rain praise on its incredible good looks, hold it long enough until it emits some vile fluid or hurts itself, and then you hand it back to its owner to mop up. It’s like a slow, sloppy game of “hot potato.”

A visit to a newborn should take an hour at most, by the end of which time you will have determined if the child looks more like the mother, the father, Winston Churchill or Lyndon Johnson. That important business concluded, you’re free to leave these people behind and do whatever you want. Going to “see the baby” is a lot like going to see a convicted felon.

I have a single friend named Gina, who is determined to have a child in the next year. Gina has also decided that she doesn’t need a man’s help in getting the job done. Not much, anyway. She’s come to the conclusion that, at age 35 with no “significant other” in her life, she’ll get the baby thing out of her system so she can get on with her life. She doesn’t want the pressure of having to rope some guy, get married and then hurry up to have a child. She reasons that men run from the scent of desperation, and maybe she’s right. You might argue that two parents are better than one, but where’s poppa when you need him? She’s got a gay donor-daddy and an eminent fertility doctor — and they’ll do just as well in a pinch.

I’ve heard stories from the old days about young women getting pregnant and leaving town, going to stay with a relative until the baby was born. There was a time when being a single mother was a shonda. Not now. At some point, having the fellow around is basically a nuisance. Meanwhile, Gina’s family has rallied around her with unbridled support, beaming grandparents-to-be waiting for the fatherless child.

So here’s the rub: I want a child. My biological daddy clock is happily ticking away with no sign of wearing out. The warranty is still good for another several years, but suddenly the snooze alarm is broken. I’m not exactly hanging around schoolyards getting all misty, but the idea is getting more and more appealing to me. I’d prefer one that already walks and talks, but I understand they don’t come that way direct from the factory.

Now I want diapers and runny noses and little, bitty clothes and brightly colored toys and big books by Dr. Seuss and one of those walker things in the kitchen. I want to get woken up at ungodly hours and struggle with a baby seat, and I want to call a pediatrician “just to be safe.” I also want my friends back. None of their behavior will seem nearly as odd when I’m in the same boat with them.

Incredibly, it seems, I’m going to have to get a woman involved somewhere in the process. I feel like Frank Sinatra in my best pressed tweeds: All I really need is the girl.

J.D. Smith is expecting @

Leading With His Left

Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman’s art-filled home on a quiet, verdant Brentwood street is a world away from the gritty industrial world in which he lived as a child during the Depression and again as a young man on the cusp of World War II. But it’s his experiences in that world of assembly-line workers that led him to the rabbinate and to his 52 years in Los Angeles.

Leo Baeck Temple will honor the man who became its first full-time rabbi in 1949 at Friday night services May 4, celebrating Beerman’s 80 years of life and his boundless commitment to social justice and liberal Judaism.

"We grew up together," Beerman said of the Reform synagogue, which had been founded the year before he arrived, newly ordained, from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It was the only congregation he served during the 37 years before his retirement in 1986.

Beerman was outspoken on issues such as civil rights, workers’ rights, the war in Vietnam and Mideast conflict. "Our synagogue became known as a place where these issues were engaged and openly discussed," inviting speakers that included Daniel Ellsberg and Cesar Chavez, Beerman said.

Under his leadership, the temple radiated "a wholesome atmosphere of ideas," he said. "Not everyone agreed with my views, but I think we established a relationship of basic trust."

"He was speaking against the Vietnam War before I even knew what the Vietnam War was," said John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up at Leo Baeck. When Rosove took positions that could be controversial, he said, "I knew [Rabbi Beerman] had stuck his neck out long before I did."

Beerman said his Jewish identity was "nurtured by my experiences, being a child of the Depression, seeing my father cut down by the Depression." He was also a witness to the struggle of local workers to unionize and improve their lot in life, and he came to see being a Jew as carrying a responsibility "to enhance life for the least of God’s children as well as the greatest."

Beerman spent most of his childhood in Owosso, Mich., about 20 miles west of Flint; his was one of seven Jewish families in town. Owosso had an active Ku Klux Klan — black folks couldn’t stay in town overnight — and, growing up, Beerman heard the occasional anti-Jewish epithet or remark.

But, he said, "growing up in a small town was a magical experience…. You felt yourself embraced, part of a definable community."

In 1941, several months before Pearl Harbor, Beerman took a break from his studies at Pennsylvania State University and returned to Michigan to work in an auto-parts factory that had been retooled to produce machine guns. That’s where he met up with a more virulent anti-Semitism: Some co-workers with whom he’d become friends dropped him when he mentioned that he was Jewish, and as word got out, other workers picked fights with him. "It was the experience of anti-Semitism that prompted me to think about the rabbinate as a place for me, because [prejudice] deprived me of this circle of friends," Beerman said in a television interview.

Curious about what caused hatred against Jews, Beerman began to read through the books on Jewish history and philosophy in the local public library; this research, in turn, sparked a desire for more formal Jewish study.

The current situation in Israel causes him great pain. "I’ve been accused of being overly sensitive to the rights of the Palestinians, [but] I have always believed that Israel accepted a basic contract, and the basic condition of that contract was that this land was meant to be shared," he said, calling Israel’s occupation of the disputed territories "destructive of the values that had gone into the making of Israel."

Nor does he sound particularly optimistic about how the conflicts will be resolved. "It’s tragic what these two peoples feel compelled to do to one another," he said. "It brings out the worst excesses of nationalist thinking on both sides. The only thing to hope for is that something is happening that none of us knows about."

But only an optimist signs up for as many causes as Beerman does. He’s involved with Jewish and interfaith organizations opposing the death penalty and supporting sweatshop workers, the anti-nuclear movement, medical ethics — and peace in the Middle East. He protested the Persian Gulf War and has fought for affordable housing and protection for the homeless.

Sanford Ragins, who was Beerman’s associate rabbi during the tumultuous 1960s and is now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck, told The Journal that Beerman’s passions informed Ragins’ own activism. "He knew Judaism was not something you kept locked up in the ark," Ragins said.

"At an early age, I remember being spellbound by his sermonizing," said Rabbi Carla Howard, who grew up at Leo Baeck and currently serves Metivta, a Jewish contemplative center on the Westside. "I was coming of age in the late ’60s, in the middle of this cultural explosion of values, and he was a voice that helped shape my values."

Beerman has known tragedy during his later years, having lost his first wife just after his retirement and an 8-year-old granddaughter to a sudden, undiagnosed ailment. But he says he looks forward to each new day with his second wife, Joan, and his children and grandchildren, with whom he regularly shares Shabbat.

And he still inspires congregations. "He is a rabbi’s rabbi," Rosove said. "[Listeners] melt under his words, even when they don’t agree with everything he says, because he speaks from a deep, prophetic place."

Leo Baeck Temple will honor Rabbi Leonard Beerman at services May 4, 7:30 p.m., 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.

Child’s Play

Walk down Main Street and you’ll find an international corner market teeming with ethnic delights. Ring the doorbell on the house next door and you’ll find yourself invited into a cozy Jewish home — family pictures and menorah on the shelves; Shabbat candles and a tzedakah box atop the dresser. Further down the block is Bubbe’s Bookstore, filled with children’s books and a puppet theater. For spiritual nourishment, there’s the synagogue down the block. And if you’re hungry for nourishment of a more literal kind, across the street stands the Blue Bagel Cafe, where you can chow down some lunch — falafel, pizza, even some sushi. Or, hey, take it to go and picnic underneath the giant oak tree down the street.

What’s incredible about this Jewish-themed boulevard is that it is not located in the Fairfax District or the Pico-Robertson area, but indoors at the Zimmer Children’s Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. And it’s all pretend, built to scale for your kids.

The detail is meticulous. For example, inside the Blue Bagel, a restaurant atmosphere is simulated down to the autographed pictures lining the white wall (in this case, children’s entertainers Craig Taubman, the Alef Bet puppets, etc.).

Since the museum (formerly My Jewish Discovery Place Children’s Museum) opened nearly a decade ago, both museum executive director Esther Netter and director Sherri Kadovitz have been instrumental in shaping its vision. Over time, it has switched venues and steadily expanded to suit community demand, from 600 square feet to 2,300 square feet to its current two-tiered 10,000-square-foot area inside The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ 6505 Wilshire headquarters. The museum’s latest and greatest incarnation was made possible by a $2 million grant from the Max and Pauline Zimmer Family Foundation, as well as support from other donors.

Child-friendly environments aside, the museum has also housed wonderful memories over the years. Kadovitz literally cried on the phone as she recalled, “I’ve had a wonderful opportunity in the [past] 10 years to meet a lot of people and to be exposed to new people, and that has totally filled my life. That’s really special to me. It’s really changed in scope. Apart from the size, I’ve been given such a creative license to bring exhibits to life, to make people aware of Ethiopian culture, Yiddish culture.”

As Netter showed a visitor around the museum, she was excited about the new facilities. At the Mann Theater, with a variety of costumes and backdrops, a child can play superhero or pretend to be an immigrant passing through Ellis Island or a cruise passenger aboard Noah’s Ark. And then there is the Giant Tzedakah Pinball. It took four people to build this behemoth — a Pachinko-style contraption, adorned with colorful zig-zags of neon, that is so large it scales both floors. The three puck-like discs that trickle down the pinball machine’s obstacle course bear the face of a coin, a timepiece and a mirrored surface — symbolizing the three ways one can give back to the community: contributing money, time and yourself. Discs fall into categories slugged “clothing the homeless” and “saving the environment.”

The idea, Netter said, is to underscore that “being part of a community comes with the responsibility of taking care of each other.”

The Journal recently reported on the museum’s YouTHink program, co-sponsored by the Center for American Studies and Culture. Netter is very proud of this program, and at the student art space — which changes quarterly — artwork examines some themes YouTHink tackles: drug abuse, divorce, racial tolerance.

Netter said she views the museum as “a magical way to teach children and families Jewish values. The way it’s grown has been perfect. We started out small and mastered that level. Now we’re ready to grow.”

That growth means that there is no time for Netter and the museum’s board of directors to rest on their laurels. They are currently working on fundraising strategies to maintain the museum and keep its components fresh and innovative. Part of the plan is to keep the museum organic and improve the exhibits based on community feedback. One upcoming exhibit that has The Jewish Journal giddy is a section of Main Street, due in April, that will recreate our offices and allow children to simulate putting out a community newspaper. Computers will allow children to print up their own front-page headlines and contribute ideas to The Journal.

Jean Friedman, a founding chairperson, believes the museum will benefit people outside the community as much as those within it.

“We are an outreach to the non-Jewish community to demystify what a Jew is,” said Friedman, who found it important to make the museum accessible and relevant on different levels.

“I was very interested in connecting every exhibit that we had with a value and a meaning, not just entertaining but educational, with content of lasting value,” Friedman said.

As for Kadovitz, she is looking forward to watching the museum flourish. “Just to see the joy on the kids’ faces when they come through — that to me is one of the most special parts of this museum,” she said.

The new Zimmer Children’s Museum is already off to a great start. School-group visits have been booked through the summer, and birthday parties are already scheduled for next year. On Sun., Feb. 4, the museum will throw a community-wide opening free to the public, and in the weeks to come will host a diversity of Jewish-themed, family-oriented programs and workshops. Sure, the opening will show off the brand-new facilities, but for Netter and staff, there’s another dimension to the festivities — a feeling that the museum, after several venue changes, has finally arrived.

“We’re home,” Netter said softly. “We’re finally home.”

The Zimmer Children’s Museum of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles will hold its grand opening on Sun., Feb. 4, from 12-5 p.m. For more information on the opening, contact Sherri Kadovitz at (323) 761-8991; for general information such as directions and museum hours, call (323) 761-8989.

Changing Lives, Making Peace

Illustration from “Painting with Passion,” 1994. Photo-illustration by Carvin Knowles

Losing My Religion

Dear Deborah,

My husband and I have decided to get a divorce, and we have amicably worked everything out — finances, custody, etc. What has become acrimonious and ugly are our religious differences in raising our child, age 5. I am Jewish, and my husband is Christian, but neither of us ever took religion seriously until we had our child. We used to think that when the child got old enough, he would decide for himself.

How do we do this? We are fighting all the time. Can you tell us who, other than our attorneys, can impartially guide us. We each want the child to follow our own faith. Help!


Dear Struggling,

One cannot be a Jew on Saturdays and Yom Kippur, and a Christian on Sundays and Christmas. Yet this is undoubtedly how it will play for your son after the divorce. So, although a mediator, family counselor or both may be able to “impartially” guide you, no matter what is decided, odds are that no one will be satisfied with the outcome because this is a question of fundamental identity and values, which, unlike time or money, may not simply be sliced in half. No one is going to win this one, but if you make this a contest, the biggest loser will be your son.

Place the focus upon your child, who is about to suffer a great loss and be forced to endure some difficult changes. The question is not about whether he will be Jewish or Christian, but, rather, how both parents may provide religious environments that are warm, informative and, above all, respectful enough to not engender turmoil, guilt or confusion.

Perhaps the simple truth is best for now: “Mom is Jewish, and Dad is Christian. You will learn a great deal about both religions as you grow up in each of our homes. When you are an adult, you will decide upon your religion, and we both will respect whatever you choose.” In other words, you probably have no choice but to