‘Rachel Corrie’ on stage: agitprop or art?

“The American Jewish community has a problem keeping silent,” says scholar Michael Berenbaum, and he ascribes the “problem” to guilt over our collective failure to speak up during the Holocaust.

In a very different time and on a vastly different scale, the option of silence versus public protest faces Los Angeles Jews in advance of the opening of a play many view as anti-Israel propaganda.

The one-woman play, “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” will open Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, an outdoor venue in Topanga Canyon. Although it is hardly a prominent theatrical event for a cultural mecca like Los Angeles, its focus on a controversial historical figure from Israel’s recent history raises questions of artistic freedom and historical balance.

Rachel Corrie, who grew up in a liberal, non-Jewish family in Olympia, Wash., traveled during the Second Intifada to the Gaza Strip as part of an activist movement to “shield” Palestinian inhabitants from the Israeli army.

She was killed March 16, 2003, at age 23, while confronting an army bulldozer assigned to demolish a house believed to harbor hostile militants. Some allege the bulldozer driver killed Corrie on purpose because she would not move out of the way. Others say the driver did not see her and ran over her accidentally.

The dramatic circumstances of this young American woman’s death in the midst of a widely covered conflict quickly turned the incident into an international cause célèbre.

Corrie, a compulsive writer, left behind a huge cache of diary entries and e-mail letters, which two Londoners, actor/director Alan Rickman and journalist Katherine Viner, have edited into a 70-minute play.

“My Name Is Rachel Corrie” opened in London in 2005 to full houses and glowing reviews. A planned New York premiere in early 2006, at the nonprofit New York Theatre Workshop, met a different fate, however.

The timing of the New York opening was inauspicious. It was a moment when the always-heated emotions surrounding the

Israeli-Palestinian conflict had been intensified by Hamas’ election victory in Gaza, a group listed as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States. The play’s intended opening also coincided with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s massive stroke, which left the Israeli leader in a coma.

So, before opening the play, James Nicola, artistic director of the New York theater, decided to poll local Jewish religious and community leaders as to their feelings about the work, according to a New York Times report.

Nicola concluded that the announced play “has made this community very defensive and very edgy … and it seems reasonable to me to postpone the opening indefinitely.”

Nevertheless, the play opened later that year at a commercial theater in Greenwich Village, and that production left New York Times critic Clive Davis cold.

“An element of unvarnished propaganda comes to the fore … with no attempt to set the violence in context,” Davis wrote. “We are left with the impression of unarmed civilians being crushed by faceless militarists.”

In a rebuttal, Viner, the play’s co-editor, defended her work as “a piece of art, not a piece of agitprop.”

Various productions of the play have since been staged in Seattle, Chicago, Australia and Ireland.

Samara Frame will portray activist Rachel Corrie in “My Name Is Rachel Corrie,” opening Sept. 1 at the Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum.

Perhaps with the unhappy New York experience in mind, the Theatricum Botanicum’s board decided to do some advance outreach to the local Jewish community, with veteran character actor Alan Blumenfeld, a longtime board member, volunteering to make the contacts.

In an interview with The Jewish Journal, Blumenfeld noted that, so far, attention has focused on Corrie’s dramatic end, rather than on her life. In assessing the play, he said, “I think it is important to figure out who she was and what she tried to do — separate from her death.”

In one of her diary entries, the then-21-year-old Corrie describes herself as “scattered, deviant and too loud.” Susan Angelo, who directs actress Samara Frame in the upcoming production, sees Corrie as a rather naïve young woman who knew little about the Middle East conflict and could have gone to any global hot spot in her search “to make her life meaningful.”

Co-editor Viner, in an epilogue to the play’s script, sums up Corrie as “messy, skinny, Dali-loving, list-making, chain-smoking, with a passion for the music of Pat Benatar.”

A reading of the play shows Corrie portrayed as an intelligent, idealistic, super-imaginative and introspective teenager and young woman, who strove, somewhat self-consciously, to appear unconventional.

In trying to evaluate the Jewish community’s mood, Blumenfeld spoke with representatives of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and the Israel-advocacy group StandWithUs.

Blumenfeld said he found the representatives of all three groups friendly and forthcoming. As a result of the discussions, representatives from the community will provide audiences with factual written material and participate in “audience talk-back” sessions following all four performances of the play.

In an interview, Patsy Ostroy, founding president of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, said she had not seen the play but she anticipated “a negative reaction in the Jewish community,” while at the same time fully defending the play’s right to be heard and seen.

Catherine Schneider, Federation’s senior vice president of community engagement, said she had expressed her deep concern about the possible impact of the “play’s misinformation” on audiences, but also explored with Blumenfeld possible future stagings of other works at Theatricum Botanicum, perhaps by young Israeli authors.

Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a group that on its Web site describes its mission as fighting the “delegitimization of Israel,” expressed concern about the play’s approach: “I can fully understand that Rachel’s parents are heartbroken …  but the play itself consists of one-sided anti-Israel propaganda.”

StandWithUs does not advocate a boycott of the play, she said, but it will distribute to audiences a leaflet featuring pictures of eight Israeli women, all also named Rachel, who have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Although the Simon Wiesenthal Center was not part of Blumenfeld’s advance discussions, its founder and dean, Rabbi Marvin Hier, said that based on Israel’s record and government investigation of the case, he is convinced Corrie’s death was accidental.

“In a free country, the producers of the play have every right to put it on,” Hier said, “but to any friend of Israel, I would say, ‘Don’t see it.’ ”

Veteran peace and civil-rights activist Gerald Bubis also emphasized the right of any play to present its message, nevertheless predicting that “the more Jews attack the play, the more publicity it will get.

“My advice about the play is leave it alone, leave it alone,” Bubis said. “If it’s good, it’ll survive; if it’s bad, it won’t. In either case, nothing will happen to the Jews.”

Two telling evaluations came from theatrical producers who have had their own struggles with controversial plays.

Howard Teichman, artistic director of the West Coast Jewish Theatre, recalled that two years ago he wanted to put on “Behind the Gates” by Wendy Graf, much of it set in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim quarter.

Though Teichman considered the play “brilliant,” when he presented the project to his board, a majority turned it down, concerned that the contents would offend religious sensibilities. “I still think one of the theater’s missions is to present all points of view,” he said.

Gordon Davidson, who served for nearly four decades as artistic director of the Center Theatre Group, staged “The Devils” by John Whiting as his very first production. Among other topics, the play dealt with religious hysteria and sexual repression among 17th century nuns and priests, and the reaction by the Catholic Church and powerful politicians almost aborted Davidson’s career at its start.

“I realize that a given play may cause anger and hurt, but if I chose it on its merits, I have to take the responsibility,” Davidson said. “And what better exercise in democracy can there be?”

So far, the Jewish community, or that segment aware of the Rachel Corrie play, is generally taking its upcoming performance with equanimity.

Blumenfeld said that the theater sent out notices of the play’s schedule to its mailing list of 4,000, and just seven came back with e-mailed comments.

“Three said, ‘I’m excited and will attend,’ ” Blumenfeld said. “Two responded with, ‘I am concerned about the play. Can we discuss this?’ And two more messaged, ‘How dare you put this on? I’ll never set foot in your theater again.’ ”

Performances of “My Name is Rachel Corrie” are on successive Thursday evenings, Sept. 1, 8, 15 and 22, at the Theatricum Botanicum’s S. Mark Taper Foundation Pavilion, located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway. For tickets ($12 each) and information, phone (310) 455-3723, or visit www.theatricum.com.

A leaflet will be distributed to audiences by the group StandWithUs.

A 10-Step Guide to Helping Israel

As the conflict in Israel continues, Jewish groups are focusing their efforts — financial, spiritual, intellectual, personal and practical — on ways to help Israel. The following list — by no means comprehensive — includes 10 things you can do to help Israel.

  1. Write a Letter to a Family: Sometimes the personal touch is the most effective. The Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles has set up a way to send your letters in diplomatic packages that will go directly to families in shelters in the North. To participate, go to www.israeliconsulatela.org. Who knows? Maybe your letter will lead to a full correspondence!
  2. Send a Gift Basket to a Family: Nothing distracts a child more than candy or toys. The Web site www.israel-catalog.com is offering free delivery for care packages being sent to children in shelters. Prices for packages for 10-20 children begin at $19.95.
  3. Send a Gift Basket to a Soldier: The Israel Defense Forces recently called up 30,000 reservists, in addition to the thousands of 18- 21-year-olds serving their national duty. “Dash Cham,” which means warm regards, is a web site specializing in sending gift baskets from the Diaspora to Israel.
    “The IDF has told us that these programs have helped boost morale and provide helpful and wanted food and personal care products to the soldiers,” says a notice on www.dashcham.com.

  4. Deliver a Pizza: A program popular during the second intifada is still going strong. Send a hot pizza to soldiers on the front line. For more information, go to pizzaidf.org.
  5. Send a Northerner to the South: For only $15 a day you can send one person to Efrat. Rabbi Joel Zeff, formerly of Westwood Kehilla, moved to Israel 12 years ago and is now involved in an effort to bring more than 300 people to the Ohr Torah institutions in Efrat, for food, clothing and housing in the school’s dorms. Tax deductible donations can be sent to American Friends of Ohr Torah Stone, 49 W. 45th St., Suite 701, N.Y., N.Y. 10036. The memo line on the check should indicate “For Northern Refugees.”
  6. Donate Money: Of course there are many places to send money to help Israel, but among those that will ensure that 100 percent of your donation goes directly to humanitarian needs is The Jewish Federation’s Israel in Crisis Fund. The fund will provide kits for children in bomb shelters, summer camps and programs for displaced children, trauma and meal services for the elderly, assistance for the disabled, training for volunteers, psychological support, air-conditioning for bomb shelters and more. For more information, go to www.JewishLA.org or call 1-866-968-7333.
  7. Visit Israel: Tourism in Israel was set to be at an all-time high this summer and while some groups and individuals have cancelled trips because of fears about the conflict, many people are going as planned. Despite travel advisories, it’s still possible to travel to Israel safely by remaining in the central region, Jerusalem and the South. There is nothing that puts a smile on an Israeli’s face more than to see an American visitor.

    Some groups are going on focused three- or four-day missions to help distribute food, toys and funds to victims of the war. Participants often also meet with politicians for briefings on the current situation and how to help. Right now, Sinai Temple and Stephen S. Wise are each taking delegations to Israel for three days; each has raised at least $1 million to distribute there.

    Some local groups are proceeding with trips that were already planned, but are refocusing their design: StandWithUs.org, the pro-Israel advocacy organization, which has led the demonstrations and counter-demonstrations at the Israeli Consulate here, is currently on a 10-day mission to Israel. The National Republican Jewish Coalition is also taking a leadership group Aug. 6-14.

  8. Help the Blood Drive: Due to the violence, Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s first-aid and emergency response organization, and the State of Israel are on high blood alert. The American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA)is asking for all U.S. citizens to donate money — instead of blood — to ensure that the IDF is able to care for all those wounded as the current conflict escalates.

    “It is critical during this time that we support those victims of the recent violence,” says Rabbi Daniel Allen, executive vice presidet of AFMDA. “In Israel, citizens are lining up to donate blood, but without this financial support, we risk not being able to process all potential donations.”

    MDA in Israel also needs funds for medical supplies, blood test kits, telecommunication devices, life-saving vehicles maintenance, as well as to support the increase in staff needed to work all hours, and more. Funding can be donated through www.afmda.org, or via their hotline, at (866) 632-2763.

  9. Spread the News: As the war progresses, much of the battle will be fought in the media. Some local activists are meeting in their homes to plan how to fight the battle in the media. Other organizations are posting articles about the situation. Knowledge is power: Read and disseminate articles and photographs to your community that support your position.

    The Los Angeles Israeli Consulate has been briefing federations in the Western Region on the situation so that local members can call in to radio shows, write in to newspapers, and make their presence known.

    There are also a number of Web campaigns being disseminated. StandWithUs urges the Red Cross to help free Gilad Shalit, by sending a letter, which can be found on their Web site www.standwithus.com.

  10. Pray and Study Torah: As much of the community gathered last week to rally for Israel, Orthodox synagogues around the city organized to say special psalms for the Jewish State. Throughout the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av, the fast of the ninth of Av on Thursday, the Orthodox Union synagogue members have been studying Torah to help the situation.

    “We believe that such a major continuous spiritual effort will have a meritorious effect on the welfare of our fellow Jews in Israel at this critical time,” said OU Executive Vice President Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb.

    OU President Stephen J. Savitsky added: “We are calling for massive involvement in Torah study, because this is one way in which we feel we can make a difference and demonstrate our concern.”

We welcome your suggestions on how to help Israel. Please send them to webmaster@jewishjournal.com and we will post them on our Web site.

A Side of L.A. the Tour Books Don’t Mention

I’ll admit to a bit of initial wariness about a bus tour through Inglewood, Lennox and Hawthorne, sponsored a couple of Sundays ago by the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). The three communities just east of LAX have poverty and crime rates far exceeding the averages in L.A. County. Images of huge buses packed with well-insulated tourists were difficult to avoid.

But the 90 people who boarded the two buses at the Westside Jewish Community Center were not interested in casual sightseeing.

The tour, co-sponsored by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE), IKAR, Leo Baeck Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood proved an opportunity to examine the underbelly of the tourism industry surrounding LAX.

“One of the major components of our campaign supporting the organizing efforts of the workers in the 13 hotels along Century Boulevard is to examine the impact of low wages on the surrounding communities, where most of the workers live,” said Jaime Rapaport, PJA’s program director. “We’re offering this tour to help us all understand the very real effects of substandard working conditions.”
In addition to PJA members and congregants from a range of synagogues, participants included PJA’s Jeremiah Fellows — 20-somethings examining social justice issues — as well as members of The Jewish Federation’s New Leader’s Project and seminarians from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of Judaism.

“As Jews we have to stand together with these workers and not be influenced by the pressures of the current anti-immigration politics,” said Marla Stone, a member of IKAR who took part with her husband, Scott Johnson, and their 4-year-old daughter, Claudia.

“We thought we’d get more out of seeing the actual sites of the struggles,” she said. “It’s important to bring Jews closer to their entire city, especially the places that are often invisible, and we wanted our daughter to get a sense of that, too.”

Clad in a PJA “Mensches in the Trenches” T-shirt, Laura Podolsky of the organization’s Economic Justice Working Group took hold the microphone as our bus headed south on Fairfax and past the oil rigs on La Cienega Boulevard.
The neighborhoods surrounding the airport, in addition to suffering the noise and pollution that results from being directly under the incoming flight paths, are some of the poorest communities in Los Angeles, she said.

As we approached the airport, passing the seemingly endless sun-baked parking structures, rental car lots and decaying mini-malls, the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, executive director of CLUE, explained that unionized hotel housekeepers earn more than double their nounionized counterparts on average. In an era where companies increasingly take their businesses overseas, she said. “Hotel jobs cannot be outsourced.”

Our bus pulled into the parking lot of a Carl’s Jr. on Century Boulevard, where Daniella Urban, a front desk worker from the Hilton, joined us with tales of the many obstacles she had confronted in her organizing.

En route to our next stop, we drove by two elementary schools located directly under the LAX flight path. The primary concern in the schools’ construction in the 1980s was noise attenuation. The result: bunker-like structures with no classroom windows. Not a pretty sight.

Just as we might have been despairing over these conditions, our buses pulled into the immense parking lot between the Inglewood Forum and Hollywood Park.
Former Inglewood City Councilman and LAANE senior organizer Daniel Tabor introduced the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood, as “sister, pastor, warrior” for her opposition to a Wal-Mart on this very site.

As planes flew overhead, Perez argued that the defeat of Wal-Mart showed “we are more powerful than we think. We started the campaign as witnesses. We didn’t think we had any chance of defeating them. And then we won.”

But, she cautioned the group, shortly after Wal-Mart was rejected by the city, they actually bought the contested land; the battle is not over.

“It takes a village of warriors, which includes many of you,” Salvatierra emphasized as we got back on the bus.

Our final stop on that hot afternoon was B’nai Tikvah Congregation. The synagogue shares the facilities of the Westchester Christian Church, and the sounds of a gospel chorus were pouring out the door.

Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen was one of 27 protesters arrested last month for committing civil disobedience in support of the hotel workers — something he left out of his address.

Instead, he invoked the words of Abraham Heschel, his teacher’s teacher, who described his experience marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“Heschel said, ‘I felt as if my legs were praying,'” Van Leeuwen recalled. He then invoked an image, not from scriptures, but from Hanna-Barbera, imagining a flotilla of Flintstone buses, propelled by the leg power of its riders. “We are the praying legs that propel the buses of justice,” he declared. An appropriate enough benediction before we boarded our gas-propelled vehicles to return to the Westside JCC.

Back on the bus, Salvatierra spoke of the organizing campaign’s future, which is expected to culminate with a rally on Sept. 28 at Hilton Hotel’s headquarters in Beverly Hills.

“It’s David and Goliath work,” she said. “But don’t forget who won.”
Her message had an impact. “I signed up for the Economic Justice Working Group, and I’m planning to be at the rally,” Marla Stone said.

For more information, visit www.pjalliance.org or www.laane.org.

A.M.E., Rhythm and Jews

It's Friday night, and as I wander toward the entrance of Temple Emanuel, a Reform synagogue in Beverly Hills, an usher approaches and asks brightly, “Are you with the choir?”

I'm African American, but I'm not with the choir, at least not with the choir of Temple Bryant A.M.E. Church, which is visiting the synagogue tonight. I smile through a twinge of annoyance.

Later, as I search for a seat in the cavernous but crowded temple, another helpful-looking usher with a pile of programs catches sight of me: “You must be with the choir!”

Must I?

To be sure, some of those A.M.E. folks, some of whom are splendidly dressed in West African kente cloth, are looking like they need a little bit of direction. But the first lesson of multiculturalism may be that not all black people are churchgoers and/or singers. I could have been Jewish, for all anybody knew. As it happens, I'm not Jewish, my husband is and my married name, Kaplan, tends to throw people of all colors and religious beliefs when I show up in person. So I've learned to carry a certain sympathy for cultural and ethnic misconceptions.

But still.

Then I remind myself that I like the reason why I'm here on this Friday in February: This concert marks an early step by Temple Emanuel and Bryant A.M.E., from Leimert Park in the Crenshaw District, to develop relationships between their respective flocks. Not political, agenda-driven, public relations-conscious relationships, but ties forged the old-fashioned way — through individual conversations and personal connections over time. The bridge-building is part of a larger effort by the community organizing outfit, One L.A. (the latest iteration of the Industrial Areas Foundation), to unite Los Angeles' disparate populations around conversations on a whole host of common, quality-of-life issues.

The Rev. Dr. Clyde Oden Jr. of Bryant and Rabbi Laura Geller of Emanuel are putting their own stamp on this, starting with names: Oden calls the project “Shalom in the City,” Geller has dubbed it “Hineni, Here I Am.” Both admit they are on a long journey that has no real road map and that may take years to accomplish, if it is accomplished at all. Yet both are encouraged so far. Geller has taught the Torah at Oden's church, and he brought some congregants to temple last Friday; the two groups have already planned a joint seder and picked an L.A.-resonant theme for it: “Coming out of a narrow place.”

Oden says it's all in the spirit of creating a new model of activism, one rooted not in the leaders or agendas of yore, but in friendships.

“These won't be drive-by relationships,” says Oden, who proposed the crosstown outreach. “Our society promotes distance, and we don't know each other — Jews, gentiles, Latinos, blacks. We're kind of in the wilderness here on this project, but we're going toward the Promised Land.”

Geller says she also wants to deconstruct the management-heavy, '60s model of activism and remake it into something more meaningful and effective for today.

“One of the criticisms of the civil rights model is that Jews were perceived as helping blacks,” she says. “If we start with personal issues that matter to everybody — things like drug addiction, aging parents, emergency health care — then we'll be on equal footing.”

One L.A. organizer, Daniel May, describes the dynamics of the Emanuel/Bryant project, and others like it around town, as “moving from strangers to neighbors. It's not about issues, but commonalities. And also differences.”

I keep that in mind as two musical traditions come together tentatively, somewhat clumsily, before my eyes. Besides the black choir, the service features Jewish singer/guitarist Rick Recht. I have no idea who Recht is, but his name, pronounced “Wrecked,” sounds appropriately rapper-esque.

He turns out to be the furthest thing from that — a smooth, charismatic performer and storyteller with impeccable pop sensibilities and an occasional edge — kind of a Jewish Jim Croce. But he hits a serious sour note when he decides to turn the venerable “Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing,” a poem-cum-song penned at the turn of the 20th century that evolved into the black national anthem, into a kind of summer camp sing-along, complete with call and response.

I get the good intention, but it's mildly horrifying nonetheless. The black people look a bit stunned, though tolerant.

Then, when the Bryant choir backs up another gospel number, Emanuel's sonorous and dignified cantor suddenly erupts with a funkified solo on “Let My People Go,” complete with hand gestures and foot shuffling that must be meant to echo James Brown.

My Jewish husband seated next to me, puts his head in his hands briefly.

“Look at what my people are doing,” he murmured. “It's embarrassing.”

Maybe. But I hardly expected Jews to have that kind of rhythm, or for anybody nonblack to resist the temptation to boogie when black people give them the chance. But music is not the main point: This evening is facilitating a larger and, I believe, enlightening purpose. For that possibility alone, I'll endure 1,000 more funk faux pas. And I trust the congregants will put up with mine as well.

Erin Aubry Kaplan is a regular Op-Ed columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

Activists Strategize on Hotel Contracts

The gala dinner was like many others at the Century Plaza Hotel, featuring festive centerpieces atop crisp tablecloths, well-dressed guests exchanging greetings and servers bustling about offering trays of beverages.

However, this event wasn’t actually inside the hotel. Set in front of the hotel on the Avenue of the Stars, which was blocked off, this banquet-in-the-street supported some 4,000 striking workers at seven Los Angeles hotels. The traffic-stopping April gathering was among a series of actions organized by a coalition of community groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), in support of an 11-month strike that ended in June.

The outcome was an important step forward for the union: It achieved a wage hike, continued health benefits and a short contract that will expire at nearly the same time as the contracts of other hotel workers in other parts of the country.

Last week saw the next round of activism — a transnational effort in support of hotel workers in eight cities fighting for a new contract in 2006.

On Wednesday, inspired by the success in Los Angeles, Jewish social justice organizations from the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel workers’ union headquarters just west of downtown. The strategy session was convened by New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance. Representatives also attended from other Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, as well as from groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. In mostly closed-door meetings, organizers discussed the tactics and the coalition building that worked in this year’s L.A. campaign and how the lessons would apply in other cities.

Organizers say that Jewish involvement has been a central fixture within the effort.

Jewish participation, particularly at the Century Plaza Hotel, was essential, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the hotel workers local, UNITE HERE. The Century Plaza is sufficiently serious about Jewish clientele to maintain a sealed-off kosher kitchen, she said.

“There’s no doubt that if it had not been for the influence and the participation and the constant, constant communication of the Jewish organizations, the Century Plaza would not have settled,” Durazo said.

“The most important aspect of what we did there,” said Jaime Rapaport, the architect of PJA’s hotel worker support campaign, “was this national Jewish response to a campaign that’s addressing poverty.”

The national average median wage for housekeepers is $7.85 an hour, according to the union. Wages are higher where more hotels are organized: In New York, where hotels are 95 percent unionized, a housekeeper’s wages start at $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, with a 35 percent union density, housekeepers average $11.31.

“It’s not just about a contract fight,” UNITE HERE organizer Vivian Rothstein said. “It’s a national approach to address conditions for nonunion and union workers.”

But a hotel industry representative said the union activists are over-reaching with unrealistic demands and that they misrepresent how hotels treat their workers.

“The bulk of hotel workers are housekeepers. They make, under this contract, approximately $13.50 an hour,” said Fred Muir of the Hotel Employers Council, which represents seven unionized Los Angeles-area hotels. He points out that the contract also provides for a pension fund, paid health care and free meals at work.

The strategy on the hotel side has been to prevent union contracts across the country from expiring at the same time. Hotels gave ground on that issue in the last year. Beyond that, individual hotel chains have opposed union organizing and simply worked to hold down labor costs in a business environment that includes rising health-care costs.

The economics of the hotel industry are simple, Muir said. “How many rooms can you fill and how much can you charge for them? The money to pay everyone has to come from somewhere.”

Room rates in New York are twice what they are in Los Angeles, so workers in New York can be paid more than those in Los Angeles, he said.

The activists who gathered last week emphasized that they are trying to make their labor campaign about Jewish values. The meeting’s purpose was to link local Jewish groups to the union organizing in their cities, and, just as important, bring them together to develop “a common language, a common strategy, common goals that would enable us to speak in a louder and more aggregated voice,” said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He wants to expand the notion of what constitutes “Jewish issues.”

“We want to put out there on the radar the notion that social justice is central to our identity as Jews,” he said.

The idea resonates with Simon Greer, who just six months ago took over as executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice. The foundation, which handles some $15 million annually, underwrote transportation and lodging costs for participants from the Jewish social justice organizations.

Greer said that the campaign seeks to boost hotel workers into the middle class. “As Jews in this country, the beneficiaries of America as an open society, we are obligated to do something for others in this society,” he said. “A piece of this is about how we reclaim justice as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in America.”

When Jews make choices that support social justice, he added, they are, in effect, expanding the notion of keeping kosher.

All Saints’ IRS Fight Gets Jewish Support

For a church facing an assault from the Internal Revenue Service, the outspoken clergy of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena acted neither fearful nor repentant Sunday.

The IRS is “welcome in our pews,” said Rector J. Edwin Bacon to loud applause, but “not welcome in our pulpit.”

The IRS has threatened to revoke the church’s tax-exempt status for speaking out strongly on political issues. But Bacon showed no signs of backing down. And based on the reaction from the Southern California rabbinate, rhetorical reinforcements are already in place.

The IRS dispute arose out of an anti-war sermon given by the Rev. George Regas on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. The IRS interpreted the impassioned homily as an endorsement of John Kerry over incumbent President George W. Bush. Tax-exempt nonprofits, such as churches and synagogues, are not allowed to endorse candidates.

Bacon told the packed congregation last weekend that the church is “energetically resisting” the attack on its tax-exempt status. If left unchallenged, the IRS action “means that a preacher cannot speak boldly about the core values of his or her faith community without fear of government recrimination.”

Bacon added that All Saints has received a “surprising outpouring of solidarity” from a “host of other believers.”

Jewish leaders are among those speaking out against the IRS action. They say that their own synagogues, too, could become targets.

“I would have given the sermon that Regas gave with honor,” said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, of Congregation Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. He added that he regularly gives sermons that “challenge my congregation” by addressing difficult political issues. If these sermons have reached the attention of the IRS, he doesn’t know about it.

Jacobs said he hopes that the controversy will stir rabbis and other religious leaders to take more chances in their sermons and not cower in face of intimidation.

“There is a great risk to our personal souls if truth has to be suppressed and doubt unspoken, “Jacobs said. “When ‘united we stand’ means everyone must think alike, something is seriously wrong with our democracy. Jeremiah spoke truth to power in the Babylonian times and All Saints is doing it now.”

It was two days before the 2004 election that Regas, All Saints’ former rector, gave a guest sermon in which he imagined a debate between Jesus and then-candidates George W. Bush and John Kerry. Regas harshly criticized the government’s record on poverty, abortion and nuclear arms, but his most pointed remarks concerned the war in Iraq. He said Jesus would have told Bush, “Mr. President, your doctrine of preemptive war is a failed doctrine [that] has led to disaster.”

The Sept. 11 attacks did not justify “the killing of innocent people” in Iraq and elsewhere, he added.

In that sermon, Regas also said he did not endorse either candidate, but he asked the congregation to take “all that you know about Jesus, the peacemaker” to the ballot box and “vote your deepest values.”

The IRS viewed the sermon as a possible endorsement of Kerry. In June, it sent a letter telling the church that it “may not be tax-exempt as a church” because Regas’ remarks raised questions concerning the church’s “involvement in … political campaign intervention.”

The federal tax code permits tax-exempt organizations to speak out on political issues but not to endorse candidates. The IRS has recently investigated more than 100 nonprofits, including the NAACP, for possibly promoting candidates, according to published reports.

So far, there’s been no public indication that the targets have included synagogues, said Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive vice president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis. Nevertheless, he and other Jewish leaders have been quick to stand behind All Saints Church.

“I spoke with Rev. Bacon and assured him of our support,” Diamond said. He added that he is working with other rabbis and religious leaders to develop a coordinated response across political and denominational boundaries. “Tomorrow the IRS may well target a conservative Baptist congregation in the South,” he said.

Leonard Beerman, rabbi emeritus of Leo Baeck Temple in Bel Air, has an especially close tie to All Saints, where he serves as rabbi-in-residence.

The IRS investigation is a “selective application of the law,” he said, and a “deliberate act of attempted intimidation” against clergy who criticize the administration. “No one’s going to intimidate this church, but some churches and synagogues may be intimidated.”

“I don’t think we give up free speech because the president has chosen to go to war,” Beerman added. “Regas wasn’t telling people how to vote. He was critiquing the lies that brought us into the war and the impact of the war on American and Iraqi life. This fundamental belief in the sanctity of every life lies at the heart of the Jewish and Christian tradition and is what propels Regas and I to be opposed to war.”

The IRS has denied any political motivation to its tax probes.

As it happens, the joint activism of Beerman and Regas reaches all the way back to a raucous anti-Vietnam War rally in Exposition Park in 1973.

“Regas got up to speak in his Episcopal collar and he put his whole body into the speech,” Beerman recalled. “Immediately we were drawn to each other and we became engaged together in opposition to the war.”

The two have worked together on anti-war and other causes ever since.

For some rabbis, the controversy highlights the duty of Jewish leaders to take risks by speaking out.

“The Jewish tradition teaches that silence is riskier than the wrath of opposition,” said Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, of Congregation Beth Shalom in Whittier. “It’s from the prophets and the rabbinic tradition. Leviticus says you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.”

Nevertheless, “instead of being leaders, most rabbis have decided not to make waves” since the war started, Beliak said.

The sermons of Rabbi Steven Leder generally deal with “more timeless issues of the human condition and spirit,” as opposed to politics. Nevertheless, Leder can see an instance where he would make an exception. He said he would ask his Wilshire Boulevard Temple congregation not to vote for someone like David Duke, the open anti-Semite who ran for office in Louisiana.

During the summer, the IRS offered to settle with All Saints “by having us say that we were wrong and would never do it again,” Bacon said. The church refused.

The IRS’s demand for an admission of wrongdoing “reminds me of something out of the loyalty oaths of the 1950s,” USC law professor Ed McCaffrey said.

The church’s response was the right one, said Diamond: “The settlement offer is very dangerous because the case is truly about freedom of the pulpit. For members of the clergy to be stifled in expressing deeply held religious and moral views is blasphemous.”

“Rather than intimidate rabbis [or anyone else],” he said. “It’s made a whole lot of clergy persons mad as hell.”


Rabbis Call for Day of Fasting for Darfur

Because the quintessential Jewish celebration — of life, of survival, of victory — always involves food, it only makes sense that a Jewish response to tragedy involves fasting.

Rabbis from all denominations are calling upon Jews in Los Angeles to participate in a day of fasting, prayer and political activism to raise alarm about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Roving militias, backed by the Muslim Sudanese government, have killed an estimated 300,000 black Africans and displaced, raped or maimed another 2 million in the last year and a half.

“We are appealing to people’s conscience to invoke traditional responses to calamity, and to think beyond the immediate bodily welfare of the Jewish people as entering our perception of what constitutes a calamity,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. The Board of Rabbis responded to a call to action issued by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who founded Jewish World Watch (JWW) in September 2004. The coalition of 14 synagogues works to combat genocide and human rights violations around the world through education and by building political will to confront genocide.

In the last eight months, JWW speakers have addressed students at 40 schools and dozens of clubs and synagogue groups. It advocated for the Darfur Accountability Act currently in Congress, has sent thousands of letters to politicians and raised $150,000 to build wells and medical clinics in Darfur.

The May 26 fast, sponsored by JWW and the Board of Rabbis, brings the Darfur atrocities to a wider swath of the Jewish community.

An almost unprecedented coalition of 17 Orthodox, Reform and Conservative schools and shuls on the Westside joined to sponsor a mincha (afternoon prayer) service and break fast at B’nai David-Judea on Pico Boulevard, one of three venues that evening.

While the Orthodox community has traditionally been more concerned with issues that directly impact Jews, rabbis’ readiness to sponsor this event indicates an acknowledgment that genocide anywhere is a Jewish issue, said Kanefsky, who is Orthodox.

“Our claim that the world stood by while the Holocaust unfolded is now pointed at us, and we have this opportunity to demonstrate that we understand the accusation we have leveled at others over the last 50 years,” Kanefsky said.

All three May 26 events will highlight action items such as fundraising or pressuring politicians.

“It is critical that this not be some sort of guilt-assuaging event, but a touchstone for a pattern of activity,” Kanefsky said.

Stephen S. Wise Temple: Service and break the fast, followed by lecture from John Prendergast, former director of African affairs for the National Security Council and currently director of the International Crisis Group. 6:45 p.m. (service/break the fast), 7:30 p.m. (speech). 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, off of Mulholland Drive near Sepulveda Boulevard; (310) 889-2274; e-mail dkabat@sswt.org.

Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center: Interfaith service with the All-Saints Church and musician Craig Taubman with break the fast and a short film on Darfur. 7 p.m. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. (626) 798-1161.

B’nai David-Judea: Mincha service, Torah study, short film on Darfur and break fast, 6:45 p.m., 8906 Pico Blvd. west of Robertson Boulevard; (310) 276-9269; e-mail bdj@bnaidavid.com.

For information on Jewish World Watch, visit www.jewishworldwatch.org; e-mail pre-k-koreh@jewishla.org; or call (818) 530-4088.

Animal Activists Gone Wild

Holding up grisly posters that juxtaposed images of Holocaust victims next to animals in slaughterhouses, animal rights activists demonstrated Tuesday in front of the Museum of Tolerance.

While only 10 protesters attended the demonstration, which was staged by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the group’s latest "Holocaust on Your Plate" campaign comparing genocide to food manufacturing has caused most people to wonder: Have the activists gone too far this time?

In the past, PETA has been responsible for in-your-face activism like slinging red paint at people wearing fur coats and breaking into laboratories to set animals free. Their antics have at times influenced public opinion — such as turning the fashion tide against fur in the ’90s. But will this Holocaust campaign have a similar effect?

"It’s vile," said Ben Greenfield, 16, a junior at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school (YULA), who was walking by during his lunch break. "You have to set a limit and a standard. It’s pretty basic that you can’t compare the Holocaust to slaughterhouses. Human rights are just more sacred than animal rights."

The one-hour, peaceful noontime event attracted a smattering of security and onlookers, and garnered an occasional honk of support from a motorist.

But many who saw the signs at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Roxbury Drive were insulted. One YULA student said PETA’s campaign was, "the most disgusting thing" she had ever seen in her young life.

While most museum staff and volunteers largely ignored the activists, one older museum volunteer confronted PETA protester Coby Siegenthaler, loudly denouncing the poster’s comparisons.

Yet the 78-year-old Siegenthaler, a Dutch immigrant and retired nurse who said she lived in Amsterdam during the war, was unfazed.

"In wartime, we had our house full of Jewish people, and now they could be a little more compassionate and eat a vegan diet," she said.

Comparing people to animals, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the museum’s Simon Wiesenthal Center, "is an obscene parallel."

"There are no words, other than to say we have an obligation to stand with the pain of the victims," he said, adding that the radical PETA is steering away from any rational dialogue about treatment of farm animals and other animal concerns by the extremism of its traveling "Holocaust on Your Plate" exhibit.

"The outrage here is, it’s not as if the underlying issues [of vegetarianism] aren’t worthy of discussion, debate and action," he said.

About two weeks ago PETA asked the museum to exhibit "Plate," which traveled to 14 U.S. cities over the summer. In July, the group ran a TV commercial in Poland with anti-meat and Holocaust images.

Cooper said PETA’s request for space at his museum, "Wasn’t worth a postage stamp — and they knew that when they sent that."

He also chastised the group for Tuesday’s demonstration.

"For shame. It’s a shanda. For them [PETA] it works. They don’t care; you are wallpaper for their campaign. The victims of the Shoah are wallpaper, the Museum of Tolerance is wallpaper, The Jewish Journal is wallpaper."

But PETA activists said their campaign was about tolerance.

"Putting Holocaust images in front of people helps to develop empathy for Jews," said Bruce Friedrich, PETA’s director of vegan outreach. "And juxtaposing those images with the horrific things that we do to farm animals — it doesn’t seem to me that this in any way demeans anyone’s suffering."

Could PETA’s no-meat/no-cruelty message be conveyed without connecting it to a prominent historical issue like Nazi genocide?

"It can be made, certainly, absent of metaphor," Friedrich said. "But if you were attempting to find a comparison that resonates in the public consciousness, unfortunately most people are not aware of those other atrocities — Rwanda, Cambodia, Stalinist Russia — the same way that they are aware of the Holocaust. This forces people to think about that and the horrors of anti-Semitism, and simultaneously to think about what we’re doing today, which is also vile and immoral."

Yet, Cooper does not understand why PETA would "blatantly inflict pain on humans," with illegitimate human-versus-animal Holocaust comparisons.

"All I know is, I have to deal with the pain and the anguish of those who survived," he said.

Silence on Tolerance Issue Stirs Concern

Jewish leaders were uncharacteristically silent last week as Islamic groups raged against a Department of Defense decision to allow a notorious Islam basher to deliver a Good Friday sermon at the Pentagon.

Part of that silence was an accident of timing: the controversy erupted at the start of the Passover holiday, and many Jewish organizations were not fully operational. However, it also reflected a disturbing inconsistency in Jewish activism today.

Religious tolerance, traditionally a top priority for Jewish groups, seems to be not as much a priority when it comes to a growing, vocal and, according to some, increasingly radicalized Islamic community. In addition, evangelical Christian leaders who trash Islam apparently can be forgiven many sins just because they enthusiastically support Israel at a time when the Jewish State has precious few friends.

The issue came into sharp focus last week when the Defense Department invited the Rev. Franklin Graham to mark the religious holiday at the Pentagon.

Islamic groups quickly protested, and their reasons were compelling: Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham and heir to his globe-spanning ministry, characterized Islam as an "evil religion" in the days after Sept. 11. At a time when Muslims feared a backlash because of the terror attacks and President Bush was trying to convince the Islamic world that his war on terror was not a war on their religion, Graham added that Islam is "wicked, violent and not of the same God."

However, the Pentagon held firm, and Graham, who now wants to send relief supplies to Baghdad and, presumably, Bible tracts, appeared as scheduled on Friday.

There was a peculiar silence from the Jewish groups that have been so prominent in the fight for religious freedom — and not just religious freedom for Jews. In part, that silence was a function of holiday schedules, but it also reflected a growing discomfort with the Muslim groups, including the Council on American-Islamic Relations, that were protesting Graham’s appearance.

Jewish groups have some good reasons to be wary of their Islamic counterparts, many of which have been too willing to support terrorism aimed at Jews and too unwilling to condemn the extremists in their own community. On campuses across the country, Islamic protests against Israel have veered off into outright anti-Semitism.

But that extremism does not justify condemnations of the entire religion, any more than the Christian religion should be condemned because of its sects that preach violent hatred of Jews.

There’s another factor in the Jewish silence that may be more important. Some of those who have been most vociferous in their denunciations of the Islamic religion are also newfound supporters of Israel.

At a time when mainline Christian churches have nothing but criticism for the Jewish State and nothing but sympathy for a Palestinian leadership that abandoned negotiations in favor of terrorism, the evangelicals have aligned themselves with the current Israeli government.

Among Jewish leaders, there may be an understandable unwillingness to criticize a group that has jumped to Israel’s defense at a time when the world has gone back to the favorite sport of reflexive Israel bashing.

Some of the Christians who have been most offensive in condemning Islam have also become Israel’s staunchest defenders. Consider the Rev. Jerry Falwell, who labeled the Prophet Mohammed a "terrorist" and defended a Southern Baptist leader who called the revered leader a "demon-possessed pedophile."

Falwell may be an ardent fan of the current Israeli government — he recently appeared at a big pro-Israel rally in Washington — but he is also the man who publicly proclaimed that the antichrist, a figure of towering evil in Christian Bible prophecy, must be Jewish. In other words, his love for Israel doesn’t mean he doesn’t sometimes say things that incite hostility against Jews.

To their credit, some Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, strongly criticized Falwell’s comments about Islam. However, when Graham was picked to speak at the Pentagon, there was nothing but silence.

So there are some questions to ponder:

  • Are Jewish leaders muting their criticism of the Islam bashers because these bigots have become important and influential supporters of Israel?

  • Should this support for an embattled Israel outweigh the traditional Jewish conviction that legitimizing religious bigotry against one minority threatens all minorities?

  • Is this the image that we want to present to the rest of the world — that Jews oppose religious intolerance but make exceptions for friends of Israel?

  • Do we really want the pro-Israel cause — a just cause — associated with the groups that leapt to Graham’s defense, such as the antihomosexual Traditional Values Coalition, which called the Graham critics the "anti-Christian crowd?"

Jewish and Islamic groups may be bitter adversaries over the Mideast mess, but that does not change the fact that they have some interests in common — starting with an interest in making sure religious intolerance is never tolerated.

Crisis Manager

On March 11, Paul S. Nussbaum trudged down the driveway in
his bathrobe, picked up the Los Angeles Times and headed back into his house —
part of his early morning routine. Moments later his wife handed him a fruit
protein shake, he cracked open the paper and pulled out the business section.

Nussbaum was “astounded and dumbfounded” by what he saw.
Under a headline that read, “Wells Refuses Belgium Claim,” Nussbaum learned
that Wells Fargo & Co. said it would not contribute $267,000 to a war
reparations fund for Belgian Jews, making it the only financial institution of
22 banks named in the $59 million settlement to balk at paying. Wells Fargo
argued that it had no legal obligation, because it had inherited the liability
through its acquisition of a small Belgium bank.

For Nussbaum, the son of two Holocaust survivors, the bank’s
actions came as a double shock. For one thing, Wells Fargo had cultivated a
great deal of good will in the Jewish community by contributing hundreds of
thousands of dollars to the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Family Service
(JFS) and other Jewish organizations. For another, Nussbaum, 46, is senior vice
president for Wells Fargo in Beverly Hills.

Turning to his wife, Nussbaum said: “The bank has done
something incredibly stupid that I have to deal with.”

And he did.

A day later, after a barrage of calls by Nussbaum to senior
executives at Wells Fargo and Jewish leaders, the bank said it would pay the
reparations. In a statement, Wells Fargo Chief Executive Dick Kovacevich
apologized to the Jewish community and called the Holocaust “the worst form of
discrimination and violation of human rights.”

The bank’s quick reversal probably minimized long-term
damage to its business interests and reputation. It also reflected the
crisis-management skills of Nussbaum, a Jewish philanthropist who has spent
much of his corporate career guiding organizations through roiled waters.

Although they sometimes cause him sleepless nights and an
upset stomach, difficult times bring out Nussbaum’s most analytical and
creative side, he said. Like a general calmly barking orders as bullets whiz
by, Nussbaum said he becomes ever more focused in a crisis, when his
“just-fix-it” personality kicks in.

During his career, he has helped clean up the portfolio of a
faltering savings in loan, put in 80-hour weeks to help Orange County tame its
budget to emerge from bankruptcy and single-handedly revived Wells Fargo’s
regional commercial banking office on the Westside.

In 1984, Nussbaum joined American Savings & Loan, just
as panicky investors had withdrawn $6.8 billion in one of the biggest bank runs
in history. Over the next five years, Nussbaum, working in conjunction with
then-American Savings CEO William J. Popejoy, helped the institution collect as
much as possible on its bad loans and remove them from the company’s books.
Nussbaum said his efforts saved taxpayers billions.

Later, he joined Wells Fargo. In 1995, the bank gave him a
paid leave so that he could serve as an adviser to his mentor Popejoy, then-CEO
of bankrupt Orange County. At first viewed suspiciously as a Popejoy lackey,
Nussbaum won over a lot of skeptics with his long hours and dedication toward
making the county solvent, experts said.

Nussbaum was part of a group of officials who slashed the
county’s budget 41 percent.  Although Nussbaum left after only five months,
Popejoy said, “I don’t think anyone made a bigger contribution that helped the
county regain its footing. Paul was one of the unsung heroes.”

Four years ago, Wells Fargo asked Nussbaum to reopen a
commercial banking office in Beverly Hills that had been shuttered during an
earlier consolidation. Starting from scratch, he has built a team of 16 people
and increased by fourfold the number of Wells Fargo loans to Westside companies
and individuals.

“I think Paul has done an exemplary job of establishing us
in a market we had tried to break into in the past but had been largely
unsuccessful,” said Paul Watson, Wells Fargo head of commercial and corporate
banking. “He’s a good banker and very involved with the community. When you put
that together, you have a successful formula.”

Nussbaum’s commitment to business is matched only by his
community activism. A board member at JFS, the Wiesenthal Center and Stephen S.
Wise Temple, he has encouraged Wells Fargo to donate hundreds of thousands of
dollars to those and other groups, including $150,000 this year to JFS.

Mark Berns, past president of Stephen S. Wise, said Nussbaum
makes contributions to the temple, both big and small. Recently, Nussbaum volunteered
to cook food all afternoon “over hot flames and in the sun” at a Purim festival
that raised $40,000, Berns said.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Wiesenthal Center, has known
Nussbaum for seven years. He said the banker’s efforts to coax Wells Fargo to
pay the reparations reflect Nussbaum’s deep commitment to Jewish values.

“I think he saved the bank a lot of heartache by making such
a big fuss,” Hier said. “He did the right thing.” 

Haves and Have-Nots

On a beautiful Sunday morning last spring, thousands of Israel supporters lined Wilshire Boulevard to wave banners, sing, chant and let the world know that the Jewish State isn’t alone. One of a handful to make the jaunt up the 405 from Orange County, I spoke with a friend who had come with her husband and kids. "We need to do this in Orange County," she insisted.

"Sure," I replied in my most endearing and sarcastic tone. "Me, you and, what, a couple of dozen others? It wouldn’t work down there."

Two weeks later, about a thousand demonstrators clogged Bristol Street in Costa Mesa and proved me wrong.

Even though I’d been involved with O.C. Jewish organizations for a few years, I had grossly underestimated the commitment and activist instincts of our community. Until that day, I’d have sworn that the only thing that would get that many Jews to South Coast Plaza on a Sunday morning was the Nordstrom Half-Yearly Sale.

I should have known better. In fact, examples abound that demonstrate just how much we’ve jelled as a community. No longer a Jewish backwater, Orange County has definitely come into its own.

The $20 million Federation campus campaign is perhaps the grandest illustration of Orange County’s incipient maturity, but it isn’t the only one. In another milestone effort, several agencies united last year to create the Israel Solidarity Task Force, which developed the innovative and popular Honey for the Holidays program, enabling O.C. Jews to send jars of honey to Israeli communities at Rosh Hashana in a demonstration of love and unity.

Indeed, the horrifying events in Israel — and the world’s indifference/antagonism — that have catalyzed Jewish activism throughout the United States, have had the same effect here in Orange County. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is resurgent under the leadership of Johanna Rose, area director for Orange County, Palm Springs and San Diego. AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) got together to underwrite an Israel seminar series over the summer: half a dozen other agencies signed on as co-sponsors, and synagogues and day schools contributed meeting space.

It’s a great story. Thousands of Jews, nearly all of them born somewhere else, have pulled together to create a powerful Jewish community right here in the very birthplace of the John Birch Society. Jewish Journal Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman has even called on L.A. Jews to come together "in a big, bold way, as they’ve done in Orange County." Imagine that — the venerable Jewish community of Los Angeles taking its cue from us.

But there are still a few flies in the ointment. While the overall level of dedication and commitment in Orange County has certainly grown, there are still some deserving have nots amongst our many new haves.

I don’t see South County, or even the older communities of North County, able to participate at the same level as the residents of the Irvine/Newport Beach area. I’ve been told that the new Federation campus will eventually have North and South county satellites — I hope that’s true, and in the not-too-distant future.

We also need to make primary and secondary Jewish education a bigger priority. Like any other high school, Tarbut V’Torah must have more than one elementary school feeding into it.

I readily admit to selfish motives here, but South County’s Morasha Jewish Day School must be better funded and more widely embraced by our community. It deserves support in its own right, both for the geography it serves and the educational philosophy it practices. But it is also important as a reliable source of students for the new high school. When my kids graduate from Morasha, I hope they will have the option of attending a mainstream, egalitarian Jewish day school.

In this respect, it is the older, more established Jewish communities that have set the standard. Robert Goldberg, executive committee chairman of the United Jewish Communities (the parent organization of Jewish federations nationwide), noted recently that 25 percent of Jewish children in Cleveland receive a day school education. While such an astronomical proportion may be out of reach for our more scattered Orange County population, Cleveland’s admirable success challenges us to find ways to provide even more day school options for our children.

Finally, it is no secret that the crisis in Israel has played a huge role in bringing our community together. I hope that when that crisis passes (as we all pray every day that it will), we are still able to set aside our differences and work together to create the institutions and programs that make Orange County such a great place to be Jewish. As the song says, "Ani v’atah nishaneh et ha’olam" ("You and I will change the world").

E. Scott Menter is an Orange County technology consultant and writer. He currently serves as president of the Orange County chapter of the American Jewish Committee.

Community Briefs

Action Israel Comes to L.A.

On Sunday, Feb. 24, student activists will gather from colleges all over Southern California for Action Israel, a conference held in response to the increasing concern about anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses throughout the country. Comparisons of Nazism with Zionism at CSUN and UCLA as well as a speech given by Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi at UCSB are only a few of the events that have called students to action.

The purpose of Action Israel will be to provide students with an opportunity to acquire skills to increase awareness about Israel on campus, and meet other activists from more than 20 campuses in Southern California to build powerful networks and share ideas. Speakers at the conference, which is being co-sponsored by The Jewish Journal, will include: Yuval Rotem, consul general of Israel in Los Angeles; Rep. Howard Berman (D-26); Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; and author and UCLA professor David Myers. The conference will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Cost is $15. For more information, contact (323) 761-8163. — Merav Tassa, Contributing Writer

Jewish Schools Make Playoffs

If you thought it unlikely that both the Lakers and the WNBA Sparks won the championships last season, get ready for another unusual event in basketball. Three Jewish high schools — Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA), Valley Torah, and Milken Community High School — are currently competing in statewide intramural basketball playoffs.

Of the three schools, YULA Boys had the closest shot at victory, until this past Tuesday, when they lost a game to Verbum Dei, a Catholic school in South Central Los Angeles.

“We got to the final eight and that’s as far as we got,” said Joel Fisher, YULA Boys’ athletic director, who oversees the boys basketball team with coaches Ed Gelb and Dave Winnik. Fisher added that while there was some post-game depression, YULA Boys are taking their loss in stride.

“For a school of our size with no gym to compete with these powerhouses, it’s a testament,” Fisher said. “The boys are realistic.”

No matter which team wins or loses, this amazing feat of Jewish representation in the high school playoffs is, in itself, something of a victory for the Jewish student athletes, which compete while maintaining a double curriculum.

However, the road to victory for the three schools was not without complications. Shabbat forced the schools to rearrange game schedules for YULA and Valley Torah. For YULA, that meant that the Pico-Robertson area school, which had a game at Arrowhead Christian rescheduled last weekend, had to spend Shabbat at a San Bernardino hotel, complete with sefer Torah for their minyan.

So is there a master plan in place at YULA Boys to improve their fortunes in 2003?

Said Fisher, sense of humor intact, “We’re going to try to find the tallest Jewish boys that we can find. Even if it takes genetic engineering.” — Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

First Ramat Zion Kindergarten

Temple Ramat Zion of Northridge will open its first kindergarten class this September. “For the past several years, many parents have requested that we open a kindergarten,” said Betty Gorelick, nursery school director.

The nursery school will last from three to eight hours per day, as opposed to public school kindergarten, which can run less than three hours a day. The school day will be from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., with early daycare starting at 7 a.m. and late daycare going until 6 p.m.

Temple Ramat Zion is located at 17655 Devonshire St., Northridge. For more information call (818) 366-1773. — Staff Report

Chabad Women’s Shabbaton

Chabad of the Conejo is hosting the a Women’s “Survivor” Shabbaton on March 1-3, at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley.

Fee for the weekend is $225.00 per person, based on double occupancy. For more information please call Chabad at (818) 991-0991. — Staff Report