7 Days in The Arts
Campus Outreach Connects Orthodox
At the Enormous Activities Fair during UCLA’s Welcome Week last September, Sharona Kaplan stepped away from her own brochure-laden table to help out at the busier Hillel table.
A first-year student perusing Hillel’s sign-up sheet seemed stuck on one question.
“So what kind of services are you looking for? Liberal, Conservative, Orthodox?” Kaplan asked her.
“The least religious,” the girl said, and Kaplan helped her mark the box for “Reform.”
That doesn’t bother Kaplan at all — each student should find what’s appropriate for him or her, she believes.
But her particular mission is to serve Orthodox Jews and to encourage observant Judaism.
Sharona Kaplan and her husband, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, both 26, arrived in September 2004 through the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus(JLIC), a program sponsored by the Orthodox Union, Hillel and the Torah Mitzion organization to serve the needs of Orthodox students.
Since the program began five years ago, it has anchored couples on 12 U.S. campuses — three of them newly placed this past September — as well as at Oxford University in England. Each couple is a young rabbi and his wife, charged with teaching classes, running Shabbat programs, ensuring that religious services and kosher food are available and providing a frum-friendly atmosphere for students coming out of the Orthodox day school world.
Over the past year the Kaplans have instituted weekly Shabbat lunches and holiday meals at Hillel, and they invite students to their home for Shabbat meals when the university is closed.
They also strengthened the daily minyans, Sharona Kaplan says, noting that her husband “wakes the boys up and drives around picking them up” to make sure they get to shacharit services on time.
In many ways, the JLIC program is similar to campus programs run by the Chabad organization. The JLIC couples, however, are sent mainly to serve students who already are Orthodox, whereas Chabad couples actively reach out to the entire Jewish spectrum.
Though JLIC couples welcome every Jew to their programs — and would be happy to shepherd nonobservant young people down the frum path — that’s not their mandate.
“The primary purpose is to serve the needs of the Orthodox population,” says Rabbi Ilan Haber, the program’s national director, who works out of Hillel headquarters in Washington. “It’s not an outreach program, it’s an in-reach to Orthodox students.”
Haber says an important aspect of the program is sending a couple to each college: “We feel there’s a need for both male and female role models for the students.”
This point is driven home on a September afternoon at Brooklyn College in New York where Nalini Ibragimov is teaching Torah to nine young women. It’s the students’ two-hour free period, which the college gives twice a week to encourage clubs and sports.
Instead of eating a longer lunch or going swimming, these nine modestly dressed students are discussing with Ibragimov, their rebbetzin on campus, the finer points of the 39 malachot, or acts of labor forbidden on Shabbat.
Nalini Ibragimov, 28, and her husband, 30-year-old Rabbi Reuven Ibragimov, were sent to Brooklyn College three years ago.
Four of the nine women in Nalini Ibragimov’s class spent last year studying in Jerusalem at all-girls seminaries. All say they’re thrilled to have the Ibragimovs on campus.
Meira Sanders, 19, says she likes “just having a rabbi you can ask questions.”
Sarah Roller, 18, says, “It’s really important to have an Orthodox woman to look up to.”
Several of the young women say the JLIC presence eases their transition from high school, where at least half their classes were on religious subjects. One-third of Brooklyn College’s 10,000 students are Jewish, but this is a first experience in a primarily secular world for these nine students, and they’re anxious for regular doses of Yiddishkeit.
“If there weren’t religious studies here, I don’t think I would have come,” Roller says.
Haber, the national program director, says that as more and more Modern Orthodox began attending universities other than Yeshiva University and its affiliate for women, Stern College, the traditional choices for this community, Orthodox leaders and parents saw the need to provide ongoing religious counseling and services to them during their campus years.
Some Reform and Conservative students look at the JLIC program and wish their movements would fund professionals on campus, too. Both the Reform and Conservative movements depend on student volunteers to do campus outreach.
“Between JLIC, Chabad and JAM,” a Southern California-based Orthodox outreach program, “the Orthodox are investing hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the Reform and Conservative are giving zero,” says Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, UCLA’s longtime Hillel director.
“If a kid wants to study Talmud,” he can benefit from the Orthodox rabbi, Seidler-Feller says. “But what if he wants to study Buber?”
The answer, for now, is that such students will have to rely on secular coursework.
Still, the goal of funding campus professionals is “important” to the Conservative leadership, says Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism. “We are trying to find the financial wherewithal to do it.”
A Reform movement leader considers such aspirations a “fantasy” for his movement, given that there are Reform students on several hundred campuses.
“I even question the efficacy of it,” says Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, adding that a Reform rabbinic presence on campus wouldn’t solve the challenge of keeping Reform students Jewishly involved through their college years.
“The involved students are wonderful, and they crave as much rabbinic input as we can give them, but they’re a tiny minority” of the overall student population, he says. “If we put a rabbi on every campus, would [involved students] increase from 5 percent to 10 percent or 20 percent? I doubt it.”
For more information on Camp Gan Israel Running Springs, call Chabad Youth Programs at (310) 208-7511, ext. 1270.
Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein
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!”
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.
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.
Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears
David Klinghoffer’s entreaty and Jack Abramoff’s wounded feelings ring hollow for the same reason: each expects that the fact that Abramoff used purloined funds to better the Jewish community should somehow mitigate the harm that Abramoff has caused (“Sympathy for the Devil?” Jan. 27).
Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. One cannot give tzedakah with stolen funds. The very word “tzedakah” has as it’s root the word “tzedek,” which, of course, means “justice.”
There is no justice in stealing from one to give to another, particularly where, as here, there were accolades showered upon Abramoff for his “gifts.” One of the senses of tzedakah is that of giving of yourself from your own resources; Abramoff did neither.
My greater compassion is reserved for Abramoff’s victims: the clients from whom he stole the money, his grieving father who has lost a son, his family who has lost a husband, father and putative provider. Abramoff will have room and board at the taxpayers’ expense; his family will, potentially, have nothing.
To Klinghoffer and Abramoff I would point out that nobody wants to cut off Abramoff’s head; he has already done that.
E. Hil Margolin
Jews are not attacking or abandoning Abramoff because he’s Jewish — they’re embarrassed and outraged that he’s trying to wrap himself in the glory and good name of Judaism. “God sent me 1,000 hints that He didn’t want me to keep doing what I was doing.” Jewish or not Jewish, you shouldn’t need God to send you “hints” when we have things called laws.
I have been meaning to write to you about your “Mensches” article (Jan. 6) since the week it appeared. I have saved that issue as it is so full of positive news about the happenings in L.A. with people and their behavior and actions.
I was hoping to suggest that since you obviously can’t put more than 10 people in at a time, wouldn’t it be fabulous to put this article and types like it in the paper quarterly? We always have a plethora of bad news, why not balance it out more with this type of journalism?
I think it’s so sad that the only feedback you received after this article was printed is how you might have conjugated the word mensches wrong. I want to thank you for doing this article and bringing these people to light. May it make us all think about what the rest of us can do to help and improve our lives and those around us.
The Journal’s coverage of the bonding of 1,100 Messianic Jews for Jesus and Christian Zionists at The Church on the Way should come as no surprise (“Messianics Gather for National Meeting,” Jan. 27). Jews for Judaism has warned Jewish leaders and Israeli officials that working with evangelicals is a double-edged sword and that The Church on the Way is a Trojan horse.
The Church on the Way has an ongoing messianic outreach and religious services designed to attract Jews. We know of dozens of Jewish families who were devastated after their children were converted to evangelical Christianity by representatives of this megachurch.
Christian support for Israel is a blessing. However, unfortunately, some members of our community deny or choose to ignore the threat that evangelicals pose to Jewish spiritual survival. The essence of the term evangelical is to proselytize.
Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz
Jews for Judaism
Although I am hardly in the habit of penning letters in support of Bibi Netanyahu, I feel compelled to respond to Harvard student Shira Kaplan’s heartfelt but misleading essay on Hamas and Israel (“Give Peace a Shot,” Feb. 3).
Assuming the role of a modern-day prophetess, Kaplan boldly predicts that if the right-wing Likud leader is returned to office, “like in Netanyahu’s previous term in office, buses will be blowing up in the center of Tel Aviv.”
I served as an American diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in the mid-1990s, when buses were in fact blowing up in the city and would like to set the record straight for those like Kaplan who may have forgotten the recent chronology of terror in Israel.
According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry, 141 Israelis were killed by terrorists from September 1993 (the Rabin-Arafat handshake on the White House lawn) to November 1995, when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
During Netanyahu’s three years in power, a comparatively low number of 51 Israelis were killed by terrorists, who perpetrated two attacks, inter alia, in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market (16 and five victims, respectively). However, there were no bus bombings in Israel during Netanyahu’s rule.
I am neither Jewish nor Israeli and would never presume to tell Israelis for whom they should vote. However, I do hope that they go to the polls in March armed with both hope and information. Whatever other sins Netanyahu may have committed as prime minister, he cannot in fairness be charged with provoking terrorist bus bombings.
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When Rabbi Sharon Brous leads a worship service, Jews dance and sing and pray — and talk politics. Her Los Angeles-based Ikar is not a traditional congregation but rather, as she describes it, a “spiritual community” of “modern, progressive Jews” who “boldly reclaim the essence of our tradition” by engaging in soulful worship and social justice.
Brous, 32, is one of a growing number of young Jews across the country who are creating unconventional sacred communities, unbound by expectations of what a synagogue is supposed to be.
About a dozen of these innovative Jewish leaders gathered together for the first time in mid-January at a two-day conference at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley. The event was organized by Synagogue 3000, a nonprofit group aimed at revitalizing the Jewish house of worship.
To help guide these “emergent Jews,” as Synagogue 3000 calls them, the group invited another network of religious leaders who had embarked on a similar quest — only theirs was focused on transforming the Christian community.
Nearly 10 years ago, these young Christians were dissatisfied with the typical ways of “doing church.” They had grown disillusioned with what they saw as the commoditization of theology by the megachurches, with their sleek marketing campaigns and business-management styles. So they formed a network called Emergent, focused on developing communities of faith that are authentically Christian and engaged with American culture.
Hailing from a variety of backgrounds — mostly evangelical but also mainline Protestant and Catholic — these so-called “emergent Christians” refused to align themselves with any political party, calling themselves, instead, postmodern, post-liberal, post-conservative and post-evangelical.
“We’re fiercely independent,” said Tony Jones, Emergent’s national coordinator. “Our primarily affiliation is with God.”
Today, Christian emergent communities are drawing young people across the country. Services often feature live bands and take place in coffee houses or bars. Pastors preach hospitality, individual participation and the notion that all of life — not simply the church service — is spiritual.
Sharing Songs and Sacred Texts
On a bright Monday afternoon at Brandeis-Bardin, more than two-dozen emergent Jews and Christians sit in a circle. Jones, the Christian emergent leader, explains “how blown away we were by this invitation.” To break the ice, he said, he will quote Jesus.
“Well, he was Jewish,” some of the Jews respond with a laugh.
After Jones reads from Matthew’s gospel, Jeremy Morrison, a 34-year-old rabbi who runs Temple Israel of Boston’s Riverway Project for 20- and 30-somethings, said: “Tony spoke about Jesus, so I’ll talk about Torah.” He speaks of Genesis and says he hopes that today, too, will be a beginning. “I see our time together as an opportunity for us to become free,” he said.
To the strum of a guitar, the Jews and Christians join in song, repeating the refrain: “How good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together.”
Seeking a Shared Vision Despite Differences
There’s a sense in the Jewish community that traditional synagogue services are simply not moving people, particularly young people.
In response, Jews like Amichai Lau-Lavie, 36, have created new communities and styles of worship that seek to reinvigorate worshippers with a sense of awe and spirituality.
Eight years ago, Lau-Lavie, who calls himself an “emerJew,” created Storahtelling, a traveling theater company based in New York, which reenacts Torah portions, accompanied by live music. Recently, he started a “ritual lab,” a sort of laboratory for sacred experiences.
“It’s an event,” Lau-Lavie said, “not a service.” It can take place in a mall or dance club and include a DJ playing electronica music. The worship experience is nondenominational. “If anything, it’s flexidox,” he said, a mix of everything.
Dov Gartenberg, a rabbi in Seattle, recently left his perch at a conservative synagogue to start Panim Hadashot, New Faces of Judaism, an outreach organization that welcomes Jews of all denominations and stripes — single, married, intermarried — into the community. Worship revolves around what he calls “Shabbat feasts,” dinners around town and at his home. Sometimes, he sets up at a table at Whole Foods Market, where he tries to connect with Jews by giving away samples of traditional foods.
At the conference, designed to introduce these visionary Jewish leaders to their Christian counterparts, Jews and Christians broke off into groups. Lau-Lavie took a walk with a Christian emergent from Atlanta, during which they discussed their paths toward God.
Afterward, Lau-Lavie talked with excitement about how significant this was. “My grandfather, who was a rabbi, probably didn’t take a walk together with a fellow on a different path,” he said. But here he was, taking “a walk on the wild side.”
Shawn Landres, research director of Synagogue 3000, wandered from group to group. “I overheard somebody asking what it means to have a calling from God,” he said. “That’s new, I think, Jewishly, to encounter people who are not afraid to talk about that urgency, that sense of mission.”
“I think it’s helpful to think of Christianity and Judaism as sister religions,” Landres added. “Really, we are heirs to the religion that was practiced by ancient Jews in the Temple. When the Temple was destroyed, our solution as Jews was the Torah.” For Christians, it was Jesus.
The Jewish and Christian emergent leaders echoed this feeling of compatibility as they sat together, distilling their experiences in front of an audience of established, mainstream Jewish leaders, who had been invited to observe.
Both “emergent” Jews and Christians share a progressive outlook, a philosophy of welcoming and hospitality, a commitment to community and social justice. Both are using creativity to build engaging, spiritual communities.
Still, some of the Jewish leaders expressed unease about collaborating with a group that, ultimately, might believe that the second coming of Jesus depends on Jews’ converting to Christianity.
“They have a religious vision that deems my religious expression ultimately secondary,” said Morrison, who teaches young people Torah over beer and wine in Boston. “I need to know where they stand.”
Jones, the Emergent leader, tried to dismiss the concern. “The goal of a dialogue with peers of another faith is surely not to convert them,” he said.
At this point, anyway, the dialogue is just beginning. The first date is over, and now both groups must decide whether to lean in for the kiss, as Synagogue 3000 research director Landres put it. The Jewish leaders say they would like to meet again — but next time, just among themselves. They need to get to know one another before they can collaborate with emergent Christians, they say.
As for Emergent coordinator Jones, he said he would like a second date. “But,” he added, “I think it’s more up to [the Jewish emergents] than it’s up to us.”
Synagogue 3000 Shifts Focus to Leaders
Synagogue 3000 is a new group aimed at revitalizing American synagogues. The Los Angeles-based nonprofit has organized a leadership network of 18 visionary rabbis, cantors, musicians and artists. Their task: figure out what it takes to engage committed worshippers and attract the unaffiliated.
So far, the group is getting tips from unexpected places. Last June, the Jewish leaders met with Christian evangelical Rick Warren, founding pastor of the Saddleback megachurch in Lake Forest and author of the best-selling “Purpose-Driven Life.” In November, the network met in Houston with Ronald Heifetz, a leadership expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
Synagogue 3000 also created a network of Jewish “emergent” leaders, who are starting nontraditional spiritual communities. Earlier this month, Synagogue 3000 brought this group together with their Christian counterparts and the Jewish leadership network at a two-day conference in Simi Valley. A fourth summit is scheduled for March in New York.
In addition to creating leadership networks, Synagogue 3000 established this month the first academic institute for synagogue studies. It aims to answer questions that have not been adequately addressed, such as why people go to synagogue, how to create spiritual experiences and what a synagogue space should look like.
Synagogue 3000 is the latest incarnation of Synagogue 2000, a group founded more than 10 years ago by Ron Wolfson, who teaches at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, and Lawrence Hoffman, a rabbi and professor of liturgy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
The two shared a vision of what synagogue life could be like in the 20th and 21st centuries. Jews affiliate with synagogues more than with any other institution in the Jewish community, they agreed. But synagogues have not achieved their goal of igniting a spiritual spark in many worshippers.
Too many Jews were joining synagogues only when their children needed a religious education or a bar mitzvah. For many Jews, synagogues seemed unwelcoming places, cold and cliquish.
Wolfson and Hoffman set out to transform congregations across the country, creating a group called Synagogue 2000. The group worked with nearly 100 congregations, guiding them through a four-year process of change. But change had a price: about $7 million in grants and donations.
In 2003, Synagogue 2000 took a year and half to evaluate what it had learned and to determine the best way to move forward. The group decided that guiding congregations through a lengthy change process was too expensive. They also realized that change only happened when the leadership wanted it; willing congregations were not enough. “The clergy could make it or kill it,” Wolfson said.
So, Synagogue 3000 was a born, an organization dedicated to revitalizing synagogue life by cultivating spiritual leadership. —SPB
Libraries: The New Mideast Battlefront
I shared a ballroom last Saturday night with a group of people whose lives could easily inspire nothing more than pity. Like me, they were attending the annual gala of Etta Israel Center, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides outreach and services to developmentally disabled Jews and their families.
Etta Israel is one of those rare organizations that attracts support — and offers support — across denominational boundaries. So the lobby of the California Science Center, decked out for a private evening affair, was host to bearded, black-hatted rabbis and smooth-shaven, kippah-less types. There were women in cocktail dresses and women in fashionable shaidels. UCLA Hillel Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, whose politics veer left, ran into an old acquaintance, Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, executive director of Maimonides Academy of Los Angeles, and the two men joked about who was going to swing whom over to his side.
Also among these Jewish leaders and financial supporters of Etta Israel were dozens of the young adults and children whose named and unnamed challenges — cerebral palsy, autism, Down’s syndrome and others — are often used as reasons to exclude them from many things that society has to offer, like an education.
The Etta Israel Center runs programs to teach Judaism to developmentally challenged children and young adults, as well as group homes for adults (its third home will open in the Valley in June) and a popular summer day camp. It helps Jewish day schools meet the learning needs of all its students, and has trained thousands of teachers in how to help all children learn through its Schools Attuned programs.
One of the young women in its girls yeshiva program saw me taking notes and approached me.
“She wants to show you her writing,” said the educator I was speaking with. The young woman couldn’t form words, but offered me her notepad, on which she had written several rows of wavy lines. It was just lines — no words, no letters — but it was her writing. She beamed and blushed at once.
In another context, the moment could have inspired pity. But pity is cheap. Like guilt, it’s only useful as a tool to pick the locks on our hearts, to compel us to change, to act.
Surrounded by friends from her class, helped along by the educator and the people at Etta Israel — as well as by parents, like the dozens of committed ones in the room — the young woman struck me as confident and fortunate. She found herself embraced by people who wouldn’t settle for mere pity.
One of the evening’s honorees was Valerie Vanaman, an attorney whose relentless advocacy on behalf of special-needs education has improved the lives of thousands of children and their families.
“Every child is entitled to receive an appropriate educational program,” Vanaman said during her award acceptance speech. It is such a simple idea, but like most simple ideas, it takes people of great intellect to conceive it and men and women of iron will to implement it.
Conversely, the idea that people with mental, emotional or physical disabilities might be barred from partaking in a public or Jewish education is, no matter how cool and rational it may seem, the fruit of simple minds, and it takes no more ability than the slack acceptance of the status quo to realize it. Vanaman railed against challenges to opportunity and funding of special-needs students at the state level, and urged parents to contact their representatives and State Board of Education Superintendent Jack O’Connell to protest the decrease in services. “Lawyers can’t save the day,” she said. “Only parents can save the day.”
The other honoree was David Suissa, the founder of Suissa/Miller Advertising and publisher of Olam magazine. During his speech, Suissa recounted the story of Etta Israel, a teacher who, after retirement, took it upon herself to teach developmentally disabled children at Beth Jacob Congregation for 20 years. Her experiences led Dr. Michael Held to create a center in her name. Again, it was a simple idea: instead of offering pity, offer parity. Extend the beauty and benefits of Jewish learning to those most likely to be left behind. Focus teachers on the students’ abilities, working through — and around — their deficits.
The organization, which has largely focused on the Orthodox community, is looking to be of service to non-Orthodox day schools, as well. Held wants more schools to emulate the model of schools like the CSUN-affiliated CHIME Charter schools in Woodland Hills, where enrollment is 80 percent “typical” children and 20 percent special-needs children. Why can’t the Jewish community, he asked, support a Jewish high school following that model?
A simple, brilliant idea — waiting for people of iron will to make it a reality.
For more information, go to www.etta.org
Jewish Interns Get Peers to ‘Come Out’
A group of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender UCLA students recently gave Queen Esther, Haman and Queen Vashti a radical makeover.
To jazz up the deliverance of the Jews from evil Haman, 10 LGBT undergrads staged “Purim for Divas.” A bisexual woman donning a black cape, Mardi Gras mask and triangular hat played the evil Haman. A drag queen resplendent in tight sparkly skirt and heels appeared as Queen Vashti; Queen Esther was a gay man in a dress — his long, brown hair flowing freely.
After the campy performance, the students drank and danced the night away. Women embraced women; men flirted with men. A good time was had by all.
The 100 or so revelers could thank the Los Angeles Hillel Council and a singular collection of “peer interns” for the memorable evening.
Nineteen students at UCLA, USC, Cal State Northridge and four other Los Angeles-area universities are part of the Jewish Peer Intern Program. They underwent training to learn how to generate excitement about Hillel and Judaism among Jewish students who are largely on the periphery of campus Jewish life.
The group’s outreach efforts appear to have paid off: Hillel said 500 Jewish students have developed a deeper connection to the community through their participation.
Around the Southland, only about one in four Jewish college students is affiliated. And these students, including LGBT, interfaith and Persian students, are frequently underserved as well as uninvolved. Instead of trying to bring them to Hillel, Hillel is bringing Judaism to them through dinners, parties and lectures tailored to their interests, said David Levy, executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council.
“We want to stimulate Jewish life, create Jewish energy, anything that will strengthen the Jewish community,” he said.
The program’s personalized approach has resonated with Jewish students and has created a pool of tomorrow’s Jewish communal leaders, said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
“If you don’t start now, there won’t be anybody sitting in the leadership chairs at Jewish organizations in the future,” Fishel said. The Federation contributed $100,000 last year to underwrite the program and plans to continue its support, he added.
Hillel recruited interns — who earned $2,000 apiece — by advertising in college papers, mass e-mailings and word-of-mouth. The strong response allowed the group to tap talented Jewish students with deep ties to various groups Hillel wanted to reach.
At UCLA, for instance, 25 students competed for three intern spots targeting the gay, lesbian, bisexual community; Jewish student leaders; and Jewish art students. Leah Weiner, a Jewish Campus Service Corps Fellow at UCLA Hillel, interviewed nine candidates in person before making her final selection, settling on the most personable, creative and connected, she said.
UCLA senior Ariana Mechik was chosen to reach out to unaffiliated Jews with an interest in politics. Mechik, a double major in political science and French, sponsored forums once every three weeks where students could listen to and ask questions of local Jewish political leaders about their careers and how Judaism had shaped them. Guest speakers included L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Progressive Jewish Alliance Executive Director Daniel Sokatch.
Several who attended the lecture series and other Hillel-sponsored events later sought leadership positions in Bruins for Israel, an advocacy group. Going forward, Mechik said, she wants more Jewish students to run for student body political office to blunt anti-Semitism on campus.
“In general, there are some antagonistic sentiments toward Jewish students [at UCLA] because there’s a lot of sympathy for the Palestinian cause,” she said. “Israel, I think, doesn’t have the best reputation at all times. But I think Jewish students — who are actively Jewish — becoming student leaders reflects well on Judaism as a whole here on campus.”
For UCLA arts and culture intern Hana Meckler, the program reinforced her love of Judaism and Jews. The UCLA freshman said she forged several close friendships through myriad events she organized, including a visit to the Getty Museum and to a taping of “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.”
“When you have Jewish friends, it’s so much easier to be apart of the Jewish community,” Meckler said. “I feel that [this program] has done me a service as well as to the people I’ve reached out to.”
Intern Razi Zarchy, 21, said he also personally benefited from the experience because his “Jewish side” had become relatively inactive since his bar mitzvah. The senior linguistic anthropology major had the job of outreach to LGBT students, who, like him, feared ostracism by the Jewish community.
Hillel’s outreach into the gay and lesbian community helped UCLA students come out as Jews. It also made a difference for some closeted Jews, who publicly acknowledged their sexual orientation after seeing the strong response to “Purim for Divas,” LGBT movie night and the Shabbat dinners Zarchy organized.
“All of this has made people have a positive association with Judaism,” he said. “They now realize their religion isn’t going to reject them or kick them out for being different.”
Student Rabbis, Cantors Take Next Step
Milken Teens Live, Learn on Skid Row
Keep passing. Keep passing.”
It’s 6 a.m. on a Monday morning in March, and students from Milken Community High School, wearing hairnets, plastic aprons and gloves, are dishing out hot cereal, sugar, applesauce, milk and a muffin assembly-line style onto blue trays.
“We’re a well-oiled machine,” says 11th-grader Ethan Stern, the last student in line, who — with a smile and a “good morning” — hands a tray to each of the 130 males living at the Union Rescue Mission on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
The 22 Milken juniors and seniors, who arrived the previous afternoon with several teachers and administrators, are spending two days and nights at the Union Rescue Mission, sleeping in bedrooms on a locked floor reserved for volunteers. They are taking part in the mission’s Urban Experience Program, a 52-hour hands-on community service project in which they live and work at the mission to learn about the complexities of hunger and homelessness.
“We have to leave our comfortable communities to see how the rest of Los Angeles lives,” says Wendy Ordower, community service coordinator at Milken, a transdenominational Jewish day school in the Sepulveda Pass. “Like at Yom Kippur, we need to be disturbed.”
Breakfast continues till 10 a.m., during which time the students bus dishes and wipe down tables, serve another 350 women and children and, after a short break to eat their own breakfast, fill trays for another 200 men.
The students spend the majority of their time serving food, with the mission providing an average of 2,200 meals daily. They also work in the warehouse filling boxes with hygiene supplies and candies, part of the mission’s Easter outreach of 3,500 packages to be distributed to local homeless and low-income Angelenos. Additionally, they tour the facility, chat and play basketball with the residents, create a mural to leave at the mission and meet as a group to reflect on their experiences.
“I had a stereotypical view of the homeless,” says 12th-grader Tannis Mann. “These are real people, and there are real reasons why they are here.”
In the evenings, the students listen to participants’ stories in the Christian Life Discipleship Program, a one-year residential program that graduates about 100 men annually, providing them with the recovery, educational and work skills needed to rebuild their lives.
They hear from Aaron, a former Catholic seminarian, who had “a little alcohol problem” and Michael, a CPA who moved to Los Angeles only to be immediately mugged and robbed of everything. They also listen to Robert, a former gang leader and prison inmate, who tells them, “Learn to make the good decisions because I made the bad ones when I thought I was cool.”
All the students pay close attention to their words.
“If I see someone on the street, I won’t see them in the same way again,” acknowledges 12th-grader Leticia Grosz.
The teens learn that the reasons for homelessness go beyond addiction to include poverty, lack of affordable housing, low-paying jobs, mental illness, unemployment and prison release. They learn there are about 80,000 homeless in L.A. County but just slightly more than 18,500 beds. They also discover that women and children are the fastest-growing homeless population segment nationwide.
Some of those women live in the shelter, part of a six-month program called Second Step, designed to get them back into permanent housing and jobs. Others who come to the Mission for meals are homeless or reside in daily rate hotels or single-room apartments in the Skid Row area.
The Union Rescue Mission, a nonprofit, privately funded, faith-based organization, was founded in 1891. Now housed in a five-story, 225,000 square-foot facility completed in 1994, it provides an array of emergency and long-term services to the poor and homeless, including food, shelter (797 emergency and transitional beds), clothing, medical and dental treatment, recovery programs, counseling, education, job training and legal assistance.
Some former residents now work for the mission.
Irvin “Pepi” Jones, who runs the evening dining room shift, tells the students, “Ten years ago I was in that line [of homeless men]. I used to push a cart and eat out of the trash.”
The students are moved by what they see and hear.
“These people have so much faith and love for God. They have such purpose in life,” says 11th-grader Alli Rudy.
That is the kind of impact Jewish studies teacher Rabbi Ruth Sohn wants from the program.
“I hope that the kids have a greater awareness of how poverty, drug addiction and prison can destroy lives but that they also feel empowered by what kinds of possibilities exist to turn your life around,” Sohn says.
The program also reminds the students of the role they can play in changing Los Angeles’ urban landscape.
“There’s such incredible work you can do,” says 12-grader Sophie Bibas. “It’s not an option; it’s an obligation.”
As the students board the bus at the end of the 52 hours, student Karin Alpert, speaking for many in the group, says, “For sure I’m doing this again next year.”
Q & A With Rabbi Steven Burg
Tribes of Jews move through the history of Los Angeles in predictable cadences. First as new immigrants, raw and clannish and eager to succeed; then as successful citizens, integrated or assimilated, their accents lost in their children’s mouths. Finally they earn the right to choose the life they want: to identify themselves with their traditions or not, to shape the city or withdraw into its shapelessness.
My mind wandered in these directions as I sat watching stunning Persian Jewish men and women dance the night away at a gala event Saturday night inaugurating Neman Hall, a sumptuous ballroom at the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) in West Hollywood.
A ballroom is a ballroom, right? Wrong. Neman Hall, designed by architect Abdi Khoranian, happens to be quite elegant, more fairy tale than function-room, though its mirror-paneled walls do hide a state-of-the-art Internet hookup, satellite receivers and flat-panel displays.
But this night was, ultimately, not about celebrating architecture, but arrival. "It is a kind of renaissance," said Joe Shoshani, one of the evening’s organizers. "We are having freedom both in Israel and the United States, and our people are flowering in both."
To drive home that point, the honored guest Saturday night was Israel’s Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz. Mofaz, 56, was born in Iran and immigrated to Israel at age 9. His rise to the top of Israel’s army as chief of staff, and his subsequent appointment to what is widely considered the No. 2 post in the government, is a source of great pride to the Persian Jewish community here.
On a two-day visit, Mofaz spoke at a fundraiser at the Beverly Hills home of Parviz Nazarian for Citizens Empowerment Center in Israel, a pro-democracy project founded by Nazarian. Mofaz was the keynote speaker at a major fundraiser the next day for Israel Bonds, and in between he cut the ribbon at the Neman Hall event.
"I can’t speak Farsi," he told the crowd Saturday evening. Nevertheless, he said he shared in their pride and congratulated them on their achievement. He received several standing ovations.
The 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey put the number of Persian Jews living in Los Angeles at 18,000. Others put the number at up to six times that, but demographer Pini Herman, who conducted the survey with Bruce Phillips, has said it is unlikely the number, if it is higher, is higher by much.
"You see the same people at every event," one partygoer at Neman Hall said. "Maybe there are only 200 of us."
But numbers — and there are more than 200 — matter less than impact. The Persian Jewish community has established itself economically, and as IAJF President Shokrollah Baravarian said at the event, it has successfully created mechanisms to transmit its values and concerns to the next generation. The IAJF building houses social-service outreach to new immigrants and the needy; organizations like Magbit and Nessah provide cultural and social support, there are singles groups, religious study groups and now, with Neman Hall, a social gathering spot open to the entire community, a room of one’s own.
There are other religious and cultural centers for Persian Jews of the Westside and the Valley, but one advantage is that the West Hollywood locale allows for festivities to continue until 2 a.m. That comes in handy, as dinner doesn’t appear at many Persian events until 10 p.m., following an onslaught of hors d’oeuvres.
"It brings the community together," Leon Neman said. Neman’s brother, Yoel, spearheaded the two-year effort to construct the $1 million hall, named for and largely financed by their late father, Feizollah Neman. Brothers Leon, John and Yoel run Neman Brothers and Associates, a major textile concern.
"The Persian Jews fled Iran, but here we’re showing what we can be," Leon Neman said.
David Nahai, an attorney who served as master of ceremonies, took the idea a step further.
"This hall bears silent witness to the fact that we have spread our roots in the community," he said. "We have gone from stunned, wide-eyed immigrants to an affluent community with incredible potential."
Nahai is a member and former chair of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, active in Jewish life and in political and environmental movements. Such involvement is the natural next step for a community that has, as Nahai said, already spread its wings so successfully.
"We can no longer be insular," Nahai said, "because we are not immune from the events that go on around us."
Nahai urged the attendees to apply their resources and skills to improving the lot of all Angelenos and Californians.
That, I realized, is the next step in the immigrant story: Immigration, success, organization and then outreach. Time and again Jews have come to this city and done just that — made the city work for them, then worked hard to make the city better. And that is when you know they’ve arrived.
My Culture War
Kerry Begins Jewish Outreach Effort
Now that he’s proven he’s electable, John Kerry is ready to tell Americans why he should be elected.
Only in recent days has the Massachusetts senator started to outline detailed policy positions. Some of these having to do with foreign policy and terrorism have been of particular interest to Jewish voters.
One measure of his new seriousness was a New York meeting Sunday with about 40 Jewish organizational leaders, where Kerry elaborated at great length on his Middle East policies.
All participants interviewed by JTA described the closed-door meeting as successful.
"It would be impossible for anyone to leave that meeting not impressed," said Hannah Rosenthal, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Until now, Kerry’s campaign says, the candidate has had little breathing room for such explanatory encounters because of the grueling primary schedule and because his energies were devoted to his come-from-behind triumphs.
The campaign has hired a Jewish coordinator for New York, Lisa Gertsman. But Cameron Kerry, the senator’s brother who converted to Judaism 20 years ago when he married a Jewish women, is key to the campaign’s Jewish outreach effort.
The Kerry brothers’ own Jewish background — their paternal grandparents were born Jewish in the former Austro-Hungarian empire — gained a further wrinkle over the weekend when an Austrian genealogist revealed that two Kerry relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.
Last week, the senator forcefully defended Israel’s right to build its West Bank security barrier after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem.
"Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self-defense," Kerry said, a salve to Jews who had been concerned after Kerry described the fence to an Arab American audience in the fall as a "barrier to peace."
Participants at Sunday’s meeting said the candidate went into unprecedented detail on how a Kerry presidency would deal with the Middle East.
"He was able to talk to the complexity," said Judith Stern Peck, president of the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the region. "He knows Israel; he’s been going there for years."
Kerry displayed a wide-ranging command of the issues, participants said, addressing the failure of the Oslo accords, the collapse of accountable authority in the Palestinian Authority, the role of neighboring Arab regimes and demographic threats to Israel’s future as a Jewish State.
One feature of Kerry’s outlook was using U.S. leverage with Arab allies to end incitement and pressure the Palestinians into making peace.
"He painted a picture that a Kerry presidency would be more engaged" on Israeli-Palestinian peace, "and build on the relationships he has and would hold others accountable," Rosenthal said.
Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said the meeting helped lay to rest a nagging concern — that relentless Democratic criticism of Bush’s foreign policy implied criticism of Bush’s closeness to Israel.
"He tried to exempt Israel from the critique of Bush’s foreign policy," Foxman said, saying Kerry agreed with administration policy on isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and on the security fence.
Kerry also implicitly backed away from earlier remarks touting former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker as potential envoys to the region.
This time, he named figures regarded as much more favorable to U.S. Jews, including former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser.
Kerry said he would more aggressively pursue disarming Iran of its nuclear capability, saying the Bush administration has not done enough.
Republican strategists suggested that Kerry’s vulnerabilities in the Jewish community would have more to do with terrorism than with Israel.
"He hasn’t been strong in the defense functions of this country," former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, the chairman of Bush’s reelection campaign, said.
Some participants at the Jewish leadership meeting expressed disappointment that Kerry never got around to discussing domestic issues of concern to Jews.
"Surely the community’s fundamental value of taking care of the vulnerable populations should have been up there on top of the agenda," Rosenthal said.
Cameron Kerry said that he believed his brother — like his party — was in lockstep with U.S. Jews on domestic issues. Of particular concern, he said, was the Bush’s administration’s appointment of hard-line conservative judges to appeals courts.
Ultimately, Cameron Kerry said, his brother would continue to be his own best counsel.
"He’s somebody who really sifts through all sides, he likes to have the facts, he’s got an inquiring mind," he said. "He doesn’t accept ideas filtered for him. He tests, challenges, is a devil’s advocate, but in the end — once he’s made up his mind — it’s full speed ahead."
JTA staff writers Rachel Pomerance in New York and Matthew E. Berger in Washington contributed to this report.
Circle of Friends
Every Sunday afternoon at 4 p.m., Alysson Beckman and Julie Pinchak go to Victoria Maddis’ house to hang out and play. What makes this situation unique is that Alysson and Julie are both 16-year-old high school students, while Victoria is a 7-year-old girl with a neurological disorder. They have been brought together by The Friendship Circle of the Conejo Valley, a new outreach effort designed to enrich the lives of Jewish children with special needs and their families.
The Friendship Circle and its Friends at Home program pairs local teenagers with families of special-needs kids in order to provide a social outlet for disabled children and support for their often over-extended parents. The Agoura-based Conejo Friendship Circle is modeled after the flagship program in Detroit, which was founded in 1994 by Rabbi Levi and Bassi Shemtov of the Lubavitch Foundation, a branch of Chabad-Lubavitch. The Conejo Friendship Circle was launched by its director, Rabbi Yisroel Levine, and assistant directors Chanie Malamud and Devorah L. Rodal in April 2002. The program is administered by Chabad of the Conejo, and currently boasts 100 teen volunteers and 50 families with special- needs children, ages 4 to 13.
The teenagers who volunteer their time learn the value of giving through the experience of making a difference in a child’s life.
Michelle Levy, a 17-year-old student at Oak Park High School, learned about the organization from a friend at Los Angeles Hebrew High. Levy, who works with a 6-year-old autistic child, said that “although at times it can be difficult, it’s about having fun and being open,” and said that the reward she reaps from being involved always “masks” the difficulty for her.
“I’ve told others to get involved,” she said. “It’s a help for the family to have a little bit of time, and it is so good for us because it’s really special to connect with someone you wouldn’t otherwise know. It’s amazing.”
What makes The Friendship Circle unique is that the one-on-one contact between the child and the teen volunteers takes place in the environment the children are most comfortable in: their own home. Families interested in enrolling in the program are interviewed and evaluated by the directors and a speech pathologist.
The Friendship Circle addresses many types of special needs, ranging from autism and blindness to ADHD and bipolar disorder. Rodal stressed that this program is “truly open to anyone who feels that they need a friend.”
Teen volunteers are carefully screened, selected and trained to work with the children, and are then paired with a second volunteer and a special needs child in the program. The volunteers visit with the child once a week for an hour. Their role is to play and interact with the child, while giving the parents a much-needed respite. They can bake cookies, play games, read books or do almost anything the child wants.
“This program is wonderful,” said Robin Felton, a Calabasas mom whose 6-and-a-half-year-old son Jonah is autistic. “This is the only time that’s really just for fun. Jonah’s life is so therapeutic, and everyone has an agenda related to an IEP [school] goal. His therapy is all adult driven. These girls [from the Friendship Circle] come every Sunday afternoon, and they are completely focused on Jonah and what he wants. It’s not babysitting, it’s not respite, it’s just a gift.”
Felton said that the rest of the family also benefits from this program. Hilary Srole and Sami Wellerstien make an extra effort to share their attention with Jonah’s two brothers, ages 9 and 4.
Erica and Matthew Kane’s family has been with Conejo’s Friendship Circle since its inception. Like many of the children in the program, Kane’s daughter Abby, 6, is autistic; Abby has a 20-month-old brother and an 8-year-old sister.
“Kids thrive on the continuity” Erica Kane said. “We are paired up with two wonderful high school seniors. They come every Sunday, and the kids really look forward to it. The girls are very devoted, and the kids are all very bonded to them. They jump rope, play in the yard, play with Play-Doh … it’s very healthy for them.”
Rodal explained that teen volunteers must provide references as well as copies of past report cards and an explanation of why they are interested in volunteering in The Friendship Circle. All teens attend an hour and a half training session run by the directors, a speech pathologist, a family liaison and a parent of a special-needs child. There may also be additional training provided for a particularly difficult situation, as in the case of a child currently in the program who is blind, autistic and developmentally delayed. In the future, Jewish Family Service will provide this training, and is currently working to make the sessions more interactive.
Rodal and Malamud always accompany the teens on their first visit to their assigned family, and follow up regularly with both the families and the teens. In addition, each teen is responsible to report back to Rodal and Malamud via e-mail (or standard mail) postcard after each visit.
Becoming a member of the Friendship Circle’s Volunteer Club is yet another benefit for the teens. It is a place for the teenagers to come together, discuss their experiences, and just have a good time.
“They help others, but they also have a lot of fun,” Rodal said.
“I want these children to feel like they have someone to lean on when I come to visit them,” said Andrea Kramer, another 15-year-old Friendship Circle volunteer who attends Milken Community High School. “Seeing a child feeling good will boost up their life as well as mine. I want to know that a child is feeling even a tiny bit better because of me.”
To learn more about the Friendship Circle, visit the
program’s Web site at
Active Camps for the Unathletic
Cooper Visits Sudan, DiscussesSlavery
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, spent an eventful 21 hours in Sudan in mid-February when he met with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to discuss the country’s ongoing slave trade and a peace treaty with Sudanese rebel.
“The whole notion of enslavement in the 20th and 21st century really has sparked concern and anger in many, many corners,” Cooper told The Journal.
That could change through negotiations to end two horrific decades of civil war between the Muslim-dominated government in Sudan’s north and Christian rebels in the south. At the Sudanese presidential palace in Khartoum, Bashir listened to Cooper’s recommendation to allow anti-slavery activists free reign in traveling across Sudan, seeking to help end slavery.
“Whatever can be done to speed that along,” he said.
Mohammed Khan, a second-generation Pakistani American in Los Angeles and adviser to the American Sudanese Council, traveled with Cooper.
“The Sudanese government is making it very clear that they have nothing to hide,” Khan said.
Decades of civil war mean that “the Sudan was viewed by the U.S. as a kind out outpost and welcome mat for terrorists,” Cooper said. “With all of the bloodshed and everything else that’s taken place, number one, the terrorists are gone.”
The rabbi said he felt comfortable walking around war-torn Khartoum.
“It’s been a long, long time since the people over there have seen any Jews,” he said — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer
JFS to Give More to Russian Outreach
Following complaints from elderly ex-Soviet Jews, JFS Family Service (JFS) has scaled back its planned shutdown of a decade-long Santa Monica program of entertainment, social services and twice-monthly meetings for about 150 Russian and Baltic Jewish senior citizens.
JFS instead is allocating more money to the Russian Outreach Program, but the program coordinator has quit because JFS cut her weekly hours from 15 to four.
“I will not work four hours a week and I don’t know who can,” Lina Haimsky said. “There is no possible way anyone can run the program working four hours a week.”
JFS Executive Director Paul Castro said that following a Feb. 16 meeting with concerned senior citizens, JFS decided to cut Haimsky’s hours, but increase the Russian Senior Program’s annual activity fund budget from $1,500 to $2,000 and increase JFS case management for program participants.
“This essentially reinstates the program, but at a smaller level, a lower level,” Castro said.
Retiree Rachel Flaum, who lobbied JFS to save the outreach program, said, “On the one hand, it’s very good because they gave us more money for our activity. But on the other hand, they cut the salary for the coordinator, so she quit. For a short time, we will try to do something without a coordinator, just to keep the people together.” — DF
Social Services Battle SacramentoCuts
Jewish social service agency leaders are planning a spring Sacramento pilgrimage to seek mercy from state legislators planning extensive cuts in health and welfare budgets.
“This is a pretty tough year in Sacramento; there aren’t too many people who are really speaking for the poor and the underrepresented,” said Coby King, association director of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee (JPAC). The statewide coalition of mostly Federation-based groups led a Feb. 11 delegation to Sacramento and is a planning a similar May 10-11 lobbying trip, King said, “to try to lessen some of the damage that’s being done up there.”
Paul Castro, executive director of Jewish Family Service, said JPAC’s Feb. 11 trip had Jewish agency leaders meeting with state Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Northridge), plus senior staff from state senators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office to discuss medical service cuts.
“Everybody’s sympathetic. I don’t think there’s any clear solution,” Castro said. “There’s a little bit of guarded optimism [about Schwarzenegger]. I guess there’s a sense that he’s not tied into one place or another.”
H. Eric Schockman, executive director of the West Los Angeles-based MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, did not attend the Feb. 11 trip but is monitoring proposed budget cuts in the food stamp and child-care programs.
“Cuts into child care force families to spend more on food resources,” Schockman said. “These all have rippling effects in both our economy and our social fabric. Food is a basic building block for everything else.”
For information about JPAC’s May 10-11 Sacramentolobbying trip, contact Coby King at (310) 489-2820 or visit www.jpac-cal.org . — DF
Sunday ‘Nights’ Alright for Outreach
Craig Taubman has a knack for inventing Jewish pop culture.
In 1998, he co-created “Friday Night Live” (FNL), the ebullient, musically driven young adult Shabbat service that’s been snatched up by synagogues around the country. Since then, “FNL” has become part of the vernacular and was written up in Richard Flory’s book, “Gen X Religion” (Routledge, 2000).
But Taubman, an intensely upbeat singer-songwriter-producer, wasn’t content to stop there. This Sunday, he’s unveiling his new program to draw the young and unaffiliated: “Mulholland Nights,” a summer concert series at the University of Judaism (UJ), featuring hip, young Jewish artists. The June 22 lineup includes Lisa Loeb, guitarist-chanteuse; Gabriel Mann, a singer-songwriter-pianist reminiscent of Peter Gabriel; and Billy Jonas, an iconoclastic folk artist who performs on found objects.
The goal is to draw 22- to 39-year-olds who are so removed from the community they may not even have heard of “FNL.”
“‘Mulholland Nights’ is intrinsically Jewish on the inside, but not overtly Jewish on the outside, because otherwise this demographic won’t come,” Taubman, 45, said. “It’s not because they’re anti-Jewish; it’s because Judaism isn’t even on their radar. And since it’s not part of their vocabulary, we’re using a language and personalities they can relate to.”
In three concerts this summer, each “personality” will banter about his or her religious background between songs.
During a recent phone interview, Loeb — whose perky, retro-’60s look contrasts with her wistful folk-pop — said she’d recount how the culturally Jewish emphasis her parents placed on the arts encouraged her to become a performer. Loeb, 35, will also explain that Judaism continues to affect her songwriting in her tendency “to be very analytical, to ask questions and overquestion.”
Mann, 30, descended from three generations of Orthodox cantors, said he’d discuss how chazzanut influences his moody, intense work.
“When my father sings, it’s filled with passion, like he means every word, and the same thing happens when I’m on stage with my ‘congregation,’ the audience,” said Mann, a San Antonio native. The same fervor infuses his edgy lyrics: “I have a strong, internal ‘cheese’ monitor,” he said.
If “Mulholland Nights” proves successful, it’s because Taubman has something of a track record. Five years after he and Rabbi David Wolpe launched “FNL” to connect Generation X Jews to their faith (and to Jewish mates), the monthly Sinai service has become the largest Jewish singles event on the West Coast. In October, Taubman produced Hallelu, a Jewish concert at Universal Amphitheatre that sold nearly 5,000 tickets.
When observers noted that far more 40-somethings than 20-somethings had attended, Taubman decided to create a concert series especially for the elusive young adult set. The result is “Mulholland Nights,” designed to draw people who feel more comfortable in a nightclub than a synagogue.
His efforts reflect a national trend: “Years ago, people began doing ‘Jewish things’ earlier because they married and had kids younger which was the primary attraction for joining a synagogue,” Taubman said. “Because organizations no longer have that to fall back on, everyone is trying to find new and creative ways to reach out to this group.”
One such person is Gady Levy, dean of the department of continuing education at the UJ, who’s been working to increase the young adult turnout at UJ programs. Thus he was receptive when Taubman asked him to host “Mulholland Nights” and to put up a portion of its estimated $80,000 budget, along with other sponsors.
“Our goal is not to make money, but to bring new young people into the UJ and hopefully to see what else we are doing,” Levy said.
To draw a wide cross-section of Jewish Angelenos, Taubman hired a club-savvy 26-year-old to blanket L.A. hotspots with flyers. He’s also booked Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi artists — including legendary Israeli folk-rocker David Broza and the Middle Eastern quartet Divahn, voted 2001 best new band by the Austin Chronicle
Reggae artist Elan, an observant Jew who once fronted Bob Marley’s former band, The Wailers, will perform at the July 20 concert.
“I don’t blatantly talk about Hashem in my lyrics; it’s more cryptic,” Elan, 27, said. “Sometimes you think I’m talking about my wife, but it’s really about Hashem.”
Taubman will also take the subtle approach to introduce “Nights” patrons to the Jewish community. Rather than making speeches, he’ll prominently place pamphlets advertising “FNL”: “I want Mulholland Nights to be another Jewish point of entry for young people,” he said. “If we hit them once, twice, three times, there’s a better chance they’ll view this as not just another pickup event they do on the side, but that they do Jewish things.”
For more information about the concert series, call(310) 440-1246 or visit www.dce.uj.org .
Finding Father in ‘Souvenir’
A Single Problem
Look, I know you’re busy. What with the spouse, the
children, the job, the synagogue, the gym, the board meetings, the dinners —
it’s hard to find a moment in your day, your week, your
month, your life.Â But allow me a moment of your time to point your attention
to an issue maybe you haven’t thought about in awhile: Singles.
Specifically, Jewish singles. Jewish communal life is
structured so that you probably don’t associate much with this sector of
society, and therefore, you don’t think about it much; not out of malice, but
hey, there’s only so many issues to which one can devote one’s heart.
Maybe you believe singles are not your problem (something
that you could thankfully stop thinking about once you got married) but if
you’ve ever found yourself asking the following questions —
1) Why is my child moving to the East Coast?
2) What can we do about the intermarriage problem?
3) How can we involve younger people in
— then you have inadvertently been thinking about one of the
biggest unspoken issues facing the Jewish community today.
Consider this: 30 percent of Jewish households contain one
person, (compared to 26 percent in the general population), according to 2002
National Jewish Population Survey. Singles now represent a significant sector
of the Jewish population. Much like the coveted 18-25-year-old demographic
audience TV advertisers are always seeking, Jewish singles should be should be
the prime target of all Jewish communities. Yet, for some reason it’s not.
You know how it goes: there are certain specific events
devoted to singles (those reviled “singles events”), but for the most part, the
Jewish community is segregated. Synagogues, on both the East and West Coasts,
are either/or: You attend Friday Night Live/B’nai Jeshrun/Lincoln Square until
you get married, and then, you self-segregate, moving yourself off to the
Valley/New Jersey (insert suburb here). Outta sight, outta mind.
It’s no secret that Jewish communal life is geared toward
families. But the world today is comprised more of the nontraditional family,
and it’s time the community caught up. It’s more than just the singles. It’s
the childless couples, the divorced parents, the single-parent families. An
unmarried woman from my synagogue in Brooklyn — the one your parents always
warned you about turning into (“Look at X, such a shame”) — admitted that one
of the reasons she adopted a child was to gain acceptance in the community. She
said that it’s much easier to invite a mother and daughter to Shabbat lunch
than it is to have a 40-something year old woman on her own.
Many people on their own shy away from belonging to
synagogues and organizations because they feel like they don’t fit in. Yes,
there are efforts by rabbis and educators and institutions in this city. But
not enough. Many singles achieve their prime connection to Judaism through the
Internet: JDate, Frumster, Jewish Cafe — you name it — these Web sites are so
popular precisely because they fill a void, creating the community that single
Jews often lack.Â
But there’s a problem with these types of communities, and
with these types of events that only serve the singles community. For example,
the outreach organization Aish HaTorah recently debated closing down its
innovative “Speeddating” program — where single Jews meet other at seven-minute
musical chairs-like parties — because some felt it wasn’t modest enough, simply
serving as a matchmaking event. For now, the program is remaining open, but the
debate highlights a problem for so many singles events/young leadership events,
regardless of the religious level of the sponsoring organization: they often
lack content. What good is a party — even if the proceeds go to a good cause —
if you can’t hook attendees into getting involved in something more than
finding a husband?Â
Matrimony cannot be the only goal of an event, or even a
community, even one built so strongly on family values.
Today is Valentine’s Day, which although is not at all a
Jewish holiday (see Tu B’Av — this year on Aug. 13 — for our version of a love
fest) it is an extremely hard one to ignore, especially if you’re in the
business of looking for a mate. The Hallmark blitz reminds many people that
they are alone, and in the Jewish community, I’m not sure it has to be that
way: single or not, every Jew should be made to feel welcome in the community.
Perhaps our tradition does not prepare usÂ for dealing with
non-traditional families, but our future must.
“Making Shabbat dinner, going to synagogue, celebrating the
holidays –they’re not impossible to do alone,” a recent singles’ columnist
wrote in this paper, “but they’re much much easier when you have a partner.”Â
Community is a tremendous resource: it provides sustenance,
faith, joy, comfort, companionship, love, connectedness and continuity. Should
it be denied to the people who need it most? Â
Somebody Stop Me
Valley Yeshiva Seeking to Lure City Jews Over the Mountains
It’s Thursday night at Toras Hashem, an outreach yeshiva in North
Hollywood and some 40 people are here to hear Rabbi Zvi Block’s weekly Torah
portion sermon. Tonight the class includes college-age women wearing long
skirts; a number of septuagenarians; a middle-aged man, who is becoming
Orthodox, and his wife, who is converting to Judaism; and a young mother whose
little girl spends the class drawing pictures on a notepad.
The men and women are seated in separate rows, and everyone
is following along in an English-translated Chumash. The class is about Parshat
Yitro, the portion of the Torah in which the Ten Commandments are given to the
Jewish people, which is a springboard for Block to talk not about laws, but
about relationships, using the events at Mt. Sinai as a metaphor for marriage.
Block, a New Yorker, delivers his talk with great enthusiasm: he sits down, he
gets up, he walks around the room, he digs with his thumb to emphasize his
points, he modulates his voice, he peppers his argument with telling anecdotes;
he moves the story so briskly through the text that by the end of the 75
minutes, the entire parsha has been explicated.
Block’s scholarship and liveliness have garnered him a
following in the Valley, where he has lived since 1977 when he came to start a Los
Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah, then only a Jerusalem outreach yeshiva. In
1995 Block started his own outreach yeshiva, Toras Hashem, formerly known as
the Aish HaTorah Institute, which is intended to foster individualist,
religious expression in its students. “We never cloned anyone in a particular
fashion,” Block said. “We produced kids who were Chasidic-leaning, and we
produced kids who were Zionistic-leaning.”
The original Toras Hashem building burned down in an arson
attack in 1991, although the reason for the fire is still unknown. Not one to
give up, Block collected $1 million in funds to rebuild his building,Â and, in
1995, the new Toras Hashem on Chandler Boulevard in North Hollywood, with room
for more than 200 students, was completed. In addition to his fundraising and
outreach efforts, Block also worked as the founding rabbi of the Orthodox Beth
Din of the Valley and as the principal of West Valley Hebrew Academy.
With more than 200 people attending classes and services
every week, Toras Hashem has made a name for itself in the Valley. However, it
has yet to draw people in from the other side of Mulholland Drive, which is
something that Block attributes to city Jews’ myopia, although it might be due
to the plethora of options available there.
“I think people in the city don’t realize to what extent the
Valley community has grown,” Block told The Journal. “People consider the
Valley as a third choice [to live in], after Pico Robertson and Hancock Park,
and they are making a big mistake. People in the city don’t realize that the
Valley has between 800 and 1,000 shomer Shabbos families. In our area alone
there are a dozen shuls.”
These days, Block is trying a different sort of outreach. He
wants to reach out to affiliated Jews in the city so that they know more about
the thriving community in the Valley, and he is doing so by organizing a
citywide concert with Shalsheles, the highest-selling Orthodox singing quartet
in the country by Jewish music standards. Block hopes to sell out some 1,700
seats, which would raise $100,000 to benefit Israeli victims of terror.
“We have an overriding thrust that Israel is our homeland.
We believe very strongly in a powerfully assertive Israel, and so this concert
fits right in,” Block said. “It is really an effort to galvanize the city of
Los Angeles on our behalf, and on behalf of Israel.”
The Shalsheles Concert will take place at 7:30 p.m., Feb. 16 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Tickets
are available at 613 the Mitzvah Store, House of David and Brencos. For more
information on the concert, call (818) 581-7505. For information on Toras
Hashem, call (818) 980-6934.
Redefining Its Role
Tikk-unity Across L.A.
While many of us were doing the Chinese-food-and-a-movie thing, some Jews around town chose to take part in a different kind of Christmas tradition. More than 500 volunteers participated in Tikkun L.A., the annual outreach project sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
The volunteers, which included families and young ACCESS members alike, met at the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) in Los Angeles. Following some opening remarks by JCRC Chairman Osias Goren and Rabbi Michael Resnick of Adat Shalom, Tikkun L.A. was launched. Volunteers spent the day working on various projects at retirement homes, food banks, hospitals and homeless shelters. Participants also cleaned beaches and spent the day with children, leading them in holiday songs, games and arts and crafts projects. The JCRC also held a KOREH L.A. training session for 24 volunteers. After a day of intensive outreach, the day culminated with a Chanukah party back at the WJCC.
Barbara Ferdman and Susan Langer of ACCESS served as co-chairs of this year’s Tikkun L.A. Also crucial to the successful civic outreach campaign were Jonathan Anschell and Brian Sokol of The Federation’s Entertainment Division.
For those of you who missed out, fear not — organizers have already targeted Christmas Day 2001 for the next Tikkun L.A. Day.
It’s the obvious first topic of conversation, and Paul Castro has no problem addressing it. As the newly minted executive director of Jewish Family Service of Greater Los Angeles (JFS), Castro now runs a Jewish social outreach organization – and yet he is neither Jewish nor holds a degree in social work.”It was more of a challenge for the organization than for me,” Castro told The Journal. “I’ve never really not felt part of the family at JFS. The fact that I’ve not been Jewish has not been an issue in the day-to-day operations or in my interactions with people.”
What Castro did possess, however, was nearly two decades of experience serving in various capacities at the citywide, nonprofit JFS network, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles that provides a wide array of counseling services and programs for people wrestling with addiction, abuse, domestic problems, disabilities and illness; experience that included working with both people in need and with members of the Jewish community. A nonsectarian organization that primarily serves Jewish clientele but also assists other minorities, JFS currently operates on a $21 million annual budget, approximately 10 percent coming from The Federation and the rest mostly from public sources on the city, state and federal level.
“I have a great deal of faith in his ability to contribute toward the future success of the agency,” said Sandra King, JFS’s exiting executive director, in July on the cusp of her retirement.
A Latino of Mexican descent, Castro grew up in Los Angeles and now resides in Long Beach, where he lives with his wife and three children. And though Castro came to JFS in 1980 without social work training, he graduated from Loyola Marymount University and holds a law degree.
Castro, who originally came on board as a financial administrator on JFS’s Multi-Purpose Senior Service Program, proved to be a quick study who learned the mechanics of the nonprofit’s social services. There was a brief period in the 48-year-old administrator’s career when he left JFS – from 1984-86 – to pursue opportunities in the Pacific Northwest. But eventually King lured Castro back in an executive administration position, where, until the early 1990s, Castro worked as director of finances and administration, later becoming the agency’s associate executive director. As second in charge under King, Castro took on broader responsibilities, helping develop long-term programs.
Castro said that he has long marveled at the Jewish community’s ability to raise funds effectively in support of its charities.
“Other ethnic communities that are always chasing dollars external to the community, they are defined by someone external to the community,” said Castro. “For better or for worse, the discussion happens in the Jewish community and is implemented by the Jewish community – that was very intriguing.”
In fact, Castro found the idea so intriguing that he went about replicating it within his own community in 1991, creating the United Latino Fund. Established primarily for health and human services, the United Latino Fund awards grants to nonprofit organizations and, like the United Way, employees of the city, county and state can make donations directly from their paychecks.
Following the 1992 riots, Castro became active in Latino-Jewish relations, organizing community discussions with Steven Windmueller, then head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and now director of the School of Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.”There was a lot of dialogue with Blacks and Asians,” said Castro, “but there hadn’t been any meaningful across-the-board discussions between Latinos and Jews.”
Members of the Latino community met with Westside Jews on issues such as education and the environment. To a certain degree, Castro believes that community dialogue has improved somewhat since the more ominous days of the riots and the anti-illegal immigrant bill Proposition 187.
“I think the communication is better,” said Castro. “Our neighborhoods, in some ways, are not as segregated as before, and we are seeing a growing Latino middle class as well.”
Castro finds some overlap between the Latino and the Jewish cultures: “Both are very proud; deep commitments to roots and a real sense of family and community are a mainstay of both groups.”
“We live in a highly multicultural city,” continued Castro, “where the predominant community is Hispanic. That’s why they should work closer together. At a certain point, it’s not about what the Jewish community is doing about it, what the Latino community is doing about it, but what our community is going to do about it.”
Jonathan Brandler, president of JFS, was on the search committee that appointed Castro to his current position. Brandler cited Castro’s “knowledge of the agency and also knowledge of our mission” as foremost among Castro’s criteria.
“He’s someone who works well with our staff and our funding sources,” said Brandler. “He enables them to succeed and lets them take credit for his accomplishments, and he has excellent relations with our funding sources. He also is very sensitive with the needs of our clients.”
“There seems to be a seamless transition,” said Dena Schechter, who is also on the JFS board. “Our ability to move forward depended on not having any upheaval in the agency. He has the continuity and the vision that he’s developed over the years at the agency. In terms of his sensibility to social issues, he’s really responsive.” Schechter described Castro as “brilliant, bright, self-effacing – he’s a really special man.”
“He knows this agency better than anybody else,” said Martin Kozberg, past president of JFS. “He’s a proven leader and has done an outstanding job. In the months that he’s been there, he’s proved it to me. I consider him a leader and a friend.”
Like his peers on JFS’s board of directors, Brandler is very pleased with Castro’s commitment in the aftermath of King’s retirement. Said Brandler, “He had a hard act to follow, and he’s living up to it.””Sandra and I are very different people, said Castro. “We kind of evolved different styles. I learned a lot from Sandra in terms of just her ability to have the capacity to lead the organization and cutting edge in lots of arenas, as well as being responsive to the needs of clients. One of the first things I did was create two associate director positions, occupied by Vivian Sauer and Susie Ford Day.”
Continued Castro, “My appointment was really out of the box. To hire someone who is not Jewish and not coming from a social services background, I think a lot of credit has to go to the board, who recognized my potential but also who we are as an agency. This doesn’t happen in many communities.”
With Castro’s new power comes great responsibility. Back in June, JFS absorbed the previously autonomous Jewish Family Service of Santa Monica. And the outreach organization has also expanded its services to Conejo Valley, to meet the needs of a growing Jewish population in that area. Castro also wants to develop more children’s services and shelters helping battered women.
“We’re moving forward, because I’m on several committees where I see the drive is fantastic,” said Schechter. “Paul has the ability to be a consensus builder, especially with government funders. He has made real connections for us. He certainly gets the agency, and we get the benefits.”
6505: Home for the Next Generation
For Federation executives and board members, 6505 Wilshire is more than just another building. It is a monument to years of memories; an edifice awash in nostalgic value. But does the Miracle Mile area headquarters hold any meaning for the new generation of Federation leaders? And what will it mean to these up-and-comers who will no doubt steer the future of Jewish outreach in Los Angeles?
As chair of the Leadership Development Council, Andrew Cushnir oversees all lay divisions involving the 22-45 age group. Cushnir has an extensive personal history with the building, which goes back to his late ’80s stint with the Anti-Defamation League. And while he has high hopes for the revamped 6505 and its state-of-the-art facilities, Cushnir does not discount the Westside’s growing significance as an epicenter for local Jewry. He believes that, ultimately, a headquarters combined with a Jewish Community Center would be great.
“It would make it more of a true community center as opposed to a corporate headquarters,” says the Leadership Development Council chair.
Continues Cushnir, “There are a lot of people — myself included — who wish that people would build a West L.A. campus, based on the model of the Milken campus. And it’s a dream we keep. But for now  will be great.”
Jackie Shelton, who served as the chair of the Federation-based Access from 1996-98, feels that 6505 consolidates a literal and symbolic community presence for the Federation.
“I look forward to having that as the central location,” says Shelton. “It seems to me that the Jewish population is moving in different directions. Working to develop a place that will meet the Jewish community’s needs will be a great thing. Now is the opportunity to do it.”
Shelton’s husband, Vice Chair of Access Craig Miller, also believes that 6505 — in tandem with a Westside location — will best serve its constituents and enhance the Federation’s visibility.
“The Jewish community clearly has moved west and north,” says Miller, “but I think the Federation has done a good job accommodating those people. With the building comes a lot of history, which is important… Staying in the neighborhood where the Jews are is important.” Miller and Shelton may be reflective of that notion — the couple, who currently reside near the 6505 location, met through Access and are looking forward to vice chairing the next Super Sunday in February 2000.
Beth Comsky Raanan, who helped oversee last year’s Super Sunday drive and will co-chair again next year, likes what she sees so far. A working architect, Raanan is pleased with the conceptual designs she’s come across in Federation literature.
“It looked very nice, at least from the rendering,” says Raanan. “Certainly an improvement. It had a nice, clean, modern look.”
She does, however, have her qualms about 6505’s inherent interior shortcomings.
“The building has a very small floorplate,” says the architect. “I like the idea of the temporary space they’re in now because it allows for more interaction [between departments and agencies]. I hope they are able to maintain that communication between departments… Whenever you’re in a high rise building with an elevator, you have to work harder to maintain [those ties].”
Regardless, Raanan believes that, from a lay perspective, the Federation’s decision is a smart one.
“Fiscally, it’s the responsible thing to do,” says Raanan. “I appreciate the fact that as much of the money as possible gets spent to where they want to. And I think from a historical perspective, people have a connection with that building. So it will be kind of nice to go back to 6505.”
Stephanie Steinhouse — who staffs the Leadership Development Council as assistant director of Human Resources for the Jewish Federation — also welcomes the change of address as an emblem of continuity.
“As long as I’ve been a Jewish Angeleno…I remember that building,” says Steinhouse. She adds that both of her parents and her grandmother were employed at that very building.
“To me, it’s a larger issue than how to get there,” says Steinhouse. “It’s a nice tie to my community.”
Other Stories on the Federation’s return to 6505: A new Jewish Federation headquarters is rising at 6505 Wilshire.
The $20 million campaign.
The Federation building: past, present and future.
Inside Woody Allen’s TV Past