A ‘Nice’ Idea Blossoms Into a Group of ‘Niceaholics’


Debbie Tenzer was having lunch with several girlfriends when the conversation got heated. “We all had such different views on where the country was headed. There was so much anger and so much scary news in the post-Sept. 11 world,” she says, recalling the devastation from hurricanes and the tsunami, terrorism threats, difficulties facing Israel and escalating deaths in Iraq. “I wished I could pull my head in and hide like a turtle.”

But that’s hardly what Tenzer, a mother of three and marketing consultant, decided to do.

She thought to herself: “I can’t single-handedly end world hunger, but I can donate some cans to a food bank. I can’t fix the entire school system, but I can donate my kids’ old books to the library.”

So she did, and her kindness was empowering.

“I realized that if you have the ability to help other people, you’re in a pretty good place,” says Tenzer, who lives in Los Angeles with her husband of 29 years. “It’s not always easy, because basically, we’re selfish creatures, many of us struggling every day. We have to make a choice, and it starts by doing just one nice thing.”

Tenzer decided that every Monday, she’d do something nice for others.

“It’s the hardest day of the week,” she explains, “so I wanted to start off with something I could feel good about, a personal victory,” even if it was only a five-minute gesture like making a card for senior citizens in nursing homes.
Her friends were inspired by her idea, so she sent an e-mail to 60 of them with her suggestions for kind acts they could easily do, too.

One year later, her idea has evolved into a Web site, DoOneNiceThing.com, with thousands of visitors and a weekly e-mail that reaches people in more than 20 countries, including Afghanistan, Israel, Japan and Slovakia. Her self-funded site reinforces the idea that small acts of kindness can create lasting results and suggests simple deeds that appeal to both adults and children without usually asking for money.

She credits them with cheering up hundreds of hospitalized children, donating countless books to schools, libraries and hospitals, as well as backpacks to foster children who were literally carrying their belongings from home to home in a garbage bag.

“What kind of message does that send to them?” Tenzer asks rhetorically.
The ideas are often sent to Tenzer in the more than 200 weekly e-mails she receives from the site’s members, whom she calls “Niceaholics” because, Tenzer cautions, “you get hooked.”

Operation Feel Better, for example, encourages people to make or buy cards that she then sends to hospitalized children. “So far I’ve gotten 1,000 cards from all over the United States and as far away as China, and they’re still trickling in,” she says. The figure includes about 20 from her 14-year-old daughter.
“I brought some to UCLA Children’s Hospital and sent others to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis.”

Pulling out a big batch in a manila envelope, she adds, “These are on their way to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, where sick children of all faiths lie side by side.”

Pointing to a wall in her home office that’s covered with pictures, Tenzer says, “These are some of the heroes who are making life better.”

She begins to cry as she talks about Mallory Lewis, with whom she spent the day at Fort Irwin near Barstow, the last stop before many of the soldiers are deployed to Iraq. “Some of the people we met were killed in the war. Maybe the last smile they had or their last taste of childhood was because of Mallory,” she sobs, noting that Lewis, the daughter of puppeteer Shari Lewis, performed with Lamp Chop for no fee.

“I’m not usually so emotional, but these people remind me of a higher purpose in life,” she adds. Getting teary-eyed again, she points to a picture of a young man who quit his job at a law firm to teach at an inner-city school, where he spent his free time helping students fill out college applications.

“Every one of them went to college because of him,” she said.

While some of the “nice people” Tenzer has recognized are spearheading grass-roots efforts or starting nonprofits to help the homeless, disadvantaged children, AIDS patients, abused animals or drug addicts, others are honored for simply making people smile. Bob Mortenson, for example, a retired man in his 70s, takes a walk every morning carrying a bag of cookies so that he can share something sweet with workers in his neighborhood. And on her way home from work as a gynecologist, Karen Gross has a daily ritual of dropping off treats at her local LAPD and Fire Department stations.

The one thing all the honorees have in common, Tenzer says, is their reaction to being praised.

“Every single one of them says something like, ‘Oh no, not me. Other people do so much more than I do,'” Tenzer says. “This is the sign of a truly kind person.”

When the kindness hits close to home, she’s especially grateful and pleasantly surprised.

“You won’t believe this,” she says, explaining that her younger son, Ben, a college junior who’s spending the semester in Barcelona, was recently pickpocketed. But within days, a taxi driver had found what remained of Ben’s wallet, including his credit cards and ID, and called his university in the United States so that he could arrange to return it.

“There really are a lot of nice people out there,” Tenzer says with a smile.
She attributes her sense of tikkun olam, healing the world, to her Conservative Jewish and Zionist upbringing in the Bay Area, values that she and her husband, an agent at Creative Artists Agency, have instilled in their children.
“I was always taught that we have a responsibility to other Jews and to the whole community,” she says, praising her parents for being role models. “Tikkun olam is in my soul. It’s just a reflex. It’s what’s expected of us.”
But she’s careful to point out that her site embraces people of all denominations and backgrounds.

“My goal is to unite people, not point out our differences,” she says. “I never ask people their faith, but it often comes out.”

Still, she admits that about half of all the people featured on the site are Jewish: “And I’m proud of that.”

Like her honorees, she’s also proud of her accomplishments, but won’t take all the credit. “It’s not all me by any means,” says Tenzer, who’s now working on a related book. “I just lit a match to get some light going out there. It’s the people all over the world who are keeping it going.”

10 Ideas For Creating Meaningful Volunteer Assignments


Any organization’s program and operational decisions should stem from the philosophy, beliefs and vision that are its reasons for being in the first place. These basic values, however, are often assumed, yet rarely articulated.

It is a worthwhile exercise to identify the values about volunteering in your organization. This helps executives, frontline employees and volunteers themselves think about why volunteers are involved at all. It also helps to create meaningful volunteer assignments, providing a framework for staff and volunteers to work together.

Discussing values about volunteering also puts civic engagement into a broader social context. It’s easy to get so caught up in the daily how-tos of managing a volunteer program that we lose sight of the fact that volunteering is bigger than our one setting, or even this one point in time.

1. Participation by citizens is vital to making democratic communities work

Participatory democracy is based on the value that it is a good thing for citizens to participate in running their communities and in making sure that things happen the way they want. This is the heart of volunteerism and is why, in a free society, volunteering is a right, not a privilege. (This is not to be confused with the parallel right of any agency or individual to refuse the services of a prospective volunteer.)

Volunteering generates a sense of ownership. People who get involved feel connected to others and affected by the outcome of their “sweat equity.” It’s the complete opposite of the attitude “that doesn’t concern me.”

2. Volunteers are more than free labor

First, volunteers are not “free.” There are costs to an agency for their support and tools, as well as out-of-pocket expenses incurred by the individuals donating time.

Most important, when placed in the right positions, volunteers bring a value-added component that actually changes or is lost when a paid employee does the same work. For example, legislators and funders are more receptive to the advocacy of someone not on the organization’s payroll — the perception of credibility that comes from lack of self-interest.

Similarly, some clients, such as children or probationers, may feel that paid workers see them as “just someone on their caseload,” while a volunteer is a “friend.”

The point is not that volunteers are better than employees. It’s that sometimes their status as volunteers can provide a useful difference. Therefore, volunteers can be vital to an organization and an asset even aside from the financial concerns of staffing.

3. Equal respect is due to work that is volunteered and work that is paid

Regardless of the perceptions just discussed, the value of work is determined by its intrinsic quality and impact. Work done by employees does not automatically have a higher value than that done by volunteers (and is also not of lesser value). The contributions of paid and volunteer workers are compatible, collaborative, and integrated.

Even more important, the skills and dedication of the person doing the work are not determined by the presence or absence of a paycheck. There are extraordinary volunteers and extraordinary employees. The potential for excellence always exists.

4. Volunteer involvement is a balance of three sets of rights: those of the client/recipient; those of the volunteer; and those of the agency

Despite wrangling over employee and volunteer points of view, each situation defines which perspective takes precedence. In most cases, the bottom line should be what is best for the recipient of service. But there are also agency and other long-term considerations. The key is not to presuppose that one perspective always outweighs the others.

5. Volunteers, as citizens of a free society, have the right to be mavericks

The way that genuine social change occurs is that a few pioneering volunteers are willing to be ostracized (even jailed) for their actions. While an agency has the right to refuse a placement to a volunteer, that individual has the right to continue to pursue the cause or issue as a private citizen. In fact, that’s exactly what leads to the founding of new organizations and institutions, changes in the law, and even changes in cultural mores (just consider how MADD transformed attitudes about drinking and driving).

This right to see things differently also raises an ethical consideration in how we develop assignments for volunteers within our agencies. Do we expect to keep volunteers always “under control?”

6. Volunteering is a neutral act — a strategy for getting things done

Volunteering is not inherently on the side of the angels, nor is it an end unto itself. It is a means to accomplishing a goal and is done by people on both sides of an issue. Volunteering is a method that allows people to stand up for their beliefs.

7. The best volunteering is an exchange in which the giver and the recipient both benefit

Volunteering should not be confused with charity or noblesse oblige — those who have so much, give to those who have so little. Because volunteering puts the time donor directly into the service delivered, the impact of the activity reverberates back to the volunteer in ways much more complex than writing a donation check. Further, when volunteers also benefit from their service, they have even more motivation to do a good job, which means better service to the recipient, and an upward spiral of reinforcement.

8. Volunteering empowers the people who do it

Volunteering empowers volunteers, both personally and politically. On the personal level, volunteering contributes to individual growth, self-esteem, sense of control, and ability to make a contribution to society. At the community level, the collective action of volunteers who share a commitment to a cause is extremely powerful — real clout for real change.

9. Volunteering is an equalizer

When people volunteer, it is often more important who they are as human beings than what they are on their resumes. In a volunteer role, people can rise to the level of their abilities regardless of their formal qualifications: teenagers can do adult-level work, those with life experience can contribute to client service without a master’s degree, etc. Similarly, when running in a fundraising marathon, the corporate CEO and the school custodian are indistinguishable, as are all members of a nonprofit board of directors who share the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of this position whether they are employed in professional capacities or represent grassroots perspectives.

10. Volunteering is inherently optimistic and future-oriented

No one gives time to a cause they feel will fail. In fact, the whole rationale for volunteering is to assure the success of a cause. So, while people may take a paying job that is relatively meaningless if the salary is enticing, the reward for volunteered service is accomplishment.

This also means that people volunteer with a vision of the future, often in hopes of a better future in which a problem or disease will be conquered, communities will be safe and inclusive, and the world will be in harmony. This may sound terribly mushy (which may be why such a value is not expressed every day), but it is ultimately true.

Susan J. Ellis is president of Energize, a training, publishing and consulting firm specializing in volunteerism. Her Web site is

Marriage Conversion Rate Proves Low


Low conversion rates among intermarried Jewish families continue to plague those working to reverse the demographic downtrends in American Jewry.

Fewer than one-fifth of non-Jews who marry Jews convert to Judaism, according to a new study distributed by the American Jewish Committee.

The “Choosing Jewish” report, which interviewed 94 mixed-marriage couples and nine Jewish professionals in the Boston and Atlanta areas, also painted a bleak picture of Jewish involvement for those who do convert.

Many converted Jews — 40 percent — are described as “accommodating Jews-by-Choice.” They come to Judaism because they are asked to do so, and allow others to determine their level of Jewish observance, the report said. Jews in this category often have profiles of Jewish involvement similar to moderately affiliated born Jews.

Another 30 percent of converted Jews are identified as ambivalent Jews — they continue to express doubts about their conversion and feel guilty about beliefs or holidays left behind, according to the report. Their children mirror this ambivalence by thinking of themselves as half-Jews.

The report qualified only 30 percent of converted spouses as “activist Jews,” or those who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Israel. These Jews often are more committed to Jewish practice than are born Jews, and their children are virtually indistinguishable from children whose parents were born Jewish.

The findings, compiled by Brandeis University professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, have widespread implications for a community grappling with the reality of mixed marriages.

According to both the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey and surveys by Gary Tobin, president of the San Francisco-based Institute for Jewish & Community Research, the U.S. Jewish intermarriage rate is between 40 percent and 50 percent.

The American Jewis Committee (AJCommittee) hopes the new data will create a road map for greater Jewish involvement among converts and intermarried families.

The breakdown of converted Jews by category shows that we should “not treat converts as an undifferentiated mass,” said Steven Bayme, the AJCommittee’s director of contemporary Jewish life.

Instead, he envisioned a sliding scale of Jewish involvement, ranging from those with a low level of affiliation to those who are highly involved.

“We should not see conversion as the end of the story,” he said. “What we’re really aiming for is converts who enrich the Jewish community through Jewish activism. We need to enlarge the pool of activist converts.”

But that requires a proactive approach.

First and foremost, Jews need to “wave the banner of inmarriage,” advocating Jewish partners whenever possible, he said. In cases of intermarriage, Bayme described conversion as “the single best outcome.”

“We need to be up front about our preference for conversion,” he said.

To that end, he talked about the role of rabbi as the “nurturer of would-be converts” and the need for Jewish family members to “be clear about values and objectives.”

In addition, Bayme advocated raising children in an exclusively Jewish household, because attempting to combine religions would be “a disaster Jewishly.”

Edmund Case, publisher of Interfaithfamily.com, which encourages Jewish connections in the interfaith community, took issue with several of these premises.

“I think there is a real danger in promoting conversion too aggressively,” he said. “If we stand at the door, a lot of people might not come in.”

Case said that accepting intermarried non-Jews who don’t convert — not just those who do — should be paramount.

“The way to have more Jewish children is for interfaith couples to get involved in Jewish life,” he said. “It’s important to see intermarriage as an opportunity and not as a negative or a loss.

“I think its important to communicate a message of welcome,” he continued. “The message we need to send to [intermarried] non-Jews is, ‘We’re grateful to you and happy to have you just as you are.'”

Case criticized the lack of money allocated to such interfaith outreach — less than $3 million a year between Jewish federations and family foundations, he said.

Bayme said “it’s a bit premature” for the AJCommittee to recommend any policy changes based on the report but that the group will discuss the findings at several upcoming meetings.

 

$61.8 Billion


Of the 50 wealthiest Angelinos, 27 are Jewish.

Each year, The Los Angeles Business Journal uses legwork and a little guesswork to discern who’s worth the most in Los Angeles. Once the list comes out, as it did this week, I like to run it through the old “Who’s a Jew?” detector.

I’m well aware that the only people who habitually do such things are the heads of Jewish charities and anti-Semites. The former do it to garner fundraising leads, the latter do it to “prove” a worldwide conspiracy. I do it because I have something I want to tell these people — my Sermon on the Count.

My count a few years back put the number at 25. This year there are two more, including Jamie McCourt (Jew), vice chairman of the L.A. Dodgers and listed with husband Frank McCourt (not a Jew). So it goes, this slightly unseemly business of sussing out religious affiliation on a list that reveals just net worth, business interests and a bit about philanthropic activities.

It’s, of course, on that last subject that I’d have the most to say. Adding up the numbers provided by the Business Journal, I get a combined net worth of $61.8 billion.

Three things struck me about this year’s list. The first is: wow. Jews make up barely 2 percent of the Los Angeles’ population, but more than 50 percent of city’s richest of the rich. There have been precious few times in history when Jews have been blessed with so much wealth, along with so much freedom. In a city of openness and opportunity, these men and women have made the most of their chances.

Despite their common membership in a rarified group, these folks are a diverse lot.

Most are L.A. — or even American — transplants, with roots in Canada (eBay’s Jeffrey Skoll); Israel (Alec and Tom Gores, Haim Saban) and elsewhere. Their backgrounds range from Holocaust survivor (Leslie and Louis Gonda) to able scions of family fortunes (Anthony Pritzker). Their political affiliations run the spectrum, from Hollywood liberal (DreamWork’s Jeffrey Katzenberg), to George W. Bush stalwart (Ameriquest’s Roland Arnall, now ambassador to Netherlands). Their religious practices range from observant to none of your business.

You might think with great wealth has come great assimilation, as previous generations of Jews often had to choose between asserting their religious identity and social acceptance. But another striking fact of this list is how many of these people are deeply involved in Jewish communal life and causes. Westfield’s Peter Lowy is chair of the University of Judaism. The Milkens, Michael and Lowell, are pillars of Jewish philanthropy. Biomedical innovator Alfred E. Mann gave $100 million to Technion-Israeli Institute of Technology last year. As for Spielberg, there’s a little something called the Shoah Foundation. By my estimate, most have given to Jewish causes.

And this is not to sniff at their non-Jewish philanthropy. Eli Broad (No. 4 on the list) has been at the forefront of efforts to improve education and art in Los Angeles. DreamWorks’ David Geffen donated $200 million to UCLA’s School of Medicine in 2002, the largest contribution ever to a U.S. medical school. For a man worth $4.2 billion, that’s almost real money.

At the same time, the larger picture is that L.A. County trails behind other places in terms of charitable giving. As reported in the Business Journal, a 2003 Chronicle of Philanthropy study of IRS tax returns concluded that L.A. County residents with incomes greater than $50,000 gave only 7.3 percent of their income, or about $4,000, to charity. New Yorkers gave 10.9 percent and Detroit residents, the national leaders, gave 12.1 percent. In California, San Francisco residents gave 9.3 percent, people in Long Beach 8.4 percent, and residents of the city of Los Angeles 6.9 percent.

I wonder if the Jewish billionaires on the list skew the averages in L.A.’s favor. I hope so.

The last thought to strike me as I reviewed this year’s list was how incomplete it is. The Business Journal stops at 50. But there’s serious wealth from 50 to 100, from 100 to 10,000, and loads more down the line. In short, there are many challenges this community faces, but lack of resources is not one of them.

Jewish professionals often complain to me that there just doesn’t seem to be enough money. But there is — and then some.

There is enough money, I suspect, to develop a social service program to help every one of the 7 percent of L.A. Jews who live beneath the poverty line.

There is enough money to build and sustain a network of first-rate Jewish camps and give every child a chance to attend one — and there are few better ways to instill Jewish values than camp.

There is enough money to pay Jewish communal workers a wage that enables them to participate fully in Jewish life.

There is enough money to provide significant scholarships for every child in need who wants to attend a Jewish day school and to improve the quality of public schools.

There is enough money to sustain a network of state-of-the-art communal centers — either Jewish community centers or synagogues — inviting, welcoming and affordable to the entire community.

Any one of these would revolutionize the face of Jewish Los Angeles for the better, and most could be accomplished just by upping our average giving to the standard set by … Detroit.

If only our vision were equal to our assets.

Valentine’s Day.com


“J-ated,” as in “jaded,” might be the best way to describe the ennui that has set in among many JDaters these days, singles tired of the merry-go-round of endless possibility and disappointment.

In spite of that, or because of it, new dating Web sites seem to pop up every day.

Remember that scene in the movie “Singles,” where the desperate woman asks the airline to seat her next to a single man — and she ends aside an obnoxious 10-year-old? Ostensibly that won’t happen on AirTroductions.com, which is not a Web site for mile-high clubbers (if you don’t know, I can’t explain it here). Nor is it solely for Jews. This outfit targets people who want to make business or personal connections either on the flight, at the airport, or with other travelers in the same city. If they find someone who matches your itinerary, you can pay $5 to contact that person. (It might beat hearing, “Can you take off your belt, Miss?” from the security guy….)

For more personal intervention, try the new Jretromatch.com, which uses paid matchmakers to set Jews up (that’s the retro part). The site, which launched Feb. 6, is based on the successful SawYouAtSinai.com. (Get it? All Jewish souls were originally at Mount Sinai, so it’s based on the pickup line, “Haven’t we met before? Didn’t I see you at Sinai?”) SawYouAtSinai aims for traditional and religious Jews and has a firm foothold in the Modern Orthodox market. It claims 14,000 members and 95 married success stories.

If you don’t want to leave your entire fate to the matchmaker, Jretromatch.com (and its non-Jewish counterpart, retromatch.com) also will let you peruse the database on your own. At $35.95 for a gold membership (which gets you six months plus two “free bonus months”) it’s less than JDate for the same amount of time, although with a much smaller membership (launching with 2,500 non-Orthodox culled from SawYouatSinai’s lists). Still, Jretromatch promises that matchmakers will interview all members and verify that they’re Jewish, something that JDate does not guarantee.

There are a handful of other Web sites aimed at religious and traditional Jews. The main one is Frumster.com, which skews toward the more religious of the Orthodox community (hence the word frum, which means “religious” in Yiddish), although now it has opened up to all “marriage-minded” Jews, according to Ben Rabizadeh, CEO of Frumster. The Web site claims 20,000 members and 542 couples (married or engaged) and starts at $8.95 per month, but still seems aimed most at the very religious, especially given that it requires users to specify levels of observance. You can choose between Traditional and Non-Orthodox, Modern Orthodox-Machmir, Modern Orthodox-Liberal, Yeshivish Modern, Yeshivish/Black Hat, Chasidic, Carlebachian, Shomer Mitzvot.

Other religious Web sites include UrbanTraditional.com (“putting traditional values back into Jewish dating”), Orthodate (“Your Bashert could be just a click away”) and Frumdate (“Our first priority is not simply to make a match but to help singles draw closer to Hashem and find the best within themselves”).

In addition to religiosity, there are other niches in the Jewish online dating market. Consider DarkJews.com — not a racist term, but a statement about skin tone for some Sephardic Jews — a new Web site for Syrian, Persian, Bucharian, Moroccan, Israeli, Egyptian, Yemenite, Spanish, and Turkish Jews. There’s even a category for half-Sephardic and “other,” which defies easy understanding in this context. Another category is “Come to America” where the choices are: Born, Toddler, Adolescent, Teenager, Adult or I’m Not in America.

DarkJews.com is based on the myspace.com and friendster.com models, which allows users to add their friends and their friends’ friends and is more of a social connector than a straight dating Web site. Right now it’s free, and popular among Persian Jews in California. Lumping all “dark Jews” together doesn’t work even for all dark Jews, because many of Far and Middle Eastern origin prefer to date within their own, more narrowly defined communities. Bjews.com, for example, for Bukharian Jews (from Uzbekistan and Central Asia) includes a dating site.

The most retro thing of all, though, might be to leave the computer behind. “Just let it happen naturally,” as your married friends will advise, putting aside the problem that natural meetings often mean the UPS man (or woman) delivering your Amazon.com orders and your neighbor asking you to turn your music down. Bar hopping is equally random and can lead to options with less to offer than the hardworking UPS delivery person.

If that leads you back to JDate, well, it does claim half a million members. And JDate is throwing a party at The House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard on Feb. 13.

Who knows?

 

Choosing Pluralism


We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

The ‘Munich’ Concern Is Us — Not Film


Lyndon Johnson once famously observed, “The difference between liberals and cannibals is that cannibals don’t eat their friends.” His aphorism is no less apt today in discussing Jews and their treatment of one another. Since early December, there has been a disturbingly venomous campaign directed at Steven Spielberg’s new movie, “Munich,” by machers, opinion molders and self-appointed pundits in the Jewish community.

Of course, there is room for different opinions about the complex issues raised in the movie, as there is with virtually anything written or produced about the Middle East. We recognize that there are those who may view the questions the movie poses differently than we do. However, many of these critical voices have chosen to assault, not critique, the movie and its director in a series of vitriolic ad hominem attacks on Spielberg.

Here is a sampling of what has appeared:

  • “…. Munich is about not upsetting terrorists … [it is] filled with fakery … made me sick to my stomach … thanks for blaspheming these murdered athletes’ lives, Spielberg … the memories of these innocent victims of terrorism are desecrated … Abu Spielberg — minister of disinformation.” (Debbie Schlussel, syndicated columnist)
  • “An anti-Zionist epic … not the expression of Jewish values but the contradiction of them.” (Samuel G. Freedman, Jerusalem Post)
  • “By naming his movie ‘Munich,’ he advances the message of appeasement. It’s as if the writers and director were intent upon ignoring the questions of interest in favor of creating a politically correct ‘Mein Kampf’ for our time.” (Kate Wright)
  • “No, let’s overanalyze ‘Munich’ for what it is. It’s dangerous…. Steven you are naively taking on the role of ‘Tokyo Rose,’ and you don’t even realize it…. Spielberg is no friend of Israel. Spielberg is no friend of truth….” (Joel Leyden, Israel News Agency)
  • “Spielberg smears Israel … a falsehood at its core … cinematic manipulation rooted in lies.” (Andrea Levin, Camera)
  • “Spielberg is too dumb, too left and too Hollywood (or is that redundant?) to tackle such complex and polarizing themes as Islamic fundamentalism and Jewish survival….” (Andrea Peyser, New York Post)
  • “It takes a Hollywood ignoramus to give flesh to the argument of a radical anti-Semitic Iranian.” (Charles Krauthammer, Washington Post)

What could provoke such venom against the man who brought the world “Schindler’s List” — as important a film on the Shoah as has yet been made? The man who chronicled the visual histories of 50,000 survivors for posterity, and who, through the Righteous Persons Foundation, supports creative Jewish endeavors throughout America.

Were Spielberg another too-left Hollywood type who cavalierly flirted with the tough issues posed by “Munich” with no previous record of involvement or concern about Jewish matters, one might begin to fathom the nastiness of the attacks and the gratuitous personal barbs. But he comes to the movie with a distinguished, if not unparalleled, track record of achievement vis a vis the Jewish community, Israel and its image.

One has to ask: Why such vitriol?

There is a common subtext in these attacks that betrays a worldview that is anachronistic and fatalistic.

The critics seem to share a view that by portraying ambivalence on the part of the Israeli avengers or by allowing the terrorists to briefly enunciate their claim, the movie will encourage audiences to be equivocal in their understanding of terror and its perpetrators. Filmgoers will conclude, “A pox on both your houses, all you violent fanatics!”

It is hard to imagine that in a post- Sept. 11 world most audiences won’t have in their minds and guts a very clear view as to who today’s terrorists are and how they brazenly act in violent, irrational and heartless ways. The massacre at Munich is characterized as the original sin, distinct in its wantonness and brutality.

Any thinking American understands that responding to terror, even if violent and brutal, is qualitatively different than indiscriminately and purposefully targeting innocents. If you don’t get that message from “Munich,” you aren’t watching the film.

Equally mistaken, the critics fear that filmgoers will weaken their support for Israel because they will no longer see Israel as a victim. If its avengers commit violence, while betraying some ambivalence about the acts they carry out, the case for Israel, the critics fear, is weakened.

Americans’ support for Israel is not contingent upon being perceived as either infallible or as a victim. Israel is one of the world’s leading military powers; its armed forces have very few equals, certainly none in the region.

Americans respect its achievements and successes. An honest discussion of the issues surrounding terror won’t change the reality of with whom most Americans identify.

Losing the victim label does mean greater scrutiny. Greater scrutiny means occasional self-doubt and open, democratic questioning of how one acts. Israel was created precisely to give Jews power over their own fate, to act and not to quiver. Neither the Israelis nor we are powerless victims.

Like other democracies, Israel has its debates in the open. Anyone with an Internet connection can read and marvel at them. Spielberg hasn’t created those debates, he reflects them. The fear of washing our linen in public ought to be gone; Israel is a nation like others.

There is no need for a mentality of fear, for the embrace of victimhood or for the nastiness that permeates much of the anti-“Munich” diatribes. We can ask questions, we can worry about what we do, we can challenge each other in public and we need not fear for Israel’s security or our safety.

What we should fear is becoming like President Johnson’s former friends and devouring each other.

David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations agency. Dr. Michael Berenbaum is professor of theology and the director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

David Karp: A Guide for Unity in Scouting


 

When attorney David Karp reminisces about his time in the Cub and Boy Scouts, the good memories come flooding back. He remembers taking long nature hikes, making close friends and fashioning a pinewood derby car from a block of wood, four nails and four wheels. The Scouts, he said, taught him how to work well with others, play fairly and know right from wrong — qualities that have served him well as an adult.

After the birth of his son, Samuel, in 1990, Karp decided that he would one day introduce the boy to the joys of scouting. But Karp wanted to touch more lives than just Samuel’s. Through the Western Los Angeles County Council Jewish Committee on Scouting of the Boy Scouts of America, he has found a way successfully to combine his two great loves: scouting and Judaism, both of which shape his ideas, values and conduct. In the process, Karp, a Reform Jew, has done more than perhaps anyone in Southern California to bring local Orthodox Jews into the world of scouting.

“Once I accepted that I wanted to make a place for Jews in scouting, it was only a matter of time before I decided we had to be inclusive of all Jews,” said Karp, who headed the Council Jewish Committee from 2002 to 2004 and remains treasurer.

Under his direction, Karp said he and other council members helped oversee the creation of a Boy Scout troop and later a Cub Scout pack at Shaarey Zedek Congregation in Valley Village. Subsequently, Karp’s efforts have helped lay the foundation for other shuls to form scouting units.

“David Karp made it possible for us to have this program,” said attorney Yacov Greiff, scoutmaster of Troop 613 at Shaarey Zedek. “Aside from personal kindness and modesty, exemplary menschlichkeit and tireless efforts on behalf of the Jewish community, he deserves particular recognition for going out of his way to reach across sectarian lines.”

Karp also helped make it possible for Orthodox Jews to participate in the Kinnus weekend, an annual committee-sponsored event that attracts hundreds of Jewish scouts and their families from the Southland and beyond. At the suggestion of several religious Jews, Karp and others approved the serving of strictly Kosher meals, offered Orthodox Shabbat services and set up an eruv, or boundary, which permits the carrying of supplies and other goods during the Sabbath. The result: Orthodox Jews now account for more than half of Kinnus, participants, up from zero in 2001.

“David’s been instrumental in uniting the three Jewish denominations into one identity as Jewish scouts,” said Jeff Feuer, cubmaster of an Orthodox pack sponsored by Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills. “In my personal opinion, it’s best if we work together and understand and learn to celebrate our differences.”

As a professional mediator, bringing together Jews under the banner of the Scouts has come naturally to him.

“I suppose I’m a facilitator,” said Karp, who is now a Boy Scouts of America district chairman for the East Valley. “I like to find common ground.”

 

David Karp

MORE MENSCHES


Avi Leibovic: Guardian Angel of the Streets

Jack and Katy Saror: Help Knows No Age

Joyce Rabinowitz: A Type Like No Other

Saul Kroll: Healing Hand at Cedars-Sinai

Jennifer Chadorchi: The Hunger to Help

Karen Gilman: What Makes Her Run?

Steven Firestein: Making Magic for Children

Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen: Kindness Starts at Home

Moshe Salem: Giving a Voice to Israelis

Class Notes – A Weekend of Ethics


Scholars-in-residence Rabbi Laura Geller, Rabbi Steven Leder and Dr. Bruce Powell will address teaching children values and ethics at Brandeis-Bardin Institute’s family weekend Nov. 19-21. Sponsored by The Jewish Journal, the weekend will explore how ethics interface with spirituality, social justice, education and consumerism. Renowned child development specialist Dr. Ian Russ will address how kids learn ethics, and an expert from Merrill Lynch will discuss saving for your children and grandchildren.

Space is limited, so apply early. For more information, contact The Brandeis-Bardin Institute at (805) 582-4450 or visit www.thebbi.org.

Young Writers Unite

Budding poets, playwrights, essayists and novelists can do the grown-up conference thing at an all-day seminar for fourth- to sixth-graders on Sunday, March 5 at Milken Community High School. Sponsored by Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School, the second annual Young Writers’ Conference aims to inspire expression in all its forms, from comic book writing to sports reporting. A keynote speaker, along with workshops led by professional writers, will bring kids of all backgrounds together to explore the passions, techniques and skills that make for good writing. The $125 fee covers lunch, a T-shirt and a conference pack. Proceeds go to support Access Books, which supplies books to under-funded school libraries. Financial aid is available.

Deadline for enrollment is Nov. 5. For more information, visit www.youngwritersconference.org or call (310) 889-2300.

Dollars for Day Schools

Day school proponents looking to cultivate new major donors now have added incentive. A consortium of five foundations and two organizations is offering to match new gifts between the amounts of $25,000 and $100,000. The consortium, which includes the Jewish Funders Network and the Project for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), will have $5 million available to match 50 cents for every dollar donated.

To be eligible, a philanthropist must make a first-time grant to Jewish day schools or increase a previous gift fivefold. The program runs through Jan. 13, 2006.

“The match program is just the kind of investment strategy that philanthropists value,” said Michael Steinhardt, PEJE chair and founder. “By leveraging their gifts, these funders are able to stretch their contribution to Jewish day schools and join the ranks of those of us who believe that serious Jewish education is at the core of a renaissance of Jewish life.”

For an application and information, visit www.dayschoolmatch.org.

Tradition Goes Wireless

The words beit midrash, Hebrew for study hall, may bring to mind images of bearded young men stooped over row after row of crowded tables. But not at the Los Angeles Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school. At the new Simha and Sara Lainer Beit Midrash, dedicated Sept. 27, men and women can sit at specially designed workstations or create their own space with moveable furniture. The shelves are stocked with traditional and contemporary books, while the computers hold a full complement of programs and databases. And of course the room is set up for wireless communication.

The Lainer family has established batei midrash in institutions of all denominations across Los Angeles.

Ellie Steinman, a third-year rabbinic student, is ready to get to work.

“The environment of a beit midrash is what rabbinic school is all about — peer helping peer with abundant resources available at the fingertips,” Steinman said.

For information, call (213) 749-3424 or visit www.huc.edu.

Rub Elbows With Wiesel

Junior high and high school students will have an opportunity to talk with Elie Wiesel next year, as Sinai Temple in Westwood hosts the Holocaust survivor and theologian for a weekend in May as part of its 100th anniversary celebration. Sinai is inviting seventh- to 12th-graders to submit essays answering the question, “If you could ask Elie Wiesel any question, what would it be and why?”

Two students from each grade level will be chosen to pose their question to Wiesel personally at a May 21 teen forum.

One page essays are due March 1, and can be sent to Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. 90024, Attn: Centennial Essay Writing Contest. For more information, call (310) 474-1518 or visit www.sinaitemple.org.

You can reach Julie Gruenbaum Fax at julief@jewishjournal.com or (213) 368-1661, ext. 206.

 

Lessons From Abramoff’s Case


Lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s recent indictment and arrest on charges of wire fraud involve an already notorious individual. The U.S.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and federal grand jury have already investigated him about his unscrupulous dealings with Indian tribes.

Because Abramoff’s public persona trades on a glossy presentation of himself as an exemplar of Jewish values, his case calls for careful attention — not only from the general public but specifically the Jewish community. As Jews who have worked with Native American communities, we feel that the Abramoff case can open a long-overdue conversation among American Jews about Native Americans today and some areas of common interest.

To start with, there are Abramoff’s dealings with tribal governments that were his clients. Marketing his influence with key members of Congress, Abramoff allegedly secured fees from one tribe to help it obtain legal rights to conduct gaming, then took fees from another tribe to help it squelch the other client’s tribal gaming prospects. If true, this stunning disregard of basic fiduciary responsibility would be but one example of his business practices with Native Americans. According to the New York Times, Abramoff wrote e-mails to his business partner, Michael Scanlon, referring to his Native American clients as “idiots,” “troglodytes” and “monkeys.”

According to a June 23, 2005 report in the Los Angeles Times, Abramoff used funds gained by allegedly defrauding Indian tribes to finance “a Jewish religious school that he founded” and “paramilitary operations mounted by Jewish settlers in the West Bank.” Because of the public association of Abramoff’s activities with support for Jewish causes, an affirmation is needed that he does not represent Jewish religious values regarding the ethical treatment of non-Jews and respect for the divine image of all human beings. Abramoff’s actions and words also depart from the important American Jewish traditions of respect for democracy and activism to achieve social justice.

Then there is Abramoff’s alleged conduct toward his Native American clients from a perspective grounded in Jewish sources. According to the Torah, cheating, lying, expropriation of other people’s property, misuse of funds and condescending attitudes toward non-Jews are not Jewish values, and are expressly forbidden. The idea of establishing a school to teach Torah using misappropriated funds would be total nonsense from a Jewish point of view — the worst example of faulty ethical and moral thinking.

If they prove authentic, Abramoff’s racist and demeaning references to his Native American clients would suggest that he has not been thinking and behaving according to the Jewish teachings that, as the founder of a Jewish school, he claims to espouse. The Jewish tradition teaches us that all human beings — not just Jews — are made in the image of God. Abramoff’s proffered excuse, that he was just indulging in “locker-room talk,” runs aground on the most basic Jewish teachings that you must “Love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) and “You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people” (Leviticus 19:16).

Abramoff’s conduct should prompt more from American Jews than a repudiation. It should serve as an occasion for forging better relations and understanding between Native and Jewish communities. If anything, Abramoff’s experience as a Jew should have made him more, not less, sensitive to the humanity and concerns of Indian people. Like Jews, American Indians know what it means to be historically dispossessed. They are struggling to assert sovereignty over what remains. Like Jews, American Indians wrestle with the meaning of their remembered past and how to accommodate to the powerful society that surrounds them.

Because of reservation poverty and forced relocation programs mounted by the federal government in the 1950s to move tribal members off reservations and into cities, Indian nations also share with Jews the experience of Diaspora. Like Jews, they have been subjected to coercive programs of conversion and assimilation, their cultures and sacred practices outlawed, their numbers diminished by genocide and their identity made more complex by intermarriage. Desecration of cemeteries and burial sites, long a problem for European Jews, remains a current horror for Indian people.

Jews should seek a higher level of understanding and better relations with Indian peoples. We are egregiously misrepresented by the likes of Abramoff. We feel pride and a sense of affinity with distinguished legal scholar Felix S. Cohen, whose “Handbook of Federal Indian Law” (1942) and other writings have been crucial to restoring federal recognition of tribal sovereignty. A secular Jew committed to democratic principles, Cohen wrote passionately about Native American self-government from a perspective informed by Jewish history:

“Our interest in Native American self-government today is not the interest of sentimentalists or antiquarians,” Cohen wrote in 1949. “We have a vital concern with Indian self-government because the Native American is to America what the Jew was to the Russian Czars and Hitler’s Germany. For us, the Indian tribe is the miner’s canary, and when it flutters and droops we know that the poison gasses of intolerance threaten all other minorities in our land.”

Haim Dov Beliak is rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom of Whittier and is co-director of Coalition for Justice in Hawaiian Gardens and Jerusalem. Gelya Frank is a USC professor and director of Tule River Tribal History Project. UCLA law school professor Carole Goldberg directs the Joint Degree Program in Law and American Indian Studies.

 

Making Mensches


Barbara Gereboff counts among her proudest moments an argument between two of her middle school boys. When Gereboff asked the hallway adversaries what the problem was, one boy responded, “He’s not treating me with kavod [dignity].”

The students had learned the term kavod through a values program at Kadima, a Conservative day school in West Hills where Gereboff is head of school. She says that teaching kids to be mensches is as high on the priority list as helping them master algebra and topic sentences.

And for the boys in the hall, something positive seemed to be sinking in.

The goal of shaping high-quality people is especially foremost during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. At Kadima and elsewhere, educators and students turn their attention to teshuvah, repentance, encompassing the whole process of character development and self-improvement.

But High Holiday lessons can ring hollow if becoming a better person is not a year-round pursuit. In a growing number of schools — Jewish and secular — programs on building character are being integrated into the curriculum. As the incubators of tomorrow’s adults, schools have begun to recognize a responsibility to produce graduates who treat each other well and are dependable members of society.

The challenge lies in ensuring that kids are not just memorizing lists of values and tucking them away with other academic minutiae, but are internalizing and applying them in everyday situations.

For Gereboff, the fact that a boy could summon the language of kavod in the heat of argument signaled that Kadima’s approach is making a difference.

Kadima starts with behavioral principles based on the notion that all people are created in the image of God, which requires them to act honestly, treat people with dignity, and improve the world in partnership with God.

These principles are posted around the school, and form the basis for a value-of-the-month program, which includes classroom lessons, recognizing exemplars of that value and a special assembly. Teachers look for moments in both formal teaching and in social interaction to reinforce those values.

This year, Kadima Rabbi Jacqueline Redner introduced a set of 20 Earth Angel value cards. Students can earn a card by displaying the particular value — such as honesty, or treating your environment well. They also can pull a card from a deck, which establishes a value they can aspire to through activities at home and in school.

“I really want to give the kids a sense of what it means to live your life in Kedusha [holiness], and what it means to be part of a people that is supposed to be holy in this world,” Redner said.

At New Jewish Community High School in West Hills, all students spend their first year of Jewish studies with Rabbi David Vorspan, who pioneered an approach he calls Kodesh Moments – moments of holiness.

On a recent Monday in early September, Vorspan introduced the concept to a class of freshly minted ninth graders.

“What does holy mean?” he challenged them. “What has the capacity to be holy?”

The students offered a white-board full of thoughts that Vorspan narrowed down. Holiness is the highest level of human behavior. It is acting most God-like. And it is being the best we can be, he said. Kodesh moments, he told them, arise when you sanctify an ordinary moment by looking for ways to elevate your behavior. That might mean stopping yourself from gossiping, he offered, or helping an injured friend up the stairs.

“The concept of Kodesh moments takes a teenager who thinks he can’t avoid temptations, and it shows them they can,” Vorspan said. “It puts them beyond the level of what teenagers think they can actually do,”

Kodesh Moment signs are posted around the school, programs and assignments deal directly with ethical development, and teachers are always on the lookout to point out a Kodesh moment — or its antitheses.

The administration is careful not to overuse the catch phrase, knowing that if trivialized, it could become a running joke among students at the four-year-old transdenominational high school.

Students say they take interpersonal ethics seriously, and according to some 10th- and 12th-graders, the emphasis on values creates an atmosphere of communal caring.

“I noticed with my parents that I have conversations with them and I don’t jump to conclusions, so I can have a more thorough discussion,” said J.J. Berthelson, a 10th grader who lives in Tarzana.

Reaching that level of penetration and practical application takes persistence and deliberate plan, says Michael Josephson, founder of Character Counts!, a Los Angeles-based program now being used by 6 million students in schools, athletic programs and youth clubs nationwide, including the L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD).

“You need to make a conscientious effort to be proactive and pervasive in the way you emphasize values… so it becomes part of the natural framework in which children think,” said Josephson, whose short commentaries on ethics are featured daily on KNX-AM 1070.

Character Counts, a project of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics, provides training and materials based on six pillars: trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring and citizenship. Developed at a 1993 summit by academics, religious leaders and mental health professionals, these characteristics, Josephson contended, are ones that every culture and religion can agree on.

Character Counts has been adapted by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as “Catholic Character Counts,” and Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades — where Josephson is a member — will be the first Jewish school to translate the six pillars into Hebrew and add the notion of holiness for a pilot program called Menschlichkeit Matters.

Josephson tailors the training not just for teachers, but for athletic coaches through a program called “Pursuing Victory With Honor,” and for student leaders such as team captains and student body presidents.

Of course, the program is only as good as the educators implementing it. It works even better, they say, when the ideas are reinforced at home.

But research suggests that in Character Counts schools academic achievement improves, according to independent analyses of school records in several states where the program has been successfully utilized. In a study conducted by South Dakota University, everything from crime to drug problems to bullying and racism dropped at Character Counts schools across the state.

Bob Weinberg, a principal and former football coach, has spent five years making Character Counts central to his program at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a grade 4-through-12 magnet school.

“Academics are obviously important at this school — that is what we’re all about — but unless you have them in conjunction with ethics and treating each other with respect, all you really have is nothing, kind of an empty shell,” said Weinberg, past president and still a board member of LAUSD’s Association of Jewish Educators (AJE).

Weinberg begins each day with a PA announcement that includes a short anecdote on someone — in the school, in the news — who showed strong character, and he ends each announcement by saying, “And remember, character counts.”

In the high school, Weinberg said, the focus turns toward honesty and not cheating — whether it be cheating on tests or by downloading illegal free music or term papers.

Weinberg is a formidable role model for the students, and he expects a lot of them. In 2004, several players from a baseball team that had already clinched a spot in the championship series decided not show for the last two regular-season games, thus forfeiting the games. Weinberg, with his eye on character rather than the playoffs, had the team forfeit their spot in the postseason. Last year, that action won him the Pirkei Avot Award for ethical behavior from the AJE.

“Character is what you do and the decisions you make when no one is looking,” said Weinberg. “The most important thing is being true to yourself and true to what you know is right.”

An Oleh Love Story


During my first visit to Israel when I was 24, fantasies of aliyah and Israeli women captured my imagination.

I pictured myself waking up every day to the tangerine Jerusalem sun in a narrow Nachla’ot apartment that overlooked the city.

Then I imagined falling in love with one of those loud, rosy-cheeked, Teva-sandal-and-flowing-skirt-wearing Israeli girls with wild curly hair and big dusty backpacks.

I knew I would find myself back in Jerusalem. But marrying a native Israeli, speaking only Hebrew together and building a home removed from the Western Anglo community and culture where I lived my whole life somehow seemed unrealistic.

Inherently, I knew I would end up marrying a woman with a similar worldview. But only recently, after becoming engaged to an idealistic high school English teacher named Dena Stein, do I realize how our similarities, the big ones as well as the seemingly minute ones, make all the difference.

Coincidentally, we both grew up in Pittsburgh. I lived there until I was 12, and Dena lived there until she left for college in Michigan. We both enjoyed a middle-class American suburban-type lifestyle: a four-bedroom house, two cars, a backyard lawn and cable television.

We both are the oldest of two kids, and each of us has a younger sister. Our parents are connected but secular Jews, who consider Israel important but not a potential home.

During our young adulthoods, we both pursued a more serious relationship with Judaism and, through our travels, discovered a deep love for Israel.

Last summer, Dena returned to Israel and, subsequently, met me, after finishing her first year teaching English in a Philadelphia high school. After a four-year hiatus from Israel, she had to return to ask herself a question that she could not avoid: Despite all the challenges, can I really imagine myself not living in Israel?

As we walked along the boardwalk in Jaffa, it seemed that our shared vision of building a home in the Judean Hills charged the salty air between us. It was those two points, religion and Israel, that I assumed were the magnets that drew our futures together.

But looking back on our magical summer, our complaints about the small struggles in Israeli culture — like having to push people in the bakery line to place an order — allowed us to forge an even deeper connection.

Just as important as the fact that we were looking ahead in the same direction, the fact that we stood on a common cultural foundation was an integral factor in our bonding.

One of my rabbis used to tell American guys in Israel that they should date within the Anglo community.

“There are going to be enough differences between the two of you just simply because you are a man and she is a woman. Therefore it’s best to have as much in common from the start as possible,” the rabbi would say.

Among my Anglo friends in Israel, all but one married other Anglos. Even my friend Nati, who made aliyah from South Africa with his parents when he was 12 and went through Israeli schools and the army, married Michelle from Ohio, who came to study for a year at Hebrew University and never left.

Even Nati, who identifies as Israeli and not South African, admitted that he still needed that comfortable cultural viewpoint that only another Anglo could provide.

“Coming from South Africa, there’s just a general outlook that is very different than Israel. It has to do with being more open-minded, the way you treat other people and cultural norms. You have to have that sense of familiarity in order to feel at home,” he said.

“Plus, Israelis don’t like Burger Barn as much,” Nati added, noting the affection that Anglos have for this Israeli hamburger chain.

I, too, am finding that the connection Dena and I share lies in the small details. Yes, we love to ponder the poetry of Milton as well as Israeli politics and the Torah portion of the week. But we also can console one another when we receive bad customer service at a supermarket, because we grew up expecting a certain standard.

These small similarities and cultural values ingrained in our personalities are as important as the big dreams.

Those big dreams are important, too, because they’re the visions we’ll be following after our wedding and Dena’s aliyah this summer. We also share the dream of a beautiful young woman in a flowing skirt and wild curls — but that vision is of the daughter we hope to have — one day.

Mayor Hahn Deserves Another Four Years


 

There is no doubt that Antonio Villaraigosa is flashy. But Los Angeles has enough movie stars. What our community and our city need is a mayor of accomplishment and whose values are in line with ours.

We should especially appreciate Mayor James Hahn’s efforts on behalf of the Jewish community. His efforts have resulted in maximum police protection for synagogues and Jewish community centers during the High Holidays. His administration also launched a citywide campaign against hate crimes and hate language, and he’s partnered with the Museum of Tolerance in programs, for example, that offer training in resisting racial profiling.

In addition, he’s participated in economic development initiatives and cultural and educational programs in conjunction with the mayor of Tel Aviv. Mayor Hahn’s city budget, through Cultural Affairs, supports the Jewish Federation’s Zimmer Children’s Museum. And city funds also assist the Aviva Center’s work to help at-risk teenage girls.

But our community also has benefited, along with the rest of the city, from Mayor Hahn’s work to make Los Angeles the nation’s safest city.

He chaired the U.S. Conference of Mayor’s Aviation Security Task Force after the attacks of Sept. 11 to lead the fight for safer airports and aircraft.

Before Mayor Hahn, the LAPD was shrinking, reforms to stamp out racial profiling were stalled, community policing was being eliminated and crime was on the rise. Mayor Hahn dismantled that status quo, and with the help of the police chief he hired, Bill Bratton, more officers are on the street, reforms are under way, community policing is a cornerstone of the LAPD and violent crime is down this year by 27 percent.

But our city is still facing challenges, and Mayor Hahn will not rest on the successes of the last four years. He is developing an unprecedented citywide gang injunction to make every part of Los Angeles off limits to gangs, and he has never slowed his constant battle to hire more police officers.

I trust Mayor Hahn to keep up the pressure on criminals. I do not trust Antonio Villaraigosa.

Then-City Attorney Hahn pioneered the use of gang injunctions, now a crime-fighting tool that’s being used nationwide. At the same time, Antonio Villaraigosa was suing in court to stop gang injunctions.

City Attorney Hahn helped draft the Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act to bring some of the toughest crackdowns on gangs California has seen. Antonio Villaraigosa was one of just 10 votes against that law.

Time and time again, Antonio Villaraigosa has acted against crime victims and for criminals — like when he was the only vote out of 63 against a bill to toughen penalties against child abusers who kill a child.

It may be a cliché, but there is nothing more true than the fact that our children are our future. I trust Jim Hahn to turn around our schools, just as he turned around the Police Department. Our kids deserve an educational system that prepares them for success, and one that ensures the future peace and prosperity of our city.

Jim Hahn has already led the fastest-ever expansion of city after-school programs, giving more than 20,000 kids a safe place to learn after school, when they may otherwise be out on the streets and getting into trouble. And his office has provided assistance to the school district on 60 of its school construction projects, because classroom overcrowding so negatively impacts classroom learning and the quality of life in our neighborhoods.

Now, he is fighting to appoint members to the school board, establish charter schools and provide incentives for teachers to make sure the best ones come and stay in Los Angeles public schools, where they are sorely needed.

Antonio Villaraigosa is saying that he will be the “education mayor,” but in light of his failure to attend even one meeting of the City Council Education Committee he sits on this year, I question his commitment.

Although Antonio Villaraigosa takes credit for state school bonds voters passed in 1997, the reality is that, because of his mismanagement, it took a lawsuit by Los Angeles parents before our city started receiving its fair share of the bond money, which is now helping to build schools all over the city. Before the lawsuit, Los Angeles, the second-largest school district in the nation, stood to receive as little as 1 percent of the bond’s funding for construction of new schools.

I trust Mayor Hahn to move our city forward. He’s proven over his tenure as the city controller, city attorney and as mayor that he does what he says he’s going to do, and he brings results.

He’s always acted in the interests of the people, regardless of the political consequences. Hiring a new chief for the LAPD cost him thousands and thousands of votes — but it also prevented thousands and thousands of people from becoming crime victims.

Jim Hahn is a man of faith. He is a man of integrity and he is a man who delivers results for our community and the entire city. For our own good, we should vote to give him another four years.

Carmen Warschaw is a longtime Democratic Party leader, philanthropist and community activist.

 

Why Scapegoat?


 

On March 31, The New York Times ran an astonishing page: a photo showing Christian, Jewish and Muslim clerics gathered in what the newspaper called “a rare show of unity.” What brought these sometime enemies together? The headline told the story: “Religious Chiefs Decry Gay Pride Fest in Jerusalem.”

Lorri L. Jean, executive director of the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, sent the article out to many of us in the community with a short introduction:

“Finally, the way to peace in the Middle East. Uniting against us!”

Do we laugh or cry? The people in the photo would have us hang our heads in shame, but instead we shake our heads in disbelief. When I read further, I realized why they are afraid — the people they imagine us to be are not the people we are. They envision a scary “other,” a kind of “terrorist” actively seeking to destroy their way of life, while I picture people I actually know, people like me and my partner and my congregants — Jews who take Judaism seriously, living Jewish lives in a caring community. Like many who journey to Israel, we look forward to visiting Jerusalem in the company of others who would gather to study, to pray, to celebrate respect and appreciation for one another, earnest in our belief that we too are created in God’s image, and charged with the responsibility of making our world a better one.

This week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot, gives us the first of two verses in Torah that have been understood for generations as prohibiting men from having sex with other men: “You shall not lie with a male like lying with a woman: it is an offensive thing” (Leviticus 18:22). Along with Leviticus 20:13, the verse continues to be the source of much agony in our time as gay men and lesbians struggle for civil rights and for a place in religious communities. During discussions of marriage equality or who can be a rabbi, it is still the verse most commonly quoted.

In response to the three clerics who made the front page of The New York Times, in just one week several hundred clergy, mostly from the United States, signed on to a letter of support for WorldPride in Jerusalem, saying, among other things, that “Jerusalem, a living, holy city, a pilgrimage site for people of many faiths and many beliefs, increases in holiness when all are welcome within her walls.”

I am grateful to be hearing voices of other clergy speaking out. But I’m also saddened by the necessity of pitting ourselves one against another, spending our time and energies fighting each other instead of looking for common ground.

Acharei Mot begins with a different set of instructions before arriving at the litany of sexual prohibitions. God instructs Moses to instruct Aaron on the sacrifices of expiation to be offered on Yom Kippur. Therein we find the original scapegoat — an actual goat on whose head “Aaron shall lay both his hands … and confess over it all the iniquities and transgressions of the Israelites” (16:21) before sending it off into the wilderness. Ever since this practice ended (or maybe before it began), individuals and groups have served as scapegoats — the declared cause of this, that and another ill that has befallen society or that prevents people or nations from being all they could be. Having invented the idea of scapegoat, Jews ironically are no strangers to serving as one. So we know the unfairness and inaccuracy of the practice, yet we ourselves also often manage to engage in scapegoating. Liberal Jews scapegoat Orthodox Jews and vice versa, to name but one example.

But as Aaron did with the original scapegoat, when we scapegoat human beings we also send them away into the wilderness. We banish them from our lives by describing them as enemies, by imagining we have nothing in common, by deciding to fear each other, by condemning or dismissing or blaming one another. All of which, of course, makes it increasingly unlikely that we will ever instead get to know one another, ever look for our common humanity, ever discover our shared respect for the values and ethics of our shared religions or our shared God.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Pesach begins, a time to ready ourselves for this z’man kheruteinu — the “season of our freedom.” Wouldn’t it be a wonder if “this year in Jerusalem” we found both freedom of religion and the freedom that comes to each of us when we feel true respect for one another?

Chag Pesach sameach.

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim — House of New Life — in Los Angeles.

 

Druse Riot Against Christian Neighbors


 

Never before had the small church in the Galilee village of Mughar held so many important visitors as it did recently. Even the Vatican’s representative in Israel, Monsignor Pietro Sambi, was there.

But it was not a celebration that brought them together Sunday; on the contrary, the special guests were there to help sound alarm bells.

On Feb. 12 and 13, the small Christian community in Mughar suffered what some are calling a pogrom. Their attackers were young Druse hooligans — their neighbors. The riots were ignited by an explosive combination of religion and sex, started by a false Internet rumor.

Young Druse stoned their Christian neighbors, smashed and burned cars, burst into homes and vandalized them.

No one died, but 11 people were injured, including three policemen. The riots left a gaping hole in the fragile web of relationships linking Israel’s Christian Arab and Druse communities and exposed rifts among minority communities in Israel.

Many Christians left Mughar, seeking shelter in Arab villages in the Galilee, comparing what happened in Mughar to what the Jews in Germany experienced during Kristallnacht in 1938.

The village’s elderly residents were unable to restrain the young thugs.

“For 50 years we have nurtured our relations and it was all destroyed in one day,” lamented Kamal Ghanem, who is Druse.

Almost half of Mughar’s approximately 20,000 residents are Druse, about 22 percent are Christian and about 20 percent are Muslim.

According to the story villagers tell, when the Israel Defense Forces entered Mughar during 1948’s War of Independence, the Israeli commander wanted to separate the Druse from the Muslims and Christian Arabs.

But the Druse village head, Hussein Araideh, told the commander, “We are all one.”

On the surface, relations between the three Arab communities in Mughar still are relatively good, but from time to time sparks of friction turn into flames of violence. This time the violence reached a new peak.

The immediate reason was a rumor spread by a young Druse that Christian youths had placed doctored pictures of Druse girls on the Internet, attaching their faces to nude bodies.

The story turned out to be a hoax, but that hardly mattered.

“They would have found another reason to strike,” said a local journalist who refused to be identified.

A combination of economic and social factors also contributed to the violence.

The Druse are ethnic Arabs whose ancestors split from mainstream Islam in the 11th century. There are about 100,000 Druse in Israel, approximately 600,000 in the rest of the Middle East and nearly 700,000 in the rest of the world.

They often have been persecuted by their Muslim neighbors, so during Israel’s War of Independence it was not surprising that the Druse sided with the Jews. They did not flee like many other Arabs. Instead, they remained in their villages, identified with the Jewish state and eventually accepted compulsory military service.

Some say the military service requirement is at the heart of the problem since it creates a gap between young Druse, who spend three years in the Israeli army, and Christian and Muslim neighbors who do not serve.

After their stints in the military, Druse villagers often are confronted with unemployment, which is above the national average in their villages. While the Druse were serving their country, their Arab peers in many cases have completed their university studies.

“Obviously, the employer will prefer an Arab educated person over a Druse who has just come out of the army,” Likud Knesset member Ayoub Kara said.

On the other hand, Israeli society also offers financial benefits to those who serve in the army, helping to level the playing field.

Arab Christians not only are better educated than Druse, but better off economically. Their churches provide them with spiritual help and educational and welfare services. As a result, the Druse feel neglected and frustrated. Their leadership is weak and lackluster. No one in the community has been able to fill the shoes of the legendary Sheik Amin Tarif, the spiritual head of the community who died 10 years ago at age 95.

The traditional values that permeate the Druse community — its religious leaders are even opposed to women driving, and more and more young Druse women who used to dress in modern western attire are returning to traditional clothing and veiling their faces — only exacerbate the problem. Many young Arab girls leave home to study at universities, but the Druse are much stricter about their daughters leaving home.

When young Druse men, who were exposed to western values during their military service, come back home, they often can’t enjoy the benefits of Israel’s Western culture or live with their own traditional values. Some feel stuck in the middle.

The result is frustration, which was directed last week at their Christian neighbors. Last week’s riots should be seen not as an isolated incident but as part of the network of fragile ties and resentments that bind Israel’s non-Jewish communities.

A Druse historian, Keis Firro of Haifa University, says the question of identity lies at the root of the violence.

“In Israel, the Druse are perceived as neither Arabs nor Jews,” he said.

A week after the riots, the picturesque mountain village of Mughar still felt tense. Dozens of police patrols could be seen driving through its winding alleys, and a local reconciliation committee, or sulha, tried to find a formula that could put an end to hostilities.

The Christians complained repeatedly that police failed to stop the violence because much of the village’s security force is Druse.

Zuheir Andreus, editor of the Arabic weekly Kul Al-Arab, claimed that the events in Mughar were an attempt by the Israeli government to divide Israel’s non-Jewish communities.

Firro rejected the conspiracy theory.

A week after the riots, the conflict had changed from a local village fight into communal strife, which could spread to other mixed villages and, possibly, anger the wider Christian world.

Sambi, the Vatican’s representative, said Mughar had become the center of world attention after the “difficult events,” and said the Israeli government was responsible for making sure such events wouldn’t recur.

Police had failed to protect Christians in Mughar, said Sambi, who demanded that residents be compensated for damages. But he also instructed the village’s Christians not to engage in acts of revenge, “which are contradictory with the Christian faith.”

Commissioner Dan Ronen, commander of the Israel Police’s northern command, told the Knesset Interior Committee on Tuesday that police were not at all responsible for the riots.

“Police have no say in the matter,” he said. “Don’t expect police to solve all communal internal conflicts. This is the responsibility of the heads of the communities.”

Gideon Ezra, Israel’s minister of internal security, also rejected allegations that police did not act appropriately against the rioters or that the government had an interest in dividing the communities.

He also dismissed demands by Knesset members from the Hadash Party, which largely is Arab, to set up an inquiry commission into the way police handled the riots.

 

Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


 

Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.

If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.

To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.

Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.

Over two months, eight girls and six boys — all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members — learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.

The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?

Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.

“I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations,” said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. “I don’t think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up.”

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves “much more American than Jewish,” said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.

Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.

The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.

“A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting,” Tobin said. “If it’s a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn’t going to turn on a 25-year-old.”

Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.

That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.

To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.

Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.

“We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they’re not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community,” said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.

In that vein, about 40 federations have created “Blue Knot” affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.

(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation’s executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation’s important work.)

The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation’s coffers.

In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.

Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.

In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization’s mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA’s director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.

The Zimmer Children’s Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.

That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.

JCF’s Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation’s pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF’s side.

“We’re building a relationship with them,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we’ll have credibility with them. We’ll also have some idea what [causes] they’re interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests.”

“We have a very long view,” Schotland added.

Q & A With Marvin Schotland


by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer


The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland’s 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.

Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.

Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation’s assets by so much?

Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.

Second, there’s been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.

JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?

MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.

JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.

MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that’s been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we’d have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don’t want to do. That’s a conservative philosophy, but we’re an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.

JJ: Why hasn’t the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.

MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early ’90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We’ve always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.

But when the centers began imploding, we didn’t have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren’t interested, because they didn’t think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.

JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

MS: I think we’ve been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.

For instance, our early support of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year

The Zimmer Children’s Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.

We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I’m also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.

JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?

MS: I’m hoping to be here until I retire. I’m 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.

For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit www.jewishfoundationla.org.

Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv


Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at www.irvineeruv.org. For more information, e-mail drsamuels@pacbell.net.

We Must Renew Presbyterian Dialogues


Late last month, the 493 delegates to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (PC-U.S.A.) adopted a series of deeply troubling “overtures” (their term for policy statements).

The General Assembly defeated an attempt to cut off funding for “messianic” congregations, which target Jews for proselytization and conversion. It condemned the Israeli security fence and, in an overture supporting the Geneva peace accords, called for divestment from companies doing business in Israel.

One of the rabbis I spoke to observed that, when taken together, the refusal to suspend funding for proselytization of Jews and the statement opposing the security barrier suggest that PC-U.S.A. believes that “Jewish souls are worth saving, but not Jewish lives.”

These statements reveal a significant chasm separating the Jewish community and PC-U.S.A. But however tempting it may be to entrench ourselves behind defensive and divisive rhetoric, for the sake of Israel, our long-standing friendship with the Presbyterians and our common values and concerns, we must strive to mend bridges rather than burn them.

Sadly, with one very important exception, none of these gestures is really new. PC-U.S.A., like many of the mainline Protestant denominations, claims to be “even-handed” in its approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet, by equating terrorist acts committed against innocent civilians with legitimate Israeli military actions, they ignore the very security on which Israel depends. One can be a critic of particular policies of the Israeli government or of specific terror-fighting tactics without falling into the trap of moral equivalency.

What is new, and therefore most troubling, is the call for divestment. PC-U.S.A. has set a double standard by singling out Israel for economic and political sanctions.

Where is the PC-U.S.A. overture on holding accountable the Palestinian Authority officials who facilitate terrorism through the misuse of Palestinian and international funds? Where is the overture demanding true political reform in the Palestinian Authority? And where are the overtures divesting from countries with far, far greater human rights abuses than the democratic country of Israel: Myanmar, North Korea, China, Iran?

It has long been a linchpin of doves in Israel and their supporters around the world that the more economically and militarily robust Israel felt itself to be, the more willing it was to take risks for peace when the time came about. An Israeli economy weakened by divestment undercuts that willingness, and if shaped to include military contractors, divestment could weaken Israel’s security.

Although I know that many within PC-U.S.A. earnestly seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict, its endorsement of divestment threatens to gravely destabilize the dynamics that are indispensable to a real peace process.

In response to these unprecedented overtures, some in our community have called for ending all dialogue with Presbyterians. I believe that is exactly the wrong response. What we need is a renewed dialogue that would occur on two levels.

On the national level, we need to reach out to the leadership of PC-U.S.A. and explain to them — without rancor or disdain — that the repercussions of their actions belie their stated support for Israel and deter progress toward a lasting peace.

On the local level, synagogues across the country need to reach out to Presbyterian churches in their communities and embrace a dialogue around Israel that will be difficult and may not lead to complete agreement but is absolutely essential.

Part of that difficulty will be responding to these gestures in a firm and critical manner without resorting to exaggeration or distortion. For example, PC-U.S.A.’s overture did not, as one national Jewish organization claimed, “call Israel a racist, apartheid state….” Such distortions distract from the sincerity and effectiveness of our response.

To address the immense criticism facing their endorsement of divestment, PC-U.S.A. clarified that “the assembly’s action calls for a selective divestment and not a blanket economic boycott, keeping before us our interest in Israel’s economic and social well-being.”

While welcoming that clarification, it is now our job to explain to them that divestment in any degree threatens the very existence of Israel and the prospects for peace. And it is our job to ensure that PC-U.S.A. lives up to its promise to keep Israel’s well-being not only in their words but in their deeds. Only through honest and sustained dialogue can this be achieved.

We must have the resolve to reach out across the chasm to our Presbyterian neighbors. We must do whatever we can to assure that, where the Presbyterians have gotten it wrong, they will work with us to get it right.


Mark J. Pelavin is director of the Commission on Interreligious Affairs of Reform Judaism and associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Your Letters


Jewish Cool

The torrents of ink on “Jewish hip,” “Jewish cool” and “Jewish pop culture” obscures a simple truth: Only Jews who take seriously Judaism — the religion — can count on having Jewish grandchildren (“From Jew to Jewcy,” July 23). This is because in an open society only Judaism provides a compelling answer to the question, “Why be Jewish?”

Other “Jewish” paths are dead ends, and literally sterile — they can’t reproduce. They have Jewish value insofar as they may be a person’s door into Judaism, and thereafter enrich one’s practice of Judaism.

The remaining question is whether the organized, “secular” Jewish community will include this insight into its outreach efforts before it’s too late.

Paul Kujawsky, Valley Village

Tisha B’Av Today

Dr. Aryeh Cohen (“Tisha B’Av Today,” July 23) has got one thing right — we do need Tisha B’Av today. Unfortunately, he has the reasons all wrong. His assertion that on this Tisha B’Av we must consider “how all our cherished hopes for ourselves as a community based on ethics and a commitment to social and economic justice can — and at times have — slipped through our hands” is misguided. Indeed, Tisha B’Av has nothing to do with confronting our inability to “create an ethical polity” or with being “allied with the forces of injustice.” Despite Cohen’s evident discomfort with the idea of Jewish victimhood, Tisha B’Av is, in fact, a day dedicated to the great tragedies which have befallen our people, including the ongoing calamity of the confusion of Jewish values with the politically correct agenda of the day. On Tisha B’Av, our thoughts should be directed toward bridging the huge gulf between God and the Jewish people, which is symbolized by the continuing absence of the Temples in Jerusalem whose destruction is the main focus of the day. That is what Tisha B’Av is about today, as it has always been.

Ben Taylor, Los Angeles

Test-a-Jew

I hate to burst Mark Miller’s stereotype-laden bubble, but my granddaughter has blond hair, blue-green eyes and a straight nose (both her parents are Jewish) (“Test-a-Jew,” July 30). Continuing to analyze my granddaughter’s family tree vis-a-vis Miller’s standards: My granddaughter has two Jewish parents. Her maternal grandmother (that would be me) has blond hair (natural, but now gray) and blue eyes; her three first cousins (on my side) all have blue eyes; and her paternal grandfather has blue-green eyes. Two of her first cousins on her father’s side have blue or green eyes.

Both of my parents (both Jews of Russian heritage) had blue eyes.

I think a higher percentage of Jews have blue or green eyes than people of any other faith.That study would be a ridiculous waste of time, but since Miller brought it up.

Name withheld by request, Los Angeles

Faith and Pork

I believe that Micah Halpern (“Balancing Acts of Faith and Pork,” July 23) is blind to the possibility that the State of Israel’s secular founding fathers are turning over in their graves by the monster they created by subsidizing Orthodox Jewish “students,” who now number in the scores of thousands (along with their enormous families). They are a burden on the economy, and have politically disenfranchised all non-Orthodox Jews. What kind of “democracy” is it that insists that all marriage and divorce for Jews be in the Orthodox traditions in order to be legal? In comparison, Ireland is a true democracy. Although about 88 percent of the citizens are Roman Catholic, civil marriage and divorce is quite legal. A Jewish state does not have to be a fundamentalist Jewish state.

Martin J. Weisman , Westlake Village

Reverse in Israel

Gideon Levy writes about a disabled Palestinian man killed during an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) house demolition and a Palestinian professor and son shot in their home and asks for our reactions if the situation were reversed (“If the Situation Were Reversed,” July 30). However, Levy admits that the IDF considered the death of the disabled man “a death that shouldn’t have happened.” In both cases, the aim of the IDF was not to indiscriminately kill Palestinians and that both cases are being thoroughly investigated to determine the cause of these tragedies and methods to prevent them in the future. One can quibble about how thorough and how serious the IDF are in these matters, but the fact is that they aren’t pinning medals on the soldiers responsible.

If the situation were reversed, for instance, after the bus bombing in Tel Aviv on July 10 that killed Maayan Naim, groups like Yasser Arafat’s Al-Aqsa Brigades proudly take credit for intentional murder. The perpetrators’ goal is to murder as many Jews as possible, and their communities hail them as heroes. These incidents will be studied by these Palestinian groups not to prevent them in the future, but to learn how to repeat them and to learn how to murder more Jews.

Dr. Steven Ohsie, Los Angeles

Correction

In “Presbyterians Ignite Divestment Uproar” (July 30), Rabbi Mark Diamond is the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Q & A With Rabbi Isaac Jeret


The Brandeis-Bardin Institute (BBI) has had its share of crises in the last year — from toxic well water to wildfires. But one of the more damaging forces the Simi Valley institution has had to weather recently is the pervasive rumor of discord within its leadership following the departure of its former president, Rabbi Lee Bycel.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret will take over as BBI president July 1. The professional songwriter-turned-Conservative rabbi was able to bring peace to Temple Emanu-El, a synagogue in Palm Beach, Fla., which lost more than 200 families due to an internal conflict in its leadership. The Journal recently spoke with Jeret about his plans for the 3,000-acre campus.

Jewish Journal: What is so appealing about this job that you’d leave Temple Emanu-El?

Rabbi Isaac Jeret: First of all, it was not an easy decision to pick up and leave where I am. Temple Emanu-El is wonderful and Palm Beach is a very special community. My family is very blessed to be here. I can tell you that we really agonized over this decision. What ultimately attracted us to BBI was the opportunity to do something on a large scale that can affect the Jewish people very positively in a much larger way.

JJ: BBI is rumored to have weathered some internal strife lately. How would you address such a problem?

IJ: Interestingly, in my encounter with the institute, on any level — be it lay leadership or staff — I have not encountered anything of the sort. I’ve encountered an openness to innovation, an openness to partnership with other institutions and the fundamental understanding that the future can be based upon the past but needs to grow beyond the past as well.

JJ: Former President Lee Bycel had BBI reach out beyond its local audience. How do you plan to keep BBI competitive both nationally and internationally among other Jewish institutes?

IJ: First of all, I know very little about Rabbi Bycel’s tenure. I’m still learning the institute. I have 50 years of history I need to catch up on. The second thing is I can tell you that my own vision for the institute is very much as an international institute that engineers and generates unique and exciting Jewish cultural and religious experiences. To what extent that mirrors any of BBI’s past presidents or doesn’t, I really can’t tell you. But I can tell you that I believe that Shlomo Bardin would be very proud of where we’ll be taking this institute.

I really don’t see a need for us to be competitive in the landscape of Jewish institutions, whether locally, nationally or internationally. What is unique about our institute is that we can be cooperative with virtually every other Jewish institution that can possibly exist — we are decidedly nonideological, we are the largest piece of Jewish-owned land that is available for all kinds of interesting purposes anywhere outside of Israel, and we have and will continue to develop a unique faculty capable of facilitating special and unique gatherings of Jewish people to explore all kinds of issues around Jewish identity and Jewish spirituality. To my mind, we can become a paradigmatic, cooperative meeting point for many Jews and for multiple Jewish institutions.

JJ: BBI has provided a forum for musical expression. As a songwriter, will you be expanding this?

IJ: I definitely hope to, but I hope to expand all of our endeavors, in all of the arts, because the arts have traditionally been and can be one of the most powerful and compelling expressions of Jewish life. In a time when the Jewish people is characterized in large measure by an apathy for Jewish institutional life and divisions among us — ideologically, politically or otherwise — the arts can be an incredibly powerful, unifying force. One of the overarching goals of the institute, as I see it, is to bring Jews together in as many ways as possible.

JJ: Have you planned any changes for BBI programs?

IJ: The truth is that I haven’t done that kind of evaluation. Here’s what I can tell you: We are a mission-driven institution, and I’m a very mission-driven person. We will do what we need to in order to achieve our vision while expressing the core values that we really believe in as an organization and a people. Those parts of our past or present that serve that mission and those values will be valued, treasured and maintained.

For more information about the Brandeis-Bardin
Institute, call (805) 582-4450 or visit www.thebbi.org .

Persian Arrivals


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.

Candidates Eye the Jewish Vote


Now that it’s down to John Kerry versus George W. Bush, American Jews — prominent in swing states in what could be a close election — can expect plenty of attention.

"Anything that moves a few hundred or a few thousand voters one way or another in any state can cause a seismic shift," said John Zogby, a pollster who says the closeness of this election is leading opinion-gatherers to focus more than ever on small groups like Jews.

The fight will mirror the larger battle for the election, where Kerry will emphasize domestic issues and President Bush will stress his foreign policy and security record.

Among Jews, Democratic strategists say they will stress health care, the economy and the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans say they will stress Bush’s strong pro-Israel record and his war against terrorism.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry’s only serious rival, was expected to announce his withdrawal from the race on Wednesday. Edwards did not win any primaries Tuesday.

Jewish activists in both parties already are targeting swing communities.

"There’s probably going to be about 10 real battleground states and in a number of those places there’s a large Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, making note of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.

Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, said he was optimistic that Bush would do better than the 19 percent he earned from Jews in 2000, because of the president’s strong pro-Israel record.

"We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats," Racicot said of Jewish voters in an interview with the JTA. "But we feel the president’s policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community."

Bring it on, say the Democrats.

"Things have not looked as good for Democrats in the Jewish community for a number of years," said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Kerry’s strength among Jews was reflected in exit polls on Tuesday, where he polled better among Jews than among non-Jews in four out of five states with reliable Jewish exit poll data.

Forman said his party would emphasize what all pro-Israel activists agree is Kerry’s exemplary voting record in 19 years in the Senate. He suggested that the Democrats’ strategy would be first to say that Bush and Kerry were equals on Israel, "and then we pivot to all the major domestic issues."

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils and national groups, agreed that Jews are likelier to vote this year on domestic issues.

"On issues specific to Israel, we’re talking about a win-win situation," said Rosenthal, one of 40 Jewish organizational leaders who met with Kerry over the weekend in New York. "Jews will be looking at protection of privacy, at civil liberties protections, at health care, women’s rights."

Forman said the party also would emphasize Bush’s backing for the amendment banning gay marriage.

"Every time they play to their conservative base — and they’ll have to play a lot this year — they totally alienate the Jewish community," Forman said.

Republicans agreed that Kerry was strong on Israel but suggested that Bush was stronger and that Kerry could be vulnerable on national security, where Bush has aggressively advocated tougher measures in the USA Patriot Act.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who will publish his own survey of American Jews next week, said this election season promises to be an interesting one.

"For the first time in my lifetime, a significant segment of the Jewish vote is up for grabs," he said in an interview. "The Jewish community is the most interested in national security of any voter sub-group, and that plays to Bush’s advantage. The Jewish community is still liberal on social issues and that plays to Kerry’s advantage."

Luntz said his polling suggested Kerry would perform well among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and "those who say they are just Jewish." Bush will make gains among Orthodox and Conservative Jews and those Jews who are more active in the community, he predicted.

In a survey of American Jews published in January by the American Jewish Committee, 51 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 31 percent as Independent and 16 percent as Republican.

In Remembrance of Ringerman


It seems everyone has a story about Jerry Ringerman. The former director of Camp JCA Barton Flats and JCC San Francisco, who died on Jan. 6 at the age of 79, touched the lives of thousands of campers, staff and youth, and they, in turn, have touched the lives of thousands more. Born in Los Angeles in 1924 to labor movement activists, Ringerman earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degrees in education and recreation. He played pro football for the Calgary Stampeders, served in World War II and worked for the California Youth Authority. But Ringerman’s true legacy lies not in his degrees, resume or athletic achievements, but in his immeasurable sphere of influence. A mentor to many, Ringerman left his handprint on California’s education, music, camping, environment and Jewish life.

Andy Lipkis first attended Camp JCA as a fifth-grader. In 1970, at age 15, he participated in JCA’s Teenage Service Camp, a program that asked young leaders to give back to the camp they loved. That summer, the California Forest Service told the campers that the Los Angeles smog was literally killing the trees that surrounded their beloved campsite. So the youths spent the next two weeks creating a meadow on dead campground, planting smog-resistant trees that the next generation of campers could enjoy. Emotionally and spiritually taken by the project, Lipkis found himself crying on the last day of camp.

"I was bawling, waiting for the buses to bring us back to the city, when Jerry approached me," said Lipkis, who now lives in Venice. "Jerry said ‘No need to cry, if this feels right to you, take camp, this experience, back to L.A., and make it real.’" It was the first time someone encouraged Lipkis to act on his emotions.

"Jerry inspired me. I believed I could do something in the city, and that was the year I started TreePeople," said Lipkis, whose L.A.-based environmental organization has been going strong for 30 years. The next summer, Ringerman allowed Lipkis to base TreePeople out of the Barton Flat campus, as he rescued 8,000 trees and replanted them on neighboring campsites. Today, TreePeople raises environmental awareness in students through education programs, restores fragile habitats through its forestry program, brings trees to the inner-city and urban settings and works to improve water and energy conservation, flood prevention and storm water pollution.

"Jerry’s influence on me is passed down through all the children TreePeople educates and his spirit can be found in all our TreePeople projects," Lipkis said.

Lipkis’ story is not unusual. Ringerman’s unconditional warmth and support of his campers shaped many of their lives.

"I wouldn’t be in music today if Jerry Ringerman hadn’t put me in front of the flag pole when I was 18 and said ‘you’re now the music director,’" said Cindy Paley, an L.A.-based Jewish singer and educator. "He inspired all of us with his energy and his spirit, and had a profound influence on the way we looked at life in the ’60s."

Ringerman had Paley teach dance, drama, music and tumbling at Barton Flats, and for two summers asked her to be the songleader on JCA’s teen trips to Israel.

"My approach to education today is deeply influenced by Jerry’s philosophies. The way I treat people, the way I treat others — Jerry gave that to me," Paley said.

Mick Hurwitz worked at Camp JCA under Ringerman from 1964-72 and remained close friends with him until his passing.

"Jerry stayed young his whole life, always active and always laughing," said Hurwitz, who founded Sierra Canyon Day School and Camp in Chatsworth.

"When I walk the paths of Sierra, I feel Jerry’s presence. He’s the reason for my success," said Hurwitz, who modeled his approach to education after Ringerman’s. "I so appreciated the way he approached kids, the way he engaged us to talk about world events at Friday Night Services, his goal to make people feel good about themselves," Hurwitz said.

Ringerman ran a group-centered camp, where a counselor, junior counselor, CIT and 12-14 campers spent all day together. Rather than sign up for individual activities, the campers would agree upon activities for the whole group at the beginning of each week. This educational philosophy taught campers to live in a community that was made up of people with different opinions and values.

"So that children can grow," Hurwitz said. "That’s what he always said, and that’s how I look at my students."

Larry Messenger will tell you that these stories of Ringerman’s profound impact can be found over and over again.

"The skills I learned at camp enabled me to be a good educator and school administrator, and are skills I still call upon on a daily basis," said Messenger, who spent 10 years at Barton Flats as one of Andy Lipkis’ counselor. "Give me a list of 100 campers and counselors, and I’ll give you 100 stories. He was extremely bright, incredibly passionate and had a way about him that people loved."

A celebration of Jerry Ringerman’s life will be held Sunday, Feb. 29, 2-5 p.m. at Valley Cities JCC, 13164 Burbank Blvd., Van Nuys. Campers, friends and family are invited to participate in the afternoon of songs, storytelling and memories. Donations in Ringerman’s name can be sent to Camp JCA Shalom Institute.

Jewish Support for Strikers Mixed


On Oct. 26, Associate Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles served free pizzas, salads and sodas to 15 striking supermarket employees and their families in the shul’s social hall. Fifteen congregants ate alongside the baggers and cashiers, offering encouragement and listening sympathetically to their tales of woe.

"We just want you to know that we’re a place that cares," Klein said, just moments after leading the group in a spirited rendition of "Hallelujah."

For more than a century, the Jewish community has struggled to make life better for working men and women. Whether founding the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU), rallying behind pro-union Democratic politicians or marching with Cesar Chavez for California farm workers’ rights, Jews have long been at the forefront of the labor movement. Temple Isaiah’s lunch for the disgruntled supermarket workers would seem a reflection of that long-standing tradition.

Not necessarily. Klein said she received seven complaints from temple members about the event. Some objected to mixing religion and politics; others questioned whether the strikers had a valid reason to walk out of their stores; a few said they supported management. The mini-backlash caused the rabbi to lose some sleep.

At a time when supermarket and mass-transit workers have gone on strike over health care issues, Jews, like much of the population, no longer support organized labor as they once did. On a macro-level, union membership is way off, having dropped to 13.2 percent of the labor force in 2002 from 20.1 percent in 1983, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Some Americans have come to see unions as corrupt, bureaucratic and obsolete, said Michael Wissot, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Southern California.

Many Jewish immigrants now come from Russia, Iran and other Middle Eastern countries and don’t share the social democratic bent common among descendants of turn-of-the-century Ashkenazi Jews, said Joel Kotkin, senior fellow with the Davenport Institute at Pepperdine University. And most American Jews today are far more likely to work as entrepreneurs, accountants and business executives than on the factory floor of a union shop, he added.

Changes in Jews’ socioeconomic status has also chipped away at their historic loyalties, said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles.

"I don’t think we’re becoming a radical right-wing community," he said. "We’re becoming more comfortable. And as we become more entrenched, affluent and assimilated, the emphasis of the Jewish community has shifted so that economic justice, social justice and immigrant rights are no longer front-burner issues."

Reflecting Jews’ more nuanced relationship with organized labor, Zev Yaroslavsky, a former union member whose father founded the Hebrew Teachers Union in Los Angeles, now serves as Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) board director.

"I don’t see myself as representing management. I see myself as representing the people," he said. "I think the MTA has the moral high-ground here."

The strike has left nearly a half-million riders, many of them poor immigrants, without bus and train service. On average, MTA mechanics earn $50,000 annually, Yaroslavsky said.

That’s not to suggest that Jews no longer retain a fondness for organized labor in their collective bleeding hearts. More than two-thirds of Jews are Democrats, giving credence to the old saw that Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.

Tikkun olam, the Jewish imperative to heal the world, has led many Jews to support unions, environmentalists and affirmative action. According to some rabbis, Jewish scripture endorses the concept of workers’ rights, the main tenet of organized labor. Deuteronomy 24:14 admonishes that "you shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether fellow countryman or a stranger in one of communities of your land." Leviticus 19:13 states, "The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning."

Ethel Taft, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Labor Zionist Alliance, said the parking lot of a nearby Ralphs in heavily Jewish Hancock Park is nearly empty. The market’s poor business "seems to be a reflection that [Jews] haven’t forgotten their roots," she said.

Still, the number of members at the local Labor Zionist Alliance has plummeted since its heyday, down from 3,000 in the 1940s and 1950s to 700 today, Taft said.

Jews’ surprisingly strong support for Republican candidates in the recent gubernatorial recall election is among the most telling signs of their slow move to the mainstream, experts said. Although Jews overwhelmingly opposed efforts to remove Gov. Gray Davis, 33 percent of them went for Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger and seven percent for state Sen. Tom McClintock as replacement candidates. In the 2002 gubernatorial race, 69 percent of Jewish voters chose Davis, while only 22 percent went for conservative Bill Simon. The Republicans’ strong Jewish showing would seem to augur poorly for Democrats as well as unions.

Cookie Lommel, the new executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee, said she hopes to reverse those trends. To her, supporting labor is consistent with Jewish values. That’s why Lommel’s group has organized a prayer service on Nov. 2, for striking workers at the Pavilions in West Hollywood. After a benediction by Rabbi Stephen Jacobs, she and 60 Jewish Labor members plan to carry picket signs to show their solidarity.

"I think a real understanding of workers’ rights is in the hearts of a lot of Jewish people," Lommel said.

Realty’s Fealty for Jewish Los Angeles


Jewish philanthropy in Los Angeles can be summed up in three words: "Location, location, location."

"Real estate gives far more with respect to Jewish causes," said Mark Karlan, chairman of the Real Estate and Construction (REC) Division of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which will honor real estate philanthropist Charles Boxenbaum at its annual Tribute Dinner on May 29.

Karlan and other successful Jews in the business believe that realty’s fealty to Jewish causes lies in factors unique to the nature of the business, which is driven by a generation profoundly connected to Jewish values and impacted by the Holocaust and the creation of Israel.

If The Federation is an accurate reflection of philanthropic patterns in Jewish Los Angeles, it may be telling that the REC is, by far, the nonprofit’s most successful professional division, according to Federation staffers. In 2001, the REC raised $4.8 million toward the general campaign, increasing its gift in 2002 to $5 million, plus an additional $2.5 million toward the Jews in Crisis $20 million campaign. In both years, REC provided just over 12 percent of the total Federation campaign.

Most prominent real estate philanthropists in Jewish Los Angeles belong to the 65-year-old United Jewish Fund (UJF) division, which includes developers, investors, contractors, lawyers and property managers among its 800 donors. In addition to Boxenbaum, significant Federation supporters include Holocaust survivors Jona Goldrich, of Goldrich & Kest, and Max Webb; Stanley Black of Black Equities; Arden Realty CEO Richard Ziman; and Bram Goldsmith, who, in the late 1990s, provided the lead gift toward The Federation’s $20 million retrofitting of its 6505 Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Joyce Eisenberg-Keefer, who owns the New Mart building in downtown Los Angeles’ fashion district, has been a prominent contributor to and participant in Federation causes, as have past REC gala honorees Herb Gelfand, Larry Weinberg, George Smith and the late Stanley Hirsh.

Ziman sees the connection between real estate and Jewish philanthropy as an extension of an affinity with Jewish history and values that was very profound for the generation before his.

"They grew up in an environment surrounded by the aftermath of the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel," he said.

For Jews of the Holocaust generation, whether they experienced the Shoah firsthand — such as Goldrich — or not (e.g., Black and Hirsh), they felt it. They were moved by the Holocaust and the drive to create Israel.

For this generation, it’s a dyed-in-the-wool connection to Jewish history and values. While Black’s father, Jack, was not in the real estate field, the elder Black, who led the UJF’s Textile Division, transmitted a deep sense of tzedakah and other Jewish values before he passed away when Stanley was 21.

"My father was incredible," Boxenbaum said. "When the state [Israel] was being founded, arms for Israel went to the bank and withdrew $5,000, which was a fortune. He couldn’t afford it."

Los Angeles’ Jewish real estate machers have established Jewish institutions beyond the confines of their profession. Hirsh, who owned such properties as the Cooper Building before he died in March, helped found The Jewish Journal. Black founded ORT Los Angeles, and Goldrich made the $3 million Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park happen. Goldrich and Black were also founders of United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year.

From 1966 until his retirement last year, Boxenbaum was the chair/CEO of National Partnership Investments, a syndicator asset manager in the apartment housing field that manages 60,000 units. On March 30, he and wife, Kharlene, attended the inauguration of the $4 million Boxenbaum Family Aish Outreach Center, the main headquarters for Aish HaTorah Los Angeles. The project, to which Boxenbaum contributed $1 million in seed money, is the latest in a lifelong commitment to Jewish causes that began in 1948, when he moved to Israel’s Western Galilee to become a founding member of Kibbutz Gesher Haziv.

In 1953, upon returning from Korean War duty, Boxenbaum served as chairman of the junior division of the United Jewish Appeal. He later chaired the REC (1978-1979) and served as general chair of the UJF campaign in 1990, the first year of the Operation Exodus fundraising effort. His leadership helped raise $75 million, with $25 million reserved for Operation Exodus — the best campaign year in The Federation’s history. Boxenbaum achieved this even as he lost one of his sons to kidney disease in 1988.

But is the era of philanthropy drawing to a close?

"Stan Hirsh and Irwin Goldenberg were two giants in this community. Who is going to replace them?" Boxenbaum asked. "Younger Jews are giving to a lot of other causes — Save the Whales, private schools. As the big givers die off, you have more and more competition from more secularized organizations — City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center — reduced donor base, greater competition from [more Jewish organizations]."

"It’s an inevitable dilution…. A lot of it is generational," Boxenbaum said.

The Federation is intent on keeping that next generation: Last year the REC created its own Young Leadership Division, chaired by Brian Weisberg.

"It’s a great place for the young guys to network," said Ryan Yatman, who joined REC seven years ago when he was 23. Yatman, now 30, looks up to active REC members a generation ahead of him, such as Mark Weinstein, past chair of the REC division.

The young generations who are carrying the torch in the community say they owe a lot to the example set by the Goldriches and the Goldsmiths, the Blacks and the Boxenbaums.

"A lot of the older guys want to mentor and they make themselves freely available," Yatman said.

For the time being, a significant dip in real estate’s contribution to Jewish philanthropy remains to be seen.

"It’s as good as it’s every been," Ziman said, "and it’ll suffer as we lose the [Holocaust] generation. But hopefully, it will pick back up."

The Jewish Federation’s Real Estate & Construction Division will honor Charles Boxenbaum at the Regent Beverly Wilshire on May 29. For more information, call (323) 761-8316.

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.

Humanist Approach a Must in Medicine


Medical practitioners today are faced with onerous economics and an increasingly depersonalized and technically complex health-care system. This reality presents serious challenges to practicing humanistic medicine. It is therefore especially important now to value and re-emphasize the intrinsic connection between compassion and competence in the practice of good medicine.

In the early 1980s, I began to notice that my students seemed to be more engaged in science and technology than taking care of people. Why? Did medical students begin school with idealism, altruism, compassion and empathy, only to have it depleted during their educational experiences? Or, was the medical admission process simply selecting less-humanistic applicants?

Research examining the attitudes of 3,500 entering medical students from across the nation concluded that most were indeed empathetic and humanistic when they began their studies. Clearly, some time during medical school and the end of the residency experience, many caring young doctors change. Why do some students maintain a humanistic orientation while others lose it?

How can we teach medical students a more humane approach to medicine and promote a medical system that fosters relationship-centered care? Nearly 15 years ago, colleagues at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, philanthropists and community leaders co-founded a public charity, the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, to create opportunities for meaningful ritual, recognition, role modeling and research, as well as national conferences, curricular change and building "caring hospital communities." These programmatic themes (the four Rs and three Cs) are customized for the four populations we serve: medical students, medical school faculty, hospital residents and the public.

Ritual and tradition are central to Judaism and to the work of the foundation. We encourage medical students to make a psychological contract — to incorporate compassion as part of their professional responsibilities through the public recitation of a professional oath. Foundation programs such as the White Coat Ceremony, a rite of passage for entering medical students, and the Student Clinician’s Ceremony, for third-year students beginning their relationships with patients, provide an opportunity for reflection and a renewed commitment to humanistic values.

The Hippocratic Oath, written 2,500 years ago, has been a keystone for physicians throughout history. Its admonition to "do no harm," treat patients with respect and to "lead lives of uprightness and honor" is taken seriously throughout Western medical education. Jewish tradition embraces these same ideas, as well as additional ethical and spiritual considerations. The Physician’s Oath and Prayer, attributed to Moses Maimonides, the 13th century physician and philosopher, articulates ancient Jewish values and goes beyond the Hippocratic Oath in delineating appropriate behavior and practice. In his prayer, Maimonides speaks about social justice in medicine: "May I never see in the patient anything but a fellow creature in pain," acknowledging the potential biases of wealth, power and personality as barriers to equal treatment for all patients. It is important that all practitioners develop both skills and values that reflect these oaths.

Medicine is an apprenticeship profession, where humanism can be taught and behaviors associated with humanism can be learned. Medical students are quick to adapt to formal curricular expectations; they also absorb the attitudes, habits and ethics found in the cultural environment. In other words, students of medicine at all levels imitate role models, adjust to the culture in which they work and adhere to the values expressed or demonstrated by their teachers and peers. Therefore, if we teach the role model humanism as "the best medicine," we will create more humane physicians. Such competent caring will increase trust, enhance the healing process and result in better patient outcomes.

A growing focus on physician professionalism has instigated a strengthened interest in humanism and its role within the definition of "the professional." This bodes well for greater pressure within the medical culture to include the art and "habit of humanism" in its formal and informal curricula, and in accreditation criteria and standards. If we are to be successful in challenging the negative pressures from commercial and legislative interests, we will need an educated and vocal public to partner with like-minded professionals. We invite you to join us in this struggle to re-emphasize humanistic medicine.

In sum, what is the role of a physician? A humanistic physician demonstrates concern and respect for the values, autonomy and cultural and ethnic background of others, and provides skilled, compassionate and empathic help to someone with a problem or need.

Reprinted from the Journal Sh’ma, a service of Jewish Family & Life!


Dr. Arnold P. Gold is professor of clinical neurology and clinical pediatrics at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Queen of Laughter


Imagine emceeing an event following Sept. 11. Rhea Kohanknows that feeling. The mistress of ceremonies for countless local Jewishorganizations hosted Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s annual Women ofAchievement Luncheon just 48 hours after the terrorist attack.

“I was dreading it, because who was in the mood to laugh,”Kohan said of the Sept. 13, 2001, engagement. “I told them, ‘Why don’t youcancel? Even the Emmy Awards was canceled.”

But the luncheon’s honorees — including “Will & Grace”star Debra Messing and cartoonist Cathy Guisewite — did not cancel, so Kohankept her commitment, as well.

Attendees of that post-Sept. 11 function recalled how deftlyKohan negotiated the line between comedy and solemnity.

“People walked in absolutely confused, distraught, upset,”recalled Ila Waldman, Friends of Sheba Medical Center’s executive director.”After the luncheon, they walked out uplifted. It was a real catharsis.”

The self-described raconteur refuses to label herself astand-up comedian. But Kohan’s wit has, over the last decade, made her asought-after personality in the local Jewish community, and she refuses tocharge money for her humorous hostessing.

“When I get calls from [organizations such as] Israel Bondsand Sheba Medical Center,” Kohan said, “I find it very hard to say no.”

Comedy and music run in the family. Kohan is married tocomedy writer and composer Buzz Kohan, winner of 13 Emmy Awards. Son DavidKohan co-created the Emmy-winning “Will & Grace” and plays guitar; his twinbrother, Jono, plays piano and drums and is a partner in the music productioncompany, 1st Born Entertainment; and daughter, Jenji Kohan Noxon, won an Emmyin 1996 as supervising producer for “Tracey Takes On.”

Days before the 75th Academy Awards, Buzz Kohan took a breakfrom working on this year’s Oscar telecast to discuss his wife.

“I like her,” Buzz said with comic understatement. “We’vebeen together for 40 years. No sense trading her in now.”

Kohan has collaborated with her husband on specials, such as”The Funny Women of Television.”

“She contributes a Jewish sense of humor, sense of valuesand heart [at her gigs],” Buzz said. “She has a wonderful way of lighting up aroom, which is so rare for people who don’t do this for a living. She sizes upthe people at an event and makes wonderful, pithy observations about them.”

The Kohan offspring report that their mother has always beensupportive of their comedic and musical aspirations.

“Comedy is taken seriously,” said daughter Jenji, 33. “Ourdinner table was a rough room. I didn’t talk for years. Everyone was very quickand had standards for funny.”

Rhea Kohan grew up in “the best place in the world –Brooklyn.” She met her husband while working as a canteen girl in the resorttown of Lake George, N.Y.

“He came from the Bronx, so we would never have metotherwise,” she said, half-joking.

In 1967, “‘The Carol Burnett Show’ made Buzz an offer hecouldn’t refuse,” Kohan said, and they moved to Los Angeles, where her wickedwit was the hit of a friend’s birthday party. Word of Kohan’s gift of gabspread after hosting a Jewish Family Service gala honoring a friend.

“She’s just able to see things clearly and put a comedicspin on it,” said Jono, 38.

Kohan greatly influenced David, the sitcom creator.

“One summer, we were all away in camp,” David recalled ofwhen he was 13. “She had a chance to sit down with her legal pad, and she wrotea novel. A couple of years later, she wrote another.”

Unlike Buzz Kohan’s penchant for sketches and musicalcomedy, “all of my mother’s humor comes from character and the absurdity of asituation,” David explained.

“Up until the day of the banquet,” David continued, “she’sconvinced herself that she’s going to be an abysmal failure, and then she’sbrilliant. She’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Particularly whenshe criticizes my life choices — that’s a scream.”

“Sometimes I bomb like Hiroshima,” Rhea Kohan said, “but Ialways feel that I’m doing it for a good cause, not for the career of RheaKohan.”

The Beverly Hills-based Kohans remain a tight-knit clan.

“Every Shabbat, our family gets together for dinner,” Jonosaid. “We just have a great time together.

Kohan loves working Jewish galas and the community loves herback.

“She is just the most delightful human being,” said State ofIsrael Bonds’ Brigitte Medvin. “She can be a stand-up comic. She researches thehonorees and weaves wonderful stories about the people she introduces.”

“We’ve had her emcee our Women of Achievement Luncheon forthree years now,” Waldman said. “She’s synonymous with the luncheon. I can’tthink of doing it without her. To us, she’s our perennial woman ofachievement.”

Rhea Kohan will emcee the State of Israel Bonds’ Women’sDivision’s Golda Meir Club Luncheon on May 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel, WestHollywood. For information, call (310) 996-3004.

Kohan will also host Women’s Group of Friends of ShebaMedical Center’s Women of Achievement Luncheon on June 5 at the Four Seasons.For information, call (310) 843-0100. 

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.” 

Iraq War Not Just Means to Just End


Two profound teachings of Jewish tradition should be guiding
the actions of Jews today in regard to Iraq.

The first is, “Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,” or “Justice,
justice, shall you pursue.” The ancient rabbis asked, “Why ‘justice’ twice?

They answered: “Seek just ends by just means; seek justice
for ourselves, justice for all others.”

Certainly it is a just goal to make certain that Iraq has no
weapons of mass destruction and cannot pour death upon Israel or the rest of
the world.

But war against Iraq is not the just means of accomplishing
this just end. Instead, it is likely to endanger many Iraqi, American, Israeli
and other lives. It is also likely to endanger Israel — bring on, as U.S.
intelligence experts have confirmed, the sharpest danger of a last-ditch
chemical-biological attack upon the people of Israel — and endanger the
moderate Arab governments that have made peace with Israel.

A war will also take hundreds of billions of dollars from America’s
own people — from health care for our seniors, schools for our children,
healing for the earth. An attack on Iraq will increase the unaccountable power
of the oil companies and regimes that have provided money to both the Al Qaeda
terrorists and the Bush administration, that have corrupted American politics
and robbed American stockholders, that befoul the seas and scorch the earth.

It will also worsen already deeply wounded human rights and
civil liberties, not only for Arabs and Muslims in America, but even for
Persian Jewish immigrants, who were recently rounded up along with Muslims, and
increase the use of torture of prisoners held overseas by the CIA, as it was
reported recently by The Washington Post.

So in good Jewish fashion, what is the practical alternative
to war? What would “just means” be?

American Jews could:

  • Support the Franco-German plan to intensify and prolong
    the U.N. inspection regime in Iraq, for months or years if necessary, while a
    totally different American and world approach to Iraq, the Middle East and
    Islam takes hold.

  • Encourage a multilateral “Marshall Plan” for massive
    relief and rebuilding in Iraq before war, not waiting until afterward, when
    there will be hundreds of thousands more dead, perhaps millions more refugees
    than are already suffering and dying under the misapplied sanctions.

The world Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities; the
European Union; and many nongovernmental organizations should supply food,
medicines and clothing to desperate Iraqis — and do this actually on the
ground, to make sure both that the effort does not just feed the ruling
dictatorship and that it is not just used as a tool by the United States or
other hostile powers.

  • Urge a worldwide treaty to eliminate weapons of mass
    destruction held by all nations.

  • Urge the United States to insist on all-Arab peace treaties
    with Israel, plus a peace settlement between a secure Israel and a viable
    Palestine.

  • Call a world conference of religious leaders to face and
    end the use of traditional texts and contemporary fears to justify violence
    against other religions, like the effort in some Christian communities during
    the past generation to eliminate anti-Semitic interpretations of Christianity.

  • Urge the United States to join the International Criminal
    Court and broaden its jurisdiction to include international terrorism, as well
    as governmental war crimes.

  • Urge the United States to adhere to the Kyoto treaties and
    begin an all-out effort to conserve energy and bring renewable energy sources
    on line, minimizing use of oil and coal.

These specifics are strands in a larger weave of planetary
community, and we need to be imagining that weave in all its wholeness. Then we
can choose what aspects of this future we can begin to embody in the present.

The second crucial Jewish teaching for this hour comes from
Psalm 34: “Bakeysh shalom radfeyhu,” or “seek peace and pursue it.” Again, the
rabbis asked, “Why both ‘seek’ and ‘pursue?'”

They answered: Most mitzvot can be done by sitting (to eat)
or standing (to pray) or even walking (to converse). But for the sake of peace,
we must not only seek it, but if it is running away, we must chase after it.

Most of the official American Jewish leadership has sat
paralyzed, while peace runs away from us all. They should join those
peace-seekers of the anti-war movement who take Jewish concerns seriously.

To do this, the mainstream Jewish community should learn to
distinguish between anti-Israel and “pro-Israel-pro-peace” strands of the
antiwar movement.

The United for Peace & Justice coalition, which
sponsored the New York rally on Feb. 15, is in the second strand of antiwar
energy. Its first Jewish member was The Shalom Center. Since then, Tikkun, New
York’s Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and various smaller local groups
have joined.

Mainstream Jewish groups should support the efforts of such
affirmatively Jewish antiwar groups, and should be making sure that their own
staff and leaders get to meet and talk with the Jewish anti-war organizers.

But this is only “seeking” peace. To “pursue” it as well,
the larger liberal and progressive parts of the mainstream Jewish community
should join such natural allies as the National Council of Churches, Sojourners
magazine, the NAACP and the Sierra Club, which have already formed a third
antiwar coalition: Win Without War.

For Jews like the Reform movement and the Jewish Community
Relations Committee/Jewish Council for Public Affairs network to be absent from
this table not only betrays Jewish values and interests but also fails to
represent Jewish concerns, when some of the most important American public
groups are creating a new center of moral and political energy.

It is as if mainstream Jewish organizations had refused to
take part in the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights in the 1950s and 1960s,
because some black groups were anti-Semitic.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the havurot,
progressive Jewish political groups, Jewish feminists and neo-Chasidic
teachers, like Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi seeded change that sprouted in the mainstream Jewish
community during the 1990s.

In much the same way, anti-war Jews today are seeding change
that mainstream Jewry needs to learn from. As we now face the dangers to
humanity and earth from reckless, unaccountable economic greed and reckless,
unaccountable military power, they are drawing on and appealing to Jewish
values.

These values are not just empty rhetoric. They are embodied
in the practical needs of Jews who are suffering from environmentally caused
cancer and asthma, from overwork to the point of emotional and spiritual
exhaustion, from robbery of their pensions by Enronic pirates, from health care
diminished and schooling worsened to pay for war, from bottom-line downsizing —
even of academic, professional and high-tech jobs — from attacks on their
privacy and civil liberties and perhaps even from death as victims of terrorism
in an endless war that could have been averted.

Only at deep peril to itself will mainstream Jewry fail to
hear these prophetic voices.


Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of The Shalom Center. He is the author of “Godwrestling — Round 2” and co-author of “A Time for Every Purpose Under Heaven.”

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