Shul counseling center costs little, does much for many


Even a rabbi needs a little help sometimes, which is why Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) was inspired decades ago to promote the creation of a counseling center run by temple volunteers.

“When I first came to this community, I realized that many of the problems that came to me were disguised. That is to say, the presenting problem appeared to be religious, but in fact it was emotional,” Schulweis said. “I recognized that I was one rabbi, that I could not possibly sustain that kind of a therapeutic relationship.

So he asked himself: If there are paralegals and paramedics, why not highly trained paraprofessional counselors who could offer confidential help? The answer took form as the VBS Counseling Center, established in 1973. It will be honored by the synagogue this weekend with the inaugural Harold M. Schulweis Humanitarian Award.

Also receiving the commendation on Sunday for their lifetime individual commitment to conscience and compassion will be congregants Elaine Berke, Faith Cookler and Janice Kamenir-Reznik.

The counseling center — secluded on the lower level of the Encino congregation with a separate entrance — currently has about 20 volunteers who meet with at least 40 Jewish and non-Jewish people from around the community every week, according to Charlotte Samuels, its clinical director.

Issues dealt with include depression, anger, grief, divorce, marriage counseling, unemployment, aging parents and more.  It operates on a “low fee/sliding scale” structure where people pay what they can, often between $15 and $50 per session.

For those lay volunteers who devote their time, this is no mere hobby. Samuels has been a counselor since the program’s inception, and she remembers the rigorous training that she and others had to go through over a period of two years.

“We had a reading list of required books. We had a supplementary reading list of recommended books. We went to class every week, Sunday morning, for three hours. We made visits to a great many of the mental health auxiliary facilities in the city and the Valley at that time,” she said. “For a six-month period, we paid for our own group therapy under the auspices of another psychiatrist,” learning how the process worked by participating in it.

Fourteen people completed the training as part of that initial cohort, and four continue to work for the center, Samuels said. The intensive curriculum was created by the late Dr. Arthur Sorosky, a VBS member and child psychiatrist who enlisted the help of many of his colleagues.

“He was a man who was really touched by the idea of training lay people from within the congregation,” Schulweis said.

For some, this training wasn’t the end.

“We were encouraged to go back to school if that’s what we wanted to do, and a number of us did and continued to volunteer going forward,” Samuels said.

She was one of them. Not a college graduate previously, Samuels was inspired to pursue higher education as a result of her involvement in the center. She studied her way through a master’s degree in counseling psychology before becoming licensed as a marriage and family therapist. She volunteered at the center for her training hours.

Now retired, Samuels said there is a special pleasure in helping the underserved who are attracted to the center — sometimes taking several bus lines to get there.

“They don’t come to us without having a great deal of pain. My empathy in helping them work through the pain and come out better able to deal with life, it’s humbling,” she said. “Private practice offers financial rewards. This offers a different kind of satisfaction even though you do the work in a similar kind of way.”

Schulweis, 87, said it always was his vision that the center cater to the entire community and people of all faiths, not just VBS congregants or Jews.

“This is my general understanding of Judaism: that it is called upon to serve the community,” he said. “My small role in this was to introduce from time to time some Jewish aspects of therapy. The idea behind it is that the synagogue has to become … a therapeutic, helping institution.”

As such, it might serve multiple roles for a multitude of peoples.

“The synagogue [isn’t] simply a place to pray for health but also a place in which people could have a shoulder to lean on and an intelligence to relate to,” Schulweis said. “It’s been remarkably successful.”

VBS Rabbi Ed Feinstein said that the synagogue of 1,600 families was one of the first — if not the first — Jewish congregations to offer such services, although there were pre-existing church models.

“We’re very proud of this, and we’re very grateful to the counselors who have given of themselves to do this,” he said. “The counseling center is an example of Rabbi Schulweis’ idea of a synagogue that must be bigger than its walls. … It’s about being a center of Judaism that reaches into the community and to the world to bring healing, to bring help.”

The center, which has served as a model for other organizations, has found its target audience, according to Sylvia Bernstein-Tregub, co-chair with Linda Volpert Gross of several celebratory events this weekend in conjunction with the awards.

It has served hundreds of people since its founding and offers something extra that people can’t easily find elsewhere, Bernstein-Tregub said.

“The fact that people reach out to a religious institution means that they are also looking for some spiritual component,” she said.

Gloria Siegel, who began volunteering at the center within the last year, said her experience dealing with others has improved her, too.

“In my helping other people, I’m growing at the same time,” she said.

She remembers one woman in particular whose improvement had a profound effect on her.

“She said to me at the end of one session: ‘You have given me the courage to believe in myself.’ And to hear that from anybody is such a tremendous gift,” Siegel said. “It doesn’t get more gratifying than that.”

Divorced by 30


Sascha Rothchild, 33, describes the feeling leading up to the end of her first marriage as a sort of underlying malaise.

“It’s just that feeling of falling asleep at night,” she said, “knowing that you’re unhappy, and that you’re unhappy on someone else’s terms.”

Rothchild got married at 27, ended her relationship a year-and-a-half after her wedding and then authored the book “How to Get Divorced by 30: My Misguided Attempt at a Starter Marriage” (Plume, 2010). She isn’t alone in her willingness to explore and understand — publicly — what went wrong. Her outspokenness is a reflection of the seemingly palpable deterioration of the stigma surrounding divorce, as well as society’s changing views on what it means to be married.

In spite of the fact that young divorcees seem more open to talking about their breakups in recent years, marital stability among the under-40 set is, in fact, on the rise in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1975 and 1979, 16 percent of 30-year-old men had divorced, as had 20 percent of women. By 2004, that number had slid to 13 percent of men, and 17 percent of women.

The relatively high percentage of divorce in the late 1970s has been largely attributed to the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws, in which couples can end a marriage without blame. And experts agree that societal factors still play an important role in who gets married, who stays married, and who’s happy within their marriage.

Over the past few decades, the median age of marriage has gone up from 23 in 1970 to 28 in 2008, and in a shift in trend, college-educated individuals are now getting married at the same rate and age as those without college degrees.

And both age and education influence the likelihood that a couple’s relationship will stay intact. According to a report released in October by the Pew Research Center, people with a higher level of education are less likely to get divorced; in the year 2007, it states, 1.6 percent of adults with a college degree were divorced, compared to 2.9 percent of those without a bachelor’s degree.

As we get older, says Thomas Bradbury, professor of psychology at UCLA and co-director of the UCLA Relationship Institute, we come to know ourselves better, eliminating the likelihood of a youthful marital mistake, or of growing apart during the decade of personal change that is the 20s.

“As you age through your 20s and firmly in adulthood in your 30s, your education is largely behind you, and your financial resources are firmly in place,” Bradbury said. “You define yourself and what you want better.”

Bradbury recently explored the subject of newlywed satisfaction in more depth. Over the course of 10 years, he tracked 464 couples to examine what led to happiness or unhappiness in their marriages, and whether those experiences were shared by a majority of couples.

“Everybody says relationships naturally deteriorate over time,” he said. “What we were discovering is that actually those changes, those rapid declines, are limited to a few small subgroups of couples.”

The study, published in October 2010 in the Journal of Marriage and Family Therapy, found that couples fell into one of five subgroups: Three were relatively satisfied in their relationships, and generally less likely to get divorced. The other two subgroups were less satisfied in their relationships, and by the 10-year mark, 40 to 60 percent had ended their marriages. 

Among the couples who were more likely to get divorced, partners often struggled with communication, specifically around conflict resolution. And one or both partners routinely had personality traits like low self-esteem, high levels of stress or a pessimistic outlook. 

“There’s an emotion regulation component to all of [the shared characteristics],” Bradbury said. A stable marriage, therefore, requires “an ability to know who you are, and to not be too inclined toward pessimism and negativity.”

Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah Congregation echoed the importance of the strong sense of self that’s necessary to build a healthy marriage — and to get out of an unhealthy one.

A stable relationship, he says, is built on mutual respect, admiration and the notion that we are all ultimately responsible for our own well-being. On the flip side, “It requires a considerable degree of insight into oneself [to come to] the realization that the primary foundation of a relationship is wrong,” he said. 

Rothchild, who is now engaged again and planning her second wedding, adds that no matter what, the realization that a marriage is going to end almost as soon as it began comes as a shock.

“You think you know who you are, and you think you know what you want,” she said. “Then you’re about to hit 30, and you realize this isn’t what you want, and this guy is not the guy for you.”

Counselors in demand as college applications soar


High school seniors don’t have it easy during this year’s college application season, which is expected to be the most applied-to year on record.

Just ask Jeremy Friedman, who is juggling 12 applications in addition to his class work and a part-time job.

“I didn’t think applying would be this stressful and difficult. I didn’t realize how many essays I’d have to write, how much organization it takes, how much research there is to do,” said Friedman, 18, a Beverly Hills High School student who is applying to Northwestern, Georgetown and University of Pennsylvania, to name a few. “You want to try to get an edge on everyone, because you really never know what the schools are looking for.”

To gain that elusive edge, Friedman worked hard for solid grades and strong test scores, and got help forming his college list from his school’s guidance department. But that’s not all — he and his family also hired two independent college consultants to make sure nothing was overlooked.

“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing any schools that would be of interest to me,” he said. “I had already done a lot of research, but maybe they had other ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of before.”

Friedman isn’t the only one looking beyond the confines of his school building this fall for extra help getting into the right college. A growing number of families are turning to private consultants to allay the competition that marks modern college admissions, local consultants and school officials say. And in the class of ’09 — which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will be the largest graduating high school class on record — some students are looking for all the edge they can get.

“Putting together an application is a very complicated process. We help demystify it,” said educational consultant Jeannie Borin, founder and president of the Los Angeles-based consulting firm College Connections. “People use personal trainers to motivate them to stay in shape. Singers might hire a voice coach to reach the high notes. Coaching is common in countless fields. So it’s not such a crazy thought — if you’re going to make such a large financial investment as going to college, you want to get it right.”

Consultants cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on whom you use, and for what.

According to U.S Census Bureau statistics, college enrollment rose 17 percent from 2000 to 2006. As the applicant pool grows, so do students’ fears of being turned away from the school of their choice. This translates to students sending out more applications than ever — often as many as 12 or 15, Borin said.

“It used to be the case that when someone was qualified to go to a college, they knew they would get in,” she said. “Astonishing candidates are now being turned away. It’s somewhat of a crapshoot. Students are covering their bases and applying to more schools — that’s one of the factors that’s making this more competitive.”

Borin, formerly the admissions director at Valley Beth Shalom Day School, helps college hopefuls compile a list of appropriate schools, offers interview tips and aids in the process of honing the all-important — and much-dreaded — college essay. Students come to College Connections as early as their freshman or sophomore years to discuss their classes and extracurricular activities, so Borin can begin making recommendations based on their interests.

But do all students need another level of supervision as they select and apply to colleges? Not necessarily, say some high school guidance counselors. It just depends on what each family needs to feel safe.

“We’re finding that more and more, even the ninth- and 10th-grade parents are so worried about the college process they see coming a couple of years down the line,” said Leanne Domnitz, head guidance counselor at Beverly Hills High School. “We have over 600 seniors going through this process. Some of them are self-contained, they’re right on top of it, and they’re fine. At the other end of the spectrum are kids who are completely overwhelmed by this process and need their hands held. I understand that for some families, it’s just too much.”

Guidance counselors handle about 300 students each at Beverly Hills High, Domnitz said, so they don’t have hours on end to spend with students who need lots of one-on-one help.

Students, particularly in the public schools, often can’t get time from their overburdened high school guidance departments, said Mark Sklarow, executive director of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), based in Fairfax, Va. Rising demand for experts who can devote more time to students has fueled a striking growth spurt in the consulting industry: The number of educational consultants in the United States. has doubled in the last five years, and Sklarow expects it to double again in the next five years.

“In an average public school in America, there are 600 students for every counselor,” he said. “It’s worse in California than in any other state. Counselors are simply playing triage — they give a student what they can, but it’s often not very much.”

That isn’t the case at some of Los Angeles’ private Jewish schools, according to the guidance departments at Milken Community High School and New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS). At NCJHS, for instance, guidance counselors only handle 50 students each and can give kids more of the in-depth help that some seek, said Celeste Morgan, director of college guidance at the West Hills school.

“We really work with students on brainstorming topics for their essays, helping them edit them and making sure their college lists are balanced so they have as many options as possible in the spring,” said Morgan, who previously worked in the admissions office at the University of Pennsylvania and read as many as 23,000 college applications during her time there.

She doesn’t believe her students stand to gain anything from a private college consultant that New Jew’s guidance department doesn’t already offer. “At smaller, independent schools, where they have resources like our department available, that’s all they really need,” she said.

Joe Blassberg, director of college guidance at Milken, agreed. “The process that we take our students through gives them the tools they need to make the right choices about where they should be applying,” he said. “Certainly, if my skill set or experience doesn’t match what the student’s needs are, then I’d be happy to help that student find additional support services. But I haven’t run into that situation yet.”

Milken senior Jonathan York, 17, said he’s taking full advantage of his guidance counselor’s support as he works on his stack of 15 applications. “It’s not rare for me to stop into my counselor’s office every other day, if only to ask a quick question,” the Stanford hopeful said.

With all the aid he’s getting from Milken, York hasn’t felt the need to seek extra guidance from an independent consultant — but he admitted that he will be asking family members to read over his essays.

“Every kid doesn’t need an educational consultant,” said Sklarow, director of the IECA. “The best reason to hire a consultant is to cast a wide net. You’re looking not just for a college, but for a place where you’re going to grow up over the next four years. An educational consultant will help you make that match more effectively.”

IECA members must visit at least 50 campuses a year, so they have a wealth of first-hand knowledge that many high school guidance counselors lack.

This knowledge extends to Jewish life on different campuses, according to Borin of College Connections — how large the Jewish population is at a given school, whether the students sustain a thriving Hillel and whether it’s viable to keep kosher on campus.

Alexandra Dumas Rhodes, founder of Santa Monica-based Rhodes Educational Consulting, also considers it an asset that she can work with clients during the summer before senior year, when many students have limited access to their school’s counseling department.

But the cost of hiring a college consultant bars many families from doing so, said Mary Charlton, a guidance counselor at Van Nuys High School.

“If a student needs to be walked through the process, and you can afford to do that, great. But if you’re strapped for cash and can get good guidance from your school counselors, it’s superfluous,” Charlton said.

Ultimately, most agreed, what students need most is a level head and a realistic approach to the application process. If students focused more on themselves and less on the competition, said Morgan of NCJHS, the fall season might lose some of its frenzy.

“They don’t need to frame the process as something where it’s them against more students than have ever applied before,” she said. “What they need to look at is: have I done my best?”

Dear Abby of Cyberspace


For a while this past year, several thousand girls between the ages of 10 and 14 read my words every day by logging on to Allykatzz.com, an Internet site for “‘tween” girls that provides a safe alternative to MySpace and Facebook.

They wrote to me about their parents’ divorce or their fear of seventh grade or their little eating disorder they hoped no one else would know about.

For several months, I became the “Dear Abby of Cyberspace,” the friendly counselor whose open door was only a cursor away, the virtual adult who answered a teen girl’s question when the actual adult in her life couldn’t even be asked.

When I was brought on to the Allykatzz staff, I expected that my blogging ‘tweeners would grapple with the same issues as I hear of in person from my at-risk adolescent clients: sex, drugs, and — rock ‘n’ roll not withstanding — anger, anxiety and despair. Although the emotional outpouring was similar to that of the kids I work with daily, some of the stories I was told by my nameless readers astonished me:

There was the girl who was raped when she was 8 and, at 14, wanted to know how to keep it a secret until she got to college; the girl who was born with a deformed limb and wanted to cut it out of her body; the girl whose father just died of brain cancer and who wanted to hypnotize herself out of grieving.

I tried to answer all of them, often urging them to advocate for themselves by seeking out counseling or a support group or by expressing their feelings in a positive, healing way. I made it a point to let each of them know they are cherished, unique young women and that, whatever confronts them, this too shall pass.

On a lighter note, the most frequent issue of all seemed to be the one I call the BFF Dilemma. For those of you who are ignorant of cyber-speak, a BFF is a Best Friend Forever. The problem for many of my bloggers was that, alas, the BFF actually shouldn’t be forever. Here is a typical (if not actual) letter:

“So, Leda, like HELP me!!!! My BFF who I no since we wuz in frst grade has gotten so ANNOYING!!! She IMs me all the time and talks about nothing! She even makes fun of me in front of other grls! She told one really cool popular grl my name is Jade and it is SO not Jade! She was OK til 7 grade and then she got WEIRD. My mom sez 2 ignore her but I cant! What to do?”

There were so many BFF Dilemma letters that they took on a weight equal to that of my occasional clinically depressed teen. Although a few of the girls face horrific problems, most of them were dealing with the simple process of being. I am constantly reminded in my work that an adolescent’s struggle to forge a mature identity can be a lonely one, as singular and as difficult as a butterfly emerging from a cocoon.

Part of that transformation is in deciding who will be compassionate and trustworthy enough to make the passage with them. When I was a teenager, I would become baffled and angry when my normally very progressive Jewish parents, who had a reputation among my friends for being especially hospitable, would shake their heads in wonderment and disapproval at some of my peers. “Di vos vaksn nit, vern kleyner,” my Yiddishkeit, immigrant father would tell me: Those who do not grow, grow smaller.

He was right.

BFFs, BBs (blog buddies) and BFs (boyfriends) will come and go, despite the best of intentions, simply because the level of maturity between adolescents is so uneven. Hopefully, for my readers, there will be new and better friends and perhaps a sympathetic adult or two on the road ahead as they travel from girlhood through adolescence into adulthood. It is my wish that I can be one of those adult voices who can support and cajole a young woman forward.

I am reminded of another bit of Yiddish wisdom: Each child carries his or her own blessing into the world. So far, I have been blessed many times over, and I am both grateful for and honored by them all.

Leda Siskind is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles who works with adolescents, young adults and families. She can be reached at (323) 824-0551.

Sheket, b’vakasha!


Shutting Jewish Mouths

We were surprised to read the mischaracterization of the American Jewish Committee (AJCommitee) in Rob Eshman’s column (“Shutting Jewish Mouths,” Feb. 16).

As our 175,000 constituents know, we welcome a wide range of viewpoints in the AJCommitee “tent” and our members count themselves as liberals, conservatives and everything in between. AJCommitee is a strictly nonpartisan organization, long viewed as centrist in its orientation and we pride ourselves on a deliberative style of discussion and debate on policy matters. Contrary to Eshman’s view, there is no “party line” at AJCommitee.

Legitimate and informed discussion of Israeli policies is welcome, and, as ardent defenders of the Jewish state, we have been long-time participants in that debate. Indeed, AJCommitee is a leading advocate for a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But we must take umbrage with anyone, even fellow Jews, who call for Israel’s demise.

The essay by professor Alvin Rosenfeld of Indiana University addresses a very real threat that a Jewish imprimatur gives to the campaign to challenge Israel’s very legitimacy. As the American Jewish community’s leading think tank, the AJCommitee chose to publish the essay because it is important to illuminate views held by those on the political fringes asserting that Israel has no right to exist and should either be destroyed or morphed into a so-called bi-national state, which means the end of Israel as a Jewish state.

Their language needs to be read to understand why professor Rosenfeld, a highly regarded scholar, felt compelled to write his essay and why AJCommitee chose to publish it. It can be found at www.ajc.org.

Meanwhile, those who claim that an effort is underway to stifle debate are just wrong. Discussion online and offline has been vibrant, and we hope interest in the Rosenfeld essay will spark serious conversation on the important issues he raises.

Sherry A. Weinman
President
Los Angeles Chapter
American Jewish Committee

Bravo, well said … and it needed to be said. I admire your courage in speaking out against an increasingly stultifying establishment… which, of course, was itself the point.

No matter how much heat you catch — and I’m sure it will be plentiful — know that you have many readers who respect your resolve to deliver real journalism. Kol hakavod l’cha.

Rabbi Ken Chasen
Leo Baeck Temple

Your statement about being the former head of Americans for Peace now [in Los Angeles] made everything clear about how you have used The Jewish Journal to put down the religious Jews who really care about their G-d-given birthright, the land of Israel and the nominally Jewish traitors who would sell their soul for a fake peace with the Islamic terrorists who want nothing more than to eradicate Jews from the face of the earth.

If ever there were a case for removing a traitor from a “Jewish” publication, it is you. You are a pogrom all by yourself.

Bunnie Meyer
via e-mail

In “Shutting Jewish Mouths” (Feb. 16), Jewish Journal Editor in Chief Rob Eshman makes an almost comical argument: the American Jewish Committee can stop Peace Now’s abusive criticism of Israel.

But pacifists, whether in England in the 1930s, West Germany in the 1970s or in the West today, always blame the victim first.

Thus, while friends of Israel seek to improve Israel’s public image, Peace Now supplies the raw materials for anti-Israel coverage. While Israel seeks new markets for its products, Peace Now assists in economic boycotts. While the IDF maps Iranian nuclear sites, Peace Now maps settlements. While Hamas prepares to introduce sharia, or Islamic law, into the formerly “occupied” Gaza strip, Peace Now advocates splitting Jerusalem. While Hezbollah and Syria plan another round of missile strikes, Peace Now demands that Israel surrender the Golan.

It’s true that we all love Israel. But love from pacifists tends to hurt — a lot.

Nathan D. Wirtschafter
Rehovot, Israel

Justice Takes a Beating

Joe R. Hicks’ otherwise excellent article about the sentence of freedom given to the gang that nearly beat to death three innocent young girls on the street while screaming anti-white racial epithets against them left out the most important information: the judge’s name (“Justice Takes a Beating in Racial Hatred Case,” Feb. 16).

It is Superior Court Judge Gibson Lee, not only the object of worldwide scorn via the Internet and talk radio, but thankfully the subject of a recall petition. Lee is a disgrace to the bench and to America, and should resign immediately.

Caroline Miranda
North Hollywood

Dennis Prager

In the course of his lukewarm, non-defense of Dennis Prager, David Klinghoffer adds insult to injury by claiming that the “Muslim scriptures do not deserve” the same recognition as the Bible because “what has made America so special” can be traced to “a unique blending of Christian and Jewish beliefs,” in which the “Quran played no role whatsoever” (“Prager Shouldn’t Lose His Museum Post,” Feb. 16).

Klinghoffer needs to go back and study his U.S. history. What made America so special is not some Christian/Jewish exclusion of other religions, but the inclusive principle of religious tolerance.

Campaigning for religious freedom in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson demanded recognition of the religious rights of the “Mahamdan,” the Jew and the “pagan.” Richard Henry Lee asserted: “True freedom embraces the Mahomitan and the Gentoo [Hindu] as well as the Christian religion.”

Jefferson recounted that in the struggle to pass his landmark Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786), the Virginia legislature “rejected by a great majority” an effort to limit the bill’s scope, “in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan.”

Officials in Massachusetts were equally insistent that their influential Constitution of 1780 afforded “the most ample liberty of conscience … to Deists, Mahometans, Jews and Christians.”

News from the hood, eruv in the air


Neighborhood Angels

David Suissa gets it right when he praises the incredible work of selfless individuals (“Neighborhood Angels,” Feb. 2). Through their tireless efforts to feed struggling Jewish families, Yaelle and Nouriel Cohen bring honor not only to themselves but also to their entire community.

In the face of a problem as deeply entrenched as hunger, people like the Cohens are an important part of the answer. But they cannot do it alone.

Alleviating the suffering brought on by economic insecurity will take broad civic participation. In other words, it will take all of us, working together in concert with able community and government leaders, to make the critical difference that will finally end hunger once and for all.

Jeremy Deutchman
Director
Communications and Development
MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger

Celebrating Holiday

I was quite perturbed by your article, “The Missing Holiday” (Feb. 9). In it, David Suissa seems to imply that the Orthodox community just picks and chooses its holidays. When Orthodox people celebrate a holiday, they do it with true meaning and observe the holiday’s laws.

It has been this way since the beginning of time. We do not make up laws and rituals, such as sitting under a tree eating fruit.

Suissa seems to be a big fan of Tu B’Shevat and what it represents, but I wonder if he feels the same way about other holidays that are a little more strenuous than eating fruit. To compare a Tu B’Shevat seder to the Passover seder is like comparing apples to oranges (pun intended).

David, you are better than that.

Yonatan Dahari
Valley Village

Eruv Controversy

In a letter published in The Journal, a Mr. Eli Ziv of Woodland Hills accused Jane Ulman’s article about the Conejo eruv of tiptoeing around the real issue, which he claims to be a real hatred of traditional Jewish observance, much of it coming from secular Jews (“Questions Remain After Agoura Eruv Dismantled,” Feb. 2).

The problem is that Ziv has never been in our Conejo Valley community, did not see the eruv that we commissioned and was not present at the Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council meeting, where I, as the spokesperson for the eruv committee, gave a very sincere apology to the homeowners who had complained.

I don’t know what has driven eruv controversies in other communities, but here in Oak Park and Agoura Hills, it was simply a matter of our contractor doing a lousy job and creating an eyesore. The eruv was ugly, and it trespassed on private property.

Nobody made us take it down. That decision was ours, and the bottom line is this: The neighbors had every right to be upset, and we took our eruv down because we agreed with them.

If Ziv and others (i.e., reporters from the Daily News and Ventura County Star and KFI-AM’s John and Ken, none of whom were present at the Oak Park meeting) wish to convolute the facts to feed their own agendas, well I suppose I can’t stop them.

But I wish they’d all leave us in the Conejo Valley alone to work out our problems amongst ourselves, which we seem to be able to do quite well, thank you.

Your article, in my opinion, was fair and balanced.

Eli Eisenberg
Agoura Hills

False Statements

In “Time for Leaders to End Their Silence on Iraq” (Feb. 9), Aryeh Cohen’s and Adam Rubin’s compelling arguments are undermined by unsupported allegations and false statements. They write, “The Bush/Cheney war, launched on the basis of … outright lies against a country that posed no threat to the United States….”

“Lies” is a strong allegation, yet they do not say who, when, what and how the lies were the basis of launching the war. Iraq fired anti-aircraft missiles at U.S. no-fly-zone forces, plotted to assassinate President George H.W. Bush and supported terrorists (via $25,000 sent to the families of successful suicide bombers) striking against U.S. ally, Israel — that’s hardly “posing no threat”.

Kenny Laitin
Los Angeles

Premarital Counseling

In 1994, my daughter announced her engagement to her beshert. My engagement gift to the couple was the “Making Marriage Work” course at the University of Judaism (“Premarital Counseling Gets Short Shrift in Jewish L.A.,” Feb. 9). It was inestimably meaningful for them both and for their very successful and enduring relationship.

I encourage all of you prospective parents of the bride or groom to invest in maximizing your kids’ chances for a happy and successful marriage.

Barbara H. Bergen
Los Angeles

Counters Misinformation

The StandWithUs community is a big umbrella that includes people with a wide range of opinions about Israeli policy (“Divided We Fall,” Feb. 9). When The Journal uses labels like “conservative,” and “left” or “right” wing, it misrepresents all groups’ positions, leaves too much to personal interpretation and ignores the significant variations within each label. StandWithUs regularly takes heat from those who consider themselves more conservative or more liberal than our organization.

We did not identify Combatants for Peace as anti-Israel because we are “left” or “right” or because we want to silence criticism of Israel. Simply put, Combatants for Peace presentations are one-sided (blaming only Israel for the ongoing conflict), ignore context (like Palestinian terrorism and extremism) and make unsubstantiated charges against the Israel Defense Forces and Israel.

The StandWithUs mission is to counter, not to silence, such misinformation and unfounded accusations through education, precisely so there can be informed, open debate. Combatants for Peace does not meet this litmus test.

Roz Rothstein
National Director
Roberta P. Seid
Education/Research Director StandWithUs

Ireland’s Example

I was a college student when the Jewish State of Israel was born. We Jews were so proud of the founding fathers who issued a declaration of independence, stating that all the citizens of their democracy would be equal and [expressing] a desire that their country would be a “light unto the nations.”

A match made in D.C.?


One of the primary reasons many groups give for the limited availability of premarital counseling programming is the lack of available funding.

However, millions of dollars are spent every year in divorce proceedings, legal fees and mediation and, with that in mind, the federal government offers grants through the Administration for Children and Families’ Healthy Marriage Promotion and Responsible Fatherhood program, established under the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005.

The initiative provides $100 million in grants for faith-based groups and individuals to administer programs that fall under at least one of the following eight categories:

  • Public advertising campaigns on the value of marriage and the skills needed to increase marital stability and health.
  • Education in high schools on the value of marriage, relationship skills and budgeting.
  • Marriage education, marriage skills, and relationship skills programs — which may include parenting skills, financial management, conflict resolution and job and career advancement — for non-married pregnant women and non-married expectant fathers.
  • Premarital education and marriage skills for engaged couples and for couples or individuals interested in marriage.
  • Marriage enhancement and marriage skills programs for married couples.
  • Divorce-reduction programs that teach relationship skills.
  • Marriage mentoring programs that use married couples as role models and mentors in at-risk communities.
  • Programs to reduce the disincentives to marriage in means-tested aid programs, if offered in conjunction with any activity described above.

In addition to information about the type of training an agency or synagogue intends to provide and their target audience, applicants must describe how issues of domestic violence will be addressed, and show that program participation is voluntary. The funding is available through 2010.

Many Jewish groups have yet to tap into these resources, because “they see it as a ‘Christian’ project” and might not agree with the government guidelines toward marriage and family, psychologist and author Dr. Joel Crohn said.

Those who oppose the federal grants argue that government-sponsored marriage promotion could encourage women to stay in abusive relationships by discouraging leaving a spouse in cases of domestic violence.

Proponents, however, say the programs can improve relationships by getting to the root of problems and encouraging couples to communicate, thereby reducing the incidence of domestic violence.

For more information, visit www.acf.hhs.gov/healthymarriage/index.html

Premarital counseling gets short shrift in Jewish L.A.


Couples make many choices that represent shared values in the run-up to a wedding, from filling the ceremony with long-held family traditions to tackling stress-filled tasks like whittling down the “I can’t believe we know this many people” guest list.

Often such to-dos are completed in the hurried context of daily life, including requisite counseling with a rabbi.

Premarital counseling can be a time for honest reflection and sharing, but frequently the lines of communication can get buried under layers of tulle and wedding cake.

At a time when shows like MTV’s “Engaged and Underage” and VH1’s: “My Fair Brady” have made weddings out to be the fun, natural step after prom, prerequisite counseling is increasingly being looked at as a party pooper.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch has encountered the negative stigma associated with premarital counseling. She says that although the couples approaching her to officiate at their weddings believe they are ready for marriage, not all grasp the depth of commitment marriage requires.

“There’s a difference between relationships and recreation: recreation is going somewhere with someone and doing something fun; relationships involve the difficult things, and it’s 100 percent full time,” she said.

Deitsch noted that many engaged couples now view “getting married as the end result … not a step on the lifecycle journey.”

Given that weddings as lifecycle events call for minimal study and preparation, compared with the two to three years required for b’nai mitzvah, some wonder whether making requirements for premarital counseling more stringent might help to minimize divorce among Jewish and interfaith couples.

There are currently no substantive guidelines regulating how often a rabbi and couple should meet, or what they should talk about before the wedding. Some rabbis might meet with a couple as many as five times, while others might get together once or twice and devote much of that time to reviewing ceremony details. Also, other than one program through the University of Judaism (UJ), the organized Jewish community has few direct counseling resources to offer engaged couples.

“We could and should be doing a better job in getting couples to counseling and spending more time and resources on it. With divorce rates rising, it would be money well spent,” said Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

Roughly half of all marriages end in divorce. According to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-2001, 9 percent, of all American Jews currently are divorced, only 1 percent below the national population. Premarital counseling is often cited as a way to lower the odds of divorce.

When Sinai Temple’s Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei counsels a couple before their wedding, he covers a litany of issues, ranging from finances to parenting. While he’s dedicated to the counseling aspect of his job, he acknowledges the limits of the services he can offer. If he senses that a topic could become a problem for a couple, he refers them to a professional.

“Marriage is a sacred partnership; it must be treated as such, involving the best people who are most qualified to help a couple make their relationship work,” he said.

Dr. Joel Crohn, a clinical psychologist who works with Jewish and interfaith couples, agrees with Schuldenfrei. But he sees the dearth of Jewish premarital counseling programs in Los Angeles as emblematic of a larger problem facing the Jewish community.

“The community is worried about Jewish continuity. You’re going after people on the edges … but what about the core — the core is Jewish marriage,” said Crohn, author of “Beyond the Chuppah: A Jewish Guide to Happy Marriages” (John Wiley & Sons, 2001).

The Jewish community’s premarital programs are “unbelievably weak compared to the Christian community,” said Crohn, who developed a now-defunct premarital counseling program with Diamond and Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Harold Schulweis several years ago.

Crohn believes the organized Jewish community should adapt the Catholic model of premarital counseling as a way to prepare Jewish and interfaith couples for the road ahead.

Before Catholics are allowed to marry in the church, engaged couples must participate in a course on marriage called Pre-Cana. Each parish handles Pre-Cana differently, teaching it over one weekend or an entire month. Pre-Cana programs feature married volunteers sharing experiences from their own marriages, helping guide engaged couples through topics they can expect to face in the years ahead.

In addition to Pre-Cana, Los Angeles Catholic Engaged Encounter offers a weekend where couples, Catholic and non-Catholic, can talk about their relationship, including their strengths and weaknesses, desires, ambitions, goals, as well as attitudes about money, sex, family and society.

The L.A. Jewish community currently has only one institutionally run Jewish premarital program, the UJ’s Making Marriage Work.

The program, run through the university’s Department of Continuing Education, has been around since the early 1970s, features 10-week classes each quarter. The majority of the couples who enroll are in their 20s and 30s, with class sizes ranging from 30 to 40 couples. Spring quarter has the highest enrollment, due to the popularity of summer weddings.

“People who took the class in the 1970s have children in it,” said Judy Uhrman, the program’s director. “It has proven itself. We ran a study of alumni — their divorce rate is 9 percent.”

In addition to the program’s curriculum, each couple has two sessions with a rabbi, one session with a therapist and one session with a financial planner.
Unlike Pre-Cana and similar premarital couples groups, Making Marriage Work doesn’t feature advice from already married couples. But when asked, Uhrman said it “would be helpful to include married couples.”

Uhrman credits part of the program’s success to its group dynamic.

“A lot of the students become bonded [after the class] and stay together as chavurot,” she said, referring to small Jewish social groups. “If there are no particular problematic issues, group counseling works better. It brings up things you don’t necessarily think about when you are in love.”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles also has yet to tackle the issue of premarital counseling in a structured group setting. Federation beneficiary agency Jewish Family Service, for instance, offers no premarital classes or programming. Instead, the nonsectarian agency tends to see many married couples “in deep trouble, looking at divorce,” said Dr. Margaret Avineri, the agency’s director for clinical and disability services.

Order in the McCourt; Professionally Speaking; Youth and Priviliege


Order in the McCourt

Jamie McCourt, Los Angeles Dodgers’ president and vice chair, was honored with the prestigious Woman of the Year award at Friendly House’s annual luncheon and celebrity stylist, Carrie White, was honored with the Excellent Service Award. They join a distinguished list of philanthropic women honorees include Wallis Annenberg, Barbara Sinatra, Betty Ford and Carol Burnett among others. Approximately $250,000 was raised during the event.

Friendly House Executive Director Peggy Albrecht called McCourt “a long-time supporter of organizations dedicated to empowering women. She is a giving and passionate advocate for the greater Los Angeles community and an example of what women can aspire to given self-determination and focus.”

Friendly House is the oldest women’s recovery program in the United States and was founded in 1951 to assist women recovering from the diseases of alcoholism and drug addiction.

Daphna’s Dinner
Couples Who Help

Linell and Robert Shapiro and son Grant accepted the Award for Enlightenment at the annual Maple Counseling Center Crystal Ball for their tireless efforts bringing aid to families struggling with substance abuse. The couple created the Brent Shapiro Foundation for Drug Awareness as a tribute to their late son to help families by raising awareness of drug and alcohol dependence though education and support.

On hand at the event were Myra Lurie and husband David Goldman, son of Maple Center founders Sooky and Sam Goldman; Helene Harris and Lillian and Stuart Raffels.

Along with the Shapiros the center honored philanthropists Wendy and Dr. Asher Kelman with the Award for Community Spirit for their dedication to a host of causes in Los Angeles. As a former radiation oncologist, Asher Kelman is known for treating his patients with compassion and understanding when facing a cancer. A former psychiatric social worker, Wendy Kelman single-handedly aided hundreds of men and women suffering from HIV/AIDS as an emotional support group facilitator in Los Angeles. Sharing their time, resources and talent with organizations such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, LACMA, MOCA, The Colburn School of Performing Arts, Beverly Hills Education Foundation, Friends of the Beverly Hills Library and LA Shanti, the Kelmans have proven themselves an invaluable asset to the Los Angeles philanthropic community.

The Maple Counseling Center has helped people in need for more than three decades offering a range of low cost services from family therapy to crisis debriefing to individuals, couples, families and groups from infants to seniors.

For more information, visit

Wanted: someone to help suffering Jews


One day, Rabbi Barbara Speyer went to a Los Angeles-area nursing home to provide emergency chaplaincy services — spiritual comfort and care — to a dying patient. When she arrived, the administrator said to her, “Why do you guys charge for this? This should be voluntary!”
 
Speyer was not on staff with the facility, and her schedule is more than full. She works full time as a chaplain at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital and serves on the Red Cross Disaster Team. She is also a community chaplain with the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which is the hat she was wearing when she went that day to the nursing home.
 
“When your dishwasher breaks, don’t you call a plumber?” Speyer responded to the administrator. She had driven out to the Valley in Friday morning traffic for a fee that would barely cover the cost of her mileage, and she couldn’t believe the administrator’s attitude, although it was one she had encountered many, many times before.
 
“Why is spiritual counseling something you should give for free?” she said recently. “People feel as Jews, we’re supposed to care for one another. But we have multiple needs in the community, and people do not understand what is involved in maintaining and sustaining a Jewish community.”
 
Indeed, the Jewish community has many needs that require funding, manpower and programming, and they are often called “crises”: There is the Israel crisis, the intermarriage crisis and the disengaged youth crisis.
 

But the one crisis hardly spoken of is the aging crisis: Some 23 percent of the Jewish population nationally is older than 60, compared to 16 percent in the general population, according to the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001. In Los Angeles, between 1979 and 1997, (the last survey of Los Angeles’ Jewish population), for example, the number of Jews older than 65 grew from 11.1 percent to 20.4 percent. Put simply, the Jewish community is aging rapidly — and not necessarily healthfully, as medical advances in areas such as chemotherapy and kidney dialysis prolong life spans, while also sometimes adding extra years spent in hospitals, nursing homes, under medical treatment.
 
Who will provide spiritual care for the needy?
 
The crisis, for those involved, like Speyer, who is past president of the National Association of Jewish Chaplains, is not merely physical care — Medicare is a benefit afforded these people — her concern is the huge gap in provisions for another very important kind of sustenance.
 
“There is very little spiritual care being ministered to those who are in need,” she said. “I mean, we all need spiritual care. We have a large society of the elderly who spend their time alone,” either at home or in nursing homes and often not affiliated with any synagogues or religious organizations. “No one is attending to the needs of these people.”
 
“People are becoming more aware that there is more than just the curing process. There’s also the healing process that must go on with a patient and his or her family,” said Cecile Asikoff, national coordinator of the association, the umbrella organization for national and international professional Jewish chaplains, totaling some 300 members. A chaplain is a spiritual counselor who provides guidance, comfort and care to people in institutions — hospitals, nursing homes, prison and the military, and the National Association of Jewish Chaplains sets standards and can qualify Jewish chaplains.

“An important element in the healing process is the spiritual process. The healing process can be helped by confronting the spiritual issues of, ‘Why me, why now?'” Asikoff said.
Which is where the chaplain comes in — or should come in — to offer spiritual guidance and counseling, to sit with the patient and his or her family.
 
“A person is not just his or her disease any more than he or her eye color. The disease is part of who the person is. Part of the pastoral piece is helping people come to terms with very difficult, life-threatening or life-ending conditions, the piece of transitioning from one place in life to another place in life, the elderly, the transitioning piece of hospice, those are all pastoral pieces that are not outside his or her illness or medical condition,” Asikoff said.
 
In 2002, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles published a study, “Services to Jews in Institutions,” originally sparked by the United Way’s elimination of a prison chaplaincy program. The 42-page study was divided into two parts: “Jews in Prisons,” and “Jews in Hospitals and Nursing Homes.” Although the first part sparked the study, the second half was what attracted people’s attention.
 
“There is a significant shortage of trained volunteers, chaplains and others to meet the needs of those in hospitals, nursing homes and hospice. Not enough professionals are entering and remaining in these fields,” the study reported.
 
This is something that people like Asikoff and Speyer know very well: Many elderly and sick Jews need spiritual care and are not receiving it. And there are not enough people who can provide it.
 
The concept of chaplaincy originated among the Christians, though, bikur cholim (visiting the sick) is considered one of the most important mitzvahs in the Torah.
 
Historically, members of a Jewish community and rabbis have attended to sick people. But these days, for many of the unaffiliated sick — and even those who are affiliated — a rabbi’s time is often not sufficient to provide real care.
 
Rabbis often serve vast communities and with those communities come myriad other obligations, like weddings, bar mitzvahs, speeches, functions, counseling and fundraising. Often rabbis have time only to visit the terminally ill and even then not on a regular basis.
 
Still, with equal rights for all religions, the demand has been increasing. Many institutions have begun to seek out Jewish, as well as Christian ones, and, of late, Muslim, Buddhists and many other religions. And the requirements are stringent: A professional chaplain today must be board certified, having completed 1,600 hours of clinical pastoral education working at a hospital or institution.

Rabbinical marriage counseling works — up to a point


Rabbi Karen Fox remembers the moment when she decided she needed to pursue a master’s degree in counseling psychology.
 
In the late 1980s, Fox, a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, decided to create a support group for several couples who had privately sought her out to discuss their fertility problems and the resulting strain on their marriages. By bringing those temple members together, Fox did what scores of rabbis across the country do daily: She tried to improve congregants’ relationships and lives by offering free counseling.
 
Problem was, Fox now admits, she didn’t really know what she was doing. Having received only the most basic training in marital and other counseling during her rabbinic studies, she lacked such vital tools as empathetic listening and a deep understanding of the form and function of families. Much to her chagrin, Fox could do little more than offer sympathetic words of encouragement.
 
“Just as doctors specialize, I think it’s important that rabbis interested in counseling study it and train for it,” said Fox, who earned her master’s in 1991 and later became a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Otherwise, they might not have a broad enough vision and a wide enough ear to understand what’s going on with a couple.”
 
Like other clergy, rabbis have dispensed marital and other advice to congregants for generations. With a deep knowledge of Jewish texts and values, they have long played an important role in helping couples headed to the chuppah learn how to incorporate God and Judaism into their lives. Those premarital interventions, spiritual and otherwise, often increase the odds for marital success by teaching Jewish couples how to make their union sacred and loving, rabbis and their supporters say. Overall, rabbis earn generally high marks for premarital counseling, which focuses on the rudiments of good communication.
 
However, critics say rabbis are less suited for long-term marital counseling, even though desperate couples with crumbling marriages often turn to them for salvation. Although rabbis can play a positive role in brokering a reconciliation in couples with relatively minor problems, they are generally ill-equipped, both educationally and often temperamentally, to grapple with spousal abuse, depression, bullying and other serious issues that can destroy marriages and souls. Untrained in these areas, rabbis can do congregants a great disservice when they fail to refer them to professionals for help, experts say.
 
“The rabbinate encourages pronouncements and directives, but counseling is about listening and hearing subconscious messages,” said Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, dean of the Rabbinical School and Chaplaincy Program at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California. “So, if as an authority figure you tell someone what to do, you might curtail the process of emotional expression that is essential for a couple’s growth.”
 
Judaism considers marriage to be a holy union with partners entering into a sacred relationship with one another and God. Several texts enshrine institution’s centrality in Jewish life. Genesis 2:18, states: “It is not good for man to be alone; I will make a fitting helper for him.” The Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 62b, says: “Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing and without goodness.” Midrash, Yalqut Shimoni, Ruth 606: “He who marries a good woman is as if he fulfilled the whole Torah from beginning to end.”
 
Given Judaism’s emphasis on marriage, it is hardly surprising that many rabbis offering premarital counseling infuse their sessions with religiosity. Rabbi Michael Menitoff, an instructor in the psychology departments at the University of Judaism and the Academy for Jewish Religion, said that when he worked as a congregational rabbi he would encourage couples to make their future home sacred by observing Shabbat and keeping kosher.
 
Sinai Temple Rabbi David Wolpe said he also emphasizes the importance of Shabbat, which he calls “an opportunity to not be tyrannized by the modern world and to create a space in which personal interactions can exist away from the constant [inundation] of information and opinion and all the things with which we are bombarded day-to-day.”
 
In his nearly two decades as a congregational rabbi, Rabbi Mark Diamond would discuss the meaning and importance of Jewish wedding rituals before the big day. For instance, Diamond, now the executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, would explain that the sixth blessing recited under the chuppah teaches that newlyweds begin married life with a clean slate and rejoice together. But the seventh blessing, Diamond says, suggests that Judaism also calls on partners to celebrate their individuality and give one another space to grow. Diamond’s point: Understanding the meaning behind Jewish marital customs gives couples a roadmap to better navigate their futures together.
 
In the bad old days, rabbis received scant counseling training of any type in the seminary. That meant they relied on little more than gut instinct when advising couples on how to grapple with issues such as alcoholism and infidelity. In recent years, observers say, rabbis and rabbis-in-training have received better pastoral counseling education. The Academy for Jewish Religion, for instance, now requires rabbinical students to take two counseling courses, which, among other subjects, address such topics as the power of active listening, the therapeutic process and crisis management. In recent years, the Board of Rabbis sponsored a series called, “The Rabbi as Counselor: Issues & Challenges,” which dealt with issues ranging from marital counseling to infertility to mental illness and depression.
 
The improvements notwithstanding, congregants coming to rabbis with serious marital and other problems have often come away disappointed, said Rabbi Abner Weiss, former rabbi at the Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills.
In a 1999 survey of more than 200 Jews at Beth Jacob, University Synagogue and Valley Beth Shalom, Weiss found that the majority of temple members who had gone to rabbis and licensed professionals for advice found the marriage counselors, psychologists and social workers to be more helpful, although the majority of Orthodox congregants preferred going to a rabbi.
 
Despite rabbis’ good intentions, some temple members complained that clergymen had betrayed them by using their personal dramas as the basis for sermons, Weiss said. Others said that even if rabbis respected their privacy, too many temple members saw them going in and out of his/her offices for counseling and gossiped. Finally, many groused that rabbis knew far less than the trained professionals.
 
“When there’s a real problem, what’s really required is a good referral,” said Weiss, himself a licensed marriage and family therapist. “Rabbis often can’t recognize what’s really going on in a relationship and should be honest enough to say so.”
 

Rabbi Carron brightens prisoners’ darkest days


Daniel, a blue-eyed 24-year-old who was a few credits shy of finishing his undergraduate degree at UCLA last spring, is now an inmate in unit 131 at the Twin Towers Correctional Facility in downtown Los Angeles.

When Rabbi Yossi Carron arrives for his meeting with Daniel — not his real name — an unseen guard in a concrete and black glass bunker releases the latch on the sliding steel door that connects the youth’s dorm pod to the unit’s deserted common area.

On the far side of a thick glass wall, other inmates sleep in their bunks or drift aimlessly beneath the harsh white lights overhead.

Daniel looks awkward in his pale green prison outfit. He has gained 20 pounds since he was convicted three months ago on a charge of dealing methamphetamine, and he’s clearly uncomfortable in his skin.

Carron wraps Daniel in a quick but firm embrace.

“How’s it going?” Carron asks with one hand on Daniel’s slumped shoulder and another on his cheek.

The pair settle into plastic chairs at the corner of a table decorated with a stenciled checker board. From his pants pocket Daniel pulls a small ziplock bag that holds a pencil stub and two sheets of paper covered front and back with Daniel’s dense, neat handwriting. With guidance from Carron, Daniel is working through the recovery movement’s Fourth Step: making a “fearless and searching” inventory of his life.

As Carron scans the sheets of paper, Daniel hunches forward, his elbows on his knees.

“I’ve really had to look at my relationships — friendships and sexual relationships — in this step,” Daniel says. “It’s kind of shocking to see how much I’ve needed other people to feel complete.”

Carron lays the sheets of paper on the table and gives Daniel his full attention.

“It’s still hard, though,” Daniel says, turning his gaze up to meet Carron’s. “I mean, none of my friends have come to see me.”

Carron leans toward Daniel.

“You’re an extraordinary guy, all by yourself,” he says. “I don’t show up for any other reason than I want to.”

Daniel blushes but doesn’t look away.

“Chances are a lot of these people are connected to the parts of your life you want to change,” Carron says. “Am I right?”

Daniel looks down at his hands and nods slowly.

Sitting up, Carron drums a finger on the pages to draw Daniel’s attention to his inventory.

“This is going to be the greatest Rosh Hashanah of your life,” Carron says, “because you’re sober and you’re not lying to yourself or anyone else.”
Daniel sits up and looks squarely at Carron. He takes a deep breath and says, “You make me feel very special.”

With any luck, Daniel will be spending Rosh Hashanah on the outside. It’s likely he’ll soon be making the transition from jail to the recovery program at Beit T’Shuva, a nonprofit that works with at-risk youth.

For the members of Carron’s patchwork prison shul who are still behind bars come next week, however, there will be a holiday Shabbat at Men’s Central Jail, across the street from Twin Towers. Most of the Jewish inmates who participate will be bussed in from one of the five additional jails Carron serves in Los Angeles County. Some of the 70-odd men in Carron’s shul will have to stay away, however, in lock-down or solitary. Others are considered too high-risk to move.
“We’ll have between 20 and 40, including volunteers,” Carron says. “All things considered, that’s a pretty good turnout.”

Carron, a former bandleader at the Beverly Hilton, might seem an unlikely host for such a party.

A decade ago, Yossi Carron was called Jeff. He was a successful 40-something musician with a daughter in grade school, plenty of money in the bank and a nagging sense that something was missing in his life.

“It was all good, but I just wasn’t having fun anymore,” Carron says over braised tofu at a Chinatown restaurant the day before his meeting with Daniel.

The lightbulb over Carron’s head began to flicker when he was asked to serve as the first cantor at the then newly formed Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood. The job was a good fit for Carron, who has an impressive voice to match his musicianship. Still, he’d never paid much attention to the flow of services before. But as he threw himself into his new role he began to realize he was feeling deeply fulfilled by the experience.

“I was sticking Post-Its in my siddur,” he says. “Pretty soon I needed to know more, so I started taking classes at Hebrew Union [College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR)].”

As he continued to follow the thread of his curiosity, Carron’s enthusiasm began to blossom into a calling.

One day Rabbi Denise Egger at Kol Ami told Carron, “You should be on the bimah.”
In May 2003, Yossi received his ordination from HUC-JIR.

“I thought I’d have a normal shul,” Carron says. “You know — with ladies organizing bake sales and that sort of thing.”

But not long after his ordination, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California offered Carron a part-time job as a chaplain in the Los Angeles County prison system. The task seemed thankless — the job’s responsibility covered three jails and two hospitals, but there was only enough money to pay for a chaplain’s services one day a week.

“It was frustrating for the person who had the job before me, and I could tell it was going to frustrate me,” Carron says. “But for some reason I wanted it, and I’m the kind of person who pushes to get what he wants. So finally the board came up with the funding for a second day, and then the job seemed do-able to me.”

Carron’s daughter was in high school by that time, and he didn’t want to have to uproot her to take a job somewhere else. So Carron said yes.

Suit Filed Over Police Shooting of Israeli


Nearly 20 months after Assaf Deri, an Israeli national, was shot and killed by Burbank police in a North Hollywood alley, his parents have filed a wrongful death lawsuit in L.A. Federal Court against Burbank and Los Angeles, both cities’ police departments, and officers involved in the incident.

“The conduct by Burbank police officers was clearly outrageous,” said attorney Robert Jarchi, who is representing Deri’s estate and parents, Pinchas and Yehudit Deri. “Burbank police officers targeted my clients’ son because of his Middle Eastern appearance.”

Deri is Jewish but could be perceived as a Muslim, the lawyer contended.

Police claim Deri was a suspect in a multiagency task force investigation into drug-trafficking, gangs and organized crime. But Jarchi insisted their claims are absurd.

“Assaf Deri was not involved in drug dealing or any other illegal activity. He didn’t drink or do drugs,” Jarchi said. “Police killed an innocent man who was just sitting in his Jeep. Anyone could find themselves in that position.”

The coroner’s exam found no evidence of drugs or alcohol in Deri’s system. The civil complaint, filed last week, also alleges violations of Deri’s federal and state civil rights, negligence, assault and battery and false arrest.

This wrongful death lawsuit comes one month after the L.A. district attorney’s office cleared Burbank undercover officers, Scott Meadows and Sgt. Jose Duran. The duo also was cleared last February by their department’s shooting review board, which found they were “defending themselves against death or serious injury.”

The long-delayed report, by the district attorney’s justice system integrity division also ruled that Meadows fired in self-defense, after Deri, 25, allegedly tried to drive his borrowed Jeep away from approaching officers. Meadows, whose leg was grazed by the Jeep during the incident, received medical treatment at a local hospital. Duran, the D.A.’s office found, had discharged his weapon to protect his partner.

LAPD robbery homicide detectives handled the field investigation because the shooting happened in Los Angeles. The North Hollywood alley where the incident occurred lies behind a row of apartment buildings on Oxnard Street near Los Angeles Valley College.

According to the LAPD investigation, Deri was the target of daylong surveillance on June 25, 2004, by Burbank police.

Meadows and Duran followed Deri as he drove into the alley and parked with his engine idling, behind one of the buildings. At about 10:30 p.m., Duran decided to stop Deri after deciding he was monitoring their surveillance of him.

The two Burbank officers allegedly approached Deri’s jeep and ordered him out. The officers claim Deri then drove toward Meadows. In self defense, they opened fire.

Meadows reportedly shot 13 rounds and Duran 10 rounds. According to the autopsy, Deri was hit nine times, including five shots to the head. Paramedics pronounced Deri dead at the scene at approximately 10:37 p.m.

The Deri family’s suit alleges Burbank police violated Assaf Deri’s constitutional rights by illegally detaining and shooting him to death. The suit also alleges Deri’s father, who was visiting from Israel, was wrongfully imprisoned during a warrantless search of his son’s North Hollywood apartment several hours after his death.

“Burbank officers compounded the problem by going to Assaf’s apartment without probable cause in a desperate attempt to find something to justify this fatal shooting,” Jarchi said. “There they made a fruitless search and ended up illegally detaining and handcuffing my client’s father.”

The federal suit specifies no dollar amount, but last year, the family submitted a $51 million claim against the cities of Los Angeles and Burbank, which both cities rejected. The family is seeking general and punitive damages for the loss of their son and his future support and reimbursement for the transport of the body to Israel, funeral and legal expenses, as well as compensation for counseling, lost wages and medical expenses incurred by Deri’s father.

The family is represented by Greene, Broillet & Wheeler, which has taken on local police cases before, including that of a Los Angeles woman who received $7.6 million after she was broadsided by a car being chased by LAPD officers and the case of a Long Beach man who was awarded $6.7 million after being shot by Long Beach police.

The city of Burbank, representing the police officers, denied any wrongdoing in the case. Los Angeles officials declined to comment pending a review of the lawsuit.

 

The Fastest Therapy in the West


First there was speed dating. Now, there’s speed healing.

Welcome to The Ten Minute Method, a new form of condensed counseling offered by a Chatsworth therapist that promises to be both fast and affordable at $18 a session.

You may be thinking: 10 minutes? That’s just long enough to rearrange the throw pillows on the couch, pick at your cuticles as you fixate on a poorly framed Matisse print and hear, “We have to end now,” as your shrink eyes the clock on the end table. Not so, according to Richard Posalski, a licensed clinical social worker and marriage, family and child counselor who invented The Ten Minute Method.

“When people know they only have ten minutes, they’re prepared to crystallize what’s going on with them in a straightforward manner,” says Posalski. “In conventional therapy, roughly 75 percent of the time can be just venting and never getting to the problem.”

After 30 years in the business — Posalski was a social worker for the Jewish Big Brothers of Los Angeles and a member of the field faculty of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion before going into private practice — he says less “clutter and confusion” helps him use his intuition to get “right to the heart of the matter.” The therapist describes his counseling style as “Jewish pragmatic.”

So far, he’s conducted about 80 10-minute sessions and has helped patients with a wide range of problems, from one woman’s question about how to handle her sister’s holiday visit, to a mom’s inability to let go of anger at her son’s little league coach. Sessions, both in person and over the phone, deal with “everyday” issues, the type of concerns people are always approaching Posalski with at parties, as in: “This dip is great. By the way, have you ever treated anyone deathly afraid of flying?” Being approached at social events only reminds the counselor that most people have at least one question they’d love to ask a professional.

“There are all kinds of people that want help but would never get into therapy. Either it’s too time-consuming or too expensive, or maybe for the average person, the notion of having their psyche probed is a deterrent,” he explains.

If the idea of a 10-minute therapy session calls to mind those massage therapists who set up chairs at holiday office parties or in front of the health food store, that’s no coincidence. In fact, that’s how the counselor got the idea, watching a masseur set up his chair in the lobby of a local bed and breakfast. He thought, with limited time and resources wouldn’t a talk be as good as a rub?

“I just want to help people feel better,” he says. “And you don’t have to feel crazy to take advantage of a therapist.”

Posalski’s Web site is www.The10minutemethod.com. He can be reached for appointments at (818) 773-9988.

 

Unmarried Counseling


My neurosis is like a Ferrari. I can go from 0 to 60 in under four seconds.

One second, I’m nervous I may have said the wrong thing in a meeting; the next I’m convinced that the best way to deal with how horribly I’ve botched the situation is to toss myself off the Staten Island Ferry like Spalding Gray and be done with the whole mess.

Because of my superior emotional acceleration, I can’t take my mind to just any mechanic; I need someone good. And I need regularly scheduled maintenance and premium fuel. But to put the brakes on this metaphor and get to the point: I love therapy.

I’ve been to a baby-faced cognitive behavior specialist on New York’s Upper East Side (where they keep all the best therapists and where a Jew with a few problems can feel at home), a Buddhist in San Francisco got me through my early 20s without any felonies or lasting venereal diseases or suicide attempts. I’ve been to a “science of mind” practitioner in the Hollywood Hills who only takes referrals and once taught me how to buy a used car. I even went to a child psychologist when I was 8 and saw my cousin nearly drown. She was pulled out of the pool and revived, but I was traumatized. Thus began my trips to Lucy, a kindly older woman with a vaguely European accent who let me play with blocks and listened to me yammer. When it comes to head shrinking, I say, if you need it, go early and often.

Yet only now, after countless billable hours of therapy and multiple broken relationships, have I finally combined my two interests — men and mental health. Consider me officially “in couples counseling.”

That’s right, I’m not married, I’ve never been married, and yet I’m forking over $100 a week to sit on a nice woman’s worn leather couch in Tarzana and see if my relationship can be fixed.

I’ve only been twice but I’m already a fan. I’m not sure it’s going to patch up this particular relationship, but if it’s going to end, why not orchestrate a mature, gentle, thoughtful exit that doesn’t involve tossing someone’s belongings on the lawn and saying “good day.”

The truth is there are only so many perfectly good guys I can dispense with the second they bother me, annoy me, bore me, aggravate me or hurt me. I’m already on my zillionth serious relationship in life. Yeah, yeah, my parents had a scorched-earth divorce and historic custody battle, but if I want to figure out how to have some sort of “life partner,” I better get over it and figure out how to sustain the bad times without bailing. Because as it turns out, there will always be bad times, especially for me.

“You’re going to have these problems no matter what relationship you’re in,” said our new therapist, one of my best ever.

I suspected this, but she was so matter-of-fact about it, as if she were saying something as obvious as “the magazines in the waiting room are three months old.”

She also told us that when we fight, he’s a 12-year-old and I’m a 5-year-old, so it’s no wonder I feel bullied and he seems juvenile. This may shed some light on the fights we have, where he snaps at me and I cry for a couple hours, but the damage may be irreversible. When I sat next to him on the couch, I experienced the kind of rage that makes you light-headed, like you’re going to faint, or punch a wall, or roll your eyes right out of your head.

She zeroed right in on the problem, which is part of the spooky magic of therapy: “You’re confused. You don’t know how much is too much to put up with, what pain is from the past and has nothing to do with him.”

Isn’t this always the question? When is it time to go?

In my case, the answer has always been to run at the first sign of distress. I leave men, I leave jobs and I leave cities. I take my hand out of the fire before it burns, because that’s all I know. Now I have to figure out what happens if I leave it there.

“He isn’t a bad guy or I would tell you to leave and we’d have a separation discussion,” said the therapist, legs crossed, leaning back in her chair. “He just has terrible communication skills.”

After our first therapy session, we drove home feeling relieved, hopeful. Less than an hour later, we had a petty fight when he snapped at me for asking him twice whether he wanted a roll with dinner. There went the fantasy of the quick fix. Pass the butter and a whole new helping of resentment.

It’s normal for things to get worse right before they get better, according to the shrink. Of course, things also get worse right before you break up.

Teresa Strasser (www.teresastrasser.com) is an Emmy Award- and Los Angeles Press Club-winning writer. She will be appearing at the University of Judaism as part of “The Gender Smackdown” on Sunday, Dec. 4. For information or to R.S.V.P., call (310) 476-9777, ext. 473.

 

To Live and Teach in L.A.: A Difficult Job


 

Eight-year-old Danielle dashes to the front of her third-grade classroom and shows off her drawing of an equilateral triangle.

“That’s fah-bulous, dah-ling,” the teacher says.

Danielle flashes a satisfied smile and prances back to her seat. The other students look admiringly at her.

Then, one asks, “What’s fabulous mean?”

Danielle’s (all the children’s names have been changed in this story) classroom is one of about 25 bungalows — detached, concrete rooms — that constitute Wilshire Crest Elementary School on West Olympic Boulevard near South La Brea Avenue.

Like many classes in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where 75 percent of the nearly 1 million students failed to meet state performance standards in 2003, this class has it challenges.

At least half of the students live in a single-parent household. Most of the parents work two or three jobs and do not speak English.

“They’re just trying to survive,” says teacher Cindy Berger.

In a district that is 90 percent minority and whose per-child spending ranks among the lowest in the nation, Berger has her work cut out for her.

Colorful decorations cover the walls. “We love to learn about everything!” shouts a blue sign. “Read!” says a poster of a furry animal holding a book. One wall displays pictures of “star students” above essays stating their goals for the year. An American Flag graces the back of the room.

Nineteen children sit at desks that form a horseshoe opening to Berger, 44, who stays warm in the chilly room by wearing a long, gray skirt, black boots and a white scarf.

Through her black-rimmed glasses, she surveys her students, black and brown, none white.

“Bubbelas,” Berger says, “listen up. Tell me the shapes on your desk that are quadrilaterals.”

Hands shoot into the air, waving for attention.

“This is the best class I’ve had in 21 years of teaching,” Berger boasts.

But her enthusiasm gives way to a desperate, worried look.

“They wonder why test scores are low. It’s not because teachers aren’t teaching. These kids have so many obstacles,” she says.

Berger points to Laticia, a girl who moves slowly, dragging her body as if it were made of stone. Laticia’s father was murdered about a year ago, Berger says. The child cries every day.

Berger says she sent Laticia home with the paperwork needed to get school counseling, but the student’s mother did not return the papers.

“A week ago, Laticia came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want anyone ever talking to me. I want to be left alone,'” Berger says. “A few days later, she came back to me and said, ‘It’s just not working out. People are still talking to me.'”

Then, there is Victor, who got in trouble during recess for teasing another child. Last week, when he was asked to describe himself, Victor said he was bad, mean and ugly, according to Berger.

“There’s no one who’s said he can be more,” the teacher says. “He’s not getting the nourishment he needs.”

Berger says police came to the school a few weeks ago after one of her students blurted out, “My dad was beating up my mom. I tried to help my mom, but then I got hurt.”

The teacher keeps a book labeled, “Guess What?” where the children can write to her anything they wish. When students start to reveal something personal in the middle of class, she reminds them about the book.

Berger says Jewish values influence her teaching.

“There’s an emphasis in Judaism on education and advancement” and on performing mitzvot, she says.

The teacher spends up to $5,000 of her own money on supplies for the class, on “all this — their treats, art projects and things to organize the room.”

“But the issue is not materials,” Berger says. “It’s the extracurricular.”

Berger wishes someone would volunteer to tutor or mentor a student or to take a kid on a field trip.

“I hope someone will say, ‘I have tickets to a basketball game.’ These kids need experiences.”

“OK, bubbelas,” the teacher says, turning to her students. After winter vacation, she explains, the class will watch a movie about Helen Keller, who learned to write despite being unable to see or hear.

“There are no excuses in learning,” Berger says.

The 8-year-olds sit on this thought for a moment. One student raises his hand high into the air.

“Mrs. Berger,” he says, “is it time for recess?”

Anyone wishing to volunteer as a mentor or tutor should contact the school at (323) 938-5291 and ask for Cindy Berger.

 

And They Lived Happily Ever Apart


Years ago, when I met someone who had life-partner potential, someone who could be my first real adult relationship, I held on

tighter than Donald Trump to a bad hair style.

“I love you,” I said.

“I want to be with you all the time,” I said.

“Let’s get married,” I said.

I said a lot of things. We got married.

At first, it was just like the movies. There was love and passion and caring and sharing and laughter and plans for the future. We were like the models on Hallmark greeting cards. There were fields of daisies and we were running across them, in slow motion, toward one another, arms outstretched. It couldn’t have been mushier or cornier, but we didn’t give a damn. Other singles envied us.

“Be strong, little singles,” we told them. “We were you once.”

Flash forward. A dozen years. A couple of kids. A few conflicts.

“I want you” was replaced by “Are you still here?”

“Do you realize we’ve been having sex for six straight hours?” was replaced by “Do you realize we haven’t had sex for six straight weeks?”

And “I just love all your little quirks,” was replaced by “That sound you make when you sneeze makes my skin crawl.”

Being together day after day for 14 years sadly lost its luster.

We tried to save the quickly expiring marital patient. Counseling. More counseling. More counseling. But it was not to be. We decide to pull the plug. Divorce. Mediation. Married couple becomes two singles again.

When you’re alone, you look around and it appears as though everyone else in the world is in love, except you. All the other animals on the Ark are in pairs — except you, the sole pig — Porky, party of one.

So I jumped back into the quest. Almost another decade of dating; of periods of no dates, of bad dates, of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am dates. And now, once again, I’ve met someone who has life-partner potential. I want to be with her all the time. I see fields of daisies and us running across them, in slow motion, toward one — wait a minute. This is starting to sound familiar. I try to remember the TV show or movie that’s reminding me of what’s happening, and then it occurs to me that it’s a rerun from my own life. Oh, God. I’m repeating the pattern. Will I be stuck in this Dante’s Romantic Inferno forever? Will this be my personal hell? My Vietnam? My Iraq?

Is this going to be the arc of my romantic growth? To go from “All You Need Is Love” to “Familiarity Breeds Contempt?” Is there any way to change my fate?

Life has a way of stepping in when you need it. This time (Adult Relationship No. 2), I can’t spend all my waking moments with my new girlfriend. Because of our work, children, pet and activity schedules, we can only see each other a few times a week. Maybe that’s why each time we do, it’s like we’re meeting for that first time. We’re constantly in a state of missing each other and accumulating experiences and feelings to share. We’re not together every day. We’re definitely not living together. And we’re both fine with that. Really. We’ve each been married before, so neither of us are in a hurry to rush into anything permanent. We each value both our time together and our independent time apart.

I remember many of those fairy tales we read as kids ending with: “And they lived together, happily ever after.” I suppose for some people that still holds true. But for myself and for many others these days, it’s a new, revised fairy tale ending: “And they lived apart, happily ever after.”

Maybe it’s not the perfect fairy tale ending. Then again, what with the national divorce rate at 50 percent and higher, maybe we’re simply creating our own fairy tale.

Mark Miller has written for TV, movies and celebrities, been a professional stand-up comedian and a humor columnist for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. He can be reached at markmiller2000@comcast.net

Kibbutz Camp Offers Hope to Survivors


In Kibbutz Negba, a dozen Israeli teenagers attending a summer camp in the guesthouses of this Negev kibbutz were asked to model small trees, and then decorate them with photographs of themselves.

One sculpted a tree that had been struck by lightning and died. Another molded a three-pronged cactus; one branch had been cut short.

A third boy made a tree from modeling clay and paper; it refused to stand up. "If you give it too much attention," he explained, "it falls down. If you don’t give it enough attention, it falls down."

In another class, younger campers were asked to stick pictures of themselves in a setting of their choice. Most drew a house; one drew a coffin.

These are no ordinary children and this is no ordinary camp. All of this week’s 150 campers have lost parents, brothers, sisters or other relatives in terrorist attacks. The art classes are taught by therapists.

"We give them a chance to express themselves," said Vinnie Ofri, one of the therapists. "I get them to work on themselves, to imagine places they would like to be. But I’m careful not to open things I won’t be able to develop in the time I’m with them."

The camp is named after Koby Mandell, one of two 14-year-old truants bludgeoned to death while hiking in the Judean wilderness near their West Bank home two years ago. His parents, Seth and Sherri, who made aliyah from the United States in 1996, channeled their grief by launching the Koby Mandell Foundation, which provides "healing" activities for more than 350 bereaved families.

Camp Koby is their biggest project — a series of three 10-day camps for a total of 500 youngsters from 55 towns and villages all over Israel and the West Bank and Gaza settlements. To bridge the religious-secular divide, they have separate all-boys, all-girls and mixed camps. One family sent six children. This week they welcomed their first five from the Druze minority.

The other morning, the site was buzzing with art and drama groups. Teenage boys were practicing karate on a shaded lawn; girls were pounding on finger drums in a clubhouse.

"The camp gives them the freedom to be kids," explained Sherri Mandell, a slim 47-year-old writer with three other children. "They don’t have to feel guilty at being alive. Everybody is the same. Kids are often silent victims because they don’t want to bother their parents. Here they get a lot of attention. The camp becomes an extended family."

As well as a professional director, a psychologist, a resident rabbi, therapists and coordinators, the camp has a team of young madrichim who live and work with the children, two such counselors for every five youngsters.

Their job is not just to play with their charges, but also to listen to them and comfort them. During our visit, a withdrawn 8-year-old boy on the brink of tears refused to join the others. No one forced him. A madrich quietly took him aside, then offered him a mobile phone to call home. He preferred to play video games on it.

The camp seems to work. In an art class for 8- and 9-year-olds in a converted henhouse, Nadav Littenberg was painstakingly coloring a frame around his picture with crayons. His cousin was killed on the West Bank a year ago. Nadav came to the camp with the dead boy’s brother.

"It’s lots of fun here," he enthused. "It helps you to forget, though you don’t really forget somebody you lost. It helps you to get better. Everybody tells his story about who they lost and how. It’s easier with people you didn’t know before. I couldn’t do it with my class at school."

The foundation is run by Seth Mandell, 53, an extrovert Orthodox rabbi in shorts and biblical sandals who used to work for Hillel on American campuses. His budget for the coming year has grown to $1.5 million, most of it contributed by well-wishers in the United States.

In addition to Camp Koby, the Mandells arrange healing retreats for bereaved mothers, two-day getaways for widows and mothers. Sometimes whole families come along, including fathers. They hold shorter children’s camps at Sukkot, Chanukah and Pesach.

"The emphasis is on a combination of fun and healing," Sherri Mandell said. "If not fun, at least relaxation and some element of release." She calls it "therapy lite."

The Agonizing Toll of Sexual Addiction


One Friday night 33 years ago, when Yisroel Richtberg was 12
years old, an older boy sneaked into his dorm room at his Chasidic yeshiva in Israel,
pulled off Richtberg’s pajama pants and raped him. The same thing happened the
next Shabbat.

The boy told Richtberg (not his real name) that if he ever
told anyone, the two would be blacklisted at all the yeshivas, and the attacker
said he would kill himself.

Richtberg didn’t tell.

Instead, he sank into a cycle of depression, shame and
isolation, one that would lead to a 20-year addiction to prostitutes,
pornography and drugs, fronted by a double-life as an upstanding Chasidic
rabbi, businessman and father of 12.

Today, Richtberg is alive to tell his story because he got
help from therapists and 12-step programs. He has made it his life’s mission to
help others conquer an addiction so coated with shame that it resides at the
very bottom of the hierarchies of addiction.

Identified in the 1970s by Patrick Carnes, author of “Out of
the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction” (Hazelden, 2001), sex addiction
has the same psychological and physiological underpinnings as alcoholism, drug
abuse and other addictions, but cultural proscriptions against openly
addressing sexual behavior problems have made it one of the least understood of
the addictive disorders. Addicts are either feared as offenders, which only a
small percentage are, or mockingly revered with a that-sounds-like-fun wink.

But addicts say there is no pleasure in being a slave to a
compulsion so strong that it affects the body and mind as acutely as a drug.

“There is still this judgment of ‘what a sleazy guy,’ but
what they don’t understand is that the addict has a psycho-biological disorder
in which he is seeking a drug that he himself produces,” said Robert Weiss,
clinical director of the Sexual Recovery Institute, on Olympic Boulevard, just
outside Beverly Hills. “He is literally dosing himself with his own
neurochemistry, like a drug addict with a needle in his arm.”

Whether acting out by compulsively masturbating to
pornography, having serial affairs, frequenting prostitutes or habitually
seeking homosexual or heterosexual one-night stands, sex addicts sink into a
pit of shame and self-loathing, often threatening their families and
livelihood.

It is difficult to determine whether the incidence of
addiction is higher or lower in the Jewish community than in the general
population, where Carnes estimates that about 5 percent to 8 percent of adults
have a sexual compulsivity disorder. Conversations with several mental health
professionals who work with the Jewish community, from ultra-Orthodox to
unaffiliated, revealed that all had a significant number of patients dealing
with sex addiction, including several rabbis. Several pulpit rabbis revealed
that congregants had sought counseling from them about sex addiction.

Weiss believes the vast majority of sex addicts are men, and
pointed out that female sex addicts might be too embarrassed to seek help, or
might be getting paid to act out as prostitutes or exotic dancers.

Weiss estimates that about 20 percent of addicts are sexual
offenders, usually engaging in exhibitionism or voyeurism. Occasionally addicts
are guilty of molestation or rape, but not all sex offenders are addicts.

In a world where clothing styles, entertainment and
marketing have stripped away sexual inhibitions, triggers are everywhere for an
addict. Free-flowing pornography on the Internet has added to the mix a population
of addicts who never showed such tendencies before (see Web, p. 11).

The changing reality of cybersex has forced Jewish community
leaders, educators and rabbis to begin battling a seemingly inbred denial and
acknowledge that the community must aid its addicts.

In Los Angeles there are indications that awareness is
growing. A Jewish Federation conference on addictions in the fall of 2001
attracted 250 people.

This year, 880 people attended the annual dinner of Beit
T’Shuvah, a residential rehabilitation organization in Los Angeles that uses
Judaism at the core of its treatment — the only such facility in the country.

With the help of Rabbi Juda Mintz, himself a recovering
addict to Internet pornography, Beit T’Shuvah and the Board of Rabbis of
Southern California recently co-sponsored a series on addictions. It was at the
session on sex addiction, and in private conversations with The Jewish Journal,
that Richtberg told his story.

Addiction or Just Bad Behavior?

Richtberg is a Chasid with a scraggly beard, wide-brimmed
hat, long coat and knickers tucked into his thin black socks. Thick glasses
cover his tired blue eyes, and his Yiddish accent belies his American birth and
Israeli upbringing.

Two years after Richtberg was raped, his parents transferred
him to a new yeshiva in Jerusalem, hoping to reverse his baffling
transformation into a depressed and isolated C student.

A rabbi at the new yeshiva, an ad hoc counselor for boys who
have sexual problems, was the first person Richtberg told about the rape and
his subsequent behaviors: compulsive masturbating, viewing pornographic
materials and a sexual relationship with another boy. (Years later, Richtberg
found out that the boy, after he married and had a family, committed suicide.)

While the rabbi was more compassionate than others in the
yeshiva system who scolded and blamed Richtberg, he was not a mental health
professional and was more interested in getting Richtberg to stop his behaviors
than in healing him. Richtberg said he would promise the rabbi that he would
stop, but then would come back crying in shame when he didn’t.

“Today I know I was an addict from the start because I had
so much pain, and I didn’t have a person to talk to about my pain, and I tried
to do something to cope,” Richtberg said.

Experts say his symptoms — compulsive, self-destructive
behavior, followed by shame and heartfelt-but-futile promises to stop — were
classic signs of addiction, whether caused by an acute trauma or more subtle
emotional trouble.

“All addiction is caused by a hole in one’s soul, and a need
to fill it with something,” said Rabbi Mark Borovitz, spiritual leader of Beit
T’Shuvah. “It’s about loneliness and emptiness. We turn to addictive behaviors
and substances as a solution to this experience of not fitting in, of not being
good enough.”

Despite an understanding that the addiction is destroying
his life, the addict’s attempts to stop will fail until he gets outside help,
experts say.

“An addiction becomes the center of your life,” said Rabbi
Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism and an expert in Jewish
medical ethics. “It becomes like an idol, theologically speaking, and
everything in your life is centered around it, and most other things that are
really important get lost.”

While society has come to accept an individual’s
powerlessness in relation to drugs and alcohol, because of the brain’s chemical
dependency on these substances, the terminology of addiction seems harder to
justify in reference to gambling, overeating or sex, which most people can control.

However, experts report that sex addicts have the same
genetic predisposition toward addictive behavior as other addicts. And once an
addict gets hooked on a behavior, his body treats it — and the pursuit of it —
as a drug.

“Neuropsychological research shows that the exhilaration
that people feel when in pursuit of the object of their addiction can
approximate the high in and of itself, so that not only are they seeking the
thrill through the drug or illicit behavior, but even the pursuit is generating
an exhilarating high,” said David Fox, a clinical psychologist and rabbi.

Just how to classify sex addiction is still a matter of
debate in the medical community. Sex addiction made its way into the DSM III,
the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, in 1980, but was
pulled with the release of the DSM IV in 1994. Weiss is confident that current
research has quieted most debate and that the diagnosis will be reinstated in
the next edition.

All of this makes it difficult to use sex addiction as a
legal defense, and Weiss notes, it is hardly a defense that conjures much
empathy among jurors.

The Double Life

Mark Altman (not his real name), a 40-something married
professional, who was a sex addict for more than 20 years and has been in
recovery for five, was raised by two alcoholics and suffered a childhood trauma
that set off his addiction.

He began sexually acting out as a teenager, “numbing out” by
compulsively masturbating, he said. Starting in college, he sought sexual
liaisons with men at sex clubs, bathhouses and park restrooms, while in his
public life he dated women. He continued his double life through 15 years of
marriage, raising three children and belonging to a Reform temple.

“Every New Year’s, every birthday, every Rosh Hashana, every
time there was some sort of event when I could make a resolution, I would swear
to myself I would stop, because it was killing me,” Altman said.

“I was leading a good family life, I was there for my kids,
I was there for my wife,” he continued. “I just carried on this charade, and I
was dying inside. And I couldn’t stop, no matter how hard I tried.”

At one point, he planned suicide. He sought therapy, but it
didn’t give him the tools to stop. At the height of his addiction, he was
acting out almost daily — adult bookstores, cybersex, phone sex and cruising
for sexual encounters.

Altman knows now that what he was searching for was
validation — the comfort of believing, however fleetingly, that someone else
thought he was worthy of love and attention. It was never about the sex, he
said.

“The thing I was really looking for was somebody to hold me
and rub my back and tell me I’m an OK guy, not such a bad person,” he said.
“You feel so bad about yourself, and as an addict, you look to the exterior to
find something to fix you.”

But the fix never lasted long.

“I would act out,” Altman recalled, “then feel really crappy
about it afterward, saying, ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ then go home to my
wife and kids, and feel awful and shameful and guilty and horrible, and the
only way I knew to make it stop was to act out again.”

Experts say the cycle Altman described is characteristic of
all addictions and is usually augmented by what is referred to as boundary
crossing, where increasing levels of the substance or behavior are needed to
achieve the same high.

Richtberg can mark each of the milestones in his life with
another boundary crossing. When he was 19, on the advice of the rabbi who was
counseling him, he married. His first introduction to the female body quashed
his desire for men, but enhanced his addiction.

He stayed clean for three weeks after he married. But the
first night his wife cooked dinner, he took a bus into Manhattan’s redlight
district instead of going home.

“I cruised the streets and went to some peep shows,”
Richtberg recalled, “and came home about 3 a.m.”

It was his first time at a live show. “Today, I know it was
too hard for me to deal with my life, and I had to run.”

He celebrated the birth of his first daughter by seeing a
prostitute for the first time. As his habit grew more expensive, he left
kollel, where he was studying full time to earn rabbinic ordination, and
started a business.

At around that time in 1983, his third child was born, a son
with a serious genetic disease. “I knew for sure that Hashem is punishing me,
and that’s why he gave me such a sick child,” Richtberg said. “And I kept
promising myself that I’m going to stop.”

Two years later, another child was born with the same disorder,
and two years after that another child was born with a different chronic
illness. Another child died in infancy.

With each trauma, Richtberg crossed another boundary. He
began to use drugs — first marijuana, then cocaine, then crack.

“At a certain time, it’s hard to say exactly when, I gave
up,” Richtberg said. “I stopped making promises and decided to live a double
life. My goal was to make a lot of money and to make sure that my two worlds
don’t mix.”

Getting Help

Getting into drugs killed Richtberg’s illusion of control.
Within a year and half, he lost his business and started bouncing checks within
his own community. In 1990, he pleaded guilty to business fraud for which he
later served a 20-month sentence. His double life was falling apart.

It took a well-timed external kick to finally induce
Richtberg to get help. The nurses who lived at Richtberg’s home to care for his
disabled children told his wife that they thought he was on drugs. His
brother-in-law brought him to a clinic.

Richtberg yo-yoed through the first few months of therapy,
which focused only on his drug problem, until his therapist insisted that he go
to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and intense outpatient rehabilitation.
Richtberg went on his last cocaine binge in October 1991.

Richtberg said he stayed away from prostitutes for a full
year. But then one day, he found himself in Manhattan, in tears and with a
prostitute. The next day, he and his therapist came up with one last hope: Sex
Addicts Anonymous (SAA).

Richtberg went to a meeting that day and has been clean
since.

“Treatment for any addiction is directly related to
motivation, so if someone is really motivated to change, it is possible, but it
is an active process,” Weiss said.

Unlike gambling, drugs or alcohol, sex cannot simply be
sworn off. Rather, sex addicts construct parameters in which they can have sex
— with a loving partner, for instance — and still stay on the path toward their
life goals.

Altman went to his first SAA meeting after he was arrested
at a park where men hung out to pick up sex partners.

“I never really thought that I could ever find a group of
people talking about the kind of things that I was sure nobody else did,”
Altman said. “Twelve-step gives you tools you can work with to stop these
behaviors, to really live your life. It’s not just about stopping the sexual
activity. It’s about living your life with integrity and honesty and being
accountable for your actions.”

Spiritual Treatment for a Spiritual Malady

Borovitz of Beit T’Shuvah, himself a recovering alcoholic,
believes that spiritual counseling, prayer and Torah study are essential to
integrating all the elements of a Jewish addict’s soul.

“One of the things that most people speak about in recovery
is finding their authentic soul and how important it is that they can take a
breath and be who they are, rather than who everyone else expects them to be,”
Borovitz said.

He said addicts need to harness God’s power to make their
recovery successful.

“Turning my life and will over to God’s care is a statement
by me that the creative energy of the world is available to me to learn and to
follow the derech [the right path],” Borovitz said.

While some might mistake admitting powerlessness for
relinquishing responsibility, Borovitz said the admission brings a renewed
sense of moral culpability.

“Once I have a connection with God, I have to accept the
yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven,” he said. “I can’t lie to myself anymore.”

Both Altman and Richtberg had to re-envision their
relationship to Judaism and God to succeed in SAA’s 12-step program.

“When I was first forced to go to AA meetings, I felt that
it’s goyish, it’s not for me,” Richtberg recalled. Meetings are often in
churches, God is invoked as the higher power and sessions end in “The Lord’s
Prayer.”

Richtberg wove together the 12-step process with the Jewish
path of teshuvah (repentance), growing closer to God and stronger in his
Judaism as he made amends with himself and others.

“This is like a cancer, my addiction, and based on the
prognosis, I can’t stay sober,” Richtberg said. “But there is a God who can
help keep me sober if I turn to him every day,” he said. “Every day, I get up
in the morning, and I say, ‘Tati [Daddy], I’m powerless, I can’t stay sober and
I’m asking you for a toivah [favor]. Please keep me sober for today. I’m not
asking more, just for today.’ That has been working for 10 years.”

Altman, a self-described atheist who grew up in a
“spiritually empty” family that belonged to a Reform temple, said he had “to
get away from a lot of initial religious baggage before I could develop my own
concept of a higher power.”

Altman now has a “constellation of ideas” that constitute
his higher power. One of those ideas incorporates the ongoing conversation in
his own head between what he calls “my addict” and the person he was born to be
— the one who can discern right from wrong, the one who can learn to love
himself for who he is.

“The program consists of people helping each other,” he
said. “Two people are always stronger than one person alone, so I cannot deny
that that is a power greater than me.”

With Help, Hope

Altman is honing his new conception of God with Rabbi Paul
Kipnes of Congregation Or Ami in Agoura Hills, who has worked with addiction
for years.

“Every rabbi should have the big book of Alcoholics
Anonymous, as well as some of the Jewish recovery books, on their shelf just
over their shoulder, so everyone knows that we’re here, and that we’re open,”
Kipnes said.

Harriet Rossetto, CEO of Beit T’Shuvah, said that opening
Jewish opportunities for recovery is especially vital for rabbis, who often
have no one to talk to about the conflicting realities of their public image
and what goes on inside them.

“It’s time to address rabbis as human beings and acknowledge
that they have these issues and provide treatment, rather than putting them up
on this pedestal and knocking them off and stepping on them,” Rossetto said.

Beit T’Shuvah, with Mintz’s help, is putting together an
anonymous 12-step group for rabbis.

Mintz said that working to raise awareness of addiction in
the Jewish community has become his tikkun — a mission of healing that is his
life’s purpose.

Richtberg, who hides his secret from his Chasidic community
and the small congregation he runs, believes his ordeal also has a divine
purpose. He makes himself available to rabbis, doctors and mental health
professionals. He started an SAA group in Israel and he often runs the minyan
at international SAA conventions.

And if in his past life his milestones were marked with
sinking deeper into his addiction, he said they are now marked with saving more
lives.

On the very day last year that his son, disabled from birth,
died as a teenager, Richtberg got a call from an Israeli friend who was in the
United States and needed the support of a fellow recovering addict. With
Hatzolah paramedics still in his home, Richtberg at first explained that he
just couldn’t. Then he called back and told the man to come right over.

“My son left in the spirit of somebody who was reborn,” he
said. “I helped somebody recreate a new life and another one left.”

In the 10 years that he’s been clean, Richtberg and his wife
have had three healthy children. On their anniversary this year, his wife, who
considered leaving him when he revealed his secret, told him she now treasures
each minute she is married to him.

“If you ask me what is the basic change that has happened to
me in the last 10 years, it’s that 10 years ago, I did not believe I had
anything to give, that there would ever come a time in my life that I would
have something to give,” Richtberg said.

“Now people feel that I’m something,” he said. “People value
me. Sometimes I still have a hard time believing it.”

The Rabbi, Divorced


Four years ago, Perry Netter feared his divorce from his wife, Esther, would end his career as a rabbi. Sitting in his office at Conservative Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles, he said he knew that people want their rabbi married. Congregants like to gaze upon the rabbi’s family as the ideal Jewish family. If anybody’s going to get Jewish life right, it should be the rabbi, he said. The rabbi’s divorce also heightens a sense of vulnerability; anybody might be next. And for the first three or four months after Netter and his wife announced their separation, congregants neither wanted the separated rabbi under their chuppah nor performing their premarital counseling.

Now Netter performs the same number of weddings he did while married and is doing more counseling than before. "People need to talk through issues," he explained. Rather than fearing Netter’s divorce might somehow have a domino effect and topple their marriages, congregants have come to see that everybody goes through transitions and their rabbi, imperfect like they are, might be better equipped to help since he has walked in their shoes.

Netter said he did not intend his new book, "Divorce Is a Mitzvah," to be a confessional. The impact of his divorce on his career and his three children is not the book’s subject. He said that so far, his kids have only read the dedication page to look at their names. "I am certain they will soon read the text, particularly when their friends start to," he said, "and will rise from it with pride."

But fellow rabbis who have already read the book have responded enthusiastically. A rabbi in the Midwest, separated from his wife for a month, sent an e-mail to Netter: "In times of despair and hopelessness and anger, it has given me comfort, hope and calm." The e-mail moved Netter to tears. In the past, when congregants came to him in this kind of pain, there was no book he could put in their hands, which was why he wrote his own. Several other rabbis from around the country, whom Netter did not know, called him following the book’s publication to speak about their own marital difficulties.

Many of these rabbis faced the same crisis Netter did four years ago. He felt he had to fulfill the fantasies of congregants of what a rabbi is. His divorce has freed him from acting in some artificial role. "Married or divorced, I’m still a rabbi and I hope a healthier one now," he said.

Best & Worst of Times


It’s been a month of extremes for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY) on the West Coast. As the Orthodox youth group basks in the joy of moving into its own building, it is also reeling from the shock of a scandal involving an East Coast regional director allegedly abusing teens.

Last month Gary Rosenblatt, editor and publisher of The New York Jewish Week, published an article exposing 25 years of possible sexual harassment, assault and emotional abuse by Rabbi Baruch Lanner, who immediately resigned from his position as director of regions for the NCSY, a division of the Orthodox Union (OU). The OU – the same organization that grants kosher certification to 20,000 food products – has set up a counseling hotline and an independent commission to investigate the OU’s role in the Lanner situation.

According to Rosenblatt’s article, in which alleged victims from the past three decades revealed their identity to expose Lanner, the OU was long aware of the accusations but did not remove him from the organization, and only after many years did they prevent him from working directly with teens.Even according to the alleged victims – many of whom became Jewish educators – Lanner was a dynamic and magnetic leader in the movement. For years he served as regional director in New Jersey, where he was also a yeshiva high school principal.

“Our goal is to restore the public’s confidence in the Orthodox Union and NCSY, and to preserve and improve the programs that have benefited tens of thousands of young men and women involved in NCSY since its inception in 1959,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, national president of the OU.

Dr. Larry Eisenberg, president of the West Coast region of the OU, says the incident has dealt a blow to the faith and goodwill the community has toward the organization.

But, he says, the incident has already led regions around the country to compare notes on how they ensure the safety and well-being of the NCSYers.

“The organization is being upgraded and modernized, all of the systems and procedures and policies. NCSY is an institution that has been around for a long time, and sometimes you run a certain way based on how you’ve been doing it for decades,” Eisenberg says. “When a problem comes up, you realize you have to set things up based on the realities of today.”

For businesses as well as organizations, that means policies and training regarding harassment, he says. What has always been practiced as proper decorum and sensitivity now needs to be formalized.Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, West Coast director of the OU, says the region, with its joint professional and lay leadership, parent involvement, and ongoing staff training and oversight, is a safe and inspiring environment for the roughly 3,000 teens it serves from Vancouver to El Paso.

“I am very confident that the necessary safeguards are in place,” he said. “My office is always open to the kids.” Eisenberg cautions that despite the sense of betrayal, the community should withhold judgment until the commission issues its final report. According to The Jewish Week, NCSY’s largest synagogue-affiliated chapter pulled out of the group last week, and the sponsoring synagogue, Congregation Beth Aaron in New Jersey, voted to withhold all fees paid to the OU.

Several OU-affiliated Los Angeles synagogues said their boards would discuss the incident, but none expected any actions would be taken. “I think the process should be given a chance to run its course before we disconnect from an organization that has done a lot of good,” said Marc Rohatiner, president of Beth Jacob Congregation in Beverly Hills, where he said a handful of people have brought up the notion of withholding fees form the OU.

Eva Yelloz of North Hollywood, whose three older children were enriched by their involvement as teens and later as advisors with NCSY, says her trust in the group has been shaken, but she will not keep her youngest son, 14, from getting involved if he wants to.

“I believe it was one person like this, and the administration who let it go on surely has learned its lesson,” says Yelloz. “After this has come out, they will clean up their act in every way possible and do their utmost to keep a clean record and do better than their best.”

Kalinsky says none of the kids withdrew from local summer programs, including a boys’ camp for 60 kids. In fact, according to Sharyn Perlman, director of public relations for OU, not one of the approximately 1,000 teenagers signed up for NCSY’s Israel trips or local summer programs pulled out.

NCSY, working with volunteers from Nefesh, the association of Orthodox mental health professionals, has set up a toll-free hotline (877-905-9576) for present and former NCSYers to call for counseling on religious or psychological issues.

The investigative commission is headed by Richard Joel, international director of Hillel, the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, and includes professor of psychiatry Rabbi Abraham Twerski, several lawyers, business people and philanthro-pists, and the former consumer affairs commissioner of New York City.”The Commission will explore past actions of Orthodox Union employees and lay leaders to determine what remedial action should be taken and will formulate new guidelines for our personnel to ensure that these circumstances will never be repeated,” Ganchrow said.

Gary Rosenblatt’s article, “Stolen Innocence,” (New York Jewish Week, June 23) is available at www.thejewishweek.com. The OU’s comments are at www.ou.org. Any information for the commission can be sent to inquiryncsy@yahoo.com

The Good Lieutenant


“When I started this work two years ago, I was like a young child,” says Cheli. “Now, many times I feel like an old woman.”

Cheli is a lieutenant in the Israeli army’s Nachal Brigade, and when one of the young soldiers in her unit is killed, she goes to his parents, tells them how their son died, and tries to bring some comfort.

“Every family reacts differently; I knock on the door, and I never know what they will say,” she says. “Sometimes, they yell at me; sometimes, they don’t want to see me; sometimes, they will tell me, ‘It’s better you shouldn’t have children; they will only be killed in the army.'”

How does Cheli react? “First, I don’t say anything — whatever you say is the wrong thing. I look in their eyes; I touch their hands. Then they see that I wear the same green brigade beret that their son did; they start talking about him; slowly, we make a connection.”

The last few months have been particularly difficult. In February, when two Israeli helicopters collided and 73 soldiers were killed, 30 were “her” boys from the Nachal Brigade.

Then there was the case of Sharon Edry, a soldier who hitched a ride in a car with men later identified as terrorists; he disappeared.

For eight months, nothing was heard of him until his mutilated body was found. During that time, Cheli saw his family almost daily.

“I became part of the family; I became their own child,” she says.

Cheli, who lives in Moshav Hemed, near Tel Aviv, joined the army at age 18 and volunteered for her present assignment. Why?

“I felt that here were people who deserved everything because they had lost everything,” she says. “I can’t bring back their son, but maybe I can make it easier for them, maybe I can make them smile for a moment.”

The most important thing for the family is that their son will not be forgotten. “They will set aside a memorial room or some memento — it is important that people pay attention to this when they visit Israel,” says Cheli.

How does she cope with the emotional and mental stress of her job?

“There are about 40 officers in the army who do the same job, and we are like a support group,” she says. “We meet every two weeks with a shrink and tell him what we are feeling. You know that you’re not the only one with these experiences.”

One effect of her work has been that it has drawn Cheli closer to her own parents and brother. “You realize how short life can be,” she says.

Cheli was in Los Angeles recently during an official visit by Israel Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai, and thereby hangs another story.

Shortly before Israel’s Memorial Day, Mordechai had met with the army’s 40 or so bereavement officers to thank them for their difficult work. Cheli spoke about her experiences at the meeting, and Mordechai was impressed by her words, as well as by impromptu letters he had been receiving from “her” families, who praised her sensitivity and dedication.

In recognition of her performance, Mordechai invited Cheli to join his entourage for the trip to Los Angeles, and later to Paris.

After visiting Universal Studios and Disneyland, Cheli bubbled over like any young woman in her early 20s on her first big trip abroad.

“I can’t believe I’m here and having fun,” she says, happily.