Rabbinical Council of America conversion panel issues recommendations


A committee established by the Rabbinical Council of America to review its conversion processes has submitted its report featuring recommendations in nine areas of the process.

The review was put in place nine months ago after one of the RCA’s leading conversion rabbis, Barry Freundel, was arrested on voyeurism charges. Freundel was sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for videotaping dozens of nude women at his former congregation’s ritual bath in Washington, D.C.

The recommendations focused on support for conversion candidates during and after their conversions, professionalism, transparency of expectations, sensitivity to candidates, educational experiences, the responsibilities and support for rabbis and rabbinic judges, and oversight, supervision, and grievance processing.

“I am hopeful that this report will make it better for American conversion candidates going forward,” committee member Bethany Mandel said last week when presenting the report to the national convention of the RCA, the country’s main modern Orthodox rabbinic association. “The framework we’ve laid out here … is a great start, but it’s up to many of you in this room today to make sure that the spirit of these recommendations is carried out.”

Some 439 conversion participants from a pool of 835, along with 107 sponsoring rabbis in a pool of 216, responded to an anonymous survey. Five focus groups also were conducted in New York, Montreal and Washington, D.C.

Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the committee’s chair, called the review process a “historic moment.”

“Recognizing the critical importance of their perspective, we involved converts, our stakeholders, throughout the committee’s lengthy deliberations,” he said. “In addition, we encouraged them to publicly present their feelings, positive and negative, to our entire convention last week. The result was deeply moving and potentially transformative for our members.

“The review process helped us better understand the conversion process generally and will help us fulfill our religious mandates with greater sensitivity and responsibility.”

The review committee was comprised of six men and five women, including two female converts to Judaism.

Among the committee members were Abby Lerner, the admissions director and a teacher at Yeshiva University’s high school for girls in New York; Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of New York’s Kehilath Jeshurun and Ramaz school; Bracha Rutner, a female adviser of Jewish law; various rabbis and a psychotherapist.

The two converts on the panel were Mandel, a recent convert of Freundel’s who penned a proposed Bill of Rights for converts after the Freundel scandal broke, and Evelyn Fruchter, an attorney.

5th District Plays Big Role


The Los Angeles elections on March 3 turned out to be more interesting than most of us had expected, especially the role of the Fifth Council District.

The Fifth, which is a mixture of Westside (think Fairfax) and Valley (think Encino) is also the “Jewish district.” In a city that’s about 6 percent to 7 percent Jewish, the Fifth is perhaps 35 percent to 40 percent Jewish. It’s the best-educated district, and one of the most affluent. It has tremendous voter registration and high turnout year after year.

Of the city’s nearly 1.6 million registered voters, 167,668 are in the Fifth, more than 10 percent of the total. On March 3, the Fifth cast around 12 percent of all city votes, with only 7 percent of the population.

The Fifth played a pivotal role in the rise and dominance of the Tom Bradley coalition, as its voters provided massive support to Bradley. Combined with the African American community, the Fifth and other white liberal districts consistently outvoted white conservatives. The Fifth is one of the few council districts that bridges the divide between the Valley and the rest of the city, joining more liberal Westsiders to more moderate Valley residents.

Winning the Fifth District’s council seat is a big achievement, because there are lots of talented and ambitious people ready to run and mount effective campaigns in those two parts of the city, and anyone who wins becomes a prospect for bigger things. Think Roz Wyman, Ed Edelman, Zev Yaroslavsky, Mike Feuer and now Jack Weiss, who is in the runoff for city attorney against Carmen Trutanich.

While the voters in the Fifth District are disproportionately Democrats, they can be very unpredictable on one local issue, and that is growth. When Bradley experienced a lot of political trouble in the 1980s, it was over growth, development and traffic, and much of this agitation was in the Fifth. The proliferation of billboards and city hall’s weakness in regulating them has energized another neighborhood rebellion today.

The race to succeed Weiss generated six strong candidates who split votes so evenly in the primary that the percentages looked like a box score on a night that the Lakers have everybody in double figures. Weiss has lots of defenders and lots of enemies in his own district on the hot-button issues, and he was charged with being too pro-development.

The two candidates who made it into the runoff, Paul Koretz and David Vahedi, are both critics of development and billboards. They are each likely to further activate the voters who are fighting growth.

With his early lead in fundraising and endorsements, Weiss contested the open seat for city attorney as if he were the incumbent. While he was able to preempt other strong candidates from challenging him, he also inevitably became the target of the anti-city hall sentiment that in this low-turnout election made its will known by apparently (pending the counting of some remaining ballots) defeating Proposition B, the solar power measure.

He came in first, but with only 36 percent of the vote, and he will face a tough runoff. And because the Fifth District is also going to have a heavily contested runoff, its turnout will likely affect the citywide result.

Ironically, Weiss’ best chance of winning is to expand his appeal beyond his own council district, where he has lots of active opponents, and draw on organized labor and other communities. He has to broaden the issues beyond development. If he does, he stands a good chance of winning. He did, after all, finish first in all but the 15th District, which represents Trutanich’s San Pedro home base.

Weiss’ best showing was in the three predominantly African American districts (Eighth, Ninth and 10th), where he polled 43 percent, 44 percent and 45 percent, respectively. He also polled 45 percent in the Latino and working-class First District.

These are pro-labor areas, where Measure B did well, winning 71 percent in the First and 71 percent, 75 percent and 67 percent, respectively in the Eighth, Ninth and 10th districts. He received only 37 percent in his own Fifth District.

The last Fifth District councilman to run for city attorney was Mike Feuer, in 2001, and Feuer’s situation was quite different. He was exceptionally strong in his own district, and he piled up a huge edge among Jewish and other white voters. But while Feuer had major labor support, Rocky Delgadillo pulled off the upset by linking Latino voters to a majority of African Americans.

Delgadillo also was bolstered by a late endorsement from Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters. This time, a number of African American elected officials are behind Weiss, while Waters endorsed Trutanich. It’s all consistent with the mix-and-match coalition politics of today’s Los Angeles.

Much of labor is in Weiss’ camp, as are the mayor and Police Chief William Bratton. Having apparently been beaten on Measure B, labor is likely to want to win a big one citywide to go along with the re-election of Villaraigosa and the election of Wendy Greuel as controller.

Trutanich has the endorsements of the Los Angeles Times and the Daily News, both of which might be influential in a low-turnout election, and Sheriff Lee Baca.

There are two types of Los Angeles electorates, the one that appears in partisan, statewide elections in even-numbered years and the one that appears in odd-year municipal races. The May 19 runoff election is scheduled to be held in tandem with a special statewide election with ballot measures negotiated as part of the state budget deal.

Labor may or may not have some big horses in this race. So this election is a kind of hybrid, maybe bigger than a quiet municipal runoff but less noisy than a true statewide partisan battle. Most likely, the election will be decided not just by how people vote, but by who votes.

Raphael J. Sonenshein is chair of the Division of Politics, Administration and Justice at Cal State Fullerton.

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Street fight


The Brooklyn-born activist rose from his seat, walked slowly to the microphone, cleared his throat, and in front of a couple of hundred fellow activists assembled in an auditorium on a chilly Wednesday night, expressed his righteous indignation.

“We are tired of being used as stepping stones!” he bellowed to the delight of the crowd. “Enough is enough. It’s time for our voice to be heard!”

Was the man referring to the abuse of Israel at the United Nations?

Was he expressing outrage at how thousands of Jews displaced from their homes in Gaza two years ago have had their lives turned upside down, while bombs keep falling on Sderot?

What was this man so passionate about?

Actually, he was talking about the parking and traffic situation on Pico and Olympic boulevards.

He was fuming that he and other residents were not consulted before the city announced their plan to relieve the ever-worsening traffic on those boulevards.

You see, a few months ago, the city decided it was time to finally show some action on this particular problem. The plan that was announced in November by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilman Jack Weiss at an outdoor press conference in November had three phases, the first being the most controversial: restrict the parking on Pico and Olympic boulevards during the peak traffic hours.

For storefront merchants who depend on street traffic and who contribute plenty in taxes and fees, that was the last thing they needed.

Take Julien Bohbot, owner of Delice Bakery in Pico-Robertson, who was sitting next to me at the Wednesday town hall meeting. Most of his customers use street parking on Pico, and the 3-7 p.m. time period is his busiest. If the city makes parking illegal during that time, he can’t see how his business will survive.

The meeting was full of angry business owners and residents like Bohbot, and it was clear that the man who got up to speak, Jay Handal, was their hero.

Handal heads the Greater West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce and the West Los Angeles Neighborhood Council. He was so passionate and knowledgeable about his cause, I felt I was listening to Alan Dershowitz defending Israel.

A few days later, I decided to track him down at the Italian restaurant in Brentwood he has owned for 21 years, San Gennaro.

It turns out that Handal is not only upset at Villaraigosa and Weiss for the way they “ambushed” the neighborhoods with their press conference, he’s also upset at the local media, particularly the Los Angeles Times, for not giving enough voice to the neighborhoods’ grievances.

He does have kind words for councilman and former television host Bill Rosendhal, who arranged the town hall meeting and who is helping residents and small business merchants get their day in court.

Handal thinks it’ll be an uphill battle to stop the city’s plan, because, as he says, Villaraigosa and Weiss now have egg on their face, and it’s not easy for politicians to admit they’re wrong.

Are they wrong? Well, the fact that the Department of Transportation and a mayoral representative are now appearing at a series of town hall meetings to explain their plans and listen to people’s concerns is a sign that they could have handled it better in the first place.

But Handal also thinks their proposals are misguided. He thinks restricting parking won’t solve anything because it will encourage even more traffic on those boulevards, while hurting businesses — which in the end only lowers the city’s revenues. At the meeting, he got a rousing applause when he brought up the idea of starting with phase two — retiming of traffic lights — and leaving the street parking alone until more impact studies are done.

The real problem, he told me, is that the city of Santa Monica overdeveloped their business sector without a corresponding increase in housing. This has resulted in a huge increase in eastbound traffic on Pico and Olympic; and since Venice and Washington boulevards are underused, he thinks encouraging people to use those boulevards would be smarter.

But all those ideas are peanuts compared to what Handal dreams about for the future.

On Sunday, he told me about this dream, which he is working on with a group of activists, and which he believes will redefine the city of Los Angeles: High-speed, comfortable, pollution-free, magnetic-levitation monorails.

No kidding. He showed me plans. Instead of costing $7 billion like the city’s much-touted “Subway to the Sea,” and taking until the year 2030 to extend the current subway from Western to La Cienega, the monorail would cost $1.75 billion, go from the ocean to Union Station and could be completed in five years.

As he sees it, the monorail would rise majestically above Pico Boulevard (or any other major east-west artery) and would be a major tourist attraction. He talks about having fancy cafes in these monorails, first-class cabins with express service to downtown, convenient stops for shoppers and commuters, and, eventually, expanding the monorail to other parts of Los Angeles to reduce the congestion and get people to places like LAX without any hassles.

Handal is livid that these kind of creative ideas get so little attention. When I ask him why, he replies in his thick Brooklyn accent: “Just follow the money.” Powerful unions and big business, he says, have a vested interest in lucrative projects like $7 billion subways, and politicians hungry for election money listen to them.

But Handal is not deterred. His passion never ends.

Frankly, I don’t often meet people who go gaga over stuff like parking studies and the timing of traffic lights. But I confess, when I saw Handal get so passionate about the monorail idea and his vision for the city I love, it gave me a little thrill.

Maybe I’ll go to the next town hall meeting. Mr. Mayor, are you listening?

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

Shul’s Stormy Saga


With its prominent location at one of Hancock Park’s busiest intersections, at Third Street and Highland Avenue, Congregation Etz Chaim’s boxy, domed building constantly reminds area residents of a decade of ongoing tensions.

The current focus of the dispute is a lawsuit that has reached the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Neighbors sued in 2003, saying the congregation skirted due process and violated local zoning laws when it razed a 3,600-square-foot home and built an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary, a library and a mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement.

But the conflict has even deeper roots, to when the congregation still met at the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. Even then, neighbors contended that the daily and Shabbat services violated residential zoning laws. Then, in 1995, Congregation Etz Chaim moved from Rubin’s house, where it had been meeting for 30 years, since his father founded the congregation, to the house on Highland Avenue. In 1996, after the city, at the behest of the neighbors, tried to prevent the congregants from holding services on Highland Avenue, Etz Chaim sued the city in federal court for violating its religious freedom.

The zoning board, city council and federal court all ruled against Etz Chaim. But the shul got an 11th-hour reprieve by citing a federal law, enacted in 2000, that exempts religious institutions from local zoning. The city and Etz Chaim then entered into a settlement, permitting worshippers in the building. The pact also allowed for limited renovations that would retain the structure’s residential look.

In 2002, the congregation razed the 3,600-square-foot home. The city obtained a temporary stop-work order, saying the demolition and new construction violated the settlement, but courts later lifted that order. The congregation moved forward with the $1 million project, erecting its 8,200-square-foot structure, which its leaders say was designed to blend in with other homes – a claim some neighbors find laughable.

That brings matters to the current lawsuit, which is awaiting a trial date before the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2003, the League of Residential Neighborhood Associations, composed of area residents, formed to sue Etz Chaim and the city. In the suit, residents assert that the settlement itself was illegal – that it went around city procedures designed to include neighbors in such decisions, since zoning laws should have forbidden the congregation from meeting in that location.

Meanwhile, the city also sued the congregation, saying the new construction violated the settlement agreement. That suit is also before the Ninth Circuit.

Etz Chaim, for its part, is arguing that the settlement is valid, that it did not violate the settlement and, that, in any case, federal law exempts it from zoning regulations.

 

Weiss Support Strong Despite Challenge


 

For most L.A. City Council members, the March municipal election is less a race than a stroll in the park. Mayor Jim Hahn faces four serious challengers, but just before the December filing deadline, it seemed that the only serious council race was in the Westside’s 11th District, where newbies Flora Krisiloff and Bill Rosendahl are squared off to replace Cindy Miscikowski, who has been forced out by term limits.

No other councilmember faces term limits, and the usual reasoning is: Why should a hopeful take on an incumbent when that incumbent will be out of office in just another four years?

Since Los Angeles’ voters imposed the two-term limit in 1993, only one single-term incumbent has been forced out.

But in December, at almost the last possible moment, a challenger emerged in the Westside’s other district — the UCLA-centered 5th District, long the stronghold of present County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. The 40-year-old incumbent — boyish, mild-mannered former federal prosecutor Jack Weiss — faces a moderately funded effort by unknown attorney-businessman David T. Vahedi.

The 39-year-old Vahedi contends that he speaks for disgruntled citizens who say Weiss has an unsatisfactory record on crime, traffic and development. Weiss has countered that crime is actually down, and even many of his past opponents have spoken out to support him.

Weiss has raised $301,000. Vahedi, who unlike Weiss is taking city matching funds, has raised $111,000, including $32,500 in city matching funds and personal funds of $22,500. According to January filings, Vahedi has raised more money than any other candidate this year who is challenging a council incumbent.

“I decided to run at almost literally the last minute,” Vahedi said. “My wife and I went door-knocking, and we were able to gather the 1,700 signatures we needed in just a few hours.”

“I was the 81st of all of the 82 people to file their eligibility petitions in this city election,” Vahedi said in an appearance at a Westside meeting of the local Fairness and Accuracy in Media group in Santa Monica.

The tall, dark candidate was by far the youngest and, arguably, best-dressed person in the room, wearing a light-absorbing black, single-breasted suit and a sky-blue necktie, like the ones both President Bush and Hahn have sported of late.

Vahedi accused Weiss of allowing the destruction of Century City’s Schubert Theater and of letting it be replaced by an office tower that, he argued, will bring thousands more rush-hour car trips.

Actually, the plan was in place under Weiss’ predecessor, Mike Feuer. However, Vahedi said Weiss should have known better and done something.

This audience was quite receptive to Vahedi’s attacks on Weiss, consisting as it did of fans of former state Sen. Tom Hayden, whom the then little-known Weiss narrowly defeated in the 2001 5th District council race.

Vahedi, a Democrat like Weiss, isn’t running to the left of moderate Weiss. Rather, Vahedi contends that Weiss failed to live up to his billing as the practical, pothole-filling alternative to the controversial Hayden.

“I decided to run because I saw a need, because people are complaining about things like overdevelopment and traffic,” Vahedi said.

This isn’t his first political sally. He also recently ran unsuccessfully for the State Board of Equalization.

Vahedi mentioned Westwood, and said that the one-time entertainment mecca of West Los Angeles today has nearly the same aura of desolation it had in 2001. “And there is increasing crime,” he added.

In a later interview, Weiss countered with LAPD statistics suggesting that crime in his district has dropped 12 percent. He insisted that he’s one of the toughest anti-crime council members: “I was a federal prosecutor. I used to put people in jail for a living.”

Weiss received a vote of confidence from Sandy Brown, who heads the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Association, the local homeowners group. Weiss has done a lot to turn Westwood around, she said, even though problems remain.

Brown strongly supported Hayden in 2001, but she’s been won over: “Jack was obviously not a seasoned politician when he started. But since then, we’ve found him most receptive to constituent concerns.”

She contended that Weiss even managed to bring around a satisfactory solution to the sprawling Casden residential-commercial development in Westwood Village — a project that stalled under three previous developers and two previous councilmembers.

“He made no decision without consulting residents,” she said.

Westwood is the centerpiece of the 5th District, which includes pieces of Encino, Sherman Oaks and North Hollywood, plus Bel Air, Century City and Los Angeles from the 405 Freeway to east of Beverly Hills and south nearly to Culver City. It also contains the city’s chief Jewish regions: the Chandler Boulevard,

Fairfax Avenue and Pico Boulevard corridors.

Even before a youthful Yaroslavsky stormed aboard in 1975, it was long represented by Jews: Ed Edelman, who was preceded by Roz Wyman. These predecessors have endorsed Weiss.

Vahedi’s Persian name might suggest that he’s Jewish, too, but he isn’t.

Vahedi’s made some inroads against Weiss. He got the county Federation of Labor endorsement and an interesting range of bricks-and-mortar union backing, including that of the county Building Trades Council. Vahedi’s major elected endorser is Democratic Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally.

But there’s been no major groundswell against Weiss, with 19 of the district’s 20 homeowner groups endorsing him. Weiss also has the backing of the local Democratic Party organization and almost every local legislator, including Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) and Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood).

So even with a spirited challenge, it’s hard to see this race going to anyone but Weiss. Vahedi may have to wait until 2009 — that’s when Weiss terms out.

Marc B. Haefele is news editor of the Los Angeles Alternative Press and comments on local government for KPCC-FM.

 

Briefs


 

Council Adds Some Fire to Mayoral Race

The Los Angeles City Council is doing a great job of overcompensating for the general public’s lukewarm interest in the upcoming mayoral election. With accusations of electoral politics flying from both sides, six council members left Mayor Jim Hahn shaking with rage during the week of Feb. 6., after blocking his (and Police Chief William Bratton’s) attempt to put a half-cent city sales tax increase on the May 17 ballot to fund 1,200 new police officers.

Some of the councilmembers opposing the city tax measure, like Jack Weiss of the Westside’s 5th District, had just recently supported failed Measure A, a half-cent countywide sales tax increase designed to hire more law enforcement personnel that was defeated in the November general election.

The councilmembers supporting one of Hahn’s mayoral rivals, or who are themselves candidates, are obviously more susceptible to accusations of voting “no” for political reasons. Hahn is running a campaign based in large part on his public safety record, and successfully placing this tax proposal on the May ballot would have given him powerful ammunition were he to find himself in a runoff.

After two votes, Hahn was one council member short of winning approval of the ballot measure. After the failure, he implied that no-voting Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Weiss should be recalled, because a sizable majority in both their districts supported Measure A. Weiss is an avid supporter of Villaraigosa’s mayoral campaign.

“I support raising the sales tax by a half-cent to pay for more cops; that’s not the issue,” Weiss said. “I think the best time to do it is not when there’s a contested mayor’s race, not when major segments of the city are opposed to it, such as the [San Fernando] Valley and many folks in South L.A.”

Weiss called Hahn’s sales tax a “half-baked” measure, because it would not affect other cities in L.A. County. He said voters in the 5th District approved the countywide measure – not this city-only tax – and this is not the right time to ask them about it again.

Weiss even disputed Hahn’s credentials on the issue in general, saying, “Mayor Hahn was AWOL on [county] Measure A. Sheriff [Lee] Baca and Councilman Villaraigosa led that effort.”

“Absolutely false,” said Shannon Murphy, Hahn’s communications director.

She pointed out that Hahn attended a county supervisors’ meeting (among other events) to support Measure A, before it was placed on the November 2004 ballot, and said that his support for this latest tax fits perfectly with his record.

“The mayor is disappointed that a minority of the council chose not to trust the voters with this crucial decision,” Murphy said.

So was the mayor really pursuing the sales tax as part of his long-standing commitment to public safety and Bratton, or was it just a way to horde political capital ahead of an election? And does Weiss truly believe that the tax must be countywide, or was he simply blocking Hahn to support Villaraigosa?

With an election coming soon, you can bet on all of the above.

Love and Marriage – and Welfare

Far beyond the gravity of local politics, a House of Representatives bill is winding its way through committee in Washington D.C., but it could have a big impact on Los Angeles. H.R. 240 is the latest reauthorization of Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF) funds, which are distributed through state welfare programs.

This year, one of President Bush’s pet projects has found its way into TANF: marriage education. The bill would set aside $1.5 billion over the next five years to fund high school education on the “value of marriage,” divorce reduction programs and programs to “reduce the disincentives” (in the bureaucratese of the bill) to getting married among people who receive welfare support from TANF.

Women’s advocacy groups, in particular, have been very skeptical of the premise that government should assume that marriage should always be encouraged. They point out that many couples rightly split up due to abuse.

Paul Castro, Jewish Family Service (JFS) executive director, weighed in on the issue: “We have to look at the broader context. It’s great to have the promotion of formation of healthy families and marriages, but in an environment that doesn’t provide enough child care and where there are not enough jobs, you’re putting a Band-Aid over one thing, while the rest of the body is still bleeding.”

With the amount of federal dollars slated for Medicaid and food stamps (programs to help the poor) decreasing, funding a marriage education program creates some novel dilemmas.

“How do you measure whether a state has been successful in forming healthy marriages?” Castro asked. “Would the state simply count the number of unwed parents?”

With all these caveats in mind, the seemingly arbitrary selection of a marriage education requirement, while other programs go underfunded, makes the plan sound more like a social conservative’s whim and less like good public policy.

Castro said JFS runs its own parenting classes and is convinced of the need for healthy families, but the complexities of why individuals end up on welfare – and why marriages fail – make legislating it in this way a dubious enterprise.

In the meantime, JFS, which provides social services to approximately 60,000 people a year, just lost $87,000 in federal funds for its Gramercy Place homeless shelter.

 

A District Divided


As the City Council begins it consideration of Redistricting Commission-drawn district maps, a conflict between Valley activists and Jewish interests seems to have been resolved. But as proposed districts are scrutinized and rescrutinized block by block, the question of whether the 5th City Council District will contain three core Orthodox neighborhoods remains open.

Council District 5 has historically contained core Jewish communities on both sides of Mulholland, including the Chandler corridor and the Fairfax and Pico-Robertson areas. A push to include five districts wholly within the San Fernando Valley and only one district split between the Valley and city threatened to separate Valley Jewish communities from their city counterparts, diminishing a strong Jewish influence in the City Council.

For the first time, wrangling over Council district lines was conducted in open hearings this year, with the new city charter creating a special Redistricting Commission composed of 21 members appointed by the City Council, mayor and city attorney.

Though the final redistricting plan will be decided by the City Council, the Redistricting Commission collected and helped implement public input. On average, Los Angeles’ 15 Council districts encompass 246,000 people each. The Council will approve a final map by June 30.

Redistricting commonly pits myriad interests against each other. Part of the difficulty in keeping the Chandler corridor in the 5th District derived from unrelated disputes between neighboring districts.

Valley activists like Richard Close, chair of the secession group Valley VOTE, wanted five Council districts entirely within the Valley to better represent concerns specific to the Valley.

City Councilman Jack Weiss, who represents the 5th District, and chairs the Ad Hoc Committee on Redistricting (composed of five councilmembers) says, "It’s interesting to see how the overheated desire of those who want to split the city apart almost directly conflicted with the representative needs of an important constituency."

Weiss adds that, unlike pro-Valley secession activists, he approves of the Valley-City districts. "I think it is good for the City of Los Angeles to have districts that straddle Mulholland. It forces officials to be less parochial," he says.

Close was appointed to the Redistricting Commission by former 2nd District City Councilman Joel Wachs. For Close, keeping Jewish neighborhoods together takes a back seat to ensuring proportional Council representation for the Valley. "There were drafts discussed without [the Chandler corridor] in the 5th District," he explains. "The problem is, the 5th District is probably the longest district. We understand that Jack Weiss wanted the Fairfax district as well as the Chandler-Burbank area. Many ethnic groups came to us and testified to their interests. But if you have one ethnic neighborhood down in San Pedro and another in Chatsworth, you just can’t draw that into a district. The big problem we had was compactness was not consistent with some community interests.

"When we do districts, we’re supposed to be blind to race, religion and ethnicity," Close says. But the commission does consider the needs of "communities of interest." Commissioner Ron Turovsky, appointed by Weiss, says the ties that bind a community of interest can be a "whole range of factors," including ethnic or religious groups as well as distinct neighborhoods.

Rabbi Aron Tendler of Shaarey Zedek Congregation was among those voicing concern that Los Angeles’ Orthodox community would be split. "We do see ourselves as a single entity," he says. "You’re talking about a very large Jewish community that is very unified — which can be very advantageous." Together in the same council district, says Tendler, "We have shared issues and shared support."

The Jewish community and Valley representation controversies were only a small part of the litany of issues faced by the Redistricting Commission over the course of 11 public hearings since November 2001.

The map of the 5th District that the Redistricting Commission has sent to the City Council includes the Chandler corridor area, attached via Laurel Canyon Boulevard to the main body of the district, which includes Bel Air and Westwood and extends east as far as Highland Avenue.

Close is pleased that the plan, as proposed, includes the five Valley districts, but says, "The real question is, is the City Council going to meddle in the process?… Was the Redistricting Commission just a façade?"

At the final hearing on March 26, Ruth Galanter, whose 6th District has been moved from Venice to Van Nuys, told the commission, "Of course we’re going to meddle with the lines you decide."

At the same meeting, 13th District City Councilman Eric Garcetti called the redistricting process "intensely imperfect." That process, now nearly completed with the finalization of the commission’s proposals, is still subject to tinkering. But Weiss believes the Jewish communities of the 5th District will stay together.

"We’re talking about a community that has made their interests known," Weiss says.

Winners and Losers


While the Jewish vote apparently split down the middle in James K. Hahn’s victory over Antonio Villaraigosa in the contest for mayor, there was bad news and good news for Jewish candidates in other races.

Former City Councilman Michael Feuer, who had led in the polls and early returns, was defeated in his race for city attorney. Feuer, the former director of the Bet Tzedek legal aid service, lost to Deputy Mayor Rocky Delgadillo by a margin of 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.

In the contest for the third citywide office, Laura Chick had already clinched election as city controller in the April primaries. Chick, a former city council-member and one-time counselor with the Jewish Family Service, is the first woman — of any denomination — to win a citywide election in Los Angeles.

Two victories marked the possible emergence of a new generation of young Jewish politicians.

In the affluent and influential City Council 5th District, dubbed the “District of the Stars,” newcomer Jack Weiss won in an upset victory over veteran political activist and state Sen. Tom Hayden.

Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, won by a margin of 289 votes, or 0.5 percent of the total vote.

Another newcomer, Michael Waxman, son of veteran Congressman Henry Waxman, had won election to the L.A. Community College board of trustees — a frequent springboard to higher political office — in the primaries.

Two Jewish women contested the 4th District seat for the L.A. Unified School District’s board of education, with Marlene Canter beating incumbent Valerie Fields by a 54-to-46 margin.

In the City Council race in the 3rd District, the Jewish candidate, Judith Hirshberg, lost to Dennis Zine by barely 132 votes.

Defending Greenberg


Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg has built a reputation as a man of letters, but not of the kind that have swirled around him lately.

In the latest volley in an escalating war of words, a majority of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council is defending Greenberg, the embattled council chair, against a campaign to unseat him over his role in the Marc Rich pardon scandal.

Thirty-five members of the 50-plus-member council were preparing a letter this week backing Greenberg, who is under pressure to resign for lobbying on Rich’s behalf.

Even his backers admit that Greenberg made a mistake when he sent a letter on museum stationery in December asking President Clinton to pardon the financier. Yet this week’s letter went on to say, “We have complete confidence that the museum will continue to flourish under Rabbi Greenberg’s leadership.”

The pro-Greenberg letter came in response to another letter, signed by 18 current and former members of the council, that was made public last week.

That letter recognized Greenberg’s “long and distinguished career as an educator and as a leading proponent of Jewish thought.” But it called on him to resign for his role in the Rich pardon, saying he had unintentionally “entangled the museum in a political controversy inimical to its mission.”

The scandal is the latest involving the museum, which has drawn close to 16 million visitors and widespread praise since it opened in 1993, but has also made headlines for political squabbles and infighting.

Depending on whom you talk to, this latest crisis may or may not be partisan in nature. In any case, it also appears to be driven by other forces, including disagreements over the future direction of the Washington-based museum.

But Greenberg’s detractors say it is his actions alone in the Rich scandal that led to their campaign.

“There is no rationale to involve the museum in the pardon of Marc Rich, the pardon of a fugitive,” said Deborah Lipstadt, one of the signatories to last week’s anti-Greenberg letter.

“This museum was created to commemorate the vision of the Holocaust,” and the damage done by Greenberg’s lobbying for Rich “can’t be repaired” by an apology, said Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

Lipstadt said Greenberg’s actions on behalf of Rich are exacerbated by the fact that Greenberg also directs Michael Steinhardt’s charitable foundation, which helped establish Birthright Israel. Rich contributed $5 million to Birthright, which sends North American Jews on free trips to Israel.

“No one is suggesting a quid pro quo, but appearances count,” Lipstadt said.

Judging from the latest letter, most of the council disagrees with Lipstadt’s faction.

Among the signers of the pro-Greenberg letter are several prominent members of the museum council, including Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel and two former members of the Clinton administration, Dennis Ross and Stuart Eizenstat. The council oversees the museum.

Greenberg “made a mistake on Marc Rich, but for 40 years, he has worked as a teacher and a Jewish leader” to commemorate the Holocaust, Wiesel said.

A longtime council member, Greenberg is an Orthodox rabbi best known in the Jewish community for his writings on the Holocaust and his leadership at two organizations that promote Jewish pluralism and learning: the Jewish Life Network and CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

The pro-Greenberg faction criticizes the tactics of his critics.

Greenberg apologized at a January council meeting, and his apology was accepted by the council and the museum’s Executive Committee, his backers say. The matter was not raised at February and March council meetings, they add.

In addition, Greenberg was presented with the letter calling on him to resign on April 4, just one day before the letter’s contents appeared in the New York Jewish Week.

The way in which Greenberg’s critics conducted their campaign was “stealth terrorism,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a council member and Greenberg supporter.

For his part, Greenberg said last week that he would not quit over his role in the scandal surrounding Rich, who became a major philanthropist to Jewish and Israeli causes after fleeing to Switzerland in 1983 to escape prosecution.

“I have no intention of resigning,” Greenberg said, adding that he would pursue the museum’s goals “vigorously” until his term ends in January.

President Bush can then appoint another member of the council to be its chair, and many believe he will appoint someone with closer ties to the Republican Party than Greenberg, who was named to the post by Clinton last year.

In 1998, the museum came under fire for its on-again, off-again invitation to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to visit the museum. Arafat eventually declined the invitation.

Soon thereafter, John Roth, an appointee to head the museum’s Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, was criticized for making comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany. Roth eventually resigned his post under pressure.

In addition, there have been political tensions on the council of the museum, which receives funds from the U.S. government, since the museum opened.

Observers say the council’s Republican-leaning members have been miffed since 1993, when Harvey Meyerhoff was removed as chairman in what Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition called a “humiliating and offensive manner.”

“Clinton politicized the museum in a way that was not done under Bush and Reagan,” Brooks claimed.

Greenberg first came under fire earlier this year, after a public speech characterized as anti-Israel by an opinion writer in the Wall Street Journal.

Greenberg said the opinion piece not only was “an outrageous misrepresentation,” but portrayed the opposite of what he actually said.

Both Lipstadt and Ruth Mandel, the council’s vice chair and another signatory to the anti-Greenberg letter, deny that the present campaign is politically motivated.

Any partisan feuding has only been heightened by tension between Greenberg and the museum’s director, Sara Bloomfield.

Bloomfield was unavailable for comment.

In their letter, the pro-Greenberg faction wrote, “We also believe that it is in the best interests of the museum and council that the Rich matter be considered concluded. The unfortunate public letter of our colleagues can only serve to distract from our important work in Holocaust remembrance — an issue around which unity is uniquely important.”

If the past is any teacher, it seems unlikely that this unity will occur soon.

JTA correspondent Sharon Samber in Washington contributed to this report.

Crown Jewel


Settling with a cup of coffee into the comfortable armchair in his new office, Rabbi Mark Diamond might need to get used to doing a lot more sitting.

For 18 years, Diamond worked as a pulpit rabbi, spending the latter half of those years with Oakland’s venerable Conservative synagogue, the 93-year-old Congregation Beth Abraham.One month into his new role as executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, (a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles) Diamond is energized by the City of Angels.

“There’s an enormous reservoir of talented rabbis in the L.A. community,” said Diamond. “We have some real giants walking among us.”

Diamond, 45, has sat on council boards before. The Chicago-born spiritual leader was president of the 35-member East Bay Council of Rabbis in the early 1990s. Yet Diamond considers the confederation of rabbis he now oversees a particularly unique entity, “in many respects, cutting edge. This is not taking place in other cities.”

Diamond is using this year to experiment with various pro-grams and different meeting places to help boost attendance at Board of Rabbis meetings. Plans are underway for rabbis to get together each month and study Torah. The first two seminars are already booked – one with Rabbi Richard Levy of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; another with Rabbi Bradley Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at University of Judaism.

Other areas Diamond wants to address include the chap-laincy program serving prisons, hospitals and nursing homes; finding new methods to attract younger Jews; and improving adult Jewish education.”We want to show that there are so many beautiful, positive, healthy reasons to be Jews,” Diamond said.One of Diamond’s pivotal experiences occurred in the spring 1976 – after graduating from Carleton College and before entering Jewish Theologi-cal Seminary – when he was given a Dodge Aspen, a token salary and a healthy cross-section of the Midwest to raise Jewish consciousness and awareness as a United Jewish Appeal field worker.

Another turning point came in late 1995. The Internet was becoming an increasingly popular element of American life, and America Online (AOL) was developing some Jewish culture areas. Marc Klein, editor and publisher of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California, asked Diamond to set up an “Ask a Rabbi” consultation forum on AOL. Diamond obliged and thought nothing of it until he came back after a holiday and found 100 e-mails waiting for him. Encouraged by the enthusiasm, he continued the site. At the forum’s height, Diamond and his multi-denominational team of rabbis were fielding 200 questions a week.Los Angeles Jewish Federation President John Fishel takes Diamond’s post very seriously as “a synergy between the Federation and the synagogue community.” Diamond was hired, Fishel said, because “he has a good vision of how the rabbinic community and the synagogue community can work with our federation. He has the right personality to work with a diverse group.”

Yet even as Fishel welcomes the incoming Diamond, Con-gregation Beth Abraham has a mighty big void to fill.

“He’s going to be greatly missed,” said Herman “Pinky” Pencovic, a past Beth Abraham president and current chairman of the synagogue’s board of trustees. “It’s a big loss for us.”

Diamond feels comfortable at Federation, working alongside Fishel and with agencies such as Birthright Israel Experience.

“Personally, if I had millions to spend, I would make sure that every young Jew gets to Israel twice in his life – high school and college,” he said.

Diamond also looks forward to working on Federation’s senior management team.

In his short time in Los Angeles, Diamond already finds that “people are thirsting for serious Jewish learning,” said Diamond. “We are incredibly blessed in such a reservoir of committed people who recognize the meaning and beauty of Jewish life.”

Diamond looks forward to the upcoming Board of Rabbis Web site, due after the High Holidays, which will resurrect his “Ask a Rabbi” service for the general public, in addition to providing a tool for the city’s rabbinate. He stresses that the new site will be an avenue toward Jewish concerns, but not the final destination.

“There are so many Jews out there who are lonely, hurting, striving to take the extra step,” said Diamond. “We, as the Board of Rabbis, need to help connect them to take that first step.”

Look for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California Web site this fall athref=http://www.boardofrabbis.org.>www.boardofrabbis.org

Crumbling Coalition


The coincidence could hardly have been lost on Ehud Barak: As President Hafez Assad was laid to rest in Syria, Israel’s Shas Party appeared to lay the premier’s “peace coalition” to rest.The fervently Orthodox party’s Council of Sages, headed by spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, sounded what could be the first notes of the prime minister’s coalition’s death knell Tuesday. The council ordered Shas ministers to hand in their resignations at Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.

If Shas, which holds 17 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, keeps to its decision, it would undo Barak’s 68-52 majority in Parliament.

At midweek, it appeared that the shaky political partnership between Shas and the secular Meretz Party, Barak’s other major coalition partner, was going to collapse.The prime minister never concealed his desire to keep Shas inside his peace camp and somehow iron out its differences with Meretz’s leader, Education Minister Yossi Sarid, over the funding of Shas’ financially troubled school network.

With Shas as his largest coalition partner, Barak had come close to peace with Assad’s Syria earlier this year.

A sliver of land alongside the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee was all that separated the two sides in January, when talks between the two countries ran aground.

Shas, despite murmurings among its rank-and-file members, stood firmly beside Barak during that period, as did Meretz.

Another Orthodox coalition partner, the National Religious Party, threatened to quit if a deal was signed with Syria for Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights.Russian immigrant party Yisrael Ba’Aliyah also showed signs of strain as Barak moved toward sweeping land concessions to Syria.

Together with his own One Israel bloc, and with the Israeli Arab parties’ support from outside the coalition, Barak was confident that he would win majorities in the Cabinet and in the Knesset for the evolving land-for-peace deal with Syria, and then successfully present it to the Israeli people in a referendum.But with Assad’s death, the conventional wisdom is that any prospects of reviving peace talks with Syria have been dealt a severe blow. Assad’s son and heir apparent, Bashar, will need time to stabilize his government.

But the secession of Shas would be a blow of equally heavy, if not heavier, weight to the peace process – both with Syria and the Palestinians.Granted, Barak may possibly cobble together an alternative government and scrape by in Knesset votes, at least for the immediate future, with the help of the 10 Israeli Arab legislators.

But if all the Orthodox parties and their supporters line up against him – reconstituting, in effect, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rightist-religious coalition – Barak’s prospects of negotiating a peace accord with either Syria or the Palestinians, and making it stick, will be enormously diminished.For one thing, many Israeli settlers on the West Bank and the Golan are Orthodox. Their homes and futures are on the line. They will be much more resistant to peace if they know that the entire Orthodox camp is united in opposition to Barak.

A government without Shas would have difficulty winning a convincing majority in the referendum Barak has pledged to hold before finalizing any land-for-peace deal.

Knowing this, Israel’s partners in peace talks will be all the more cautious about “wasting” their core concessions to a government that does not have the internal strength to capitalize on them.

This may be especially true for the Palestinians, who resumed talks with Israel this week near Washington. Shas’ announcement that it is resigning from the coalition came three months before the two sides are scheduled to reach a final peace treaty.Israeli-Palestinian talks have not been going smoothly, and Shas’ announcement that it is jumping ship is not likely to help.But as of this week, Shas had not yet done the deed. Before Sunday’s Cabinet session, a compromise still could be worked out.

“The Sages’ decision does not preclude continued negotiations,” said Rafael Pinhasi, secretary of the Shas Council of Sages.Indeed, even if the ministers submit their letters of resignation, the law provides for a further 48 hours before they take effect. That period, too, could be filled with last-minute haggling designed to draw back from the brink.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” a seasoned political pundit warned.No one in politics, he reasoned – not even the Likud opposition, with its leadership rivalries still unresolved – seems to want elections this early in the Barak government’s term.Likud leader Ariel Sharon, however, said he hopes the Shas announcement would lead to early elections and the establishment of a nationalist government.

“I see no other option except to change this failing government,” Sharon said.But One Israel minister Yossi Beilin told Israel Television’s Channel One that new elections were not an option now.”There will not be any early elections,” he said. “We have no time to waste, we have a political process to see to.”

Political crises, however, have a way of rolling forward on their own momentum to places that politicians never really intended to reach.The Shas rabbis’ decision Tuesday, like Assad’s demise on Saturday, could have long-term and far-reaching consequences for Israel and the region.

A Debate on Focus


Jewish community leaders across the country are buzzing nervously these days about a family feud within the Jewish philanthropic world that could help shape the political profile of American Jewry for years. It’s one of those spats where both sides are a little bit right and a little bit wrong, and everyone else wishes they’d just cool off before they break something and get us all in trouble. So far, sadly, there’s no sign of temperatures dropping.

The feud pits the nation’s two biggest and richest Jewish welfare federations against a little-known agency that serves as a sort of public-policy think-tank for Jewish federations nationwide. The agency, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, or JCPA, is supposed to coordinate the federations’ policies with those of national Jewish organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah. The federations in New York and Chicago think it’s actually off pursuing its own liberal agenda. They want to shorten the leash.

The council claims to be the most broadly representative group in American Jewish life. Its members include a dozen of the biggest national Jewish organizations, Orthodox to Reform and left to right, plus 120 local Jewish federations and community-relations councils. Its annual policy statement, hammered out through a year-long process of negotiation among the groups, ranges from Israel to school prayer to abortion, welfare reform and the environment. What results is an astonishingly broad consensus across the Jewish spectrum.

The problem, say New York and Chicago federation leaders, is that the consensus isn’t genuine. They say the council operates through a flawed process that leaves too many Jews outside. “There is a portion of our community who question if it is even appropriate for an organization to speak on behalf of the Jewish community on some of these issues,” wrote the president and executive director of New York UJA-Federation, James Tisch and Stephen Solender, in a June 30 letter to the council. The Chicago federation endorsed most of the New Yorkers’ complaints in its own letter Aug. 6.

The New Yorkers want the JCPA to prune its agenda and focus on things “germane” to federations, like aid to immigrants and care for the Jewish elderly, plus no-brainers like Israel and anti-Semitism. They particularly want the council to abandon subjects like affirmative action and school vouchers, where they say the old Jewish consensus of the 1960s and 1970s has collapsed.

Jewish conservatives are hailing the tiff as evidence that Jewish liberalism is finally in retreat, something they’ve prayed for since the Nixon administration. But insiders on both sides say conservatives have little to celebrate. The issues the two federations want the council to focus on — increased federal aid for immigrants, seniors and the poor — are big-spending liberal ideas, not right-wing causes.

In part this is just local politics, especially in New York. The federation there has long been at odds with its local Jewish Community Relations Council, which is dominated by a poorer, more conservative population and often resents federation’s “Park Avenue liberals.” Not surprisingly, the community council doesn’t have much use for national JCPA, either. Some say the New York federation is leaning on JCPA in a machiavellian bid to bring its own community council closer.

But many outside New York and Chicago say the dispute’s causes run deeper, and may actually be more worrisome than any simple ideological shift. Some say it’s about money: a bid by federations and their donors to control Jewish public policy and make it serve fundraising needs, rather than the wishes of average Jews. “Every poll shows the majority of the Jewish community cares about the prophetic charge to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and heal the sick,” insists Marcia Goldstone, outspoken director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But money talks. Federation leaders concede money is a factor, but deny it’s a power-grab. They just want to make every dollar count when cash is tight. “The question is whether the issues that JCPA is tackling are germane to the UJA-Federation mission,” says New York’s Tisch, son of Laurence and CEO of Loew’s Corp.

Beyond money, the dispute reflects an alarming decline in the Jewish community’s ability to take positions of any sort with credibility. More and more, it appears, Jews are simply unwilling to agree. Federation leaders call it “lack of consensus.” But that’s only half-true. Jews aren’t more divided than they were three decades ago. Dissenters haven’t become more numerous. They’re simply less willing to defer to the majority.

This comes in many forms. Orthodox Jews are more defensive, more fearful of a liberal majority that seems ever further from tradition. Republicans are more defiant, less willing to let their money be used to advance a liberalism they consider bankrupt.

As for federation leaders, they’re more dependent each year on smaller numbers of bigger donations. Each gift becomes more important, and each threat to withhold a gift more frightening. Each time another conservative complains about “JCPA liberals,” supporting the council seems more like an expensive habit.

In part JCPA’s problems are of its own making. Over the last decade it’s abandoned part of its mandate. It was born to juggle the different needs of its two constituencies, national agencies and local federations and councils. The local councils wanted it to be their voice on the national stage. The agencies — especially the fiercely competitive ADL, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress — wanted it to keep low and not compete with them. Balancing them was JCPA’s key to survival. In recent years, under executive director Lawrence Rubin, JCPA has tilted sharply toward the local councils. Three years ago it changed its structure, downgrading the power of the national agencies. Some agencies responded by dowgrading their role in JCPA. “They became de facto another defense agency,” said ADL national director Abe Foxman. “That turned us off.” The result, ironically, was to reduce JCPA’s visibility and clout. Given all those troubles, it’s a wonder the New York and Chicago federations haven’t received more support from other cities. The reason is that most communities realize clipping the JCPA’s wings is more expensive than supporting it.

“JCPA doesn’t merely take positions for the sake of it,” said Burt Siegel, director of the Philadelphia Jewish Community Relations Council and dean of local council directors. “Black politicians stood with us on Soviet Jewry because we stood with them on poverty and health care. JCPA offers an opportunity to help shape society in many ways that make life better for most Jews.”


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

‘They Should Leave as Soon as Possible’


What can be done to help Russian Jewry? Loads, according to Simon Frumkin. He should know.

The road to liberating Russian Jews has been a long and tortured process, and few people know this more than Frumkin, who has spent decades battling to facilitate Jewish flight from Russia.

Although not of Russian-Jewish ancestry, the 68-year-old Lithuanian-born Dachau survivor has long served as a prominent voice for Russian Jewry. In 1968, Frumkin founded the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews, and later co-founded and led the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews — two lobbying organizations crucial to the Russian-Jewish freedom crusade.

The social activist, also instrumental in forming the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former U.S.S.R., continues his tireless efforts on behalf of Russian Jews, lending his talents to countless periodicals and organizations, including Steven Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Foundation.

Last week, Frumkin shared his thoughts on the challenges facing the estimated 500,000 to 2.5 million Russian Jews remaining in the former Soviet Union, where the fall of communism has helped usher in the rise of anti-Semitism.

Jewish Journal: In your essay “The Anti-Semites Are Right — Jews Should Leave Russia,” you are not very optimistic about the future of Jews living in Russia. You even deem the Communist Party the Russian equivalent of the Nazis. On what do you base your pessimism?

Simon Frumkin: I’m not optimistic…because there’s never been any reason for optimism for the future of Jews in Russia…. In czarist Russia, Jews were not permitted to come into Russia (proper)…. In spite of that, anti-Semitism was rampant. Most of the people in Russia never saw a Jew, but they hated them anyway.

As soon as the revolution began, Jewish religion was eliminated. For the first and only time in history, a language — Hebrew — was named to be an enemy of the people…. Zionists were imprisoned…. There was official anti-Semitism. There were purge trials. There were plans by Stalin to send all the Jews to concentration camps, which had already been built. Luckily, he died just in time.

JJ: What are Russian Jews living outside of Russia doing to help the Jews residing in Russia?

SF: They’re not doing anything. To begin with, they can’t, because many of them can’t even speak English. They do write letters and fiery editorials in Russian-language newsletters, which nobody reads. Other than that, they have not developed into a political force.

JJ: Is President Boris Yeltsin’s government doing enough to curb anti-Semitism and protect the Jews there?

SF: They’re not doing anything. They really can’t. Their hands are tied. Yeltsin is not functioning. He’s ever more irrelevant. It is difficult to say who is in power…. In the last thousand years of its recorded history, Russia never had 10 years when things were good. Never….

On Dec. 5, a big march took place…in the center of Moscow, where (several hundred) fascist communist kids…with swastikas and black shirts demonstrated…demanding that the government abolish the law which punishes incitement of racial and ethnic hatred, because they said it violates their freedom of speech…. It was not shown on TV; they were not interfered with. That was that….

The average Russian is racist…. My granddaughter goes to Bancroft Junior High in Hollywood…they have a lot of Russian and Ukrainian kids there — the fact is that about 30 percent of the immigrants from the former Soviet Union who come to America these days are not Jewish — but here [my daughter] is in her social studies class, and they’re discussing what is wrong in the world and how could we make things better. And a little (Ukrainian) girl…says, “Well, one way is get rid of all the Jews.” This is what she hears from her parents…. Nothing has changed…. (Russian anti-Semitism) is not worst now then it was; it’s as bad as it always was. Except now it’s popular.

JJ: What can Russian Jews living outside of Russia do to help the Jews in Russia counter the growing tide of anti-Semitism there?

SF: They can learn the name of their congressmen…. (Many Russian Jews) don’t know how the political system works…don’t trust the government…because they were taught that the government is the enemy. Most of them are not aware that anything was done for them to facilitate their immigration from the Soviet Union. They think that it just happened…. When they find out about the demonstrations and the letter-writing campaigns and the prisoners of conscience (etc.), they are amazed….

At one point, the fate of Soviet Jews was an important item on the agenda in Washington. This is no longer so because American Jews feel that the problem has been solved….

JJ: Although many Jews in Russia have already received special refugee visas from the United States to emigrate, many of them have yet to exercise their so-called “Lautenberg status.” What’s being done to encourage them to leave?

SF: There are about 30,000 or so refugee visas given out each year to the United States, of which about 20,000 go to the Jews…. There are about 10,000 to 15,000 Jews “sitting on their suitcases” with visas in hand, who have refugee status…who, in the meantime, are depriving (others) by not leaving. I think that’s a crime…. There should be a time limit, that if you don’t utilize your visa within a year, the visa should be taken away and someone else should go…. We must realize that the United States government is aware of it to the point where it’s getting more and more difficult for a Jew to get a refugee visa in Russia.

JJ: If the economic crisis in Russia continues to worsen, what will conceivably happen to the Jews living there?

SF: I think they’re going to get killed. I don’t think there is a future for Jews in Russia…. They should leave as soon as possible.

For information on Russian Jewish immigrants and related organizations and activities, call (818) 769-8862. To donate furniture or toys for newly arrived Russian Jewish immigrants, contact the Association of Soviet Jewish Émigrés at (213) 878-0995.