Jewish Population on Rise in South Bay
Thirteen years ago I called my cousin in the San Fernando Valley and announced to her that I was moving to the South Bay.
“Why would you do that?” she said. “There are no Jews in the South Bay!”
I don’t know when that rumor might have held a modicum of truth, but it isn’t the case now. Jewish life in the South Bay has been flourishing.
According the Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, the area is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in California. From Westchester to San Pedro, the Jewish population has increased dramatically to an estimated 40,000, and there are numerous indicators that this trend will continue.
Robin Franko, director of the South Bay Council and a lifelong South Bay resident, says that the numbers speak volumes about the thriving community.
“Growing up, I had 15 kids in my Hebrew school class. Now the classes at that same synagogue have close to 40. South Bay Jewish preschools are filling to capacity. The presence of young families and children are a huge indicator of an increasing population and growing community,” she said.
Franko stresses the importance of youth group participation in creating and maintaining long-term stability and connections within the Jewish community. Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes is home to the second-largest United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter in the nation with more than 200 members; 14 years ago that chapter had 40 members.
“We have kids joining from all over the South Bay,” said Ami Berlin, youth activities director at Ner Tamid. “And active participation is at an all-time high, both locally and regionally. Three of the last five Far West Regional USY presidents have come from our chapter.”
Interest in USY participation has grown so much that a second USY chapter opened in Manhattan Beach at Congregation Tifereth Jacob two years ago.
“Those of us who work with Jewish youth in the South Bay are delighted that there are so many Conservative Jewish teens who join USY and stay actively involved in their synagogues and their communities,” Berlin said.
According to Franko, approximately 80 percent of South Bay Jews are not affiliated with any synagogue, a statistic that mirrors the national average.
For the thousands of wandering South Bay Jews who want to join a congregation, there are a number of options — from traditional to innovative. Within the boundaries of the South Bay, there are four Conservative synagogues, two Reform temples and four Chabad locations, as well as a new shul on the block.
Temple Shalom of the South Bay is opening its doors next month. As a temple under the Reconstructionist umbrella, it seeks to reach out to the community and respond to the needs of the population.
“We will be an interactive, multigenerational temple that will welcome all Jews and rejoice in Jewish learning, ritual, spirituality, and community,” founding member Roz Bliss said. “Enthusiasm for Temple Shalom has been beyond our expectations. We had an event last month to introduce our director of education to the community. The response was overwhelming, with more than 100 people attending.”
Temple Shalom will open a one-day-a-week religious school in October in El Segundo.
Two major rabbinical changes have just taken place as well. In adjacent neighborhoods, Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes and Temple Beth El in San Pedro have hired new rabbis. Both Rabbi Isaac Jeret at Ner Tamid and Rabbi Charles Briskin at Beth El see the South Bay as fertile ground for expansion.
“In the two months that I’ve been at [Ner Tamid],” Jeret said, “it has become abundantly apparent to me that there is extraordinary potential for development of the Jewish community in the South Bay. And more importantly, there is tremendous thirst for substantive Jewish spirituality.”
As the opportunities to affiliate with a congregation continue to grow, regardless of what aspects of Jewish life you are seeking — spiritual, social, educational — there truly is something for everyone.
Now all the South Bay needs is a deli.
Teens Team Up for J-Serve
Youngsters across the Southland and beyond banded together April 17 to participate in J-Serve 2005, the first-ever national day of service for Jewish teens. J-Serve, designed to correspond with Youth Service America’s National Youth Service Day, offers Jewish teens a way to get involved in tikkun olam projects in their local communities.
United Synagogue Youth’s (USY) Far West Region put more than 100 teens to work in food pantries and soup kitchens in Los Angeles, Redondo Beach, San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Tayla Silver, a Palos Verdes high school senior and the region’s social action vice president, researched and coordinated numerous volunteer opportunities for USY members in order to give them a more personal experience with this year’s educational theme of homelessness and hunger.
“It’s important for us to have hands-on experience in … projects to see how organizations work, and why our participation makes a difference for the people we’re helping,” Silver said.
She donated her time at Project Chicken Soup in Los Angeles, a Federation program that provides kosher meals and groceries to homebound AIDS patients. The volunteers started at dawn preparing meals, and then spent the afternoon delivering food and groceries, in addition to visiting with the recipients.
“I think it was incredibly valuable for us to help people face to face,” Silver said. “Meeting the people we were serving raised our awareness to a much higher level.”
In Redondo Beach, USY joined forces with the South Bay Federation’s Arachim, a program that provides eight- and ninth-graders with a series of opportunities to perform mitzvot. Fifty teens from five South Bay synagogues worked with SOVA packing Passover boxes and stocking shelves at a local food pantry.
Ami Berlin, youth activities director at Congregation Ner Tamid in Palos Verdes, was delighted to have her USY chapter participate.
“Our kids need to see that there are people who need help in their own communities,” she said. “This project made that a reality.”
Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork
The question: How Jewish vs. how democratic should the Jewish State of Israel actually be?
That was really the question before Israel’s Supreme Court.
More than a legal question, it led to serious and heated debate. The answer would be a defining factor in the very nature of the state itself. It came to the fore as the court was asked to decide if three cities, Jerusalem included, could ban the selling of pork.
The ruling: That cities cannot outright forbid the sale of pork and should respect communities that are predominantly religious but may sell pork in other areas of the city.
Israel is unlike the United States when it comes to the separation of religion and state. In the United States, the separations are fiercely guarded. So much so that there are raging, obsession-driven debates even over the issues of the role of God in the Pledge of Allegiance — one of the holiest of holies for America’s citizens — and the inclusion of the word “God” on currency.
Things are simpler in Israel. There is a fluid boundary between religion and state. In Israel, the balance is not between religion and state, it is between religion and democracy.
The creation of a Jewish — democratic — state, with each element given equal weight (i.e., Israel) is best viewed as a laboratory experiment. The effort to blend the Jewish and the democratic into a state is a constant balancing act, a tug-of-war, a struggle between the more Jewishly inclined and the more democratically inclined elements of the society.
The Supreme Court ruling is certainly not the end of a long story, it is merely another chapter.
For those Israelis who are in favor of banning the sale of pork products, the argument is more about symbols than it is about religion. Historically, that was true and it is still true today.
The Romans, for example, threw pork into the Temple in order to desecrate it. During pogroms, Jews were held down as pork was forced into their mouths.
Playing the music of Wagner in Israel, as world renowned and acclaimed as it is, is another such example and subject of debate. The notes on the page do not resonate with music but with memories of Nazi Germany, Nazi culture, Nazi racism, the Nazi reign of terror.
As Western as Israel is and Israelis try to be, Israel is still Jewish. Saturday, not Sunday, is the Sabbath — the official, not just religious day of rest. Holidays are set by the religious, lunar calendar, not the solar or secular calendar. English is spoken and almost everything is translated into English (even more than in Arabic), but Hebrew is the official language.
All of these were choices — reasoned, thought out, deliberate choices made by the founding, primarily European-born, fathers of the state. The choices were made for a reason — to recreate a Jewish existence in the biblical, ancestral homeland of Israel.
The founding fathers of Israel were staunchly secular, and yet they understood and encouraged the role of religion for a Jewish state. They provided for deeply Jewish, religious and cultural trappings within the society. They realized that it was the Jewishness of the state that would frame its character and inform its democratic attitudes.
The founding fathers of the United States, in contrast, were staunchly religious. Yet, they were skeptical of the role of institutional religion, because they understood the role that religious culture would play in the formation of their state.
By examining the blend of religion and state in the democratic and cultural experiment called Israel, we can better understand worldwide developing democracies of today. Even more, the only chance for reforming and democratizing Arab states will be through a blend of religion and democracy, just as seen in Israel.
Remember, in Arabic, there is no language for even simple pleasantries that does not invoke the name of God, of Allah. A simple “how are you?” or “good morning” is always answered with “praise God” or “thank God.” Even the most secular of all Arabs respond that way, they have no alternative.
The West has high hopes for reforming Iraq and other countries of the Middle East. In order for those hopes to be realized, it is essential that Westerners realize that whatever is created, it will be a blend of each country’s religion alongside democracy.
Israel’s Supreme Court understood. Western lawmakers and leaders must understand, as well. Not to understand is to doom any and all reform to failure.
Micah D. Halpern is a political and social commentator and author of “What You Need to Know About: Terror.”
Reflections on a Tragedy
July 16 marks the one-year anniversary of the terrible accident at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, which killed 10 and injured more than 60. George Russell Weller, the elderly driver, faces 10 counts of vehicular homicide with gross negligence.
I know from personal experience the nightmare of accidentally killing someone. Almost 30 years ago, when I was 22, I hit and killed an 8-year-old boy named Brian when he ran into the street in front of my car. Not a single day has gone by since then in which I have not thought of him. That split-second devastated Brian’s family and my own, irrevocably changing the course of our lives.
For thousands of years, communities have wrestled with the question of how to treat accidental killers. The Book of Numbers (consistent with a shorter passage in Exodus) tells us that God instructed Moses to tell the Israelites to establish six cities of refuge to which accidental killers could flee. The accidental killer was to be protected from the wrath of the victim’s family — the "blood avenger" — so long as he remained within the city of refuge. Only when the high priest of the city died could the killer return home.
The more I’ve studied this passage, the wiser it seems. The cities of refuge assured the safety of accidental killers while protecting the victims’ family members from the pain of encountering the perpetrator, which could lead them to take revenge and thus continue the cycle of violence. Even though they did not intend harm, the accidental killers were not excused from all responsibility and blame for their actions. Instead they were required to remain in exile in the city of refuge until the death of the high priest, thus being forced to confront on a daily basis difficult questions about the sanctity of life. In establishing the cities of refuge, the Israelites implicitly recognized that the community at large shared some measure of responsibility for accidental deaths. For example, Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald points out that accidents represent an educational failure because, if the people involved had learned to be more careful and respectful of life, the accident might have been prevented.
I wish there was a city of refuge to which Weller could have fled following the farmers’ market tragedy. I can only begin to imagine the feelings of those who witnessed that horrible scene, suffered injury or lost loved ones. The desire to see someone punished is understandable under the circumstances. But what are we accomplishing as a community in putting an 87-year-old man on trial? Might it be more productive to follow the example of the Torah and reflect on our failures as a community, such as the lack of transportation alternatives to driving for the elderly?
My own situation was different. I was not arrested, cited or sued after my accident. But I, too, would have welcomed a city of refuge. I have never been more terrified in my life than I was at the scene of the accident. As a crowd of onlookers gathered, I was convinced they would attack or kill me when they realized I was the driver. Later that afternoon, as I waited in the relative safety of a police car, I felt the full force of my fear for Brian. Fear like that does not simply disappear. Even though I had done nothing wrong, I was scared of being ostracized and abandoned. I was so scared of driving that, when I finally got back behind the wheel, I imagined I saw people in the roadway and slammed on the brakes. After a few such episodes, I gave up my car. And I was so afraid of all the terrible things that can happen to children, and all the ways in which I might hurt another child, that I decided against becoming a parent.
Well-meaning family and friends told me to put the accident behind me and move on, but I blamed myself for Brian’s death. I felt that, at my core, I was a destructive person. I quickly learned to hide these and other feelings and thoughts about the accident. Expressing them only made others uncomfortable. A literal or symbolic city of refuge in which I could have faced these issues more directly would have been helpful.
In 2002, 44,000 people died in traffic accidents and another 2.3 million were injured. A car hits a pedestrian somewhere in the United States every seven minutes. That adds up to a lot of drivers in need of refuge. Refuge can be as simple as a hug, an empathic note or a conversation with a caring friend who refrains from blaming or excusing.
The way we respond to accidental killers, like Weller or me, says something about our values and humanity. May all our cities become cities of refuge.
Maryann Gray is a psychologist who lives in Los Angeles and works as a university administrator.
Valley Is No Longer a Remote Outpost
I’ve lived in two of the country’s most ridiculed locales. I was born in New Jersey, the punch line of stand-up comics everywhere. Adding insult to injury, my family moved to the San Fernando Valley in the early ’70s. At that time, the Valley was perceived as the end of the earth — a place you’d need a passport to visit, should you actually want to. Over time, the remaining farmland and orchards gave way to more strip malls and housing tracts, while the Valley retained its reputation as a place where nothing worthwhile happens.
Things change. I now live on the Westside. Hoboken is considered hip. And the San Fernando Valley, well, it’s begun to resemble the Westside in ways both positive and negative.
Of course, the Valley is not monolithic. Thirty-one communities make up the San Fernando Valley, including four independent cities. Chatsworth differs from Burbank, which differs from Tarzana. Nevertheless, if taken by itself, the Valley today would be among the six largest cities in the nation, according to Joel Kotkin of the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. One-third of Los Angeles’ population, or more than 1.7 million people, reside in the Valley. Within the United States, the Valley is home to the largest number of aerospace firms, the third largest number of entertainment firms and the fifth largest number of manufacturing firms.
Many Valley residents moved there more out of necessity than choice. When newlyweds Lauren and Eric Rothman decided to look for a house in 2002, they started their search on the Westside.
"We’re both absolute city people," Lauren said, "but reality set in quickly."
The Rothmans could not afford the steep Westside prices, and turned, reluctantly, to the Valley. Eric, who’d lived mostly near the beach since moving to California in 1990, admits that, like many Westsiders, his view of the Valley was: "It’s hot. It’s far from the action. Who’d want to be in the Valley?"
Eventually, the couple found a three-bedroom home in Sherman Oaks.
"While it wasn’t inexpensive, it was affordable for us and the same house in West L.A. wouldn’t have been possible," Lauren said.
A funny thing happened soon after the Rothmans moved to the Valley: They discovered they liked it.
"Both of us adapted easily," said Lauren, noting that the couple enjoyed the proliferation of restaurants, movie theaters and retail establishments, a Jewish-feeling environment and a more suburban lifestyle.
Many Jewish couples looking to start a family, and those whose families are growing, have increasingly turned to the Valley for more affordable, more spacious housing. And they’re not looking back.
"I’m seeing a lot of people coming to the Valley from Beverlywood, West Los Angeles and Westwood. A lot of them come here for the schools," says Michelle Cohan, a realtor with RE/MAX Grand Central in Tarzana, who also noted that the average price per square foot in the Valley is much lower than on the Westside. "You get a lot more land and a lot more house."
"There’s no longer just one [Jewish] community in the Valley. There is a strong Jewish presence all along the 101 corridor from the 134 all the way to the Camarillo grade and beyond," added David Cohan, Michelle’s husband and real estate partner.
The Valley is home to such Jewish community heavyweights as the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center, Jewish Home for the Aging and the annual Israel Independance Day Festival. It boasts more than 10 day schools and more than 50 synagogues. Kosher butchers, bakeries and restaurants, once scarce, are increasingly noticeable.
According to Carol Koransky, executive director of the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, 50 percent of Los Angeles’ Jews live within territory served by the Valley Alliance, which also includes the Conejo, Simi, Santa Clarita and Antelope valleys.
"The Valley has become more central," she said. "And there are multiple centers of Jewish life in the Valley itself," she adds.
At the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, Federation agencies such as Jewish Family Service, Jewish Vocational Service and Vista Del Mar share space with the New JCC at Milken and the New Jewish Community High School. Everyone from preschoolers to seniors interact in the modern, airy facility, which serves 1,200 people weekly.
It’s a major contrast from The Federation’s Wilshire high-rise office complex, which does not promote the same kind of community feel, says David Cohan, who serves on the board of the Valley Alliance and co-chaired the Valley’s Super Sunday this year. At the same time, Cohan sees The Federation as "Westside-driven. The leadership doesn’t recognize the demographic changes that have occurred … and isn’t as responsive to Valley concerns as I’d like them to be."
"There have clearly been attempts to acknowledge the change and the growth in the Valley, and there clearly have been feelings that it could have happened more rapidly," Koransky said. "Those discussions were held and there were changes made. As we continue to grow, we will continue to be able to get the kinds of things that we feel need to be done here."
Like the Rothmans, Bernard May also migrated from the Westside to the Valley. May, his wife, Vanessa, and their two children moved from their 1,400-square-foot home in West Los Angeles to a 2,800-square-foot home in Calabasas three years ago.
"Like everyone else, I thought of the Valley as a place I’d seldom go to — it was too suburban and not particularly exciting," says May, who is from South Africa and has lived in London and New York. "But we wanted a better quality of life –better schools, less congestion and a slower pace."
May says the family loves its new community. Both the children’s public school and the family’s synagogue are within walking distance. Despite taking on a commute of about an hour, May says, "Every time we go back to the Westside, we wonder why we didn’t move to the Valley earlier."
And while its suburban features tend to attract families, the Valley is shedding some of its reputation as a wasteland for hipsters. As a Los Angeles Times Calendar Weekend cover story noted, "An eclectic group of new clubs — from high style to funny — have surfaced among the Wienerschnitzels and lamp stores."
When Mona Jacobson moved as a single woman to Los Angeles from Vermont six years ago, she wanted to live in the Pico-Robertson area, but found the rents too high.
"I got so much more in the Valley than I would have on the Westside," she said. "I lived in a great area in Studio City."
Although living in the Valley wasn’t always conducive to dating ("I wasn’t averse to dating guys from the city or the South Bay, but I found sometimes they were averse to going out with me," she said), Jacobson chose to purchase a condo in Valley Village two years ago.
"You go out on Shabbat and you see people walking to shul," she said. "It gives that Pico-Robertson feel in smaller terms."
And despite her Valley address, she met a nice Jewish guy from Torrance. They married last year.
For Sharon Barkan, the community of Israelis made the Valley attractive. Barkan moved to Los Angeles from Israel two years ago. Initially living in Beverly Hills, Barkan says she was proud of her address, but felt isolated. She’d thought of people in the Valley as arsim [sleazy], but soon realized all of her friends, as well as her students and their parents "who were very nice and very normal, chose the Valley for smart reasons."
Once she moved into a tiny studio in Van Nuys, Barkan said, "It was like my life started." She doesn’t need to leave the Valley for coffee houses, restaurants and stores frequented by Israelis. There’s even a Hebrew library and Israeli films.
"You can do whatever you want for less money, with less stress," she said.
When it comes to Valley life, realtor David Cohan sums it up this way: "There’s no question that the weather is preferable on the Westside, but for livability, the Valley is clearly attractive."
That’s right folks. My former home, land of the "Valley Girl," "Boogie Nights" and scorching temperatures, is now highly sought out. But here’s the irony: transplanted Westsiders might eventually find the Valley taking on the very qualities they sought to escape.
Prices, once affordable, have risen dramatically.
"It’s hard to get anything under $400,000, and that doesn’t buy you much," says realtor Michelle Cohan.
In May of 2003, the median price for homes sold in the Valley was $330,000. By May of this year, that number jumped to $430,000. Median home prices such as $850,000 in Studio City and $795,000 in Tarzana rival some Westside communities.
"Thirty-five years ago … the Valley was a suburb — a bedroom community," said James Allen, professor of geography at California State University Northridge. He says the Valley is no longer comprised of "just pools, barbecues and single-family houses. Now it’s become highly urbanized so that it’s just about equivalent of a Westside area."
Transformation of the Valley’s demographic landscape is one sign of this phenomenon. The Valley’s population is less than 50 percent white, and one-third of its residents are foreign born.
The appearance of more restaurants, theaters and retail establishments has been accompanied by increases in traffic, congestion and development. Ninety percent of residents surveyed last year for the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley indicated that traffic was getting worse. (Commuters may get some relief when construction of the MTA’s Orange Line, a 14-mile busway connecting Warner Center in Woodland Hills to the North Hollywood Metro Rail Station, is completed.) Air quality is worse in the Valley, which has higher ozone pollution levels than the westside.
Further, CSUN’s San Fernando Valley Economic Report notes a lack of significant open spaces for new single-family developments, so construction of multiple-family units — and a tight housing market — are likely future trends.
The Rothmans, who moved to Sherman Oaks two years ago, now want an even more "suburban" experience. The couple recently had a second child, and are feeling squeezed in their 1,600-square-foot home.
"I want cul-de-sacs and a safe place for my kids to ride bikes and go to public schools," Eric said.
The couple eventually plans to look in such areas as Woodland Hills, Agoura or Simi Valley.
Many couples have already made that move. The Federation’s Koransky notes that Woodland Hills is no longer the outer limits of Los Angeles’ Jewish community. The same qualities that drew Jews to the Valley are attracting them to the Conejo, Santa Clarita and Simi valleys in droves.
Despite any potential downfalls to living in the Valley, hearing so many residents extol its virtues made me wonder about returning there some day. My husband says, "No way."
I’m sure that has nothing to do with the fact that my parents still live there.
Friends Found a World Away
Every other year, our congregation travels to a different part of the Jewish world to meet and, if necessary, help our fellow Jews. Having traveled to Israel, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union many times, as well as Turkey, Morocco, Spain, Argentina and Brazil, our experiences have mostly been with communities under political, demographic or economic siege. This trip was different.
Imagine this scene: We’re in Sydney, Australia, in a neighborhood known as The Rocks, where in the 18th century exiled British prisoners disembarked and experienced their new home. Most were convicted of petty crimes — poor people who stole a loaf of bread — and some were political prisoners whom England feared. After 1776, the penal colony in Georgia was no longer available, so convicts were sent to Australia, both to get rid of them and for future colonization.
In Australia, one’s yichus is enhanced by being descended from an exiled British convict. Everyone, if lucky enough, brags about it. Even in shul, on Shabbat, before we asked someone how long his family has been in Australia, a macher proudly kvells and shares his imprisoned family tree.
So, here we were, at The Rocks, chanting Havdalah, singing and swaying outdoors, with arms around each other, gazing at the incredible beauty of Sydney Harbor, proud and free as Jews. We were even joined by locals George and Adele who, though Jewish (at least George), hadn’t seen a Havdalah service in quite a while. When we finished, a woman approached and asked from where we were visiting. When we answered "Irvine, California," she asked: "Do you know Natalye and Howard Black, because I’m their machatenester [in-law]!"
"Not only do we know them, but we brought them," we answered, "and they’re right over there!"
It’s a small Jewish world, much less than "six degrees of separation." A day before, the waiter at Doyle’s Restaurant was curious about another couple on our tour, the Hemplings, and when asked by them what kind of fish does he recommend, the waiter answered: "Do you, by any chance, like gefilte fish?"
Voila — another landsman!
Although there are only 100,000 Jews out of a population of 18 million, we managed to meet many of them in both expected and unexpected places.
Of course, our synagogue visits were delightful. For our first Shabbat in Sydney, we visited Temple Emanuel, a liberal congregation, whose rabbi, Jeffrey Kamins, is from Los Angeles. A week later in Melbourne, we met Rabbi Fred Morgan born in Syracuse, N.Y., who showed us his synagogue’s incredible stained-glass windows that portrayed holidays and history. They were created by the foremost stained-glass artist in Australia.
At both synagogues, the services were familiar, albeit more formal. We were delighted that we chose liberal congregations, since most tourists only visit Orthodox synagogues since they’re in the oldest parts of the inner city and tour guides can get to them more easily. The problem is, however, that tourists, who are usually non-Orthodox, rarely meet and worship with their religious peers.
At the Jewish Museum in Sydney, we were impressed by the beautiful Star of David design in the floor, ceiling and walls. Most moving, however, was Lotte, a Holocaust survivor from Bratislava, who spoke to us and emphasized what is now too familiar a story — how a majority of European Jewish children perished. By killing them first, the Nazis hoped to put an end to future generations of Jews.
She spoke painfully , as if it were yesterday, of being called a "Jewish pig" and how ashamed she was, as a teenager, of having to undress in front of and be shaved by male Nazi officers.
Although she and other Jews generally feel safe in Australia today, they remember how only one group boldly advocated saving the Jews of Europe 64 years ago. It was a few weeks after Kristallnacht when the Aborigines League protested to Hitler’s consul in Melbourne. A few weeks before we arrived in Australia, the Aborigines were honored for their heroism by the Jewish community at Melbourne’s Holocaust Museum; Jews are now in the forefront of advocating on behalf of aboriginal land rights, including placing markers on Jewish buildings naming the aboriginal owners of the land.
Australia’s Sept. 11 was Oct. 12, 2002, when its tourists were murdered by Islamic terrorists in Bali. Australians are strong supporters of the United States in its fight against terrorism and are worried about the J.I. (Jemaah Islamiah), an Australian Islamic organization that aims to create an Islamic state in Australia "even if it takes 100 years."
When we visited the U.S. consulate in Sydney, we were briefed in regard to Australia’s strong support for the United States, as well as its ambivalence about our nuclear policy. Nevertheless, one gets the feeling that Aussies genuinely like Americans, without wanting to become like us. Their culture is slower, more laid back and easy going, in part due to an amazing amount of physical space — only 18 million people on land the size of the United States.
Physically, Sydney looks like Vancouver, and Melbourne like Chicago, and each feels its rivalry with the other. Jewishly, Sydney is comparable to Tel Aviv with its cafes and nightlife, while the more staid Melbourne is like Jerusalem — especially with the largest day school in the world (2,500 students) and a more observant population.
Historically, Jews were quite instrumental in the intellectual and economic development of Australia — no surprise to us — founding museums and universities, establishing newspapers and large businesses and finding prominence in the legal profession.
No trip to Australia would have been complete without cruising on a boat in Sydney Harbor, visiting the Opera House and strolling through urban parks, gardens and charming neighborhoods. Wherever we went, the food was delicious and plentiful, even in modest restaurants, and people were incredibly unpretentious, gracious and friendly, with a lovely self-deprecating humor.
Of course, another not-to-be-missed visit was to an animal sanctuary, where we held and watched baby kangaroos hop in and out of pouches and where we fed koala bears. The animal and plant life of Australia is vividly colorful and fascinating in its diversity.
So, too, when we traveled to the Great Barrier Reef, we were mesmerized by the bluish green clarity of the water and the fantastic fish. Some of us also met Golan Ayalon, one of the few Jews and the only Israeli in Cairns, one of the towns near the reef. He’s one of the major distributors of Aboriginal art and a friendly hippie type who liked Cairns, because it reminded him of his hometown of Eilat — full of water sports, muggy and relaxed. In Cairns, we also met a Jewish couple from Kentucky; the man’s brother belongs to a Reconstructionist synagogue in Philadelphia.
When we visited the Aboriginal village of Kuranda, we passed through forests and by waterfalls galore, captivated by birds and butterflies of every imaginable hue. We walked through rainforests, learned about making fire, listened to Aboriginal folklore and playing of the didgeridoo.
The sad history of the indigenous people of Australia was truly heartbreaking. Like our own Native Americans, they were pushed further and further inland to make way for "civilized Europeans." Then, as a "favor," they were converted to Christianity, but still treated in a segregated, second-class way. Disease and violence destroyed too many lives and families and there was forced separation of children from parents in order to "educate" them. It has left permanent societal scars. (The 2002 film, "Rabbit Proof Fence," details this misery through a true personal story describing an arrogant social policy that only ended in 1970.)
The xenophobic anti-immigration policy of Australia, only modified in recent decades, created a smug, racially insensitive and insular society that many Australians now realize was a mistake. The challenge to Australia today is accepting that, over time, it will continue to become a more Pacific Rim, less Eurocentric country, with diverse religions and races, and seeing this development as a strength.
In our closing circle, at the end of our 16-day journey, many spoke of the incredible physical beauty of the land, the vastness of each country and the genuine warmth and kind humor of the people. We shared a deep feeling for the importance of meeting Jews from all over the world — especially in these less visited Jewish communities — and how instantly we bonded with our fellow Yidden. Even more, we understood the time-honored Jewish maxim that "all Jews are responsible for one another."
Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.
When It’s Federal Aid, Pork Isn’t Treif
When it comes to politics, even the Jews want pork. American Jewish communities and some national organizations have become well versed in getting their share of millions of dollars available for social service programs, medical research or other community essentials.
A search of the 2004 omnibus spending bill under consideration in Congress this month found 37 earmarks with the word "Jewish" in the name, amounting to $9,973,000 in appropriations. If you include the terms "Hebrew" and "Sephardic," it climbs to 41 appropriation earmarks and $10,723,000. Many other projects of importance to local Jewish communities may not have identifiable names and could be buried in the vast spending document.
Getting funding for a project takes massive time, energy and, often, money. Many Jewish communities send representatives to Washington to make the pitch directly to their lawmakers, as well as members of congressional appropriations committees. Some hire Washington lobbyists to make the necessary introductions for them.
Next week will be an important one for the budget process. In its first session of the year, the Senate will vote on the omnibus spending package for 2004, because it did not pass all 13 spending bills before the end of last year’s session.
The omnibus bill lumps all appropriations that were not approved by Congress into one piece of legislation, and contains $328.1 billion in discretionary spending. It passed the House Dec. 8 by a vote of 242-176.
President Bush’s State of the Union address on Jan. 20 will launch the budget process for 2005. The president will lay out his fiscal priorities in the speech, before officially submitting his budget proposal early next month.
Garnering money for one’s local Jewish community depends in large part on the influence of local congressmen. Five of the Jewish appropriations next year are in Pennsylvania, amounting to $950,000, in part because Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) is chairman of the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee.
Jewish officials bristle when they hear the projects described as "pork," a term used to describe pet projects in a lawmaker’s congressional district.
"One man’s pork is another’s essential program," said Reva Price, the Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
For example, the Jewish Association for Residential Care (JARC) in suburban Detroit received $500,000 in 2003 for its facility for people with developmental disabilities. It is likely to receive an additional $150,000 this year.
Joyce Keller, JARC’s executive director, said her program provides an essential service and shouldn’t be lumped in with more frivolous appropriations. She cited one notorious example of Washington pork, a study on the sex lives of fireflies.
"These are the needs of people that are not being met by whatever states have to offer," she said of her patients.
Keller’s organization began pursuing a federal appropriation because Michigan’s state mental health funds were not properly funding its patients, many of whom are mentally disabled. It hired a Washington lobbyist, met with Michigan congressmen and both senators and hoped for the best.
"We had no idea, and we were very ecstatic that we were successful," Keller said. "We knew it was a gamble."
Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) last month touted six Jewish community projects that were funded in the appropriations process. Among them were allocations to the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn and two allocations for the Sephardic Bikur Holim Center in Brooklyn.
Brett Heimov, Nadler’s Washington chief of staff, said the office receives 15 to 20 requests from the Jewish community each year and forwards them to the appropriators.
"In 11 years here, I’ve seen maybe a dozen projects that are just stupid," he said. "Most are worthwhile."
Heimov said appropriators, who have the final say on what projects receive money, prefer programs that already are advanced in their development, giving a better sense of how the money will be spent.
A lawmaker touting a project may go it alone or may seek additional support when he sends a letter to members of the appropriations committee. Eight lawmakers signed a letter in October to the chairman of an appropriations subcommittee seeking $543,375 for the Center for Jewish History in New York’s archival preservation project. The center was allocated $328,000.
While some Jewish organizations seek money individually, others group their requests. The United Jewish Communities (UJC) helped win $4,320,000 for 19 Jewish communities for naturally occurring retirement communities, or NORCs, which seek to assist elderly living independently in areas with large aging populations.
Robert Goldberg, UJC’s assistant legislative director, said the organization is able to serve as a conduit between the local communities and lawmakers who know the value of NORCs.
"We are the ones that have done the legwork with the appropriations committees and educated them on NORCs as a community-based service," he said.
Jewish communities in big cities often need less assistance, because they have more resources and are more familiar with the process.
The need for federal appropriations is growing in the Jewish community. Budget crunches in many states, as well as decreases in social service block grants that give federal money to the states to distribute, have led to a decrease in the availability of other public funding sources, Price said.
It is hard to pin down some of the ingredients for a successful bid for funds. Communities with Republican lawmakers may be served better, because the Republican leaders of the divided Congress have been reticent to provide funds for Democratic districts, Jewish officials said.
Some suggest that having a Jewish lawmaker in one’s district helps. Others say that Jewish lawmakers, concerned about a backlash, try not to have too many Jewish projects funded in their districts.
One Democratic aide said he believed Republicans may be working to give more assistance to Jewish communities as part of their efforts to court the Jewish vote in 2004.
Price said Jews do no better or worse than other interests lobbying for pork.
"Not everything asked for is gotten," she observed.
Think Global, Cook Local
"The Jewish Kitchen: Recipes and Stories from Around the World" by Clarissa Hyman (Interlink Books, $29.95)
Clarissa Hyman’s new cookbook, "The Jewish Kitchen," is alive with miracles — stories of Jewish life and war-torn Jewish communities, bringing with them their glorious history, rich culture and a cuisine passed through the generations, itself a story of miraculous survival.
This award-winning author crisscrossed the globe, visiting eight families in nine months, recording their stories and recipes.
"The stories were as important to me as the recipes, because I believe in context and background, and I wanted to give snapshots of the Jewish world today to show that there are so many different aspects to the Jewish experience," Hyman said.
Hyman’s nine months’ work on the book — "research, traveling, writing, testing, a miracle in itself," she said — took her to such places as Greece, Norway, Belgium and the Caribbean.
No Jewish cookbook would be complete without latkes, and Hyman’s recipe is her own. But Chanukah is about the oil, not the potato.
From the Israeli food and wine writer Daniel Rogov come pineapple fritters, a classic for Chanukah in Lyon, France, where owner Celestine Benditte-Strauss served them at her renowned Restaurant Cercle.
And rugelach for Chanukah? Hyman describes the lesser-known Chanukah tradition of eating cheese and dairy products in memory of Judith, a brave Jewish widow who beheaded the enemy general Holofernes after feeding him — what? Hyman said "fatal small cakes."
Some say perhaps she got him thirsty on cheese so that he would drink wine and fall asleep. Others insist it was rich, creamy food for the same reason. While stories differ, the message is clear.
"One Jewish dish, 20 different versions. One Jewish story, 20 different tales," Hyman said. "It’s one of the wonderful things about Jewish food: We are as lavish with our symbolism and myths as we are with the sour cream. Any excuse for something delicious to eat."
PINEAPPLE FRITTERS A LA CELESTINE
2 large pineapples peeled, cored and thickly sliced
Superfine granulated sugar for dredging
1/4 cup Kirsch (cherry brandy)
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup warm water
7/8 cup beer
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon brandy
Pinch of salt
2 egg whites whisked
Apricot jam for spreading
Vegetable oil for deep frying
Superfine granulated sugar for sprinkling
Dredge the pineapple with sugar, then sprinkle generously with the Kirsch. Let steep 30-40 minutes.
Sift the flour and mix with the water, beer, oil, brandy and salt to make a batter. Dry the pineapple slices on a paper towel, then coat them with a thin layer of apricot jam.
While the oil is heating, fold the whisked egg whites into the batter. Take the fruit and batter to the stove. When the oil is hot (350 F), dip the pineapple slices into the batter, then fry until golden brown on both sides. Serve hot, sprinkled with sugar if desired.
13 tablespoons butter, softened
7 ounces cream cheese
2 teaspoons superfine granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour sifted with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
7/8 cup finely chopped hazelnuts (or walnuts)
2 tablespoons butter melted
1 egg white beaten with a little water
Granulated sugar (optional)
Cream the butter and cheese until well blended. Stir in the superfine sugar, then the flour and mix until the dough begins to hold together. Gather into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill overnight.
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Combine the brown sugar, cocoa, cinnamon and nuts and set aside. Cut the dough ball in half and return one half to the fridge while you work with the other.
On a lightly floured surface, roll out the pastry into a thin circle about 10 inches in diameter. The pastry may feel hard at first but it quickly softens. Use a cake pan or plate to help cut out a neat circle. Cut the dough circle into 16 or 8 equal pie-shaped wedges.
Brush the surface of the wedges with melted butter, then sprinkle evenly with half the nut mixture. Cover with a piece of plastic wrap and use a rolling pin to press the filing lightly down into the dough.
Remove the plastic wrap and roll up each wedge from the outside, wide end toward the point, so you end up with minicroissants. Place on a lightly greased baking sheet and brush with the beaten egg white. Sprinkle with a little sugar if desired.
Repeat with the remaining dough and bake for 20-30 minutes until golden brown. Let cool slightly before transferring to a wire cooling rack.
Makes 32 small or 16 large rugelach.
JCC Director to Leave Before Project Finish
Part of the team readying O.C.’s Jewish Community Center for its planned relocation and expansion next year in Irvine is not staying to see the result.
Gerry Buncher, 53, the JCC’s executive director since 1999, is resigning at the end of his current contract, effective Dec. 31.
“I decided it’s time to be closer to everybody,” said Buncher, who intends to relocate east in closer proximity to his two adult children and 88-year-old mother, hospitalized twice in the last year. He intends to seek a similar center job in the New York area.
Orange County and Long Beach are among seven communities currently recruiting top executives among the nation’s 275 centers, which have 1 million members, according to the Web site of the Jewish Community Center Association, the group’s national office.
Buncher’s successor will inherit a significantly larger job in a facility described as state-of-the-art. The JCC’s current $2.8 million annual budget is forecast to grow by more than 50 percent in its new location, predicted to open in September 2004, said Maryann Malkoff, the center’s president. The new director will also be responsible for expanding the center’s senior staff, such as new positions that will supervise programs in aquatics and cultural arts.
Future staffing levels will depend on programming, Malkoff said. “We’re still six months away,” she said, from needing to hire middle managers.
JCC membership of 1,200 units, which could be singles, families or couples, has remained stable for at least five years, said Jeanette Lewin, the center’s finance director. In September, the center will employ 38 people in full- and part-time positions. That includes 25 who work in the preschool, which has about 150 students. Staffing doubles in summer to 70 because of teen councilors hired for a day camp, she said.
Initially, the JCC board will consider prospective candidates exclusively from those recruited through the JCCA. “Why not exhaust the best resource first?” Malkoff asked. With a new facility, she predicted little trouble attracting potential job seekers.
Instead of the Jewish Federation, which currently manages the Costa Mesa campus, the JCC and its top executive will also assume day-to-day management responsibilities of the 120,000-square-foot Irvine campus, including its pool and gymnasium. Other Jewish agencies, such as the Bureau of Jewish Education, the Federation and Jewish Family Services, are to be tenants of the Orange County Jewish Campus, a recently incorporated nonprofit entity.
Between Pittsburgh, Columbus, Houston and Costa Mesa, Buncher has spent 26 years in center jobs. The new facility will be improved aesthetically because of insights he’s gleaned on how members use centers, such as eliminating fixed tables in work rooms rearranged for different uses.
“I would feel more guilty about leaving if this was the first year,” he said. “But they’re ready.”
As some 20 teens beat 18-year-old Rashid Alam with golf clubs and baseball bats in Yorba Linda on Feb. 22, they allegedly yelled “White Power!” The attack, which Alam’s friends said was unprovoked, left the recent high school graduate hospitalized with a fractured jaw and broken bones in his face.
Unable to speak because his jaw is wired shut, friends and family despair that he might have suffered permanent brain damage from the 65 blows he endured.
Police call the attack a hate crime, but have said that it began as a face-off between two rival groups that had fought in the past. Others said it was fueled solely by ethnic hatred.
Ahmed Alam, publisher of the Arab World newspaper in Anaheim, said his son’s beating underscored the vulnerability now felt by many Arab Americans.
“After Sept. 11, the average American thinks we’re all the same, all like Saddam,” said Alam, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Lebanon in 1971. “They don’t know the difference between an Iraqi, a Lebanese and a Syrian.”
As war with Iraq continues, both the Arab American and Jewish communities must brace themselves for a possible backlash.As the body bags mount and U.S. forces get bogged down in the desert, extremists might vent their rage by beating or even murdering Arab Americans, as they did after Sept. 11.
Similarly, hate mongers, who have long painted Jews as communists, money-grubbing internationalists and peddlers of Hollywood immorality, might soon brand them as fifth columnists more loyal to Israel than to the United States. Rep. James P. Moran’s (D-Va.) recent speech to an anti-war group, accusing the Jewish community of pushing the United States into an ill-advised conflict, is but the most recent example of this blame-the-Jews mentality, experts said. Moran has since apologized.
With Arab Americans and Jews both under siege, these minority groups appear to be developing a measure of empathy, if not sympathy, for one another. Views on the Middle East still divide them and hard-liners on both sides continue to spew out invective, but voices of reason appear to be cutting through the shouts.
In the aftermath of Rashid Alam’s brutal beating, several rabbis contacted the Council on American-Islamic Relations to express their outrage at the crime, said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of the group’s Southern California chapter.
Rabbi Allen Krause of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo is among those who stood alongside the council. Krause, who has participated in several local interfaith events with Muslims and Christians, said he has long preached tolerance from his Orange County pulpit. The rabbi thinks that Jews, themselves victims of discrimination, should become more vocal in supporting American Muslims.
“The Torah doesn’t say Jews were made in God’s image. It says all humans were made in God’s image,” he said. “We are our brothers’ keeper.”
That’s not to suggest that relations between Arab Americans and Jewish groups have warmed considerably since the second intifada broke out in Israel more than two years ago. They have not. But the chill that plagued them seems to have begun to thaw ever so slightly.
“We oppose any kind of anti-Semitism,” said Jean Abinader, managing director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group. “One, we’re Semites. Two, any kind of bigotry against somebody because of their religion or ethnicity is an act against humanity.”
Even before a single shot was fired in Iraq, hate crimes committed against people, institutions and businesses identified with the Islamic faith have skyrocketed, with 414 now under investigation by the FBI.
Already, some Muslims have grown fearful about speaking Arabic in public. Others have “Americanized” their children’s names to Sam from Osama or to Mo from Mohammed, said Ayloush of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“There’s a lot of anxiety and worry,” he said. “Now, it’s almost commonplace these days for Muslims to be subjected to verbal abuse, especially men with the beards and women in head scarves.”
Some Arab American leaders have criticized the Bush administration for helping to create a hostile environment. They are especially angry that federal agents have imprisoned, without formal charges, scores of Muslims initially suspected of terrorist activities but later deported for minor visa infractions.
Activists complain of discrimination against Arab Americans on domestic airlines, with several dark-skinned passengers being asked to leave planes without cause. The groups also grouse about right-wing Christian evangelicals demonizing Islam.
A growing number of American Jews also are under attack. Hate crimes against Jews, both nationally and locally, jumped significantly last year, according to a report soon to be released by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). “I’m worried about people targeting synagogues and having hateful feelings about Jews,” said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s regional director in Los Angeles.
As delicate as the situation is for Jews, it is arguably worse for American Arabs.
In a reflection of their potentially dire situation, FBI Director Robert S. Mueller recently met with leaders of national Arab American, Muslim and Sikh organizations. (Sikhs are neither Arab nor Muslim. But Sikh men wear turbans and have been attacked by extremists who mistake them for Middle Easterners.) Among other issues, they spoke about possible vigilante attacks against the groups and the need to continue working with the FBI.
Against this backdrop, the ADL has forcefully condemned violence against American Muslims, especially since Sept. 11. The human rights advocacy group will “continue to be outspoken on the issue,” national spokesman Todd Gutnick said. “We think attacks against Muslim Americans is wrong and un-American.”
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, said he detects no hostility toward Arab Americans. If extremists begin to harass them, though, the center will “publicly urge people to focus on the enemies of the United States and not on innocent Muslims living in America.”
On the eve of war, City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo joined Hier, Cardinal Roger Mahoney and other religious and community leaders at the Museum of Tolerance to oppose hate crimes and discrimination. Delgadillo said his office would prosecute all perpetrators of such acts to the fullest extent of the law, adding that some good might emerge from these uncertain times. “I’m hopeful that all of L.A.’s diverse communities can unite and rise to the occasion.”
A New Home for Hillel
Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller walks out of his office at the University Religious Conference, locking the door on its matted and stained rust-colored carpet, which for years has been covered with stacks of books and journals. On his way out, he doesn’t bother to glance into the musty student lounge because he knows students don’t hang out there. As he emerges onto Hilgard Avenue, he lets the glass-and-steel door swing shut on the building where UCLA Hillel has been housed since the 1950s.
He makes his way north on Hilgard to the corner of Westholme Avenue for a visit to the nearly complete Yitzchak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life. Standing at the northern end of Sorority Row, just east of the center of campus, the building’s gracefully curving facade of Jerusalem stone gleams against the overcast sky. An archway beckons with open arms, awaiting the students who will soon fill the spacious lounges, offices and meeting rooms.
This Sunday, Seidler-Feller plans to make a similar trek — this time permanently — as he dances through campus with Torah scrolls and hundreds of students and community members to celebrate the dedication of the new 22,000-square-foot facility, which will host its first Shabbat for students this week.
“My great hope is that the building becomes a hangout, and that it is a comfortable place where students can come to do their work, have something to eat or just to be with friends,” said Seidler-Feller, who has been with Hillel for 27 years. “I hope that it will provide us with really wonderful programming opportunities.”
Seidler-Feller and others who have worked for the last six years to bring the building to reality are fully aware that an edifice alone does not revitalize a Jewish community. But the energy that it is arousing in students and community members is apparent. Seidler-Feller said students have already begun to approach him about new programming ideas and religious services.
“The building is just a shell for our program,” said Janice Kamenir-Reznick, an attorney who chaired the building campaign. “I think our program was stifled by an outdated and remote venue, so it is a sign of our maturity and our need and readiness to move and to elevate everything about the program…. I don’t think buildings can solve problems, but I think they can help.”
The building is sure to draw students, with ice blendeds at the kosher cafe, a pool table and pingpong table, a kosher cafeteria opening in the winter quarter, meeting rooms, student offices and an artfully crafted multipurpose room.
There is ample lounge space filled with comfortable couches and chairs and laptop outlets, many of which are wired for high-speed Internet connections, in addition to a bank of computers and printers available free of charge to students.
“We decided we can’t give students anything less than they have at UCLA,” said Daniel Inlender, who was on the architectural committee as a student and has remained involved since he graduated two years ago. “So if they have access to color laser printers in the library, then we can’t give them anything less than that because they wouldn’t come.”
The hope is that someone who comes to watch a football game on the large-screen television might stick around for a class or come back for Shabbat dinner. Jewish social circles can develop with a natural focal point, highlighted by programs such as Israeli dancing night, scholarly or political lectures or Jewish student film festivals.
The arts, Seidler-Feller said, will be a major part of the program.
Outside the airy social hall-auditorium on the third floor is a reception area and gallery space. A performance stage sits in the cafe, and Seidler-Feller envisions regular open-mic nights.
The building itself has an accessible sense of artistry. The corridors meander ever so slightly, just where the archways cast shadows on the sand-colored tile — an evocation of Jerusalem’s Old City.
David Moss, the Judaica artist renowned for his haggadah, ran focus groups with students and worked as a consultant. His touch is evident down the center hallway, where glass bricks containing dirt from the lands of the Jewish Diaspora replace the tile every few feet. When the multipurpose room is divided into three sections for services of various denominations, transparent arks will visually connect students as they pray.
David Myers, professor of Jewish history at UCLA, hopes the building will draw in faculty members, as well, and that the larger Los Angeles community will see the building as a cultural and intellectual center.
“Because of the university’s cachet, because of the dynamism of the staff and the incredible facility and resources, UCLA Hillel is going to be able to attract the most outstanding and important thinkers in American and world Jewish life,” Myers said.
But there are cautious notes, as well. Maintenance, staffing and programming costs are anticipated to rise, although Hillel is in the final stretch of a $15 million capital and endowment campaign. The campaign was kicked off with donations of $1 million each from Edgar Bronfman, Steven Spielberg and the late Lew Wasserman. Henry and Susan Samueli of Orange County, Lee and Irving Kalsman and their daughter and son-in-law, Peachy and Mark Levy, along with the Spiegel Family Foundation, contributed major funding, too.
Rhoda Weisman, chief creative officer for international Hillel, who works out of Los Angeles, said that while costs increase, buildings have been known to bring out more donors for programming.
“For some reason, buildings give you permission to ask for things you would never have asked for — and get them,” said Weisman, who started her career in Hillel as UCLA’s program director.
Weisman said her biggest concern is that the building can make a community too insular.
“The danger of this wonderful building is that the Jewish community stays in the building, and emphasis is not put on going out of the building and meeting students where they’re at,” she said.
UCLA, like other California campuses, cannot afford to become complacent when it comes to reaching out to the unaffiliated students who make up about three-quarters of the Jews on campus.
“Ninety percent of all Jewish kids go to college,” Kamenir-Reznick said. “This is our last clear chance to reach young Jewish people in an organizational way, because after college they disperse. [Community support for Hillel] is an acknowledgment of the significance of our opportunity to touch them in a way that will bind them in deeper terms to the community.”
On the 20 campuses nationwide where Hillel buildings have gone up in the last 15 years, including CSUN and USC, nearly every one has been well-utilized and has positively impacted the campus, Weisman said. It has also created a sense of pride even in students who never walk into the building, she added.
“The challenge is not to let the building overwhelm the vision, to realize at all times that as beautiful as it is, and as inviting as it is, the task is to touch students,” said Seidler-Feller, whose new office has floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on every wall. “As much as you can believe that stones have souls and as comforting a presence as we are, the overwhelming reality is that the majority of Jewish students are not involved Jewishly, and there is an enormous task ahead.”
Dahlia Rabin-Pelossof, minister in the Israeli Knesset and daughter of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, is featured as the keynote speaker at the dedication of the new Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life at UCLA, Sunday, Nov. 17. Procession from old building (900 Hilgard Ave.) begins at 12:30 p.m. Program at new building (574 Hilgard Ave.) begins at 1 p.m. For more information call (310) 208-3081.
Lung Donor Needed to Save Young Life
On a cool November evening, the Avrech family — Robert, Karen, and Ariel — sit within the cozy confines of their Pico-Robertson home, where an Emmy Award that Robert won for his 1999 Holocaust-themed drama, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” graces the mantle.
But this is not your typical family scene. Ariel, Robert and Karen’s 21-year-old son, breathes with the assistance of an oxygen tank.
“There are good days and there are bad days,” Ariel said of his lung condition, which, while stabilized via steroids, produces emotional and physical highs and lows.
Unfortunately, this is not Ariel’s first brush with a life-threatening disease. At 14, he endured massive chemotherapy to eradicate a brain tumor. The procedure worked. However, this past spring, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles graduate was walking up a hill at Baltimore’s Ner Yisroel campus, where he was continuing his education, when he experienced difficulty breathing.
“At first, I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Ariel said.
In May, doctors diagnosed his condition; the chemotherapy that conquered his cancer left him with severe pulmonary fibrosis.
Now Ariel is in dire need of a living lobar lung transplant. With his family disqualified as suitable donors, a worldwide search for two willing, healthy males is underway.
“We’re reaching out to all communities, not just the Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Heshey Ten, director of Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim, which is facilitating the search. “We need to find two people to donate one of their five lobes to Ariel. The best intervention would be a living lobe transplant or a cadaveric transplant” (the latter option, for which Ariel is on a national donor list, is not being handled through Bikur Cholim).
According to the Lung Transplant Program at USC, lobar lung transplantation is an alternative for those patients who are too critically ill to survive the waiting list for cadaveric donors.
“I have a rabbi at YULA [Yeshiva University of Los Angeles] who has a list of people he would like to be cadaveric candidates,” joked Robert, screenwriter of “A Stranger Among Us.”
Humor is only one way that the Avrech family — including Ariel’s sisters, Leda, 17, and Aliza, 14 — is coping. The Avrechs have also relied on faith, one another and community to get through these trying years. As members of the Young Israel of Century City, they have received much support from the Orthodox community.
“Ariel has made a lot of personal connections,” said Karen, a school psychologist. “In his quiet way, he has a magnetism that attracts many people.”
Both Robert and Karen, who have known each other since the third grade, hail from the same Orthodox community in Bensonhurst, N.Y., a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Karen’s father was a rabbi. Karen has great admiration for her son’s fortitude. During the seventh grade, Ariel grew bored with his school and wanted to attend Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles
“That determination is getting him through his illness,” Karen said. “He’s very hard on himself but doesn’t wallow in self-pity.” Ariel says that Torah study is crucial to his positive mental state. While on sick leave from the yeshivah, he learns with a study partner.
“When I go for a day without it, I feel like I’m not living a real life,” Ariel said. “It’s very frustrating when I’m sick and can’t study as much.”
Although 47 candidates have been tested to become Ariel’s living lobar donor, none have been suitable matches. Yet Robert and Karen remain hopeful that a match will come forward. “Many people think if they’re Jewish, they’re not allowed to donate organs, but that’s not true,” Karen said.
According to the Halachic Organ Donor Society (www.hods.org), organ donation has been a controversial topic in the Jewish community because, on the surface, the medical practice contradicts certain biblical commandments concerning the handling of a cadaver. For example, the precept of “nivul hamet” forbids the needless mutilation of a cadaver. But rabbis across all denominations have, over time, come to agree that pikuach nefesh (“saving a life”) supersedes the observance of such corporeal biblical prohibitions.
Ariel offered a message to prospective living lobar donors:
“Anyone who does this will become a partner with me, a partner in my life,” he said. “I’m going to accomplish a lot and he’ll have a portion of those good things. It’s an opportunity for him as well.
“My parents love me, God loves me, and I have the strength to make it happen,” he added. “All these things, I have no doubt that they will come together.”
For information on how to help, contact Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim at (323) 852-1900 or visit www.bikurcholimonline.org/ariel.htm .
Kahal Joseph’s New Beginning
When Joseph Dabby arrived in America from Iraq in 1972, and found his way to Kahal Joseph Congregation in Los Angeles, he was shocked. "It was like being back in the Old Country," he said.
"It was full of people who didn’t even speak the same language; they were very far removed [from their roots] but they maintained everything the same — the same melodies and the same traditions," said Dabby, now 56 and president of the congregation.
Kahal Joseph is a Sephardic melting pot of a synagogue; a shul whose members — and whose 25 Torah scrolls — come from places as remote as China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Singapore and Iraq. Yet as disparate as all these locales are, all Kahal Joseph members share a common heritage, the Jewish Baghdadi tradition.
Baghdad, or Iraq, has one of the oldest Jewish communities in the world. Jews have lived there since the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE.
"We are called Babylonians because we trace ourselves back to the destruction of the first Temple, when Babylonia’s [King] Nebuchadnezer destroyed the Temple and brought the cream of Jewish society to be slaves in Iraq," Dabby said. "That is when they built the hanging gardens, and they were the top singers and top astronomers in Iraq."
This was also the time that the Jewish Baghdadi customs started to develop: soulful, emotional melodies that, having survived thousands of years, are still sung today, and a tradition of Jewish learning that had its apotheosis with the publication of the Babylonian Talmud in the third century.
Yet the board of Kahal Joseph is finding that a reliance on ancient traditions is not enough to ensure the survival of a synagogue.
"We need to bring in young families here," Dabby said. "Now we get them here because of loyalty, because of their parents, but when they [the young families] have children, their children go to school and become more intellectual; if we don’t provide the proper services, then they go away and we lose them. And if we lose them, then we lose the synagogue, because they are the next generation. We are really looking for almost like a new beginning now. To rejuvenate young members who are starting new families, to have the synagogue give them something so they can keep it going rather than move to other synagogues."
The new beginning is coming in the form of a new rabbi, Rabbi Haim Ovadia from New York.
Ovadia, 36, was born in Jerusalem and raised in an Iraqi family, allowing him knowledge of the Baghdadi traditions. He is also college educated and in the middle of pursuing a Ph.D. in Jewish history at New York University. Dabby and his board are hoping that young families find this mix enticing.
"Rabbi Ovadia is very intellectual, and very open-minded," Dabby said. "And we really have big hopes that he will make a big difference for us, that he will be able to question things, and bring in our young people — who are really the ones who question things. My generation may go by faith and accept things. But the new generation is talking about things like organ transplants, and coming out of the closet — many issues which our old rabbis don’t know how to deal with. We hope that this rabbi will be able to be more current."
Ovadia will begin his tenure at Kahal Joseph on Rosh Hashana, when he will officiate alongside Kahal Joseph’s two cantors, Chazan Aryeh Ovadia (no relation), and Chazan Sassoon Ezra. While the cantors will be singing the melodies from the Old Country, Rabbi Ovadia will be working to make the service more user-friendly by explaining the services in English.
"We did not have that before, and we are very happy about it, because we need it," Dabby said. "There are a lot of people who grew up reading Hebrew, knowing the prayers, but not knowing what we are doing — so we are very excited that the rabbi is going to explain everything as we go along."
For Rabbi Ovadia, this move to Los Angeles presents him with a challenge. "I hope to be able to create a sense of unity in the shul," he said in a phone interview from New York. "I want to be able to unite the people around the central theme of being an Orthodox, modern Jew in the 21st century, and in order to do that we have to maintain the Iraqi traditions, with modern ideas. I hope to make the shul into a really active, dynamic place, where everyone can feel that they belong."
Beyond the Cover
Many know author Walter Mosley as the creator of the popular Central L.A.-set Easy Rawlins detective series of which the book "Devil in a Blue Dress," became a film starring Denzel Washington. But what is not as well-known is Mosley’s Jewish background on his mother’s side.
Mosley, who recently released the sci-fi "Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World," discussed with a local paper the black/Jewish issues that inspired his mystery novel "Fearless Jones" which was released June of 2001. At one point in the book, Fanny, a Holocaust survivor, takes the title character and his friend into her home, and the two become entangled in the lives of her immigrant family. The award-winning author talked about what it was like to grow up biracial in Los Angeles.
"For me, it didn’t feel like two cultures. It was my mother and my father, and it was kind of a wonderful thing, because I had two families that reflected each other almost perfectly. They both came from poor communities; they all had an oral tradition.
"The Jewish side of my family lived in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica. They were working-class people — butchers and bakers and tailors — and they worked with their hands. My father’s family was mostly in Watts, and later in Compton and parts of Pasadena. Everybody in my father’s family worked with their hands, too, but they did it a little differently. My father actually built a house in the back yard, and did painting and mechanics. My uncle, Chaim, who was a tailor, would show my father how he cut a suit. And my father would show Chaim how you’d level a floor. It was an interesting kind of interaction.
The funny thing, the interesting thing, is that all my Jewish relatives are from Eastern Europe, and they’re all tiny people. Five feet tall, 5-foot-1, so their houses are actually very small. [Laughs]. I felt a little cramped when I visited them, but I knew I could walk to the beach, which was something I loved. But when I got home, I loved home, my neighborhood. This is Los Angeles, so when you get to my neighborhood, it’s not just black people, but a lot of Mexican Americans living in the neighborhood; and not that far away, the Japanese, who have been there for 100 years. The multicultural effect of Los Angeles, which I hope comes through in my books, is something I was very influenced by."
People of All Faiths Find Solace in Prayer
The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center seemed to have had the perfect combination of factors needed to dismantle people’s religious beliefs: an atrocity committed in the name of religion and God, coupled with so many dead and wounded that even for those of strong faith, the idea of a benevolent or caring God was seriously challenged.
And yet, rather than turning away from God and religion, people of all faiths have flocked to centers of worship and have engaged in private prayer.
It marks, perhaps, the coming together of psychology and religion, as people turn both inward and outward toward their larger communities and the community of humankind to find solace and meaning in dreadful times.
Whether it was President Bush’s call for a National Day of Prayer or an overwhelming impulse to go to shul, the Friday night after Sept. 11 saw synagogues packed.
At Sinai Temple that week, about 2,500 young people attended Friday Night Live service, which usually sees about 1,500, said Rabbi David Wolpe. "I think there is something about praying, feeling solidarity in community that’s very powerful," Wolpe told The Journal.
At University Synagogue in Brentwood, 700 people showed up, in contrast to the 150 who might usually come on a Friday night.
"In the 30 years which I have served University Synagogue, I do not remember as many people coming as we had on Rosh Hashana morning. It was amazing to witness and experience," said Rabbi Allen Freehling.
Freehling wasn’t surprised by the turnout.
"Any time in which there is a life crisis, people either have a tendency to move toward or away from prayer and worship and reliance upon their synagogue as a safe haven," Freehling said. "In this particular crisis, I am finding a dramatic number of people who are involving themselves in personal prayer and worship services, as well as coming to synagogue and meeting with clergy to clarify their own feelings and to focus on ways in which they can get through these ordeals."
Freehling likens the response to the religious or spiritual yearnings that are awakened in reaction to a serious illness or a death.
"In this particular instance, it’s as if at least the whole nation, if not the world community, has suffered a profound death in the family," Freehling said.
Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple told Time magazine that since the terror, "the intensity of the [religious] experience has heightened." The article, "Faith After the Fall," examined whether the return signified a revival or was just a "quick hit of community."
Wolpe told The Journal that he doesn’t know how long the "return" to prayer will last. "There’s a lot of speculation about all sorts of things … and the fact that we don’t know adds to our uncertainty — how people will react depends on what happens," he said.
Dr. Leonard Felder, a psychologist and author of seven books, has spent much of the past month speaking at synagogues where Jews have sought guidance.
"I think the idea of being trapped in a burning building — which was on fire because of a suicide bomber — is so off-the-charts horrible, and we realized there are so many things in life that we cannot control, that we couldn’t just go back to business as usual or normal rationalizations. We had to go deeper," said Felder, whose most recent book, "Seven Prayers That Can Change Your Life" (Andrews McMeel, 2001), is about using prayer in a therapeutic way.
People began searching for more meaning in their own activities.
"One of the things people feel is that their lives and daily chores are insignificant compared to what they were seeing on CNN. But when they would pray and ask to have the energy to rise up and be of service, they got clues as to how to be useful," he said. "They realize that wiping their children’s runny nose or helping an aging parent living alone is just as important as what they are seeing on TV."
Felder said that Jewish prayer is uniquely equipped to move people to action. In Judaism, supplicants do not ask God for miracles, or to take action on their behalf.
"Jews pray to get guidance on how to be a good person and to be useful and helpful in the world. Prayer is like a wake-up call to bring out the best in yourself," he said. "We don’t ask for God to take care of all this stuff for us, we tend to ask God or some source of strength to inspire us to do good in the world."
Felder also notes that even if people hadn’t thought through why they were turning to prayer, it may have just given them a "quiet, centering moment" as the chaos around them unfurled.
But even more than the need for quiet introspection, Freehling of University Synagogue has seen people tap into the support of community.
"There is this sense of kinship, which is even stronger than comradeship," Freehling said. "When people are coming now, they seem to be gaining an extra measure of strength and comfort because they know they are in the company of others who are feeling similar kinds of emotions."
People wanted to share those emotions, using actions and language that are comfortable and familiar.
"What they are displaying is an almost palatable hunger for the lifting up of their spirit through the words of the rabbi and the songs of the cantor," Freehling said.
That impulse was probably magnified by the fact that the attacks coincided with the High Holy Days, when even sometime worshippers spend hours in synagogue.
"The words we read in the prayer book or sang during the services seemed to have an ability to resonate within the congregants perhaps as never before," Freehling said.
For Felder, the same holds true for his daily prayers, such as "Sim Shalom," asking God for peace, or "Modeh Ani," thanking God for restoring the soul to the body.
One prayer in the daily "Amidah" has brought Felder to tears. The prayer praises God as a sustainer of life who "supports the fallen, heals the ill, frees the captives and renews faith among those who sleep in the dust."
Felder said that finding such moments in the day could change a life. In his book, he points to small prayers that can make a tremendous difference. Reciting "Modeh Ani" in the morning, thanking God for life, can compensate for the human tendency to look for incompleteness.
"The human brain doesn’t notice what is complete and good. For that you have to manually override your problem-solving brain," with a prayer of gratitude such as "Modeh Ani," he said.
Freehling hopes this crisis-driven experience with prayer will open up more Jews to the power of prayer.
"Any of us who have been involved not only in the leading of public worship, but also in the encouragement of private prayers, try to impress upon people that under all circumstances, whether good or bad, prayer and worship validate life and raise people to a whole new level of appreciation and activity," Freehling said.
Felder said he hopes more psychologists refer clients to those who can help in spiritual healing, and that more rabbis teach their congregants more about prayer.
The effects of this one event, Felder said, could be long lasting, if people take the time to hold on to their initial reaction and go deeper.
"I’m hoping that if people were brought to tears this year by prayer, that maybe we won’t wait till the next crisis before we study ‘what are these prayers and why do they affect me so strongly?’"