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What Israel means to me


Pinpointing what makes people so passionate about Israel is no easy thing, perhaps because there are so many options. 

It is the Jewish state, the only political entity in the world where Jews are a majority. It is the historical home of the Jewish people, the land of King David and the Temple Mount. It is the religious center of the Jewish universe as well as a holy land to billions of Christians and Muslims. And it is a refuge for Jews from across the globe dating back to before the Holocaust. 

It is a rich, complicated place — qualities that are simultaneously the source of its greatness and its greatest challenges. Actor Jason Alexander of “Seinfeld” fame outlined myriad, yet deeply personal ways of finding meaning in Israel during his opening remarks at December’s Friends of the Israel Defense Forces gala in Century City.

 

 

“Because I love Israel, I do advocate for Palestinians proudly and passionately,” he said. “But there can never be any doubt that I am also an advocate for Israel, a country that is perhaps one of the most maligned, underappreciated and hardest challenged nations on the planet.

“I believe in the right of Israel to exist and to exist in the land where it resides. I believe she is a great country populated by a great and important people. I believe she is a proud and strong democracy in a part in the world where the notion of democracy, of people’s innate right to determine their own fate, finds little company or support.”

These are just a few ways that people can connect to the Holy Land. We asked 18 members of the Jewish and Israeli communities in the Los Angeles area what Israel means to them and — surprise — we got 18 distinct responses. So what does Israel mean to us? Maybe the best way to put it is: Everything.


Susan

Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘A family of people’

“When I was in junior high school, I went to live on a kibbutz in Israel outside of Tel Aviv. … It was all about being with a family of people — that cultural environment and the welcoming warmth, and storytelling over dinner, and sitting around in the afternoon having tea and coffee, and the stories that I got to hear that were just about people’s lives. It’s about a lifestyle.” 

Susan Feniger, 59, Kenter Canyon
Chef/co-owner, Border Grill and Susan Feniger’s STREET


Photo by Andy Romanoff

‘Planting so many trees’

“I remember getting certificates and people planting trees in my honor for my birthday and bar mitzvah, and we all knew how important that was. I think that was my earliest realization that Israel was a difficult environment and that by doing all the amazing things that were done — planting so many trees — they were able to survive in what was otherwise a pretty barren country. … I think it has probably affected my sense of the environment growing up and actively fighting to preserve our environment in this country and the world.”

Paul Koretz, 58, Beverly Center
L.A. city councilmember, District 5


Photo by Joel Lipton

‘It really changed my life’

“Both my parents are Israeli. I consider myself Israeli-American. … I always just had this strong sense of family and stories and knowing where I came from. And then when I went to Israel, it really changed my life. I felt so connected to the land. I just felt like I belonged there. I also just felt a deeper connection with Judaism on my trip. After my trip — a one-year kibbutz ulpan program — I just decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life being involved in the Jewish community and being connected to Israel.”

— Orly Barad, 26, Woodland Hills
Program manager, Israeli American Council


Photo by Joel Lipton

‘Symbol of resilience and positivity’

“Israel has always been a second home for me while I was living in [my native] Iran, because my grandmother lived there. We spent all our summertimes in Holon and in summer camps in Israel. … Unfortunately, because I cannot go back to Iran, Israel remains my place of my childhood memories and my childhood experiences.

“I lived in Israel for about nine months after the [Iranian] Revolution. It was the biggest gift I could have had when I was a teenager. … I believe that Israel is the most democratic country, that it faces huge challenges, and I feel that Israel as a country has grown in such amazing and beautiful ways. What it means to me is a symbol of resilience and positivity.” 

Shulamit “Shula” Nazarian, 50, Venice and Holmby Hills
Owner/director, Shulamit Gallery

The no-alternative Israeli elections


The story of the upcoming Israeli elections, which will take place on Jan. 22, can be written in many different ways. 

One is with an eye to the small numbers, a story of preserving the political status quo: Back in 2009, the Kadima Party got 28 mandates. In 2013, if polls are to be trusted, most of those mandates will be divided among former Kadima leader Tzipi Livni’s new party, Hatnua (“The Movement”), and the new centrist Yesh Atid (“There Is a Future”), with the rest going to Kadima (“Forward” — at this point, it isn’t clear whether Kadima will be totally eliminated or will somehow survive with very few mandates) and to the reinvigorated Labor Party. Some two to four mandates from former Kadima voters might return rightward to the Likud (“Consolidation”) Party. With such marginal change, it is no wonder that the bigger picture — the one of political blocs — looks the way it does. Call it Kadima, Hatnua, Yesh Atid or any other name — the center is the center. It likely will shrink a little, but not much, and still leaves Israel’s political landscape essentially unchanged.

The story can also be written with an eye to dirty politicking and disloyal party membership — and become the story, as I have dubbed it in previous columns, of the “election cycle of no shame.” Just consider this partial — yes, partial! — list of moves preceding the elections. In a stunning surprise, Kadima joined Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition, then quickly left it; Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu (“Israel Our Home”) — the No. 2 and 3 parties — merged; Habayit Hayehudi (“The Jewish Home”) and the National Union also merged on the right; Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party), Hatnua and Am Shalem (“Whole Nation”), all new parties, were formed; seven Kadima members joined Livni, others (Tzachi Hanegbi and Avi Dichter) joined Likud; still others (Nachman Shai) joined Labor; Yulia Shamalov-Berkovich moved from Kadima to Likud to the Calcala (“Economics”) Party all within months; Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was thrown off the Israel Beiteinu list by party leader Avigdor Lieberman in a last-minute unexplained shocker; Amram Mitzna and Amir Peretz left Labor to join Livni; Ehud Barak, the Labor leader, left the party to form the Independence Party, then decided to quit politics. In fact, all three previous leaders of Labor are no longer members of the party; Haim Amsalem quit Shas (an acronym for “Of the Torah”) to form a new party; former Gen. Elazar Stern flirted with Am Shalem, Yesh Atid and Habayit Hayehudi before landing in Livni’s lap; convicted felon Aryeh Deri threatened to form a new party, then rejoined Shas to become its No. 2 (but is actually de facto No. 1, so he says) — and the list goes on and on.

It can also be written with an eye to the Office of the Prime Minister — and become the story of no alternatives. Netanyahu has never been truly challenged in this election cycle. And to the extent he has been, it was either by candidates whom the public doesn’t consider fit for the top job, such as Labor’s Shelly Yachimovich — a woman who has never held an executive job, never managed an office (not even a small one), never participated in a government meeting, a woman who even most of her supporters admit isn’t yet ready to be prime minister (if she ever will be) — or improbable: Livni was once a serious candidate for prime minister, but her current claim to the job seems quite pathetic considering the number of mandates she’s likely to get — around 10. Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz, a man with the proper record — he has served as Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, defense minister and a member of the cabinet — also was once considered a possible candidate for the office of prime minister, but to do this he’d need to be a Knesset member, and currently it is doubtful he can get Kadima the needed number of votes to pass this low threshold.

In truth, the best way to write the story of the 2013 election is with an eye to the public — a public that will go to the polls even when everyone knows that it is all much ado about nothing. Netanyahu will be prime minister again. He’ll have to establish a coalition and isn’t likely to abandon his “natural” allies on the right, nor the religious parties. Netanyahu needs his bloc, and would like to add Lapid’s or Livni’s parties or both to the coalition (Labor already announced its unwillingness to join a Netanyahu coalition, and Yacimovitz would need a very good excuse to be able to flip-flop on such a matter). The problem for Netanyahu, then, is obvious: Lapid and Livni both have party members who are very critical of the prime minister’s presumed foot-dragging on the peace process — but his allies on the right, especially the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi are all about preventing Netanyahu from going in the direction of a peace process of the sort that we’ve seen in the past (the party supports annexation of 60 percent of the West Bank). So the likely conclusion would be one of two choices: Netanyahu will either be forced to head a right-religious coalition, which will make him very uneasy and is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections. Or, alternatively,  Netanyahu will somehow find a way to broaden his coalition, but it will not be a stable political marriage of opposite worldviews, and, yes, it is likely to result in a lot of international pressure and an early date for yet another round of elections.

So, it is unlikely that the upcoming elections can result in a stable coalition, and what we’ve seen in recent months is the repositioning of leaders and parties that all are gearing toward the next round. And this is yet another story line through which to look at Israeli electioneering in the current slate. It is a story of resurrection for the two more rooted, more established and more ideological parties — the Labor Party on the left and the Zionist-religious Habayit Hayehudi, which is really the reincarnation of the old Mafdal (the National Religious Party, only much more radical on several key issues, as its supporters have moved to the right in recent decades). Currently, it seems almost certain that Labor will again become the second-largest party — just like the old days of the great rivalry between Likud and Labor (HaAvoda). And it is also likely — if not yet certain — that Habayit Hayehudi will become the third-largest party, surpassing the Sephardic-Charedi Shas Party and benefiting from the elimination of the Russian-secular Israel Beiteinu that merged with Likud.

The merger of Likud and Israel Beiteinu — really a decision to tie the knot by two leaders, Prime Minister Netanyahu and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman — is gradually emerging as the watershed event of the 2013 election. Was it a success or a flop? As we were following the graphs of the rival political blocs (provided exclusively to the Jewish Journal by renowned Israel pollster professor Camil Fuchs), we’ve seen evidence of both failure and success — all depending upon one’s definition of the ultimate goal.

Why I am a Zionist


There can’t have been more than half a dozen of them. Crowded as usual near the railings of St. John’s church graveyard in the center of town, the Côr Cochion (Reds Choir) were known of old to shoppers in Cardiff, Wales’ capital city, where I still live and work. Every weekend, rain or shine (more commonly rain, this being Wales), this tiny gaggle of diehard Trotskyists would assemble to sing hymns to the death of capitalism and a world ruled by workers. Politics at this level more closely resembles religion than anything else, and so it was with the Côr, who faded into the background like any other street evangelists.

Then, one weekend in my childhood — it was in the late ’90s, so I was about 10 — something about their display caught my eye. Among the torrent of far-left buzzwords on their amateurish placards, one leapt out at me: “Zionist.” I felt like I’d heard this word before. Wasn’t it something to do with Jewish people? But in close proximity to it were other words: “Aggression.” “Apartheid.” “Fascist.” Now I was confused, because what little I’d absorbed of history at that age told me that in the second world war, fascists hated Jews. Didn’t they? I pointed the sign out to my father, walking by my side. “Well,” he said offhandedly, “the ideology of the people who founded Israel was quite close to that of the Nazis.”

I thought little more of it. As a child and teenager, I broadly accepted my parents’ worldview. This chiefly consisted of dogmatic (not extreme) leftism, of which anti-Zionism was but a tiny part. The truth is, the subject just didn’t come up that often.

American and Israeli accounts of anti-Zionism have a tendency to portray modern Europe as slouching towards a Bethlehem of Jew-hatred, with far-left and far-right combining to bring about a return to the 1930s. I wouldn’t go that far. Anti-Zionism is certainly ubiquitous on the hard left, but in my experience is merely one component of a seamless, all-encompassing theory of the world that, if I may be cynical for a moment, revolves around three questions:

1. Which side is the United States on?

2. Which side has all the money/weaponry?

3. Which side, overall, has lighter skin?

Where all three questions generate the same answer, that answer is The Enemy. Where the answers are mixed or unclear, the result is abject confusion, as in the case of Syria. In the manner of a stopped clock, this formula will occasionally yield the correct position, as with South Africa (of which more later). More often, it’s a first-class ticket into the moral abyss. In the interests of balance, I should point out that a nontrivial percentage of right-wingers make use of the same three questions with the results inverted.

Tom Doran

It is this dogmatic form of anti-imperialism, in my view, that most accounts for leftist hostility to the Jewish state. In Israel’s troubled early years, and in the long years of struggle before its foundation, Zionism was chiefly associated with the political left, to the extent that George Orwell could write in 1945 that “it was de rigueur among enlightened people to accept the Jewish case as proved and avoid examining the claims of the Arabs.” Only with Israel’s emergence as a regional superpower and staunch American ally did the worm turn; a sequence of events that also miraculously coincided with conservatives discovering their deep-seated affinity for the Jewish people.

I don’t mean to suggest that genuine Jew-hatred is unheard of on the left, merely that cause and effect operate differently than many suppose. Once you’ve decided that Israel is an avatar of Western imperialism and Jewish supremacy, it’s hard to avoid being drawn into a clammy underworld of paranoia in which mainstream, reality-based criticism cross-pollinates with, as the phrase goes, something much darker. An example that might be familiar to American readers is the sad case of professor John Mearsheimer. Once he’d identified Israel as the chief source of American foreign policy woes (with partner-in-Jew-baiting Stephen Walt), it was only a matter of time before he plunged into the gutter with an endorsement of notorious Israeli neo-Nazi Gilad Atzmon.

Another source of leftist anti-Zionism, I have observed, is nostalgia. Disheartened by the shabby, workaday compromises of a democratic polity, a certain segment of the left yearns for an illusory past age of moral clarity. In Britain, this manifests itself in the myth of the Battle of Cable Street, the 1936 confrontation in which Oswald Mosley’s Nazi-aligned British Union of Fascists were forcibly prevented from marching through London’s East End by a motley assortment of working-class Jews, Irish, anarchists, communists and other sympathizers. This was indeed a high point for the radical left, but the memory of Cable Street leads countless activists to waste their time organizing “anti-fascist” rallies against modern-day fascists. The latter are universally a pathetic and harmless bunch, certainly in the United Kingdom, so nothing is achieved save giving them free publicity.

When it comes to Israel, this toxic brand of sentimental self-indulgence orbits the word “apartheid.” The long, dogged and ultimately successful campaign against South African white supremacy is one of the great triumphs of the international left. Nothing has approached it since. This is why anti-Israel propaganda openly tries to force the complicated reality of the Middle East into a Mandela-shaped mold, complete with a “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” campaign. The Palestinians are wronged innocents, the Israelis racist thugs, and that’s the end of the story. A semi-optional element is the Rueful Nazi Comparison, probably familiar to most readers, in which the speaker furrows his brow, looks furtively around and says, with wide-eyed earnestness, “You know, I hate to say it, but Israel is behaving just like Nazi Germany.” I’ve heard variations on this theme from countless peers and associates and, I’m sorry to say, my own mother. (My father was less subtle — he just shouted it at me.)

I wish I could provide you with a dramatic conversion story (I almost said Damascene, before remembering St. Paul’s thoughts on the Jews), in which a single incident suddenly made me realize the error of my ways and become the supporter of Israel I’m proud to be today. Real life is always rather messier. It was more a gradual process of self-education in which I steadily came to appreciate the discrepancies between reality and the dogma around me. One watershed moment was reading Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Prisoners” (which you should, too, if you haven’t). According to the anti-Zionist left, Goldberg is little more than a neocon propagandist, a stenographer for Benjamin Netanyahu who never met a war he didn’t like.


Tom Doran has written for the Huffington Post and London’s The Independent and is an autodidact from Cardiff, Wales, interested in politics, Zionism, culture and mental health. This is his first essay for the Jewish Journal.

A week on the Florida campaign trail


Day One: Departing Israel

Spending a week in Florida on the eve of a presidential election has become a habit for me — one I cherish. Meeting the elderly women who suddenly become interested in politics; attending synagogues, to which the candidates flock in droves to speak; watching the hurried traveling convoys of dignitaries and emissaries and surrogates making their last-minute pitches; enjoying the hospitable weather.

As I left Israel to come here, the Knesset was about to officially disperse. Soon enough, Israel will have its own round of elections, and the speeches made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz, the opposition leader, were no more than election speeches.

The American public views Netanyahu in a positive light, according to a Gallup poll taken during the summer. Israel is also viewed positively by the American public, even more so than Netanyahu. Thus, as the two American presidential candidates play the Israel card in their public appearances, they play both offense and defense in somewhat tricky ways.

Consider this: For Mitt Romney, invoking Netanyahu’s name is a way of putting President Barack Obama in a tough spot. Naturally, Obama doesn’t want to acknowledge that his relations with Netanyahu are bad, that he can barely stand his presence and can hardly stomach the need to maintain contact with him. Such an admission would make matters even worse policy-wise, and might not fly with the voters who tell pollsters that they view Netanyahu positively. It might even seem problematic to voters who do not like Netanyahu but understand that having a contentious relationship with him does not serve any purpose.

Thus, when Romney calls forth the name “Netanyahu,” the only possible and credible response he can get from Obama is “Israel.” Obama doesn’t speak much about the prime minister. On the other hand, speaking about “Israel” is good for Obama, because Israel, as I mentioned above, is more popular than Netanyahu. Israel is what pro-Israel voters are concerned with. Israel is the way for Obama to circumvent “Netanyahu” or “the government of Israel.” The president has made it a habit to constantly express his support for the country, while constantly, if more subtly, expressing his dislike of its democratically elected leadership.


Day Two: Boca Raton

I began a big-fish debate night with the little fish: Florida congressional candidates speaking to a Jewish crowd. It was 7 p.m. on Oct. 16, and at the entrance to Temple Beth El of Boca Raton, dozens of young, Jewish campaign volunteers were waving signs at the coming cars, distracting drivers, threatening to scratch their side windows.

Volunteers for Republican congressional candidate Adam Hasner were mostly yarmulke-wearing young men who seemed markedly Orthodox. If their presence at the forum is any indication of Hasner’s chances — he might have one. But it could also be a sign that Hasner’s young, Jewish supporters are the ones with the commitment and the enthusiasm — though not necessarily the numbers. It was, after all, just one evening, one event, one crowded temple. Crowded, but not packed. (Well, is a temple ever packed except on Yom Kippur?)

Rabbi Dan Levin began the evening with a couple of words about the houses of Hillel and Shammai, of which the Talmud says: “These and these are both equally the words of the living God.” Which, naturally, reminded me of Obama and Romney. And if their words weren’t quite godly in their second debate, the heat and combative manner could certainly be compared to the Beit Hillel-Beit Shammai battle of ideas.

And, of course, moving from the Beth El forum to the Long Island debate didn’t feel like a huge leap. The Forward’s Gal Beckerman tweeted toward the end: “With questions from Carol Goldberg and Jeremy Epstein bookending this debate, it is officially the Jewiest debate ever.” Noah Pollack asked: “Was that a town hall debate or a meeting of Beth Shalom Congregation of Five Towns?”

More than an hour passed before the candidates got a question on foreign policy — Libya. Until then, immigration and a passing mention of China were the closest we got to the world beyond America’s borders. If anyone was still in need of any proof that American voters — Jews included — care in this election cycle only about the economy and jobs (no, not about Israel, and I also didn’t hear any question on Iran), this debate was proof enough for me.

And yes, the Libya moment was one of the highlights of the evening. But it was also more about America, not about the world. It was less about the right way to fix Libya or the guidelines for intervention in foreign wars and much more about Libya becoming a political football.

A young chef’s guide to the Rosh Hashanah meal


Considering the history of the Jewish people, the fact that Jews are still celebrating the High Holy Days today is a miracle in itself. Strong traditions and lasting rituals have enabled Jews to survive the most threatening periods of history. With the freedoms we have as modern American Jews, it makes sense that we use these same traditions and rituals to enjoy holidays to the fullest. As a chef and registered foodie, the best way I know to relish in the upcoming holidays is by making really delicious food. My plan for this year is to make a multi-course feast that pays homage to great Jewish eating traditions while at the same time represents me and my life as a Jewish chef in Los Angeles.

Watching friends and family nod their heads and smile as they eat the food you have prepared is unbelievably soul-satisfying. It is a great feeling to know that the meal you cooked has enriched the High Holy Day experience for those you love. Great food is part of the equation in making a great meal, but the experience is made complete when you also have time to enjoy the company of friends and family. In order to accomplish this, I turn to the motto of my alma mater, the Culinary Institute of America, which states, “Preparation is everything.” Creating a strategy and timeline for a feast at home for guests will enable you as the cook to make great food and eat it too. Mise en place is a cooking term that means “to put into place.” It is what every chef must learn in order to master the craft of cooking. Mise en place represents the prep work done in advance of a meal and the strategy for serving it. If you are going to make the High Holy Day meal of a lifetime and still enjoy eating it, you must first focus on making a prep plan as to when the components of the meal will be made, and a strategy for how to serve the meal. This is what I will discuss as I go through my menu for the holidays.

My first course is Olive Oil Poached Sardine Fillets and Fried Heads With Lemon and Parsley Chips. Serving the fish heads, or the “rosh,” for the holidays has traditionally been a symbol for the fact that we have reached the head of the year, and also the head of life, rather than the tail. Some Jews serve whole fish so there will be a head on the table during dinner. Using this tradition as inspiration, I decided to serve fried sardine heads along with the fillets. Even though this is the first course, it should be last in the prep schedule. Ideally, purchase the fish as close to serving the meal as possible, so that it is at its freshest. The sardines should be cleaned and cooked shortly before serving. Last, they should be eaten immediately after cooking to maximize flavor.

The next course is Chilled Honey-Cucumber Soup. My wife and I own the M.O. Eggrolls food truck in Los Angeles. We are coming to the end of our first summer in business, and it has been a fantastic adventure. Along with the excitement and joy of running our truck comes the fact that we have been hot since April. Between the cooking equipment and the warm California sunshine, our truck heats up. This year, while I am relaxing and enjoying our High Holy Day feast, I want to eat something cool. Cucumber is a cooling ingredient and when paired with honey in a soup takes on a familiar homey sweetness that many Jews would associate with Rosh Hashanah. Along with being tasty, this chilled soup relieves a tremendous amount of stress, because everything can be made the day before, and to serve, it is simply poured into bowls and garnished.

Most chefs begin their careers working “the line.” This refers to the line of equipment in restaurant kitchens, where cooks are divided by stations and are responsible for cooking different items on the restaurant’s menu. Typically, stations are divided by the equipment each cook is responsible for, such as grill, sauté, fry, etc. This is the training ground for all chefs. You must prepare a variety of dishes as quickly as possible, while maintaining the highest-quality standards. The only way to survive the line is with impeccable mise en place.

Approaching a family meal at home as a line cook will enable you to cook a great meal and then have time to enjoy the company of your friends and family.  For the main course, I am serving Apples and Honey Chicken along with Smashed Sweet Potatoes and a Warm Kale-and-Fennel Slaw. Braised chicken is ideal for serving large groups hot food that is tender, moist and flavorful. I prepare all of the ingredients for the chicken the day before. The day of the dinner, I begin to cook the chicken in the early afternoon and let it cook slowly until I am ready to serve it.

The ingredients for the slaw are also prepared the day before, and I create a kit for the dressing. Kitting a recipe is a pillar of the Culinary Institute of America’s curriculum. It means that I have the ingredients for a recipe portioned and organized so that I can quickly assemble the dish when needed. By kitting the dressing, I am able to easily prepare the slaw near the time of serving it without stress. The last component of the entrée is the smashed sweet potatoes. Mashed preparations, like potatoes or squash, can be held in a heat-resistant bowl, covered in plastic wrap on top of a double boiler for long periods of time without compromising its quality. I prepare the sweet potatoes before my family and friends arrive and hold them over a double boiler until I am ready to serve them. Limiting the number of steps I have to take after family has arrived allows me time during the meal to sit with them and enjoy the food and their company.

After a great feast, I prefer a dessert that is petite and pairs well with fine coffee and schnapps. This year I am serving Honey-Olive Oil Cookies with Thyme and Fleur de Sel. The olive oil gives the cookie a biscuit-like texture that pleasantly dries the mouth and creates a craving for something to drink. Relaxing at the end of a holiday meal with the people I love and sharing cookies and schnapps is a tradition that helps me celebrate Jewish life. I hope that you will feel empowered to continue developing your own great Jewish culinary traditions for your friends and family.

I wish you all a delicious and sweet new year. L’shanah tovah!

The Architect and the Rabbi: Wilshire Boulevard Renovation is a Collaboration, History Lesson


Early on a recent Wednesday morning, architect Brenda Levin bounded up the metal steps temporarily installed at the center of the historic sanctuary of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Leading the way up 10 flights — that’s 100 feet — she climbed to the normally inaccessible domed ceiling, high enough to touch the enormous Hebrew letters circling the oculus’ opening. Those letters, inscribed in gold, spell out the most sacred words of Torah: Shema Yisra’el …

Levin, dressed in a hard hat and elegant silk blouse, stood amid a forest of scaffolding and took a moment to greet the conservator meticulously fixing spots where gold leaf had flecked off the ceiling during the 83 years since the moguls of Hollywood bankrolled the structure. Wilshire Boulevard Temple was built to be the fanciest building money could buy for the denizens of the silver screen’s Reform Jewish congregation, and its dramatic, quasi-Byzantine-Moorish design by architect A.M. Edelman (son of the congregation’s first rabbi, Abraham Edelman) was constructed over a span of just 18 months, at a cost of $1.5 million, under the leadership of Senior Rabbi Edgar F. Magnin (who presided from 1919 to 1984). It was made to compete with the cathedral-scaled churches and ornate office buildings that were lining up along Los Angeles’ grandest new street, because, in 1929, the temple’s site on Wilshire Boulevard, just east of Western Avenue at the then-westernmost tip of the city, was one of the best addresses in town. Nothing else would have satisfied the ambitions of Jack and Harry Warner, Carl Laemmle, Adolph Zukor or the boy-wonder producer Irving Thalberg.

Much in the surrounding neighborhood has changed over the years, with the waxing and waning of both real estate and demography, and despite being listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the synagogue — now at the heart of the lively, multiethnic Koreatown neighborhood — eventually became under-used and allowed to fall into a process of slow decay. That lasted until October 2008, when its need for repair became inevitable after a potentially lethal, foot-long chunk of plaster fell from the sanctuary’s ceiling in the middle of the night. The dome was quickly netted for protection, and plans for a full overhaul of the historic component of the now-expanded campus were put on the front burner.


The ceiling of the sanctuary contains a circular opening, called the oculus, with the words of the Shema circling its perimeter. All the gold leaf on the Hebrew lettering has been cleaned and restored. Photo courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

So now, and just about every Wednesday since the day after the 2011 High Holy Days, Levin, Los Angeles’ most renowned restoration architect (and an excellent designer of new buildings in her own right), has been making a weekly pilgrimage to the site, which, under her guidance, will be a full-fledged construction zone until the work is completed by a Rosh Hashanah 2013 deadline.

Levin’s devotion to Wilshire Boulevard Temple runs deep — she, along with her husband, public policy expert and civic advocate David Abel, has been a member of the congregation for more than two decades, and she once served on its board. Her reputation for bringing new life to prominent historic buildings, ranging from Los Angeles’ City Hall, the Griffith Observatory and the Wiltern Theatre to the historic downtown Bradbury Building, would certainly qualify her for this job, but, as she put it, the fact that she’s been sitting in the pews dreaming about such things as how to “block out the view of those fluorescent lights in the choir space” during many a holiday service makes her irreplaceable.

“If she lived in New Zealand, she would have gotten the job,” said Rabbi Steven Z. Leder, who has been senior rabbi at the temple since 2003. “She is a national treasure.”

Calling it “a true privilege” of a job, Levin said she has chosen to be more present on the site than a senior architect might ordinarily be, overseeing all details of the repair, reworking and refining — which include creating invisible seismic structural reinforcement within the walls as well as installing, for the very first time, an air conditioning and heating system. There’s also the repair of the pews — with a new color scheme for the upholstery and carpeting — and, perhaps most important, reconfiguration of the bimah to make the stage and podium more accessible, enabling aliyahs for the disabled and elderly for the first time and allowing Torah readers to be more visible (think of the nervous, short 13-year-old).

Levin also has overseen a complete cleaning and careful repair of all of the structure’s ornate surfaces and conservation of artist Hugo Ballin’s historic murals depicting the history of the Jewish people. (Ballin is the same Samuel Goldwyn protégé whose paintings also adorn the walls of the Los Angeles Times’ Globe Lobby and the Griffith Observatory.)


A paintings conservator repairs damaged areas of the Hugo Ballin biblical murals in the synagogue’s historic sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Wilshire Boulevard Temple

Along with all that, Levin has supervised repair and upgrading of every inch of the exterior of the 100-by-100-foot building, which, when all is done, will be somewhat darker in color, in keeping with its original, earthier hue. Currently, dozens of workers can be seen each day standing on sky-high scaffolding, arduously filling in wall cracks in what looks like an endless process.

“The challenge here,” Levin said, standing in the sanctuary in one of a series of interviews over the course of several months, “is how do you honor such a strong and significant architectural space? It’s one of the best rooms in all of Los Angeles — if not the best — so how do you honor it, but also, in a sense, reinvent it?”

Once the work is complete, those familiar with the space will notice that the sanctuary, overall, is brighter, cleaner, more comfortable and a bit more, well, modern. But, Levin is quick to say, it will also seem completely familiar throughout. Its historic fixtures won’t change, for example, but the lighting throughout the sanctuary will be more energy-efficient, balanced and also able to be controlled for dramatic effect, “like in a theater,” she said.

“What you really want is for the architecture to augment your experience,” Levin added. So instead of leaving you worrying about feeling too hot in summer or cold in winter, “What we’re doing is to augment your comfort to pray, sing, watch your child chant from Torah … whatever it is you are there for, so you own it, so you feel ownership of it.”

And this is just the first phase of the makeover of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s eastern campus, located in an area that Leder calls the heart of “the latest migration of new Jewish kids.” This phase, which will also produce a new six-floor parking structure (three above ground and three below), a school and a tikkun olam (literally, “healing the world”) center, is expected to cost some $150 million.

The site’s zoning would have allowed for a much larger development, but, Leder said, “We chose to remain low-density, with a half-dozen open courtyards, so that this would be a gathering place.”

It’s all part of an effort to breathe new life into a crucial hub of L.A.’s Jewish history, and it’s a mission that Leder and Levin — the architect and the rabbi — expect will impact Los Angeles far beyond just the current preservation project. They envision the revitalization of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and its city-block campus literally helping to change the face of this part of Los Angeles not just for Jews, but for everyone, because part of the plan is creating whole new plethora of resources — a social service center, learning center, social hall and prayer hall — open for use by the entire population, Jew and non-Jew, from the neighborhoods surrounding the temple.


Rabbi Steven Z. Leder and architect Brenda Levin discuss the renovations.  Photo by Dan Kacvinski

Before starting on any part of this project, the synagogue’s board of trustees — which for years had been more focused on expanding its highly successful Westside campus — had to be convinced of the need. Though this was the place from which it drew its name and where the whole congregation came together for the holiest holiday services, the huge investment needed wasn’t a given. They considered selling the property, a concept Leder said he couldn’t stand for. “It would have become a Korean church,” he said. So to make the picture real, he’d take potential funders out around the immediate neighborhood to illustrate his point.

“We’d go to Fourth [Street] and New Hampshire [Avenue], and we’d get out across the street from a beautiful old synagogue that was Sinai Temple, and there’s a gigantic cross on the front of it, just above the Ten Commandments in Hebrew, and I’d just look at people, and I’d say: ‘That’s the other alternative; it’s very disturbing.’ ”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s board undertook a demographic study of changes in the surrounding neighborhoods from 2000 to 2005, covering the area from West Hollywood on the west, to Eagle Rock and Pasadena on the east, stretching from Adams Boulevard on the south, up to Hollywood Boulevard on the north — roughly the range from which they could hope to draw congregants.

What they found, Leder said, was “a 64 percent increase in Jewish households where the heads of the household are in their 40s and 50s. And what does that tell you? Those are the people with children. And the number of people in their 30s was big, too.” His board, he said, “wouldn’t green-light anything anecdotally. So, their question was, ‘Can you raise any money?’ ” They considered, he said, “Maybe we should just fix up the sanctuary — we all agreed we had to do that — and not worry about the rest. But I told them that didn’t make sense. Because then you’d have a beautiful building that’s empty most of the time.”

Leder, 52, who just passed his 25th anniversary as a rabbi at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, began fundraising in earnest in 2007, soon after he was named senior rabbi and, unwittingly, just before the nation’s economy took a nosedive. Although on his first outings he’d quickly raised about

$50 million, he said, after 2008 the next $40 million was much harder to bring in. Now, he’s closing in on a promise for another $5 million, which will bring the total to $95 million. It’s a substantial beginning by any count, but he still needs at least $40 million more just for phase one.

Beyond the sanctuary restoration, which is costing about $50 million in itself, the temple paid $20 million for land in order to own the full city block. There’s been about $20 million in carrying costs — a bridge loan was needed, Leder said — and the next $40 million will pay for classrooms for the new day school (the nursery school will go into an existing structure) and a parking lot big enough to hold more than 500 cars and a block-long tikkun olam center where, among other things, congregants can volunteer. Another phase — which will need yet more funds — will include a new courtyard, fixing up the existing school, plus building a structure for events and programing. In its sum total it’s vast and would cost far more than any figure Leder is as yet ready to name.


The master plan by Levin & Associates Architects envisions all that could be built on the campus.

For now, talking about any given portion of the project can animate the rabbi. Particularly the part about the kids coming up in what are still new nursery and day schools (in addition to the K-12 religious school) on this campus, for example, and even more so when conversation turns to the tikkun olam center, which he describes as not just a food pantry — the congregation already offers one in a somewhat more limited form on Sunday mornings — but also a medical and dental clinic for those in need.

“Right now, we’re in the process of doing the due diligence to find the right people to operate the tikkun olam center,” Leder said. “Were talking to people at PATH [the L.A. social service group]; we’re talking to the Korean community; we’re creating and strengthening relationships so that when we open the door, we’re staffed and running it in a way that meets the real needs of the community, not in a way that we perceive or imagine it to be. … There’s not another synagogue in the world that interfaces with the Korean community the way that we can.”

Both architect Levin and Rabbi Leder point to the nearby subway as one of the extraordinary assets for the neighborhood, as well, imagining commuters from downtown hopping on the subway to get to and from the temple, or using the future Westside extension that will one day go all the way to Santa Monica on the same line. And they imagine churches, community members and even other synagogues holding events in the new facilities, which will include a fully kosher kitchen, a cafe and, Leder said, a new mikveh, only the second non-Orthodox mikveh in Los Angeles.

“It will,” architect Levin asserts, “reinforce Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s commitment not only to this site, but to this community at large, as well as to the Jewish community, in terms of investing in the future of Jewish children, and by being a good neighbor and investing in teaching, learning, prayer and charity. That’s a huge statement in this community.”

To this, Rabbi Leder adds his uncontained optimism: “When people ask me what the temple’s mission is, I tell them, ‘We make Jews,’ ” he said, pointing to the many unaffiliated and secular Jews who have joined the Westside branch of Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Reform congregation. It’s the same kind of underserved and often disenfranchised Jews or aspiring converts that he wants to reach here.

“The thing that compels me most is I feel the incredible potential of the combination of freedom and capitalism and Torah in a place like Los Angeles that has never existed before for the Jews,” Leder said.

“We can do anything here. We can’t do everything, but we can do anything.”

Is the bookstore dead?


On Dec. 31, when the Barnes & Noble at the corner of Pico and Westwood boulevards closes its doors for the last time, the “people of the book” and everyone else who lives on the Westside of Los Angeles will move one step closer to becoming the “people without a bookstore.”

“Are you serious?” asked Danielle Villapando, who was at the store with her family one evening last month. Villapando used to shop at the three Borders bookstores that had been located nearby — that chain went bankrupt last July. Villapando, who was in Barnes & Noble to pick up the newest “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” book for her 7-year-old son, knew what this store’s closure meant: No more trips to bookstores.

“There’s the one in Marina del Rey near Costco, but I’m not driving all the way there,” Villapando said. “Plus, it’s not nearly this big.” One also remains in Santa Monica.

But on Jan. 1, for the first time in recent memory, no major corporate bookseller will exist in the swath of Los Angeles between the coastal cities and The Grove.

“With no more bookstores in West Los Angeles, we are going to be relegated to a literature-less existence,” said Lee Shapiro, who was at Barnes & Noble on a recent evening. He had come with his wife, Miki, to look at books about landscape design.

The truth is, “literature-less” is something of an overstatement. For bookish folks in the area — including many Jewish residents who, on the whole, buy as many, if not more, books than the average consumer — four independent bookshops stand at the ready to help all comers, including two general-interest bookshops (Book Soup on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood and Diesel in Brentwood), a children’s bookstore (Children’s Book World on Pico Boulevard) and the UCLA campus bookstore.

Still, it’s a major shift in just a few months. So how did this come to be?

For Howard Davidowitz, who has been following the book retailing business for 30 years, the question is a no-brainer with a one-word answer: Amazon.

Davidowitz is chairman of Davidowitz & Associates, a retail consulting and investment-banking firm headquartered in New York. Amazon, he said, began to take bigger and bigger chunks of the book market at precisely the moment when people started cutting down on the number of books they were reading overall. Of those still reading books, Davidowitz said, an ever-growing number have moved to e-books — most of them bought from Amazon for its e-reader, the Kindle. And many of the folks who do buy books in print are buying them online — if not from Amazon, then from some other Web-based retailer.

Amazon was, in short, a triple whammy for traditional bookstores. Borders, Davidowitz said, didn’t dedicate major resources to Web-based retailing and digital reading, and went bust as a result.

“Barnes & Noble is still alive because they did the Nook,” Davidowitz said, referring to the electronic reader developed by the last remaining national chain of brick-and-mortar booksellers.

The Barnes & Noble bookstore at Pico and Westwood boulevards, scheduled to close on Dec. 31.

Davidowitz’s account of the slow demise of the book business is convincing, particularly when it comes to the rise of digital reading. In May of this year, Amazon announced that it had sold more e-books for its Kindle e-reader than printed books — and that was before the company released the newest generation of the device, the Kindle Fire, in November. Today, Barnes & Noble stores are filled with advertisements for the company’s own e-reader-turned-tablet computer, the Nook Tablet.

But even if digital reading is the future, it’s not clear how much of these companies’ current revenues come from the sales of e-books and readers. Amazon, which didn’t provide sales data with its announcement earlier this year, prices some of its e-books as low as 99 cents and, according to a recent report, is selling the Kindle Fire at a small loss in an effort to lure customers into buying it.

Barnes & Noble’s Web-based retailing and digital reading businesses are growing, but according to Peter Wahlstrom, a consumer analyst who covers the bookseller for investment research firm Morningstar, that side of the company “isn’t profitable at this point.”

“The bread and butter, where they still make a lot of their money, is on the individual books that are not bestsellers,” Wahlstrom said, adding that the typical customer often comes in without a specific title in mind. 

Which may help explain why Mitchell Klipper, the CEO of Barnes & Noble stores, said that the reason his company is shuttering the Pico-Westwood store — which has operated, apparently successfully, in that location for more than 15 years — can be boiled down to a single word: Rent.

“We don’t like closing stores,” Klipper said of the 28,000-square-foot retail space, which includes a cafe with a killer view straight up Westwood Boulevard. “If the rent was lower, we wouldn’t be leaving.”

Those who know the book business know that at one time, major booksellers might have been able to count on a big break in rent from a mall owner.

Doug Dutton, the owner of the former Dutton’s bookstore in Brentwood, remembers how it worked, perhaps to his disadvantage. His store was a home for book lovers from the time it opened, in 1984, until it closed — to the great dismay of many Angelenos — in 2008. “I can’t say that in my negotiations I necessarily got a better deal,” Dutton said. But in the 1990s, “when Barnes & Noble and Borders were sort of duking it out with one another, I understood that there were some very lovely sweetheart deals being offered to both in order to get them into a retail area.”

Rachel Rosenberg, executive vice president at RKF, a commercial real-estate broker specializing in retail sales and leasing, confirmed what Dutton had heard.

“Absolutely,” she said. “These tenants were major draws.” This was, Rosenberg explained, in part because unlike the department stores that also occupy very large spaces in shopping centers, Borders and Barnes & Noble weren’t selling clothes.

“It’s just like putting a grocer to anchor a project, or a gym,” Rosenberg said, mentioning the businesses that today have begun occupying large retail spaces at shopping centers, bringing people in on a weekly, or even daily, basis. “Bookstores were once that. It was a go-to.”

So, did the Westside Pavilion just stop offering a “sweetheart deal” to its longtime tenant? It’s hard to say, because all that Barnes & Noble’s Klipper would offer was that he imagines the new tenant — a furniture store, called Urban Home, which is scheduled to open in summer 2012 — “paid probably double what we paid.”

Since nobody involved in the deal will disclose exact numbers, it’s equally possible that large bookstores like Barnes & Noble — despite their high traffic — have just become less- or unprofitable. “What I can tell you,” said Ryan Hursh, senior property manager at the Westside Pavilion, “is our real estate department worked with Barnes & Noble’s real estate department and tried to come to an agreement. But, in the end, it was Barnes & Noble’s decision to leave the property.”

Rack ‘em up


A mural of shadowy black silhouettes covers the wall with just one splash of color: a solitary red man. As the jazz-era-style mural stretches along the length of the restaurant, it follows the red man as he meets a lone red woman, and they end up sharing a table … and a drink. The painted walls illustrate the overall theme of The Rack, an eclectic Woodland Hills eatery designed with the kind of intimate atmosphere that makes it an ideal meeting place.

The Rack opened on Topanga Boulevard in late 2005 as a family-run business. Originally from Ramat Gan, Israel, owner Yossi Kviatkovsky began formulating the idea for a high-end pool hall while making pool tables in Gardena. Admiring the craftsmanship of the hand-made tables, but disliking what he calls the “Sopranos”-type roughness of most pool halls, Kviatkovsky wanted to create a more sophisticated space in which to enjoy the pastime.

“Notice there are no Budweiser signs,” Kviatkovsky said of the low-lit area that houses 14 carved-wood pool tables, which cost $16 per hour to play.

Between the red-felt-topped tables, communal dining table and the bar, guests are given an easy opportunity to meet one another, while the couple on a first date has ample excuses to get close as they assist each other’s game. The Rack’s menu of fun, flavorful cocktails — with sometimes scandalous names (see sidebar) — tasty entrees and satisfying bar snacks also makes it an ideal nightspot for a get-together with friends. And during football season, the place is transformed into a roaring sports bar. Normally hidden from view, 15 projector screens — six of them 112 inches — descend to display the action. The pool tables get covered up and surrounded with chairs as the space’s typically classy atmosphere is put on hold to make room for about 300 cheering fans.

The Chosen Drink

Four bartenders pooled their expertise and their imaginations to create The Rack’s inventive cocktail menu, which features wild drinks such as Sex With an Alligator, The Heretic and Blue Balls. Nick the bartender decided to stray briefly from his go-to recommendation, the Lemon Drop Martini (made from real muddled lemon rather than sweet-and-sour mix), to concoct something special just for TRIBE. Nick adapted a fresh mint — nana in Hebrew — mojito to include a fruit that holds much meaning in Jewish circles, the pomegranate, and a very Tribe-friendly alcohol: vodka.

One warning: Beware how many you knock down — as with all fruity drinks, this one will sneak up on you!

THE TRIBE

2 ounces Mojito Libre mojito mix
1 1/2 ounces pomegranate juice
1 1/4 ounces Grey Goose L’Orange vodka
1/2 ounce Agavero orange liqueur
5 to 6 fresh mint leaves, muddled
1 fresh-squeezed orange wedge
Soda water
Splash of cranberry juice

In a tall glass, combine all ingredients except cranberry juice. Mix well, then add cranberry juice and a few ice cubes.

Order this exclusive drink at The Rack, or make The TRIBE at your next holiday party!

The triple threat of the venue — good entertainment, good drinks and good food — is carried out by the collaboration of CFO Kviatkovsky; his wife, Robin; and sons Rami and Elon, who serve as general manager and executive chef, respectively.

Aside from writing witty drink descriptions for the cocktail menu, Rami, who is in charge of the bar, regularly alternates four craft beers of his choice while maintaining a great selection of 10 more draft beers, including the Sam Adams brew of the season. In addition, there is a full bar stocked with Rami’s own collection of scotches. The wide-ranging drink choices are paired with an extensive menu of freshly prepared items.

“Everything is made in-house,” Kviatkovsky said. “Nothing is canned or bottled,” including salad dressings, pasta sauces and pizza toppings.

Patrons can enjoy all the kitchen has to offer right up until the lounge closes, which is as late as midnight on weekends. The menu features everything from an artful caprese salad to jumbo chicken wings, and it got an extra boost in September — a long list of pizzas was added to the menu when The Rack merged with nearby restaurant/rock museum Rock & Roll Pizza. Now the enclosed front patio houses a treasure trove of rocker memorabilia as well as live shows throughout the week.

In a space plastered with posters of bands like The Beatles and The Clash, accented by electric guitars and lit by snare drums artfully repurposed into lamps, Kviatkovksy works with former Rock & Roll Pizza owner Dave Vieira to create authentic NewYork-style thin-crust pizza. The dough is shipped in twice a week from New York, and the cheese is purchased from Wisconsin.

The Rack expands its repertoire even further during the holidays. Every year, 150 pounds of potatoes are ordered for making in-house latkes from scratch.

“No latke’s good without a couple of knuckles in it,” Yossi joked.

For New Year’s Eve 2012, the stage that is regularly brought out four nights a week will feature live performances from different bands. A dinner special that evening will be followed by a free champagne toast at midnight.

Whether it’s a special event, a special someone or a special love of stripes and solids that brings you out this holiday season in the 818, The Rack is a sure bet to meet those you know, and those you’ll soon get to know.

The Rack, featuring Rock & Roll Pizza, 6100 Topanga Canyon Blvd., No. 215, Woodland Hills (in the Westfield Promenade Mall, next to the AMC movie theaters). (818) 716-0123. therack.us.

Can young Jews give as good as they get?


On the last day of a Birthright alumni mission to Israel last year, participants got a taste of something that was not a part of their initial trip to Israel: a fundraising pitch.

Birthright is credited with reframing the formative Jewish years for 200,000 young North Americans who have received the gift of a free trip to Israel over the last 11 years. The experience also put them squarely on the receiving end, and some wonder if it has also imbued this generation with a sense of Jewish entitlement.

But this group of 25 alumni — who each paid only $500 to go on the mission organized by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — donated $14,000 to Federation while on the trip, signaling their readiness to pay it forward. The same group raised $22,000 for Federation in 2011, and, on top of that, members of the group organized a photo exhibit to benefit a program for Ethiopians they had visited in Israel, bringing in hundreds of people and raising thousands of dollars.

“I think Millennials will act and become those funders, but only after they see where the money is going, and after they’ve been inspired,” said Rachel Cohen Gerrol, a Birthright alumna who led the mission and is a founder of The Nexus: Global Youth Summit, an organization for young philanthropists.

Figuring out how to get these 20- and 30-somethings — alternatively called Gen Y, Next Gen or Millennials — to pivot from receiving to giving Jewish philanthropy is a challenge whose outcome will define the Jewish future.

As teens, Jewish Millennials were beneficiaries of the Jewish community’s “anything to get you through the door” response to their alarming indifference to Jewish involvement — free pizza to come to Jewish clubs, free Hillel Shabbat dinners, services and events in college, capped off with a free trip to Israel. Raised by parents focused on building their self-esteem and their college resumes, they turned out to become more dedicated to community service and more diverse, tolerant and fearlessly active than generations before them. But, they have shown little patience for formalities, bureaucracy and hierarchical structures, believing passionately in their own power.

How that will play out in terms of financial giving is still unfolding.

“There is an incredible amount of education and awareness that needs to happen,” said Irit Gross, who heads the Birthright Israel Foundation’s Alumni and Young Leaders Campaign, a fundraising department founded last year. “If you can create awareness that other people have done things for you, and if you can make a good enough case for giving, and get people to understand that we’re not looking for millions and that every $18 check counts because collectively we can make a difference, then it actually clicks that they’ve received a gift and want to do whatever they can to pay it forward and make a difference for the future. It’s about changing the mindset of giving,” she said.

The largest challenge, to be sure, is that the vast majority of 20- and 30-something Jews are not actively connected to an organized Jewish community, and so have no reason to give Jewishly. For the small percentage that has a strong Jewish identity, Judaism might be one of many pieces of an identity that may or may not rise to the top as they determine where to focus their giving.

Gerrol asserts that because this is a generation so focused on community service, to give them a Jewish context for that work and for their charitable giving might accomplish the dual goals of making them stronger Jews while also making them bigger givers.

“I think we are plagued as a generation by a picture in our minds of what it looks like and sounds like and feels like to be Jewish — Federation happy hours, pro-Israel rallies and High Holy Days services. But I think our generation is actively choosing not to opt into those activities in big numbers,” said Gerrol, who sits on the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. “It seems like the Jewish community needs to work to connect the dots between the values that Millennials are already living by and how those values are Jewish. …We need to reframe the Millennial experience.”

Next summer, Gerrol hopes to take 100 Jewish philanthropists to Rwanda through a new organization she founded, the Olam Project, which will bring young Jews to rebuild in areas torn apart by genocide.

Gerrol was inspired to found the Olam Project after she realized at a Nexus: Global Youth Summit that, of the 400 young wealth holders there, many were Jewish.

“I started asking people, ‘How does being Jewish inspire or influence where you give your money?’ And the resounding answer was there was no correlation. One is about my family and where I celebrate holidays, and the other is where I spend the money I earn,” said Gerrol.

The 2011 Millennial Donor Study, conducted by nonprofit consultants Johnson, Grossnickle and Associates and Achieve, surveyed 3,000 mostly college-educated 20- to 35-year-olds, not specifically Jews. It found that 93 percent had donated money to nonprofits in 2010, and that most gave small gifts to multiple organizations. Nearly 80 percent volunteered time, and while they do their giving through online mechanisms and research the organizations online, they are most likely to give to organizations that are endorsed by peers or to which they are personally connected. Eighty-five percent reported they are most driven to give by a compelling mission or cause.

They want to know how their money is being spent, and to believe they can trust an organization to use the money to make the impact they seek.

In its first foray into turning to alumni as funders and fundraisers, The Birthright Israel Foundation has found some of this out firsthand.

The Birthright Israel Foundation doesn’t solicit alumni in the first 12 months after participants return, other than giving them the opportunity to donate back some or all of their $250 deposit. In 2010, more than 1,000 participants donated $165,000 of their deposits.

While the Birthright Israel Foundation works with Birthright Next — the alumni programming arm — for the most part, Birthright Next stays away from fundraising and focuses on building on the positive Israel experience with opportunities for engagement and networking. A Birthright Next office in Los Angeles has two full-time employees and eight community engagement fellows, who plan events and meet personally with some of the 18,000 alumni in Los Angeles.

In June 2010, The Birthright Israel Foundation set up the Alumni and Young Leaders Campaign to reach out to the maturing population of alumni — the oldest alumni are now 37. In 2010, the alumni campaign raised $230,000 from 1,400 past participants, and so far this year it has already reached nearly 1,900 alumni and young donors, who contributed a total of $272,000.

Most of the alumni fundraising for Birthright has been through personal solicitations with select participants — those who stepped forward wanting to give back after the trip transformed their lives, or those who had been identified as potential donors or having connection to potential donors.

Birthright’s fundraising material lets past participants know that tens of thousands of young people are wait-listed because of lack of funds and gives them specific giving targets — $36 for a night in a Bedouin tent for one participant, or $150 to pay for five people to hike Masada at sunrise.

But the campaign revealed some surprising results, too.

“Although this generation lives and breathes e-mail and handheld devices, we have not yet had tremendous success from e-mail campaigns,” Gross said.

Jeffrey Solomon, president of The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, said the Millennials who choose to engage in philanthropy fall into two extremes.

“The first extreme is the growth of Twitter philanthropy — when there’s a spontaneous, almost impulsive giving, whether to the Haiti earthquake or because it’s Justin Beiber’s birthday,” Solomon said.

“There is a second group that studies philanthropy a bit more, and thinks about it more, and engages with a quest for information that has the potential to make them far more effective in philanthropy than their parents and grandparents, because in every aspect of life, information is available and they want that same information about their philanthropy, and want to be certain they are making the impact they want,” Solomon said.

Solomon has worked with the population through two organizations the Bronfman Philanthropies spawned — 21/64, which guides family foundations in involving all the generations, and Slingshot, which produces a Zagat-type guide to innovative Jewish organizations.

Slingshot was founded in 2003, and in 2007 it added the Slingshot Fund, composed of 30 young philanthropists who pool their resources to support a subset of undercapitalized organizations featured in the Slingshot guide. Over the last five years, the fund has distributed $1.8 million to organizations from the list, giving members experience in analyzing institutions and making thoughtful grants.

Turning 100: Los Angeles Jewish Home has ambitious growth plans


There are nearly 500 people waiting for a bed at L.A.’s largest senior living facility, the Los Angeles Jewish Home. Waiting, in many cases, for someone to die.

“It’s very depressing,” said Marlene Markheim, 80, of Encino. “We know that there’s a waiting list, and when a bed becomes available, we know what that entails. A bed becomes available when somebody else passes away.”

Markheim’s sister-in-law, Miriam, who is deaf and cannot see because of macular degeneration, has been on the waiting list since 2010. It’s not the Jewish Home that has her spirits low — quite the opposite; she’s heard great things — but rather the current state of eldercare in America.

“I rue the day when I’m going to need it,” Marlene Markheim said.

To people like her, it’s little solace that the Jewish Home — the largest single-source provider of senior care in Los Angeles — has 950 beds at two campuses in the San Fernando Valley and serves more than 2,300 people. How can that compare with the vast need faced by a city with more than 14,000 Jews over the age of 85, according to a 2008 estimate by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist Bruce Phillips?

The case of Markheim’s sister-in-law, who has bounced between a couple of private assisted-living communities in her search for better attention, is emblematic of a senior-care crisis. Americans are getting older and living longer, while lawmakers are cutting back on help for them. This year alone, Medi-Cal and Medicare funding for skilled-nursing centers is slated for double-digit percentage reductions.

A group of Jewish Home residents in 1950. Photos courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Stuck in the middle are long-term care providers like the Jewish Home.

“It’s pretty devastating,” said Joanne Handy, CEO/president of Aging Services of California, a membership organization that represents the not-for-profit senior living field.

It should be no surprise that these tough times have arrived —and that more are on the way. Nationally, there were nearly 40 million Americans at least 65 years old in 2009. By the time the final baby boomers hit retirement around 2030, that figure is expected to balloon to more than 72 million, according to an Administration on Aging report. That’s an increase of 80 percent in just over 20 years.

And while 13 percent of today’s Americans are age 65 or older, that figure was already close to 20 percent for Jews when the latest available data came out in the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey.

“We’ve all talked about how baby boomers are coming. Well, now baby boomers are here,” said Molly Forrest, CEO/president of the Jewish Home, which turns 100 in 2012 and will begin its centennial celebration this week.

In fact, this was the topic of a speech Forrest gave to the American Jewish Press Association in 1993. She still has her notes from that address, titled “Why Is Aging a Jewish Community Issue?”

“Our numbers of Jewish elderly are almost twice that of the general population,” she said then. “If America is concerned about the ‘graying of America,’ Jews are the ‘white-haired’ members of the growing elder population.”

David Feldman, 84, is one of the home’s hoary-haired elders, figuratively at least. He has been at the Jewish Home for eight years, ever since his late wife overheard their kids talking about the future of the aging couple and decided to take matters into her own hands.

To them, the Home was more than a place where they could grow old together and live comfortably as Orthodox Jews who keep kosher. They needed access to the facility’s medical care for his heart and lung problems, diabetes and other chronic diseases. There was something else that drew them to it, too: peace of mind.

“It’s a not-for-profit, and they promise not to throw you out,” Feldman said.

That, of course, takes money. Seventy-five percent of the Jewish Home’s residents receive government assistance. Any reduction in such aid represents an additional challenge to funding the Home’s services, which include independent living, assisted care, dementia care and skilled nursing.

Still, as the Jewish Home prepares to celebrate its centennial next year — kicked off at its annual Reflections gala on Sept. 18 — its leaders reassure worried residents that they will continue to stand by old promises.

“We’ve been here 100 years,” Forrest said. “We would never consider throwing them out.”

In Los Angeles, the Home has long been the face of Jewish eldercare. It was founded in Boyle Heights in 1912 as the Hebrew Sheltering Home for the Aged, with just five residents.

A celebration at the Jewish Home, 1912. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Jewish Home

Its first president was a Polish immigrant and grocery store owner named Simon Lewis, who was moved by the plight of the destitute elderly and enlisted the support of colleagues to provide shelter to the needy, according to the Jewish Home’s official history.

What started as a home for transient men blossomed over the years, protecting those who might otherwise have been deliberately taunted at the county poor house with offers of pork. By 1916, Lewis and others had raised enough money to provide a permanent home on Boyle Avenue with 16 rooms and five adjacent lots for expansion.

When the Jewish community migrated to West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley, the Jewish Home traveled with it. Leaders purchased 11 acres on Victory Boulevard in Reseda in 1967 for what is now known as its Eisenberg Village. In 1979, it merged with the nearby Menorah Village on Tampa Avenue, which dated back to the 1930s, to create a second campus in the Valley.

Today, the Jewish Home’s reach extends to more than 2,300 people, through residents and community-based programs. The average age is 90, and 36 people are over 100. One-third of the residents do not have a living spouse, sibling or child.

Yet the need remains great. Of the 476 people waiting to get in, more than 30 are Holocaust survivors. (There are 57 who currently live there.) The giant gap between available rooms and applicants troubles Forrest deeply.

“That’s unconscionable,” she said. “We are the smallest Jewish home in the nation on a per capita basis. We need to build more. We need to build in a way that makes sense.”

Forrest admits that even building won’t be enough to meet immediate needs, so she’s calling for a plan that will expand services to the community as well.

Therein lies the challenge.

A resident performs the blessing for the Sabbath at the Jewish Home, 1976.

These bold words come at a time when everyone else seems to be cutting back. Earlier this year, state legislators voted to slash Medi-Cal reimbursements to nursing facilities by 10 percent. If the measure receives federal approval, it could mean a loss of up to $3.5 million in revenue at the Jewish Home, which has an $86 million budget.

“These were difficult reductions and not ones that we wanted to make,” said Tony Cava, spokesman for the California Department of Health Care Services. But, as a huge part of the General Fund, it had to be part of a solution to a massive state deficit, he said.

Just as bad, the feds plan on pulling back 11 percent of Medicare funds later this year, according to Handy of Aging Services of California. Those are painful cuts to absorb for providers that care for some of society’s most impoverished.

“We don’t have millions in the bank,” Forrest said. “You can’t go through and whack off $3.5 million in a month without us having to close a building. But part of the obligation when you’ve been here 100 years is you have to have a longer view of things.”

Laughter: It’s the best medicine in Rogen’s ‘50/50’


In a back booth at Canter’s, Seth Rogen is digging into his matzah ball soup with gusto as his close friend, screenwriter Will Reiser, sips a glass of club soda. In person, Rogen — who has emerged as one of the leading comic actors, writers and producers of his generation — offers up the same rumbling laugh (think a Jewish Santa Claus) and humorous banter as the stoner-slacker characters he plays in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.” 

Reiser, part of Rogen’s “Jew Tang Clan” entertainment posse since the two met on “Da Ali G Show” eight years ago, is quieter and thoughtful, even as he and Rogen seamlessly finish one another’s sentences on this late afternoon.

The same dynamic appears in the best friends who make up the heart of their new movie, “50/50,” which is loosely based on how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.

In “50/50,” which is by turns poignant and hilarious, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something writer for public radio who has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a pothead-jokester best friend, Kyle (Rogen). But early on, it’s clear all isn’t well with Adam, when he fatigues while jogging and complains of worsening back pain. When Adam finally visits a doctor, the news is shocking: A tumor is snaking alongside his spine, with the almost unpronounceable name of neurofibrosarcoma, or malignant schwannoma. And his MRI — actually based on Reiser’s own MRI — indicates he has only a 50 percent chance of survival. A life-threatening surgery is his only option.

Adam is by nature emotionally repressed and stoic, and as he struggles to come to terms with his cancer, his friends and relatives respond in disparate ways: His girlfriend is unable to deal with the illness and cannot even bring herself to drive Adam to his chemotherapy sessions. Kyle, after an initial freakout, wants to use Adam’s sympathy card to score chicks. Friends say exactly the wrong things, and Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is supportive but smothering.

As Adam’s health deteriorates, help arrives in the form of a novice oncology psychotherapist (Anna Kendrick) assigned to him by the hospital. “She is young and unable to face what she is dealing with — just like Adam — which creates a strong connection between them,” said the film’s director, Jonathan Levine (whose credits include “The Wackness”).

There is levity amid the drama, much of it akin to the raunch-fests-with-heart for which Rogen, and his comedy mentor, Judd Apatow, are known. In the scene where Adam shaves his hair before it can fall out due to chemotherapy, Kyle reveals that his razor has been used on hairs other than from his head. “It’s inevitable, it’s just where my head goes,” Rogen said of the joke.

Online, some individuals have critiqued Rogen for even attempting to make a comedy about cancer, stating that their experience with dying loved ones was anything but funny — some even went so far as to write, “F—- you, Seth Rogen.”

“I’m used to people hating all my s—- before they watch it,” Rogen said. “But I think we did the movie honestly and respectfully and based it on our own experiences.” 

Levine, who has helped care for relatives braving cancer, agreed: “It’s not just because I’m Jewish and I own a bong that I relate to this,” he told the producers while lobbying to direct the movie.

“What this film does with character and pushing the boundaries of comedy is incredibly resonant and important. The salient theme is: What does it mean to be young and facing this disease? What does it mean to be facing the end of your life before you’ve really lived it?”

Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31, met when they were the two youngest staff members on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” “I remember feeling threatened that there was another young dude working on the show,” said Rogen, who was recently named by Forbes as “the hardest-working man in Hollywood.” 

At the time, Rogen shared an office with his current writing and producing partner, Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), a friend since being in the same bar mitzvah class at their Reform synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia. 

Reiser, who had his bar mitzvah at a Jewish community center in White Plains, N.Y., remembers being envious of Rogen and Goldberg, who were staff writers while he was an associate producer. “Our office was divided by just a window, so we could see each other all day long,” Reiser said. “In their office, they’d be joking, imitating Sacha’s accents, shouting in Kazakhi [a reference to Baron Cohen’s character of “Borat”] and running back and forth, and I would be on the phone, really stressed out, on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, trying to book guests.”

Rogen and Reiser quickly bonded, however, in part because of their similar ages; they were the only staff members who smoked (both have since quit). Since they couldn’t light up in the show’s skyscraper offices, they’d have to trek down to the parking garage, which provided a nice break from the office intensity. “You needed a reason to leave, and the only reason to leave was to smoke, so we would go smoke cigarettes all the time,” Rogen said.

Reiser, who at 24 was already a workaholic and always the first person in the office at 7:30 a.m., initially dismissed his early cancer symptoms as stress-related. “I had no energy and my knee kept swelling up with fluid,” he recalled. “[Eventually], I could not stay awake, and I was having these horrible night sweats, where I would wake up and my shirt would be drenched, like I had just gone swimming.”

“Your skin just got bad,” Rogen said of the “Ali G” days. “It was like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when those people were melting. … Will began looking worse and worse, but of course we had no idea how sick he was; we just thought he was working too hard. We’d always joke, ‘The hours are killing him.’ Sacha would say, ‘Should we tell him to go home?’ ”

As Reiser’s health continued to spiral downhill, he took to the Internet and diagnosed himself with diabetes, he recalled now with a laugh. That’s when he finally went to the doctor for tests, in February 2005: “I was first diagnosed with low-grade lymphoma, which is terminal,” he said. “So there was a 10-day period when I thought I was definitely going to die.”

Even as other friends shied away, Rogen stuck around when the correct identification of Reiser’s spinal tumor meant a dangerous surgery was his only chance of survival. “The doctor told me I would be in the hospital for a week,” Reiser said. “I didn’t realize it would be the most excruciating pain of my life.”

“Will was in much worse shape than Joe’s character in the film,” Rogen said. Like the fictional Kyle, Rogen was the one who helped Reiser curb his pain by procuring medical marijuana: “I think I had a prescription, and Will didn’t,” Rogen said with his signature, rumbling laugh.

“It got very confusing, just how people would talk to me,” Reiser recalled of other friends and acquaintances. “A lot of people had this warped idea of what I should do — like ‘Go travel the world.’ They’d want to hug and coddle you, when you felt like sh—.

“While you look unhealthy on the outside, on the inside, there’s all this anxiety — you have this tumor growing inside you — and you feel completely disconnected from yourself, and then you have all these people who want to touch you; it’s weird,” he added.

Rogen admits he felt ill equipped to deal with his friend’s cancer. He said his character is based on the “dumbest” version of himself when Reiser was sick; while Kyle cares, he doesn’t know how to articulate his feelings, so he tries to make light of the situation and have fun with it. “But Kyle is rather insensitive about it,” Rogen said. “I was telling Will to write a movie about his experience, which was probably my insensitive version of telling Will to travel the world or get laid.”

In reality, Rogen said, Reiser’s cancer helped Rogen get lucky — in more ways than one. As they began discussions about what would become “50/50,” Reiser introduced Rogen to his fiancée, Lauren Miller, and Reiser will be honored at their upcoming Jewish wedding, where, Rogen said, “We’ll have a rabbi, the chuppah, the broken glass.”

Rogen’s caring attitude toward his friend impressed Miller: “So, in a way, I probably did use his cancer to get laid,” he quipped.

When Rogen and Reiser first envisioned the characters of Adam and Kyle, “We were talking about a buddy comedy,” Rogen said.

“We made up … like … a dirty version of ‘The Bucket List,’ ” Reiser said. “We called it, ‘The F—-it List.’ But as Seth always says, the best ideas come from jokes.”

While the friends had never before discussed how Reiser’s illness had affected their relationship, working on the film necessitated such conversations. In early drafts, Reiser wrote his character more as a victim. But then Rogen opined that, in real life, “Will had actually done some things that were messed up.” 

“Seth pointed out how I obsessed over unnecessary things instead of dealing with my illness,” Reiser said. “I would become preoccupied with work or a girlfriend and complain and harp on things, and I would just ignore the cancer. I would just sort of disassociate and compartmentalize.”

“It was stuff that would contextualize his view,” Rogen explained. “Adam’s character really didn’t do that much wrong, and that’s where the conversations started as we explained, ‘Well, you put a lot of pressure on people that maybe you shouldn’t have, and you could have dealt with things differently, and you didn’t express what you needed from us in many ways,’ and that was something we obviously didn’t talk about at all at the time, but did for the purpose of making the character not just a squeaky-clean angel.” 

“Those discussions were good for me,” Reiser said. “I had come out of the experience feeling very angry, and I turned everything into a joke. It’s very easy to turn yourself into a victim. … I used to be kind of curmudgeonly,” he said of his personality before the cancer.

“You’re a lot more relaxed now,” Rogen said.

When asked about his prognosis, Reiser paused for a second before replying, simply, “Knock wood.” He is in remission, he has become a vegan, he takes good care of his body and he can even jog again, despite extensive nerve damage and having had bone shaved from one hip and multiple vertebrae.

Now he and Rogen are collaborating on another movie, “Jamaica,” based on a trip Reiser took to the Caribbean with his grandmother when he was 14.

Unlike some who come away from illness with a renewed spiritual life, Reiser says he did not find religion as a result of his cancer ordeal; in fact, he and Rogen never discussed God as part of the equation.

“People may find religion in foxholes, but cynical comedy writers don’t,” Rogen said. The filmmakers even nixed a scene in which Adam visits a rabbi: “It just felt like a scene from a Woody Allen movie, specifically ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ where the guy thinks he’s dying and tries to find religion,’ “ Rogen said. “But honestly, that didn’t play a big role with us.”

Yet the experience seems to have turned Reiser into something of an optimist. “I have felt pain every day since the surgery,” he said. “But every day it gets better.”

“50/50” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening in theaters on Sept. 30.

The shul that fits


It happens most Friday nights. I close my laptop, pack stray work-related thoughts into my mental filing cabinet and begin to decompress for the weekend, when an insistent pang starts tugging at my brain. Something, I’ve long felt, is missing.

Several months ago, I finally put my finger on it: “Shabbat Shalom.” I yearn to give and receive the ritual greeting I’d always taken for granted in my youth.

Where did this urge come from? I’ve got a thriving social circle, a fulfilling job and a wonderful boyfriend. But increasingly, I crave that sense of community, that Jewish-flavored togetherness that blossoms in synagogues, particularly at the end of the week. I’m starved for Judaism, consumed by a gut-level hunger that cannot be sated by a bagel sandwich from Noah’s.

And so, at age 27, I’m back on the market. I’m shul shopping, and I won’t settle until I’ve found “the one.”

Easier said than done. I’m in that gray area age-wise that’s become a demographic black hole of synagogue affiliation — post-youth group, yet pre-marriage and pre-children. Few shuls offer programming meant for me. Even fewer are affordable to a recession-weary “young professional” like myself. I don’t want to be a swinger forever. I want to settle down and commit to a congregation, spiritually and financially. However, doing so will depend on overcoming some practical barriers.

Not to mention some emotional ones.

It’s been about a decade since I walked into a synagogue to worship, simchas aside. I was raised at a mid-size Conservative shul in New Jersey, a warm place filled with family friends and baby sitters. At services, however, it was the holiday nusach and stained glass windows that captured my fancy, rarely the liturgy. Through eight years of day school, I mouthed prayers by rote rather than by devotion. When I packed my bags for college, I left Judaism behind like an outdated sweater. I knew it still hung in a closet back home, but it no longer fit my life.

Four years in Boston and five in Sherman Oaks passed with almost no thought given to joining a traditional, brick-and-mortar synagogue. Like many of my peers, independent and living hundreds of miles away from the religious institutions where we grew up, I didn’t see the point. What could possibly be there for me now?

And on those occasions when I did step through sanctuary doors and pick up a siddur, the emotions I felt were largely unpleasant. First, there was guilt. Hadn’t I betrayed my family, my teachers and my heritage by turning my back on religion? Who was I to waltz into a holy place after such a transgression? Then, self-consciousness. I swear, I used to know the words to this prayer. Now everyone can hear that I don’t. Who am I kidding? I don’t belong here anymore.

In time, these worries began to ease. I was able to keep blood flowing to my Jewish heart by way of a friendly alternative minyan that meets in a Studio City dining room a few times a year. Also, I couldn’t shake the hunch that Jewish tradition had more to teach me than what I’d gleaned in day school — lessons, perhaps, that were relevant to me now.

So, after a 10-year hiatus, I’m ready to rejoin a synagogue community.


The Search Begins

The Valley was the natural place for me to start my search. There are probably plenty of congregations “over the hill” whose services I’d enjoy, but let’s face it: If getting there means slogging through the traffic that perpetually clogs the canyon passes, chances are I’m not going to make the effort all that often (sorry, Friday Night Live, I’ll never join your ranks). Besides, the Valley has more than a dozen Reform and Conservative congregations. I decided, on principle, that I should be able to shul-shop sustainably. There must be a service locally that fits my needs.

My search began close to home — very close. Since moving to my Sherman Oaks neighborhood, I’d wondered about Temple B’nai Hayim, the pint-size Conservative shul on the corner with about 120 families. Recently, I stopped in for its 7:30 p.m. Kabbalat Shabbat service (I prefer Friday evening worship to Saturday mornings, when I practice the religious ritual of sleeping in). People turned to smile and welcome me as I took a seat in the snug sanctuary. But, in attendance were mostly seniors and families with children. Discounting synagogue employees, there was only one other worshipper in my age cohort. We gravitated toward each other like magnets.

Turns out that Janel Rao, 31, had already done the synagogue crawl herself. “You name it, I’ve been there,” she said. “This place is small and cozy. You can get to know everyone in the room. I like that.”

I do, too. But I also like the feeling of worshipping with a roomful — or at least a handful — of my peers. A visible 20- to 30-something presence is high on my list of criteria when judging whether a shul is right for me. Luckily, it’s also high on Rabbi Beryl Padorr’s list. Within five minutes of meeting me after the Oneg, she had already invited me to a brainstorming session to map out ways to get other young people in the door. Impressive.


Not Quite Right

Next stop, Temple Judea in Tarzana. The relaxed, musical vibe on the nights I went made my first Reform Shabbat experiences warm and moving. Having all the worshippers wear nametags throughout the service was a welcoming touch. Another pleasant surprise came as I was leaving one night. Rabbi Dan Moskovitz, concerned he’d neglected me during the Oneg, chased me down to make sure I’d enjoyed the evening. What a friendly way to make a newcomer feel important.

The biggest drawback for me at Temple Judea was that services start at 6:15 p.m. After being 20 minutes late — twice — something tells me it might not jibe with my workday. Shabbat is much less relaxing when it’s overshadowed by the stress of getting there on time.

More convenient for me was Temple Aliyah’s 8:15 p.m. service on a recent Friday in Woodland Hills, although relaxation was definitely not on the schedule at the Conservative synagogue’s untraditional monthly Rock ’n’ Roll Shabbat. Theatrics abounded at the high-octane performance by Hazzan Mike Stein and his four-piece rock band, which included a Van Morrison cover and a hip-hop interlude. “No lighters please, folks, as this is Shabbat,” quipped Rabbi Stewart Vogel, who worked the crowd like the emcee at a Catskills comedy revue.

I found the atmosphere entertaining, like an extended-family reunion/Jewish rock concert. But spiritually, it didn’t speak to me. I prefer Shabbat to be a quieter affair — more whisking away, less Whisky a Go-Go.

An outdoor summer Shabbat service with Valley Outreach Synagogue similarly missed the mark for me. Held at a community park near Agoura Hills, the evening felt more like a Getty Center summer jazz concert than a call to worship. The 100 or so attendees relaxed on beach chairs and blankets, basking in Cantor Ron Li-Paz’s sonorous baritone but rarely joining in. Some even brought their dogs. Intermittent yapping and the squeals of children playing catch provided the backdrop to much of the service.

No doubt, the casual atmosphere and preservice picnic—hallmarks of their special summer services—were appealing for families with kids, which constituted most of the audience. But as the only young adult there, I felt isolated. And I couldn’t get into the contemporary pop songs performed during the service, like Bruno Mars’ “Count on Me,” and Kristy Lee Cook’s “Like My Mother Does.” Call me old-fashioned, but Top 40 radio hits are not, in my book, an improvement over prayer.

I have yet to check out Valley Beth Shalom’s “Rimonim” Kabbalat Shabbat service, which was on hold all summer. But I’ve felt dwarfed by the Encino shul’s sheer size when I’ve attended Saturday morning services in the past. Ideally, I’d like to sample each synagogue more than once before crossing any off my list – relying on one-off judgments is hardly fair. First impressions, however, are hard to shake.


Getting Closer

One of my favorite experiences took place in Leo Baeck Temple’s backyard. Nestled among the hills in the Sepulveda Pass, the Reform synagogue held Friday evening services under the stars in a verdant alcove that seemed to amplify its warm spirituality.

During Ve-Shamru one night, Rabbi Rachel Timoner and Cantor Linda Kates danced into the circular seating arrangement as congregants sang over Kates’ unimposing guitar. Timoner later passed out photocopied texts and we broke into chevrutot for a midservice study session. How much more democratic can you get? My favorite services are those in which I feel invited to participate — like my voice matters. Here was the antithesis of that lost-in-the-crowd sense I feel at many larger congregations.

Still, Leo Baeck doesn’t always have this camping/retreat ambience. Services move back inside in the fall and the start time moves from 7:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.

But something tells me the congregation’s friendly vibe is in full force year-round. By the time the service ended on my first visit, Karen Strok, the enthusiastic temple board member who sat in front of me, already knew where I live, why I was there, where I grew up and my middle name. Joel Allan, 33, told me about Leo Baeck’s “under 40” chavurah, Generation Baecks (Generation X — get it?). This five-year-old group goes bowling, takes mixology classes and hosts potluck Shabbat dinners at each other’s homes. Finally, signs of synagogue-affiliated life among my age group!

“The idea is to create a social network and a Jewish place of connection for people in their 20s and 30s,” said Timoner, who faced her own struggle rejoining Jewish life in her 20s after a long absence. “We want people this age to feel like they can come in and have instant community. We want them to connect with each other, to connect with Judaism, and to feel like Judaism is a meaningful and relevant part of their lives.”

I found a similar approach at Valley Ruach — on a larger scale that extends beyond synagogue walls. Hosted by Adat Ari El in Valley Village yet open to the unaffiliated, Valley Ruach is a thriving spiritual and social network of Jews ages 21 to 39, and the closest thing to Friday Night Live in the 818. “Oh,” I thought, walking into the group’s study-and-snack session on Shavuot, “so this is where everyone’s been hiding.”

In one member’s Valley Village apartment, 18 Generation X- and Y-ers gathered for a lively evening of schmoozing and Torah study. For the first hour, everyone socialized over bagels, hummus and, for Shavuot, two homemade cheesecakes. By the time we organized for chevruta study, the camaraderie was palpable. Here was all the zest of a USY convention with none of the awkward high-school politics.

“This was the first place where I felt like I was really part of a community,” said Samantha Levenshus, 24. “It’s nice to have this group of like-minded people.”

Friendly inclusivity and irreverence were the orders of the night (“The rabbis are basically saying ‘Don’t be a dumbass!’ ” was one memorable quote from effervescent discussion leader Jessica Kendler). Jewish festivities among friends — what more could I want?


Affordability

Well, how about a snappy price tag? Valley Ruach charges a low fee per event that’s hard to beat. Its monthly Shabbat services, which draw crowds of 30 to 80 and include a kosher catered dinner, are a steal at $10 to $12. To bolster the worship schedule, board members recently worked out a deal offering joint membership to Valley Ruach and Adat Ari El at accessible yearly rates — $180 for ages 21 to 25 and $250 for ages 26 to 30. That’s a nice discount from the $495 individual membership rate Adat Ari El offered last year.

The question of affordability hovered in the back of my mind like a vulture throughout my search. Assuming I found my fairytale fit, a glass slipper of a congregation that fulfills all of my desires, the question remained: Would I be able to afford membership?

I don’t have kids to warrant supporting a synagogue’s early childhood center, religious school or other family-oriented programming. I also don’t have a spare $1,000 lying around to gamble on a membership that might be right for me. I understand the benefits of paying toward my future with an institution, but in a contest, paying my DWP bill is going to win, hands down.

“Dues restructuring for young professionals is necessary if the synagogue wants to attract those under 30 without children in the school,” said Elana Vorspan, 31, membership vice president of Adat Ari El and a Valley Ruach board member. “There aren’t many young people who find joining on their own worth it.”

Try 8 percent. That’s how many Jews ages 21 to 40, without children, said they belonged to a synagogue in a 2004 San Francisco survey. Los Angeles’ overall affiliation rate is historically higher, but L.A.’s young adult population today is starting to look more like San Francisco’s, said Bruce Phillips, sociologist and professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion.

“There are so many options for how you can spend your Friday nights,” said Daniel Sissman, 29, an American Jewish University student working toward his MBA in nonprofit management. “You can spend them with family, have dinner with friends or do an alternative experience like Shabbat yoga. … Synagogues have to compete with all that.”

Congregations are starting to recognize this. Many have lower membership rates for the under-30 crowd (although definitions of “affordable” range from a generous $125 at Valley Beth Shalom to a staggering $1,152 at Shomrei Torah Synagogue). Some also offer a new-member discount. While these measures ease my initial sticker-shock, they don’t address the likelihood that many young adults — myself included — still won’t be able to afford the full adult rates when they hit the big three-oh. Given this economy, more than a few will still be living with their parents.


The Glass Slipper?

So, where does that leave me? I already know I want to affiliate. I’m excited by the budding enthusiasm for young professional programming at several local synagogues – including the latest 20s and 30s group, the Social Jewish Network, currently coalescing at Shomrei Torah. Maybe I’ll take a second job to support my shul habit. But before commitment comes spiritual connection.

A couple of times on my journey, I’ve felt “it.” An at-homeness. A harmonious joining of frequencies. The particular comfort of a puzzle piece snapping into place. I know I’ve found “it” when I’m not thinking of where I’m going after services on a Friday night, what I’ll do when I get there, the event lineup for the rest of my weekend. I know I’ve found “it” when I don’t want it to end.

I haven’t decided yet where I’ll spend the High Holy Days this year, but wherever it is, I hope “it” is there with me.

New age or new edge


You’re getting sleeeeepy. Verrry sleeeepy.

Then — bam! — it’s all over, and you’ve delivered a baby.

OK, it’s not nearly as easy as that, but you might be surprised by how hypnosis is being used these days. It’s not just about getting people to stop smoking or lose weight anymore.

Hypnosis is quietly helping athletes increase their performance and surgical patients manage their pain. And yes, it’s even gained the notice of prospective mothers.

“When the mind is relaxed or the woman is not in fear, she’s able to relax her body. When the body is relaxed, when all the muscles are relaxed, normal, natural functions [such as childbirth] don’t need to hurt,” said Hayuta Cohen, an Israeli-born hypnotherapist in Encino who has led several classes in HypnoBirthing.

This is simply one way that treatments once considered alternative are evolving to become more widespread. In addition, many of these therapies are being integrated with traditional medicine. For proof, look no further than the existence of the UCLA Center for East-West Medicine, founded in 1993, which doesn’t offer hypnosis therapy but blends Traditional Chinese Medicine with Western Medicine.

“There’s definitely a move toward integration or bringing the best of multiple traditions,” said Malcolm Taw, assistant clinical professor at the center .

More than one-third of American adults used some sort of complementary medicine in 2007, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics. Taw said the reasons are simple.

“Overall, the patients want this,” he said. “They want to avoid potential medications or other interventions, whether surgery or injections, and they want to try other treatments that have less of a side-effect profile.”

Some have tried Western medicine without success. Others are looking for a less expensive choice or one that is natural and uses the body’s inherent abilities to heal itself. Many of these therapies, often termed complementary and alternative medicine, have roots that go back decades, if not centuries, in other parts of the world. The way practitioners are tinkering with them and using them in conjunction with Western medicine, however, is modern and ever-changing.

Just ask Uri Kenig.

The psychotherapist from Israel set up shop in Encino 23 years ago, and at first glance his office looks like any other. There’s a large window letting in plenty of natural light, a comfortable couch for the patient — of course — and soothing music available at the touch of a button.

But there is something unusual in the corner of the office: a high chair, the kind you might find at a patio bar, and in front of it, a short stool. This is where Part Two of Kenig’s unique form of treatment takes place — the part that comes after you’ve told him your life story. It’s this part that has attracted the attention of approximately 1,000 of his colleagues in Israel.

“Something was always missing for me about the incomplete process of talk therapy,” Kenig said. “I found myself hearing, time and time again, clients saying to me: ‘I understand my problem. What should I do about it?’ ”

The conundrum led the 60-year-old to look at the mind-body connection and how chronic emotional problems may lead to chronic physical conditions. Kenig’s investigation took him beyond traditional talk therapy, and into the world of energy healing and touch therapy. That’s where the chair in the corner comes into play.

As part of a system he developed called IPEC (Integrated Physical Emotional Clearing), Kenig sits on the low stool and asks clients to hold out both arms. He pushes down to check muscle resistance and either touches the hand to different parts of the body or asks questions.

“I’ve devised, in a very accurate and planned way, by questions, to get slowly a feedback from the body, from the unconscious mind,” Kenig said. “On specific words, the muscle will go weak. On specific other words, it will be strong. … There is a psychological story. The client is completely unaware.”

He then cross-checks what he says the body tells him against numerous charts and two large, colorful, home-made matrixes filled with hundreds of words that lead him to an assessment. Kenig, who has a doctorate in clinical psychology from the California Graduate Institute, said he has used IPEC to trace one patient’s migraines to problems at work and another patient’s breathing problems to an issue dating back to the client’s birth.

Kenig then uses LED light therapy or vibrating massage directed toward certain organs or body parts considered to be the source of the problem. He also uses music and meditation. The underlying theory behind the method is that the universe is made of energy and every individual has his or her own energy fields. In order for change to break through that field and restore a normal balance, it needs a little push — in this case, aided through things like light or vibrations.

The most recent statistics show that more than 1.2 million Americans sought some sort of energy healing therapy in 2007. That’s minuscule compared to the nearly 39 million people who used nonvitamin, nonmineral natural products, such as fish oil and ginkgo biloba — the largest category measured — and a much smaller segment than even the 3 million-plus who turned to acupuncture for relief.

Despite the increasing numbers, it’s still a field that has a lot to prove, believes Dr. Larry Bergstrom, director of the Integrative Medicine Program at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“I haven’t found these types of therapies to be helpful,” he said. “They distract from addressing important aspects of each person’s illness.”

He further explained, “The people who invent and use these techniques fill a niche for a patient for whom conventional medicine has failed. I don’t think the [technique] is the issue; it is listening to the patients, believing them and creating a scenario where the patients can help themselves become better.”

Rhea Kohan: No one spits in her kids’ Kasha


Sunday afternoon at the Kohan home is one of those classic portraits of familial bliss: Children are screaming, singing and scurrying about, clamoring for attention, eager to play, while the adults assembled in the kitchen are trying to have a coherent conversation. Clearly, a tall order.

“Chris backed up an off ramp!” Jenji Kohan exclaims as she bursts into the kitchen 20 minutes late for the interview, in jeans and a T-shirt, her two sons in tow. “There was an accident in front of us, and we would have literally been on another hour, and so he backed up the off ramp.” Charlie, 11, is ecstatic at his father’s heroics: “My brother and sister were like, ‘Yeah, go Dad!’ ” This being the Kohan household, an ordeal on the freeway is nothing if it begets a good story.

Jenji and Co.’s arrival brings a swirl of energy into the room —Charlie wants to perform his latest magic trick (he’s telepathic), and Oscar, a playful, teasing 5-year-old, is hungry. “Have some cheese and crackers,” his grandmother, Rhea, directs with classic motherly insistence. “Would you like some cereal? Some raisins?”

Jenji and David, Rhea’s two writer offspring (son Jono is a music entrepreneur and day trader) have gathered today at The Journal’s behest to talk about their mother in honor of Mother’s Day. A novelist by profession, among her notable accomplishments is the fact that she managed to raise three well-adjusted, unpretentious children in Beverly Hills.

“Sorry, is this disrupting?” Jenji asks. 

Well, yes, but the chaos of different characters all descending upon the family kitchen is where this family’s story begins. And even though the Kohan children — twins Jono and David, 47, and Jenji, 41, are all grown up with sizable homes of their own, their parents’ home is still family ground zero. It is here, amid a blend of California modern and deco interiors, that their talents were incubated and nurtured — the original writers’ room.

In fact, the drama that unfolded within these walls launched four enviable Hollywood careers: Buz Kohan, the family patriarch, is a television writer for variety shows and specials with 13 Emmys to his credit; Rhea is an author of three novels and a screenplay; David is the creator of the eight-season hit sitcom “Will & Grace”; and Jenji is the brain behind Showtime’s wickedly subversive comedy “Weeds.” A mere 10 minutes in their midst and it becomes obvious why so much of David and Jenji’s success flows from family spectacle, literally and creatively: Both modeled their career choice on their parents’ vocation, and both have found endless inspiration filtering their own refracted experience of family and turning it into entertainment.

Watch any episode of “Will & Grace” and you’ll see that the relationship between a gay man and a Jewish woman who are roommates is really a kind of created family; on “Weeds,” the nuclear family breeds dysfunction and darkness but also unmatched loyalty and love.

So it makes sense that when asked to reflect on their personal and professional bonds with their mother, such an event would take place in their childhood home — a house not only thick with their history, but with their telling of it. Yet it is also a place grounded in normalcy and ordinariness — celebrity visits were frequent, but decidedly absent were any orgiastic, drug-induced parties. Thanks to Mom, Hollywood success was celebrated but not subsuming.

Looking back, Rhea sits at the table confident and queenlike. She is all color: Titian tresses, sapphire eyes, creamy white skin. She wears a rosy blouse, an emerald leopard-print scarf and bright blue sandals — not one for understatement. Her novels “Save Me a Seat” and “Hand-Me-Downs” are, first, about a woman who struggles with pursuing a career and raising her children, and, second, a story of how a family matriarch born in the “wrong” generation tries to realize her own potential through the celebrity of her offspring. A third novel, “Low Heart in the Hole,” is currently sitting on a publisher’s desk.

“Why isn’t Jono here?” Jenji asks her mother with a slight edge in her voice. “You have another child.” Jono, the 6-foot-tall eldest son, is the only nonwriter in the family, and his siblings’ perceptible distress at his absence is the only topic that even hints at a sore subject the entire afternoon. Luckily for the Kohans, any sensitivity, deep or shallow can be remedied with a joke.

“Did it not occur to you?” Jenji presses, while they pose for photographs. “Do you not like him?”

Rhea, who earlier had quipped that her daughter’s confrontational nature scares the you-know-what out of her (“she’s psychologically scary”), is, by this point, fed up.

“He’s my FAVORITE!” Rhea snaps. “You know, there was a ‘Mama’ cartoon I used to put on the refrigerator, which said, ‘Here comes my favorite — and then the other two.’ ”

The threesome resolves to complete the family circle by printing a digital photo of Jono, which Rhea holds in her lap. But the prospect of getting a decent photo is fast becoming a Sisyphean task as the writers chafe under the camera’s glare, looking sort of like aliens who have just landed on the wrong planet. It’s fittingly comic: Jenji and David stand awkwardly opposite each other, fidgeting and leaning, unsure whether to smile or run script, as Rhea sits daintily beneath them, beaming.

Every few minutes, one of Jenji’s kids cuts in with a dire question or to jump on top of her, but mostly, Buz keeps them entertained in the bedroom.

“She’s amazing when she’s not actually your mother,” Jenji says with a sly smile and an eye roll. “All my friends love her.”

David, who plays quiet and patient to his sister’s bellicosity, laughs.

“If you ask her for advice, there is nobody wiser,” he says of Rhea. “But if she foists her advice upon you, that’s the ‘Jewish mother’ thing.”

“It’s the complete lack of boundaries,” Jenji says.

“Complete lack of boundaries?!” Rhea asks incredulously. But she is more amused than annoyed, chuckles lightly and shrugs it off.

Her own upbringing was more rigid: Rhea grew up in a traditional Jewish home in New York. Her mother was a homemaker, and her father was a school principal, who moonlighted as head of the local yeshiva. They kept kosher, went to shul, and their greatest aspiration for their daughter was for her to marry well (she didn’t, according to them, though her now-48-year union with Buz has since proved them wrong). Rhea rebelled by studying chemistry and taking an apartment in Manhattan after a broken engagement.

“When I got married, my husband was unemployed, so my parents were very unhappy,” she recalls. “When he first came to my parents’ house, my mother wouldn’t let him in the living room. But he never bored me, and he was so talented.”

David, Rhea and Jenji Kohan

That experience didn’t stop Rhea from inflicting the same expectations upon her daughter.

“I was told to go to Caltech and sit on a bench and meet someone,” Jenji says wryly. “We weren’t supposed to do what we’re doing. David was supposed to go to medical school, and I was offered a condo if I went to law school.”

“Writing was a fallback position,” David says. “If we can’t get real jobs, we know we can always do this. That’s what our parents did.”

Rhea had intended to work in the sciences and ended up a novelist. “Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht — know what that means? Man makes plans, God laughs.” She likes to joke that her novel “Hand-Me-Downs” is about her foremost maternal wish, which was for her children to grow up and make her look good.  “I wanted my children to grow up and have jobs where they would never have to come and ask me for money.”

By that measure, Rhea can rest easy. But she also deserves credit for keeping them in check, imparting to her children that success is no excuse for self-absorption — it’s how you put food on the table. And it was Buz who spent long hours on television sets to support the family, while Rhea stayed at home, how her children preferred it.

“When I got the galleys back from one of my books, Jenji picked it up and dropped it on the floor and said, ‘Big deal! Do you ever go into bookstores? There are thousands of them there!’ ” Rhea says that whenever she left the house for work, Jenji would conveniently get sick and call her from the nurse’s office. So much for working moms.

“They say there are book Jews and money Jews,” Jenji says. “We were raised book Jews; it was about intellectual and educational and personal achievement. It wasn’t about accumulation.”

“It was always like, things stayed for a long time,” David recalls. “Houses stayed, cars stayed, wardrobe stayed — nothing really changed.”

That’s not to say the family didn’t have its mishegoss — Jenji, for instance, was something of a rabble-rouser.

“I was not an easy kid; I got in trouble a lot,” she says. But rather than condition her otherwise, Rhea embraced her daughter’s quirks, even encouraged them.

“Omigod, I got suspended once from school for telling a headmaster I wouldn’t take his ‘bureaucratic bull——,’ and she took me to Hollywood Boulevard the next day and bought me a James Dean poster, because I was her rebel without a cause.”

Now David and Jenji are both parents themselves, and although there are neurotic behaviors they’d like to avoid, most of the time they can’t help but model their mother’s style.

“There are so many times when you catch yourself in a moment where you know that you are absolutely duplicating your parents in every way, on every level,” David says. “A chromosomal tic is happening.”

“I find more quotes that I use, more than her lecture style,” Jenji says. “Like, ‘Don’t let anyone spit in your kasha.’ ”

“If it feeds you, go out with it,” Rhea adds.

“No. That I will not repeat. I want my daughter to have a little self-esteem.”

Rhea Kohan is anything but stereotypical, though her children say she has some deeply refined neuroses: Overbearing? Check. Neurotic anxiety? Check.

“She’s always nervous that something bad will happen. Always,” Jenji says. “And that was imposed upon us, and it’s been a real struggle to not impose that fear onto my kids.”

“It’s like that Philip Larkin poem,” David says, “ ‘They f—- you up, your mom and dad, they don’t mean to, but they do.’ ”

More than fame or flashiness, storytelling is the Kohans’ cherished currency. It is their way of encapsulating life but also of living it. Issues are handled with humor; discipline comes with a bon mot. Being clever is more important than being a bigshot. And writing isn’t some haphazard genetic imperative or self-aggrandizing gift, it’s a primal urge.

Not that it should be too primal. Rhea does have one major boundary she hopes her children will respect (even if they don’t), and that is: Don’t air your religious angst.

“I’m very conscious of not doing anything that puts down Jewish people,” Rhea says firmly. When David once presented her with a “Will & Grace” script that mocked Orthodox Jews, she disapproved, and the scene was rewritten. After Jenji was discouraged from enrolling in rabbinical school because of her marriage to a non-Jew, she created a character who pursued the rabbinate to avoid war deployment. Rhea disapproved; this time, the scene was not rewritten. “I don’t like anyone to be critical of Jews or Israel. I’m very pro-everything-Jewish. To me, Israel can do no wrong.”

Rhea being so traditional, you might think that her daughter’s intermarriage troubles her, which it did, at first, but that’s over. “It’s the only marriage in the family that worked out,” Rhea admits. “Both my sons married Jewish girls, and both have been divorced.”

As if on cue, Jenji’s youngest son walks into the room: “Oscar, are you Jewish?” Rhea prods.

“Ken!” he shouts with a big, giddy smile.

In their Jewishness, the Kohans are something of an anomaly in Hollywood. Because they’re seriously, openly and comfortably Jewish. Jenji’s family belongs to two shuls, a chavurah group, and her kids attend Jewish day school and summer camp; David is a member at Sinai Temple and IKAR, and shares his mother’s pro-Israel political zeal. And every Friday, as they’ve done since childhood, the family has Shabbat dinner together.

“I think most of the the Jews out here [in Hollywood], they’re f———[cowards],” David says. “They want to stay away from [Jewish identity], they feel like it’s gonna alienate them. And I was always pushing for more — what’s particular can be universal. Like, why on earth would Seinfeld never declare what he was?”

He looks at his mother and says, “You instilled in me that being Jewish is not something to be ashamed of — it’s something to be absolutely proud of.”

Rhea smiles and nods, then offers one last story: “When I was 10 years old, I began to wonder if, indeed, Judaism was the right way. And I remember doing a lot of reading about it and decided that yes, it is the right way…”

“There is no right way,” Jenji cuts in (as much as she says she hates political correctness, she is the one to tip the scales in favor of fairness).

“Well, to me, being Jewish was the most logical,” Rhea continues. And, without a hint of reservation, she adds: “I just felt that on an intellectual level the Jews were way superior to every other religion. And I feel that way to this day. And I would say to my children, if you ever get lost, you look for a house with a mezuzah on the door, and that’s the door you knock on.”

Why Israel Matters


Zionism is like democracy. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the other kinds, and the same can be said, on its 63rd birthday, of the State of Israel. The Zionist project, in 2011, may be shot through with thorny problems, but it is still the best answer to the question it was designed to resolve, the so-called “Jewish Question.” 

Given the persistence of anti-Semitism, how can the Jews function in the world? A hundred years ago, Jews differed vociferously on this question, much as they do today. Then as now, not all Jews agreed that political Zionism, the establishment of an independent Jewish state, was the best solution. The very Orthodox believed that only God, in keeping with Divine plan, could redeem our people, and all that Jews could do, as ever, was pray and observe God’s law. The Yiddish secularists known as Bundists believed that universal socialism would lift all boats, Jewish and gentile alike. And various Jews worried that a Jewish state in the Land of Israel would inevitably become too chauvinistic, militaristic, religiously fervid for its own good. 

Some Jews argued that an autonomous entity was indeed necessary, but should be situated somewhere other than Palestine, in a land less holy and complicated. Israel Zangwill, the acerbic Anglo-Jewish author and Territorialist leader who had supported Theodor Herzl’s scheme for a Jewish homeland in Uganda, put the problem in a nutshell in 1919: “Zion is a bride who after her divorce from Israel has been twice married to Gentiles — once to a Christian and once to a Mohammedan —and when Israel takes her back he will find his household encumbered with the litter of the two intervening ménages.” 

Revisiting this image in the turbulent Middle East spring of 2011, I am suddenly reminded of a classic nugget of Talmud (BT Ketubot 16b), wherein the schools of Hillel and Shammai differ on how best to greet a bride. Beit Shammai says: “It depends what the bride is like.” Beit Hillel says: “Beautiful and gracious bride.” Beit Shammai says to Beit Hillel: “If she were lame or blind, you would say a beautiful and graceful bride?” Beit Shammai argues for sad, unvarnished truth; Beit Hillel prefers attitude adjustment that greases the path to peace. Here’s a Jewish question: Which approach better serves the Zionist cause on Israel’s 63rd birthday? 

Rewind to 1882, when Dr. Leon Pinsker of Odessa, my favorite Jewish diagnostician, asserted that “Judeophobia” was an incurable gentile disease with lethal consequences for Jews. In his tract “Auto-Emancipation,” he argued that the scattered Jews, in order to be normal people, and not unnervingly ghostlike or “uncanny,” needed a homeland of their own, a place where they could be the hosts. Someone who is everywhere a guest and nowhere a host, Pinsker said, has a hard time laying claim to other people’s hospitality. 

Today, American Jews can say this diagnosis does not apply to them — they are not strangers or guests — but surely this was not always the case. Pinsker’s tract of 1882 appeared a year after the assassination of Czar Alexander II (by non-Jewish radicals), which triggered pogroms against Russian Jews. This, in turn, set off the great and historic migration of millions of East European Jews to the United States, nation of immigrants, and not to the dusty Ottoman province of Palestine. America welcomed the refugees for 40 years — but then, let us not forget, didn’t. After World War I, as racism and nativism swelled in a jittery world, Congress cut immigration to a trickle, slamming the Golden Door shut in 1924, barely a year after my father, a Russian Jew, was lucky enough to arrive as a child at Ellis Island.

But after 1948, everything changed. Dr. Pinsker’s prescription was correct: The creation of Israel as an independent state revised the image and raised the self-confidence of Jews everywhere. As a proud Israeli, I would argue that the simultaneous phenomena of Israel as a strong sovereign nation and the unprecedented success of the American Jewish community are anything but a coincidence. Simply put: Israel matters.

America matters, too. Its Jews have done well, and their achievements have been good for Israel. For centuries, Jews in the Diaspora, lacking physical power, majored in economics and gained their influence that way. How has that influence been perceived in America? Mark Twain, in an ostensibly sympathetic essay of 1899 called “Concerning the Jews,” noted that “ten or twelve years ago” he’d read in the “Cyclopaedia Britannica” that the Jewish population of the United States was 250,000. “I wrote the editor,” he wryly continued, “and explained to him that I was personally acquainted with more Jews than that in my country, and that his figures were without a doubt a misprint for 25,000,000.” 

Behold the subtle nexus of anti-Semitism and its sneaky twin, Philo. I would hazard a guess that many Americans, in the 21st century, still do Twain’s inflated math. His pointed remark is a mixture of admiration and caution: Watch out for those clever Jews, they’re everywhere. Do I mean to suggest that America is an illusion, and Israel is the only solution? Hardly, but in the end, who knows? Listen now to an expert, Chaim Weizmann, the Russian-born chemist from Manchester University who became Israel’s first president. In 1946, he offered his scientific opinion to a panel of British and American officials that convened to evaluate the situation in Palestine:

Making (radio) waves


While local news broadcasters debated the West Coast repercussions of the Japanese earthquake, Radio Kol America’s Dudi Caspi, sitting with headphones and a microphone at the station’s North Hollywood studio, posed a different question: Could a tsunami hit Tel Aviv?

Making international news relevant to an Israeli audience in Los Angeles is one of Caspi’s main goals on his daily program; the other is to entertain with a mix of Israeli pop hits. The former program manager of Radio Tel Aviv made his home in Hollywood last year. At first, he wasn’t sure he’d get to continue his career in the city of dreams; then he discovered that there are not one but three locally operated Israeli Internet radio stations: IsraLa.com, Radio Kol America (RKA) and GaleiLA.com.

Three radio stations for one Israeli community is proof of the adage “two Jews, three opinions.” Estimates put the number of Israeli Angelenos anywhere between 50,000 and 250,000, depending on who you ask and who is counted, and the founders of these stations recognized this population’s homesickness for Israel’s culture, humor, mentality and — especially — the music.

Tal Orion Gerloy, co-CEO of RKA, dreamed of starting a local Israeli radio station since moving to Los Angeles eight years ago, but the former vice president of marketing at Jerusalem Radio discovered a long waiting list for an FM or AM channel, with costs reaching $4 million. While working as a U.S. correspondent for Israel’s largest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth, she met fellow Israeli journalist Yanir Dekel and his life partner, Alex Maghen, who shared her dream. The three partnered up, and RKA went live in May 2010.

“Trying to start something like this without having the know-how from a technical or legal perspective, two things that I bring to the table, make you think it’s an extremely expensive business to run,” said Maghen, the station’s — and MySpace’s — chief technology officer. “Nowadays, you can do amazing things without it costing a bloody fortune.”

The pioneer of this fledging local industry is Eli Bouzaglo, a singer, DJ, band manager and sound engineer. A year after moving to the San Fernando Valley with his wife, singer Alisa Shparaga, he converted his living room into a studio and went on the air in October 2009 with IsraLa.com.

“My vision was to put [on] some good music and really good talk shows which would make the community feel connected to each other,” he said.

Next came GaleiLA (L.A. Waves), launching on what its founder, Ido Ezra,  hoped would be an auspicious day: 10-10-10 at 10 a.m. Its slogan, “Sof Sof Radio” — Finally Radio — reflects the ambition of Ezra, the L.A.-based correspondent for Israeli radio stations Galei Tzahal and Kol Israel.

“Our goal is to build a radio station on the scale of the most professional radio station in Israel,” Ezra said.

The Woodland Hills-based station’s programming lineup will include hosts from both Israel (via live feed) and the Los Angeles area and plenty of Israeli and American pop music.

But some wonder if Israeli Internet radio is economically viable.

“The way I see it, it’s a very cute concept,” said Gal Shore, editor-in-chief of Shavua Israeli, the veteran weekly newspaper serving the local Israeli community. “But being in the [media] business here for 20 years, I don’t see any way they can make a profit.”

RKA’s Gerloy is not deterred by skeptics. “I think people don’t realize that this is the world of tomorrow,” she said.

Free Internet radio sites and radio podcasts have mainstreamed online listening, and listeners can now stream broadcasts via their smartphones in the car, but sound quality varies among the stations, and smartphone connections are sometimes plagued with hiccups.

“That’s the ultimate challenge to Internet radio,” Maghen said. The technology is constantly improving, he added, but there is still a way to go. GaleiLA’s Ezra looks forward to the day when cars come with preinstalled Internet access, eventually supplanting satellite radio. “Internet radio will one day be as dominant as other media, like television or any other media that provides entertainment.”

RKA and GaleiLA declined to release their ratings, but Bouzaglo says he gets an average of 1,500 listeners a day, enough to sustain IsraLa.com. However, he found that ratings went down during the talk-radio programs the station once offered.

“After a while, I figured out the Israeli community is not ready for a new communication channel,” Bouzaglo said. “They just like the Israeli music.”

In January, he took the talk shows off the air, and one of the popular shows, “The Head Jew in Charge” with LiAmi Lawrence, was picked up by RKA and renamed “The LiAmi Lawrence Show,” a provocative interview show with guests ranging from entertainers to Knesset members to pro- and anti-Israel activists.

Lawrence is a former actor, personal trainer and — according to him — the original importer of Chippendales to Israel. He has also served as director of media for the local Israeli consulate. He turned his attention to radio while continuing to promote his Sababa parties, which have made him a well-known personality on the Israeli American party scene. With more than 4,300 Facebook friends, the self-described “nicer Jewish Howard Stern” came with a built-in fan base. He started with 180 weekly listeners and has worked his way up to approximately 500.

“There’s no show for the Jewish Israeli community in English that’s for young and hip people. The few shows that are around are for the Depends-and-dentures crowd,” Lawrence said with his signature bluntness.

RKA’s other shows cover topics such as immigration law, Israeli life in the Diaspora, entertainment and numerology, and a music and interview show with radio host and actor Isaac (Zachi) Tiber. RKA also airs a show on spirituality every Shabbat evening, much like the radio stations back home.

Coming from a country where news is broadcast on the radio on the hour, RKA host Caspi thinks it’s important to strike a balance between the lighter side of life Israelis seek in America and the connection with their homeland they still need.

“News in Israel is harsh and serious, and a lot of people I’ve come to know here say that the news wore them out,” he said.

Despite competing for listeners, the founders of the three radio stations are members of a tight-knit community, and as such, are friendly with one another.

“In terms of programming and broadcasting, there’s room for everyone,” Ezra said. “In terms of advertising, that waits to be seen.” 

The art of success


At a quarter to 7 in the morning, 32-year-old Israeli financier Dovi Frances pulls up in his nightshade Mercedes Benz — a fitting color since it’s still dark outside — on his way to run a company meeting in Santa Barbara. When the passenger door opens, a blast of hip-hop music shatters the early-morning quiet, the driver buoyant with the beat pounding his luxury-vehicle-cum-mobile-nightclub.

“I’m not into Matisyahu,” Frances says with a dash of defiance. “For me it’s Eminem, Tupac, Dr. Dre — you know, hard-core stuff.”

Frances is in many ways quite like the music he likes: experimental, aggressive and forceful. He’s a young, hungry Wall Street type with sharply good looks and a measure of recklessness, whose outsize ambition justifies impulsive risk-taking. Earlier this year, he bolted from a safe, six-figure finance job at Deutsche Bank to work for an obscure 45-year-old billionaire he barely knew. And nowadays he finds himself commuting four times weekly from Beverly Hills to Santa Barbara in order to manage Russian tycoon Sergey Grishin’s U.S. investment portfolio — which includes luscious multiacre real estate, a 164-foot yacht, a private plane and a recently launched luxury lending company, SG Cos., which Frances and Grishin co-own. But beneath the playboy veneer, the frequent trips to Moscow and Vegas, and the requisite benders that lifestyle affords, Frances fancies himself a kind of politely paid struggling artist, fashioning his own business destiny as opposed to ascending the corporate ladder — whose primary ambition is, simply, “to be successful.” Or, if fortune permits, a future prime minister of Israel.

“If you want to create the future, if you’re a visionary, somebody who can see inefficiencies and say, ‘Well, we can turn it into a business and monetize it,’ you literally change people’s lives,” Frances said.

His business philosophy, as he explains it, is fundamentally Darwinian, akin to “modern-day hunting” — which is to say, he believes that the accumulation of wealth and power will prove his ultimate fitness as a man — and as a mate.

“Women are attracted to powerful men,” Frances says as justification for his want of riches. “Back in the day, a successful man would bring home a bear or a deer; less successful [men] would bring home a chicken or a goose; now, we don’t hunt anymore, so how do you show that you’re a better hunter?”

The first thing for Frances was to prove his independence. Born to a middle-class family and raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv, Frances grew up in a secular home, the second-oldest of four brothers. His mother’s parents both survived the Holocaust and Frances likes to tell of how his grandmother got special treatment because of Joseph Mengele’s affinity for her. “She was blond with blue eyes, really blond, like white hair, a beautiful, beautiful woman, and he couldn’t believe that she wasn’t Aryan.”

Story continues after the jump.

Behind the scenes shots of photographer Anthony Bui in action. Photos by Lynn Pelkey and Anthony Bui.

As a kid, Frances watched his father transform himself from a lowly customs agent at an import-export company to the founder and CEO of Holon Motors, a consortium of car dealerships and auto service centers throughout Israel, which led to investments in real estate and restaurants. Though he worked for his father for several years, Frances felt the need to distinguish himself, and after serving as an officer in the army and studying at Ben-Gurion University, he moved to Los Angeles, where, in a much bigger business market, he would be able to build his own profile.

After graduating from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management in June 2008, he began a cushy but unsatisfying stint at Deutsche Bank, where he worked as a private banker and then a client adviser. It was there that he met Grishin, the titan behind the Russian-based RosEvro Group, which includes ownership stakes in one of the 50 largest banks in Russia, a chain of boutique hotels, a real estate development company and 7 Flowers, the largest flower distributor in Russia, according to the company’s Web site. It was also at Deutsche Bank that Frances developed a business concept for a full-service wealth advisement company that would cater to “ultra-high net worth” clients in the areas of consulting, lending and mortgage brokering.

When Grishin made him an irresistible offer to be his personal investor and included the start-up funds to launch a new business, Frances thought, “F—- the salary, f—- the title, I’m gonna start my own company.”

SG Cos., which was founded a little over a year ago and which currently has more than 30 employees in Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Francisco, aims to acquire loans for über-wealthy clients by borrowing against their holdings — what industry slang refers to as “jumbo assets” — like jets, yachts and art collections. When Frances isn’t playing CEO to his start-up, he’s overseeing Grishin’s investments in areas like real estate and technology; before lunch, he’s crunching numbers for the next seed round to benefit the start-up TekTrak, an iPhone and Android application that tracks lost smartphones. (Frances met the founders in business school and became an early investor; the company recently signed a deal with a major mobile manufacturer, which will offer the app on Android devices beginning this year, according to TekTrak CEO Arik Waldman.) After lunch, Frances is directing renovations to the Greco-Roman mega-estate, El Fureidis in Montecito, which Grishin purchased last year for $21.5 million and will likely sell.

If this were a hunt, you could say Frances is hedging his bets by aiming into a large herd. And he isn’t interested in being confined to any pack — he prefers to go it alone.

“I don’t wave the Jewish flag to differentiate myself in the business world,” he said of the sentiment that also applies to his social life: “For me, [being Jewish] is a cultural thing; I’m already Israeli, I speak Hebrew. I don’t have to go to synagogue on Saturday and shmooze with other Jews to define myself as a Jew. The question is, will I marry someone who is Jewish?”

At the end of a 12-hour business day, Frances boards Grishin’s private jet to scout properties in Nevada. Grishin, who is wearing jeans and a jeweled hoodie, sits across the aisle from Frances and orders a round of vodka from the flight attendant.

“Dovi’s really smart,” Grishin says, explaining why he trusts someone so young to advise him financially. “He’s much smarter than me. I don’t pay attention to details; Dovi pays attention to everything.”

Frances, relaxing into the spirit of flying at sunset over the sea, returned the compliment. “The guy totally changed my life,” he said. “You know what they say, that people succeed in this world because other people want them to? It’s not a cliché. Sergey wants me to be as successful as I can be. Sometimes you just need an opportunity.”

Goldstone’s retraction should be a watershed moment


Better late than never, but not much better. How else can one respond to the belated retraction by Judge Richard Goldstone of the key allegations in the outrageous report he authored into Israel’s Operation Cast Lead against Hamas terrorists in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009? Blatantly dishonest and biased, what became known as the Goldstone Report served as the most vicious instrument of defamation and delegitimization against the Jewish state for decades. It gave heart to terrorists; it gave hope to anti-Semites; and it gave every twisted calumny against the State of Israel a new lease on life.

So now we find that even its author can no longer stomach it. Writing in the Washington Post last week, we learn that he now knows that its central allegation was a lie: “Civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy,” he says. Referring to evidence provided by Israel, he adds: “I regret that our fact-finding mission did not have such evidence explaining the circumstances in which we said civilians in Gaza were targeted, because it probably would have influenced our findings about intentionality and war crimes.”

Well, this is better late than never. But a mere statement of regret is surely not enough. Let us recall that the Goldstone Report has served as a pretext for “war crimes” charges leveled against Israeli officials across the world. The least Goldstone can now do is issue a public statement calling on his report to be withdrawn from the United Nations, through whose institutions it is still making its passage. He should do it at the U.N. itself, and he should encourage the head of the U.N. Human Rights Council — where the report originated — to do likewise.

But there are even bigger issues to consider, and they go far wider than the pangs of conscience of a partially repentant judge. After all, Goldstone’s retraction tells us nothing that decent, honest and objective observers didn’t know already. That “civilians were not intentionally targeted as a matter of policy”? But Israel never targets civilians as a matter of policy. It is not that kind of country. It is a humane, liberal democracy. It is governed by the rule of law. It is a normal Western country whose people, and soldiers, abide by normal Western values.

So, why were so many governments around the world so willing to jump on board the anti-Israeli bandwagon that the Goldstone Report represented? Why did so many countries in Europe, countries that call themselves allies of Israel and friends of the Jewish people, give it credence at the United Nations, many in the last ballot at the General Assembly voting in favor of its continued passage?

Why were so many of Israel’s nominal friends so willing to believe the worst about her? Why were transparently obvious lies and libels not instantly dismissed with the contempt that they so richly deserved? Why was Israel put on the same footing, perhaps even a lower footing, as Hamas, an organization committed to the obliteration of the Jewish state, an organization for which the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, the Protocols of Zion, functions as the inspiration for its founding charter?

Surely, it is not just Goldstone who should be apologizing but every government and international body that gave his report the time of day.

In short, if anything good at all can come out of this affair, despite all the damage that has been done, despite all the pain and humiliation that has been suffered, then let it be this. Let this be a watershed moment in the way the world deals with the Jewish state. Let Israel now be treated by a common standard, and not by a double standard. Let it be a moment of true catharsis. Let it be a new beginning where truth, honor and decency reassert themselves and where reflexive hostility to the State of Israel is finally put to rest.

The Jewish people do not ask for much from the world, but we do ask for this: Treat us as you would like to be treated yourselves. Is that really too much to ask?

Ronald S. Lauder is president of the World Jewish Congress.

Single mom by choice


Thirty-two: That was the deadline, and Danit was sticking to it. That was the age, she’d decided, when she would finally heed her maternal impulse – husband or not.

Danit (not her real name) had always known motherhood was her calling. For years, she worked at her mother’s day care center in Israel, relishing the chance to surround herself with children. But after a long-term relationship ended in a failed marriage, she found herself in her early 30s, alone and facing some grim truths. Her dream of a fairy tale family was slipping further and further out of reach.

So before her divorce was even finalized, Danit visited a sperm bank for a donor and got pregnant.

“I had told my husband ahead of time, ‘If it doesn’t work out between us, I’m having a child by myself,’ ” Danit said in Hebrew at her Encino home recently, as her son, now 9 months old, toddled around the room practicing his first words.

Like a growing number of women her age, Danit, 33, had come to a crossroads. She could either continue waiting for Prince Charming to show up at her doorstep or she could satisfy her craving for a child on her own, before her natural fertility began to plunge. Each year, Option B wins out for tens of thousands of older, successful single women who face an unpleasant reality: The search for a soul mate might not come with an expiration date, but the ability to bear a healthy baby does.

The number of single mothers by choice has spiked in recent years, and plenty of Jewish women are joining the ranks. According to U.S. census data, about 50,000 single women older than 30 choose to have children each year, author and advocate Mikki Morrissette estimates. And single women make up about 30 percent of the clients at California Cryobank, one of the largest sperm donor banks in the world. A spokesperson for the bank, headquartered in Los Angeles, said this segment of its clientele is expected to grow the most over the next decade.

Why are so many women choosing to give birth on their own? For some, the choice is a result of having put off marriage to pursue higher education and high-profile careers, thereby reducing the pool of eligible partners. But for others, it’s just how the cards played out — and they don’t want to miss out on fulfilling a lifelong desire just because they haven’t met Mr. Right.

“Many women had always envisioned motherhood being part of their lives, but they’ve reached the deadline they had set for finding a partner to share that with,” said Morrissette, author of “Choosing Single Motherhood: The Thinking Woman’s Guide” and moderator of the online forum ChoiceMoms.org, which attracts about 4,000 visitors per month.

Morrissette gave birth to her daughter 11 years ago, at 37, using a known sperm donor. She had a second child, a son, using the same donor at 41. Most single mothers by choice are in their 30s or early 40s when they decide to become pregnant, she said. The typical woman is highly educated and successful in her career. And unlike many women rendered single by divorce or unplanned pregnancies, they often have already planned ahead financially to ensure they can rear their children in a stable and nurturing home.

That doesn’t mean they don’t encounter challenges along the way, like any other parent.

“My friends with kids would say things like, ‘It’s really hard — make sure you know what you’re getting into,’ ” said Lori Gottlieb, author of last year’s New York Times best seller “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough” and a West Los Angeles Jewish single mother by choice. “I didn’t realize that I was going to need help if I was also going to keep working.”

Gottlieb, who went public with her decision to be a single mom in a provocative 2008 essay in The Atlantic, said she could hear her biological clock ticking before she had her son using an anonymous sperm donor at age 38. Now 44, she relies on school and baby-sitters to care for her 5-year-old so she can work during the week. Evenings and weekends, she said, are “our time.”

“We have our little traditions and rituals and inside jokes and games that we play. We have a personality to our family that’s fun and quirky,” Gottlieb said. “If someone walked into our house and didn’t know there wasn’t a husband here, I don’t think they would know the difference.”

Becoming a single mother is not an easy choice, Morrissette said — the journey is often fraught with emotional hurdles. There are the basic concerns: Am I strong enough to handle single motherhood? Is it fair to the child? Some women wrestle with grief, as they mourn the loss of the husband-and-kids dream. And for many single women, who have been self-sufficient for so long, a big struggle is learning to welcome a support network into their lives —– and accepting that it’s OK to admit they can’t do it all on their own. 

Gottlieb has had the advantage of a “warm and welcoming” Jewish community at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, she said, and she has often brought her son to the synagogue’s Tot Shabbat programs.

Single motherhood by choice is “becoming much more socially accepted and practiced,” said Elaine Gordon, a Santa Monica psychologist specializing in fertility and child development. Film and TV now regularly spotlight less-conventional family models, and off the set, more women are finding strong family support for their decision — a surprise for some.

Danit, the Encino mother, worried for weeks over how to break the news to her conservative-minded father back in Israel. One night at 1:30 a.m., when she was three months pregnant, she worked up the courage to call him. His response sent a wave of relief over her: “I’m so happy for you,” he said.

But the single-mom life isn’t for everyone, Gottlieb cautioned. High stamina is a must, and women should be prepared to spend almost every waking minute on the go. “This is certainly not the way we planned to do it all along, and it’s not ideal,” she said. “That’s not to say we’re not completely ecstatic about our children, but being a single mom was never our dream.”

In fact, many say they are still on the hunt for a husband — when they can find time between feedings, diaper changes and play dates.

Danit, who has had to cut back her schedule as a reflexologist to take care of her son, still hopes she’ll find a permanent partner who will recite the Friday night Shabbat blessings typically reserved for the father. She’s not worried about shopping for a mate while saddled with the “baggage” of a child; now, she said, she can appraise a date more calmly, her judgment unclouded by the pressure she’d felt to hurry toward ema-hood.

“Don’t pass up having children,” is her advice. “It’s the greatest experience of your life,” she said, watching her son with a smile. “Despite all the hardship, there are no words to describe the joy.” 

Is Egypt the next Iran?


More than the storm sweeping through Tunisia in January, February’s events in Egypt leading to the stepping-down of President Hosni Mubarak stunned the world. Thirty years of autocratic rule came down in a matter of 18 days.

The domino effect, threatening to cause the downfall of Arab regimes friendly to the West, one after the other, notwithstanding, the possible strategic chaos due to a potentially unstable Egypt falling prey to Islamic fundamentalism jeopardizes the “peace plan” with Israel and destabilizes the whole region.  

Why be afraid? Is not the uprising stemming from a longing for liberty and democracy, values praised and preached in the West? In the end, Islamic mottos were absent in almost all demonstrations. A number of analysts reason that Islamic fundamentalism, as a threat to secular regimes, belongs to the past, so the fear is unfounded.

How not to be afraid? When unlike Tunisia, fundamentalist trends like the Muslim Brotherhood exist and are very much present in the Egyptian political arena? When Hamas and Hezbollah are congratulating the Egyptians for their victory? When a week before Mubarak’s departure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, was boasting during Tehran’s Friday prayers, albeit in Arabic, the spread of Iran’s Islamic revolution throughout the region? After all, Arabic countries are all Islamic countries, with the potential fear of an Islamic revolution always looming over their heads.

What is the answer? Events have shown that Islamic trends are in pace with the public quest for democracy. By themselves, they might not be dangerous. But they can be inspired, encouraged or even recruited by those who are the godfathers of what is known as “Islamic fundamentalism.”

How? Distinction should be made between the reactionary practice of Islam, which has existed for hundreds of years, and Islamic fundamentalism, which was not known in its present form before Ayatollah Khomeini came to power of in Iran. Deep inside, this is not an ideological phenomenon, but a political one. Khomeini himself called it the “absolute monarchy of the religious leader,” who can even cancel religious duties like praying or fasting if need be in order to safeguard the regime.

“Exporting the Islamic revolution” is the cornerstone of the Iranian regime’s strategy. This sort of Islam is not exported by cultural means, but by spending billions of dollars ($13 billion in Lebanon after the 2006 war against Hezbollah by Israel), through huge state institutions and, if need be, by resorting to extreme violence. Sunni Muslims are threatened as much as Shiites. Compared to Islamic fundamentalism as a dangerous cancer producing mortal “metastases” in other countries, traditional reactionary interpretations of Islam would not be more than a benign tumor limited to their own perimeter.

The Egyptian uprising can be successful, in democratic terms, to the extent that it can be isolated from Iranian interference. Presence of Islamic trends, Muslim Brotherhood included, is not the predominant factor. Those movements have metamorphosed a lot. The best example: After Khamenei’s instigating speech cited above, the Muslim Brotherhood quickly responded that “the uprising in Egypt is a revolution of the Egyptian people and is by no means linked to any Islamic tendencies.” Furthermore, they returned the ball home by mentioning a full paragraph of a declaration issued by Maryam Rajavi, herself a practicing Muslim, president of Iran’s principal opposition movement seeking to overthrow the regime in Iran, calling Khamenei’s position a sort of whistling in the dark to safeguard his own regime weakened by a general uprising a year ago. Wisely enough, the Iranian opposition’s position was published widely by the Egyptian media, trying to keep Iranian interference away.

True, we should be on guard. The internal weakness of the Islamic Republic of Iran, threatened by the restless youth fed up with political religion, should not deceive anybody. Because the clerics know of no other way out of their problems but to export them elsewhere, the more problems they have at home, the more they tend to cross their border lines. Sure, we have to react, but we should not be afraid.

We should not be afraid because the regime in Tehran is out of breath, after lengthy in-fighting and facing hard and organized opposition itself. Demonstrators are already back to the streets in Tehran. We should support them. We should recognize the Iranian opposition, very much organized contrary to the Egyptian and the Tunisian cases, and give them support. We should preach a regime change there. That is what the Iranian people are looking for, and that is how we can keep, at least, Islamic fundamentalism on the defensive.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights for a variety of publications.

Entrepreneurial spirit


Let’s hear it for lemonade stands!

Forty-two percent of entrepreneurs surveyed in a study said their first business venture was during their childhood.


The current three richest people in America are all entrepreneurs

Bill Gates – $54 billion net worth

Warren Buffett – $45 billion net worth

Larry Ellison – $27 billion net worth


Does the gentler sex make for “gentler” entrepreneurs?

One institute’s study determined that female entrepreneurs have a greater tendency to focus on the well-being of both their employees and customers than do their male counterparts.


Pass your resume to David, not Goliath

Small businesses (not corporate giants) have generated 64 percent of net new jobs over the past 15 years.


Try, try again

“I have not failed 1,000 times. I have successfully discovered 1,000 ways to not make a lightbulb.” — Thomas Edison


Microsoft, Disney, McDonald’s, Southwest Airlines, Johnson & Johnson, and Krispy Kreme.

All these companies were founded during recessions, depressions or bear markets.


98 of surveyed business founders cited the following barrier to entrepreneurial success:

A lack of willingness or ability to take risks.


Myth:

Nine out of 10 new restaurants fail within the first year.

Fact:

Research and statistics indicate that restaurants’ failure rate is actually pretty close to that of new businesses in any industry: about 60 percent.


Earning that paycheck

Of the 400 people included on the 2010 Forbes list of richest Americans, those with self-made fortunes amassed more than twice the amount of those who had inherited their wealth: $920 billion combined versus $450 billion combined.


Q: Approximately how many patents did the United States Patent and Trademark Office grant in 2010?

A) 35,000 B) 460,000 C) 220,000 D) 12,000

Answer:  C: 219, 614 patents were granted (according to a reputable research firm)


Useful resources and inspiring tips for entrepreneurs can be found at:

entrepreneur.comsba.govkauffman.org

Best-Friend bonding


It’s the same routine every year: To plan the obligatory Valentine’s Day date, you and your significant other run through a list of restaurants you haven’t tried and movies you haven’t seen. This year, why not shake things up? Share the occasion with someone who also loves you unconditionally and always knows how to show you a good time — your best friend. Here are some ideas for places to go and things to do with your bestie.

Vineyard Tour and Wine Tasting at Rosenthal: The Malibu Estate

If you were already considering curling up with a bottle of wine on a lonely February weekend, do it in style — with your soul sister! You and your friend can take in the beautiful views of 32 acres of luscious vines running along the Malibu hills, all while enjoying a delicious Cabernet. Reserve your spot for a tour and wine tasting by calling ahead.

26023 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA.
(310) 456-1392

rosenthalestatewines.com.


Picnic and Hike in Cheeseboro Canyon

Grab a couple of kosher take-out meals from the Falafel Grill in Agoura Hills, then drive straight up Kanan Road for about three miles to Cheeseboro Canyon, where you two can set up your own Mediterranean picnic surrounded by the park’s natural beauty: rolling hills, oak trees, streams and diverse wildlife. And if you’re not feeling too stuffed, strap on a backpack and enjoy one of the canyon’s hiking trails.

Cheeseboro Road & Palo Comado Canyon Road
Agoura Hills, CA
(818) 597-9192

lamountains.com/parks.asp?parkid=83.


Chillin’ at The Spot

(18 and over)

With seating inside or outside, yummy Mediterranean food, coffee, tea and a variety of hookah flavors, The Spot hits the spot when you’re in the mood for a low-key eveningwith your guy friends. There’s no sitting charge, and you can stay as long as you like, enjoying the lively atmosphere and sweet scents of apple and raspberry tobacco.

17200 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA
(818) 783-2233


 
Lessons at Simi Valley Krav Maga Training Center

If you’re trying to burn off all of those candy hearts — or possibly just feeling a little extra aggression toward “Singles-Awareness Day” — try a free trial lesson in the exciting Israeli martial art. Friends who sweat together, stay together.

1407 E. Los Angeles Ave., Suite. J
Simi Valley, CA
(805) 306-0500

simivalleykravmaga.com


Massages at Happy Feet

A Zen Chinese foot-massage salon is the perfect place for friends who want to relax together. Dimmed lights and the sound of a running water fountain create a super-relaxing environment, and don’t let the name fool you: For a reasonable price, Happy Feet masseuses give a lot more than just a foot rub. The 50-minute massages include 30 minutes of reflexology and 20 minutes of neck, back and head massage.

17629 Ventura Blvd.
Encino, CA
(818) 981-6288

happyfeetsalon.com.
 


Jewelry Making at the Bead Lounge

Stylish jewelry plus arts and crafts plus a good friend equals a fabulous girls’ date. This jewelry boutique, with two locations in the Valley, is an inviting place to spend an afternoon catching up with your pal while designing your own jewelry using semiprecious stones, glass beads and charms. The cozy environment and friendly staff — always on hand to give design tips — make it easy to forget the time and the grown-up world outside!

2900 Townsgate Road
Westlake Village, CA
(805) 497-8800.

4873 Topanga Canyon Blvd.
Woodland Hills, CA
(818) 704-5656

thebead-lounge.com.


Art Gallery at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara/Bronfman Family Jewish Community Center

Syrupy romantic comedies will always be waiting for you at the video store, but this Valentine’s Day, you might enjoy soaking up a bit of culture by viewing the work of childrens’ book illustrator Tibor Gergely and his artist wife, Anna Lesznai. Let the universal beauty of art inspire you and your BFF.

524 Chapala
Santa Barbara, CA
(805) 957-1115

jewishsantabarbara.org/page.aspx?id=143100


Volunteering at SOVA: Community Food and Resource Program

Rather than just exchanging heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, you and your friends might spread a little love to people in need. To help at SOVA, you can get together with your friends and organize your own food drive by packing up those extra cans of food crowding your pantry. Your generosity helps alleviate hunger in the community — quite a loving gift to give.

Valley Pantry
16439 Vanowen St.
Van Nuys, CA (818) 988-7682

jfsla.org/sova.

A story of unconditional friendship


I met Robin on Passover in 2000. We were both crossing a busy street in Beverly Hills carrying covered dishes, my 6-year-old was holding on to the edge of my skirt, and I asked if she was going to the same seder we were. It was my first Passover in Los Angeles, and now I realize it was a ridiculous question given the thousands of seders happening, but it turned out we were heading to the same house.

Some friendships are light and easy, others are challenging. Friendship with Robin was both. A comedy producer turned therapist, Robin had a wicked sense of humor. She loved to travel, to eat at the latest restaurant, to give the perfect gift accompanied by the perfect card — she would hand it over, beaming at her own wit. She read The New Yorker and The New York Times cover to cover, usually in the bathtub, passing along articles we simply had to discuss. She loved to shop, particularly if she had Bloomie bucks to spend; she loved a bargain, all things French, and she loved — loved — wine.

Robin also loved to tell stories — about the perfect meal on a trip to Europe or even the perfect parking spot on a trip to the mall. Robin was fun, and if things got too maudlin, she was ready to redirect your energy toward something lighter.

As a therapist, Robin used humor to help cancer patients cope with illness. So, when she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the fall of 2008, her friends expected she would have more coping skills than most people. We were wrong. Robin convinced herself that she was not terminal and so was unprepared as her illness worsened and she needed more help. Her friends stepped in to care for her.

Susie — a 20-year friend of Robin’s — and I became the A team. We cried together in a huddle with Robin when she got the news early on that she wasn’t a candidate for surgery. We kept her other friends and family up to date. We sent e-mails, coordinated food and chemo companion schedules, talked to her doctors, made emergency room runs, took her to appointments and did errands when she was too doped up to drive but wouldn’t admit it. We also dropped everything whenever Robin would call saying, “You’re not busy, are you? Could you just …” It was Susie and I who convinced her to hire an aide, and, near the end, I got her to tearfully agree it was time for hospice.

I am an ovarian cancer survivor, so I knew my way around treatment. I also learned quickly that Robin needed me to be a cheerleader for her recovery. No talk of death; I was to remind her that although her tumor marker was going up, the CAT scan showed the tumor shrinking. Or despite not getting to have surgery, her level of pain was still low. Robin said I knew how to make her feel better. Early in our relationship, she was like an older sister to me. The last year of her life, I was like a mother to her.

Robin’s directorial debut, videotaping her friends on an iPhone from her bed during her last days.

Along with the A team, a vast network of loyal friends, some from as far away as England and France, visited regularly, brought meals, helped with shopping and errands, walked Robin’s dog, took her to appointments and checked in constantly.

On Dec. 26, 2009, Robin called at 7 a.m., crying with pain. It took Susie and me an hour to get her out of bed, dressed and down the stairs. I drove to the emergency room with Robin moaning in agony. Instead of going on the Ojai trip she had planned, Robin spent her birthday week in the hospital.

During the next few months, people came to say good-bye. Two friends came from France, a junior high school friend drove from Del Mar almost every weekend, high school and college friends came from across the country. An old crush even flew in and showed up at her door pretending to be a flower delivery guy.

Robin tested us at every turn. She made demands, argued, pushed and pulled. She continued the fiction that her disease was not terminal and wondered why everyone was suddenly visiting. She said some hurtful things in the name of “honesty.” Still, we all kept coming back. I sometimes wondered if she was testing us to be sure our love was unconditional. I like to think we passed.

In late March 2010, I struggled over whether to cancel a long-planned trip to Italy to celebrate my daughter’s 16th birthday. Robin told me I should go, but I wasn’t convinced she meant it. For many months, all my time and attention had been going to Robin. This time, I put my daughter first.

Just before I left, Robin told me that when I got the news, I shouldn’t be sad. Instead, I should raise a glass of wine to her. I smiled and told her, “I used to have a therapist friend named Robin who would tell me that you can’t control how people feel.” She laughed, and then she took my hand and we both cried. 

When Robin started hospice in mid-February, the nurse thought she would last two weeks. But through my March trip to Italy, we communicated daily. I told her about our purchases in Rome. She told me she ate a piece of brisket on Passover. We returned on a Thursday night. Friday morning I went straight to Robin’s house.

“I didn’t think I was waiting for you,” she told me, her voice barely audible, “but I was.” And then she said, “I’m not doing this right.” I knew she was asking for help dying.

Six of Robin’s closest friends from different parts of her life gathered at her house that weekend, along with her incredible aide, Elizabeth. We came for Robin, but also for each other. We took turns sitting by her bedside and sitting together, sharing our love for Robin. We had a wine party. Robin participated, taking a sip and videotaping us on an iPhone. She called it her directorial debut. She worried we were drinking her cellared wine; cellared was off limits!

We thought the party was a perfect ending and that now she could slip into that promised coma. She didn’t comply. At one point, we all came running up the stairs because we heard a noise. Robin laughed and said in her weak, morphine-slurred voice, “I’m having a Hollywood moment. I scratch my ass and six people come running!” When she was too weak to talk, she held out her arms to me like a baby, wanting to sit up so she could stay conscious, stay with us, for just a little while longer.

Early Monday morning, April 12, Robin finally let go. We were just a week shy of a decade of friendship. She had a big smile on her face, her eyes glistening. She looked radiant.

Retract your mom claws


Amy “Tiger Mother” Chua might want to cover her ears right now because clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel has a message for parents that would likely send Chua into one of those shrieking fits she reserves for her daughters’ subpar piano practices, or a verboten A-minus.

Here goes:

Your teen may not be a genius-entrepreneur-athlete-altruist-artist.

He will probably experiment with drugs, drinking and sex. The small stuff — like rudeness, irresponsibility and utter obliviousness to the effort and money you put into his well-being — will test you daily.

And — take a deep breath, upper-middle-class Jewish parents — your teen might not get into Harvard. Or even UCLA.

But that’s OK.

In her latest book, “The Blessing of a B Minus: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers” (Scribner, 2010), Mogel offers a counter-cultural, sometimes counter-instinctual approach to parenting that stands in stark contrast to the unbending so-called “Chinese” approach in Chua’s much-discussed new memoir/guidebook, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” (Penguin Press). And if Chua has hit a nerve with parents who are as obsessed with their children’s academic success, Mogel offers both common sense and Jewish values as a counter-guide. Inadvertently timed to come out within weeks of one another, the reassuring tone of Mogel’s very sane book may be a life-saver to parents on the Chua-style edge.

Chua is a Yale law professor married to a Jewish Yale law professor; she describes with pride how she didn’t allow her daughters, now 18 and 15, to have playdates or go on sleepovers, watch television or play video games, or bring home anything less than in A in any class other than gym or drama. The girls had to practice hours a day to master both violin and piano, even on vacation. Any hint at deviation from Chua’s standards merited insults, punishment and harsher demands.

But well before an excerpt from Chua’s book appeared earlier this month in the Wall Street Journal, sending parents — and journalists and talk-show hosts — into a frenzy, Mogel, whose first book, “The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children” (Scribner), came out 10 years ago, had been challenging parents to step outside the transcript-perfecting circus and acknowledge that there are dozens of paths to dozens of kinds of success — and those paths depend on knowing and understanding your child. She asks parents to set standards and then back off, to give kids space to err and stumble, and to allow them get up again — by themselves.

“Raising teens is the hardest thing parents have to do — it makes pregnancy and childbirth look like a picnic in the park,” said Mogel, who treats teens and children in her Larchmont Boulevard private practice. “Our instincts are to overprotect them, to overindulge them, to over-schedule them and to fight their battles for them. But that deprives them of the most critical learning they need to do.”

Mogel will be discussing her approach to raising teens at a forum sponsored by The Jewish Journal/TRIBE Media Corp. and the American Jewish University on Sunday, Jan. 30, at 2 p.m.

Indeed, in many ways, Chua and Mogel start from the same premise. Both believe Western parents over-coddle their children, demanding little of them but wanting everything for them. Both wonder at teens’ lack of respect for elders, and both fear for children whose half-baked efforts are breathlessly praised.

But the similarities end there. Chua’s response is to place impossibly high standards and demands on her children — she rejected her 4-year-old daughter’s homemade birthday card as a feeble effort. Chua picked up her children during recess so they could spend the time on more lessons, rather than waste it playing. She called them “garbage” to their faces when they under-performed.

Mogel also advises parents to place demands on teens — not just academically, but in the home and in society — and counsels parents to set standards and model values. But she views the process of raising offspring as much messier and nuanced than Chua’s black-and-white version, requiring a more moderate and compassionate approach modeled on the Jewish ideal of finding a path between two extremes.

It’s also a harder approach for parents to undertake. Mogel doesn’t lay out a neat list of dos and don’ts, nor does she offer blanket prescriptions, as Chua does. She instead offers information and ideas and asks parents to customize their skills and tactics as they learn about their own motivations and their children’s strengths and weaknesses. Her approach of moderation and resisting the urge to always fix everything requires work from parents. And not all parents will be up to the task.

Especially because teens can be so hard to understand.

Take our spoof, please


Spoof Cover

My neighbor asked me to throw away any newspapers on her driveway while she was away. So, I have been picking up The Jewish Journal for two weeks. I was shocked by the cover with Ann Coulter appearing as a date with a plastic looking Jesus (Cover, March 21).

I couldn’t imagine what bad taste possessed the editors to feature this joke in the middle of Easter holy week.

Does this mean that The Journal is anti-Christian/Catholic, or maybe it means the staff of The Journal is so insular that they are clueless what might be offensive to another religion?

At the very least you have bad taste.

Kathy Berkowitz
via e-mail

I was shocked and appalled to see Jesus on the cover of your March 21 issue. Wait a minute.

No, I wasn’t.

Keep up the good work.

Rick Lupert
Van Nuys

Barack Obama

It’s an altogether unrealistic notion to expect Barack Obama to become as beholden to the Jews as he would be to anyone else (“Dear Senator,” March 21).

If he’s truly the sort of candidate who can represent every viewpoint equally (and he most likely is just that sort of candidate among all those running), then his looking forward to the day when “Israeli and Palestinian children can live in peace” should be very fervently commended and not rejected so insensitively by [Beverly Hills Mayor Jimmy] Delshad in the manner it was.

The editorial was just another illustration of how we get so identified with only our group and its agendas.

Mark Mandell
Studio City

I was at the “Live for Sderot” concert on Feb. 27, and 1,200 Jews did not boo Obama (“Dear Senator,” March 21). Yes, there were boos, but there were some cheers, too.

But putting politics aside, I have to say that I, for one, do look forward to a day when “Israeli and Palestinian children can live in peace.” I doubt I’ll see that in my lifetime (I’m 54 years old) but it’s a sentiment that I agree with and one that I’m sure my Israeli relatives agree with, too.

Is that a terrible thing for me to say? I don’t think so.

Spike Kaplansky
Sherman Oaks

Barack Obama has done a superlative job in parrying any criticism toward him into an overall discussion about race relations in the United States (“Obama Ties to ‘Separatist’ Pastor Raise Big Questions,” March 21).

If he were a professor of history, I would say his speech was superlative. But unfortunately, he not a professor; he is a candidate for our nation’s highest office. If I were to judge a person by his words alone and not his actions, let alone inactions, I would have been tempted to buy into it.

As a 77-year-old who has listened to the sermons of Rabbi Max Nussbaum of Temple Israel of Hollywood for approximately 30 years, I was harangued continually with his call for brotherhood and corrections of evils perpetuated in Little Rock in the 1950s and Mississippi in the 1960s.

At the same time, my wife listened to Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, who paid his dues with calls for brotherhood by marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in the 1950s.

We had every opportunity to leave our respective sanctuaries, but we agreed with what we heard and we remained.

Contrast this to Obama, who cannot deny knowing contents of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons spouting hatred for the past 20 years and also knowing of Wright’s endorsement of racist Louis Farrakhan. Obama, knowing what he knew, remained in his church. If he claims not knowing, he was, what they call in freshman law school, showing a studious desire to remain ignorant.

In any event, Obama gives moving speeches, but his inactions speak louder. There is no place for him in any public office, let alone as president.

Aaron Epstein
North Hollywood

So, Daphne Ziman and others of her political persuasion continue to attack Barack Obama, despite his clearly stated support for Israel and the strong defense he has received from virtually every bona fide mainstream Jewish organization and leader (“Sen. Obama, Answer My Questions on Your Past.” March 21).

Let’s put the same shoe Ziman does on our own Jewish leadership. Recently, Herschel Schachter, the head of the rabbinic training program at Yeshiva University, openly called for the assassination of the Israeli prime minister, should he negotiate over the future status of Jerusalem.

So, where is the condemnation from within our community? Should all Orthodox Jews disaffiliate from Yeshiva University? Has the rabbi been fired, or have students and faculty staged a walkout?

Avigdor Lieberman is an avowed racist and proponent of ethnic cleansing but was an accepted member of Israel’s ruling coalition. Where was the great outcry among the leaders and rank and file of world Jewry?

The ultra-Orthodox Jews of Israel threaten and physically attack fellow Jews who do not meet their standards of religious observance. What sanctions have American Jewish organizations proposed be taken to end support for these radical cults?

There are some Jews who only find nuance, complexity and even understanding as positive qualities when found in our own community. I believe Ziman and her fellow anti-Obama hatemongers to be among them.

Jeffrey Ellis
Los Angeles

Correction
The March 8, 2008, Letter to the Editor titled, "CAMERA Ad," mistakenly indicated that CAMERA was involved with the ad in question. It was not. Additionally, Dexter Van Zile was mistakenly listed as a "disaffected United Church of Christ minister." He is in fact the chair of Board of Deacons of Brighton-Allston Congregational Church in Boston, Mass., and serves as its delegate to the MA Conference and to the Metropolitan Boston Association.

Letter to My Secular Friend

I’m one of the secular Jews of Tel Aviv whom Orit Arfa refers to in her article, “

Barri Evins: A Book Can Change the World


“It is hard to convey the special sense of respect, dignity and approbation that can be conveyed by calling someone ‘a real mensch,'” writes Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

The Yiddish word infuses the basic German denotation — “person” — with an almost indefinable connotation. A mensch is a person who is upright, honorable, decent, as Rosten writes, a person to admire and emulate.

So, why not just call such people saints or angels?

Because, as the stories below will demonstrate, these people have no such airs. They are people, like you, like us, who in the course of schedules no less hectic and demanding than our own, manage to reach out and help others, make the world a better place, day in and day out. They are doing what we all should, and what we all can do, despite the fact that most of us don’t. They are just people — menschen, to use the proper Yiddish plural — who understand the power and possibility of what just one person can do.

So, we are delighted to introduce you to The Journal’s second annual List of Top Ten L.A. Mensches.

This year we’ve added a new category, as well: Honorary Mensch — A non-Jew whose work exemplifies this very Jewish notion. Thank you, Marilyn Harran.

And thank you to all our mensches. Maybe next year, we’ll all be candidates for the list….

:::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Each Christmas, Barri Evins and a group of volunteers give away thousands of books at Head Start magnet centers throughout the Los Angeles area. At each center, volunteers greet each child individually, ask them their age and then present them with a brand new book especially selected for them.

“We want them to feel important and cherished” said Evins, who 15 years ago created From the Heart, a nonprofit designed to promote literacy and foster a love of reading in children living below the poverty line.

The daughter of two psychologists, Barri Evins was born in Florida and raised by a mother whom she describes as “an extraordinary woman … a philanthropist, and a hands-on volunteer.”

Evins emphasized “hands-on,” because that is at the core of the philosophy of From the Heart.

“We want them to have something new of their own,” she said. “To create that moment is a transformational experience for both the people who are giving and those who are getting.”

For many children, this gift is the first book ever to go into their home.

Evins is dedicated to the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world). She firmly believes that “when you give a child a book, you give them the world” and, by promoting literacy, you can empower them to do virtually anything.

Her organization works most of the year collecting, counting and sorting books and preparing for the Big Book Giveaway, where volunteers, often together with their families, meet at Head Start centers to put the books into the hands of some 5,000 children who range in age from 3 to 18. To date, From the Heart has given away nearly 70,000 books.

A graduate of Northwestern University, Barri heads her own film production company, “be movies.” She is currently working on a project about Stetson Kennedy who, she says, was considered to have been the single-most important factor in curbing the Ku Klux Klan.

While From the Heart was started with a group of young women in the film industry, it has grown greatly, and today, Evins said, its biggest challenge is “finding other people from all walks of life who would like to get their hands dirty, shlepping, sorting and giving books to make sure that each child gets a book that excites them.”

On a personal level, Evins confided that she would “like to find a nice Jewish boy who’d like to help me give out books.”

From the Heart works with One Voice, a grass-roots, nonprofit agency that creates meaningful, innovative and effective ways for people to help others in need. It has no overhead and all contributions are used to carry out its mission.

To contribute or volunteer, contact Barri Evins at FromTheHeart345@aol.com.

Cover Story


< align = justify> * The Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has a “Israel in Crisis Fund.” Onehundred percent of all contributions to this fund will be immediately sent toIsrael without any overhead. The first clearly identified need is to getIsraeli children out of harms way — today. Click here to make a secure onlinedonation . Or send a checkmade out to Jewish Federation – Israel in Crisis — to: The JewishFederation; 6505 Wilshire Blvd.; Los Angeles, CA 90048; or call (866) YOUR-FED

* The Federation is organizing a major community rally this Sunday,July 23, at 4:00 p.m .in front of the Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd. Tellyour friends to join to express solidarity with Israel at this dangeroustime. Parking will be available on the street and in the Bank of Americabuilding at 8381 Wilshire Blvd. for $5/car.

* To help victims of terror, contact www.onefamilyfund.orgor contact Bari Holtzman at the OneFamilyFund, 818-884-8866, mailing address 6520 Platt, ‘441, Los Angeles, CA91307. Email bari@onefamilyfund.org.

* American Friends of Magen David Adom-ARMDI. Magen David Adomhasdispatched 150ambulances and personnel to the northern part of Israel and hasmobilized theMDA National Blood Services Centerto supply additional blood to hospitals in areas under attack.Visithttp://www.afmda.org/site/PageServer or call212-757-1627 or 866-632-2763.

* American Jewish Committee. The Israel Emergency AssistanceFund willhelp institutions workingwith victims of rocket attacks in northern and southern Israel.Visitwww.ajc.org.

* Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. A support group aimsto providetroops with supplies as Israelcontinues its military actions in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon tofree capturedsoldiers. Visit www.israelsoldiers.org orcall 1-888-318-FIDF ext. 10.

* Jewish National Fund.Operation Security Blanket is raisingfunds tosend Israeli children from theNorth to summer camps in central Israel, build security roads alongthe borderwith Gaza and purchase emergencyresponse equipment. Visit www.jnf.org or call 1-888-JNF-0099.

* World ORT. All money in the Emergency Relief Fund for Israelwill bedesignated for relief activities inIsrael. Visit www.ort.org.

Our First Cover: Bobbi Fiedler


Bobbi Fiedler, who rode an anti-school busing platform to political prominence, stood out as the potential vanguard for Jewish conservatives when The Jewish Journal profiled her as its first cover story in February 1986. Fiedler had served on the Los Angeles school board (1977-1981) and won election to Congress (1981-1987). In The Journal’s first year, she was running for the U.S. Senate, a campaign that fell short.

The Journal recently caught up with the still-active Fiedler, 69, between civic activities. She’s a member of the San Fernando Valley Coalition on Gangs, the LAPD’s Devonshire Division advisory council and the community enhancement committee that works with the Mission Hills police station. A registered Republican, the Northridge resident has two children and five grandchildren.

Jewish Journal: Tell us about some of your current work with law enforcement agencies.

Bobbi Fiedler: The San Fernando Valley Coalition is trying to prevent gang membership and drug use. We’re assisting a variety of agencies in trying to find and help the at-risk kids before they actually get into gangs or involved with drugs.

The enhancement committee is trying to improve the quality of life in North Hills — recommending various locations that have problems with lighting, with the broken-window syndrome, with homeless encampments. These are the sort of community problems that tend to deteriorate a community if not attended to.

JJ: You came to prominence through your opposition to mandatory busing. Would Los Angeles be better off if the fight over busing had never happened?

BF: Yes, unquestionably, because a large number of mothers, as an example, had to go back to work to pay for their kids in private school. And a large number of families would not have left the city and would have continued to enhance its economic base. Yes, it would have been a lot better had we not had to fight that fight. But we did, and ultimately we were successful in court and in creating magnet programs with voluntary busing, which meant expanded educational opportunities for students.

JJ: How do you feel about possible mayoral control of the Los Angeles Unified School District?

BF: I understand the public’s frustration with the quality of public education. The school district has problems — no question about it — and I think Mayor Villaraigosa’s very well meaning. But the mayor has a big challenge on his plate as mayor, and he also has another big challenge in having a leadership post with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. I don’t think it’s feasible for one person to be able to control those two things and the school district.

JJ: What would you suggest as far as amending who’s in charge?

BF: I would let everyone in the city vote for all seven school board members, instead of just the one in their area, as it is now. At-large elections were how it used to be. Going back to that would make it more difficult for the teachers union to be in control.

The school district is on the right track as far as pushing for achievement levels that are much higher than they’ve been in the past. I would say the worst thing that happens in the school system is the lack of expectations for children who come from a minority background.

JJ: How has Congress changed since you were there?

BF: There are always a lot of good people in elected office, but there is much more partisanship. Today there are Americans who are abject enemies because they are in opposing parties, and the whole country is terribly polarized as a result of their bad example.

Howard Blume is the former managing editor of The Jewish Journal.

 

PASSOVER: Songs for a Swinging Seder


Of all the Jewish holidays, none is so firmly rooted in the home and so joyously celebrated with song as Passover. This simple fact would lead you to expect an avalanche of Passover records, but this year the avalanche is more like a mild rain of pebbles, at least in the quantity department. The quality is pretty high, but don’t count on finding much for your own seder table. These records should come with the warning: “Trained singing professionals; do not try this at home.”

The two most unusual and interesting of the four new CDs both use hip-hop as a touchstone. Samples, cut-ups, rapping, multiple overdubbing with hard beats — the usual package — used artfully by Craig Taubman on “The Passover Lounge” (Craig + Co.) and Josh Dolgin, better known as SoCalled, on “The SoCalled Seder: A Hip-Hop Haggadah” (JDub).

Taubman’s outing is more musically conservative, generally staying close to the familiar holiday tunes and drawing on a trippy vibe that nicely complements his breezy tenor singing. Co-producer Luke Tozour provides some tasty beats and samples and a lot of friendly ambient sound. (Hey, guys, my seder never sounds this mellow — where is all the screaming and yelling?) It’s a nice little package that turns the Four Questions into juicy, dreamy funk and the recounting of the plagues into something like “old-skool horror” rap. If Taubman has his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, the humor is affectionate and endearing.

SoCalled, unsurprisingly, is after something tougher, with more street cred and a straight-razor edge. Taking samples from old how-to-do-a-seder records and slicing and dicing them into a bubbling stew of breakbeat sounds, scratching from P.Love, klezmer instrumentals from Elaine and Susan Hoffman Watts, high-powered sax funk from Paul Shapiro, and a startling rap from Killah Priest on the plagues, he has created a Pesach for downtown hipsters. I love it but I’m pretty sure my zayde would not. As the old joke goes, if he were alive, this would kill him. Be forewarned.

If you are seeking a more traditional Passover recording, you might be more comfortable with “The Spirit of Passover: Voices of the Conservative Movement” (Cantors Assembly/United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism), a sampler that was actually released last year but which didn’t turn up on my desk until a few weeks ago. The current issue of Judaism is devoted to a long discussion of the current state and possible future of the Conservative movement, but if you want a truly vivid portrait of the many directions in which its adherents are pulling, this CD is the thing.

The record opens with a burst of Hollywood Strings-style kitsch that suddenly turns into a veritable explosion of “Ki Lo Na’eh/Had Gadya” sung by the Three Jewish Tenors. Meir Finkelstein, Alberto Mizrahi and David Propis sound like the musical equivalent of human cannonballs on this gleeful tribute to Moyshe Oysher, but it’s not a great idea to open a record at this energy level, because anything that follows is bound to be a letdown.

And much of what follows is a new-agey, Celine Dionish ode to Rebbe Nachman written by Jeff Klepper and sung by Eva Robbins, although nothing is quite so dire as “The Empty Chair.” Things couldn’t get worse than that and, fortunately, they don’t. Indeed, there are some real high points: a lithe “Dayeinu” performed by the Syracuse Children’s Chorus, a supremely simple but powerful “Hodu Ladonai” from Sam Weiss, a haunting “Livbavtini” in which a multitracked Ramon Tasat duets with himself and an audacious “Prayer for Dew: Tal” in which Moshe Schulhof sings with a recording of the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt. If you look up “chutzpahdik” in the dictionary, you’ll probably find a photo of Schulhof, but to his everlasting credit, he holds his own with the man most consider the single greatest hazzan of all time. (Available from www.TheSpiritSeries.com.)

The final entry in this year’s Pesach sweepstakes is a somber one, Max Helfman’s “Di Naye Hagode” (Milken Archive/Naxos). Helfman’s oratorio is not, strictly speaking, a Passover commemoration in the strict sense of the word. Rather, it is a 1948 piece he wrote in memory of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on Passover in 1943. Using the seder as a structural armature on which to mount “di naye hagode,” that is, “the new telling,” Helfman wrote a frequently powerful, occasionally bombastic piece for choir, narrator and orchestra. This recording features particularly forceful contributions from the Choral Society of Southern California, the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and narrator Theodore Bikel, who never succumbs to the temptation to “emote,” wisely allowing Itzik Fefer’s stark, bleak text to do the hard work. The CD also features an effective rendition of Helfman’s “Hag Habikkurim” and a surprisingly mournful “The Holy Ark.” The result is one of the best releases in the Milken Archive series to date.

George Robinson is the film and music critic for Jewish Week. His book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Shocken Books in fall 2006.