Sepulveda Pass class


When he greets students next month who have enrolled in his four-session class “The Sepulveda Pass: From Creation to Carmaggedon,” instructor and historian Erik Greenberg will be returning to familiar territory. 

Geographically speaking, so will his students. From their classroom at the Skirball Cultural Center, Greenberg and his pupils will be learning about the pass from the pass. 

The Skirball, which opened in 1996, has become a kind of ground zero for Jewish cultural life within the Sepulveda Pass, along with its neighbors, American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism), Stephen S. Wise Temple, Milken Community High School and Leo Baeck Temple.

In addition to being a hub of Jewish culture, the Sepulveda Pass is a thoroughfare between two significant concentrations of Judaism in Los Angeles: L.A.’s Westside and the San Fernando Valley communities of Sherman Oaks and Encino.

“One concept I very much like thinking about is the pass as the Brooklyn Bridge of Los Angeles,” says Greenberg, who grew up in New York and moved to Los Angeles in 1990. “Like the Brooklyn Bridge, the Sepulveda Pass and the San Diego Freeway bridge two major communities, and they do it by crossing this really challenging geographical boundary.”

Adele Lander Burke, vice president of the Skirball’s Learning for Life adult programming, says the class aptly and uniquely tackles the center’s aims. It will meet Feb. 10 and 24 and March 3 and 17.

“Part of our mission at the Skirball is to link Jewish heritage and values with the broader story of America and American values,” Burke says. “We get a sense that this is not just a freeway connector you might see as you zip through. The positioning of several Jewish institutions in the pass is a part of the story of how Los Angeles has changed physically and how the Jewish community has moved geographically. This is something we have not looked at before.”

Greenberg’s fascination with the pass — its geography, history and cultural significance — is a mixture of scholarly and personal interest. The director of education for the Autry National Center, Greenberg lives and works in the eastern San Fernando Valley. He ventures onto the actual Sepulveda Boulevard stretch of the pass — as many Angelenos do — only when the 7.5-mile section of the boulevard between Valley Vista Boulevard and Brentwood proves a more traffic-friendly alternative to that demon known as the 405. 

These days, ongoing Sepulveda Pass/I-405 improvements, which will result in the relocation of bridges and widening of the freeway, have turned the area into an ever-shifting maze of road closures, detours and construction vehicles. The strategic closing of sections of the I-405 within the Sepulveda Pass — and the anxiety that created for many area residents — helped birth and popularize the term “Carmaggedon.”

But as Greenberg’s class will remind people, there was a time many years ago when there was no I-405 for Angeleno pioneers to brave. In the 18th century, the first Europeans crested the pass and moved down into what Miguel Costanso, part of an expedition led by Gaspar de Portola, called a “very large and spacious valley.” He was referring to what would later be known as the San Fernando Valley. 


Instructor Erik Greenberg. Photo by Emma Greenberg

Traveling the pass would not have been an easy trek back then, Greenberg notes, but that hasn’t changed with time.

“It’s outrageously steep,” Greenberg says of the pass. “It rises very quickly and descends very quickly. Anybody who has ever walked, biked or driven a car with a manual transmission on the pass knows it’s unrelenting.” 

Greenberg says his class will chart the history of the place, including how land that once belonged to the Tongva Indians gave way to Spanish mission and ranchero use. It will consider the formation of suburbs, but also will talk about people- — the Sepulvedas, who lived in what is now the South Bay, and engineer William Mulholland. 

Moving closer to the present, he’ll talk about the relocation of the former University of Judaism (UJ), which had previously been at several different L.A. sites, to its Familian campus on Mulholland Drive. Schedule permitting, the final class will feature a visit by Skirball Chairman and CEO Uri Herscher and a discussion of how the area known as the top of the hill became a Jewish hub. 

“I always perceived the development of the pass to be linked to the development of Stephen S. Wise and the University of Judaism, which came about through the late 1950s to the 1970s,” Greenberg says. “But Uri points out that really the first Jewish institution on the pass is Leo Baeck Temple at the bottom of the pass.” 

Greenberg’s connection to the pass began in 2000, when his wife, Amy, took a four-month conversion class at the UJ and went through formal conversion a year later. Their then-3-year-old daughter, Emma, was immersed in the mikveh as well. 

Although his own academic work prevented him from taking the classes with his wife, Greenberg found his commitment to his faith increasing the more his wife learned. The concept of journeying to the top of a hill — in this case, the UJ — and returning with knowledge now had a personal resonance. The subject became a theme of a seminar paper Greenberg wrote for an environmental history class at California State University, Northridge, in 2004. 

“Almost every Jew is a Jew by Choice,” Greenberg says. “Through her learning at the top of the hill, Amy gave us the opportunity to make that choice, to learn what we didn’t understand and to choose.

“The Sepulveda Pass has an intensely personal connection for me,” he adds. “My interest in the past emerged from my personal experience, so I’m excited to come back to the pass and think about it again.”

Students will have the opportunity to share their histories with the Sepulveda Pass, to review photographs and readings and to think about the concepts of names and neighborhoods. It will be a class heavy on student input, says Greenberg, who, at the Autry, has been known to make mountains out of crumpled paper and flow water through them as a way to demonstrate environmental phenomena.

“I hope to come up with some good fun stuff having to do with land and earthquakes,” he says.

Perhaps even a field trip for students?

“Maybe if the class is successful,” Greenberg says with a laugh. “If I do it again, we could put them all on bikes or something.”

Mystery: Where is class consciousness?


An absolute precondition for class warfare is class consciousness. And one of the great mysteries of American history is that with just a few transient exceptions, there has been near zero class consciousness here. Or, more precisely: The very rich have been well aware of their class privilege and have labored mightily to protect and defend it, but the vast (and now declining) middle class, as also those nearer the bottom of the income distribution, have given little evidence of the kind of resentment that their status might be thought to warrant. They do not even require bread and circuses to keep them tame; they require, so it seems, only belief in the dream, the classic American dream that promises ever-upward mobility. No matter that the path out of the economic doldrums becomes increasingly potholed; never mind that the data on economic mobility in the United States show far less mobility here than in Canada, France, Germany and most of the Scandinavian countries — the dream persists.  And if the world of work offers little upward opportunity, then on to the casinos, on to the lottery, on to the racetrack; fantasies are just dreams with longer odds.

Currently, income inequality is all the rage — but it begets more clucking of the tongue than the kind of outrage it likely would in other countries. Over the course of the last 30 years or so, the rich have become much richer, and the very rich — the top .01 percent of us — have become vastly richer. Between 2009 and 2010, their income grew by 21.5 percent, providing them an average income of nearly $24 million. According to most measures, between 1979 and 2007, the real after-tax income of the bottom fifth of us rose by 18 percent; for the next three-fifths, the increase was 38 percent; for the top fifth, the increase was 65 percent. And within that top fifth, the increase at the very top — the top 1 percent — was 277 percent. And: Since the year 2000, the number of our fellow citizens living in poverty has increased by nearly half, from 31.3 million to 46.2 million; the number of the very poor (living at half the poverty line or less) has risen by more than 60 percent, from 12.6 million to 20.5 million; and the number of children living in poverty has risen from 11.6 million to 15.4 million — 22 percent of America’s children.

Yet, the best the Democrats can seem to do as they press for a modestly higher tax rate for the very wealthy is to whine. There is no sustained assault on the tax rates, save by the Occupy people, who gave us the 1 percent versus 99 percent, by now already a tired cliché rather than a call to organized outrage. Essays and books on the dangers of growing inequality proliferate; public policy remains near comatose.

All right then — Americans are simply not alarmed by the rising inequality. And we may presume that a major reason they are not alarmed, beyond the near-collapse of the labor union movement, is their abiding belief in the “American Dream”: Work hard, play by the rules, and you will be rewarded, you will climb the economic ladder. That belief, in the wake of rising college costs, of the rape of pension funds, of under-water mortgages, of all the dizzying decline in this generation’s condition and in the next generation’s prospects, is, evidently, part of the American DNA. This although 54 percent of us believe that when government intervenes, it is most often on the side of the rich; just 16 percent think government helps the poor, 7 percent the middle class and 6 percent “people like you.” Why is that perception alone inadequate to fuel a political assault on the reward system of our economy, to frame a consciousness and politics of class?

Again and always, the dream, likely the most deeply embedded element of the American belief system.

Still, dreams and beliefs aside, the harsh facts of American life include a broad stratum that is essentially locked into its poverty. That stratum suffers much higher rates of incarceration, much lower social and economic supports than its European equivalents, more single-mother families, greater public health problems — in general a more debilitating poverty than can be overcome with hard work. 

We may wonder if they dream, and of what they dream, but history teaches that it isn’t the very poor who make revolutions. It is the middle class, the aspiring class, the people whose sense of injustice is fueled by their proximity to the good life. And America’s middle class does not appear to be anywhere near a mature sense of injustice. Often, it prefers the handy scapegoats: a corrupt government, “waste and fraud,” immigrants, unions. 

The American dream versus the American data: So far, the dream remains way ahead. The radicals’ dream: That “so far” is not forever, that a continuing souring of the American prospect and mood will one day generate the missing consciousness. Otherwise? Otherwise, Langston Hughes proves prophetic as he asks what happens to a dream deferred: “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun? … Does it stink like rotten meat? … Or does it explode?”


Leonard Fein has written and advocated for progressive Jewish causes since the 1960s. In 1974 he founded Moment magazine, the journal of Jewish ideas, and in 1985 he founded MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger.

Survey discovers Israel’s digital divide


The higher one’s income the more likely he will be connected to the Internet, a new survey of Israelis’ Internet use has found.

Some four out of 10 respondents, or 40.7 percent, who defined their income levels as “well below average” are not connected to the Internet, but fewer than one in 10 respondents, or 8.7 percent, who defined their income levels as “well above average” are not connected to the Internet. 

In addition, as the level of religious observance increases, the number of people not connected to Internet also increased: just 7.7 percent of the secular public is not connected at all to the Internet, compared with 58 percent of the haredi Orthodox.

The survey also found that more than half of Internet users in Israel participate in a social networking service at least once a week. Some 73 percent of users aged 15-17 use a social network every day and one of every 10 users aged 65 and older use a social network each day. In addition, 100 percent of new immigrant youth aged 15 to 17 are active in social networks, which allows them to stay in touch with friends in their country of birth. 

One in four Israeli teenagers aged 15 to 17 writes a blog. In addition, 28.3 percent of the Arab public who reported that they write a blog do so each day, compared to 12 percent of older Jews who write a new blog post each day. Some 37 percent of readers of blogs from the Arab public read blogs every day, compared with 24 percent of readers of blogs from the Jewish population who read blogs every day.

The study also found that one-third of Israeli Hebrew speakers only visit Hebrew-language sites.

The study “Israel in the Digital Age 2012” was conducted by the Mahshov Institute and funded by Google Israel. The survey spoke with 1,200 respondents and examined unique segments of the population, including children (aged 12-14), teens (aged 15-17), the haredi Orthodox, Arabs and new immigrants.

Opinion: Occupy Ideas


It’s May. The grunions are running and so are the members of Occupy L.A. They wriggle up from the cold and dark, plant their tushies on the warm ground and squirm about frantically, desperate to get something accomplished, until a massive tide sweeps them away.

And I’m not talking about the fish.

Grunions, at least, mate during their annual appearance. The Occupy movement, if it follows the same course as before, is destined just to beach itself and die.

Last year, when protesters camped from Wall Street to the lawn of Los Angeles’ City Hall, they made headlines and accomplished one significant feat: They focused national attention on the growing gap between the country’s rich and poor.

Why, some of our wealthier readers may ask, is that anyone’s problem? Because stable communities, and resilient nations, are built on a strong middle class. That’s a truism economists of all stripes and parties agree upon — though our political class, of all stripes, seems incapable of acting on it.

So the Occupy L.A. people put “We are the 99%” on poster boards and waved them in our faces, and for a while it worked. At least until they trashed the lawn outside City Hall and caused public safety employees to rack up endless hours of overtime, costing us middle-class taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

But that was all so 2011. When the Occupiers reappeared on May 1, the news media yawned, and the organizers themselves seemed, literally, directionless. 

A West Los Angeles contingent set out to join the May Day protesters downtown. They rode their bicycles down Santa Monica Boulevard, past the Beverly Hilton Hotel, and stopped to regroup in the parkway along Little Santa Monica. A small contingent threw an impromptu protest in front of the Prada store on Rodeo Drive — no doubt confusing the Chinese and Russians who could actually afford the stuff inside.

Meanwhile, back at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, I was inside standing among a dozen men in suits shaking their heads in utter dismay as Occupiers rode past.

“They really are clueless,” one said. “There’s billions of dollars of capital in this hotel, and they’re going to Prada.”

That’s right, the men and women fighting for the 99 percent bypassed what may be the largest and most influential annual gathering of the 1 percent in the United States. 

How large? The annual Milken Global Conference brings together 3,000 attendees over four days to discuss finance, politics and the state of the world. The cost of entry starts at $6,000. How influential? One year, I ran into Warren Buffett, Rupert Murdoch and Alvin Toffler all in the same moment — in the men’s room. Those Occupiers need to fire their research department.

The Global Conference combines graduate-level seminars on everything from equity formation to international policy with upstairs deal making and ferocious hallway networking. The attendees tend to be asset managers, investors, venture capitalists, corporate chieftains. They’re mostly men, in suits, clutching iPhones and BlackBerries. While people shake your hand, their eyes never leave the nametag on your chest. After a while I knew how Dolly Parton must feel. 

But here’s a greater irony: If the Occupy movement was clueless about what was happening inside the Hilton, the conference itself dedicated substantial time and attention to exploring the concerns of the 99 percent. This isn’t new or surprising: investor and philanthropist Michael Milken, who created the Global Conference in 1998, is driven by the idea that capital creates innovation and social change; that wealth, used in creative and aggressive ways, spreads wealth.

So the vast majority of the sessions focused on how investments in innovative medicine, food, technology, education and communication can help solve the challenges the world faces in those fields, even as they increase returns. One entire track looked at how free-market innovations in Israel and the Arab world can increase political stability throughout the Middle East (more on that next week).

At a luncheon debate titled, “What’s Happened to the American Dream?” historian Niall Ferguson and investor (and “car czar”) Steven Rattner agreed that rising wealth disparity and economic immobility hampers growth. They also disagreed loudly and brilliantly over what to do about it. Ferguson said we must focus on cutting back entitlement programs to prevent the growth of a motivation-sucking “transfer state,” where wealth is just given to those who don’t work. Rattner argued that the issue has to be tackled along with greater public investment and fairer tax codes. 

Not surprisingly, the one-percenters sided more with Ferguson, but at another panel titled, “Easy Money: Consequences of the Global Liquidity Glut,” it became clear that in Milken’s world, it’s just as big a shanda for capital as for people to be lying around doing nothing.

The day the bike riders blithely rode past, I attended a morning session called, “Community Development: Investing in the 99 Percent.” Panelists examined innovative ways for investors, NGOs and government to work together to solve poverty.

“There are 100 different interventions that work to prevent poverty,” said John Belluomini, founder and CEO of the Center for the Greater Good. “The number one killer in the country is poverty.”

One possible approach is the Social Impact Bond, an experiment promoted by the “father of venture capitalism,” Sir Ronald Cohen — he was at the conference, too — to allow private business to invest in solutions to prison recidivism and chronic homelessness.

“For a mainstream conference like Milken to focus on social impact investment underscores its importance in the marketplace,” panelist Sean Greene of the Small Business Administration said.

Yet another discussion, “New Strategies for Financing Social Innovation,” featured Jonathan Greenblatt, director of Social Innovation in the Obama White House. The discussion focused on the need to change current regulations to allow foundations to count program-related investments as part of their disbursements — in one fell swoop this could free up billions of dollars.

“You can go negative or go positive,” said Greenblatt, a co-founder of Ethos Water. “The fact that this conversation has infiltrated the mainstream shows the worthiness of these ideas. Capital holds promise to create the kind of communities we care about.”

The Occupy movement may have served a purpose, but it appears to be out of ideas. The good ones were at the Beverly Hilton.

Wall Street, Main Street, Jew Street


I like to believe that as a 21st century American Jew, I’m no more paranoid than necessary.

But if I hear one more politician extol the virtues of “small towns,” I am fixing up a hiding place in my attic.

If I hear one more pundit bash Wall Street and grow misty over Main Street, I will check airfares out of the country.

“We grow good people in small towns,” vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin said in her acceptance speech at the Republican convention. The crowd went wild with applause.

Sen. Barack Obama told a Florida audience last month, “[Sen. John McCain] wants to run health care like they’ve been running Wall Street. Well, senator, I know some folks on Main Street who aren’t going to think that’s such a good idea.”

First the presidential election and now the financial crisis have given rise to rhetorical nativism. It is open season on the big city. In their bid for those elusive independent, middle-class voters, McCain and Obama and their seconds, Sen. Joe Biden and Palin, are fanning the myth that the real America resides in some shining Mayberry on a hill. If only those nasty money changers and culture vultures in the seething cities below would just let them sow their wheat and do their books and raise their children up good.

These tropes are not new to America; they are older than Shylock. The Jews make up the city: corrupt, scheming, complicated; while the common folk, the good people, occupy the farms and villages. The Jews lord over the metropolises, making easy money off the hard labor of others.

There’s an overlooked and ultimately sympathetic 1934 movie, “The House of Rothschild,” which perfectly captures the previous centuries of anti-Semitic caricature.

The film opens in 1750 on Frankfort’s “Jew Street,” as Mayer Amschel, founder of the Rothschild line, scurries to hide his precious guilden from the cruel tax collector.

“They keep us in chains!” he tells his boys. “They won’t let us learn a trade! They won’t let us own land. So make money. Money is the only weapon the Jew has to defend himself with.”

This stereotype and its accompanying rhetoric only ramps up in times of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, anti-Semitism was most virulent not in the cities where Jews lived but in the Farm Belt and Far West, where the image of “the Jew” lived.

Now the Anti-Defamation League reports “a dramatic upsurge in the number of anti-Semitic statements being posted to Internet discussion boards devoted to finance and the economy.”

Scan those Web sites and you quickly see what the candidates themselves likely don’t even realize: For the bigots and haters, Wall Street is code, the city is code, Hollywood — a staple enemy in the culture wars — is code. They’re code for “Jew.”

We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, when Palin said, “We grow good people in small towns,” she was quoting the late Westbrook Pegler, a notorious anti-Semitic columnist who called Jews “geese,” because “they hiss when they talk, gulp down everything before them and foul everything in their wake.”

Our candidates and our talking heads should be ashamed or, at least, careful. Because not only are such black-and-white dichotomies dangerous, they’re dumb.

Wall Street is not solely to blame for what’s happened — Main Street was a willing and gluttonous partner. And people on Main Street kept voting into office leaders who spouted pure pablum about “government getting out of the way” and deregulation and took their eyes off the market chicanery.

Main Street and Wall Street are inextricably bound up and always have been. Credit is as important to the economy as corn.

“Why is it everyone always talks about protecting the family farmer?” Rep. Barney Frank once told me. “What about the family shoemaker? What about the family banker?”

And those stump-speech paeans to small towns? Please.

First of all, most Americans live in cities, suburbs and exurbs. Cities aren’t cruel, shapeless Gothams and Gommorahs, they are historic centers of creativity and capital, beacons of hope and opportunity. New York is the symbol of American achievement — the terrorists on Sept. 11 didn’t go after Wasilla or some Home Depot in Delaware. Los Angeles — if it can get its act together — is the city of the 21st century, where Hollywood shapes the world’s current imagination and future reality. Ingenuity, productivity and creativity gushes out from America’s cities.

Last Sunday, I attended a fundraiser for Friends of the Los Angeles River. They closed off the Sixth Street Bridge downtown and filled it with a buffet, dinner tables and a dance floor. Maybe 300 people showed up to support a waterway whose restoration will knit together all sorts of economically and ethnically diverse communities. I stood on the bridge watching the sun set behind the rail yards, behind the downtown skyscrapers and the distant hills, and I saw in that instant how Los Angeles is a great city made up of small towns: We call them neighborhoods.

I live in one of those small towns, and so do you. I like that Wall Street, when it works well, provides the wherewithal for my Main Street to grow and compete.

So I’m not going to pack my bags yet, but I sure know where I’d run to if need be. Because no matter how much they hate Wall Street and how much they fume over Hollywood, they always say they love Israel.

I guess that’s where the good Jews live.

Should laptops be allowed in class?


Click, click, click! Walk into any classroom at my high school, Shalhevet — and probably most high schools around the city — and you may very well hear clicking. A new trend has erupted, as more and more students bring their laptops to class.

Laptop use involves a lot of controversy, from students who believe they should be used to their maximum potential to those who don’t want to see laptops at all.

“It’s a distraction to people next to them and to themselves when they are playing games or checking e-mail when they should be taking notes,” Shalhevet sophomore Tannis Presser said.

“I am pro using laptops in class,” sophomore Dana Silver said. “I’m a slow writer and a fast typer, so it’s easier for me to keep up in class when I use a laptop.”

A 2004 study reported in USA Today claims that laptops and hand-held computers help with schoolwork and improve grades. Scientists gave laptops to 25 students from Yankton High School in South Dakota during the first quarter of the year, and found that test averages of students with laptops increased, on average, by 5.7 percent.

Test scores rose 3.2 percentage points for students without laptops, although a teacher at Yankton High School said, “Those with laptops may have simply been better students.”

The 24 students with laptops had higher grade-point averages than the students who didn’t use laptops — a 3.26 GPA, compared to 2.82 among 21 students without laptops.

Results like these have people wondering if students without laptops are at a disadvantage.

“I don’t think it puts me at a disadvantage [not using a laptop] because I memorize everything, so a laptop wouldn’t help me,” Shalhevet junior Roee Raviv said.

At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school with a dual Judaic and general studies curriculum, laptops are used more frequently in classes like history and English, perhaps because it’s more important to take notes there.

“Its really helpful for me [to use a laptop] in AP U.S. [history] because I can take notes really fast, but in certain classes it’s not really helpful,” junior Adira Vinograd said.

“You shouldn’t use a laptop in math or science classes because of all the diagrams and calculations you need to do with a pen and paper,” senior Guy Harel said.

Some students feel that laptops enhance the academic atmosphere.

“It doesn’t take away from the atmosphere because we live in a modern time, our technology should be as modern as our time,” freshman Shmulek Sabo said.

A one-day undercover investigation at Shalhevet found that more than half the students with laptops open in class were not taking notes, but instead using them to check e-mail, Facebook or Fantasy Basketball rankings.

Many classes didn’t have anyone using laptops, and out of an average of 17 students per class, about one to five were using laptops in classes that allowed it.

What do the teachers have to say about using laptops?

“I’ve banned it, because I didn’t like it from the beginning, after giving it a semester,” Shalhevet social studies teacher Keith Nadel said. “It’s a distraction and I won’t stand for it. If anyone truly is at a disadvantage for whatever reason, then it’s fine.”

Jewish history teacher Miriam Stern agreed.

“There’s a couple reasons for laptops being a hindrance to learn,” Stern said. “They contain many distractions — Internet, IM, Facebook and games, just to name a few. It’s hard for a teacher to monitor what they are doing.

“A lot of students think that they can multitask,” she added, “but some people aren’t as good at is as they think.”

Some teachers are ready to accommodate and keep a closer watch on students with laptops.

“You can’t put the genie back in the bottle,” Judaic studies teacher Rabbi Naftali Richler said. “Since computers are a way of life, you can’t take them away.”

Math and chemistry teacher Christopher Buckley has a policy for the students using laptops in his class. At any moment, he may yell out, “E-mail me your notes now!” and students with laptops open need to e-mail what they’ve presumably been working on.

Shalhevet does not have a uniform regulation about laptop use in class, leaving it up to the discretion of teachers.

Incoming head of school Rabbi Elchanan Weinbach is generally in favor of laptops, saying he personally loves technology and views it as a useful learning tool, while recognizing that it can be a distraction. If the administration were to institute a policy on laptops in class, he said, it would be made with “all shareholders in mind.”

No matter what the school says, there will probably always be students tapping away on laptops scattered throughout the hallways. Whether they will remain in the classrooms as well is yet to be seen.

Emma Lipner is a sophomore at Shalhevet High School and features editor of The Boiling Point, where this article first appeared.


Speak Up!

Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the April issue is March 15; deadline for the May issue is April 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

Underclass Surfaces From Floodwaters


The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between “haves” and “have-nots.”

What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents — and most Jews — were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.

In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.

If you couldn’t recognize the half-submerged landmarks in the French Quarter, you would swear footage from New Orleans and beyond came right from Haiti or some other Third World country.

Just last week, the U.S. Census Bureau released staggering new poverty data. The numbers show that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total to 37 million. Hunger rates in this country closely track the poverty index, and both numbers have seen steady increases for four years running. The Census Bureau also reported that income inequality is at an all-time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20 percent of households.

So when natural disaster strikes, it is all too easy to predict who will bear the brunt of the devastation. It won’t be the high-flying corporate raiders and image-obsessed celebrities who typically occupy the front pages of newspapers and magazines. It will be the person who fixes your car, or who serves you lunch, or who takes care of your friend’s mother at the local old age home. These will be the people we read about, our new “celebrities of tragedy” — fellow citizens who hold down multiple minimum-wage jobs and still struggle to make ends meet.

As these divisions become more evident from the images we have been waking up to, growing numbers of Americans are asking hard questions. They are moved, I hope, by the realization that we are witnessing the coming out of a national underclass, one that has long existed and can no longer be confined to the margins.

The recovery is already under way, although efforts to rebuild will take years and years. As we repair the cracks in the levees and begin the difficult work of restoring people’s lives, we will be remiss if we do not seize this moment to heal the fractures running deep through our society.

Through the act of rebuilding — and by that I mean rebuilding policies and values as well as levees — we have a chance to fashion a society that addresses inequality and cherishes the contributions of every individual. We ignore that opportunity at our own peril.

H. Eric Schockman is president of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, which is among the organizations aiding hurricane relief efforts.

 

One Tough Room


As a Los Angeles Unified School District teacher of world issues for seniors in Los Angeles, I began yesterday’s class by playing a taped interview of Michael Moore talking about his movie, “Fahrenheit 9/11.” I had suggested that the class go see the film, so we could discuss it.

Tillie seemed particularly interested, nodding her head up and down as she listened, so I thought I’d start with her.

“Tillie, dear, what do you think?”

“She can’t hear you,” said the woman next to her. “She’s deaf!”

“Then what did you think?”

“I ain’t saying. I don’t have to say.”

“Anyone else?”

“Excellent!” Fred said.

“OK. And…?” I asked, hoping for a more lively discussion.

“That’s it. I liked it. Period,” he said, with finality.

A hand goes up. “Yes, dear?”

“It left me disheartened,”

“OK. Can you say more?”

“I’ve said enough.”

Great — 10 minutes gone, one hour and 50 to go. I changed the subject. “Where’s Margaret today?”

“She’s in the hospital.”

“Why?”

“She fell down yesterday and broke her hip.” I changed the subject again. “Where’s Matilda?”

“She died.”

“She died? She was here last week! When did she die?”

“Two days ago.”

“So what are you telling me? She won’t be coming back?”

“Not unless she’s a Buddhist.”

I change the subject again. “Who has some good news for us?”

Ethel raises her hand.

“Yes, dear?”

“A man comes up to me yesterday, sits at my lunch table; I can tell he’s a goy and he says, ‘You’re Jewish, right?’ I says to him, ‘I don’t like you either, go to hell, I spit on you.'”

I try to use this as a discussion point. “Well, all right, that’s a nice thing to do…what could she have said to this gentleman, instead?”

Silence.

“So?” Ethel demanded. “What should I have said to him?”

“Well, you might have asked why he felt that way, you know, open a dialogue, maybe make a new friend?”

“With that goy?” sputters The Diplomat. “To hell with him!”

The woman next to Ethel raises her hand. “Can I ask a question?”

“Please!”

“What’s the problem with the Palestinians?”

Ethel answers: “I spit on the Palestinians! I am a Jew!”

“Yes, Ethel, we know that,” I say, “and I’m a Jew myself, but don’t you think we need to find a way to live together?”

“They blow themselves up!”

“Yes, darling, but that’s because they watch too much television.”

“Who watches television?”

“He said we should watch television?”

“No, I didn’t. That’s just a joke gone awry.”

“Rye bread? It’s dinner time?”

“No Fred, not yet,” I say. “I was just saying, what about the Palestinians who are doctors, lawyers and merchants and just want to raise their families and live in peace?”

“Lawyers are the problem!”

“Shut up, Murray! The teacher’s talking!”

“Actually, we’re all supposed to be talking here about world issues and I’m doing all the talking….”

“That’s what you get paid for!”

Suddenly, the distinct sound of snoring.

“What’s with Mary here?” I ask. Mary is asleep in her chair, her head thrown back, her mouth wide open, snoring.

“She takes Darvicet for her arthritis,” says Olga. Apparently Darvicet eases Mary’s pain but knocks her out. I have a microphone in my hand because half the seniors are hard of hearing so I put the mike by Mary’s mouth and from the public address system now comes the rumbling of Mary’s snoring. Two old wiseguys wink at me and giggle. One old gal’s mouth drops open in horror. The rest are oblivious.

Quality shtick. One tough room. Oy.

“Look, I’ve been talking nonstop for over an hour. I’m supposed to get you guys to talk!”

“We don’t want to talk. We want to listen to you.”

“But I’m tired of telling you bad news. Who has some good news for us? Yes, Martin?”

“I heard today the interest rates are going up.”

“And how is that good news, sir?”

“I don’t know.”

“I have some good news.” It’s The Diplomat. “This goy says to me, ‘You’re Jewish, no?’ So I told him, I says, ‘I don’t like you either.'”

“You told us that already, Ethel!” Ann reprimands .

“Leave me alone!” Ethel pleads. “I was in the camps!”

“Maybe you could share with us some of your experiences under the Nazis, darling,” I say. “What camp were you in? Auschwitz? Buchenwald?”

“I don’t remember. I want to forget.” Her voice trails off.

Who am I to pry into something like that? Especially if she doesn’t want to talk? The room is silent, except for the air-conditioning.

“What time is it?”

“It’s six past three.”

“We’re supposed to be done at three.”

“We know,” Sophie laughs. “We like being with you.”

“I like being with you, too. See you next week.”


Wildman Weiner is credentialed teacher of older adults.

Teleconferencing With Tel Aviv


The classroom looks like any other — Formica tiles on the floor, florescent lights on the ceiling and rows and rows of desks. But what happens in this utilitarian space located on the second floor of UCLA’s Public Policy building is anything but ordinary.

Every few weeks the regularly scheduled class, which meets in this room on Monday mornings, forgoes its usual routine to participate in a live teleconference with its sister class at Tel Aviv University in Israel.

At a recent co-meeting of the classes, a huge projection screen at the front of the U.S. classroom acted as a virtual window into the Israeli classroom. Not only could the students on both sides see one another, but each student also had a microphone. The idea behind this high-tech set-up is to have a transatlantic conversation about politics, religion and social dynamics.

"It is quite incredible for two classes to talk to each other," said Dr. Fredelle Spiegel, the director of UCLA’s Israel-Diaspora Programs and professor of the American class. "Sometimes it goes better, sometimes it goes worse, but there is always something interesting."

The teleconference always begins with a set list of questions submitted by the students, Spiegel said, but usually the conversation quickly veers away from the predetermined outline. This time the teleconference’s opening question was submitted by the Israeli students: "How can American Jews be Jewish living in a non-Jewish state?"

A UCLA student promptly raised her hand to tackle this question. "I like being in a diverse culture," she said, with a defensive tone in her voice. But, as soon as she made this statement, one of her classmates added, "I also think it is a lot more challenging to be Jewish here. You really have to make a conscious effort to remember your identity here. It is very easy to blend into American culture."

Spiegel explained that questions dealing with issues of Jewish identity are common coming from the Israeli students. She said this is because of a fundamental difference between the two cultures, which is that America is a multicultural country with an emphasis on individuality, while Israel is a Jewish state that practices what Spiegel referred to as "communitarianism."

When not delving into identity issues, the two classes usually talk politics and this teleconference was no exception. In fact, the students on both sides of the Atlantic were surprised when Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys), walked into the classroom.

Both the American students and the Israelis regarded the congressman’s impromptu visit as the perfect opportunity to voice their opinions.

Avi, one of the Israeli students, said, "I don’t know if you know what we do to politicians here, but we put them in the crossfire. This is a good opportunity for us and we are not going to miss it." Both classes erupted with laughter, but then got serious when Avi asked, "What are the interests behind the connection between Israel and the United States?"

After Berman responded that the connection is based on "democracy and some sense of shared values," the Israeli students continued to fire questions at him. Dina, a soft-spoken Israeli girl asked, "What makes Congressman B. pro-Israel?" And after Berman called himself a Zionist, Irit, another Israeli student, asked, "What does it mean to you to be a Zionist?"

These questions are characteristic of the issues explored during every teleconference. While there is not always a U.S. congressman on hand to provide answers, the students on both sides of the camera’s lens passionately express their opinions in a dialogue, where no topic is taboo.

And this political forum has definitely hosted its share of disagreements.

"There is tremendous disagreement both in Israel and here about what Israel should do," Spiegel said. "I always have the few lefties who are appalled with everything and then I have the right-wingers, who are appalled with the lefties, so you’ll have arguments internationally, but also within each group. So that is kind of fun."

Spiegel said that debate and dialogue is precisely the point of the teleconference.

Spiegel came up with the teleconference format after participating in a similar discussion between older Israeli and American Jews. Spiegel and her Tel Aviv counterpart, Eyal Navel, submitted a grant to The Jewish Federation, the organization that originally funded the program. Now in its second year, UCLA has both picked up the class as a regular course and also covers the cost.

American junior Matt Tseng said the most rewarding part of the class was learning about a new culture. "I learned a lot about the American Jews and the Israeli Jews, they’re interconnected, but there is also a lot of difference." Tseng added, "I have a lot of conflict within this room myself by not being Jewish, by taking this class."

Tseng said he wished the classes could have discussed issues besides religion and politics, he said, he always wanted to ask the Israelis questions like, "What kind of music do you like?" But, he acknowledged, that was beside the point.

One of the UCLA students actually was an Israeli studying in the United States. He asked to remain anonymous because he also is an employee of the Israeli government. In this Israeli’s opinion, only the Jews in the class understood the issues at hand, while the non-Jews were, "completely off."

"They don’t know what it is to fear," he said. "They don’t know what it is to hear a bomb explosion and read the newspaper hoping not to find your friend. They do not know how this feels."

The goal of the class, Spiegel said, is to foster a greater understanding between the two cultures. "They really got a sense of the difficulties that the Israelis are going through in a way that they don’t get from a newspaper," she said. "A lot of them every quarter will say, ‘Gee, I know we read this in the books, but I didn’t understand it until I talked to the Israelis.’ And that is what teleconferencing is supposed to be."

Movsha Hoffman


For the past two and a half years, I have been the facilitator of a Yiddish reading class at Santa Monica Emeritus College. We are currently completing the reading in the Sholom Aleichem’s classic, "Motl, Peyse dem Khazn’s" ("Motl, Peyse the Cantor’s Son").

The class resembles, at times, a cheder (classroom) of days gone by, as students follow, make penciled notations and take their turn reading, some more skilled than others, but all very patient and accepting. The atmosphere and camaraderie is simply a joy to experience — mishpacha (family).

We lost our very best reader in the terrible tragedy at the Santa Monica Market on Wednesday afternoon, July 16. Movsha Hoffman is gone.

On Friday morning, when all the victims’ names and accompanying photos were made public, our class, on summer hiatus, was reunited in grief. The phone rang incessantly and tears along with reminiscences followed.

Here was a man who fled Stalin, lived simply through difficult times and never lost an ounce of his effervescence and optimism. His perpetual smile and good nature led everyone to "love the guy" and his bubbly, effusive greetings were something very special. To help someone was pretty much his mantra.

He was my resident expert for Russian terminology that often crept into Aleichem’s narrative. These words were not to be found in any Yiddish dictionary, old or new.

A warm and wonderful person has left us, a true example of menschlichkayt (decency). He will long be remembered — and may that memory be a blessing.

The Missing Student


Last month, as we began our daily daf yomi class (the daily study of a page of Talmud) we all looked over to the chair where Tibor Reis usually sat, to my immediate right. On the rare occasion when Tibor did not attend, we assumed he was just too tired. After all, traveling by bus each day to downtown Los Angeles takes a toll on an elderly person. But that day it was different. We all felt that, perhaps, Tibor was the fifth unidentified victim of the horrible June 6 airplane crash at a Fairfax apartment building. Unfortunately, the Los Angeles Times identified Tibor as the sole resident of the apartment building to die as a result of the crash.

I had known Tibor for only a short period of time. I met him approximately five years ago when I began attending the daily Talmud class given in Yiddish by my childhood friend, Rabbi Yitzchok Kornwasser. Tibor and four other gentlemen whose ages range from their late 70s to early 90s, attend the Yiddish translation class rather than the numerous English translation classes, because Yiddish is the language they originally studied Talmud of der heime (the old country) in pre-World War II Europe.

Each night when I would walk in, Tibor would ask, "Nu vus hertzach in Yisruel?" (What is happening in Israel?)

I would answer either, "Tziz shtill" (All is quiet) or "Tz vet zayn besser" (It will get better).

Those in the class knew that, prior to coming to daf yomi, I would check the Israeli Web sites for the latest news.

As the class began, Tibor would immediately pepper our rebbe for clarification regarding a difficult passage in the Talmud, or he would clarify for our rebbe an explanation that he would recall from his youth when he studied in Hungary, sighting passages by heart of other pages of the Talmud, the Tanach or the Torah. I would sit there in awe of his encyclopedic knowledge of all portions of the Talmud. Soon, however, Tibor would fall asleep with the Talmud, like a child clutching his teddy bear. Unlike many people his age, he had to continue working long past the age of retirement. I would occasionally peer out of the Talmud to see him asleep. I would never dream of waking him, because I could see he was truly tired, and I did not want to diminish his dignity.

Tibor had fascinating recollections. During our talmudic study of the Sabbath laws, I particularly relished his recollections of how he prepared for the Sabbath in Hungary. When we studied how Jews interacted with the Roman authorities and fellow non-Jews in the Talmud, he would tell us how he and his family interacted with the Hungarian government officials. During the election of 2000, he would regularly express the pride he felt in the nomination of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), a fellow Orthodox Jew, for vice president of the United States of America. He would ask me in a rhetorical way "Voyt meir nisht in a gebentchna milyecha?" (Do we not live in a blessed country?)

I have had the good fortune to know many Holocaust survivors who rebuilt their lives, both personally and materially. Tibor, however, never married or had children, nor did he have great wealth to either assist members of his immediate community or the community at large, as many other Holocaust survivors have had the privilege to do.

I have thought about the unfortunate and untimely death of Tibor on the theological level. Why did he survive the fires of the Holocaust to die in the fires of a plane that crashed into his apartment on a religious holiday (Shavuot), when, at that hour on a normal Monday through Friday, he would still be working in his office repairing watches?

He was killed in such an undignified and tragic way while he was taking his Yom Tov shluf (holiday nap). I can only look to God to find comfort and answers.

However, one comforting thought will never leave me: the knowledge that I routinely had the honor of driving Tibor home to his apartment after the Talmud class. I will miss having Tibor ask his thought-provoking questions and gently falling asleep.

I, Rabbi Kornwasser and all your other friends will miss you in our daf yomi class, Tibor.

Abraham Shafran lives in the Beverlywood area with his wife, Lisa.

Protocol


Rules of etiquette suggest that one must whisper in a library. But for the Jewish Community Library of Greater Los Angeles, that rule is just the beginning.

The library recently held its culminating ceremony for a group of youngsters enrolled in its Children’s Etiquette and Social Grace class. This is the first time that the institution has sponsored such a class.

The idea developed after the library director Abigail Yasgur and children’s director Sylvia Lowe, children’s librarian, enrolled their respective youngsters in an etiquette class.

"Libraries are not just about the books," Lowe said. "They’re becoming meeting places for people in the community."

"Eating is such a big thing in the Jewish tradition," said Yasgur, who noted that such pointers in protocol will come in handy at Shabbat meals and seder tables.

At Pat’s Restaurant, a kosher Pico-Robertson-area establishment, 15 boys and eight girls — students age 6-10 at schools such as Temple Emanuel, Maimonides Academy and Canfield Elementary — gathered for their fourth and final weekly class. They showed off their newly cultivated high-society habits, such as how to hold a long-stemmed glass, how to butter a roll, fold a napkin and other multicourse meal manners.

Contrary to expectations, Maggie O’Farrill, who for seven years has been teaching children etiquette, said that these restless years make the best time to teach kids.

"At this age, they’re very easy," O’Farrill said. "When they get older, it’s harder for them to break bad habits."

At the Pat’s soiree, parents were over the moon over the effects these classes have had on their youngsters.

Mary Jo Schnitzer’s daughter, Ariel, 9, is in her second year of etiquette class, having completed one at Hawthorne School last year.

"She learned to set the table and to speak properly on the phone," Schnitzer said.

"Children at this age want to be polite," O’Farrill said. "You can see that they’re trying."

Based on the parental enthusiasm and the success of this first program, Yasgur wants to continue holding such sessions. She hopes to start another class in January for children ages 10 and up, as well as offer refresher courses.

Ariel’s favorite lesson was "when she taught us how to walk."

Daniel Schwartz, 7, was less enthusiastic about the class."It’s OK, but I just want to put food in my mouth."

My Mystical Road Back to Judaism


I entered the tea-scented room, took a yoga mat and joined a circle of 20-somethings seated on the hardwood floor. At the head of the small space, an enormous, black poster splashed with cosmic rays and multicolored planetoids were propped against the wall, titled, “The Tree of Life.” In front of it, paced a bright-eyed, young Israeli man dressed in soft, saffron-colored pants and an oversized polyester shirt rainbowed with gigantic, shining Buddhas.

This was Gahl Sasson’s Monday night kabbalah class at Los Angeles’ Golden Bridge Yoga Studio, and it was definitely nothing like the Judaism I had come to know.

I am a 25-year-old woman who, until recently, identified herself as a cultural Jew. Born in New York, I knew where to get the best Brooklyn knishes; I’d been shopping at Loehmann’s since I was 6, at Grandma’s I ate Entenmann’s. No question, I was Jewish.

Yet in college, classes in world religions filled me with questions. Reading texts such as “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,” “Mahabharata,” even pagan books, I felt an exciting tug at my soul — these religions seemed alive, as if they were speaking to me in a way that Judaism never had. Reading about delicate Buddhist sand mandalas, altars of scented candles, strings of prayer beads and silver amulets felt beautiful, esoteric and accessible.

I explored path after path: Buddhism, Wicca, even Christianity. Yet somehow, the more I explored, the more images of temples, Hebrew script, Torahs and even my grandparents’ thick Yiddish pushed their way to the front of my mind. Still, I wondered, how could Judaism — a tradition I always saw as plain, not esoteric — ever give me the same spiritual excitement as a Tibetan mantra or an exotic incense?

Then I stumbled across a book about kabbalah, Ann Williams-Heller’s “Kabbalah: Your Guide to Inner Freedom.”

Paging through the book, I saw descriptions of the many aspects of God — colors, mystical names and angels. Could this really be Jewish? Here was a real guide to the enormousness of God, not simply prayers but descriptions of God-ness and how it actually feels to connect with God. It felt like an epiphany: after nomadically hunting for some religion, any religion, to satisfy my spiritual hunger, here was my very own religion — my very own home — ready to fill me up.

So it was that I found myself visiting a friend in California, when I saw an ad for Gahl’s kabbalah class.

Seated in a ring of young men and women with long hair, trendy clothing and conversations about their latest yoga classes, I listened to Gahl explain Binah (understanding), the third branch of the Tree of Life (a Kabbalist representation of 10 major aspects of God).

Gahl dimmed the lights and led us in a guided meditation — Yes! Jews do meditate! — in which we envisioned strolling through a beautiful mountain path and inside a deep, hidden cave. The light we imagined grew dimmer, and yet the air was warm; Gahl led us to discover a stairway lined with flickering candles. We followed the candles down to a deeper, sunken area with a throne upon which we sat. There, we invited Binah, the mother, to come to us. She appeared in our minds and, placing her hand upon our hearts, she blessed us.

Feeling overwhelmed with that familiar spiritual rush I’d craved for so long, I listened to Gahl explain how the leap from Binah, understanding, to the fourth branch of the Tree, Chesed (mercy), is a leap of faith — a time of transformation which usually occurs at roughly my age.

In keeping with that transformation, since beginning my kabbalist studies, I have joined a temple and begun to learn Hebrew. The prayers are no longer foreign to me, but represent spiritually charged messages to God, as mystical as any Tibetan mantra. In fact, they are now even more beautiful to me because in speaking them, I resonate with my own ancestors’ voices.

Inside a yoga studio, surrounded by paintings of bodhisattvas and Buddhas, I realized what Gahl — and Judaism — was trying to say: I can never fully understand God, not through the “right” prayers or the “right” worship or the “right” meditation. I can, however, strive for an exhilarating connection to God. Judaism, in all its forms, had been offering that to me all along; I just hadn’t been ready to receive it. The spirituality I’d sought was not hiding after all, but waiting to be tapped by my understanding that the Jewish God is in all things, from my grandma’s Entenmann’s to our very own “mantra”: Baruch atah Hashem, elokeinu melech ha’olam. “Blessed is God, who turns out to be in every part of the universe” — even inside of me.

To contact Gahl Sasson, call (323) 653-8919 or visit

Self-Defense Vitalfor Women


Each year in January, female friends, co-workers and family members of Nicola Shocket can count on receiving a phone call or e-mail. The message isn’t a New Year’s greeting or birthday invitation. The 39-year-old executive-search consultant wants them to join her at a four-hour self-defense class given by the Los Angeles Commission on Assaults Against Women (LACAAW).

January marks an anniversary for Shocket. Fifteen years ago, in a downtown L.A. parking structure stairwell, Shocket was raped at knifepoint on her way to the office. Soon afterward, she signed up for LACAAW’s self-defense class as a way to combat her feelings of vulnerability.

The LACAAW class teaches women how to help prevent or escape an assault. Participants learn punches, kicks and other physical techniques to fight off an attacker of superior strength and size. But more than the physical techniques, LACAAW emphasizes the psychological elements of self-defense.

"We use an empowerment model," says Denice Labertew, project director for LACAAW, who taught Shocket’s class this year. "The goal is to provide options and choices which could be viable at any given moment."

Labertew and other instructors explain that assertiveness plays a key role in self-defense. They note that more than 80 percent of potential physical attacks can be avoided by using assertive responses — some as simple as yelling "No!"

"Assertiveness means defending yourself physically and emotionally," Labertew says. So a good portion of class time is devoted to helping women practice affirming their rights and setting boundaries.

In Shocket’s group, participants role-play, responding to situations ranging from being approached by a stranger in a parking lot to fending off flirtations from the office delivery man. They learn to use their words, voice and body to communicate firmly and clearly.

Instructor Leslie Bockian, who taught Shocket’s group last year, works to help women overcome the tendency to be polite, even in questionable circumstances. She notes that attackers tend to test a victim’s degree of compliance in determining whether to strike. They will often make requests for assistance, such as asking a woman to locate something for them on a map. "You decide whether or not to help, how close the questioner can get, and how long the interaction should last," Bockian tells participants. "You’re the one in control."

Awareness is another key component to self-defense, and for LACAAW, that involves debunking myths about rape such as the woman "caused" it, that women are helpless or that most rapes are committed by strangers. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, approximately 75 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are committed by people known to their victims.

Bockian says that although it might seem obvious, women must pay attention to their surroundings. Merely noticing a potential attacker’s presence may be enough to dissuade him because it ruins the element of surprise. Equally important, women need to trust their instincts, since gut feelings often signal lurking danger.

For those instances when physical contact occurs, LACAAW teaches techniques for escaping an assailant’s grasp and for disabling him long enough to flee by targeting vulnerable areas of his body.

Shocket says LACAAW has given her invaluable new strengths. "I’m much more aware of my surroundings. I’m more confident. I feel better prepared to deal with whatever situation might arise." Now, she wants to share her knowledge.

"I know the thought of taking a self-defense class can be intimidating, and it’s easier to just put off doing it. So I decided to encourage others to take care of themselves by making it easier for them to participate."

Shocket estimates that she has recruited more than 100 class participants, ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s. Later this year, she plans to attend LACAAW’s Woman Warrior Weekend, a more extensive, 12-hour workshop involving simulated attacks by trained, padded instructors.

"I want people to walk away from the class knowing they can take care of themselves. I want them to feel more confident, that they’re not helpless in any situation. People think it won’t happen to them — I didn’t think it would happen to me. But if I can prevent this for just one person, well, that’s my goal."

Labertew hopes women will see self-defense as an important component of women’s health. "Like getting a manicure or a massage, taking a self-defense class is one of those things you do to take care of yourself. Four hours is not too much to spend to make yourself safer."

Together Apart


David Lehrer may be overstating his case only slightly when he says that most Westsiders are unaware of what goes on “6 inches below the 10 freeway and 6 inches east of the Golden State.” Maybe he’s off by a few inches, but cut him some slack; Lehrer has been trying to bridge the social divides in this city for decades.

Last month, the 51-year-old marked his 25th year as regional director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Breakfasting in a Westside restaurant, he’s the opposite of what you imagine when you think of a crusader against anti-Semitism. An attorney by training, Lehrer is insightful, sober-minded and utterly congenial, hardly the type to see the enemies of his people lurking around every offhand slur or bad-taste joke.

He’s a glass-is-half-full kind of guy, which is probably healthy when your life is spent dealing with hate, discrimination, intolerance and other human frailties that aren’t about to disappear anytime soon. “We’ve made tremendous progress,” says Lehrer over his fruit bowl. “Tolerance has won the day as the ethos of America.”

According to the ADL’s annual report on hate crimes, anti-Semitic acts are down by about 20 percent. “It is not an omnipresent fear,” says Lehrer. The decline no doubt reflects a low crime rate overall, but it is also the fruits of hard labor. “It doesn’t happen by itself,” Lehrer is quick to point out.

If the ethos of our times has made demigods of tolerance and diversity, the grunt work of turning ethos into action has often been taken up by the ADL. Its “A World of Difference” program has trained thousands of teachers throughout the state. The group has sponsored cross-cultural Passover seders bringing together all faiths and colors, and a “Children of the Dream” program that brings together Israeli and local teens. “These are programs that may sound hokey,” says Lehrer, “but they work. The virus of hate doesn’t disappear on its own.”

So with hate on the run, why doesn’t Lehrer pack up his bags and return to the world of corporate law that he left for nonprofit work? For one, he quickly grew tired of the corporate practice that made many of his boomer contemporaries rich. And he’s had plenty of opportunities to use his law degree, helping to draft California’s first hate-crime legislation, its anti-paramilitary law and its law against the Arab boycott of Israel. Lehrer has also overseen an annual budget that has grown from $400,000 to about $6 million.

There’s still a lot to be done. Lehrer was all over the news during the North Valley JCC shooting and has helped prepare and disseminate serious information on Internet hate sites and local paramilitary groups. But his work these days, says Lehrer, focuses on a deeper problem than mere hate. “The bigger problem in L.A. is that we’ve become incredibly isolated,” he says. “It’s not like New York City or Chicago, where you live and work and commute next to all different sorts of people. Twenty-five years ago you had people meeting at football and basketball games. Now poor are even priced out of those events. It’s not healthy. Not because of some ‘Kumba yah’ 1960s notion of kinship, but because when you don’t mix, you don’t know other people. And you end up with a bizarre notion of what the world is like.”

Lehrer is intent on helping Angelenos cross the widening divides of race and, even more so, class. The diversity training, the interfaith seders, an ongoing Latino-Jewish roundtable, Holocaust education for public school teachers, the Tornberg Lecture series that brings together Black, Muslim, Christian and Jewish speakers – these, say Lehrer, “provide places people can see one another.”

But Lehrer understands that such programs alone cannot overcome the city’s increasing social barriers. “Public education,” he says. “That’s the key. It’s important for us to re-engage in the public schools.” Lehrer and his wife Ariella, a software entrepreneur, live in Los Feliz, where they have sent all four of their children through the public school system. But they’ve seen their contemporaries withdraw their children from the district, opt for private schools and distance themselves from the battles and problems facing the district. And that can only hurt us all, says Lehrer. A well-run public school is the best place to reach the hearts and minds of future generations of all types of Angelenos. When that falls apart, can the rest of the city be far behind?

“Our message is not that the sky is falling,” says the director. “Our message is that we have to work very hard to keep it up. If we make a committed effort to educate kids, we have more than a chance.”