Individual choice challenges communal commitments


In 1985, Robert Bellah co-authored a book titled “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life,” which highlighted the centrality

of personal autonomy and individual choice in the United States. As an example of this widespread phenomenon, he described a nurse, Sheila Larson, who “has actually named her religion (she calls it her ‘faith’) after herself.”

In her words, “My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” In describing her Sheilaism, she says: “It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”

More than 20 years later, “Sheilaism” continues to characterize American social and religious life. The Jewish community is not unaffected by this phenomena, which continues into the 21st century. In fact, research continues to show that Jews are at the forefront of this trend in America, more than members of any other major religious group.

“Jews were considerably more privatized than either Protestants or Catholics,” contemporary American sociologists of religion Bruce Greer and Wade Clark Roof reported in a 1992 study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

In other words, a higher percentage of Jews determined what Judaism meant to them than Catholics determined what Catholicism was for them and Protestants what Protestantism was for them. Jews are most likely to exercise their freedom of choice in defining the substance of their religion.

This notion was sharply highlighted in an important book published in 2000 by Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen, “The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America,” which analyzed current trends in the American Jewish community:

The principal authority for contemporary American Jews, in the absence of compelling religious norms and communal loyalties, has become the sovereign self. Each person now performs the labor of fashioning his or her own self, pulling together elements from the various Jewish and non-Jewish repertoires available rather than stepping into an “inescapable framework” of identity — familial, communal, traditional — given at birth.

Decisions about ritual observance and involvement in Jewish institutions are made and made again, considered and reconsidered, year by year, and even week by week. American Jews speak of their lives, and of their Jewish beliefs and commitments, as a journey of ongoing questioning and development. They avoid the language of arrival. There are no final answers, no irrevocable commitments.

There are no longer any norms that are compelling, there are no loyalties, no fundamental givens. “The sovereign self” reigns supreme, religious involvement is a journey, and each Jew decides for her or himself what Judaism means.

It is in the context of this reality that the General Assembly (G.A.) of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) meets in Nashville this year. We are blessed by the multiplicity of choices America affords us, and we are also challenged by them. How can we, the representatives of a united Jewish community, inspire the millions of Jews not represented at the G.A. to engage meaningfully and seriously in the Jewish community?

Two or three generations ago, our challenge — and obligation — seems to have been more clearly defined. New immigrants needed to be integrated into American society; endangered Jewish populations around the world needed to be rescued; a vulnerable and beleaguered Israel needed to be strengthened and supported; vigilance in combating anti-Semitism needed to be exercised; the trauma of the Holocaust and its aftermath needed to be addressed.

But today is different. While some of these Jewish communal agenda items still are relevant, we face an additional challenge. For us the problem is not how to adjust our people to the manners and mores of society, but how to keep them from vanishing into the abyss of that society.

We have come a long way from 1969, almost 40 years ago, when a group of young Jewish activists forced their way into the G.A. of what was then the Council of Jewish Federations to demand greater investment in Jewish education, to chastise the Jewish establishment for being insufficiently Jewish in its priorities.

Our collective communal priorities have indeed shifted to appreciate the importance of insuring “Jewish continuity” by allocating significantly more communal dollars in support of day schools and adult Jewish learning. But more work remains to be done to inspire so many more to engage with us in the exciting powerful drama, beauty and meaning of Jewishness.

In a word, I would say that today we face a challenge of balance: balancing family and careers, balancing work and play, balancing engagement with the universal elements of American culture with the unique content of our Jewish commitments. And particularly as leaders of the American Jewish community, balancing local priorities and national and international needs.

Our rabbis teach us that there is a hierarchy to charity. “Aniyei irkha kodmin” — “the poor of your city take priority” — but the poor of other cities also have a claim on our charity dollar, as do broader national and international Jewish concerns.

It is here, in this context, that we most appreciate the vital importance of the umbrella organization now called the United Jewish Communities. Who else has the larger picture in mind but the UJC? Who else can mount an effort to rescue endangered Jewish populations around the world but the UJC? Who else can generate substantial political and economic support for a besieged and beleaguered Israel but the UJC?

As valuable as personal giving and individual volunteerism is, engagement with the broader agenda of the Jewish people is also important. Although a cliché, there is much truth in the phrase: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Rabbi Dr. Jacob J. Schacter was the scholar in residence for the 2007 General Assembly. A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox movement, he is the university professor of Jewish history and Jewish thought and senior scholar at the Center for the Jewish Future at Yeshiva University.

Marry first, date later


It was a short but fascinating discussion. I had about a dozen singles over for Friday night dinner — as part of Lori Pietruszka’s “Shabbat in the Hood” program to connect Jewish singles with a Shabbat experience — when a cryptic exchange caught my attention.

Someone mentioned that a girl sitting to my right was “the new face of JDate,” whose picture was gracing those ubiquitous full-page ads. A girl to my left then asked the JDmodel if her prominent exposure made it easier for her “to find a husband.” At which point, a guy jumped in and snapped: “What do you mean, husband? You mean date, right?”

“No, I mean husband and soulmate,” the girl snapped back, coolly sipping her rosé.

Well, about half an hour, several digressions and many sips of wine later, a few of us had come up with a theory to help answer one of the great questions of the Jewish singles world: Why is it so hard to find a soulmate?

In fact, a few people suggested that I touch on the subject in my next column, and with the romantic winds of summer in the air, I couldn’t resist.

No one wanted to rehash the usual explanations for the failures of dating that have been covered in hundreds of singles columns — bad chemistry, different values, fear of commitment, gender and family conflicts and so on. Those are all valid, certainly, but we were looking for a different angle. We wondered: Is there something else going on, something in how we approach dating itself?

In his book “Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments” (Doubleday, 2000), Rabbi Shmuley Boteach explains that “to find the perfect soulmate, you should focus not on what you have, but on what you lack.” He goes on to say: “You don’t go into a relationship because you have something. Rather, you go into a relationship because you are missing something. And only by identifying that one big thing that we are missing are we guaranteed to find someone who actually makes us feel whole.”

The problem, of course, is that dating is rarely about showing off what we are missing. It’s more about showing what we have — and what we can get.

In this mating dance, we’re either seducing or evaluating. It’s a low-risk mindset. We put “our best foot forward” to show what we have to offer, and we constantly evaluate what we can get in return. There’s little room for weakness.

But this protective posing comes at a price. If we have passed the initial test of mutual attraction, we can end up in relationships where we simply float on the surface and never connect deeply enough to know if we are dating a potential soulmate. And when the inevitable break-up comes, even the explanations feel superficial: He wasn’t “emotionally available,” she didn’t really “get me,” we weren’t “on the same page,” etc. How many witty post-mortems have we all read in singles columns documenting these break-ups?

Assuming there’s some truth to this theory — that our dating has a tendency to be superficial — are Jewish singles doomed to squander millions of soulmate opportunities? Is there a way to create deeper connections?

At that point in our Shabbat dinner, with the wine continuing to flow, I blurted out the idea that maybe we ought to “marry first and date later.” Not literally, of course, but in terms of how we approach both dating and marriage.

Perhaps one reason why so many dating relationships peter out, I said, is that we are relating to a boyfriend and a girlfriend — a date — instead of a potential soulmate. If we’re really looking for a soulmate, shouldn’t we be looking for the soulmate inside the person we are dating?

Dating with a soulmate energy means having the courage to show that we are not complete — and knowing that we are looking for someone who will, as Rabbi Boteach explained, make us whole. With this approach, we can look for deeper, more meaningful things in our dates, and show the same. This means being more vulnerable, yes, but it also means getting closer to the soul of a person we might be spending the rest of our lives with.

But what if a guy is just not ready to make the commitment needed to become a soulmate, as one of my guests asked? Well, if you follow our theory, taking a deeper approach to dating will put people in touch with their deeper needs. The commitment-phobic guy won’t be the same after he realizes he is not complete without his soulmate, and that no serial dating will ever fill that emptiness. And if he still can’t take dating seriously and keeps floating on the surface, then he doesn’t deserve to be rewarded with a long relationship. (In other words, dump him.)

Ironically, the liveliest part of our singles evening came when we talked about married life. Someone who was previously married shared the insight that just as dating relationships can fail if they don’t incorporate a deeper soulmate energy, marriages can fail if they don’t incorporate a lighter dating energy. Like a friend once said to me, when you’re married, reality can beat “the crap out of you.” But that’s precisely when the seductive traits of dating are most needed: the courtesy, the caring touches, the cafes, the laughter, the flowers — that whole mating dance we did before going under the chuppah, when the electricity of romance made everything seem possible.

Thinking of seducing your spouse while immersed in the often mundane realities of marriage, like thinking of a soul connection during the dizzy swirl of dating, requires us to break our patterns — to leave our comfort zones.

So after finishing our last bottle of wine, at least some of us concluded that in relationships, whether you are married or just dating, sometimes the path of greater resistance is the most rewarding.

How very Jewish.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Happiness — maybe it’s not ‘out there’


It all started with the phone call from my Jewish mother in the Philadelphia suburbs about five years ago: “My friend’s son is moving to L.A. I think he has an on-again-off-again girlfriend. But, he’s cute and nice. Anyway, he’s going to call you for coffee.” Innocent enough, or so I thought. Then, as the hours flew by and the age of 28 approached from around the corner, a cold sweat bathed my East Coast family. My 24-year-old first cousin announced her engagement to a nice lawyer from George Washington University.

Here I was across the country, no family, in grad school, living on loans, virtually dateless and in emotional recovery from a Beverly Hills player who thought marriage proposals were a game.

We were entering the danger zone, ladies and gentleman.

It was time to call in the big guns. The yentas held a conference, and mission “marry my Jewish daughter before age 30” began. My cousin’s friend, the pediatrician, was going to call; my dad paid for me to go wine tasting in Malibu; and my Pilates teacher knew a great single Jewish tow-truck driver.

That was around the time I had a nervous breakdown. I knew I didn’t need any help or handouts. I was a smart, attractive, independent woman, and I knew I could find my true love online in a week if I were really serious about it. I posted a profile.

The concept that even Frankenstein got married would often dance through my sleepless head after each grueling online date or night out at a bar. When the 5-foot-tall doctor who had posted a picture of his 6-foot-tall brother asked me to split the bill for coffee, I knew it was time to take a break. Why was there so much pressure? Thirty is just a number. Who really cares? Madonna had kids in her 40s, and look at Demi Moore.

My friends and therapist told me it was “them,” not me. There was nothing wrong with me. I just needed to get out there. That was when it dawned on me, after a yoga class, that maybe “out there” was really just a reflection of what was “in here.” Maybe my frenetic coffee shop drive-bys, obsessively long elliptical workouts by my gym’s basketball court and late-night strolls down the produce aisle weren’t going to help me find what I was searching for “out there.”

That was when something miraculous happened.

Nope. I’m not going to tell some Pollyanna story about how I stopped looking and then found my soul mate at the gas station. The truth is simple. I gave up searching outside myself and committed to my passion.

It was like I had some sort of biblical experience. I was on the plane returning to Los Angeles when it hit me. I knew exactly what I had to do. I was just a couple classes shy of my master’s degree in psychology and had been counseling individuals and couples in a local Jewish agency for about a year.

I had been on more than 200 first dates in Los Angeles.

I’d learned exactly what I was not looking for.

My experience skimming through online profiles helped me master the art and science of weeding out Mr. Wrong with one questionable sentence or phone message. I helped a bunch of my guy friends write profiles and watched as they single-handedly, consistently met girls and got engaged.

All my friends already had been calling me for relationship advice every day since high school. With my background in psychology and the positive growth I saw from working with my clients, I realized that I had what it took to help singles out there save their Jewish mothers from the schpilkes that kept mine up at night. I focused on helping other singles in my psychotherapy practice.

Over the years I have helped young, shy guys find their inner chutzpah, those with poor self-images gain the self confidence to write delete-proof profiles, and I realized that so many of us just want to find the same thing, but our own fear and self-doubt makes us question the ones who see our true inner beauty. As I have helped my clients get past their emotional blocks, I have seen them find what they want. It was like clockwork.

I began to wake up each morning like a woman in love.

That was when the words my grandmother always spoke came true. Yup. This one annoying doctor who kept calling finally met me for coffee one morning. My grandmother said I’d find him when I was not looking. I couldn’t stand this guy over the phone, and I had little to no faith in online matchmaking. But something magical happened that day as our morning coffee turned into a ride up the coast and a lovely dinner in Malibu.

I was skeptical when he told me at the end of the night that he had a feeling we would be spending a lot of time together. Yet, somehow we have been talking every day since. And the love I sought from outside for so long, grew and grew as my commitment to my own success and joy filled up any emptiness or lacking.

Yes, I found my soul mate when I fell in love with my own life – although it happened several months after turning 30.

The moral of my story can best be summed up in my yoga revelation. Stop looking “out there” for the life you want. The happiness you seek is already “in here.”

Live passionately while you are single and life will have a funny way of delivering your heart’s desire – when your heart is already full.


Alisa Ruby is a psychotherapist, a part-time school counselor at Malibu High School and a freelance writer.

Premarital counseling gets short shrift in Jewish L.A.


Couples make many choices that represent shared values in the run-up to a wedding, from filling the ceremony with long-held family traditions to tackling stress-filled tasks like whittling down the “I can’t believe we know this many people” guest list.

Often such to-dos are completed in the hurried context of daily life, including requisite counseling with a rabbi.

Premarital counseling can be a time for honest reflection and sharing, but frequently the lines of communication can get buried under layers of tulle and wedding cake.

At a time when shows like MTV’s “Engaged and Underage” and VH1’s: “My Fair Brady” have made weddings out to be the fun, natural step after prom, prerequisite counseling is increasingly being looked at as a party pooper.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch has encountered the negative stigma associated with premarital counseling. She says that although the couples approaching her to officiate at their weddings believe they are ready for marriage, not all grasp the depth of commitment marriage requires.

“There’s a difference between relationships and recreation: recreation is going somewhere with someone and doing something fun; relationships involve the difficult things, and it’s 100 percent full time,” she said.

Deitsch noted that many engaged couples now view “getting married as the end result … not a step on the lifecycle journey.”

Given that weddings as lifecycle events call for minimal study and preparation, compared with the two to three years required for b’nai mitzvah, some wonder whether making requirements for premarital counseling more stringent might help to minimize divorce among Jewish and interfaith couples.

There are currently no substantive guidelines regulating how often a rabbi and couple should meet, or what they should talk about before the wedding. Some rabbis might meet with a couple as many as five times, while others might get together once or twice and devote much of that time to reviewing ceremony details. Also, other than one program through the University of Judaism (UJ), the organized Jewish community has few direct counseling resources to offer engaged couples.

“We could and should be doing a better job in getting couples to counseling and spending more time and resources on it. With divorce rates rising, it would be money well spent,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, 9 percent, of all American Jews currently are divorced, only 1 percent below the national population. Premarital counseling is often cited as a way to lower the odds of divorce.

When Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei counsels a couple before their wedding, he covers a litany of issues, ranging from finances to parenting. While he’s dedicated to the counseling aspect of his job, he acknowledges the limits of the services he can offer. If he senses that a topic could become a problem for a couple, he refers them to a professional.

“Marriage is a sacred partnership; it must be treated as such, involving the best people who are most qualified to help a couple make their relationship work,” he said.

Dr. Joel Crohn, a clinical psychologist who works with Jewish and interfaith couples, agrees with Schuldenfrei. But he sees the dearth of Jewish premarital counseling programs in Los Angeles as emblematic of a larger problem facing the Jewish community.

“The community is worried about Jewish continuity. You’re going after people on the edges … but what about the core — the core is Jewish marriage,” said Crohn, author of “Beyond the Chuppah: A Jewish Guide to Happy Marriages” (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

The Jewish community’s premarital programs are “unbelievably weak compared to the Christian community,” said Crohn, who developed a now-defunct premarital counseling program with Diamond and Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis several years ago.

Crohn believes the organized Jewish community should adapt the Catholic model of premarital counseling as a way to prepare Jewish and interfaith couples for the road ahead.

Before Catholics are allowed to marry in the church, engaged couples must participate in a course on marriage called Pre-Cana. Each parish handles Pre-Cana differently, teaching it over one weekend or an entire month. Pre-Cana programs feature married volunteers sharing experiences from their own marriages, helping guide engaged couples through topics they can expect to face in the years ahead.

In addition to Pre-Cana, Los Angeles Catholic Engaged Encounter offers a weekend where couples, Catholic and non-Catholic, can talk about their relationship, including their strengths and weaknesses, desires, ambitions, goals, as well as attitudes about money, sex, family and society.

The L.A. Jewish community currently has only one institutionally run Jewish premarital program, the UJ’s Making Marriage Work.

The program, run through the university’s Department of Continuing Education, has been around since the early 1970s, features 10-week classes each quarter. The majority of the couples who enroll are in their 20s and 30s, with class sizes ranging from 30 to 40 couples. Spring quarter has the highest enrollment, due to the popularity of summer weddings.

“People who took the class in the 1970s have children in it,” said Judy Uhrman, the program’s director. “It has proven itself. We ran a study of alumni — their divorce rate is 9 percent.”

In addition to the program’s curriculum, each couple has two sessions with a rabbi, one session with a therapist and one session with a financial planner.
Unlike Pre-Cana and similar premarital couples groups, Making Marriage Work doesn’t feature advice from already married couples. But when asked, Uhrman said it “would be helpful to include married couples.”

Uhrman credits part of the program’s success to its group dynamic.

“A lot of the students become bonded [after the class] and stay together as chavurot,” she said, referring to small Jewish social groups. “If there are no particular problematic issues, group counseling works better. It brings up things you don’t necessarily think about when you are in love.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also has yet to tackle the issue of premarital counseling in a structured group setting. Federation beneficiary agency Jewish Family Service, for instance, offers no premarital classes or programming. Instead, the nonsectarian agency tends to see many married couples “in deep trouble, looking at divorce,” said Dr. Margaret Avineri, the agency’s director for clinical and disability services.

Semper Fiber


I am a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, especially of the weight-loss variety. I’ve even been known to renew my vows on a weekly basis. Yet, I have learned
that any drastic promises, such as, “I will never eat another bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Coffee Heath Bar Crunch ice cream ever again,” never work.

Other sure-fail methods include eating “calorie-controlled” blueberry gelatin and promising that you will only eat three ounces of cold turkey (skinless, of course) for lunch every day. A coworker of mine ate this way until one day she opened her mouth to speak but started to gobble instead.
Last year, I also decided that I would only weigh myself on the summer and winter solstices.

Too-frequent weigh-ins can sabotage any diet efforts, because a woman’s weight is a mysterious, jumpy, undependable thing that does not follow any known laws of nature. Over-weighing would lead to stress. Stress would slow down my metabolism, which was already prone to sleeping in late.

When my scale realized it was being ignored, it had a digital breakdown. Now my husband and sons are perplexed why the scale registers a difference of 15 pounds from a Monday to a Wednesday. Finally, payback time.

This year, I looked for fresh ideas on reducing poundage. Fortunately, I found an article that uncovered facts never before revealed to the American public. For example, did you know that Krispy Kreme Doughnuts are full of saturated fats and sugar? Who knew?

Now that I am aware of this and other startling nutritional data, I don’t dare approach within 100 feet of a Krispy Kreme shop. (Frankly, they deserve a boycott for the spelling alone.) But I am going one better: I am also making a commitment to fiber. This inspiration came from my friend Helen, who went from a pleasingly feminine figure to a lean, mean marathon machine.

Each time I saw her, she had dropped another dress size, her skin glowed more radiantly than ever and the threat of middle-aged wattle under the chin had vanished. When she moved her arms, her biceps flexed insouciantly. Helen looked fantastic. If she didn’t knock it off, I would have no choice but to hate her.

“How have you done this?” I asked, faking wonderment instead of envy.

She took my arm and leaned in close. “It’s all about the fiber,” she said. “You’ve got to try it.”
“No thanks,” I said, holding my hands up in a “stop” gesture. “It may be ecologically friendly, but pure fibers are much too high maintenance for me. I bought a linen dress once, and the dry cleaning alone nearly killed me.”

“Not that fiber,” she said. “I’m talking bran cereal, garbanzo beans and broccoli.”

She whipped a small nutrition bar out of her pocket, where she apparently kept a stash. It was made of flaxseed, apricots and at least 25 percent recycled greeting cards.

“Try this. Fourteen grams of fiber in this little bar,” she said. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you,” she laughed.

It was a strange laugh, perhaps the kind of laugh you get after ingesting too much fiber.

“Great,” I said, dropping the bar into the vast black hole of my purse. “If it works, I’ll ask my doctor for a prescription.”

“Oh, no need,” she said. “These are over-the-counter, even the blueberry. But if you’re really serious about prescription fiber bars, I know where you can order them cheap from Canada.”

And so, desperately trying to become sinewy and taut like Helen, I put my trust in fiber. Scads of fiber. My main food groups became split peas, collard greens and psyllium husks. I tossed soy nuts and lentils on everything, even cereal. One night, I dreamed that I had fallen into an open barrel of barley at the local Whole Foods store. I developed indigestion.

After two weeks of uncompromising fidelity to fiber, I had not lost any weight, but my pantry was four pounds lighter, because I had used up most of the lentils and several cans of kidney and white beans.

Then I saw Helen again, who looked more buff than ever. My indigestion flared up immediately. Probably too many raw red peppers at lunch. Not a good idea.

“What gives?” I demanded. “You claimed that you looked so great because of fiber. I’ve eaten so much fiber I could be the poster child for the National Colon Health Foundation. You must be doing something else. Come on, spill it ”

“I’m working with a personal trainer three times a week,” Helen said. “I’m sure I told you.”

I knew there had to be a catch. Helen’s confession vindicated me. A diet of chickpeas and cantaloupe might get you poster child status for colon health but would not get you on the cover of Brawny Babe magazine. The green stuff of Helen’s success wasn’t only kale, it was cold, hard cash for the trainer.

Since then, I’ve gotten used to my more fibrous diet, but sometimes I pine for hours for an empty calorie. Overall, it’s not really that bad, if you don’t mind indigestion. I can’t afford Helen’s personal trainer, but at least I know the secret of her success. Commitment, self-discipline and money.

Who knew?

Judy Gruen writes the popular “Off My Noodle” column at judygruen.com. Her next book, “The Women’s Daily Irony Supplement,” will be published in May.

Noah Bleich: A Man of Many Hats


‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Noah Bleich is standing at the entrance of an elementary school with a blue-and-white menorah on his head. Once again, he has dragged himself out of bed to read stories to children.

“I’m not a morning person,” he says, “but it’s easy for me to get up if I have a reason.”

Every other week, for about three years, Bleich has been visiting neighborhood schools to read to kids. Each time, he arrives in a different hat. This morning, he has tossed aside his zebra-print cowboy hat, giant sombrero and Mad Hatter top hat in favor of a white faux-fur and blue velvet piece topped with felt candles. The kids love it.

Bleich, 31, is used to wearing many hats. As the newly elected president of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, Bleich not only runs the council’s monthly meetings, but he spends much of his time — as many as 30 hours a week, he says — planning projects to benefit the community.

“He’s like the Superman of the Neighborhood Council,” said Steven Coker, a council board member. “Most people think of themselves first, and if there’s time or money left over, then they think of everybody else. With Noah, it’s reversed. He thinks of the community first and himself second.”

An observant Jew, Bleich provides a Jewish rationale for his commitment. While Judaism teaches that each individual is unique and special, it also emphasizes community, he says.

He tries to put this teaching into practice: “Judaism should be about living it.”

Bleich, a self-employed computer consultant, has started building a computer lab at the local community center. He has also written a grant application, asking for funds to renovate the center and build a garden outside.

He recently helped a group get funding for a three-week program for at-risk youth. Kids will now be able to go to the community center to take life-skills classes during their winter break from school. Bleich has volunteered to coach the children on how to build computers and how to cook.

One of Bleich’s greatest passions is protecting the environment. As the leader of the council’s Green Team committee, Bleich runs monthly neighborhood cleanups to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and plant trees and flowers (he initiated a project to plant hundreds of trees in honor of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the Los Angeles firefighters who have died in the line of duty).

Bleich pays careful attention to how his own actions impact the environment. To save gas, he walks, bikes or takes the bus whenever he can. He is a vegetarian who uses canvas shopping bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs. Bleich will pay extra for goods made in countries with high environmental and social standards.

He tries hard to do the right thing, he says, not because he believes he will change the world, but because he sees no satisfactory alternative.

“I don’t do the environmental work because I think I’m going to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think I can, given the scope of what needs to be done.

“I do it,” he says, “because I don’t believe I’m excused from trying.”

To get involved in the South Robertson community, e-mail noah@soronc.org.

Saying ‘shalom’ to Santa Claus


I was very sad when I put an ad in the Recycler for my beloved Christmas dishes, but it was time to part with them. I had converted to Judaism two years earlier but
kept the dishes stored in the back of the linen closet. I wanted them to go to a good home.

The dishes represented another part of my life, a part that was past, and I had to move on. I was never a devout Christian, but we always had a tree when I was a kid, and Santa Claus came every year. The Christmas dishes were given to me by my former mother-in-law, who gave me a place setting every year.

Having celebrated Chanukah only two times, I was still new to its joys. My latkes were greasy; I stumbled over the dreidel song but still sang along easily with the Christmas carols on the radio. The menorah, with its nine tiny candles, was not as festive as the neighbor’s house that glittered and shone as bright as a Las Vegas casino.

As I considered giving up the dishes, I remembered the story of Ruth and Naomi. When Ruth declared to her mother-in-law, Naomi, “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God,” I wonder if she took a plate or two with her as she departed. Conversion is a commitment to a new life but also requires relinquishing some remnants of the old life that are deeply engrained. It takes time.

The day the Recycler came out, I got a call from a woman who wanted to see the dishes. When my prospective buyer arrived, I welcomed her and showed her the dishes that were displayed on the coffee table. She sat on the couch, and I could see she loved them. I had priced the dishes at a very affordable $100, and she didn’t quibble about the price. I knew she would cherish the dishes as I had. It was at that moment that I fully let go of my old life.

My conversion class took 17 weeks, but it took much more time to feel, think and react like a Jew. It took years before I said “us,” when talking about Jewish issues. On the rare occasions when “born Jews” were less than welcoming to me, I felt that sting and reminded myself that, although Jews turn away a potential convert three times, once the commitment is made, I was just as Jewish as anyone. Paradoxically, their rude comments made me feel more Jewish.

I learned that Chanukah is a minor holiday as Jewish holidays go. Over the years, I have developed a deep attachment to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and begun to refer to them as “the holidays” and no longer use that term to mean Christmas and New Years. By the time Christmas comes, my holidays are pretty much over.

In my 22 years as a Jew, I have seen the commercialization of Chanukah increase and watched the small displays at bookstores and in mail order catalogs grow every year. I succumbed to their charm and now have Chanukah towels in my bathroom, a battery-operated menorah and a small dreidel collection. Even though I enjoy putting out the items every year when Chanukah comes, I am grateful that Judaism’s most solemn holy days will never be overwhelmed by consumerism, as Jesus’ birth has.

Last year, I threw a Chanukah party and learned from the hands of a master how to cook latkes. She told me to get a decent food processor as she watched me grate five pounds of potatoes by hand. She taught me how to get them brown and crisp — simply give up on the notion of good nutrition at this time of year and pour on the oil. I can sing Chanukah songs by heart, though I still sing Christmas carols with the radio. If Barry Manilow and Barbra Streisand can sing them, so can I.

Occasionally, as I light a candle on the menorah on a dark December night, I think about my former Christmas dishes and the woman who bought them. I imagine that she lovingly sets them on her table, as she prepares her Christmas dinner, and I smile.

Kathleen Vallee Stein is a freelance writer who lives in Monrovia and is a proud Jew-by-choice. She can be reached at valleeview.net.

Conservative rabbis open doors to gays, sort of


NEW YORK, Dec. 6 (JTA) — By the time leading Conservative rabbis
convened to discuss the movement’s approach to homosexuality, talk already
had turned to the day after.

With the endorsement Wednesday of three conflicting teshuvot, or
halachic responsa, by the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards
— two upholding the longstanding ban on homosexuality and one permitting
ordination of gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies — it’s likely that other
rabbis will now begin performing such ceremonies, comfortable in the
knowledge that they enjoy halachic sanction from the movement’s highest legal
body.

With advocates on both sides of the issue warning that it could
irreparably fracture the movement, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a leading
advocate of gay ordination, told a gathering at the Jewish Theological Seminary
on Tuesday to remember that Conservative Judaism is a large enough tent to
accommodate differing opinions.

“I have congregants who call me rabbi who disagree very strongly
with me,” Creditor said. “They still call me rabbi and I still call them friend.
There’s something really important about that.”

Momentum has been building for years for a more permissive
Conservative attitude toward homosexuality. Despite the 1992 decision of the
movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, which upheld the ban on
gay rabbis and commitment ceremonies, a number of Conservative rabbis do
perform such ceremonies.

That number is expected to grow.

“I think there will be a significant change,” said Ayelet Cohen, a JTS
graduate and rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, a Manhattan
synagogue for gays and lesbians.

An outspoken proponent of changing the traditional prohibition on
homosexuality, Cohen performed commitment ceremonies for gay couples prior
to this week’s decision by the committee. She said opponents of change no
longer will be able to use the law committee’s 1992 statement on homosexuality
as an excuse to continue excluding gays from the movement.

“According to the current position of the movement, gay men and
women are lesser human beings than heterosexuals.,” Cohen said. “Gay people
can be kept out of every level of lay leadership in our movement. Until now,
rabbis have been able to say, ‘There’s nothing I can do. My hands are tied.’ ”

But by deciding that continuing the ban on homosexuality also is a
legitimate position, the committee has ensured that local rabbis who oppose a
change in policy will have a halachic authority to cite in making their case.
There is considerably less ambiguity at the movement’s seminaries,
where much of the agitation to change policy has originated.

At the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, leaders long have made
clear their intention to ordain gay rabbis if the law committee issued a
permissive ruling.

In New York, the Jewish Theological Seminary has been less
forthcoming. Though he has said publicly that he supports gay ordination,
incoming Chancellor Arnold Eisen has outlined a process of consultation with
students and faculty that he intends to follow in deciding whether to ordain
gays.

KeshetJTS, a student advocacy group, says a survey shows that eight
out of 10 members of the JTS community would support such a move.

“I think that congregants are ahead of their rabbis on many issues, and
this is one of them,” said Rabbi Steve Greenberg, an openly gay Orthodox rabbi
and senior teaching fellow at CLAL-the National Jewish Center for Learning
and Leadership. “I can tell you that there are people who have wanted to go to
the seminary to become a rabbi and have chosen to go elsewhere, and will be
thrilled that that option will now be open to them.”

One such person is Aaron Weininger, an openly gay senior at
Washington University in St. Louis and a lifelong member of the Conservative
movement. His decision on where to apply to rabbinical school hinged on the
law committee’s decision.

“I would like to be able to apply to a Conservative seminary, and for
both ethical and personal reasons right now that’s not an option,” Weininger
told JTA before the vote.

Weininger said he would apply to the University of Judaism, but would
also consider JTS if that became an option.

Like other advocates of liberalization, Weininger said what’s at stake is
not just the status of gays in Conservative Judaism but the movement’s entire
approach to interpreting halacha.

He hopes the decision will lead to greater clarity in the way movement
authorities negotiate the line between fidelity to tradition and the demands of
contemporary life.

“Morality is at the very core of law, and that law really drives us
toward our aspiration of holiness and justice,” Weininger said. “And so if we in
turn interpret law to exclude people, we really violate the intent of the law.”

Given the multiple opinions allowed by the law committee, neither
advocates nor opponents of change will feel compelled to adjust their positions.

Still, many observers are hopeful that the decision will open a vital
discussion within a movement that once was America’s largest Jewish
denomination.

Creditor said Eisen’s use of the committee debate as an opportunity for
discussion is a step in the right direction.

“That’s a revolution,” Creditor said. “It might be quiet, but I think it’s
going to change things on the ground because rabbis can’t ignore the inclusion
of whichever teshuvot will be accepted. We can’t ignore it. There’s no hiding it.
It’s transparent.”

Jewish Time Machine: The 1982 General Assembly in Los Angeles


When it comes to issues making up the agenda during General Assemblies in Los Angeles, perhaps Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) was right when he wrote: “What has been will be, what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun.”

Los Angeles had surpassed Chicago as the country’s second largest Jewish population center by the mid-1950s, but it wasn’t until 1966 that what was then called the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), now United Jewish Communities, held its first GA here.One-thousand attended that GA, the CJF’s 35th, at the Ambassador Hotel, where, seven months later, Robert F. Kennedy would be assassinated.

The main discussions focused on changing conditions in the Israeli immigration picture and Israel’s economy, as well as issues facing overseas Jewish communities.

The GA returned to Los Angeles in 1982. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since, but the challenges confronting the Jewish world then are strikingly similar to those in 2006:A war in Lebanon and the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila, the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Syria, the suffering of Ethiopian Jewry, cutbacks in federal and state funding of social services, grave concerns about American Jewish identity and low levels of affiliation and giving to Jewish causes.

(Although not everything’s the same- registration in 1982 cost $110 for out of town delegates and $50 for Los Angeles residents; this year it’s $525 and $275, respectively.)

At the same time, it was the CJF’s celebratory Golden Anniversary GA, or “GALA” as it was called, and it occurred during the period some consider to be a golden age of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, then led by president Osias Goren and executive vice president Ted Kanner.

A volunteer hospitality team of 700 Jewish Angelenos welcomed the 3,000 delegates, who were greeted on arrival by mariachis and a recreation of Farmers Market.

More than 500 marched from the Bonaventure to City Hall to call attention to imperiled Jewish communities around the world and to protest anti-Semitism in Argentina, Ethiopia, Iran, the Soviet Union, Syria, Western Europe and elsewhere. Mayor Tom Bradley and law professor Irwin Cotler, who at the time was working to secure the freedom of imprisoned refusenik Anatoly Scharansky, spoke to the crowd. A conference session on the plight and rescue of Ethiopian Jews was found to be particularly moving.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino was scholar-in-residence, and spoke at two plenary sessions on the convention’s theme, “Federation’s Role and Responsibility in Ensuring the Commitment of the Next Generation.”

Schulweis said the “megastructure” of Jewish organizations and institutions is remote and alienating to the individual Jew struggling to maintain a rich Jewish spiritual identity. He maintained that the “post-Holocaust” generation is “less secular, less moved by the public agenda and institutions and more concerned with the spiritual, personal and internal dimensions of their lives.”

Prime Minister Menachem Begin was scheduled to address the Saturday night Golden Anniversary banquet. It was to be his first major speech to a U.S. audience since Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in “Operation Peace for Galilee” in June 1982. After the GA, he would fly to Washington to meet with President Ronald Reagan. Debate over the Lebanon War caused a great rift in Israel. This political turmoil, the loss of Israeli lives and the massacre greatly troubled Begin. The prime minister hesitated to leave Aliza, his wife of 36 years, who had been hospitalized for much of the previous year with respiratory problems. When her condition improved slightly, she convinced him to go. The main ballroom of the Bonaventure was packed with delegates, guests and officials such as Governor Jerry Brown and Mayor Tom Bradley.

Outside, according to the Los Angeles Times, the Secret Service and LAPD had their hands full with demonstrators and counter-demonstrators. LAPD had issued a permit to the Committee to Oppose the Begin Visit, a coalition of several pro-Palestinian groups and others. The New Jewish Agenda and the Jewish Defense Organization were also among the picketers.

But sadly, Begin’s appearance at the GA was not to be. Shortly before he was to speak, his beloved wife Aliza died in Jerusalem. He immediately flew back to Israel for her funeral.

Moshe Arens, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, stood in for Begin at the GA. According to a Jewish Telegraphic Agency report, he recounted some of “the scars we in Israel bear from the terrorists coming out of Lebanon,” and said that Israel’s operation had smashed the PLO infrastructure, thereby striking a blow for peace in the region. Nevertheless, he observed, Israel was “criticized, vilified, calumnied and judged” by the nations of the world and “we were subjected to snap judgments” by the media and its audiences.

Arens was critical of “those who counsel us to make concessions,” declaring that “the wages of weakness in the Middle East is destruction.” The ambassador also recounted other achievements of the war in Lebanon and each achievement was greeted with roars of applause: He noted that Lebanon was then rising from seven years of warfare and occupation and that a new page was turning “in the tragic history of that country. Hopefully, Lebanon will join the world democratic community and also be at peace with Israel.”

Perhaps what Kohelet is saying is that the significant, unresolved issues of one generation are left as a legacy to the next, to be reconsidered, reclaimed and reconciled.

— SJS

Same-sex unions roil Jews in former Soviet Union


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

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

Jamie McCourt Proves She’s an Artful Dodger President


Bougainvillea and vines curl around a pergola at the Bel Air Hotel’s outdoor patio restaurant, a lunch spot for Westside powerbrokers. It’s 10:30 a.m., and powerbrokers are scarce at this hour, except for Jamie McCourt, vice chairman and president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who is seated under a canopy at a private table. She smiles when asked what humanitarian work she and her husband, Frank, have done to earn the Scopus Award, an honor from the American Friends of Hebrew University, which they will receive in a ceremony at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in December.

“You don’t think saving the Dodgers is enough?” she quips.

Indeed, she is right, for the Dodgers, a legendary name in professional sports, a franchise once associated with excellence on the playing field, stability in the front office and a commitment to progressive causes, most notably the breaking of baseball’s so-called color barrier, fell on hard times during the Rupert Murdoch era.

Perhaps the beginning of the Dodgers’ decline dates back farther, to that moment in 1987 when longtime Dodger executive Al Campanis, given multiple opportunities by Ted Koppel to atone for his ignorance, nonetheless continued to deny the leadership qualities of African Americans on “Nightline.”

The Dodgers went on to win the World Series in 1988, but the architect of that team, Fred Claire, another longtime company man who had replaced Campanis as general manager, later made a number of unpopular trades, such as dispatching young pitching phenomenon Pedro Martinez for the forgettable Delino DeShields. Claire and manager Bill Russell were ultimately fired by Murdoch, whose cable apparatchiks inaugurated their tenure by trading slugger Mike Piazza, a future Hall of Famer, for five players who do not play any longer for the Dodgers.

Since 2004, when the McCourts purchased the team from News Corp, the Dodgers have had a mixed record. They won their division that first year, though they lost in the first round of the playoffs. By the next year, they had parted with clubhouse leader Paul LoDuca, most valuable player runner-up Adrian Beltre and local hero Shawn Green, three players who were critical to the team’s first win in a playoff game since 1988.

After a dismal season last year, which culminated in the firing of neophyte GM Paul DePodesta, the severing of ties with manager Jim Tracy and the hiring of their respective replacements, Ned Colletti and Grady Little, the team has rebounded surprisingly well. Although Eric Gagne, who is out for the season, is the only player who has been with the ball club for as many as three years, the Dodgers have jelled better than might have been expected.

Colletti spent an active winter acquiring a strong group of veterans, including Rafael Furcal, Kenny Lofton and comeback player of the year candidate Nomar Garciaparra, who have combined with some productive rookies and holdovers like Jeff Kent and J.D. Drew to lead the team to a spot near the top of the National League West Division.

So, Jamie McCourt, an attractive, petite woman with blond hair and an easy smile, has every right to argue that in resurrecting the Dodgers she and her husband have performed a public service worthy of the Scopus Award.

McCourt, who as president of the Dodgers handles much of the club’s business side, as opposed to its baseball operations, once attended the Mount Scopus campus of Hebew University. A native of Baltimore, from the same neighborhood as filmmaker Barry Levinson, she is Jewish and has raised her four sons as Jews.
On this midmorning at the Bel Air Hotel, she wears a brown suede jacket over a white top, sporty attire that gives one the impression that she has just come from working out. In fact, she swims every day and typically climbs the stairs at Dodger Stadium instead of taking the elevator.

She may be remarkably slim, like one of the social X-rays in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” but she is also athletic and looks like she might have been a coxswain on the college crew team. That is befitting a woman whose husband, Frank, rowed crew at Georgetown, where they met.

Like Levinson’s characters in his Baltimore-set movies, she speaks with a spirited yet soft voice, but she doesn’t accentuate her double O’s as Danny DeVito did when pronouncing words like “food” in Levinson’s “Tin Men.” Despite her Baltimore lineage, she says she has not seen “Diner,” Levinson’s iconic film about her hometown, because she feared that Levinson “wouldn’t get the diner right.”

McCourt’s father, an appliance discount king, worked near that diner, and she fears that her own memory and her father’s experiences have not been honored accurately.

She has, however, picked up on her father’s sloganeering, which included the priceless couplet, “Jack, you know, will save you dough.” She utters one-liners almost effortlessly.

When Danish pastries are brought to the table, McCourt cracks, “It’s all health food.”

When she recounts her first trip to Israel, in which she traveled around the country for several months on a bus, a mode of travel she abhors, she says, “That cured me of touring.”

When asked about her avid swimming regimen, she says, “There’s no talking to me if I haven’t gone swimming.”

If she is quick with a quip, she is no “screaming meanie,” as L.A. Times sports columnist T.J. Simers refers to her.

“I never scream,” she says. “If you want to pick a nickname, at least pick one that’s true.”

Especially during the McCourts’ first year of ownership, the Times sports section for the most part depicted Jamie and Frank McCourt, the latter known by Simers as the parking lot attendant, as carpetbaggers who have little interest in or knowledge of Los Angeles, social climbers who lack the financial resources to run the team and public relations novices. More recently, Times columnist Bill Plaschke expressed mock distaste for their smooching in public.

Although McCourt and her husband have indeed kissed in public, the rest of the charges don’t appear so valid.

On the issue of funding, Jamie McCourt says that no solo purchaser in the history of Major League Baseball has spent as much money by himself in purchasing a team as her husband did in buying the Dodgers. Unlike Yankee honcho George Steinbrenner and owners of other teams, the McCourts purchased the Dodgers without partners, she says, a statement that is not completely accurate, in that News Corp was a “minor, noncontrolling partner” at the outset of the deal, according to the Boston Globe.

While the purchase price, anywhere from $421 million to $431 million based on reports, may be higher than that paid by any one individual for a baseball team, the McCourts borrowed heavily in order to finance the acquisition. The structure of the deal, in which the McCourts put up their South Boston real estate property as collateral and assumed significant debt, including a loan of more than $100 million from News Corp, led some to speculate that they were arbitrageurs looking to game the market and sell the property after a year or so.

Though such speculation may have been unfounded, there was no denying that the deal was highly leveraged. No less than Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor and authority on baseball economics, has stated that Major League Baseball likely waived its debt percentage rule for the McCourts. That rule would have required the McCourts to have at least a 50 percent equity stake in the team at the time of purchase.

Now, more than two years after the purchase, the financing seems more sound. Earlier this year, the McCourts sold News Corp the family’s prized 24-acre waterfront property in the Seaport District of Boston. That sale reportedly satisfied all of their financial obligations to Murdoch’s company.

This past winter, the team also invested roughly $45 million, according to McCourt, in renovating the stadium, putting in new seats and restoring the original color palette to the famed venue that the New Yorker’s Roger Angell once called the “pastel conch.” The Dodgers also acquired numerous free agents during the off season to boost its payroll to a competitive level.

Nor have the McCourts shied away from personal expenditures. They purchased a home and the adjacent property in pricey Holmby Hills and send their youngest of four sons to the elite Harvard-Westlake private school.

In short, they do not look like they are on the verge of bankruptcy or about to leave town, particularly since McCourt says she loves Los Angeles and all its diversity: “There are so many immigrant populations. It’s sort of the way New York must have been once. It’s a place of opportunity. Every day you wake up, it’s ‘today’s the day I’m going to succeed.'”

Oozing optimism, McCourt and her husband have taken a leadership role in Los Angeles and in the Jewish community, joining the Temple of the Arts, where they were recently named founding members, as well as many civic organizations like the Leadership Council of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles.

She cares deeply about literacy and education, holding a bachelor’s from Georgetown, a law degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. She also studied at Hebrew University for a semester of law school and at the Sorbonne while she was in college.
“Education is the great equalizer,” she says. “Everyone should have a fair shot.”

With the Dodgers’ Dream Foundation, she has helped award college scholarships named after Jackie Robinson to minority youth.

She has also reached out to women in the community. The highest ranking woman in Major League Baseball, McCourt says that women comprise 40 percent of the Dodgers’ fan base. “The female consumer,” she says, ruminating for a moment, “is critical.”

To tap into that critical base, the team has created the Dodgers WIN (Women’s Initiative & Network). Last year, the team held four events for women in the community. This year, there will be 11 events, McCourt says, where women and teenage girls can learn about the game and receive baseball clinics from players and coaches on the Dodgers.

She says that second baseman Kent, often characterized by the media as being gruff, is “an ardent supporter of our women’s initiative.” She adds, “If you have 150 women between 18 and 34 gawking at you, who could complain?”

Despite such good cheer, not all women have enjoyed a welcome in baseball. One woman in the Dodgers front office, Kim Ng, a vice president and assistant GM, was insulted a few years ago by Bill Singer, a former Dodger pitcher who was at the time a broadcaster for the New York Mets. More recently, a San Diego Padres employee was criticized by Keith Hernandez, also a Met broadcaster and a former National League MVP, for being in the dugout.

If the atmosphere for women in baseball remains less than optimal, McCourt still sees opportunity for prospective distaff employees. She has added several women to the Dodgers payroll, including chief financial officer Cristine Hurley and Camille Johnston, head of communications.

“You don’t have to just be a statistician,” she says.

You can even be an owner like McCourt, who wanted to write her thesis at MIT on buying a ball club or a new ballpark. With Wall Street the craze at the time, she had to settle for writing about “naked short selling,” but her interest in baseball goes back to her childhood, when she played shortstop in games in her neighborhood: “I’d come home when I was 7 years old and announce that I was buying a baseball team and a camp.”

Of course, that mirrors her husband’s interest. Frank McCourt’s grandfather owned a piece of the Boston Braves. As Jamie McCourt says, a love of baseball is “in his blood,” all of which runs counter to the skepticism of some critics who said that the McCourts, with their real estate background, would raze Dodger Stadium and build condos.

While the McCourts are showing that they care for baseball and Los Angeles, Boston has not completely left them.

Jamie McCourt says that she has to leave for lunch. Who is she meeting? Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who is in town and whom she knew back in Beantown.

When asked if it’s a fundraiser for 2008, she flashes a smile that suggests more than she’s telling, and then she strolls out of the posh surroundings for her next engagement.

New U.S. Stamps Honor Friends of Jews, Israel


On May 30, the United States Postal Service issued a series of new stamps honoring six career State Department diplomats who earned the gratitude of this nation for taking “risks to advance humanitarianism…[and] peace,” even if their actions put themselves “in harm’s way.”

Words of high praise — nonetheless inadequate in the case of honoree Hiram Bingham IV, who served as U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, France, during World War II. In 1940 and 1941 — against the official policies of the United States, which was steadfastly refusing to open Lady Liberty’s doors to persecuted European Jews — Bingham issued visas and false passports to Jews and other refugees, assisting in their escape. He even occasionally sheltered them in his home — risking not only his career but his life, as the Gestapo and SS operated freely in collaborationist Vichy France.

Bingham is credited with saving more than 2,500 people from deportation to death camps. Moreover, working together with fellow American hero journalist Varian Fry, he rescued such famous figures as artists Max Ernst and Marc Chagall, Nobel Prize in Medicine winner Otto Meyerhoff, historian Hannah Arendt and authors Franz Werfel and Hans Habe.

As punishment for his continued defiance of Washington — and helping people the Roosevelt administration and the anti-immigrant WASP establishment that dominated the State Department was abandoning — Bingham was unceremoniously yanked out of France in 1941 and posted to Portugal and then Argentina. In 1945, he was forced to retire from the U.S. Foreign Service.

Although neither Fry nor Bingham received the credit due them in their lifetimes, Fry was eventually the first of the two to receive some measure of posthumous recognition, when in 1995, he became the first and only United States citizen to join Raoul Wallenberg and Oskar Schindler among the non-Jews designated as Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s national Holocaust memorial, Yad Vashem. Fry — also known as “the American Schindler” or “the artists’ Schindler” — was also accorded “Commemorative Citizenship of the State of Israel” in 1998. Finally, he achieved celebrity of sorts when Barbra Streisand co-produced the 2001 made-for-television movie, “Varian’s War,” starring William Hurt. (In that movie, Bingham is relegated to a mere footnote and even suffered the ignominy of having his named changed to “Harry.”)

Bingham rarely spoke of his wartime activities, concealing them even from his own family. Only after his death in 1988 (Fry died a young man in 1967) did his son discover letters, documents and photographs hidden behind a chimney in their home. The cache revealed Bingham’s struggle to save German and Jewish refugees from death — facts long suppressed by the United States government.

Belatedly, Bingham’s bravery was recognized by the United Nations in 2000 and, ultimately, by the American Foreign Service Association, which paid tribute to him with a special “courageous diplomat” award for “constructive dissent,” presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The eight-year campaign to issue a postage stamp in his honor met with success after gaining wide bipartisan support in Congress

Another stamp in this series honors Ambassador Philip C. Habib, a Lebanese Christian from Brooklyn who rose through the ranks of the foreign service to attain the posts of assistant secretary of state and undersecretary of state. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan called Habib out of retirement to serve as his special envoy to the Middle East at a time of growing tension between Israel and the PLO in southern Lebanon. When hostilities erupted into war engulfing Israel, Syria and Palestinian terrorists, Habib engaged in shuttle diplomacy and won the respect of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin as he helped negotiate a truce. In 1982, Habib was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

Habib deserves mention here because of his outspoken conviction that “the United States should support Israel. It’s a long-standing commitment, a commitment that goes through every administration since Truman, that we support the existence and security of Israel. Now, how, to what extent, on what terms at any given moment, those are subjects for discussion, debate, and reformulation. But the basic commitment is maintained.”

For more information, visit www.usps.com/communications/news/stamps/2006/sr06_036.htm

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethcial and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the University of Judaism. Bezalel Gordon is the former news director of the Israel Government Press Office and spokesperson for the Kahan Commission.

 

Visit to Ethiopia Changes His Life


In 2004, John Fishel went to Ethiopia as part of a delegation of American Federation leaders. The experience changed his life.

The president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, along with five members of the UJA Federation of New York, visited shantytowns filled with Ethiopians waiting in squalor for the chance to make aliyah — to immigrate to Israel.

Fishel and the delegation saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, and, if lucky, eating one meal a day. Looking at the desperate faces of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry — Fishel vowed that he would do something.

Africa has long captivated Fishel, who has a degree from the University of Michigan in anthropology. He had visited about 20 African countries, including Nigeria, Liberia and Senegal. However, nothing made as indelible impression on him as that first mission to Ethiopia, which tapped into Fishel’s commitment to Jewish people worldwide.

After that trip, the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization representing 156 federations and 400 independent Jewish organizations across North America, asked Fishel to co-chair a task force to suggest ways federations could help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia. Among the group’s recommendations: The UJC should lobby for the acceleration of aliyah and improve health care and other services for the Ethiopian Jews as they wait to immigrate to Israel.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC recently launched Operation Promise, an ambitious campaign that hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews in the former Soviet Union. The L.A. Federation has pledged to raise $8.5 million for the campaign over the next three years.

“John has given real leadership to the issue of Ethiopian Jewry,” said Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, who earlier this year went to Ethiopia with Fishel and 100 American Jewish federation members. “He’s always been the first one to speak up and stir the conscience of the federation movement.”

On that trip, Fishel’s second to Ethiopia, the federation contingent accompanied nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, as they made the emotional journey by plane from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, to Ben Gurion Airport in Israel.

“John is a very compassionate person and was very moved by what he saw,” said Susan Stern, a fellow mission participant and chairman of the board of the UJA Federation of New York.

Fishel intends to stir other consciences as well. At every opportunity, he said, he has brought the issue of Ethiopian Jewry to the attention of Israeli leaders, from midlevel bureaucrats to prime ministers, including Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert.

“I see Jewish issues as global in scope,” Fishel said. “I think Jews are all responsible for one another, whether in Ethiopia or Russia or Argentina or in the Jewish state.”–MB

 

Eco-Friendly Parties Mix Mitzvah, Simcha


Three days after my son, Will, ascended the bimah as a bar mitzvah, I stopped by our shul to drop off some books and thank the principal of the Hebrew school and others who made his big day such a wonderful experience.

When I got back in my car and drove past the piles of huge trash bags outside the shul’s kitchen door, I got a jarring jolt of reality: white plastic fork tines poked through the black bags and the remnant of a Mylar balloon was blowing in the breeze, caught on a nearby treetop.

While I wouldn’t classify myself as a tree hugger, I felt guilty that my hasty decision-making was impacting the environment. Had I invested a little more time and effort beforehand, I would have made more eco-friendly choices.

April 22 is Earth Day, and this year it lands on Shabbat. What better way to demonstrate our commitment to conserving our world’s precious resources than with b’nai mitzvah planning?

Selecting an environmental mitzvah project is a good starting point. But consider adding eco-friendly substitutes for white plastic tableware, Styrofoam centerpieces, Mylar balloons and elaborate banners. Are your invitations printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks?

If you need some tips, the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL ) can help. The nonprofit publishes “Caring for the Cycle of Life: Creating Environmentally Sound Life-Cycle Celebrations,” which can be purchased online for $4.50. The booklet addresses brit milah, naming ceremony and weddings, and devotes three pages in the b’nai mitzvah section covering such issues as the ecology of the student’s Torah portion, what it means to fulfill the commandment of “to till and to tend” and environmental aspects of holidays, in case your child’s portion involves one. The booklet also covers Shabbat and “how solving environmental problems is an important part of tikkun olam, and then mitzvah project ideas,” said Barbara Lerman-Golomb, associate executive director of COEJL.

The booklet also offers lots of green mitzvah project possibilities that would appeal to kids.

Since many people have books, CDs and videos that they no longer want, you could keep those things out of the wastestream by organizing a drive and donating the items to a hospital, shelter or senior center.

eBay’s Giving Works program offers a high-tech answer. Your child can gather unneeded merchandise in good condition — sports equipment, toys, musical instruments your child had to have but then decided he hated, etc. — and sell it through this online yard sale, transferring the money raised electronically to the charity of his or her choice.

Since kids wear out or outgrow sneakers fairly quickly, why not consider adopting Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program as a mitzvah project? Nike grinds the rubber, foam and upper fabric of any brand of athletic footwear and recycles those components into new material that is used for running tracks, tennis courts, soccer fields and playground surfacing. The program features drop-off locations throughout the L.A. area.

Selecting the right invitation can set the scene for a green b’nai mitzvah day. Handmade, recycled-material paper invitations are obtainable (but not inexpensive) through Indiana-based Twisted Limb Paperworks. For those with a smaller budget, machine-made recycled paper is now available through most regular invitation purveyors. And soy-based inks are starting to gain ground, too.

Whether your family decides to celebrate the simcha quietly with an intimate gathering after services or loudly on a grand scale, food will be served. Even if it’s just challah, cake, coffee and soda, you’ll need cups, plates and utensils. Tables will have to be covered. A few balloons strategically placed outside the sanctuary will add a festive touch.

With more and more consumers clamoring for earth-friendlier options, companies are now producing products that are strong, serviceable, cost-effective and conservational.

If you’re having a colossal Kiddush, consider covering the tables with white butcher paper and using Chinet plates or platters instead of plastic. Made from recycled material, this tableware will stand up to a most generous serving of chopped herring, cheese, egg salad, gefilte fish and all the horseradish you want.

Plastic can take almost forever to break down at the city dump, so if you’re unable to use metal utensils, consider this alternative: biodegradable cutlery. Made of cornstarch, potato or tapioca starch, these utensils look great and work almost as well as plastic. However, potato-starch-based products will hold up better to heat than cornstarch ones. If you don’t find these items at your favorite party store, check with Palo Alto-based nonprofit World Centric, which sells the items online.

When you’re considering balloons, think latex. While it won’t hold helium as long as Mylar, it is made from rubber, a renewable resource that is biodegradable. Color selection is extensive, and size and shape options are pretty good, too. Specialty balloons are available through party planners and retail outlets, like 1-800-Dreidel.

Centerpieces and banners are often quite flashy and extravagant — lots of glitter, Styrofoam, plastic and all sorts of environmental unmentionables. If you choose to take the eco-track, consider using recycled paper banners and decorating tables with pi?atas or live plants, or creating something out of natural materials, like seashells and bamboo. With a little thought, it’s easy to come up with something attractive that won’t condemn the next generation to energy starvation and toxic terror.

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

Links related to this article:

Giving Works
” target=”_blank”>www.nikereuseashoe.com

Twisted Limb Paperworks
” target=”_blank”>www.worldcentric.org/store/cutlery.htm

1-800-Dreidel

Choice of Seminary Leader a Bold Move


The selection of professor Arnold Eisen as the new chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) represents a bold move of unpredictable consequences for its leadership.

Eisen is a distinguished scholar of modern Jewish thought and an insightful student of the American Jewish community. His work, “The Jew Within,” written jointly with Steven Cohen, explores the identity of marginally affiliated contemporary Jews and illustrates the crisis that institutional liberal Judaism has in maintaining the allegiance of a new generation of American Jews.

Few are as equipped as Eisen to understand the dilemmas of Conservative Judaism, which has been buffeted on the right by Chabad and Modern Orthodoxy and on the left by Reform Judaism. More traditional Jews, including many of those trained by the institutions of Conservative Judaism, such as Ramah and the Solomon Schecter Day Schools, move into Modern Orthodoxy. The less devout easily move to a retraditionalized Reform Judaism, and the categories of Conservative Judaism, a liberal, historically oriented halachic Judaism, are alien to virtually all of its members — save their rabbis — and to the overwhelming majority of contemporary Jews who seek to find their own Jewish path. For the religiously innovative, the renewal movement has been attractive, and the denominational identifications of the past generations have proven more porous among contemporary Jews who have chosen a congregation and a community rather than a movement

Eisen is a scholar and not a rabbi.

The unanswered question raised by his appointment is whether he will chose to be the head of an institution or the leader of a movement.

Traditionally, the chancellor of JTS was the principle spokesman, its most recognizable and authoritative voice in Conservative Judaism. Unlike Reform Judaism, where there are two centers of power, the Union for Reform Judaism (formerly the Union of American Hebrew Congregations) and the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), the JTS chancellor was unrivaled for leadership of the movement. It is not known whether Eisen will choose to lead a declining movement or confine himself to rebuilding an academic institution whose graduates of the 1950-1970s dominate Jewish studies in universities and colleges throughout the world. Either way, his appointment is a serious diminishment of rabbinic authority within the Conservative movement.

The rabbi was once a figure of authority because he — and until the 1980s, all Conservative rabbis were men — alone was Jewishly learned; he alone had mastery of text and was intellectually equipped to handle Jewish learning. In the liberal movements of Judaism, learning has moved to the campus, where Jewish scholarship is flourishing and is no longer the monopoly of the rabbi.

Power now has to be shared. For almost a century, JTS was the only place where Conservative rabbis could be trained. Today, New York is one of several centers where Conservative rabbis can be trained. Students can chose Los Angeles or Jerusalem, which now produce rabbis for Conservative congregations. Hebrew College, the new seminary in Boston headed by Arthur Green, one of the most distinguished of JTS graduates from the ’60s, should also be producing rabbis, skilled men and women of serious religious commitment.

Eisen inherits an institution that had recently found itself in the unenviable position of being forced to dispose of valuable Manhattan property to rescue itself from cumbersome debts, all this at a time when elsewhere in the Jewish world, hundreds of millions of dollars have been raised for Jewish scholarship.

As a nonrabbi whose brilliant work is not oriented to classical texts and whose categories of interpretation are not those of Conservative Judaism, he will have quite a challenge in bringing JTS forth into the 21st century.

I would hope that he chooses to lead the movement and not just its seminary, for one wonders whether JTS can thrive without the Conservative movement to produce its students and employ its graduates. Without the congregational base, why would one choose the seminary when the academic study of Judaism is readily available elsewhere.

Were Eisen to assume leadership of the movement, he will find that it has many assets, synagogues where there is genuine community and also serious religiosity, liberal style. The movement includes Camp Ramah, which has been successful for more than half a century and has produced its current and Solomon Schecter schools, which are thriving. There is also the potential of the Masorati movement in Israel. There is much upon which to build.

If Eisen does not lead the Conservative movement, then leadership will have to come from elsewhere, from rabbis, scholars or perhaps lay leaders who can provide a vision of the new generation. Otherwise, the Conservative movement, despite its many assets, will fade from the scene. In conversations with colleagues last weekend, some see the diffusion of leadership as a major virtue, even though it will diminish the influence of JTS, which could not produce a viable candidate within to head the institution.

If reports are to be believed, the search committee rejected the obvious choice, Gordon Tucker, the rabbi who combined academic learning and rabbinic leadership. He faced the problem of many inside candidates whose flaws were known and whose manifold skills were taken for granted. One also suspects that the opponents he made more than a decade ago as dean of the rabbinical school got even and exacted their pound of flesh.

Furthermore, he was an outspoken supporter of the ordination of gays, a position that earned him the enmity of the chancellor, who felt it divisive to the movement and to those on the religious right of Conservative Judaism. Seemingly, Tucker could not be defeated from the right, so an outsider was chosen whose views were unarticulated, although one suspects clearly known.

American Jewry is best off with a strong center, with movements that are thriving; synagogues that are innovating; rabbis who are challenging, spiritually significant and religiously inspired. So one wishes Eisen well as he embarks on his boldest challenge.

Still, in the evolving Judaism of the 21st century, one must marvel at the irony of contemporary Jewish life that the president of HUC-JIR is a far greater student of classical texts, far more immersed in the text of halachic Judaism, than the chancellor of JTS or the president of Yeshiva University. Only in America!

Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

 

Competing Moments of Truth on Schools


On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”

 

Singles – Notes to Self


Note to Self: Do not date a man who says that he can’t be in a relationship. Do not go out with him after he tells you he wants to go out with you — but only casually. Even if everything he says or does proves to the contrary — like for example, he calls you every day and wants to snuggle all the time and bring you flowers and treats you well. Just take him at his word.

Note to Self: Do not psychoanalyze this person’s motivations. Do not reason to yourself that he has issues with his mother/father/pet gerbil. Yes, he might — OK, he does — but are you his analyst or his date? (If you lie on the couch together, chances are you’re not his shrink.) A man will always reveal himself in the first few dates. A woman will wave away his concerns with her “I need a relationship” magic wand. She can also cover her ears and say, “Nyah-nyah-nyah kishkes.” But neither tactic will change his words: “I’m not interested in a serious relationship right now.”

Note to Self: Do not stick with him hoping that he will change his mind, hoping that as he gets to know you things will change and you will convince him how fabulous you are. You are very fabulous, but it is not up to you to be a PR firm for yourself. The Constitution said, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” (Or maybe it was the Declaration of Independence — even better.) The point is you can’t wait around just one more date hoping he will get the memo.

Note to Self: Do not think you can save him. You will not save him; he will drown you first. You entered this arrangement with high self-esteem, so you think you can handle his “casual.” But by the second month of this thing — not a relationship, definitely not a friendship — you will be too weak to assert yourself. Think of the frog boiled to death in the gradually heated water. A gross, but apt, metaphor. Not that you are a frog.

Note To Self: Do not focus on the short-term in the relationship, like how good you guys have it together, how he makes you laugh, how you enjoy his company, how you are just taking it one day at a time. This is what he says, unoriginally — as in: “I’m just taking it one day a time.” Is there anyone who can live two days at a time? All of his “one days” turns into three, four, five months. Five months of limbo.

Note to Self: After you’ve been with this man half a year, you won’t want to let him go, and you start believing that having someone is better than having no one. Listen: Having no one is better than having half a person. Let him go so you will get your full self back.

Note to Self: Breakups aren’t easy, even if you knew the whole time it wasn’t going to work out. Even if you knew from the start. Especially if you knew from the start. Although why would you go out with someone whom you knew a priori wouldn’t work out? Maybe you should write a note to yourself not to do this anymore.

Note to Him: Dear John, I had such a nice time hanging out with you. But if it’s true that you don’t want to be in a relationship, I guess we’re going to have to stop seeing each other. I’m sad because it’s rare to meet someone you connect with, and it’s hard to pass up. But I can’t start a relationship with preconditions. I can’t have a relationship with someone who doesn’t want a relationship. I’d love to have that chance with you, so if you change your mind about your state, about me, about us, give me a call.

From,

Self.

 

Big Sunday Gets Big Boost From City


Big Sunday began in 1999 with 300 Jewish volunteers devoted to a day of good works. That was impressive in a city notorious for lack of civic involvement — but that was just the beginning.

What started as Mitzvah Day for congregants of Temple Israel of Hollywood gradually spread across the city and beyond the Jewish community, with 8,000 participants from all socio-economic and religious backgrounds working on 150 different projects last year. Now the event has taken another big leap — suddenly, Big Sunday is the business of the city of Los Angeles.

This year, Los Angeles assumes the headline role in sponsoring the May 7 event. The planning began officially last week at Temple Israel. About 170 attended, including about 30 representatives of city government, among them Larry Frank, deputy mayor of neighborhood and community services.

Frank said that the mayor’s office would “like to help the whole city do what you’ve been doing for the past seven years.”

“We want this to be as big as the marathon, as big as the Grammys,” he said. “We want everyone to be able to participate.”

This year, as a result of the city partnership, event founder David Levinson expects as many as 25,000 volunteers.

“Do the math,” he said at the planning meeting. “We had 8,000 last year. Mayor Villaraigosa’s citywide day of service in October drew 7,500. That’s already over 15,000.”

The variety of projects last year was diverse, ranging from bathing rescued basset hounds to furnishing apartments for the homeless. Some volunteers painted murals and planted a garden at Grand View Elementary School in Mar Vista, while another crew in the kitchen made casseroles to freeze and distribute to AIDS victims.

“My honest belief is that everyone wants to help and everyone can help,” said Levinson, a playwright and TV writer who still chairs the event.

“If someone says they can’t make it because they have a 1-year-old, I tell them to bring [the baby] to a nursing home. All she has to do is breathe, and she’ll make the residents happy,” Levinson said. “We had a blind theater group washing cars. At a party we threw for low-income seniors, one of the activities was making silk flowers for shut-ins at a nursing home.

“It’s not about the haves helping the have-nots,” he explained. “It’s about everyone working together.”

Last year’s participants hailed from more than 100 synagogues (all denominations from Reform to Orthodox to Reconstructionist), churches, schools, offices and clubs, as well as hundreds of individuals and families. They worked on almost 150 different projects from Acton to Anaheim.

As book captain, Racelle Schaefer, a Temple Israel member who has volunteered every year, spends months organizing book drives at schools.

“We also get donations of new children’s books from Houghton Mifflin,” she said. “Last year we distributed over 8,000 books throughout the city on Big Sunday.”

Corporate, private and organizational donors underwrite the day, including Temple Israel. The budget this year is $450,000. The city’s participation will include providing security, busing and street closures. Additional donors are both welcomed and needed, Levinson said.

“I have absolutely no idea how we’ll pay for it this year,” he added. “It’s a cliff-hanger, but we always figure something out.”

An improved Web site will make coordination easier. Volunteers can click on a listed project and get an automatic confirmation, map, contact person and any special instructions.

“I see Big Sunday as an appetizer platter for volunteers,” said Sherry Marks, vice chair and volunteer coordinator. “There are hundreds of worthy nonprofits that need our people. If you wanted, you could start at 7 a.m. and work at four or five different sites during the day.

“You could make meals at a shelter, take senior citizens out to tea or provide makeovers for women who are re-entering the work force,” she continued. “[The volunteering] often works as a catalyst, getting people to make an ongoing commitment to a particular organization.”

For more information visit www.bigsunday.org

 

Selling Judaism: Let’s Make It Harder


When it comes to marketing Judaism, especially to young adults, it is hard to imagine a program, innovation and –dare I say it — gimmick that has not been tried. I would like to suggest one.

Let’s make Judaism harder.

Really, I am serious.

This has nothing to do with theology and everything to do with human nature. I think, at least as far as Generation X is concerned, “user friendly” is killing us. From the time our children are small, we teach them that individual growth and accomplishment require consistency, discipline, obligation, resolve, patience and the willingness to experience short-term discomfort in exchange for long-term growth.

There is also another important requirement – sweat. The sweat can be physical, emotional, intellectual and even spiritual, but there has to be some real sweat.

We have taught them that all serious relationships and endeavors require these things. There are no exceptions.

Why should their relationship with Judaism be any different?

Our children have learned the lesson well. They simply do not trust or take seriously that which does not make serious demands on them. They seek serious challenges to define themselves. Yet, the overwhelming majority of our young people see the Judaism being marketed to them as profoundly counter-intuitive and not worthy of their time or their serious involvement.

Don’t ask me to cite statistics. You can come up with your studies. I can come up with mine. I ask you to do your own thinking. Look around your synagogue or temple on a plain vanilla Saturday morning, when there are no single events and no bar or bat mitzvahs being celebrated. How many single people do you see between the ages of 18 and 40?

When young adults want to grow, they seek out teachers and professionals whom they expect will make demands on them. I am talking about personal trainers, psychologists, dieticians, yoga teachers, martial arts instructors, etc.

All these people tell our young people: “You came here to grow, not to be entertained. Expect to sweat. Expect to be challenged. Expect to deal with discomfort and find within yourself the character and determination to work through it. You don’t get to choose the parts of what we do that you like. Suspend your disbelief, at least temporarily, and dive in. If you stick it out, however, you will be transformed.”

Not only are so many young people willing to do these things despite the initial discomfort, they actually welcome the challenge. They know that to be seriously formed, they have to be willing to place themselves between the hammer and the anvil.

With notable exceptions, the only people who resist approaching our youth in this manner are our rabbis. To be fair, our rabbis are constantly being reminded by boards of directors, funding groups and even their own rabbinic organizations not to do anything to make our young people uncomfortable. As a result, our youth seek that legitimate discomfort that is an intrinsic aspect of real growth somewhere else.

Let’s call this marketing model I just described as the “personal growth model.” Some Jewish groups use this model to great effect. Most of these are Orthodox outreach groups but not all.

Although the demographic is a bit younger, Camp Ramah has successfully associated the notion of Jewish practices, Jewish standards and, yes, Jewish discipline with a kind of positive sense of obligation and esprit de corps. In fact, Camp Ramah sells the idea of a structured, disciplined Judaism so well that parents are often surprised when returning children want to keep kosher and observe Shabbat.

Another great success is the day school movement. Day schools are able to create committed Jews, at least in part, because they successfully combine Judaism with discipline and standards of excellence. This results in a student’s relationship with Judaism that emphasizes the intuitive, resulting in legitimate self-esteem earned through serious effort. This relationship between the student and a disciplined Jewish life becomes an intrinsic part of the student’s self definition and continues indefinitely, even when formal education comes to an end.

Yet most Jewish groups and institutions avoid using the personal growth model, which emphasizes discipline and structure, because they believe it will alienate our young adults. (Could they possibly be any more alienated?) Instead, these groups and institutions use what I call “the hobby model.”

They market Judaism with programs that try to tell young Jewish singles that Judaism is entertaining, nonobligating, enjoyable and will never make them uncomfortable. Also, these Gen Xers are told that they don’t have to buy the whole package but, rather, can just choose to do whatever they find appealing.

I am not saying that those who use this marketing approach believe that Judaism is a hobby. I am saying that whether they realize it or not, this is how their selling approach is perceived.

A few months ago, Rabbi David Wolpe was quoted in The New York Jewish Week as having said, “Presenting a Judaism of joy is much more powerful to people than presenting a Judaism of defiant, rear-guard obligation.”

Surely Rabbi Wolpe is correct, but a proactive, disciplined, obligating Judaism through which we receive that unique joy associated with challenging our comfort level is the most powerful model yet. It is the model that resonates with every other important endeavor and relationship we have in our lives.

Seeking joy in a Jewish context, while reducing the importance of obligation, will likely produce nothing more than an epicurean joy at best. In our tradition, as with the modern self-help model, serious joy always comes with a plan and a purpose.

We are, for example, commanded to be joyful on the festivals. Not surprisingly, that plan almost always challenges our comfort level. The psalmist tells us, “Serve God joyfully.” The operative word is “serve.” Joy comes from service.

The other problem is that our idea of what is joyful is constantly changing. Remember the parent, teacher or boss we hated, only to look back on those people years later with the greatest respect, affection and admiration. Finding joy by seeking it or isolating it reminds me of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. By the time we get there, there is already somewhere else.

The best and brightest of our young people are not looking for excuses, shortcuts and obfuscation. They want clarity, a good reason and a plan.

Young people often relate to sports. Sports have rules. In sports, you have a goal. Progress and results are measurable. Mastery and excellence are achievable. Our common-sense experience of life as human beings and as Jews tells us we need to spend less time searching for spirituality and more time working at it.

There is an old expression: “You can like because, but only love in spite of.” When we try to engineer all of the “in spite ofs” out of Judaism, there is nothing left to love.

The week after my son Judah’s bar mitzvah, he began training in the martial arts. He chose to join a particularly difficult Okinawan style known for its tough testing requirements and serious challenges to a student’s mind and body. Promotions through the various colored belt ranks took about twice as long as they did in other schools. Last month he received his black belt the week before his 22nd birthday.

Some years back, in a moment of weakness and false fatherly pride, I reminded him that had he gone to another martial arts school, he would have had his black belt already. He gave me a puzzled look and said, “Dad, it’s not the destination, it’s the road.” His comment made me feel both ashamed and proud at the same time.

In most cases, being involved with those other roads is fine, but as regards a serious, intuitive, principled approach to Jewish life, we have, in large measure, denied our young people the experience of that road.

These wonderful young men and women are willing and able and more than capable of walking this road. It’s time for our rabbis and leaders to show them how to find it.

Rafael Guber is a professional genealogist, curator and author who divides his time between New York and Los Angeles. He is a featured expert on the PBS series “Ancestors” and co-creator of “Finding Our Families, Finding Ourselves” at the Museum of Tolerance.

 

How to Keep Your Love Alive


I’m smiling a lot these days because I’ve recently fallen in love. Starting over at 56 years young, it’s unlikely that I’ll experience a golden anniversary, but I’d really, truly like to enjoy and adore one special person for the rest of my hopefully long, healthy life.

With the divorce rate in this country still shockingly high, I wondered how it’s possible to stay in love for many, many years.

But then there are the examples of:

Joan and Harry Gould, married 51 years;

Ruth and Herb Forer, married 55 years;

Janet and Jake Farber, also married 55 years;

Millie and Mike Hersch, married for 58 years;

and Marjorie and Rabbi Jacob Pressman, married for 63 years.

There is much that we “young” folks can learn from these devoted partners who have succeeded at keeping love alive, year after year after year.

Couples who have created a partnership and life together consistently talk of the effort involved. Yes, some relationships seem easier than others, but all say it takes time, energy and a true willingness to face whatever comes along on their journey together.

“It’s a lot of give and take, just like in business,” Jake Farber said. “If you don’t have that, you won’t have a lasting marriage.”

“I think you have to be patient and flexible,” Janet Farber said. “Compromise is so important. One time you give in a little bit, and the next time the other person gives in. Everyone has times where someone in the family is having problems, or there are emotional difficulties, but you try to communicate and get through the hard times.”

Rabbi Jacob Pressman has counseled many couples over the years, some of whom, he said, have “stayed together miraculously. I notice that as the years go by and they stick it out, the differences begin to melt away and they begin to be more like each other and grow closer. And they have a mature love. They’ve gotten over some of the pettiness of some of the differences in life. Now their lives are more the same and the controversies are minimized.”

This shared commitment to face challenges and keep communicating through difficult times seems to be such a critical aspect of keeping love alive. In his book “Becoming Partners” psychotherapist Carl Rogers writes about threads of permanence and enrichment in relationships. One element he explores is dedication — not to a marriage contract, but to a continuing process that the partnership goes through. “The commitment is individual, but the constant, difficult, risky work is of necessity work that is done together,” he writes.

The Forers, both 75, met when they were 16, and got married when they were 20 years old. The constant work that Rogers writes about is familiar to Herb Forer.

“There’s no perfect person,” he said. “We all come into our relationships with our own warts and shortcomings and our own strengths. On any given day in a marriage, anybody could say, ‘What do I need this for?’ But then you realize the things that bother you are silly. You have so much more in common and so much fun together, and those difficult days pass.”

And the Forers’ know about difficult days. Their relationship was severely tested when they lost their first child at 10 months old. Herb and Ruth were both 25 at the time, but the tragic loss led to a conscious decision about how they would live as a couple.

“We vowed that we’d work together to fulfill the type of life we wanted — to not blame each other, not find fault, or let unimportant things upset us,” Herb Forer said. “We agreed to discuss things openly and communicate. And we decided to focus on the real priorities in our life and our common goals, rather than using the strains in life to separate us.”

Along with common interests and commitments, couples who create a successful life together seem to really support each other’s individuality and growth. Rogers writes, “When each partner is making progress toward becoming increasingly his or her own self, the partnership becomes more enriching.”

Joan and Harry Gould, who are both psychologists, agree. “Keeping yourself vital and interested in the world is the primary thing,” said Harry Gould, who is 81. “You can’t just look to the other person to keep you inspired. If both people are thinking about their own lives and development, it enhances the relationship.”

Joan Gould appreciates the fact that both her husband and their relationship are constantly changing. “I discover new things about Harry that I never knew before. It would be boring otherwise. He is a different person at 80 than he was at 40 or 50. He’s changing and I’m changing. Consequently the relationship changes and grows,” she said.

Rabbi Pressman sees his marriage to Marjorie as a constant source of stimulation and fun. “We’ve always entertained each other,” he said. “We’re both rather clever and bright, and we admire that in each other, so there’s a freshness about our lives almost all the time. We laugh together at the same things. And we surprise each other so there’s ever a new personality and yet the same personality. We didn’t have any mid-life crisis; we’re still juveniles.”

“When my husband retired and it was the first time he could take a weekend off, I’d arrange a weekend away,” Marjorie Pressman said. “Sometimes I’d surprise him. I’d just tell him what to pack and we’d go down the coast and stay at a hotel and just have a good time together. We’ve been really blessed. I don’t think either of us expected to live this long but here we are. He just turned 86…. I’m a little younger.”

Looking back with amazement at the many years they’ve shared seems a common theme for these couples.

“Being married this long came as a surprise to me,” Millie Hersch said. “When we were first married, I worried about what I’d talk to him about and figured it wouldn’t last very long. But the years have just gone by.”

When a love lasts for many, many years and people grow old together, there seems to be a shift in what is most important within that partnership.

“It’s a lot better for us in retirement, when there are minimal pressures on us, and we just face life together as a team,” Herb Forer said. “We don’t take ourselves seriously. We take what we do seriously, but not ourselves. We listen to each other and try to anticipate each other’s needs and try to make each other as comfortable as we can and do for each other. We’re just having fun.”

But having a relationship that lasts many years can also mean facing difficult challenges, and making adjustments with age.

“The aging is a whole new time of life,” Harry Gould said. “We haven’t been each others’ physical and psychological and mental helpers before. There’s a sense of becoming a parent to each other at times. That’s new. Some people get frightened of the changes they go through as they age, and it might cause them to pull away and withdraw in their marriage. But it’s so important to talk about your feelings. Talk about how this new time of life is for you. Talk, talk, talk. Share yourself.”

Besides the challenges of aging together along a shared path, these couples have all discovered new ways of loving.

“The senior caring about each other is different than courtship and honeymoon. We take care of each other at this point, not out of duty, but out of a profound love,” Rabbi Pressman said.

I’m inspired and moved by these stories of heartfelt, lifelong devotion. Whether you are renewing an existing relationship or starting a new journey in love as I am, these couples can give us hope that someday we, too, will look back in celebration over many years of keeping a precious love alive.

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net and www.livinglegaciesfamilyhistories.com.

 

Happy Non-Anniversary


I know that I was angry at L. I remember feeling frustrated and sad, not so much over L., but about the life we had envisioned, that I had started to view as a reality. I found myself mourning the losses that never were — theoretical, suppositional losses — the honeymoon we would not spend in Jerusalem; the home we would not set up together; the children we would not have.

L. and I broke off our engagement last year, a month before our wedding date of June 20.

On the day our wedding was to have been, I was intensely aware of the time when we would have been standing under the chuppah, without seeing a clock or watch. My breath stopped, and I stood still, feeling the growing ache in my chest. I spent the day alone, and I cried. And I thought about cosmic meaning and why this was happening to me. And then everything was fine.

Sort of.

It was not a pleasant summer, but June 21 marked a new phase. Once the day of the non-wedding passed, I was able to move on.

It was a weird time. People didn’t know what to say. It was not a tragedy; it was not even heartbreaking like a divorce when children are involved. I recognized that. But it did suck.

“Better now than later,” people said.

Better still would have been before the invitations went out, guests made plane and hotel reservations and gifts were delivered. As L. was from Colorado but studying in New York, all the gifts had been delivered to my parents’ house in New York, and served as a reminder for weeks of what would not be — until everything could be sorted out. One of the hardest things was having to explain to each person why the gifts were being returned.

I immediately missed having someone in my life; I missed being a couple, interacting with others as a couple, a state I had graduated to after years of singlehood. I had been one of the elite, an engaged man, a living defiance of statistics and the fear of commitment. I missed L.’s smile, and the joy of giving to someone so fully and with such love. How could it have fallen apart so quickly, all in the span of a week?

Of course, hindsight is astounding in its clarity. I was so eager to marry that I made the mistake of getting engaged to the wrong woman. I remain thankful that the marriage did not go through, not because L. is a horrible person — on the contrary, she is sweet and lovely — but simply because we were wrong for each other.

I think I agree with what some rabbis say — that you could get married to 90 percent of the opposite sex and make it work … but why should you have to? Why not look for the 10 percent who are actually a good fit for you?

All the anger, sadness, frustration have long since dissipated. I can barely recall how excited I was on our first date, or the pain I felt when it was clear things would not work out. Instead, I remember all the wonderful friends — and people I had not been in touch with for years — who called to tell me of their own broken engagement stories.

A few months ago, I took apart the scrapbook I had made for L. as an engagement gift, and just this past week, as part of a cleaning spree, I threw out all the pictures I had of her. I don’t like throwing out pictures — something about seeing faces in a wastebasket is eerie — but I didn’t feel right holding onto them. It was the closing of a book, and having not read it for a while, it was slowly fading, the details becoming distant memory, the story a blend of the real and the imagined. June 20 came and went like a dream.

Michael Rose is a New York-based writer at work on his first novel. He can be reached at mcarose@gmail.com.

 

Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step


University of Judaism

It might just be a demographic blip, but it certainly is an interesting one. This year’s graduating class of rabbis at the Conservative University of Judaism (UJ) in Los Angeles is made up of four women and two men. And at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, there are 10 women to the seven men.

Are female rabbis taking over the Conservative movement — which only began ordaining women in 1985?

Probably not, said Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at UJ, on a hilltop campus where Mulholland Drive and Sepulveda Boulevard meet.

The gender breakdown is about 50-50 among the 75 rabbinic students at the school, Artson said. That ratio, he said, reflects the school’s commitment to gender-blind admissions, and to the work the school does to make sure UJ is open to women in all ways.

“Opening a school to women but not talking about the ways in which gender shapes a certain reality is not really admitting women,” Artson said. “We have been conscious about making gender something we talk about here.”

That means classes and mentorships bring the societal sexual divide to the foreground. And, Artson said, women are occupying an increasingly prominent role in the administration.

Founded in 1947 as a satellite of JTS, UJ began ordaining rabbis six years ago, and the fruit of that shift to independence will be apparent next year, as about 20 rabbis will be up for ordination, compared to the seven or eight of years past.

“For 100 years, the Conservative movement had one rabbinical school,” Artson said. “It’s taken a while to grow into and embrace this new expanded reality.”

Academy for Jewish Religion

Just six years after it was founded, the Academy for Jewish Religion(AJR) has a graduating class that is almost as large as the classes at the more established ordaining institutions in Los Angeles.

AJR, which is unaffiliated with any denomination, is graduating five rabbis, not far behind the UJ’s six and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s eight. In addition, AJR is the only show in town ordaining cantors, with two graduating this year.

The niche audience of mostly second-career students interested in a pluralistic education has proven to be a large and dependable one, with 60 students enrolled for professional training as rabbis, cantors and chaplains.

AJR graduates fill roles that don’t fall neatly within the organized Jewish world, such as presiding at life-cycle events for the unaffiliated, leading independent prayer groups and serving in chaplaincy positions, said AJR founding chairman Rabbi Stan Levy.

“We go to wherever Jews are finding themselves, and we try to get them into a more intensive Jewish spiritual life,” Levy said.

AJR has outgrown its quarters at Temple Beth Torah on Venice Boulevard, and is negotiating the final details to move into the Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA.

Levy looks forward to planning joint programming with both Hillel and the university.

“It’s a far more prominent location for us to be in, right in the center of a vibrant university with a vibrant Hillel,” Levy said.

 

Discovering Keys to Lasting Matrimony


“Everlasting Matrimony: Pearls of Wisdom From Couples Married 50 Years or More,” by Sheryl P. Kurland (American Literary Press, $39.95).

In the late 1940s, Ron Farrar’s and Joan Pachtman’s passion to help those in need charted the course for personal passion and lifelong matrimony. The West Hills residents met in college, when Ron was a member of a veteran’s organization and Joan belonged to a service club.

The two groups shared office space, and their frequent sittings led to another common interest — each other. Today, 53 wedding anniversaries later, their love is deeper and richer than ever before.

In the United States, according to the National Marriage Project, the odds of a marriage lasting, much less lasting over 50 years, are dim. Statistics released by the organization show:

• The U.S. divorce rate is close to 50 percent;

• Today’s divorce rate is more than double that of 1960;

• The number of people getting married has declined 40 percent from 1970 to 2002;

• The more partners people live with, and the longer the time they live together, the more likely they will eventually divorce.

Even with shelves full of self-help marriage books available today, the statistics aren’t improving. Celebrity divorces are splashed across news headlines: Celebrities terminate marriages as if they’re spilling out a bad cup of coffee.

We rarely hear of success stories of real marriage experts, like that of the Farrars.

The Farrars are one of 75 couples I interviewed — husbands and wives separately — across the United States and Canada who’ve celebrated no less than their golden anniversaries. Two other couples from the Los Angeles area are also featured in my book, “Everlasting Matrimony”: Russell and Ruth Blinick of Chatsworth, married 52 years, and Arthur and Anna Cohen of West Hills, married 54 years.

What makes a marriage loving and lasting until death do us part? The lessons in “Everlasting Matrimony” are innumerable. The Farrars, Blinicks and Cohens share theirs:

Accept nothing less than permanence.

“There are many wonderful ups and difficult downs in the course of a long marriage and certainly moments of wanting to flee,” Russell Blinick said. “There slowly evolves, however, a realization that something strong and reassuring is being established.”

Blinick echoed a stalwart philosophy expressed by others in the book that divorce was never an option.

Today’s naysayers challenging this core commitment believe that this generation of couples stayed married, no matter how miserable the relationship became. On the contrary, no matter how difficult the circumstances, their attitude and determination to keep the marriage afloat never wavered.

Through compromise and communication, and patience and understanding, harmony eventually was restored. Ultimately, the marital bond became more meaningful, sacred and rewarding.

Sprinkle anger with humor.

“It took us many years to learn how to ‘fight,’ but now we are aware that we have periods of stress, can argue, get it out on the table and negotiate it, and then let go of it,” Ruth Blinick said. “A sense of humor is always important.”

Disagreements can only be solved with each spouse giving a little here and there, with one person sometimes abdicating more than the other. Laughter is often the best anecdote for problems.

So what if she mistakenly threw out the green bean casserole that he was going to eat for lunch? Is it a major offense that he erroneously read the friend’s party invitation, and they showed up on the wrong date? Chastise or chuckle? The choice is yours.

Be willing to make changes. Children, money, health — different factors, planned and unplanned, impact a marriage over the years.

“Ideally, both [partners] should be able to change; to initiate change and anticipate change, and sometimes switch roles,” Anna Cohen said.

There’s no pat formula for a solid, loving marriage. Additionally, the formula that works today will require alterations over and over and over again throughout the years.

Capitalize on each individual’s strengths and weaknesses. Pooling talents, skills, likes and dislikes creates a dynamic duo.

“We found that we worked very well together as a team,” Joan Farrar said. “When we teamed up, we found that we could do anything together.”

Feeling good about the relationship requires first feeling good about yourself.

“A long-lasting marriage demands loving, liking and respecting. If I love, like and respect me healthily, I will love, like and respect thee healthily,” Arthur Cohen said.

Being self-content as an individual is essential to the health of couplehood. Complacency of either partner produces stress and anxiety in the relationship.

When talking with each couple, it was easily evident that their hearts still go pitter-patter. Each spouse was quick to praise the other for the success of the marriage.

Ron Farrar’s closing words well represented the depth of their love: “I love her [my wife] dearly — far more than at the beginning of our marriage…. I find myself grateful to the point of tears that I ended up with the girl I did.”

Sheryl P. Kurland resides in Longwood, Fla. For more information, visit www.everlastingmatrimony.com.

Principal for a Day, Lesson for a Lifetime


 

This Wednesday dawns as another tough, typical grind for the principal of the Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies (SOCES). There’s the 7:15 a.m. arrival and the 10 p.m. departure. Then there’s the picket line set up by half the teaching staff. And later, the little problem of not having eye washes in science classrooms in case experiments go dangerously wrong.

It’s a lot more than Kenn Phillips could have bargained for when he accepted this gig as principal. Lucky for him, he doesn’t have to come back tomorrow.

That’s because Phillips isn’t the real principal, but merely principal for a day. Phillips is among more than 200 professionals who arranged to shadow principals as part of a Los Angeles Unified School District effort to create alliances between businesses and schools. Phillips is getting an early start with his mid-March stint. Nearly all of the other short-timers are serving on Tuesday, March 29.

At the Center for Enriched Studies, the Principal-for-a-Day ritual has a distinctly Jewish cast. Phillips, a 46-year-old businessman, is Jewish, and so is the actual principal, 56-year-old Robert Weinberg. SOCES, as the school is called, has a sizable contingent of Jewish students, an estimated 20 percent. He considers character education, often expressed through religious traditions, to be at the core of developing responsible young adults. His sign-off after announcements wishes students a good day and reminds them “character counts.”

SOCES, in Tarzana, is not a district trouble spot by any measure. Its test scores are among Los Angeles’ best; its students almost universally attend college. But that doesn’t make the principal’s job easy, as Phillips learns.

Not that Weinberg is complaining. He’s entirely immersed in his role.

“Most people, when they come to this school,” Weinberg says, “find it’s a magical kind of place.”

OK, it’s not so magical to find 35 teachers picketing, but they’re not mad at the principal, only upset over several years without pay raises. And the cause of the 10 p.m. departure is a concert, a special event that Weinberg is pleased lose sleep for. As for the eye washes — Weinberg can handle that, too. By day’s end, he decides to spend grant money to buy them. He’s got plenty of other potential uses for those funds, but safety, he concludes, has to come first.

Phillips’ visit quickly becomes an exchange of ideas, a sharing of experiences. Phillips has shadowed a principal seven times: “It’s important that I understand what Bob, the teachers and students are thinking, because when I meet with people at a very high level, they don’t know the pulse of what’s going on,” said Phillips, a director at the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley.

So, at 10:15 a.m., when Weinberg grabs his walkie-talkie and heads outside, Phillips, mobile phone strapped to his belt, follows. Phillips is dressed smartly, sleekly, in a business suit and gleaming blue tie. Weinberg, by contrast, is large — 6-foot-8 — and more rumpled. He’s known for occasionally dressing up as “Bob the Builder.”

Weinberg leans against a railing at the center of campus, while teachers and many of the school’s 1,750 students stream by. SOCES is known for a student body that ranges in age from 10 to 18. Little girls, dressed in pink, snack on bagels, while a high school couple walks past with arms draped around one another. A teenage boy sitting on a bench plays guitar.

“What are we doing?” Phillips asks.

“We’re doing supervision,” Weinberg answers. “If kids want to talk to me, they have access.”

“Hey, Mr. Weinberg,” says a redheaded sprout. “Have a peanut M&M. I bought them, so you could have one.”

Weinberg obliges.

The bell sounds and students dart in every direction. Weinberg stays in place, issuing tardy slips.

But he’s not just giving a demonstration in school administration. He wants to hear Phillips’ ideas on education. Businesses need students with better communication and teamwork skills, Phillips says, and with a stronger commitment to ethics. During part of the day, he will share these beliefs with a class of high schoolers.

Weinberg leads Phillips down a hallway, explaining that advanced students can take classes at Pierce College in Woodland Hills.

“Have you thought about adding a bungalow here, so that instead of kids going to Pierce, you’d have [the instructors] come here?” Phillips asks.

“No, but that’d be great,” Weinberg says.

As they walk through an outdoor cafeteria, Phillips asks, “Do you have an active PTA?”

Weinberg, in his fifth year here, says the school has no PTA at all, but he’d like to establish one.

“If you need help, I’ll see if we can make that work for you,” Phillips says.

He explains that a president of the association sits on his company’s board.

The two step into an auditorium blaring with music, where orchestra students rehearse for the evening’s concert. Weinberg points out how he renovated the place with contributions from corporate sponsors.

When it’s time for the two to part, Weinberg lumbers through one door to “do supervision,” while Phillips glides through a different one to return to his world of business.

Before he leaves, Phillips asked: “If you had all the money in the world, what would you do?”

Weinberg says he would reduce class sizes, add more time to the school year and get every teacher to believe that any student can learn.

If Phillips and his corporate associates could help accomplish those things, he’d be welcome to stand in as principal any day.

 

What’s Next for Shalhevet?


 

Sitting at the back of a large multipurpose room packed full of students and staff at Shalhevet’s weekly town hall meeting, Jerry Friedman is kvelling at a level usually reserved for grandparents at a bar mitzvah.

Someone taps him on the shoulder, and Friedman reluctantly excuses himself to take a phone call.

A half-hour later, back in his office, he says that during the interval he nailed a $500,000 donation. It’s good news for a hand-to-mouth school that for the past few years has suffered an enrollment and fundraising slump.

Despite its fair share of controversy and assaults on its reputation, the school Friedman founded 13 years ago has established itself as an innovative, liberal Modern Orthodox high school with high academic standards, where kids for the most part really love the school.

Now, as it reaches the traditional age of maturity, Shalhevet is working hard to ensure its continuity, as it determines what role the man who gave birth to and still controls the school should play.

Friedman’s silver convertible Jaguar, parked right at the school’s front doors, sports “SHLHVT” vanity plates. He has been the head of school, the president of the board, the executive director and the main fundraiser — and he has never drawn a salary.

Friedman acknowledges that for the good of the school, he must allow others to take over critical tasks. This year, the school hired an executive director for the first time, taking all operational and financial issues out of Friedman’s lap. An active lay board has taken shape, and a nominating committee will soon tap a president so that Friedman can vacate that position as well. He says he will focus all of his energies on the educational and moral development of the students and, of course, still have his hand in some fundraising.

But whether those changes will be enough, and just how far Friedman is willing to pull back, could play a role in determining how the school faces some of the biggest challenges in its short history.

This year’s ninth-grade class represented the lowest number of applicants the school has received since it became firmly established. While there are between 50 and 60 students in the 10th, 11th and 12th grades, there are only 36 ninth-graders, and that number represents a significantly higher percentage of acceptances out of the total pool of applicants than in previous years.

Quality and quantity among applicants has improved for next year, according to Beatrice Levavi, director of admissions.

Friedman attributes the dip to years worth of communal lashon harah, or slandering. Shalhevet challenges local religious norms by being a coeducational yeshiva where girls learn Gemara, and some segments of the Orthodox community have been maligning the school since before it opened.

Teachers at the Orthodox feeder schools have actively discouraged students from going to Shalhevet. Parents and students report of hearing a teacher at a day school call Shalhevet girls “sluts,” and of getting the heart-to-heart from concerned teachers when a student professes interest in Shalhevet. One parent said his daughter’s eighth-grade mentor refused to write a recommendation when she wanted to go to Shalhevet, and others report transcripts being withheld.

All of this has put Shalhevet constantly on the defensive, but more telling than the communal bad-mouthing is the fact that former Shalhevet supporters have defected. A number of younger siblings of Shalhevet students have gone instead to YULA, a more traditional Orthodox yeshiva and Shalhevet’s primary competition.

How did a school that nearly everyone agrees fills a much-needed niche for a more open-minded Modern Orthodox education, and has been quite successful in secular academics, lose so many supporters — both in terms of donors and students?

Families who spoke to The Journal strongly support the school’s vision and philosophy from the nonjudgmental Modern Orthodoxy to the passionate Zionism to the focus on moral development where kids participate in democratic decision making. They said that their kids came out with a sense of confidence and respect for intellectual curiosity.

But, they said, the school was run so sloppily at every level that disorganization and flakiness dominated the operations and even some academic aspects of the school (most parents spoke on condition of anonymity, since some have students at school).

“What frustrated a lot of parents was that this was the only school with a mission we believed in, but the problems overwhelmed the mission,” said one father who sent a child to YULA after other children were already at Shalhevet.

Just how much of the disorganization can be attributed to Friedman’s omnipresence — and his reputed abrasiveness — is a matter of opinion. Friedman admits that operations suffered because he was spread too thin, and that he lacks the diplomacy sometimes necessary to stroke the egos of parents and big donors.

“After 13 years I’ve made a dozen or so enemies, but I’ve always been consistent on principles,” he said. “I understood that if we are building a school based on morality and ethics, then the greatest hypocrisy would be to say, ‘write a check and I’ll do what you want.'”

Several parents question whether the current changes are enough, as long as Friedman remains head of school.

“As a personal achievement for Jerry and in filling a community niche it is remarkable,” said one former parent, who is a prominent community leader. “But it is an institution dominated by one individual who can’t seem to let go or create an organizational structure that allows it to be a normal place. That is really the issue. Everything else is small. Everything else would fall into place if it were allowed to develop in a natural way.”

Friedman, a successful real estate developer and philanthropist, got his doctorate from Harvard when he was 50 with a thesis focusing on the moral development of day school kids. He came back to Los Angeles and poured millions of his own money into creating Shalhevet.

Students are passionate about the school.

“There are so many terrible rumors, but nobody sees how amazing Shalhevet is from the inside. Kids come to school, and they are happy and love being at Shalhevet,” said Sarah Honig, an 11th-grader who started an external-affairs committee to counter community badmouthing. She points to the plethora of opportunities in the arts and social action, and the mutual respect and caring among teachers and students.

“Certainly it’s not perfect and lots of kooky things go on in the school, but it really is a vibrant community where a lot of wonderful things happen,” said senior Leor Hackel, who plans to spend next year in yeshiva in Israel and then to go to Yale, were he got in early admission.

After so many parents complained — or just left — Shalhevet has worked to tame the atmosphere of a free-for-all, where classes were often canceled, rules were loose and changed often, and Judaic studies weren’t taken seriously, according to parents and students interviewed.

Two years ago, Friedman instructed general studies principal Sam Gomberg to tighten things up, and students and staff admit it took a while to find the right balance between having a disciplined atmosphere and maintaining the commitment to a democracy in which students play a role.

Judaic studies are also being beefed up, with more advanced classes, more Gemara and more demands in existing classes. The school is searching for a rosh yeshiva to end the revolving door of Israeli rabbis who have traditionally filled the position for two- or three-year stints.

Administrators acknowledge that admissions had gotten out of hand in the past few years, with Friedman not wanting to turn away students who might not get a Jewish education otherwise. He acknowledges that he let in students who were unqualified and handed out scholarships with little or no system.

This year Levavi, who has been on the administrative staff for seven years and is the mother of four Shalhevet graduates and two current students, is being very selective in admissions.

“We’re interviewing amazing kids,” she said. “I have every belief that we are going to have a remarkable ninth grade next year.”

New structures are also being implemented to tighten tuition collection and how scholarships are awarded. For years the school ran at a deficit and fundraising was a frantic pursuit, born out of starting out undercapitalized and then straining to buy the $6.8 million Westside Hospital building on Olympic Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue in 1999.

Four months ago, Ken Milman, who had been head of the collections department for IDT Telecommunications, was hired as executive director to put the house in order.

“If you come in and see stacks of bills not getting paid and check requests sitting there and teachers wanting books and things not getting fulfilled on time, it is a matter of putting in business processes to solve those problems,” said Milman, who handles all nonacademic operations and reports directly to the board, not to Friedman.

Friedman and others hope that empowering a lay board of 22 people — larger and more diverse than the school has ever had — will help take the focus off Friedman and put it back on the school.

“It is part of the maturation of the school that after some period of time the person who really is the school starts looking to others to take over responsibility, while maintaining the basic reasons for why the school was set up,” said Marc Rohatiner, a board member who has had three daughters at Shalhevet. “This is not a model that can survive as the school grows, where there is one person responsible for all aspects. There has to be checks and balances, formally and informally, and Jerry recognizes that because he is the one who initiated this.”

 

Your Letters


Remove Labels

The article “Political Activism Inspires Iranians” was very informative (Sept. 10). However, as one of the founders of the Beverly Hills Jewish Republicans, I was offended with the labeling of Jews as “Iranians.”

For too long, the leaders of the Jewish community have labeled our newest brothers and sisters as a people who are different from those of us who arrived here earlier in the 20th century. We should look to the Israeli people as an example who long ago did away with labeling Jews based on what country they came from. The only label I’m honored to accept is Jewish.

Myles L. Berman, Founder Beverly Hills Jewish Republicans

Kids and Services

Sharon Schatz Rosenthal’s “Ease Your Kids Into Holiday Services” is a sad commentary on the practice of Judaism and the failure of our religious leaders to teach its beauty (Sept. 17).

Judaism is not about the religious holidays, it is a way of life that includes them. Is it any wonder that we are seeing more and more persons claiming to be Jews, but not practicing the religion?

We teach our children the importance of an education and make certain they go to good schools — we don’t “ease them” into going. When we learn the value of the practice of Judaism and that it needs to be part of our everyday life — including attendance at services — we will be a better society.

Bernard S. Otis, Encino

Why George W. Bush

Dan Cohen writes that Jews should vote for Bush because of Israel even though he has abandoned any pretext for brokering peace for that nation (“Why George W. Bush?,” Sept. 17).

Jews have to take a hard look at the results of the war in Iraq and its eventual impact on Israel. The National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) presents a very pessimistic view of Iraq’s future. The war has increased terrorism, promoted the building of an insurgency force that has killed more than 1,000 American troops, wounded thousands more and killed countless Iraqis. The NIE states that the current situation might lead to an Islamic theocracy or an outright civil war both of which would not bode well for Israel’s security and the stability of the Middle East.

All of this is due to not “unyielding commitment,” but to intransigence, lack of foresight and a desire to carry out W’s agenda that he said he received after talking with God.

Bush believes, but his beliefs are inimical to the welfare of America and to peace in Israel.

Michael Halperin, Sherman Oaks

Masters of Return

As a mother of a son who became a “master of return” (baal teshuvah) 25 years ago, I read your article “Masters of Return” (Sept. 10) with great interest. I understand the feelings on both sides. Children choosing to lead an Orthodox lifestyle can dramatically change the dynamics of the family. Family events require much more planning and thought to be sensitive to the needs of all members of the family. Usual traditions of the family’s holiday sometimes have to be altered. And even then, there are times when the whole family will not be able to celebrate together.

As a result of my experience as the mother of a baal teshuvah, I sought out and received training as a paraprofessional in the field of family therapy. I currently run support groups for the parents of children who have chosen Orthodox Judaism to help them develop a healthy relationship with their children without compromising their beliefs, and can be reached through Shomrei Torah Synagogue.

Ellen Ginsburg, Woodland Hills

 

Myopic Plan

I was mystified by Bethamie Horowitz’s piece in which she worries that 10 years worth of Jewish continuity programming might lead to Jews who are too concerned with being Jewish (“Jewry’s Myopic Plan,” Sept. 17). She also lauds a rabbi friend of hers who she deems open-minded enough to suspend Shabbat observance during the baseball season so he can watch his beloved Red Sox. She quotes the rabbi as saying, “There are nine months of the year for God and three for baseball!”

I don’t know if Horowitz is married, but if she is, would she mind if her husband told her he plans to move in with his old girlfriend for the summer but — not to worry — she can have him back the other nine months of the year?

Some may say that the comparison is unfair. After all, marriage is a real commitment that you have to take seriously. It requires sacrifice, discipline, honesty, consistency and the willingness to experience short-term discomfort for long-term growth. How dare I compare that to Judaism? How indeed.

Rafael Guber, Los Angeles

Your Letters


The Hardliner

Look no further, you’ve found a Republican who drives a Prius, as well as a Democrat (“The Hardliner,” Aug. 6). In fact, there are four Priuses in our family with two more hybrids on order for 2005. We are making a statement, and more to the point, it is an apolitical statement.

Our friends of all political stripes talk with agonizing concern over the dangers we face as Americans, Jews and supporters of Israel. They then talk excitedly of their new gas-guzzling SUV as if there is no connection. The thought of sacrificing their creature comforts or any aspect of their lifestyles in contribution to America’s energy independence is either so foreign or frightening to them that the discussion quickly goes nowhere.

Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives — put your political hats aside. Each of us is responsible for the situation, as it exists today.

Contrary to what you might think, you can do something about it!

Ozzie Goren (Republican), Bruce Goren (Democrat) Los Angeles

Kabbalah Cartoon

I was very offended by the cartoon by Steve Greenberg in the Aug. 27 issue. The way he stereotyped the people that participate at and are influenced by the Kabbalah Centre seemed very superficial and more than a little mean-spirited. If he had experienced the classes and services at the center the way that I have in the last two years he would have realized that they are very challenging, sincere, holy and certainly not at all for “dummies.” I suggest that he start by reading “The Secret” by Michael Berg, “Dialing God” edited by Yehuda Berg or any of the dozens of scholarly works written their father, Rav Berg.

Israel Scott Kotzen, Mar Vista

Synagogue Perks

I was disappointed by the consumer mentality of your articles about paying for synagogue membership (“Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated” and “When You Can’t Go Home Again,” Aug. 27). I would hope that people looking to join a congregation base their decision on which community offers the best fit rather than the best benefit package. Ideally, one would decide to join a community, then the connections they form would lead to greater participation in any number of ways. Perhaps too many congregations have strayed from this crucial underlying theme of community.

Mike Werbow, Shtibl Coordinator Los Angeles

In your article on “Synagogue Perks Entice Unaffiliated” you identified a number of “privileges” that synagogue membership brings to the unaffiliated.

The “Model” attributed to our congregation, Temple Beth Am, was “Come join … so you can enroll in our day school.” New this year to demonstrate our commitment to education, we are offering free synagogue membership for new families enrolling a child in our Sunday morning religious school kindergarten/first-grade program.

We hope our program will speak for itself and this experience will lead to long-term affiliation. In addition, our regular dues structure has always included complimentary first-year membership for Jews-by-Choice, and significantly reduced fees for students, young adults and all who require assistance.

Sheryl Goldman, Executive Director Temple Beth Am Los Angeles

Hawaiian Gardens

Thank God Dr. Irving Moskowitz got the permanent license at last, letting him run his casino in Hawaiian Gardens without harassment by those nasty “stopmoskowitz.com” antagonists (“Casino Wins License,” Aug. 27). Their entire campaign to block Moskowitz was based on his notion that formerly Jewish land in Israel should be redeemed and remain Jewish. It was against his politics that these post-Zionists waged their irrelevant campaign.

Cannot a casino owner buy property with his money whenever and/or wherever it is offered to him? Of course he can. But what has this got to do with Hawaiian Gardens?

One question remains, however. Why did we not hear one word from these self-righteous, political ideologues (including some rabbis) of opposition to the granting of a license to Larry Flynt, the self-proclaimed “porno king” casino owner in Gardena, who received his license in a matter of minutes, not years? Ah, yes, that was a moral, not a political, issue.

Rabbi Julian M. White, Los Angeles

Corrections

In “Hatzolah Expands Emergency Service” (Aug. 6), the nonemergency phone number for Hatzolah of Los Angeles is (310) 841-2382.

In “Midlife Calling” (Aug. 20), Rabbi Yocheved Mintz was a rabbinic intern and is a member at Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas. She currently works independently with the Jewish community there.

Smaller Classes for Smaller Kids


"I want to create a place of wonder," said Lindy Lane-Epstein, who spent the summer attempting to animate her vision for a scaled-down preschool and kindergarten for members of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom.

She started with painting in primary colors and moved on to culling well-loved toys for the best specimens.

With enrollment capped at under 50 children aged 2 to 6 and a state-mandated teacher-student ratio of 1 to 6, Lane-Epstein predicts both students and instructors will enjoy a far different experience when classes start Sept. 8.

She was hired as the preschool’s new director in June to revamp the synagogue’s program with a more pronounced Jewish curriculum. "I like the idea of a more intimate program," Lane-Epstein said.

While her most recent job was an assistant math teacher at a Jewish day school, Lane-Epstein also worked as a Judaica educator, teacher and assistant director of the Jewish Community Center’s preschool in Costa Mesa, which then enrolled 140 students.

That and more were enrolled in Beth Sholom’s preschool up until last spring. Yet after more than 30 years, operating deficits forced the synagogue to let go its full-time preschool staff and close its award-winning children’s learning center (CLC), a community day-care facility used by as many as 160 children, including infants.

"When we really looked at it, it was worse than we thought," said Sylvan Swartz, the congregation’s president. Costs for health insurance and worker’s compensation had increased so dramatically in recent years, he said, that the congregation was contemplating program cuts elsewhere to make up the deficit.

"Did it make sense to reduce the quality and quantity of temple programs when our CLC, comprised of 75 to 80 percent non-Jewish families, was a major source of our cash drain?" Swartz explained in a synagogue bulletin.

"It didn’t make sense," he said in an interview. "When we stepped back, it was obvious. We were cutting the wrong program."

The wrenching financial decision was made easier when synagogue leaders settled on starting fresh with a more Jewish orientation for its 650 families. Nonmembers could enroll their children, but at higher fees.

"We decided as a synagogue that it made more sense to start over and keep it more manageable," Swartz said.

Praised as one of the county’s best child-care operations, Swartz said, "Like any small business in America, it’s difficult to compete with large operations."

Neither did the synagogue management want to tackle finding a solution.

"We’re not there as a day-care center," Swartz said. "Our commitment is to lifelong learning."

The full-time staff of the larger preschool was uninterested in the part-time hours at the revamped operation, he said.

For Lane-Epstein, 44, starting fresh is a rare opportunity to make concrete her many creative ideas, particularly in Judaica where preschool curriculum is not standardized. To teach kindergarten, she hired Felicia Fields Bennett, a former Morasha Jewish Day School teacher. The class is likely to be no more than 12 children, well under state requirements.

"I’ll have my style," Lane-Epstein said, which will include creating a Jewish environment with Israel posters, Hebrew writing and Jewish-themed puzzles. She is equally enthusiastic about enriching the preschool’s Jewish content with the effervescent presence of Rabbi Heidi Cohen, whose daughter, 5-year-old Dahvi, is enrolled.

As is her practice during Beth Sholom’s summer camp, Cohen will make weekly Shabbat visits to the preschool.

A New Relationship


A relationship with a new city is like a relationship with a new guy. At first, you compare a lot — my ex had better nicknames for me; he made the bed in the morning. My ex was the one for me, and now I’m just marking time before becoming that old lady in line at the bagel shop who talks to her slippers.

You feel in your bones the sudden drop in comfort level with this new entity. You have to close the door when you pee. You have to explain who people are when you’re gossiping about them. You have to take it from the top. It’s a tedious process. And you wonder why we all know one of those couples who should have broken up a long time ago before they got in a rut and furnished it at IKEA.

Now, as for my comparison, settling into a new city can be similarly jarring. I’m not sure which I’ve done more of, but I know I’m not the only one with a trail of broken leases as long as her trail of broken relationships.

I’ve dug up and planted and dug up and replanted more roots than an obsessive-compulsive gardener.

And now I’m at it again, trying to make a go of it with this slick Pat Riley of a city called Manhattan. And as always, the relationship got off to a rough start, and I wanted nothing more than to go home. And my new therapist gave me her home number. And I didn’t know if I had lost my ability to start over.

It’s been six months since I relocated for work, "taking a break" from the love of my life, Los Angeles.

I didn’t want to love again, but it turns out we’re adaptable creatures. The other day, someone asked where to get a good cheesecake, and out of my mouth, smooth as ricotta, came "Junior’s in Brooklyn has the best. And they ship." And I let myself feel pretty good for knowing this, and for passing as a local more often than not, and for saying "Brooklyn" like I could tell you how to get there on the 4.

This city has won me over like a guy you go on a mercy date with but end up marrying because he remembers how you take your coffee and what size shoe you wear. It’s the little things that slowly weasel their way into your heart, that make you feel at home.

I have the name of a Chinese delivery place in my cellphone and need only speed dial my way to a dumpling delivery.

I hail a cab as easily as I used to parallel park.

I could tell you what cast members have been replaced in "Hairspray" on Broadway. I can find Broadway by foot.

Now I love my Lakers like Shaq loves his Escalade. Still, there’s something about finding your seat at Madison Square Garden that makes you feel like you’ve got this town wired. Sadly, you have to watch the Knicks once you get there, but if I can learn to love this city, maybe I can at least duty date its basketball team.

On the right night, I can climb out of my 400-square-foot apartment and sit on my fire escape and look down the block at doormen leaning on awning posts. I can watch little doggies in little sweaters strolling the Upper East Side, a neighborhood immortalized not only by "Breakfast at Tiffany’s" but also by famous fictional resident, Carrie Bradshaw.

I know how to describe a location as being "on 67 between one and two," instead of saying "on 67th Street between First and Second avenues." I know that Central Park starts on 59. Like I said, these are small things, but like the small apartments and small grocery store aisles here in the Big Apple, they grow on you.

Maybe that’s the only way to fall for a place as hard and humid and expensive and compressed as this one. You endure the hard parts so you can experience the simple pleasure of saying Brooklyn like you mean it.

How do you go from wanting to hurl yourself off the Staten Island Ferry to thinking you might just want to dock here for awhile? You let yourself. And having done so, I’m starting to think it might just be that simple with relationships, too. And here is the most deeply buried lead in the history of singles columns: I’ve got what some might call a "new boyfriend" in this new city (and by "some" I mean people without a crippling fear of commitment).

And that’s how I can tell you relocation is something that happens inside. It happens when you make up your mind to stop expecting a parade down Fifth Avenue and just let yourself stop and smell the toasted nuts on the corner.


Teresa Strasser writes from Manhattan where she is a feature reporter for Fox’s “Good Day Live.” She’s on the Web at www.teresastrasser.com.

Philosophical Blessings


While on a summer vacation on the East Coast, my family and I visited some spectacular sights in northwestern North Carolina, especially near Ashville. On our way to Ashville, we stopped and asked directions from a gentleman who turned out to be a Methodist minister.

During our conversation he told us that four years ago he received "the calling from above" to leave his 20-year practice of law and join the ministry. Upon hearing this my wife remarked, "That is strange because I have been praying that my husband would receive a calling from above and become a lawyer." Confused, the minister asked, "But what does your husband do that you want him to become a lawyer?" When my wife told him that I am a rabbi, he was astounded and said, "Oh no, your husband is working for the right law, and his boss is honest. Make sure he stays a rabbi."

Whenever I read this week’s Torah portion I think about that blessing from the Methodist minister because Balak also contains blessings from a non-Jew, Balaam, worthy of our consideration. The sages of the Midrash link the name of Balaam with a contemporary heathen philosopher of their time, Oenomaus of Gadera, claiming that Balaam and Oenomaus were the two greatest philosophers that non-Jews ever had.

Oenomaus was a member of the younger school of Cynics who lived in second century C.E., during the latter part of the reign of Hadrian, after the Bar Kochba War. He is mentioned in classical Roman literature as having successfully attacked pagan superstition, and he is identified in rabbinic literature with befriending the great Rabbi Meir. As a result of his close relationship with Rabbi Meir, he became familiar with Judaism, and the Midrash (Eicha Petihtah 2) records that the Romans therefore turned to him, just as Balak turned to Balaam in the Torah, and asked for advice on how to defeat the Jewish people.

We must appreciate that this request was presented to Oenomaus not only after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., but also after the Bar Kochba revolt in 132-135 C.E. The Jewish nation was beaten and almost destroyed, yet the Romans wanted to know the secret of our amazing survival.

Oenomaus answered, "Go through their synagogues; if you hear a hum of children’s voices studying Torah, you cannot prevail over them; otherwise you can." Alluding to Isaac’s blessing of Jacob instead of Esau as recorded in Genesis, Oenomaus commented: "As long as the voice of Jacob persists in synagogues and houses of study, the hands are not Esau’s hands; but whenever synagogues and houses of study miss the hum of those voices, Esau will prevail. The hands become Esau’s hands."

The rabbis of the Talmud and Midrash realized that Oenomaus had discovered the secret of Jewish survival. They therefore accorded him the distinction of being the greatest philosopher the non-Jewish world had produced. With Balaam, he had probed and revealed the truth about our faith.

How sorely we need to recognize that truth today when so many Jews believe that the Jewish mission is synonymous with social action. "Save the Whales," they say, but they permit Jonah to drown.

When our community leaders recognize that only commitment to Jewish values will insure Jewish survival, only when children study Torah; only when the voices of both children and adults reverberate in our synagogues, will we once again be worthy of the blessings that both Balaam and Oenomaus bestowed upon us.


Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.