Conn. congregation, member settle lawsuit over non-Jewish burial

A Jewish woman suing her congregation over the burial of a non-Jewish black woman in its cemetery has settled her lawsuit.

Maria Balaban, 73, settled her lawsuit with Congregation Ahavath Achim in Colchester, Conn., on Wednesday after two days of negotiations in the middle of the trial, which began last week.

Balaban, a member of the congregation’s board of directors, sued the congregation for allowing the burial of a non-Jewish woman in the newly established interfaith section of the congregation’s cemetery, which she says should be reserved for Jewish members and their non-Jewish spouses and family members, The Bulletin of Norwich, Ct., reported.

Juliet Steer, 47, was buried in the cemetery in 2010 after dying of cancer. She was not affiliated with the congregation, and is the first burial in the interfaith section.

The agreement must be approved by Congregation Ahavath Achim’s board of directors and membership by June 15.

During the trial, the congregation had accused Balaban of filing the lawsuit because Steer was black, something Balaban denied. Balaban also dropped her request to have Steer’s body exhumed and moved to a different cemetery, according to the newspaper.

Congregations offering loans and grants to lure young families

They were looking to move anyway, said Stephanie Butler. And the $50,000 incentive being offered by Temple Emanu-El in Dothan, Ala., to young Jewish families willing to relocate helped tip the scales.

“We never would have looked at Dothan if not for this program,” she said.

The Reform congregation in Dothan is one of several dozen synagogues nationwide offering loans, grants and a variety of other incentives to attract young families to their communities. In addition to the loans, which are usually tied to down payments on a house and can turn into grants if the families stay long enough, most of these synagogues help newcomers to find jobs and direct them to friendly lawyers, contractors and mortgage brokers who often give them steep discounts.

Dothan’s $50,000 relocation loan, which becomes a grant after five years, is one of the most generous offers. But rural Alabama is a harder draw than, say, Southfield, Mich., where the local Young Israel congregation is offering young couples a $7,200 five-year, interest-free loan toward a down payment on a home.

Just three families have taken up Dothan’s offer, and one has since moved away. Twenty-two families have moved to Southfield, a heavily Jewish suburb of Detroit. Only five took advantage of the loan program.

Most of these relocation incentive programs began in the past several years. Some have been more successful than others, and it doesn’t seem to matter how much money they’re offering. Those who have made the move mention geographic desirability, the availability of jobs, and the attractiveness of the local Jewish community much more than they mention the money.

“The money is to show we’re excited about people coming to the community, but it’s a small part of what we do to attract families,” said Rabbi Yechiel Morris, spiritual leader of Young Israel of Southfield.

Another factor is also at play. Unlike Dothan’s Reform congregation, virtually all the others offering such incentives are Orthodox. Orthodox families moving to a new neighborhood look for homes within walking distance of the synagogue and expect to become actively involved in local Jewish life.

Jews moving to Dothan go through an extensive vetting process, including personal visits, and they sign forms pledging to join the congregation and to remain in town for at least five years.

“This is about fit,” said Robert Goldsmith, executive director of the Family Relocation Project of the Blumberg Family Jewish Community Services of Dothan. The goal of the project is to bring in 20 Jewish families by 2015 with incentive packages of up to $50,000 each. “We’re not buying Jews here with a blank check.”

Temple Emanu-El was down to 43 families when donor Larry Blumberg established the project in the fall of 2007, soon after Goldsmith and his wife, Lynne, the congregation’s new rabbi, moved to town. “We didn’t want to shut our doors, like other small congregations,” he said.

The Associated Press ran a story on the incentives program, followed by spots on the Jay Leno and Howard Stern shows. Thousands of inquiries poured in from around the world. “We had 100,000 hits in one day,” Goldsmith said. “It crashed our server.”

But few candidates have gone the distance with the program. The first family that responded, arriving in early 2009, moved away when the husband was laid off. “The recession has hurt us,” Goldsmith said.
In response, the congregation switched focus, reaching out to empty nesters through a series of ads placed in Hadassah, Moment and Reform Judaism magazines. Currently, 11 older couples are partway through the application process; one couple is expected to move in soon.

Jews willing to move to Dothan “need an adventurous spirit,” said Goldsmith. That’s less true of those who move to Oceanside, N.Y., a Long Island community with a large, active Young Israel congregation located 15 minutes from the heavily Jewish Five Towns area.

With 180 families, Young Israel of Oceanside is far from endangered. But the congregation wants to boost its number of young families, said Rabbi Jonathan Muskat.

In 2007, the synagogue rolled out a rich incentive program capped by a $30,000 interest-free loan that becomes a grant after 10 years. The first five couples that moved in that year got the full amount. The next five received $20,000, and the final cohort got $10,000. Altogether, 35 new families moved into the community, many without any financial incentive at all.

Jake and Nomi Weinberg were part of the first cohort, moving in three years ago from nearby Woodmere, N.Y. They had two children at the time; now, they have three.

The loan “was definitely a draw,” said 32-year-old Jake Weinberg. But they would have moved to Oceanside anyway, he said, adding, “No one should move just for a down payment.”

Muskat echoes that sentiment. Young Israel of Oceanside offers the incentive only to couples likely to take on leadership roles in the congregation, the rabbi said. Virtually all of the new families come from large Orthodox congregations in the Greater New York area. The real draw, Muskat said, is being part of a younger congregation where they can make a difference right away.
Weinberg agrees. “You don’t get lost in the shuffle,” he said. “There’s a tremendous opportunity to have your voice heard. It’s not like a big shul, where you have to be there years and years and donate a lot of money before you can do anything.”

In an effort to showcase communities for families seeking to relocate, the Orthodox Union sponsored its first Emerging Communities Conference in New York in 2008. Fourteen congregations set up booths at that first conference. Thirty-five have registered for the third conference on March 22, including shuls from cities as large as Phoenix and Las Vegas, and as small as Chesterfield, Mo. and Norfolk, Va.

“It sows the seeds,” said Frank Buchweitz, national director of community services for the OU. “People don’t even know there are Jewish communities outside the New York area.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Josh Elberg and his wife, Naomi Preminger, 27, moved from Montreal to Southfield, Mich., after meeting Young Israel members Monica and Ari Fischman at the 2009 OU conference.
“We spoke to them; we felt them out,” said Monica Fischman. More important, said Elberg, the Fischmans followed up.

“We found some very nice communities at the conference – Houston, Dallas, Denver, Memphis, St. Louis,” said Elberg. “I followed up with all of them, but the only ones who followed up consistently with us were from Southfield.”

That personal connection, not the $7,200 relocation loan, was what clinched the deal, he added. Last summer, the Fischmans hosted Elberg for a Shabbaton. They had a barbecue and introduced him to people, and Monica Fischman found the couple a house on the same street where her parents live.

Elberg is already living in Southfield, and his wife will follow with their three children after Passover.

“The loan made life easier,” Elberg said, “but if they hadn’t offered it, we wouldn’t have cared.”

As more and more congregations get into the incentives game, some poaching is bound to occur, particularly in the shul-heavy towns of northern New Jersey and the New York area.

Newsday recently ran a story on Dan and Atara Marzouk, who moved to Plainview, N.Y., last October, taking advantage of a $25,000 interest-free loan offered by the local Young Israel congregation.

But the Marzouks were moving away from Linden, N.J., where their home synagogue, Congregation Anshe Chesed, is also offering an incentive program to new families.

Rabbi Joshua Hess of Anshe Chesed doesn’t consider it poaching. He said that 15 young families have moved to Linden, and all have taken advantage of either the buyer’s or the renter’s incentive offer. Dan Marzouk had a two-and-a-half-hour daily commute to his job in Long Island, and even Hess told him the family needed to move. “It wasn’t sustainable,” the rabbi said.

Meanwhile, Anshe Chesed has only 17 younger families among its 115 member units, and the congregation is running out of funding for its incentive program.

“Once we have a critical mass, we won’t need it anymore,” Hess said. “The hope is that young couples will want to be here.”

First black female rabbi to leave congregation

The first African-American female rabbi will leave her congregation this summer.

Rabbi Alysa Stanton’s contract with Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, S.C., was not renewed, the Forward reported Thursday.

“We felt Rabbi Stanton has brought a lot of gifts to the congregation, but we felt she wasn’t a good fit for the direction we’re going,” board president Samantha Pilot told the Forward. “I can tell you with certainty that race—I never heard that come up once during her tenure or now. It’s a non-issue.”

Bayt Shalom is a small Conservative congregation that also is affiliated with the Reform movement.

Stanton said she will serve out her contract, which expires at the end of July.

Stanton, 47, a convert and mother to an adopted teenage daughter, was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in June 2009, and took up her full-time pulpit shortly thereafter.

The former Pentecostal Christian converted 20 years ago while in college. She is a trained psychotherapist who specializes in trauma and grief.

Communities can use High Holy Days to help ease economic angst

With the start of the High Holy Days, the pace of communal life starts to change, and our focus is on reflection, reconciliation, repentance and the annual response to new beginnings.

For too many in our community, however, this season will hold more angst than joy.

The economic situation in our country presents us with challenges unseen for nearly a generation. Too many will sit in synagogues through this season and be equally concerned with their own economic situation as they will the state of their soul. Increasingly, senior citizens on fixed or limited incomes are seeing their resources challenged. Young adults are concerned about job security. Too many of our people of all ages have lost jobs, been downsized or live on the edge of job and financial uncertainty.

This reality presents our community with a unique and necessary opportunity to become an even more meaningful “caring community.” This is a time when no one should be left to feel that they are “l’vado” (alone). This is a time for community and relationships to be enhanced and expanded, so that our congregations can be seen as responsive to and involved with those who are hurting.

In every community are untapped human resources: people who may have some time to give, who have experienced life and, if asked, might be willing to assist leadership in developing support systems for individuals and families in need. At the least, a call can be made to members who have experience in the workplace, who have counseled people in job changes and career moves.

Establishing a congregational or communal service corps with members willing to give advice and direction — or just lend a sympathetic ear to those who might be searching for new directions — is one possible course of action.

During a similar economic downturn in the early 1980s, I worked in Philadelphia and was involved in helping congregations create a communitywide job bank. It had some success helping people in our community get back to work. We simply polled the members of the community’s congregations for possible job openings and advertised those openings throughout the area so members could see what was available from those within their own community.

This could be done again. Synagogues can join other local organizations, JCCs, Jewish Family Service and others to broaden the base of opportunities to search. Even in this day of electronic and Internet job searches, personal networking and relationships go a long way in opening doors.

A difficulty in some of this may be the unwillingness on the part of many to come forward. So often we face this challenge of having people admit they may need some assistance, guidance or help in establishing goals. Transitions are tough and filled with fear. But let us not forget the power of the pulpit. The simple act of the rabbi offering a sermon on the need for this type of caring “inreach” can help worshipers see their congregation as more than a life-cycle institution.

The High Holy Days are a perfect example of a moment in time when Jews attend synagogue. Why not take a few moments at each service to launch this internal support network? Why not have in each prayer book a form that someone can fill out who has a job opening or position request, or has a willingness to give time to counsel or advise a fellow congregant on career change and possibilities?

Use your caring community committee to organize these forms and launch, right after Yom Kippur, a Sukkot of Transition so that all can feel the possibility of a “sukkat shalom.”

We soon will enter our season of possibilities. In each of our communities there are those we need to support and those with the ability to create that sense of support and caring. All we need to do is ask.

Rabbi Richard F. Address is the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns (

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Friendship and freedom at Adat Chaverim

“What does it mean to be free and why is freedom so important?” was Karlo Silbiger’s first question to some 20 kids ranging from 3 years to early teens.

The youth and their parents were meeting on a recent Sunday morning to check out the offerings of Adat Chaverim (Community of Friends), especially its school and bar/bat mitzvah programs.

Adat Chaverim is a small congregation of secular, Humanistic Jews, whose brochure proposes that “reason rather than faith is the source of truth, and human intelligence and experience are capable of guiding our lives.”

Eight years after its was founded in the San Fernando Valley, Adat Chaverim is spreading its wings in concerted effort to attract like-minded Westsiders and broaden its services and educational programs.

The key to the congregation’s expansion from some 40 current families is its move to the American Jewish University (AJU), formerly the University of Judaism, on the exact border between the Valley and the Los Angeles basin.

The group attending the school orientation session consisted of young professional couples, averaging three kids apiece, just the kind of demographic for which any synagogue would give away half its building fund.

Mitchell and Susan Saltzman of Century City brought their three boys, ages 3, 7 and 10. The older kids had previously attended a Reform synagogue’s preschool and liked it.

But, said Mitchell Saltzman, “A friend told us that his children were getting a great education at Adat Chaverim, so we thought we’d check it out.”

John and Mara Glassner of Encino came with their three young daughters and said they hoped to find a Sunday school in line with their “skeptical” outlook.

Also working in Adat Chaverim’s favor are the much lower membership and school fees, as compared to almost all other synagogues.

To keep the youngest kids happy, education director Silbiger passed out crayons and coloring sheets, recounting the story of Moses and the Exodus, though the dialogue deviated somewhat from the biblical version. Moses tells the pre-liberated Israelites, “God said if you don’t like something, you can change it through collective action.”

Also innovative is the congregation’s bar/bat mitzvah program, which requires 13 preparatory projects.

These include writing reports on the work of two Jewish community organizations; attending services of the four main Jewish denominations; 15 hours of community work; planning and preparing a Jewish holiday meal; reading a Torah portion and explaining its cultural background; and writing a story using some Yiddish and Ladino words.

By the way, what does it mean to be free?

According to the bright and alert youngsters, it means that “Nobody can boss you around,” “You can go where you want to go.” “You have a sense of responsibility,” and “You can believe in what you want to believe.”

This year’s High Holy Day services at AJU’s Berman Chapel will be led on Rosh Hashanah by Harvard University Chaplain Greg Epstein. There will also be services on Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur. A Tashlich ceremony is set for 11 a.m. on Oct. 5 at Los Encinos State Historic Park in Encino. For more information, call (818) 346-5152.

How I returned

In the fall of 1989, I took a class on Chasidic thought with a Chabad rabbi. We met in a room in the annex of Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice. Iwanted to learn about Judaism, but I hated going to synagogue services. They bored me. So I took classes, learned Hebrew, even lived in Israel. But no synagogue services.

One afternoon, our teacher suggested we all march down and meet Mishkon’s new woman rabbi, Naomi Levy. The class consisted of six young single men — we said sure.

And the moment I saw Naomi, I knew I wanted to marry her.

From there on out, a group of us gravitated to a back row of the synagogue and devoted every Shabbat to hoping she would fall for one of us. We were in our 20s, unmarried and smitten.

Fortunately, I had an enormous advantage over the other young men: I didn’t have a job. They were all busy young professionals. I was just young.

Naomi taught a class called, “Love and Torah,” every Wednesday at noon. There was my opening. My calendar happened to be clear every Wednesday at noon — actually, it was clear pretty much every day at noon.

So I showed up each week to learn with five young mothers and the rabbi. The moms figured out my plan immediately. Naomi just assumed I was really into Torah.

She was teaching the “Song of Songs,” a biblical love poem.

On the day our class studied the line, ” … and his fruit was sweet to my taste …,” I brought a quart of huge, ripe strawberries from the Santa Monica farmer’s market for everyone to share. Another time, as we read, ” … I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense,” I pulled out a baggie of frankincense and a baggie of myrrh, which I had bought the day before after driving 45 minutes to a bodega in Burbank. If you want to snag a rabbi, it helps to read ahead.

The next Shabbat, Naomi let me walk her to her apartment door after services.

“But you should know,” she warned me, “I don’t date congregants.”

“Fine,” I said, “I won’t join.”

The fact is, not joining a congregation came naturally to me. I was intrigued by Judaism, and I was growing to love Mishkon’s members — many are friends to this day — but I was not interested in spending Friday nights and Saturday mornings in shul.

I had grown up attending a large, suburban synagogue, had a bar mitzvah and never went to services more than twice each year. And each time I did, the rote prayer readings, the cantorial repetition, the organ music — all of it — sent me into a spirit-sucking stupor.

Eventually, Naomi caught on to my intentions. It may have been when I offered to cater the synagogue’s second-night seder, or that I offered to head up the Chanukah latke-making effort for 200, or the afternoon I left a mix-tape on her doorstep for her post-Shabbat listening.

Or it may have been my sudden 100 percent shul attendance record.

“I don’t even go to shul that much,” Naomi told me.

Of course, after we got married in 1991, neither did I.

Because I was a sailor in the relatively uncharted waters of being a male spouse of a rabbi, Mishkon’s congregation had no expectations of me and no obvious role.

The congregants didn’t seem to mind that I was rarely in shul — or at least didn’t mind out loud.

When Naomi decided to leave Mishkon after we had our second child, I was more relieved than she was. A rabbi’s spouse sees firsthand the pressures of the job: the strains of synagogue politics, the lack of control over one’s time, the constant sense you can never fulfill the demands both of your congregants — no matter how many — and of your own family.

Frankly, I also was looking forward to being free of the guilt of not showing up at services.

In leaving Mishkon, Naomi got to be home more with our children, write books (“To Begin Again,” “Talking to God”), teach and lecture. But as the years passed, she yearned to return to the pulpit. It was — is — her calling.

But as much as she loves the pulpit, Naomi, like me, finds the modern synagogue problematic. She believes that Judaism offers people a sense of purpose, a mission to heal society and a fulfilling spiritual path, but that too often standard synagogue services don’t attract or inspire Jews, much less compel them to commit to a community.

“My interest was in the people who don’t go to shul,” she told me. “The outsiders.”

Of course, one of those outsiders was living with her. I liked everything about being Jewish but going to shul. I had seen her infuse the traditional services at Mishkon with her particular spirit and warmth, and I hoped there was a way she could build on that somehow, somewhere.

But how or where I hadn’t a clue.

I couldn’t see either of us at a mainstream synagogue: Her goal was to reach the Jews who, for whatever reason, were turned off to Judaism, and they were unlikely to be found inside established synagogues.

One day, Naomi simply decided to do it— to create for herself her dream of the ideal service and the ideal congregation.

She had no financial backing, no business plan, no building, no place to hold services. She had a supportive but somewhat skeptical rebbetzin.

Naomi decided to call her congregation “Nashuva,” Hebrew for “we will return.” She launched it one night with a few friends and a husband seated around our dining room table. As we all shared our vision and offered our help, I felt my role shift from rabbi’s spouse-in-the-background to fellow organizer, planner, volunteer.

I, who had happily stayed on the sidelines of synagogue life, was now joining with a handful of others to actually create a different kind of congregation. As Naomi envisioned it, Nashuva would be an outreach congregation, bringing Judaism to those who had otherwise been turned off to it or uninspired by it.

People like me.

Nashuva would hold Shabbat evening services on the first Friday of every month and do a social service project in the L.A. area on the third Sunday of the month. It was service that led to service; outreach that led to reaching out.

There would be no membership, no dues, and everyone — everyone — would be welcome.

The service itself would be traditional and in Hebrew, but with accessible translations written by Naomi and set to great, engaging music.

Naomi put together a band, and I watched with the screwed up face of a stodgy sitcom dad as several strikingly handsome, talented musicians appeared in our living room for rehearsals. Naomi and the band fashioned new arrangements, adapting ancient Hebrew prayers to melodies as diverse as music from “Godspell” and the Jewish Abuyudaya tribe of Uganda.

She cold-called a church she had driven by countless times, the Westwood Hills Congregational Church on Westwood Boulevard. A young woman answered the phone. Naomi asked to speak to the reverend.

“You’re speaking with her,” said the Rev. Kirsten Linford.

When the two met, they fell into each other’s arms like long-lost friends.

On Nashuva’s debut night, we hung Wanda Peretz’s beautiful handmade tapestry depicting a dove returning to a Tree of Life. It hid the church’s giant cross. I set out food for after the service (some roles never change), and we filled the pews with the prayer books Naomi had created.

“Just put out 50,” she said.

People began to arrive. The congregation swelled. I stood in the balcony and watched the hundreds of church seats fill up.

Eventually, Nashuva outgrew its first home and moved to its current location, the Brentwood Hills Presbyterian Church. It has succeeded beyond our imaginations without falling back on traditional models of organization, like dues and membership and tickets. Nashuva now even has an alternative to Hebrew school — Camp Nashuva — that engages young children in the joy of Jewish learning. What it lacks in the hallmarks of mainstream synagogues — well-developed lay leadership, regular cash flow, a home of its own — it has made up for with committed volunteers, some generous donors and grants.

As the nontraditional rebbetzin at a nontraditional shul, I happily set out defining my own role: doing whatever I could to sustain what I truly believe is something magical and exceptional in Jewish life — and actually looking forward to going to services. I have, at last, returned.

This past June, Nashuva celebrated its fourth anniversary. Somehow, Nashuva has survived as an un-synagogue.

At the High Holy Days, Nashuva is standing room only. But even more remarkable, on the first Friday of each month, I sit in the balcony and watch, not quite believing, as each time it fills up on just an average Shabbat — with many new faces and many familiar ones. People who had never found a spiritual home. People whose own synagogue services leave them cold. People who never felt welcome in Jewish life. Kids dance in the aisles, the congregation leaps to its feet, Naomi sings and leads prayer and speaks — her ideal rabbinate.

And the most surprising face in the crowd? Mine — the guy who never liked services, wouldn’t join a synagogue and never got involved. I have finally found my spiritual home — soulful and musical, original and inspiring — a true reflection of the woman I fell in love with.

Ohr HaTorah ends 15-year trip in a walk down Barrington to a new home

It was a sight Mar Vista doesn’t see every day a guitar-studded procession of more than 100 Jewish revelers marching jubilantly down South Barrington Avenue with five Torah scrolls.

Members of Ohr HaTorah synagogue, which until this month held services at a church in West Los Angeles, donned sun hats and sneakers Aug. 8 to carry their Torahs south to the congregation’s new location and first permanent home on Venice Boulevard.

The walk was only 2.8 miles, but the journey was 15 years in the making.

“We finally have a place that feels like home,” said Meirav Finley, who ” alt=”ALTTEXT” width=”550″ height=”491″ />

Teenagers reveal why this service is different from all other services

Since the recent holiday of Passover was one of asking questions and thinking about transitioning from one state of being to another, it is an appropriate time to think of the bar and bat mitzvah in a similar context. These four questions — or more accurately one question and four answers — can be recited by 13-year-olds, but their explanations are particularly relevant for all of us.

Why is this prayer service different from every other prayer service?

At every other service I didn’t count, today I count for the first time.

All too often we forget that we count. In fact we discount how much our voices and our actions matter or can matter. At every prayer service from this time forward the bar or bat mitzvah literally counts, literally matters. Without his or her presence a group of nine other adults (or eight if one’s tradition is to count the Torah) would not be able to chant Torah or recite the Mourner’s Kaddish, as well as several other prayers.

Knowing that one’s presence not only counts but matters is very powerful for any one of us, let alone for a 13-year-old who so often can get lost in the crowd. The power of this counting can be traced back to the story of Abraham’s argument with God on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, a story which not only serves as the source for the 10 that make up the minyan, but also reminds us of the obligation of each individual to stand up on behalf of others.

On this day let each bar and bat mitzvah be given the message that he or she counts.

At every other service I listened to others, today at this service they listen to me.

When I do a walk through “rehearsal” with families the day before a bar or bat mitzvah, the young person practices announcing pages and telling the congregation to stand or sit. Often the parents remain seated when their child says “Please rise.” I joke that the parents and siblings need to do whatever the bar/bat mitzvah says and must follow his or her directions. Then I let the young person know that he or she shouldn’t get too used to this — that in 24 hours things will go back to normal. But the fact is that they should get used to this. The young person is leading the congregation in prayer and a d’var Torah (words of Torah). The bar/bat mitzvah is taking a place among the adults in the community and is letting us know (or reminding us) that he or she has something to say.

On this day let us give the bar/ bat mitzvah (for the first time or yet again) the message that what he or she has to say is worth listening to and hearing.

At every other prayer service I was a participant, today at this service I am the leader.

We know that a community needs leaders and participants. Many of us would also agree that for a community to be healthy there needs to be fluidity in these roles. Participants need opportunities to take leadership, and leaders need to take opportunities to join with participants and give others the opportunities to lead.

A central part of becoming a leader is the active and continuing pursuit of knowledge and the implicit message that learning is lifelong. (Some congregations have given the education director the title “director of lifelong education.”) It is the parents’ responsibility to model their own continuing Jewish learning and to make it a priority for their children. (Encouraging young people to continue to learn post bar/bat mitzvah should come with a parental commitment to do the same.) It is a Jewish community’s obligation to offer compelling opportunities for continued Jewish learning.

On this day, let us give the bar/bat mitzvah student the message (including by example) that to be a participant and a leader we need to recognize how much we have to learn and we must continue to learn.

At every other service I was seen as a child, today I am seen as the adult I will some day become.

A parent once shared with me the bittersweetness of observing how her child moved from one stage of life to the next. As she began to love her child in each stage of his growth, he would move on to another stage thus morphing into a new child, leaving her to cope with the loss of the child she had just gotten to know and to adjust to this “new” son.

When a child becomes a bar/bat mitzvah we see aspects of him or her that we may or may not have glimpsed before. As parents there is an obligation to treasure the pieces of those previous stages and recognize all those parts that will one day come together and become the adult that the child will one day be.

On this day let us recognize all the parts of the child and let him or her know how much we treasure all of who he or she is.

May this question and the four answers open our minds to new ideas and to even more questions.

Jeff Bernhardt is a b’nai mitzvah teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood. He is also a writer living in Los Angeles.

A pioneering minyan celebrates double chai birthday

Back in 1971, a group of young married rabbinical school graduates with small children requested a meeting with Rabbi Jacob Pressman of Temple Beth Am. Many of them had just moved back to Los Angeles after graduating the Jewish Theological Seminary, and they were looking for a meaningful prayer experience. Not only that, their children were being shushed for being disruptive in the main sanctuary.

Pressman proposed creating a separate, “parallel” service for the young Jewish professionals and took the concept back to his board, who did not like the idea at all. One man pointed his finger at Pressman and warned, “Rabbi you are going to create another shul that’s going to grow up and leave.”

Temple Beth Am library
In fact, the board member was half right. Pressman and the group did create another entity, what has become known as “The Library Minyan,” named for the downstairs library where the 15 families began to meet weekly to pray. Members organized and participated in all parts of the service (especially the weekly sermon), discussed all aspects of Judaism and debated the increasingly complex issues of the changing times. But even as the group grew — eventually eclipsing the main sanctuary in attendance — it stayed at Beth Am. In fact, it became a draw for new members, some of whom went on to serve on the synagogue’s board and who are now among the top Jewish professional leaders in and beyond Los Angeles.

Thirty-six years later, the Library Minyan, with its opportunities for engagement and intellectual rigor is seen as having helped to start a revolution — empowering lay leaders in the essential structure of spiritual leadership. It has become a model for many Conservative and Reform congregations seeking to create alternatives both within and outside the fold of conventional synagogue structure, and has allowed individual congregations to morph it into new and ever-changing incarnations.

This weekend, the Library Minyan will celebrate its double-chai anniversary (two times “life”) with a Shabbaton Nov. 2-4 that will remember the past but also look toward the future.

So, what does the future hold for the Library Minyan and its members? Will they continue to be a creative influence on Judaism? Or is it time for them to step aside and let other younger people establishing new and innovative communities of their own take over? Has the revolution ended?

Not that the Library Minyan set out to be revolutionary. “We were looking for a place where we could daven,” said Rabbi Stuart Kelman, who worked at United Synagogue Youth, Camp Ramah and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before leaving town in 1984 to work in Jewish education in Northern California.

“Since most of us were knowledgeable, we could create a service that was more informal, more intimate, more participatory. I think this minyan was an evolution and not a revolution,” Kelman said.

Pressman, for example, helped found Camp Ramah and American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism) and got the hotels in town to have kosher kitchens. Under his stewardship, Beth Am grew from 218 families in the 1950s to 1,300 by the 1970s. He recognized the need for something new: “It was unreasonable we could serve all these people,” he said, so he gave the green light to the group, which was soon to include Rabbi Eliott Dorff (now rector of American Jewish University), professor Steven L. Spiegel (now UCLA’s director of the Middle East Regional Security Program) and Rabbi Joel Rembaum.

“I wish I could call it an immediate success, but it was not,” Pressman said. “There was scarcely a minyan” in the early years. Not that that mattered to its attendees, who were happy to have a mixed-seating, lay-led, traditional prayer group where members read from the Torah, delivered parsha sermons and held weekly potluck lunches. They also debated issues: first, whether women could read Torah (they could by the mid-1970s) and then whether women could lead prayers and be counted as a minyan (they could by the early ’80s).

“In the late ’70s all these people started coming,” recalled Dorff, who joined two months after the start, in April 1971, and is now considered one of the driving forces behind its egalitarian spirit. The minyan is filled with rabbis — more than a dozen — but has no one rabbi. “There were more and more people who wanted this kind of service.”

There was another attraction: “Word came out that the Library Minyan was a good place to meet the opposite sex,” Pressman said.

The group relocated a few times, first into the youth building adjacent to the shul, and then to the old chapel (today it’s in a newly renovated chapel).

“The minyan also acquired a certain star appeal, with members such as the Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, the scholar of mysticism Jonathan Omer-Man, and the historian of ideas David Ellenson, a Reform rabbi who grappled with Modern Orthodox theology in his doctoral dissertation,” as described in a chapter devoted to the history of the Library Minyan by Samuel Freedman in his seminal book, “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry,” published in 2000).

Freedman pointed out that the participants were “products of the Jewish counterculture, committed to applying the New Left’s ideal of participatory democracy to religious practice. Yet they did not throw out all convention: Ninety percent of services were in Hebrew, and most members were Sabbath observant.”

Other forces were also at work: In 1985, Pressman retired and handed Beth Am’s senior rabbi mantle over to Rembaum, one of the original members of the Library Minyan, which was now considerably larger, with about 130 individuals on a Shabbat morning, Rembaum said.

The complaints continued: “Why don’t you bring those people in?” some of the same Beth Am members now complained to the new rabbi.

“I’m one of them,” Rembaum replied.

City Building & Safety inspectors briefly interrupt Kol Nidrei services at Hancock Park shul

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For an 10/4/2007 update to this story, click here.
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin was conducting Kol Nidrei services for some 200 Orthodox worshippers at Yeshivas Yavneh last Friday, when shortly after 8 p.m. two inspectors from the Los Angeles City Department of Building and Safety walked into the lobby.One inspector told a startled congregant that the service had run past the 8 p.m. closing time and that therefore the premises had to be vacated immediately.

After the congregant told the inspectors that they would have to remove the worshippers by force, one by one, the city officials left after 15 minutes and the service continued at the 5353 W. 3rd St. facility.

As word of the strange incident spread through the closely knit Orthodox community in Hancock Park, tempers and outrage rose.

The Web site declared that the incident was “reminiscent of the cowardly sneak attack on Israel during the Yom Kippur War,” and quoted one woman worshipper, a wheelchair-bound Holocaust survivor, “I was frightened. I started crying. I don’t want to go to jail. I want to pray.”Yeshivas Yavneh
By Sunday evening, top aides to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Tom LaBonge, joined by Councilman Jack Weiss, met with Orthodox community rabbis and officials of the offending department in City Hall for some hasty damage control.

On Monday evening, the mayor and two councilmen released a statement condemning the “outrageous intrusion” on erev Yom Kippur, “which caused great pain and anguish.”

The three political leaders promised a full investigation and initiated a cultural sensitivity training program for Department of Building and Safety employees.

“We are committed to making sure that an incident like this never repeats itself,” the statement concluded.

The roots of the potentially explosive incident lie in a bitter eight-year-old feud in the Hancock Park neighborhood, an upscale enclave of stately homes.

Once populated by WASPs, Hancock Park later became home to many Jewish secular, Reform and Conservative Jews. About a decade ago, a considerable number of strictly Orthodox families started to move in and now make up about 20 percent of the homeowners.

In 1999, the Orthodox community purchased a Tudor estate in a residential area and established the Yavneh Hebrew Academy for some 400 students, from preschool through eighth grade.

As part of the religious curriculum, Yavneh provided for prayer services during the week, and for Shabbat and holiday services for students and their families on the premises through Kehillah Yeshivas Yavneh.

Many longtime residents, including Jewish families, resented the intrusion and feared that the prayer services would expand into a full-fledged congregation. After considerable acrimony, Yavneh and the Hancock Park Homeowners Association agreed on a municipal conditional use permit.

One stipulation in the permit limited Friday activities, including religious services, to between the hours of 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.

However, some of the school’s neighbors were not mollified, and according to city officials, one neighbor, a persistent opponent whom officials would not identify, called the municipal complaint line a week before Yom Kippur.

The caller notified the city that on the eve of Yom Kippur the stipulated 8 p.m. closing time for services would likely be violated.

The complaint was handled at the lower levels of the building and safety department as a routine matter, according to spokesman David Keim, with the result that the two inspectors showed up during the Kol Nidrei service.

Was the incident an unfortunate bureaucratic foul-up or a malicious anti-Semitic act?

Korobkin labeled the incident “a religious sting operation” but declined to speculate on the motives.

Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Kolodny, who is not connected with Yavneh, had no doubts.

“Can you imagine something like this happening at a church on Christmas Eve or a mosque at Ramadan?” he asked. “This incident goes way beyond a zoning dispute, this is anti-Semitism, this is hitting below the belt.”

Weiss is also a skeptic.

“I am not saying this is necessarily anti-Semitism, but a city department made the intentional decision that the holiest day in the Jewish calendar would be the best time to catch worshippers in a minute violation,” he said.

Jolene Snet, a Jewish neighbor of the school and long active in the Hancock Park Homeowners Association, was not aware of the Friday incident and labeled it unfortunate.

However, she said, “I believe as a citizen that Yavneh should comply fully with the terms of the conditional use permit.”

For previous coverage on the Yavneh/Hancock Park zoning issues, click here.

Amy Klein explored the differences between the Orthodox neighborhoods of Hancock Park (“black hat”) and Pico-Robertson (“Modern Orthodox”) here.

Technion group fetes two, magic makeover mitzvah, Brad Garrett helps M.A.W.

Terrific Technology

These days, money is not merely for the material but the technical. The contributions of two local residents, Robert A. Davidow of Los Angeles and Janey Sweet of Malibu, to the American Technion Society (ATS) have resulted in groundbreaking achievements in water technology, cancer research and vascular biology studied at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

Davidow was awarded an honorary doctorate June 11 in recognition of “his prominent role in enlisting major support for the Technion … his active leadership in Jewish and Los Angeles civic life … and in acknowledgment of his exceptional dedication to the welfare of the State of Israel and the future of the Jewish people.”

In his tenure as benefactor, he created the Davidow Faculty Recruitment Fund and was a major donor to the Jean and Sol Davidow Experimental Testing Laboratory. He has served on the Technion International Board of Governors and acts as the ATS national co-treasurer.

Sweet was awarded an honorary fellowship on June 10 for financial support and leadership. She and her husband, Al, built the Janey and Albert Sweet Experimental Testing Laboratory in the Polak Center for Cancer Research and Vascular Biology. She was also recognized for her hospitality to Technion students, faculty and dignitaries who have visited the United States.

Recently, she co-chaired an ATS mission to Israel and Berlin, where a group of 140 participants, 21 of whom reside in Los Angeles, explored the Jewish heritage of Berlin and its rebirth as a center of post-Holocaust European Jewry. The trip concluded in Israel with a visit to the Technion campus and tours of historic, spiritual, cultural and architectural sites throughout Israel.

Attendees Blair Berk, Elaine and Hy Chase, Edie Fischer, Joan and Arnold Seidel, Bill Norris and Jane Jelenko, Joan and Ephraim Sales and Emily Blysma, among others, were so moved by the travel experience that they collectively pooled a $25 million gift to the Technion. As always, Israel inspires.

Technion is a leading science and technology university and home to many of Israel’s Nobel Prize winners in science. The cutting-edge institution pioneers research in the fields of nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water resource management, aerospace and medicine.

The generous contributions of people like Sweet and Davidow have allowed for recent innovations, like that of architect Joseph Cory and his colleague, Eyal Malka, who devised a low-tech way to collect moisture from the air and convert it into fresh water. The award-winning “WatAir” system is capable of converting even polluted air into an unlimited supply of fresh drinking water — a life-altering prospect for millions around the world.

Makeover Magic

One of the most prized experiences in a young woman’s life is getting ready for her high school prom. Thanks to the kindness of mothers and daughters from Congregation Or Ami, 50 foster girls between the ages of 15 and 18, housed by the Department of Children and Family Services, were prepped, primped and poised to attend that historic night.

“Prom Prep 101” transformed ordinary classrooms into “glamour stations,” where young women were equipped with a mother/daughter team of stylists to help them select the perfect dress, shoes, handbags and jewelry. Professional stylists, makeup artists and photographers created a culture of celebrity for the young women as they were adorned and photographed before a runway fashion show exhibiting the transformation from schoolgirl to starlet.

Congregation Or Ami President Susan Gould, along with Rabbi Paul Kipnes, helped organize Or Ami’s collaboration with Children and Family Services.

The mitzvah experience benefited both the foster children and the young girls of Or Ami. Joanna Gould acknowledged in her bat mitzvah speech that the experience created lasting relationships in her life, and 7-year-old Carly Feinstein explained, “We were like fairy godmothers getting Cinderella ready for the ball.”

Music For A Maestro

The music of Hollywood, Broadway and Mozart converged for a star-studded evening at the Walt Disney Concert Hall honoring Ernst Katz. To celebrate his 70th anniversary as founder and conductor of the Junior Philharmonic Orchestra on June 10, alumni from seven decades and different continents gathered to recognize the music maestro.

Current Junior Philharmonic concertmaster Gary S. Greene opened with Mozart and Schubert, before celebrities performed a 70-year retrospective highlighting the most memorable motion picture and Broadway musicals.

Jan and Mickey Rooney belted out their rendition of “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” followed by Dick Van Dyke’s urging the crowd to “Put On a Happy Face” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” Academy Award-winner George Chakiris brought the gangs of “West Side Story” to downtown L.A. with a revue of that classic tale and Van Dyke reminded the crowd that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, as he sang selections from “Mary Poppins,” while its composer, Richard Sherman, conducted his score.

Katz founded the Junior Philharmonic in 1937, supported by his philosophy of giving young musicians a chance to be heard. Over the years, more than 70,000 people have auditioned for the orchestra, and more than 10,000 talented musicians, ages 12-25, have received free orchestral training and membership.

Women In The Workforce

Everybody in this town wants to have an impact and influence. In an effort to achieve greater visibility in the community, the National Council of Jewish Women Los Angeles (NCJW) has hired Andrea Kune as its communications and outreach director. Kune has an extensive background in public service and held posts in former Gov. Gray Davis’ administration as deputy director of management relations for the California Department of Industrial Relations and then in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration until the spring of 2004.

True to her femininity, she appears to have a vested interest in fashion, serving on the board of directors for the Fashion Industry Guild of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and having lectured on economic and international trade at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, among other institutions. But this is not surprising about someone who has studied in both Milan and Paris.

Now, Kune looks forward to bringing the organization further into the civic sphere so the community can participate in the NCJW’s mission to use Jewish values to improve the quality of life for women, children and families. You go, girl!

There’s no business like shul business

” target=”_blank”>”V’shamru,” which he composed in 1967 as part of a play he put on in rabbinical school, is sung around the world. For many, his version — “V’shamru, v’ne-ei Yisra-e-el, e-e-et ha-Sha-a-a-bbat” — is the version.

Despite his renown, Rothblum is humble.

“He practices the Jewish concept of tzim-tzum,” musician Craig Taubman said. “It’s the ability to make himself smaller. When you lead with that model, you create an opportunity for other people to shine.”

In 2001, Rothblum introduced an alternative monthly service featuring Taubman, a member of the congregation. Hundreds now flock to the service, called “One Shabbat Morning,” which involves nontraditional elements like acting out the Torah portion and a band jamming on drums and electric guitars.

Those who know Rothblum call him “Moshe” or “Rabbi.” Boni Gellis, Rothblum’s assistant of nearly 11 years, calls him “my rabbi.”

“I like to call him ‘Boss,'” said Rabbi Jonathan Jaffe Bernhard, who, after 10 years at Adat Ari El, will take Rothblum’s place as senior rabbi. Rothblum has taught Bernhard many lessons over the years, including how to interact with a congregation and preserve tradition.

Rothblum, married for 36 years, with two sons, has also shown his protégé how to balance synagogue and family life.

“He has a very gentle touch,” said Bernhard, 40. “It’s not like he tries to pound these lessons into me. It’s been more by offering up words of wisdom.”

People can relate to Rothblum, said Steve Getzug, 46, who has been a congregant at Adat Ari El for about 14 years and has served on the board.

“There’re the Rabbi Schulweises of the world who are sort of on a different plane. … They’re inspirational, but half of what they say may elude you,” Getzug said. “What I like about the rabbi is that he appeals to me in language that I can understand.”

It takes a shul: programs target Jewish literacy via congregants

Pick up a synagogue bulletin, and you are likely to read about a variety of programs. From book discussions to Torah study to lectures by local and visiting scholars, there are many opportunities for adults to learn.

Walk into the congregation’s religious school classrooms and you will see children engaged in activities. There will likely be many resources around: colorful textbooks, art materials and idea books for the teacher.

We aim to engage our congregants – young and old. We want to be sure that they are choosing to attend and leaving happy and enthusiastic about being in our congregations. Often our programs for adults are developed by a variety of committees, each addressing different interests. Classroom activities are developed by classroom teachers without an explicit weaving of one lesson’s activities into other aspects and goals of the curriculum.

A few years ago, the leadership of Temple Society of Concord, my Reform synagogue in Syracuse, N.Y., decided that we were doing many programs and activities, yet we were not sure where they were heading and whether we held the same vision of Jewish learning. What did we think our congregants wanted to know? What did we feel should be learned? Who was coming to study and who was missing? Were our programs addressing the same themes and missing others?

We brought committee chairs, congregational professionals and lay leadership together to begin to wrestle with these questions. Our goal was to engage all of our congregants in learning by better meeting their needs through a coordinated program that addressed many facets of Judaism. Our hope was that learning would lead to increased engagement in the congregational and wider Jewish community.

At the same time, our religious school’s board of education decided that it was time to review our curriculum and school program. The curriculum committee’s process used the understanding by design model. Instead of focusing on what should be taught at each grade and what textbooks should be used, they began with what they wanted our students to use in the future.

Interestingly, both groups arrived at the same conclusions, which led to our seven guiding principles. No matter their age, we wanted our congregants to:

  • Understand that our purpose as a Jewish people is tikkun olam – to make the world a better place.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to apply Jewish values to our everyday lives.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to understand Jewish history and experiences in order to articulate the uniqueness of the Jewish people.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to use both Hebrew and English in prayer, ceremonies and celebrations.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to articulate our ongoing connection to Israel.
  • Have the skills and knowledge to engage in ongoing study of Torah and integrate its teachings into our lives.
  • Have opportunities to share their joy, pride and enthusiasm about Judaism and the Jewish community.

We also articulated some understandings that underlie our work and ongoing decisions. First, our overall goal was to ensure that learning focused on promoting Jewish living. Judaism is not meant to be an academic subject alone. We are meant to use our Jewish knowledge to guide our decisions and interactions.

We also want our congregants to see Jewish learning as a lifelong pursuit. We want our children to see their parents and other adults of all ages attending classes and one-time programs. We create opportunities for families to learn together and for our entire congregation to engage in learning and “doing Jewish.” Jewish professionals should also remain learners, continuing our own professional growth and Jewish study.

As Jewish educators, we hope that through their learning and experiences, our congregants’ values will include education. And that they will become educators themselves through their actions and deeds.

Iris Petroff is director of membership and programs, family educator and confirmation teacher at Temple Society of Concord, a Reform congregation in Syracuse, N.Y. She is also the president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education.)

Water and pumpkins mark eco-friendly Sukkot

During Sukkot, families of Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., will gather together for a special celebration. Socializing in the synagogue’s sukkah, they will be treated to a tantalizing array of chocolate cakes and candies, accompanied by delicious cups of … tap water.
“Which are you enjoying more, the sweets or the water?” congregant Evonne Marzouk will ask, knowing full well that the cups of water will remain largely untouched.

This activity is a set up. It’s modeled on Simchat Beit Hashoeva, the festive water-drawing ceremony that took place during Sukkot while the Temple was standing but that is rarely commemorated today. Reconfigured, however, as part of True Joy Through Water, a new outreach program created by Canfei Nesharim (“the wings of eagles”), an Orthodox environmental organization, it’s designed to educate the primarily Orthodox community about the importance of water, its imperiled state and ways to conserve it.

“At the time of the Temple, people lived on the land and understood that if there wasn’t rain, there wasn’t food. That absolute dependence is still true today, but we don’t think about it because we live so far from the land,” said Marzouk, who serves as executive director of Canfei Nesharim, which was founded in January 2003.
The True Joy Through Water activities, text studies and instructive sukkah decorations have been requested by more than 30 Orthodox congregations across the United States.

In Los Angeles, at Congregation B’nai David-Judea, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky hopes to perform several of the True Joy Through Water activities with synagogue members, especially those in the youth group, in the sukkah. No formal program is planned for Young Israel of Century City, but Rabbi Elazar Muskin has distributed the materials to his congregants and is hoping that “people will take an interest in this important endeavor.”
True Joy Through Water is one of several programs that Jewish environmentalists are promoting this Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Friday, Oct. 6, to encourage people to take stock not only of the earth’s bounty but also of the earth itself — and to take action to repair it.
At the Shalom Institute in the Malibu Mountains, about 80 teenagers will be working directly with the earth on Sunday, Oct. 8, preparing the soil and planting in the Marla Bennet Israel Garden. The ninth- through 12th-graders, participants in Camp JCA Shalom’s Teen Camp weekend, will learn about Sukkot as well as their responsibility to nature, according to Einat Gomel, an environmental educator from Israel now serving as the year-round director of the Shalom Nature Center.
In the afternoon, the Shalom Institute is hosting a family Sukkot celebration. “We will talk about how we can help kids build a better world and make it eco-related,” Gomel said. Families will also participate in a ceremony and service in the sukkah.
“The fragility of the sukkah and its shelter is eloquent testimony to both our dependence on the environment and the environment’s dependence on us,” said Everett Gendler, rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanuel in Lowell, Mass., who is considered by many to be the father of Jewish environmentalism.
Gendler, who admits to a fondness for pumpkins stemming from an overflowing pumpkin patch he visited yearly as a Midwestern youth, invented the “Yaakov Lantern.” It’s a bright orange pumpkin, home-grown by Gendler every year, on which he carves a typical jack-o’-lantern face on one side and a Star of David on the other. Inside, he places a candle.
At night, the Yaakov Lantern invokes the “ushpizim,” the biblical forefathers and foremothers whom Gendler refers to as the “ancestral spirits” and also illumines the sukkah in an environmentally friendly manner.
“It’s hard to imagine the sukkah with wires attached,” said Gendler, who invented the first solar powered “ner tamid” (everlasting light), and espouses alternative energy sources.
Another long-time environmentalist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center in Philadelphia, is hosting an expected crowd of 250 to 350 Jews, Christians and Muslims to address the question, “What can our religious traditions do to help heal the planet from the climate crisis of global ‘scorching?'”
Leaders from all three Abrahamic faiths will speak to the participants, who will also engage in prayer and song and build a sukkah together. In addition, they will have the opportunity to sign petitions asking for reductions in global warming and increased use of alternative energy sources, which will be delivered to national, state and local legislators.
“I’m hoping to have some direct impact right there on the spot, both in terms of public policy and in terms of congregations’ and congregants’ energy use,” Waskow said.
The event takes place on Oct. 8 and jointly celebrates Sukkot and the month of Ramadan, as well as the Feast Day of St. Francis of Assisi (Oct. 4). It is co-sponsored locally by The Shalom Center and is part of a nationwide effort initiated by “The Tent of Abraham, Hagar & Sarah,” a network of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
For Barbara Lerman-Golomb, executive director of Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL), Sukkot, as a harvest holiday, is a perfect time to talk about healthy foods for a healthy planet.
“Many individuals who have joined community supported farms and co-ops are bringing their organically grown fruits and vegetables into the sukkah,” she said.
On the first day of Sukkot, Lerman-Golomb herself is slated to speak at the Conservative Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn during the morning service.
“I coined the phrase ‘energy observant,'” said Lerman-Golomb, who will present the Jewish response to environmental issues and encourage people to lead more sustainable lives.
In particular she will stress the problem of global warming, part of a nationwide campaign the coalition launched in August — billed as “How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Lightbulb?” — which will culminate at Chanukah.

A congregation grows in Whittier — Hispanic outreach blooms

Something extraordinary is going on at Whittier’s Beth Shalom Synagogue, which has been in its present site east of Los Angeles since the early 1960s. As the area’s Jewish population base has dwindled — and as the Conservative congregation has aged — Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak has reached out to the Spanish-speaking community in the area.

“One of the purposes was to educate our neighbors about Judaism,” Beliak said. “But it was also to reach out to those in the Hispanic community who may have had some kind of Jewish connection: people in mixed marriages, those with a Jewish parent or grandparent or those who may have had a Jewish boss they felt close to. Was it with the hope of converting some to Judaism? I would say yes, that, too. All of the above.”

In recent years, several neighbors trickled in and converted, becoming part of the congregation, but it was last February that the real change took place. Beliak asked Argentine-born Rabbi Aaron Katz to teach a class — in Spanish — about Jewish history, philosophy and traditions. The class started with six students of Mexican and Central American background, most having been brought up in Catholic households.

Katz was surprised when the class quickly expanded, some bringing in spouses, friends and children. It was clear to him that the participants felt a deep spiritual connection to Judaism — they weren’t there merely to learn, they came for faith-driven reasons. These people wanted to practice Judaism.

Several in the Grupo Hispano, as a couple of the members referred to the group, said that they had grown up in homes with what they later realized were Jewish traditions: no eating of pork, devotion to study. They have no proof that they’re descended from those forcibly converted to Catholicism 500 years ago, but several said that the first time they stepped into Beth Shalom it felt familiar, as if they had “come home.”

After a couple of months of study, members of the group asked Katz for their own services. So, since June, in a separate room within Beth Shalom, Katz has led them in Spanish-language services, as does another Argentine-born rabbi, Daniel Mehlman.

The Grupo Hispano is also learning Hebrew prayers and songs. It has become a community within a community and now numbers about 30.

Katz said that when he came to the United States four years ago, he had no intention of becoming a congregational rabbi again. He wanted to teach and study, which he’s done at several institutions.

“When I started giving classes to this group,” he said, “I thought it was just a teaching assignment. But their interest and enthusiasm drew me in. So now I’m once again a rabbi with a community. It’s these people. They made me a rabbi again.”

Nearly everyone in the group seems to be in the process of converting or intends to do so soon. Some have already done so.

How has the existing congregation dealt with this?

“Some have grumbled,” Beliak said. “But for the most part, the new members have been welcomed warmly.”

One congregant, 80-year-old Zelda Walker, said, “It’s wonderful! I’ve seen the conversion of two already. I’m delighted to see the community take in new members.”

Other congregants echoed the same thought. Recently, the two groups had Tisha B’Av service together, and now, after the Grupo Hispano has its separate Spanish-language service, members join the English-language congregation for Torah reading and Kiddush.

“Hopefully, in the coming months we will enjoy a renaissance,” wrote Beliak in the shul’s newsletter, Mishpacha, now published in English and Spanish.
Beliak said that the new members are extremely interested in matters of faith and have revitalized his shul.

“They have a yearning for divinity, as sincere as anyone I’ve ever known,” he said. “A sense of the spiritual. They are the ones setting the standard. In their own way, they’re more interested in being observant than the existing congregation.”

“This group,” Katz said, “is intensely involved in the spiritual aspect of our religion. That’s rare in Los Angeles or anywhere else. Of course, the social part is important, but [the Grupo Hispano] is looking for something more, and so am I. For many, it’s going to be their first High Holy Days, and they’re thrilled.”

Beth Shalom is located at 14564 E. Hawes St., Whittier. Parking is at 14579 Mulberry St.

On Sept. 22 at 7:30 p.m., there will be a joint service of the two groups at Beth Shalom’s sanctuary. On Sept. 23-24 at 9 a.m., there will be separate services in Spanish and English, then the two groups will join for Torah reading.

On Kol Nidre, Oct. 1, the two groups will be together, and on Oct. 2, the Spanish-language group will have its own Yom Kippur service, then join the others for Torah reading.

For further information, call (562) 941-8744, visit

Jewish bond doesn’t draw all to Holiday observances

They include a law professor, a newspaper editor, a computer scientist, an architect and a retired Army colonel.
However diverse, they have one thing in common: They generally do not attend synagogue services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Yet they are neither self-denying Jews nor rare exceptions. Some are intensely dedicated Jews, and all feel bound to the Jewish people. Statistically, 39 percent of all American Jews, and 44 percent of all Jewish college students, do not attend religious services, according to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.
Judea Pearl is a UCLA professor of computer science and a leading international authority on artificial intelligence. He is also president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, established to carry on the work and world view of his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter who was murdered by Islamic extremists in Pakistan.
With his wife, Ruth, Judea Pearl is co-editor of the award-winning collection of essays, “I Am Jewish,” the title reflecting his son’s last words before his execution.
Yehuda Pearl grew up in Bnai Brak, one of the most ultra-Orthodox enclaves in Israel, which was co-founded by his grandfather, Chaim Pearl, a Chassid from Poland. It was not exactly the place to declare oneself a nonbeliever, but Yehuda did just that at the age of 11.
“I had thought a great deal about it and decided that it was impossible that the deity worshipped by my parents and grandparents existed,” he said. “Everybody thought it was just a youthful phase, but I never got over it. I cannot believe that there is a God who listens to my prayers.”
Yet, the Pearls light candles every Friday night and make Kiddush.
“My parents and grandparents did this, and I do so in their memory,” he said.
“Or perhaps, to show my daughters something about their tradition.”
With a laugh, Pearl recalled a recent dialogue with a Muslim academician, after which he, some Jewish friends and about 30 Muslims adjoined to a restaurant for dinner.
It was a Friday night, so Pearl asked the waiter for glasses, a bottle of wine (juice for the Muslims) and recited the Kiddush prayer. Both his Jewish and Muslim friends were flabbergasted.
“But you said you were secular,” they said, shaking their heads.
Bret Israel, editor of the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section, usually takes a long walk on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur near his home in the Hollywood Hills.
“I am not a deeply meditative person, but I find that a walk on that day helps to cleanse the spirit,” he said.
Some years, he will take the holiday walk along Santa Monica Boulevard or another city street. “For me, it’s a way of being of this world and not being of this world,” Israel said.
Israel was raised in a Reform family on Long Island, N.Y., had a bar mitzvah but stopped going to synagogue during his college years.
His immigrant grandfather from Germany was adamantly secular and refused to step into a synagogue as a matter of principle.
“I am not like that. I’ll go occasionally with a friend, usually to Temple Israel of Hollywood,” he said. “But in general, by temperament and philosophy, I don’t feel comfortable in organized worship.”
However, in the past two years, Israel has taken to fasting on Yom Kippur, explaining, “Somehow, it’s a cleansing experience.”
Jonathan Zasloff loves Shabbat services, takes and teaches classes on Judaism, fasts on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av and generally walks out of the High Holidays services before they conclude. A UCLA law professor, specializing in environmental and urban planning, Zasloff, 41, was raised in a Conservative home and tends to attend Conservative synagogues.
However, “I find much of the liturgy and services outdated, inaccessible, highly stylized and not very spiritual,” he objected. “And too many of the services are formalistic and stilted.
“I don’t like other people praying for me,” he continued. “Though I find parts of the services meaningful, we must find some ways to make them more participatory and interactive. That’s why I like to go to the Brandeis-Bardin Institute.”
Architect Allen Rubenstein, project manager for capital construction for Beverly Hills, grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s and ’40s. His American-born parents observed no particular ritual on Friday nights, “but we always had chicken soup,” he recalled. “And on Sunday mornings, we had herring and boiled potatoes.”
When he reached 13, his mother wanted him to have a bar mitzvah, and Rubenstein shudders at the recollection.
“They sent me to an old rabbi, who spoke hardly any English and rapped me on the knuckles,” he said. “I read without understanding anything.”
The experience did not induce a love for religious study. “I saw no reason to go back,” he said.
Rubenstein moved to the San Fernando Valley and married. When his two daughters grew up, “they sort of wanted to have a bat mitzvah because their girlfriends had them. I was neither for it, nor against it,” he said.
Occasionally, he went to a synagogue for the High Holidays, “more to listen to the sermon than for the service.” But last year, when his daughter invited him to her temple for Rosh Hashanah, he declined.
So what makes Rubinstein, a thoughtful and sensitive man, a Jew at all?
“Culturally, I feel very comfortable in a Jewish environment. It’s in the food we eat, the family feeling, what we talk about,” he replied. “I feel connected to Israel, and I support Jewish charities. But when it comes to the formal parts of religion, I feel alienated.”
Rubenstein’s daughter, Karen Willis, is on the board of directors at Temple B’nai Hayim, a Conservative congregation in Sherman Oaks, and sends her children to a Jewish day school.

Tri-ing to raise funds for Israel; gems of wisdom for 5767

Tri-ing to Raise Funds for Israel
Forever diffusing the image of schlubby Orthodox slackers who don’t see much of the sun, six members of congregation B’nai David-Judea completed the Los Angeles Triathlon Sept. 10, and raised $8,000 for Israel in the process.Noam Drazin, Ivan Wolkind, David Mankowitz, Sheldon Kasdan, J.J. Wernick and Yigal Newman successfully completed the race at the Olympic level, which includes a .9-mile ocean swim, a 24-mile bike ride and a 6.2-mile run.
But this summer, their rigorous training schedule — a 5 a.m. bike ride and run on Sundays, a 6 a.m. ocean swim twice a week — began to feel frivolous as bombs fell on Israel.
“We realized that while we were spending our time running, biking and swimming, many people in Israel were fleeing their homes and fearing for their lives,” said Wernick.
Newman, an Israeli, has a brother who was called to Lebanon as a reservist in the Israeli army.
The group sent e-mails to family and friends, asking them to donate on their behalf to Amit’s Israel Emergency fund, a favorite charity of Wernick’s recently deceased mother.
The group hopes to bring the total up to $10,000 with post-event fundraising, and they plan to continue training.
“We started with yuppies and made them into guppies,” said the team’s coach, Olympian Clay Evans. “These guys came to us barely able to swim 100 meters last year and are now right up there in the middle of the pack.”
To donate, or for information, visit
— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor
Gems of Wisdom for 5767
“I learned in bodybuilding that the best way to gain strength was to take my muscles to their absolute limit — to the point of failure — where they were so out of energy that they couldn’t even lift a small amount of weight. Then, after a few day’s rest, they would not only be ready to lift again, but they were now bigger, stronger and able to lift more than ever before,” writes Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on the new High Holiday Web site, “Jewels of Elul” ( Craig Taubman started the project last year to provide inspirational stories — one for every day of the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar, to prepare for the High Holidays.
The governor wrote his under the heading “Pushing The Limits,” and it continues: “Just like in bodybuilding, failure is also a necessary experience for growth in our own lives, for if we’re never tested to our limits, how will we know how strong we really are? How will we ever grow?”
Taubman, a musician, entertainer and music producer of Craig n’ Co., had been searching for inspiration last year, “and I wanted to find it in the time it takes to brew a pot of coffee,” he said. So he gathered stories from community leaders, teachers, artists and thinkers.
“We asked people to write on a deceptively simple theme, ‘What I have learned thus far…,'” Taubman said of the 29 essays.
Contributors to this year’s anthology include a young Jewish soldier fighting in Iraq; a recovering drug addict; a Muslim educator; and the producer of Will & Grace, David Kohan.
“My mother tried to instill in me an ethos of toughness and self-respect through the oft-repeated aphorism, ‘Never let anybody spit in your kasha.'” Kohan writes. “I have taken those words to heart and have never, not once, served kasha.”
“My father showed me by example that a deeply contented life can be had if lived by the abiding principles of kindness, graciousness, respect for the dignity of others, and major denial of all things scary and bad,” he continued. “I, myself, have concluded thus far that life is glorious and magnificent beyond description, and the notion that we live this life fully aware of its inevitable end is fundamentally a comic one. Laughter, therefore, seems the most appropriate response to that Universal Joke.”
Most of the jewels are not as funny as Kohan’s. Consider “Echoes for Eternity,” by Max S. Phillips, a 21-year-old Specialist (E-4) deployed in Iraq: “Strength and honor…this world and the next. So on good days, I really do know that my life and mission make a difference for my country and my world. And on the bad days when I have been awake for 24 straight hours and the temperature in the Humvee is over 140, I still know that the guys in my truck are counting on me and counting on the way we work together and rely on each other, despite all the ‘dissing.’
“Before I left, my Abba and I were considering getting matching tattoos (I know, not very Jewish). Mitzpah Genesis 31:49 says: ‘For he (Jacob) said, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another.”‘ We didn’t need to get the tattoos on our wrists, because the words were in our hearts.
“HaShem is watching over us. We are together in this world. My life is creating its own echoes for the next.”
The Jewels, which are sponsored by Mt. Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, can also be ordered online as gifts.
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

The Little Shul That Could — Highland Park’s Temple Beth Israel

Walk up the steep pathway and into the sanctuary of Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock on any Shabbat morning. Congregants will jump up out of their wooden pews to greet you and introduce you to fellow worshippers, even if the service has begun. Chances are they’ll also honor you with an aliyah and invite you to join them for the potluck Kiddush luncheon that follows their traditional but egalitarian Conservative service.

“We’re Temple Beth Haimish,” said Henry Leventon, 76, immediate past president and 30-year member of this independent synagogue, which claims about 50 member families of all ages but which averages only 15 or so participants on a given Shabbat morning.

“We’ve managed to survive because we’re friendly and our dues are reasonable,” Leventon added.

But spend a little time with this collegial congregation, and it’s clear that its survival goes beyond ordinary friendliness to a fierce dedication to each other and to the institution.

At the High Holidays, for example, about 70 congregants come together, filling almost half of the 156-seat sanctuary. Some travel from as far away as Ventura and Orange counties. Others, from places such as New Mexico and North Carolina, whose parents or grandparents belonged to the temple, send annual contributions.

At the Yom Kippur Yizkor service, all 150 names on the memorial board are lit up and read aloud.

These historical ties are authentic. Temple members will proudly tell you that they believe they’re the oldest congregation in Los Angeles to continuously hold Shabbat and High Holiday services in their original building, a fact confirmed by Steve Sass, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California.

The longevity, in large part, can be attributed to a deep-seated spirit of volunteerism, especially among the nine men and women who comprise the board of directors. Indeed, the temple is almost entirely member run, with the exception of Cantor Ken Rothstein, hired to lead services every Shabbat morning, and retired Rabbi Lewis Bogage of Denver and Palm Springs, who officiates at High Holiday services.

Congregants do everything from delivering drashes on the weekly Torah portion to working on a major re-landscaping project for the 8,000-square-foot front yard to taking home the garbage after every Kiddush luncheon and holiday celebration, saving on waste disposal fees.

“It’s lay leadership at its best,” Bogage said.

This participatory style dates back to the congregation’s founding in 1923 when Esther Weinstein, newly relocated with her husband and young children from Boston to Highland Park, went searching for a Jewish community at a time when most Jews were clustered farther east, in Boyle Heights. Undaunted, she asked her postman for the addresses of local families with Jewish-sounding names and visited them. When enough families expressed interest in forming a synagogue, Weinstein called a meeting, convincing everyone that “di kinder darfn hobn a talmud toyre” (“the children need a religious school”).

Thus was born the Highland Park Hebrew School Association (which changed its name to Temple Beth Israel in 1946). The group began assembling in members’ homes and rented spaces. Finally, after years of vigorous debate among members, ground was broken on Aug. 17, 1930, for a permanent building on a plot of land purchased six years earlier, up on a hill on Monte Vista Avenue, between avenues 57 and 58.

The following month, the congregation held High Holiday services on that property. The building, according to the synagogue’s first yearbook, published in 1948, consisted of “just the frame, unadorned, with cheese-cloth for plaster, and rough boards for flooring, but it was a temple.”

By December of that year, the streamlined modern building, with its sanctuary rimmed with amber stained-glass windows featuring blue borders and blue Stars of David in white circles, was completed. It cost $4,077.88, leaving a balance of only $38.04 in the synagogue’s checking account and $17.57 in savings.

new temple building

“It was never a wealthy congregation in any sense of the word,” said Pauline Weinstein Ledeen, 96, the daughter of Esther Weinstein. But through the years members have generously donated their time and their skills.

The synagogue has undergone two renovations, both in the 1950s and both designed and supervised by temple member and interior architect Jerome Share. In the sanctuary, Share added a new ark, paneling and new wooden pews. He also created a new eternal light and a “lion of Judah” wire sculpture above the two sanctuary doors. Additionally, the project entailed remodeling the now outdated kitchen.

The synagogue, however, remains its original size of about 4,000 square feet. In addition to the sanctuary and large but basic kitchen, it includes a social hall, connected to the sanctuary by an accordion-pleated divider, two small bathrooms, a tiny office and a cloakroom that now serves mostly as a storage area.

Ledeen, a retired attorney and community advocate, grew up at Temple Beth Israel and still attends almost every Shabbat. She recalls the temple’s heyday, from the 1930s to the early 1960s, when membership numbered about 200 families, many of whom owned stores on nearby Figueroa Street. In addition to regular Shabbat and holiday services, the synagogue sponsored an active Hebrew school and sisterhood, as well as holiday celebrations and donor dinners.

In fact, in 1960, when Rabbi Eli Schochet was newly ordained from the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan and seeking a congregation in California, he found two openings: one at Temple Beth Israel, which he described on the Shomrei Torah Synagogue Web site as “an established functioning synagogue in an established Jewish community,” and one at Congregation Beth Kodesh in Canoga Park, which he said was “more pioneering venture than shul.” He selected the latter, which, having merged with Temple Beth Ami in 1994 to form Shomrei Torah Synagogue, is now firmly ensconced in West Hills.

Still, Temple Beth Israel perseveres, albeit on a shoestring budget compared to many shuls. Last year, the temple’s annual budget totaled $34,000, according to secretary-treasurer Ken Ofgang. It endures despite the fact that the ever-westward-moving Jewish population has now rendered it the “pioneering venture.” The challenge, according to current president and 10-year member Bill Fishman, is to develop programming to entice new members and yet maintain the present level of activity.

Already, in addition to Saturday morning and holiday services, the synagogue hosts an annual Chanukah party, which incorporates the lighting of a member-made PVC pipe chanukiyah on the front lawn; a Purim shpiel, which is perfected and enhanced every year, and a second-night seder, which is always an immediate sellout. Two years ago, a monthly Friday evening service, conducted by congregant Mark Strunin, was added to the mix.

However, the synagogue has no religious school — no one seems to know when the former one ended, though they say it was never a formal program, but rather congregant-led classes. There is also no formal b’nai mitzvah program, which is a major deterrent for families with young children. To begin addressing this issue, Ed Leibowitz, 10-year temple member and father of a 2-year-old son, is spearheading a monthly Sunday morning Parent and Me program, geared for 2- to 6-year-olds and taught by volunteer parents and older congregants. Leibowitz envisions the class, slated to begin this fall, as a way for children to learn about Jewish traditions and holidays through art projects, food and other fun activities.

Another challenge is the absence of a wheelchair accessible entrance, particularly problematic since the temple sits atop a hill, placed far back on the property. This was a deliberate decision on the part of the original architect, a young man whose name has become lost but whose vision lives on: he had previously designed only markets and believed a synagogue should be placed as close to God as possible.

“It’s great for lofty biblical reasons but awful for practicality,” said past president Leventon.

Board members hope eventually to remedy the situation, but just the cost of hiring a surveyor, a necessary first step, is prohibitive.

Finances remain tight. Some of the operating income comes from dues — $340 for a family, $200 for a single person and even less for a single senior — and from the annual High Holiday pitch, regularly given by Leventon and always targeted toward a specific cause. This year the Belfast-born Leventon, in his most persuasive Irish brogue, plans to ask for money to repair the temple’s five Torahs.

In addition, various grants, as well as occasional large donations, come in, enabling the synagogue always to meet its financial obligations.

“It’s one of those miracles,” said Ofgang, who lists insurance coverage as the synagogue’s major expense, followed by utility bills and salaries.

Over the past few years, the synagogue has engaged in some reorganization and renewal projects in an attempt to attract new faces. Four years ago, Fishman, the “most computerized” of the congregants, constructed a synagogue Web site as well as a database of members and other supporters.

Specifically for the High Holidays, Fishman sends out letters to all 240 people in the database, soliciting donations and offering $50 High Holiday tickets to nonmembers. He also advertises in the local community newspaper, the Boulevard Sentinel.

Two years ago, a major landscaping project was initiated, a “spiritual journey path” that is replacing the expansive overgrown and weed-ridden lawn with native shrubs and that links environmental stewardship with Jewish spirituality. It’s being accomplished with the assistance of temple member Jerry Schneider, long interested in sustainable landscaping, and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California.

At the same time, an electric outdoor sign that had been sitting in pieces in the basement was rewired, repainted and replaced on the front lawn, proving to passersby that Temple Beth Israel is “still in business.”

For the long haul, congregants are hoping the eventual re-gentrification of the Highland Park and Eagle Rock communities will bring in new families and singles to this essentially non-Jewish neighborhood. In the meantime, the small band of self-described “participatory and scrappy” temple members, bound together by their love of Judaism and deep historical and personal bonds, keeps the synagogue afloat.

“This is almost the kind of Judaism that people’s grandfathers and grandmothers used to tell them about in Brooklyn or the Bronx,” said board member Leibowitz, “where money meant nothing and where participation meant everything.”

Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.

What I Really Asked Mel Gibson

Can an alcoholic who was poisoned with his father’s anti-Semitism use a moment of naked exposure to confront his bigotry? Can he ever hope to cleanse himself of this deeply-seated
hatred or is he forever doomed?

Will he turn his life around and begin using his celebrity and wealth to combat the anti-Semitism he now eschews? Is the adage, once an anti-Semite, always an anti-Semite, unshakeable?

As a Jewish people, these are some of the questions we all personally confront in different forms during the month of Elul, the 30-day period preceding the better-known 10 days of penitence (Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur).

For some of us, combating anti-Semitism has replaced the teachings of our faith on compassion as a new form of religion. I meet many Jews who are not religious, don’t keep the Torah, but let anyone dare insult the name of our people, and they are the first to condemn him.

That may be the beginning and the end of Jewish identity for some. But I believe such a reactive mentality neglects the foundations of our faith and its teachings on redemption.

Mel Gibson made a tepid but widely reported expression of remorse and a call to begin dialogue with rabbis after spewing anti-Semitic comments. In response, I invited Gibson to publicly apologize before my congregation on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Our faith does not believe in vicarious atonement and requires direct action to the injured party, coupled with one’s apology. The media mistakenly reported my letter to Gibson as an offer to speak, not as an offer to apologize. It furthermore omitted the key precondition of a face-to-face meeting. Should that meeting ever come to pass, I would use my 30 years of rabbinical experience, 20 of them spent in the entertainment and arts community, to evaluate Gibson’s sincerity.

I would begin by requiring him to adhere to the same four steps of repentance that I set as a guideline for myself. Firstly, he must admit his act and acknowledge that it is not a new phenomenon.

Secondly, he must make a confession of the terrible slander he uttered at a time of defensive war and great sensitivity for the Jewish people. When he declared “the Jews start all the wars,” he was pointing an anti-Semitic finger at the Jewish state, instead of at the true culprit, Hezbollah Islamo-fascism and its call for Israel’s destruction.

How would he respond to his Malibu church and home being bombarded and his children being kidnapped? Gibson needs to comprehend and fully own the scope of that libel. Individual apologies to the families of fallen Israel Defense Forces soldiers would be an appropriate start.

Thirdly, he is required to express his sincere contrition and directly ask forgiveness of the injured party. Sometimes the place you choose for such an act can send an important message.

I recently returned from Poland, where I attended a memorial ceremony at the Auschwitz death camp led by Pope Benedict XVI. During our personal exchange, he told me why he had come to that place of horror. It was, he said, “to make a statement as the leader of world Catholicism and as a son of Germany.” His humble presence and words of comfort spoke volumes.

Gibson’s father denies the Holocaust, and Gibson must now clearly and unequivocally denounce that perverted view. I urged him to stand before the Jewish community, with his children at his side, and break the intergenerational cycle of hatred.

Lastly, any sinner is required to make a, “tikkun,” a viable act of repairing the injury. Gibson should sponsor an annual seminar on combating all forms of religious, ethnic, sexual and racial hatred. Real soul repair requires time and work but it must begin.

Once these concrete steps have been undertaken, we, as a people who pride ourselves at being “the compassionate children of compassionate ancestors,” must open to accept his contrition. While we may remain skeptical, we must be prepared to forgive.

According to the prophet Isaiah, in the final days, the children of those who despised Israel will come to worship with us in the temple of Zion. (Isaiah 60:14) The objective here is not religious conversion, but rather that the persecutor shares in the perspective of the persecuted.

The world is too full of blind hatred of our people, and if we can respond to one anti-Semite is it worth the effort? Rabbinic tradition narrated that some of our worst enemies became instructors of Torah.

The great Rabbi Meir of the second century was a descendant of the Roman emperor, Nero. The offspring of Sennacherib, who sacked Jerusalem, came to teach Torah in public. These were none other than Shemaya and Avtalyon, two of the most distinguished members of the rabbinic chain of tradition. They were also the teachers of the renown sage, Rabbi Hillel, who asked, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, of what worth am I, and if not now, when?”

Gibson is currently in alcoholism rehabilitation, and I have postponed the invitation for a later date. The time to begin, however, is now, and these 30 days of soul-centered repentance are the opening for his anti-Semitic rehabilitation to begin and for us to ask questions about our dearly held assumptions.

Rabbi David Baron is the spiritual leader of Temple of the Arts. He is the author of the “Sacred Moments” prayer book and “Moses on Management: Leadership Lessons in Business and Life” (Simon & Schuster). He produced a nationally televised Yom Kippur program for the homebound which airs on PAX TV.

New Options Emerge After Long Beach Shuls Shift

Long Beach has had a significant and stable Jewish population for decades, so it might seem unusual for a synagogue to make major changes in the way it serves its membership and the community. In recent months, however, individuals and families in the area have been reevaluating their choices as a new option for affiliation has surfaced.

This past April, two Conservative synagogues, Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach and Temple Beth Zion-Sinai in Lakewood, were making plans to merge, an idea that had been discussed off and on for many years.

According to Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg, Beth Zion-Sinai requested that the two synagogues move forward and put the merger to a vote. While the membership at Beth Shalom voted almost unanimously for the merger, Beth Zion-Sinai did not reach the required two-thirds vote.

The failed merger ended amicably, according to Stan Yellin, president of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, but it also took his congregation in a new and innovative direction: The membership decided to become a progressive, or nondenominational, synagogue.

Along with the transition came a name change; now called Congregation Shir Chadash, it hired a new rabbi, Howard Laibson, several months ago. Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1981, Laibson had been at the helm of Temple Israel of Long Beach for 17 years. His move to Shir Chadash means leading the congregation in its pursuit of change.

“We are about to embark upon a new, challenging and exciting enterprise,” Laibson said in a message to his new congregation. “We will maintain and build anew the deep commitments to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people that are hallmarks of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai. We’re going to do so in a most unusual manner, by embracing Jewish diversity and by eschewing denominational labels. The hope is that many new families will become members of our synagogue, and they are likely to bring all sorts of traditions and practices with them. We want all Jews to feel at home here. So ours will be neither a Reform nor a Conservative congregation.”

Nationally, this kind of shift toward nondenominational Jewish institutions is on the rise.

“We are seeing a nationwide movement to do away with denominations,” said Deborah Goldfarb, executive director of the Jewish Federation in Long Beach. Goldfarb describes this development as a response to new nondenominational ways some Jews are seeking to connect to Judaism — embracing the notion of “I’m just Jewish.”

“It is a positive move for synagogues to reexamine their places in the community and how they appeal to their constituents,” Goldfarb said.

Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg says that although his congregation initially was disappointed that the merger did not go through, they are confident about future growth.

“Our temple continues as a full member of the Conservative movement,” Greenberg said. “We are making great progress and looking forward now to being the only Conservative shul and with the only conservative Torah School in the greater Long Beach area.”

Rabbi Ilana Grinblat of Beth Shalom is optimistic as well.

“We are continuing to move forward in a positive direction,” Grinblat said. “We remain a Conservative, egalitarian synagogue and are very pleased with our growth in membership. In just this past year we have welcomed at least 25 new member families.”

Following the departure of Laibson, Temple Israel of Long Beach also is undergoing change. They are in the midst of a search for a new head rabbi, and a number of members followed Laibson to the new nondenominational Shir Chadash.
However, even with the migration, Temple Israel’s membership remains relatively unchanged, with approximately 500 member families. Sharon Amster Brown, director of education at Temple Israel’s Torah Center said student enrollment also has stayed consistent.

All this movement may be a reflection of the fluidity of a dynamic, changing Jewish population in the area and the differing ways in which families wish to observe. Jessie Butler, a Long Beach resident for 44 years and past president of the Jewish Community Center, has observed the shifts.

“I’ve seen changes in the demographic of our senior population, and I’ve watched the numbers of young people and teenagers go up and down numerous times over the years,” Butler said. “Currently we have many young families joining the JCC and a waiting list at our nursery schools. I think that’s a positive sign.”

Tranforming the Synagogue — A Scorecard

Synagogue transformation programs exude good intentions, but do they actually work?

The record is mixed. They are no panacea, but they sometimes benefit participating congregations — at least temporarily — by attracting newcomers, energizing existing members and perhaps forcing the synagogues to re-examine themselves.

For example, Rabbi Shawn Zevit, a spokesman for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, said participating congregations in his movement have enjoyed “modest success” in luring unaffiliated Jews, although getting them to participate in synagogue activities has not always been easy. On the other hand, he added, some existing members have become more deeply involved in congregational life thanks to transformation initiatives.

Those initiatives include Synaplex, whose core mission is to strengthen Jewish identity and create a sense of community largely by making Shabbat meaningful.

Turnout at synagogues that have participated in the program for at least two years generally doubles, triples, or even quadruples on Synaplex weekends, according to Rabbi Hayim Herring, a spokesman for Synaplex’s parent organization, STAR, or Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal. What’s more, Herring added, membership has either stabilized or increased at 17 pilot congregations evaluated by his organization, even those that had been losing members.

But a boost in headcount does not necessarily translate into meaningful change, according to representatives of both transformation projects and participating synagogues.

“The goal of a synagogue is not simply to get people to use it, although that may be the initial goal,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “The ultimate goal is to effect change in the person and the congregation. I’d look at the situation two years from now and see how many people have had continuous involvement, or became involved only because this is something new.”

The success rate of these experiments varies dramatically, according to Epstein. Without offering percentages, he said he has observed “large numbers” of congregations that seek a “quick fix,” and therefore have achieved only limited success — and “large numbers” that have been able to reinvent themselves and become more vibrant institutions.

Benchmarks of congregational transformation come in many forms — some of them concrete and easy to quantify, but many more of them abstract and difficult to attach numbers to. They may be manifested by congregants who now take Jewish learning seriously. Or who have inculcated Jewish values into their lives. Or feel prayer in their bones for the first time. Or it may be reflected in a once-impersonal synagogue that now has a warm, friendly atmosphere and makes newcomers feel at home.

Whether these innovations actually take root is the product of many factors, according to Epstein and others, including the quality of leadership at individual congregations, and that can vary widely. The consensus: The best leaders are visionaries who cultivate congregations that creatively and boldly pursue long-lasting change rather than simply add new programs. Ideally, such an approach is so firmly implanted in the congregational culture that it will survive changes in synagogue personnel.

“You have to be ready to look at yourself objectively and critically and really be honest about what your strengths and weaknesses are,” said Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “You need to create rising expectations and break your sense of complacency. It’s very difficult.” Freelander said only about one-half of the congregations he has monitored have been able to create a climate that is conducive to profound change. “But when it happens,” he added, “you can see the light bulbs going off and the congregation is better for it.”

The point at which change becomes “meaningful” or even “profound” is subject to interpretation, of course. Herring of Synaplex, for one, said an important threshold has been crossed when a congregation “moves from using Synaplex as a program to using Synaplex as a way of doing business in the synagogue.”

However it is defined, fashioning a truly transformative approach to congregational thinking and decision-making “is incredibly hard to do and we still have a lot to learn about how to do it,” said Lawrence Hoffman, the co-founder of Synagogue 2000, an initiative that was launched in 1995 and recently evolved into a leadership-training program known as Synagogue 3000. The goal of Synagogue 2000, in part, was to help congregations become more spiritual, adult-centered and welcoming.

Hoffman estimates that about one-third of the 100 congregations served by Synagogue 2000 had poor leadership, and therefore achieved lackluster results. Of the remaining synagogues, he said, about one-third of them were modestly successful at transforming themselves and one-third were very successful.
Amy Sales, associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University, said that about half of the Synaplex synagogues she surveyed could legitimately be called success stories.

A third major shul-overhaul program is the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) , which focuses on Torah study as an important entry point into Jewish life. “On one level, transformation seems daunting,” said ECE director Rob Weinberg. “But on another level, we’re just asking congregations to do the best of what they already do, but on a regular basis.”

Stressing that he considers success to be a “continuum, rather than a yes-no proposition,” Weinberg estimates that roughly one-half to three-quarters of the synagogues that have participated in his program for several years have in fact transformed themselves.

Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., is one of them. Under the ECE aegis, the 1,000-family Reform congregation spent five years coming up with five core Jewish values — lifelong learning, enriching spirituality, creating community, social action, and Jewish continuity.

Ideally, every new synagogue event or program exemplifies one of those values. For example, when three of the temple’s aging Torah mantles disintegrated, more than 330 members, from nursery school children to grandparents, needlepointed decorative covers for the new mantles, illustrating the values of kedusha (holiness) and kehillah (community).

Meanwhile, the congregation has become active in its local federation and the national Reform movement and has sent two large groups to Israel this past year.
“That’s what it means to us to be a learning congregation,” said Temple Shalom education director Julie Vanek. “Not just creating programs, but helping people reflect on who they are and what they want to be.” l

Rebuilding New Orleans — With A Little Help From Each Other

One year after “the storm,” as New Orleanians refer to Hurricane Katrina, Jewish communal leaders describe the health of the community with certain expected terms — loss, trauma, devastation and challenge.

Unexpected is the word “blessed,” used repeatedly in reference to the outpouring from the American Jewish community of financial support, volunteerism and donations of everything from teddy bears to challah covers.

Funds from the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella of the North American federation system, and the national religious movements have kept New Orleans’ Jewish agencies and synagogues afloat this past year and are expected to do so through 2007.

To date, the UJC has contributed more than $17 million to the rebuilding efforts; the Reform movement has contributed some $800,000 to local Reform congregations, with another $800,000 available for recovery efforts not covered by insurance. Other movements have sent funds as well, although exact figures were not available.

What will happen in 2008 and beyond is the worry that both drives many planning meetings during the day and keeps communal leaders up at night.

“Fortunately, the Jewish community has not had to depend on the help of government, given its failure at all levels,” said Allan Bissinger, president of the New Orleans federation. “UJC has taken the place of what the government should normally have done.”

Roselle Ungar, interim executive director of the federation, said, “What UJC and the many generous contributions from individuals across the country have given us is the opportunity to take a deep breath, step back and take the time to make the hard decisions that will be necessary, so that in 2008 we can stand on our own two feet again.”

A community-wide task force is in the beginning stages of implementing a recovery plan. The plan focuses on such issues as how to retain current residents while encouraging new ones to resettle in New Orleans. It also is determining how the organized Jewish community can work smarter to make the best use of limited dollars.

One of the positive outgrowths of the storm has been the burgeoning spirit of cooperation among all the New Orleans Jewish institutions. Beth Israel Congregation, the Orthodox synagogue that took on 10 feet of water, is now holding a Shabbat minyan at the Reform Gates of Prayer Congregation.

The Anti-Defamation League is sharing federation office space. Interagency programs are on the upswing, and a Hebrew free-loan program is in the works. The JCC is getting needed revenue by renting out its facilities to community groups.

Tackling the population issue will not be as easy. Current estimates are that the Jewish community will stabilize at about 65 percent its pre-storm strength of about 10,000 individuals.

Although there are no hard and fast data about the population exodus, the increasing number of “For sale” signs attests to residents’ continued impatience with the slow pace of recovery, frustration with the government and concern about the rising crime rate. And it would be difficult to exaggerate the impact another hurricane would have on people’s decisions to move.

Although all age groups have joined this exodus, one particular cohort — those in their 60s and 70s with grown children in other communities — has been leaving in large numbers.

Communal officials count the loss of these individuals particularly troublesome because these are the big machers — those with the money and the time to make significant contributions. Every institution has lost some of its biggest donors and officers.

At the same time, each of the five synagogues surveyed has reported new members, mostly young people drawn by the pioneer spirit of rebuilding and the opportunity to make a difference.

Indeed, despite the loss of members, synagogue attendance seems to have remained stable. As Rabbi Andrew Busch of the Reform congregation, Touro Synagogue, put it, “In their new lives after the storm, people have a greater need to come together in the synagogue.”

Rabbi Ted Lichtenfeld of Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation agreed.
“Though I have not had people battering down my door for pastoral counseling, in a sense, the storm underlines everything,” he said. “Fortunately, very few of my congregants lost family members to the storm, but most are rebuilding their homes and almost everyone’s job was affected in one way or the other. That is taking up so much of their energy. They come to synagogue to be in community.”

Undaunted by the storm, Chabad-Lubavitch of Louisiana has committed to build a new student center at Tulane University; the cornerstone ceremony is scheduled to be held Aug. 27, two days before the storm’s anniversary.

The New Orleans Jewish Day School, a community school supported by the federation, has been hit hard by the population exodus. From a pre-storm enrollment of nearly 90 children in kindergarten through eighth grade, it will begin the coming school year with 23 children in just two classes: a combined kindergarten-first grade and a second-third grade class. This precipitous decrease comes despite a halving of tuition, made possible by outside contributions.

Because the local Jewish Family Service (JFS) helps individuals cope with the challenges in their lives by providing counseling and financial support, it has been a lead agency in the post-storm year.

And it has transformed its way of doing business.

Although it had always provided small grants of $500 to $1,000 to individuals in need, that activity increased exponentially over the past year, when it distributed $900,000 in UJC funds directly to individuals affected by the storm, according to agency officials.

By requiring individuals to come to the JFS office to pick up their checks, JFS staff had the opportunity to see how recipients were doing, to hear their concerns and to offer help that went beyond the financial.

Anne Freedman, associate director of JFS, said of its clients: “All that some people needed was the chance to cry and tell their story to the staff, people who really understood them because they had gone through the same thing.”

“Many people were so used to giving to others that they were embarrassed about accepting aid,” she said. “I would tell them that the sooner they were made whole, the sooner they could be back to their traditional role of helping others.”

The traditional counseling role of JFS has changed as well. With many families now living with several generations while their homes are being repaired, more clients are coming in for family counseling. In Baton Rouge, which received many older evacuees, JFS plans social events that bring isolated older adults together; the JCC in New Orleans puts on similar activities.

The agency’s suicide prevention and education program, Teen Life Counts, is needed more than ever. One volunteer reported that pre-Katrina, when she would ask high-schoolers what they thought of teens who committed suicide, they would characterize them as selfish and foolish. This past year, the responses were much more sympathetic. She heard students say, for example, that peers who committed suicide “must be real sad because their parents were crying all the time.”

Yet, even against the backdrop of government incompetence and uncertain levees, many residents are buoyed by optimism.

On a recent Sunday, community members gathered in the afternoon for a chanukat habayit, a home dedication ceremony in which a mezuzah is hung, for Georgette Somjen, a physician moving to town. Later, a brit milah was celebrated for the son of Gary and Susan Lazarus, who are committed to remaining in New Orleans.

Dan Alexander, a fourth-generation New Orleanian, and his wife, Lazelle, also a native, attended both celebrations.

Katrina destroyed their home and surrounding neighborhood, where they had lived for 43 years. The house was bulldozed a few weeks ago.

An 81-year-old retired public schoolteacher, Dan Alexander, said, “When you lose your home, it is like losing a relative.”

Buying and moving into a new house was “the farthest thing from my mind,” he said. “But what’s the alternative? You have to move on and establish a whole new type of existence.”

Declaring that he and his wife are satisfied in their new home, he added: “I couldn’t have made these changes without the support of Lazelle and my family and the community. We just have to be strong and work together as a team.”

The Key Is Rejoicing

A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at

Congregation Beith David Celebrates New Sanctuary

(From left) City Councilman Jack Weiss, L.A. County Supervisor Zev
Yaroslavsky, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Dennis Zine
join congregants at Beith David for their official move from their Reseda
Boulevard synagogue to a new building on Clark Street on Sunday, July 9.

City Councilman Dennis Zine grabs a Torah to carry to Beith David¹s new
building on Clark Street.

City Councilman Jack Weiss supports one of Beith David¹s Torah at the
synagogues Reseda Boulevard location.

Congregants remove a covering from the Torah Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
carried to Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.

(From left) L.A. City Councilman Dennis Zine, L.A. Mayor Antonio
Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Simon Wiesenthal
Center associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper carry Beith David¹s Torahs down
Reseda Boulevard to the synagogue¹s new Clark Street location.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa addresses congregants from the bimah at
Beith David¹s new Clark Street building.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa inspects anti-Semitic graffiti scrawled onto
a window of the Clark Street building. Beith David synagogue was the victim
of an arson attack on Friday, July 7.

Mayor Carries Torah to <br>Vandalized Tarzana Synagogue

On Sunday, in the intense heat of a mid-summer day, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, carried a Sephardic Torah for one-half mile along city streets in Tarzana to a new Persian synagogue that had been the victim of an anti-Semitic attack just two days earlier. Police are still investigating the arson attempt, which burned a rear door of Beith David Education Center on Clark Street, as well as anti-Jewish graffiti left at the scene, as a hate crime.

Villaraigosa was joined in the procession and the celebration of the new facility’s opening by L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilmen Jack Weiss and Dennis Zine, Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean Abraham Cooper and Anti-Defamation League’s West Coast Director Amanda Susskind, as well as more than 300 congregants. The group carried 10 Torahs from the center’s original Reseda Boulevard location to the new building on Clark Street. The politicians and Cooper helped carry the Torahs along Reseda and Ventura boulevards in triple-digit temperatures.


* Beith
David Ceremony:
Photo Essay by Adam Wills

* Arsonist
Attacks Persian Synagogue in Tarzana

Friday, July 7, 2006

“What an honor it was, a kid from Boyle Heights, to carry the Torah all the way over here,” the mayor said. He said he’d been told by Yaroslavsky, “‘If you do this 100 more times, you’ll be a Jew.'”

At the Clark Street shul, public officials took their places on the bimah as congregants engaged in celebratory ululation, throwing candy and crowning the Torah cases with lilies and other flowers.

In his address to the congregation, Villaraigosa referred to a call he’d made to the mayor of Sderot on Thursday, which was interrupted by a Kassam rocket attack, to call attention to how innocent Jews are still targets of hate, regardless of where they are in the world.

“We are absolutely committed to finding whoever did this on Friday and bringing them to justice,” Villaraigosa said. “A shul represents more than just a place of prayer or worship. It represents a place where faith binds a community.”

Zine, whom Beith David vice president Parviz Hakimi referred to as the shul’s own godfather for his strong support of the congregation during its two-year battle with local residence over parking issues, announced he would introduce a motion in the City Council to post a reward of $50,000 to find the arsonist.

“Our mayor has told me he would sign that motion,” Zine said. “We need to bring this person or individuals to justice. We will not tolerate that in the city of Los Angeles.”

During a tour of the synagogue’s damage, the mayor noted how the perpetrator had misspelled the anti-Jewish graffiti.

“It shows the level of ignorance of the person who did this,” Villaraigosa told The Journal.


Iranians Open Shul in Garment District

With a new Torah in their arms, about 100 local Iranian Jewish businessmen sang Hebrew songs and danced down a busy street in downtown Los Angeles’s garment district June 13 to celebrate the official opening of a new synagogue, where many Iranians have their businesses.

As a DJ blasted Israeli music and kebab dinners were served, congregants packed the elegantly decorated 700-square-foot sanctuary, known as the “Downtown Synagogue,” to give thanks and pray. The shul is situated inside a store, alongside fabric outlets, on Cecilia Street, between Eighth and Ninth streets.

“Baruch Hashem, we are very pleased with the new synagogue,” said Avi Cohan, a local Iranian businessman who is one of the founders of the Downtown Synagogue. “It looks just amazing with the nice chairs, and it’s perfect for many of us who wanted a place for prayer at the end of the work day.”

Prior to the festivities, approximately 25 Iranian Jewish business owners gathered at a local textile warehouse, where they each pledged to donate between $260 and $1,500 for each of the last Hebrew letters Cohan was writing to complete the synagogue’s Torah. The Torah was made in Israel for the congregation, and funds still needed to be raised to cover the cost.

Cohan had reason to boast about the new synagogue, whose initial dozen or so congregants first began to assemble in his downtown office to recite Mincha and Arvit prayers nearly 12 years ago. The congregants formed the initial Downtown Synagogue because they were often unable to beat the rush hour traffic to arrive at daily services at synagogues in Beverly Hills and West Los Angeles.

“It’s very convenient for me, because sometimes during the week, I’m in downtown and need a place to pray, so I go there because there is always a minyan, and it’s close by,” said businessman Dara Abaei, an Iranian community activist.

Cohan and other founders said they wanted to create a place of spirituality, as well as a social center, in the business district, which also has an Iranian shul in the jewelry district, between Broadway and Hill streets.

“Our main goal was to little by little get businessmen in our community to close their businesses on Shabbat and bring them closer to God,” said Cohan. “Many are also, unfortunately, too busy during the day to make it to a synagogue to say the Kaddish on the anniversary of their parents’ deaths, so our synagogue provides them with a place to do that.”

Although the afternoon ceremony marked the official opening of the synagogue space, Cohan said congregants have unofficially been holding services at the Cecilia Street location for the last two years.

Contrary to most shuls, the Downtown Synagogue is open only on weekdays and closed on Saturdays and High Holidays. Between 50 to 60 people regularly attend. On Tuesdays, congregants also hear a devar Torah by Rabbi Yosef Shem Tov of the Torat Hayim Kohel in the Pico-Robertson area.

The move to create a formal space for the group began in 2003, when local Iranian businessmen Ezri Namvar and Solomon Rasetgar stepped forward to furnish the rent-free store situated inside a building they co-owned. Namvar and Rastegar recently sold the building housing the synagogue, but they said the current owner, who is not Jewish, has continued to permit the congregation to stay there without paying rent, Namvar said. The new owner was not available for comment.

Cohan said approximately $15,000 was raised through direct contributions. Unlike Ashkenazi Jews, who generally generate the revenue for synagogues through membership fees, Iranian Jews have traditionally raised such funds by auctioning off aliyot during services or asking individuals for direct donations.

Namvar said his family has always strived to keep Judaism alive in Los Angeles and worldwide by supporting Jewish groups, regardless of their specific denominations.

“Our passion is for Jewish education, and we try to help organizations that promote Jewish education, whether they are Orthodox, Reform or Conservative,” Namvar said.

For more information on the Downtown Synagogue call (213) 215-6061.


Artists Dream in a Golden Age

Sam Erenberg spends most of the day, nearly every day, alone in a 1,000-square-foot box.

“It’s like a temple,” the painter says of his artist’s studio.

A lonely temple, that is.

“I’m the rabbi and congregation all in one,” he says with a laugh.

Working as an artist can be isolating, especially in the sprawling city of Los Angeles. And what good is inspiration without community?

The Jewish Artists Initiative of Southern California exists for artists like Erenberg. The group, consisting of about 30 members, constitutes one of the nation’s first organized networks of Jewish artists. Its aims are twofold: to create a support system for local artists and to transform the way the Jewish community relates to art.

On a recent evening, Erenberg sat among other artists in a garage-turned-studio in Larchmont Village. He, for one, was happy for the company.

“This is my ad-hoc family,” he said to the painters, photographers and sculptors who had gathered there for the group’s monthly meeting.

The Artists Initiative emerged three years ago, when Amelia Xann of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles approached USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life. Xann wanted to create a program to promote visual art by Jewish artists.

The organizations decided to found a group that would put on exhibitions, host a lecture series and provide a space for artists to explore the relationship between their Jewish identities and their art.

So, the Artists Initiative launched, with $40,000 in foundation grants for a speaker series and Web site.

The group staged its first exhibition in 2004 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. “Too Jewish — Not Jewish Enough” showcased paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints, ceramics and digital work that incorporated Jewish themes or adhered to “a Jewish sensibility.” (Art with a “Jewish sensibility,” Erenberg explained, exhibits “a kind of longing, a feeling that you’re connected to a long history.”)

The second exhibition, “Makor/Source,” concentrated on the sources of the artists’ inspiration. The exhibit opened this year at the Hillel: Centers for Jewish Life, at USC and UCLA.

Members are planning a third exhibition, which will likely have a California theme, to open in the next year or so at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Art historian Matthew Baigell will curate the show.

Ruth Weisberg, a nationally recognized artist and the de facto leader of the group, said the initiative has ambitious goals.

“We really want to be another porthole, another entrance into Judaism,” said Weisberg, who is dean of USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts. “Younger people, especially, are often more at ease entering the Jewish community through cultural events than any other way.”

Weisberg, who illustrated the Reform movement’s new haggadah, said she hoped the group would also encourage Jewish artists to treat Jewish themes in their work.

“Many Jews who are involved in the art world keep their Judaism in one part of their life, and their cultural [expression] in another,” she said. Jews may fear being categorized — or even dismissed — as Jewish, rather than mainstream, artists. But keeping art and religious identity separate “is, I think, unnecessary and not that productive.”

Not all of the group’s members agree.

“I’m here protesting,” Channa Horwitz announced at the last meeting.

“I’m Jewish, and I’m an artist, but I’m not a Jewish artist,” said Horwitz, who uses complex patterns and bright colors in her work. “I don’t think art has anything to do with religion.”

Horwitz’s response reflects the diversity of the group, which includes Jews across the religious spectrum, from around the world, including the United States, Israel and Russia.

Despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, members find value in the group.

“It’s really great to sit in a room with people who get it,” said Laurel Paley, whose use of Hebrew text in her art has been criticized as “obfuscation.”

Members hope their network will become a model for communities across the country. To increase membership and public awareness, the group is updating its Web site. It has also applied for another foundation grant.

Should funding arrive in the fall, the artists hope to launch new projects. One idea they bandied about involves creating a Jewish community center for the arts, where the public can come not only to view art but also to create it.

As the artists speculated about the future, a sense of what could be — if only they had the world as their canvas — invigorated the group.

Exciting things happen when artists get together, said Bruria Finkel, a sculptor with works on display at the New Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.

The Dadaists and Cubists of the 20th century began by meeting in groups, Finkel said. Now, with Jewish artists flourishing in the United States, especially on the West Coast, who knows what this group can accomplish?

“It’s a golden age,” she said.


Building Homes, Building Hope

The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.


Wandering Jew – Spiritual Headliners

Dozens of young giggling girls dressed in their finest skirts and blouses crowded the front of the Universal Hilton ballroom, which was hot and stuffy and filled to standing-room only capacity with women in anticipation of the big event.

When the music started all the girls and women jumped to their feet and started clapping, beatific, expectant smiles on their faces.

It could have been a rock concert — perhaps the debut of famous boy band — but it was not that kind of music and these were not that kind of girls. For most of the 3,000 men and women — seated in separate rooms, with a video screen for the women — the happening was one of the most important ever in Los Angeles and in the lives of these ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These members of Los Angeles’ ultra-Orthodox community had come together for an asefa, a spiritual gathering, to see and hear two of Israel’s greatest rabbis speak words of Torah and offer spiritual reinforcement to this far-flung Diaspora community.

These were gedolei hador, luminaries, leaders of the generation and the heads of the two separate — and often divided — factions of the ultra-Orthodox communities. Rabbi Yakov Aryeh Alter, known the Gerrer Rebbe, represents the Chasidic faction, and Rabbi Aharon Leib Steinman leads the Litvak, or Lithuanian (non-Chasidic) faction.

To the outsider, the sea of black hats might look monolithic, but these were worlds among worlds gathered in the room. The Chasidim, with their long curly peyos (sidelocks), furry streimel hats and shiny black kaputa coats, came from a long tradition that began in the 17th century, one that emphasizes spiritual joy in addition to academic Torah study.

More austere in trim beards and black suits were the Lithuanians, or Mitnagdim, literally meaning opponents to Chasidism. But today the word usually refers to black-hat non-Chasidic Jews who have a more analytic approach to learning, as practiced in their yeshivas.

It was like the Jets and the Sharks coming together. In the men’s section, a three-level podium contained a veritable who’s who of the Los Angeles rabbinical world: Rabbi Avrohom Union of the Rabbinical Council of California, Rabbi Meyer May of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Rabbi Sholom Ginsberg of Toras Emes, Rabbi Eleazar Muskin of Young Israel of Century City, Rabbi David Toledano of Adat Yeshurun Sephardic Congregation, Rabbi Avrohom Czapnik (an actual Gerrer Chasid). There, too, standing out in a black hat and startlingly royal blue tie, was Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

To start things off, a number of rabbis spoke leading up to the two luminaries. They explained the significance of the evening.

“How could we be zocheh [meriting] for two gedolei hador to come here?” Rabbi Baruch Yehuda Gradon, from the Los Angeles Kollel, asked in that English-Hebrew-Yiddish mixture so prevalent in the ultra-Orthodox community.

“It’s hard to believe we’re on the West Coast of the United States,” he said.

Rabbi Ginsberg took pride in the growth of the community in this nonheavenly city.

“We in Los Angeles, we are not Eretz Yisroel [Israel], we are not New York, we are not even Lakewood,” he said, referring to the New Jersey community where the men learn full-time in Kollel yeshivas.

But, he said, this city has its own network of Kollels, yeshivas and outreach institutions.

In recent years Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest Jewish community, has become a stop for visiting Jewish dignitaries — especially politicians, hoping to tap into the fundraising network here. The visit of these two luminaries — together for the first time — also put Los Angeles on the map as an up-and-coming spiritual center. And perhaps, this appearance also was a testing ground for such an unusual pairing, an event that might get out of hand in a community as big as New York or New Jersey or Israel.

The occasion was also an effort to show unity between the two factions.

“There is no division between a Chasid and a Mitnaged, between Ashkenaz and Sephard, and between a businessman and yeshiva man,” Rabbi Ginsberg said.

There were some divisions, of course, with the men and women in separate rooms. According to the Israeli press, the two rabbis chartered a special El Al flight with no women stewardesses and no women in first class — and without movies. But this is de rigueur for a community accustomed to segregation (especially the Chasidic community).

The main purpose of the evening was to offer a lifeline of spiritual support to the Los Angeles community — a soulful community in a city of soul-seekers and religious innovators.

Rabbi Steinman, 93, clutched the podium, his face pale as paper, flanked on each side by rabbis for support. He spoke for 20 minutes in Yiddish. The Gerer rebbe, Yakov Alter, a more robust man with white hair and peyos and heavy lidded eyes, delivered a short, one-minute speech from his chair.

Both men’s words were translated by Rabbi Usher Weiss in a crisp, booming European-accented English.

“If all we would do here tonight is look and listen, then this effort would be in vain and this trip would not have achieved its goal,” he said to the rapt audience, some of whom were taping the remarks on their PalmPilots and other electronic devices.

Weiss was mostly translating the words of Rabbi Steinman, but he seemed to intersperse his own comments, as well: “A person must feel every day that our worship of yesterday is not enough. Every day is a new responsibility. The angels are great but they have no tests. For us it’s all about [personal] growth.”

“What matters is not how big you are but how much you grow,” said Weiss in his translation/commentary.

It was no accident that this gathering fell on the holiday of Lag B’Omer, a celebration in the middle of a mourning period, the 49 days of counting the omer. Jewish groups around the city made traditional bonfires to mark the holiday, which, by some accounts, marks the end of an ancient plague that killed thousands of Rabbi Akiva’s students.

At the Universal Hilton, Weiss spoke of Rabbi Akiva, whose most famous teaching was love thy neighbor as thyself.

“Mutual respect, this is the lesson we have to learn on this day,” he said.

He blessed the rabbis and the audience, his voice ringing out loud and clear: “I am confident that each of the participants will remember this day to the last of his days.”


Not a Minute’s Rest for Min the Dynamo

Here in Tinseltown it can be difficult to find people who help without expecting a moment in the limelight; a “15 minutes” of philanthropic adoration. Good deeds are supposed to be their own reward, and this new Lifecycles feature will profile those unsung senior tzadikim whose continued volunteer efforts impact numerous lives in immeasurable ways. Know someone who should be featured? Contact Associate Editor Adam Wills at

Minerva “Min” Leonard doesn’t have time for breakfast. She’s too busy shopping for ingredients and preparing a salad bar luncheon for 80 people at Adat Ari El Sisterhood’s weekly Multi-Interest Day. Or making 10 lokshen kugels for her friend’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. Or baking “I can’t even begin to tell you how many” batches of cranberry and chocolate-chip mandelbread to bestow on friends, neighbors and an appreciative Jewish Journal reporter.

At 90, this diminutive North Hollywood resident, who was married to her husband, Phil, for 53 years and who raised three children, is showing scant evidence of slowing down. True, she no longer makes 1,000 latkes from scratch for the synagogue preschool’s Chanukah celebration. But she fries up 500 for the senior citizens group that meets at Valley Cities Jewish Community Center and another 500 to distribute as gifts.

But mostly, as Adat Ari El’s unofficial chef, Leonard devotes chunks out of four weekdays to preparing the sisterhood salad bar, which she has single-handedly assembled for at least a quarter century, getting help only with chauffeuring, because she has never driven.

The lunch features pasta salad, tuna salad (Leonard’s special recipe with sweet relish and grated hard-boiled eggs), green salad, Tostitos and four kinds of cakes, with chocolate and lemon poppy seed in high demand.

Leonard charges $4 per person for the lunch to cover costs. But she shops so conscientiously — personally picking out her peppers, lettuces and tomatoes at a local farmers market and buying her other ingredients at Costco, the 99 Cents Only Store or on sale at Albertsons — that she donates $2,000 back to the sisterhood each year.

Leonard has loved to cook since she was a little girl, helping her mother in the kitchen of a one-bathroom house in Jersey City, N.J., that she shared with 14 extended family members.

“I could clean, pluck and quarter a chicken by the time I was 11,” she explained.

But Leonard’s knowledge extends beyond the kitchen. She received a bachelor of science degree in psychology and education from Long Island University, and only because of a three-year bout with tuberculosis, which struck at age 21, was she deterred from entering dental school.

“I’ve never been sick in bed since,” she said.

She’s also savvy about Judaism. She presented the monthly Jewish education report at sisterhood board meetings for many years, privately published by her friends in a booklet titled, “Min’s Food for Thought,” and studied to become a bat Torah as an adult.

Last February, the Adat Ari El Sisterhood honored Leonard at a luncheon on her 90th birthday. Even then, she insisted on preparing 50 pounds of pickled herring and 10 kugels for the event.

“She’s the most giving person you could ever find,” said Marsha Fink, a friend and sisterhood past president.

At home, where she lives alone, Leonard does all her own housework and laundry. “I hate ironing,” she admitted but feels fortunate that she doesn’t have to heat up flatirons and mix her own starch, as her mother did. She also colors and cuts her own hair.

When she’s not cooking or cleaning, preparing lunch for her monthly havurah meeting of “nine old ladies” or serving as “Jewish grandmother” to neighborhood children, Leonard listens to the radio or books on tape, currently enjoying “Tears of the Giraffe” by Alexander McCall Smith. But while she’s listening, she’s also twisting swatches of fabric into “yo-yo squares” to fashion into a quilt.

“Resting is not for me,” Leonard said. Not even in what she calls her “wonderful old age.”

Min’s Noodle Kugel (Dairy)

From “California Kosher” (Wimmer Cookbooks, 1991)

8 ounces wide noodles
4 ounces butter or margarine
6 eggs
1 cup sour cream
1 cup cottage cheese
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup golden raisins, optional
1/2 pound dried apricots, optional


1 cup cornflake crumbs
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup butter or margarine, melted

Cook noodles in boiling salted water until tender. Drain and add butter. Set aside. Beat together eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, sugar and milk. Add raisins or apricots or both. Add mixture to noodles. Pour into buttered 8-by-12-inch baking dish. Mix together topping ingredients and sprinkle over kugel. Bake at 350 F. for one hour.

Makes 10-12 servings.