Valley Torah basketball coach linked to CSUN sanctions

An investigation into academic fraud and the Cal State Northridge (CSUN) men’s basketball team could involve the current head boys basketball coach at Valley Torah High School in Valley Village.

A Dec. 7 report published by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) revealed that a former director of basketball operations’ computer was used to complete 125 hours of online coursework for 10 players. The NCAA did not name the staffer, but a Dec. 7 story in the Los Angeles Times indicated that an investigation by the paper found that it was Lior Schwartzberg, who coaches at Valley Torah and is a former CSUN director of basketball operations. He was placed on administrative leave on Oct. 28, 2014, CSUN told the NCAA.  

The NCAA’s report said the unnamed staffer at the center of the controversy had “no explanation” for evidence that showed logins on several players’ accounts and submissions of assignments and quizzes from a computer with an IP address from his parents’ house more than 70 miles from campus. The metadata review of the staffer’s computer actions involving players’ academic accounts detailed in the report is from a period beginning in the fall of 2013 and ending in the fall of 2014. 

According to the NCAA’s report, the staffer appeared at a hearing in front of an NCAA investigative panel and said “that the previous director of athletics and previous head men’s basketball coach told him to monitor student-athletes’ academics because the institution was concerned about its academic progress rate.” He went on to say that he only monitored the students’ progress and denied any wrongdoing. 

When reached by text message, Schwartzberg told the Journal that his legal counsel has instructed him to not make any statements. He did not indicate who was representing him legally.

Schwartzberg told the Times in a text message: “I deeply disagree with the decision and many of its facts.”

Schwartzberg is a 2008 graduate of UCLA, where he majored in philosophy and minored in Hebrew and Jewish studies and served as a scout team player for UCLA’s women’s basketball program. His coaching history includes a five-year stint as a varsity assistant — three years at Brentwood School and two years at Capistrano Valley High School in Mission Viejo. He also was a video coordinator on the UC Irvine coaching staff before CSUN hired him as director of basketball operations before the 2009-2010 season. 

In the fall of 2014, several student-athlete mentors and staffers raised issues with the classwork of some players, according to the 26-page NCAA report. The mentors and staffers determined players had no knowledge of coursework that had been submitted by players. The grades for online classes were “significantly higher” than grades for in-person classes. The NCAA claimed the staffer did the work for them.

CSUN then began an internal inquiry, hired attorney Carl Botterud to oversee an independent investigation and apprised the NCAA of possible violations. That resulted in CSUN implementing a self-imposed one-year postseason ban that was upheld by the NCAA. 

 “I am proud of the way the university, Matador Athletics and the Men’s Basketball program faced these violations aggressively, without hesitation and showed our values in action,” CSUN Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Brandon Martin said in a Dec. 7 statement. 

The NCAA mentioned that CSUN had taken curative action, such as replacing its compliance director, forming a body of 10 faculty members to supervise academics for the athletic department, and allowing student-athletes only one online class per term.

Still, there were penalties levied by collegiate athletics’ governing body against the CSUN men’s basketball program. These include three years of probation, a one-year postseason ban and vacating wins from games involving the players. The NCAA, as outlined in its report, also issued a five-year show-cause order against the unnamed staffer in the report, which would make it difficult to get another job with any NCAA school.

This isn’t the first time CSUN athletics have faced allegations of academic misconduct. The NCAA penalized CSUN in 2004 when the men’s basketball program self-reported that an assistant coach oversaw two other assistant coaches changing the transcripts of a player to keep him academically eligible to play. 

During the 2011-2012 season, CSUN scored poorly on the annual Academic Progress Rate report, which counts the number of student-athletes who stay in school and are academically eligible over a four-year period. The subpar score resulted in a ban from postseason play that season. 

Schwartzberg joined Valley Torah in 2015. When reached by the Journal, officials at the school declined to comment on the coach. 

Brad Turell, whose son Ryan is a standout player for Schwartzberg at Valley Torah, continued to support the coach. He issued the following statement on behalf of his family: “Ever since we met [Schwartzberg], his conduct and performance have been exemplary. He is a great coach, tireless worker, extremely well-organized, conscientious, and a pleasure to be around.”

After top-down transformation, Hillel 818 shows signs of growth

When David Katz, the new executive director of Hillel 818 — the organization that serves Jewish students on three San Fernando Valley campuses — was being courted away last year from his position leading Hillel at the University of Pittsburgh, he wasn’t exactly given the most attractive hard sell. He recalls being told the following by Hillel International’s leadership:

“This Hillel has a quarter of the staff size that you’re used to, maybe a third of the budget that you’re used to and the potential to reach three times as many students as you’re used to.”

Nevertheless, Katz, 34, accepted the challenge, which also meant coming into a Hillel with a new board after an upheaval led by its primary funding source, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

“This is a Hillel that has the potential to engage 6,000 students throughout all the different campuses that we serve,” Katz said during a recent interview at Hillel 818’s Northridge headquarters. He was referring to Cal State Northridge (CSUN), as well as two community colleges, Pierce College and Los Angeles Valley College, all of which are under Hillel 818’s umbrella. “We want to be able to prove that we can engage alumni, engage community members and eventually start building an endowment.”

Katz’s arrival in April followed a de facto takeover and reorganization in late 2014 by L.A. Federation, led by President and CEO Jay Sanderson, who told the Journal a year ago that Hillel 818’s leadership was mismanaged, unable to support itself financially, and not reaching enough Jewish students. “For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson told the Journal in 2015. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”

Sanderson said in a recent interview that he thinks the organization is now on track. “Now there’s a strong board with a strong board chair [Howard Grobstein],” he said. “Eighty percent of the board is new people who are connected and committed to the campus.” Katz said there’s also a minimum board contribution for each member of $2,500 a year.

While Hillel 818 remains heavily dependent on Federation, Katz said it is on a path toward financial self-sustainability. Its annual budget has increased 54 percent, from $278,000 in 2014-15 to $430,000 in 2015-16, with just under half of this year’s funding from Federation — $214,000 —  whereas Federation previously funded two-thirds of Hillel 818’s budget.

It’s also reaching more students. Hillel’s goal at the start of the 2015-16 school year, Katz said, was to interact with 900 individual Jewish students during this academic year; it finished the first semester reaching 464 individuals. He estimates that last year, Hillel 818 reached only 300 individual students in the entire academic year.

In addition, Katz said, last year Hillel 818 offered only one Shabbat dinner per month. It now opens its door for Friday night dinner every two weeks, including a Kabbalat Shabbat service beforehand, attracting about 30 to 40 students each time. Another priority of Hillel 818 under Katz’s leadership has been to increase its students’ representation on Birthright trips to Israel. He said in the year before he came, in April 2015, Hillel 818 sent only three students on Birthright, a number that increased to 15 over winter break. He hopes to see 30 more go on the summer trips.

Another of Katz’s goals is to increase the percentage of non-Federation funding sources and to expand Hillel 818’s footprint beyond its CSUN core, increasing engagement at Pierce, where Hillel 818 already has some presence, and making an impact at L.A. Valley College, which he said Hillel 818 has barely touched for three years. One of Hillel 818’s three staffers will be on the Pierce campus once a week, and Katz said he and his team are “still figuring out how we best meet and serve the needs of L.A. Valley College.”

The Federation-led reorganization didn’t come without its share of controversy. It started in September 2014, when Sanderson told the then-standing board that it needed to dissolve itself or else Federation would cut off its funding, effectively crippling the organization. One month earlier, executive director Judy Alban had resigned after learning that her grant requests to Federation were being denied because Federation disapproved of her having been promoted from the interim director post just a few months earlier. So a new director had to be found as well.

Jody Myers, CSUN professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program and one of the few prior board members to remain after the transition, said she disapproved of Federation’s tactics at the time of the reorganization, and she believes Federation’s reduced funding under Alban and its dissolution of the board hurt Jewish students on campus who would have benefited from a vibrant Hillel in the 2014-15 year.

“Once they fired Judy … I was considering not being on the board, but my board members said, ‘No, you have to be there,’ ” Myers said.

She acknowledges improvements at Hillel 818 since Katz took over and that Federation has ramped up its funding, but for Myers, that still doesn’t justify the process. “Things are very positive. I’m very happy with how David is functioning,” she said. “The fact that he’s working out well now does not justify the manner in which it was done.”

Jonathan Goldenberg, a CSUN junior, Hillel intern and head of CSUN Students for Israel, believes the reorganization and leadership change last year directly improved the pro-Israel group’s effectiveness.

“I kind of got to experience the change in leadership that happened firsthand,” Goldenberg said. “I went from being on my own to having a full staff to help me and the board plan events.”

He said Katz “has really brought life back to a Hillel that used to seem as if it wouldn’t [have] any potential.

“I’ve seen an incredible improvement both just in how Hillel itself functions and also how David really works with the various student groups that are under Hillel’s banner,” Goldenberg said.

This is not to understate, however, the long road to self-sustainability that Hillel 818 is just beginning. One sign of its ongoing dependency on Federation is that the more than $200,000 Federation gave to Hillel 818 for the 2015-16 school year is not grant-based funding, but “core” funding that’s not attached to specific programs — a rarity for Federation.

“Hillel 818, right now, is not self-sustaining and we have to help it get there,” Sanderson said, explaining the exception. “We’re invested in making sure this Hillel is the focal point of Jewish life on these three campuses, and to do that we have to provide, during this transition period, core support to make that happen.”

Sanderson said there’s no “formal timeline” for when he expects Hillel 818 to be financially self-sustaining — which would involve a mix of fundraising from its board, alumni, grants and parents of current students. He said he expects the process could take about three years:

“They started from way below sea level. The board they had before was not helping them raise money. We’re very, very happy. Everything we wanted to happen is happening, and our expectations so far have been exceeded.” 

New director for Hillel 818

Hillel 818 has undergone a major facelift in the past year, culminating in the April arrival of executive director David Katz, who trekked across the country from Pittsburgh with the hope of bringing a fresh start to Jewish life on three Valley college campuses. 

Hillel 818 works with an estimated 8,000 Jewish students, serving Pierce College, Los Angeles Valley College and CSU Northridge, where it is located near campus. Katz comes from a similar situation, having previously served as assistant director for the Hillel in Pittsburgh, which serves Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.

The 33-year-old arrived here in the wake of controversy after Hillel 818’s board dissolved in September at the insistence of its single-largest funder, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. But Katz has high hopes moving forward and discussed everything from combating the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement to the importance of having a good kitchen.


The challenge is the proximity of the three campuses and figuring out how, with a limited staff, we spend time on all three campuses. But there is also this amazing opportunity, and that is these are commuter students who have the ability to really come together in not the traditional college campus setting. The goal for us is to … be a Hillel that’s on campus, in the building, but also throughout the entire Valley. 


Students … should expect to see a much stronger proactive approach to Israel advocacy on campus with the goal of building relationships among a number of student organizations — not just Jewish student organizations — to help them gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground in Israel. The goal is how do we pre-emptively stop a BDS resolution from coming about. 


While this is a Hillel that has seen controversy, the mission of the organization remains the same, and that is to engage every Jewish student on campus. I think that as a community we need to focus on moving forward … and understanding that our goal is to get out there and have a positive impact on campus. The past is the past. This in a lot of ways is a new Hillel with a new approach to how we are doing our work, and I’m excited to get moving along. 


Other than the Federation, yes, I would say Hillel 818 is looking for investors throughout the Valley who … care about supporting Jewish student life on campus. … These are students we have invested in — from preschool to summer camps and Israel travel — and that investment needs to continue to their time on college campus. 


We received a grant for $50,000 to make some much-needed renovations in our kitchen. As we know, just as the kitchen is the heart of a Jewish household, the kitchen is a key engagement tool for reaching students on campus, and it is just going to help us do everything, from Friday night Shabbat dinners to building a thriving Challah for Hunger chapter. 


I’m really looking forward to … having the opportunity to work with students of multiple identities — in particular, our Russian students, our Persian students and our Israeli students. It is exciting to see how many different ways we are going to be able to celebrate Judaism. 

Child Holocaust survivors share their stories

Everyone knows about the 6 million. Beth Cohen, a religious-studies lecturer at CSUN, wanted to focus on a different number as she convened a March 26 panel discussion on campus with three child survivors of the Holocaust.

“Perhaps what is lesser known is that 1.5 million children were killed — that there were roughly 150,000 children left,” she said. “About 90 percent of Jewish children were murdered.”

Those who remain share unique stories that reveal much not just about the state of Europe before World War II, but of those who made survival possible. Three such survivors — Peter Daniels, Marie Kaufman and Eva Katz Brettler — spoke about their experiences during the event sponsored by the CSUN Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program

Kaufman, 74, was born in 1941 and made it through the war hidden in a tiny village in the south of France. Among those who protected her were five teenagers from two families. 

“It was their parents who told them, ‘Here is this little girl, and here are these people, and we have to take care of them,’ ” Kaufman told an audience of about 50 people. “Imagine being 13 and being told, ‘You are responsible, and you have to watch this child.’ ”

Kaufman assisted the teenagers in their daily chores on the farm where she and her mother were hiding, while her mother would travel to various farms to help out where she was needed. The village mayor also played a role in securing the safety of Kaufman and her mother by sending over a priest to create false baptism papers. When Kaufman’s sister was born in 1943, the priest also organized a fake baptism in the church for the baby. 

“We were hidden visibly — my mother and I,” Kaufman said. “My father was invisibly hidden.”

Before the occupation of the area, Kaufman’s father worked in a cement factory. But when a policeman arrived at the factory in 1942 to arrest him and take him to a labor camp, the owner of the factory lied and said he was not there. For about six months, Kaufman’s father hid in a cave, and her mother brought him food and other necessities after dark. When that became too dangerous, he hid in the basement of the house for the next 2 1/2 years.

After the war, they came to the United States in 1951. When Kaufman returned to France to meet her rescuers in 1996 to hear what they had to say — she was too young to have detailed memories of her own — she brought her son with her.

“As they hugged [my son] and embraced him, they said, ‘Now, we understand what we did,’ ’’ she said. “Because of what we did, you have a mother. You’re here.’ And now, I have four grandchildren.”

Daniels, 78, was born in Berlin in 1936 and had a lonely childhood. His father left for China, and he and his mother lived alone after his grandfather died in 1940. He was not even allowed to attend school because he was Jewish.

“I had no friends whatsoever,” Daniels said. “The Nuremberg Laws had prevented me from going to preschool or school.” 

His mother got a job at a factory, but she had to leave him at home from an early age. Daniels recalled having to wear a yellow star when he was out in public and reporting to the police station every six months until 1943, when he and his mother were arrested and put into cattle cars.

“We were taken to Czechoslovakia,” he said. “I don’t know how long we were in there. We were taken to Theresienstadt. I was sent to the barracks where the children were, and my mother was sent to the barracks where the adults were.”

Daniels talked about how he and his mother were almost sent to Auschwitz in 1944. He believes the reason why his mother was able to save them was because she was  only half-Jewish.

“Even though her mother had converted to Judaism, she was still considered a Christian,” he said. “She showed them her baptismal papers, saying that she was half-Jewish. However, because I had three Jewish grandparents, I was considered to be a full Jew. That was the formula that was used by the Nazis.”

The camp was liberated in 1945 by the Soviets, but because of a typhus epidemic, the gates of the camps were closed for an additional month. In 1947, he traveled by ship into New York Harbor with other refugees.

“I came to the U.S. with no schooling and no English,” said Daniels, who had taught himself simple reading in German and math during the days when he had stayed home alone waiting for his mother to return from work.

Brettler, 78, was born in Cluj, Romania, in 1936. She grew up as an only child in a religious home. Her father was a printmaker, and her mother was a hat maker.

“I was quite a bit spoiled,” Brettler said. “She loved to make me cute, little outfits with matching hats.”

Her family had to move to Budapest, Hungary, in 1941 after her father lost his job because he was Jewish. A couple of years later, Brettler’s mother took Brettler to stay with her maternal grandmother and aunt. While visiting, Hungarian policemen came to the home and told her grandmother she had to pack her things, because she was being taken to a labor camp.

“I was told to hide in the cornfield,” Brettler said. “I hid in the cornfield. I watched as my grandmother and my young aunt joined the other people who were walking to the railroad station.” 

Later, Brettler and her mother were to be taken to Ravensbrück, the women’s camp in Germany. During the march there, Brettler lost her mother, who she believes was shot by the soldiers after complaining of her bleeding feet and asking to ride on the wagon with her daughter. A woman Brettler called “Tante” or aunt cared for her while she was in Ravensbrück. 

Later, Brettler was transferred to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated in April 1945. Brettler’s first memory of the liberation was of a British soldier who picked her up and gave her a chocolate bar.

“I ate the chocolate all by myself,” she said. “I became very sick, and I figured that was the penalty you get when you don’t share your goodies.”

Sarah Moskovitz, professor emerita of education psychology and counseling at CSUN and author of “Love Despite Hate: Child Survivors of the Holocaust and Their Adult Lives,” also spoke on how she met with and interviewed each survivor. 

“What a privilege it is to hear of such resilience, such strength, coming from little children,” Moskovitz said, describing the stories of the child survivors. 

“The loneliness that Peter lived with; the fear for her father that Marie lived with, the various losses that Eva kept having. And despite that, all three of them are people who have made interesting lives for themselves, are not bogged down with endless depression as some people who have lived through these things are.”

Submit your Oscars Ballot – Win prizes!

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And the nominees are…


American Sniper
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything


Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Richard Linklater, Boyhood
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
Morten Tyldum, The Imitation Game


Steve Carell, Foxcatcher
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
Michael Keaton, Birdman
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything


Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
Julianna Moore, Still Alice
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon, Wild


Robert Duvall, The Judge
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
Edward Norton, Birdman
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash


Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Laura Dern, Wild
Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
Emma Stone, Birman
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods


Big Hero 6, Don Hall, Chris Williams and Roy Conli
The Boxtrolls, Anthony Stacchi, Graham Annable and Travis Knight
How to Train Your Dragon 2, Dean DeBlois and Bonnie Arnold
Song of the Sea, Tomm Moore and Paul Young
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, Isao Takahata and Yoshiaki Nishimura


American Sniper, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach
Boyhood, Sandra Adair
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Barney Pilling
The Imitation Game, William Goldenberg
Whiplash, Tom Cross


Birdman, Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Robert Yeoman
Ida, Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski
Mr. Turner, Dick Pope
Unbroken, Roger Deakins


American Sniper, Written by Jason Hall
The Imitation Game, Written by Graham Moore
Inherent Vice, Written for the screen by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything, Screenplay by Anthony McCarten
Whiplash, Written by Damien Chazelle


Birdman, Written by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. & Armando Bo
Boyhood, Written by Richard Linklater
Foxcatcher, Written by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Screenplay by Wes Anderson; Story by Wes Anderson & Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler, Written by Dan Gilroy


“Everything Is Awesome,” The LEGO Movie
“Glory,” Selma
“Grateful,” Beyond the Lights
“I'm Not Gonna Miss You,” Glen Campbell … I'll Be Me
“Lost Stars,” Begin Again


The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Mr. Turner
The Theory of Everything


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Inherent Vice
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner

Ida, Belgium
Leviathan, Russia
Tangerines, Estonia
Timbuktu, Mauritania
Wild Tales, Argentina


Finding Vivian Maier
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth


Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
Our Curse
The Reaper (La Parka)
White Earth


Boogaloo and Graham
Butter Lamp (La Lampe au Beurre de Yak)
The Phone Call


The Bigger Picture
The Dam Keeper
Me and My Moulton
A Single Life


The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods
Mr. Turner


The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy


Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Hillel 818 starts anew following Federation-led transformation

On Sept. 3, 2014, Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, met with the board of Hillel 818 at the home of a Hillel board member and gave an ultimatum:

Fire yourselves and allow Federation and Hillel International to help select new board members and a new director or Federation won’t fund Hillel 818 for the upcoming school year.

As Hillel 818’s largest single donor, Federation annually supplied about $215,000 of Hillel 818’s nearly $300,000 budget, according to Tal Gozani, senior vice president for young adult engagement at Federation. To lose that would be financially crippling for a Hillel that serves Jewish students at CSUN, Pierce College and Valley College — a four-year university and two two-year community colleges, with an estimated combined population of 8,000 Jewish students.

One month earlier, on July 31, Hillel 818’s director Judy Alban had resigned only a few months after being promoted by her board from the post of interim director. She left when she learned the reason Federation wasn’t approving any of her grant requests was because Federation officials disapproved of her promotion and had decided they wouldn’t give Hillel 818 any more money until she departed.

Faced with the prospect of Hillel 818 losing its biggest donor just before the start of a new school year, Alban resigned, and, despite the hesitation of some board members to go along with Federation’s plan, the board agreed to dissolve in September, with Federation allowing only a few members to join the new board. 

Among those who remained on the board after the turnover is Jody Myers, a Jewish studies professor at CSUN and coordinator of the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program. She confirmed in a phone interview what Alban told the Journal via email, that Hillel 818’s transformation — which began with Alban’s resignation and reached another milestone last week with the hiring of a new director — was orchestrated by Federation and assisted by Hillel International. 

Myers said she saw no good reason for Federation to force out Alban, who she said collaborated well with key groups at CSUN, including the university’s administration, the Associated Students group (which controls much of CSUN’s funding for student groups), and Chabad. “She was honest, hardworking, and liked and respected by students,” Myers said. “She raised funds; she sought advice from experts. There was no misbehavior. There were no mismanaged funds. There was no crisis.”

But Sanderson said in an interview on Jan. 22 that Hillel 818 was mismanaged, couldn’t support itself financially and was not serving nearly enough of the approximately 8,000 Jews from the combined colleges in the Valley.

“For many, many, many years, those students did not get adequate support,” Sanderson said. “There’s not one person who can tell you that that was an effectively run Hillel.”

Hillel 818’s annual budget has been about $300,000, according to Rabbi David Komerofsky, who served as Hillel 818’s interim director during the six-month transition. He believes it should be three times as much.

The bottom line from Sanderson and Federation was, according to Myers, that “the board was told ‘you need to fire yourselves.’ And so we did. We didn’t have a choice.”

Myers said Sanderson warned at the Sept. 3 meeting that Federation would establish its own alternative leadership if Hillel 818’s board didn’t disband.

“[We were told] by Jay Sanderson that Hillel 818 will be shown more generosity by Federation in the future if you do this,” Myers said. But even after the summer turnover, Hillel didn’t receive any money from Federation until December, when it got $60,000, and then another $60,000 in January, in addition to the $30,000 that Federation paid Hillel International for Komerofsky’s services and travel expenses. Hillel 818 had to run only on whatever was already available in the meantime. “We had money left over, because Judy Alban actually raised some money and ran a very tight ship,” Myers said.

Komerofsky, who lives in San Antonio and is Hillel International’s associate vice president for advancement, has traveled to Los Angeles about once every two weeks since September. On Jan. 22 Hillel 818 announced David Katz as the new executive director. Katz is finishing his tenure as the assistant director of the University of Pittsburgh Hillel. Komerofsky will continue in a part-time role until Katz arrives in April.

“This past semester has been difficult without a permanent on-site executive director; there wasn’t the kind of stability for success,” Komerofsky said. “There were events and activities, but they were not reaching enough people.”

According to students who work at Hillel 818, since the beginning of the spring semester at CSUN, attendance already has markedly increased, with at least 30 students attending most events, significantly more than the average attendance at fall semester events, perhaps a promising sign of things to come.

Emma Collosi, a CSUN senior and a student representative on Hillel 818’s board, said she was surprised when she was informed last summer of Alban’s departure, but believes Federation’s involvement will ultimately help the organization. “I feel like we’re bouncing back from the loss of Judy, and we’re coming back stronger.”

But for the first half of the school year, the story was different. Hillel 818 was staffed only by an Israel fellow, a few interns and 23-year-old program director Kevin Gobuty, who had come to Hillel 818 in January 2014 and was thrust into the position of de facto day-to-day director after only a few months on the job. Gobuty declined to comment for this story.

He resigned on Jan. 21, the day before Katz was introduced as the organization’s new executive director. Katz previously served as assistant director at the University of Pittsburgh’s Hillel, where he also worked with Jewish students at two other universities in Pittsburgh, a similar dynamic to what he’ll face in trying to engage Jewish students from the affiliated commuter schools across the San Fernando Valley.

Rob Goldberg, Hillel International’s vice president, said that Hillel International had worked “hand in glove” with the L.A. Federation since early 2013 in planning the transformation of Hillel 818. “It’s been an extraordinary model of cooperation between Federation and Hillel in terms of how we strengthen Jewish life on campus,” Goldberg said in a phone interview.

Although Hillel International has helped transform other campus Hillels, including those at Cornell, Pennsylvania State and Tulane universities, Goldberg said that in-depth cooperation with a local Jewish Federation is less common.

“This one at 818 went faster than almost any that I’ve seen or been a part of,” Goldberg said. “I think it’s because of the model. Jay [Sanderson] and [Hillel International CEO] Eric [Fingerhut] were in sync.”

In the last semester, though, without a director and with acting staff, Hillel 818’s programming at CSUN was far below normal levels. 

“The whole leadership change, in general, put a lot of stress on the staff, and it wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been,” said Zohar Achiasaf, a sophomore and an intern at Hillel 818. She said that, over the last several months, Federation has worked on-site at CSUN through Megan Kanofsky, Federation's campus activities coordinator. Kanofsky attended many events and helped by collaborating with students and staff.

Myers characterized the previous semester as a “crisis” created by the leadership gap that Federation imposed on Hillel 818.

“All sorts of things have not been happening, even though we get Federation help and Hillel International help,” Myers said, listing a number of items that had fallen through in the fall semester. There was supposed to be a Birthright trip in January, but that didn’t happen; Shabbat dinners were less frequent than normal; the website and server were down for weeks at a time; and the Facebook page was rarely updated.

Goldberg said that Hillels in transition often experience a temporary slowdown in terms of programming, but that he prefers to take the “long view.”

“The long view is let’s strengthen the infrastructure, let’s get the right personnel, let’s make sure there’s financial stability, let’s put together a group of volunteer leaders to serve as a board who will help advance the organization,” he said. “The program will follow. It all really rests on having a great director.”

Sanderson said he took what he called an uncharacteristic “personal interest” in overseeing the changes at Hillel 818, discussing with Hillel International’s Fingerhut throughout the process how to move forward. He said, however, that “the board of directors at Hillel 818 chose to reconstitute itself and recognized that they did not have appropriate professional leadership.” 

“I feel like the leadership needed to come from the top,” Sanderson said of his involvement.

Sanderson said Hillel 818’s previous leadership “did not understand the needs” of its students. He did not explicitly name Alban, but rather cited “personnel doing the job” as not succeeding in reaching Jewish students at three commuter schools. Alban said she did not recall ever speaking with or meeting Sanderson.

“We have partnerships with organizations, and we’re responsible for donor money, and we’re responsible for the community,” Sanderson said. “So we don’t invest in places where we question how the organization is being run.”

“Hillel 818 has been underfunded,” Komerofsky said. “It’s kind of a cycle that you can’t reach enough students because there’s not enough money to hire the staff to be able to reach them, and then, conversely, there’s not that compelling story to talk about how you’re able to reach so many students — that raises more dollars.”

“We’re trying to get Hillel 818 off of that treadmill.”

Myers said some of Hillel 818’s troubles in raising enough money to support a larger program stem from the fact that CSUN is a commuter school, and the majority of its students do not come from wealthy families.

“People give to the Hillels where their kids are students,” she said. “Well, CSUN has a student population whose parents typically do not have those excess funds.” And with that handicap, she said, Federation’s policy of “not sufficiently” supporting “core” operating expenses, like salaries and overhead, only makes things harder.

The ideal, Myers said, would be for Hillel 818 to be able to raise more money from parents of current students and from alumni, but she said that, at least this year, that’s not a feasible way to raise the money it needs.

Sanderson said Hillel 818 should rely more on alumni and less on Federation, and he hopes that, in 20 years, the group will have developed the types of relationships it needs with alumni.

Myers, though, countered that building an alumni donor base is made difficult when there isn’t money to pay for employees whose primary job is to fundraise.

“Who’s going to pay for the fundraiser or for the person in the office to reach alumni? Who’s going to do that? That’s an operational expense,” Myers said. 

Until about four years ago, local Hillels were funded by the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct group that gave Hillels core, lump-sum donations — as opposed to grants for specific programs, in large part through Federation support. 

Between 2008 and 2010, every dollar of Federation’s $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC. That dissolution overlapped with a major transition in how Federation funds Jewish groups, a transition process completed by the beginning of the 2014-15 academic year that now requires groups to apply for grants for specific programs in line with Federation’s goals. 

Although the new grant policy creates a method for innovative and new programs to find capital, Myers said that it nevertheless makes it difficult to fund good programs that don’t need change, as well as to raise money for more staff that could, for example, focus on fundraising.

Myers emphasized that she looks forward to working with Katz, the new executive director, and to “seeing more generosity” from Federation, which she said Sanderson promised in September. 

Still, what she’s seen since summer 2014 concerns her: “Does the Federation know enough to engineer our specific campus programs? It’s the job of the new director and the Hillel 818 Board to do that, with the support of the community.”

And while she’s hopeful about Hillel 818’s potential for future growth, she regards this past fall semester as a sort of lost one, and one that didn’t serve the needs of Jewish students at Hillel 818’s three main campuses.

“I feel really badly for our students,” Myers said. “I think they deserve more.”


For the record: 

A previous version of this story implied that David Komerofsky's trips to L.A. ended upon the hiring of Hillel 818's new executive director, David Katz. Komerofsky will in fact be continuing in a part-time role as interim director until Katz begins in April.

-Hillel 818's significant increase in program attendance is since the beginning of spring semester in mid-January, not since the beginning of fall semester.

-Kevin Gobuty started at Hillel 818 in Jan. 2014, not Jan. 2013.

Saba Soomekh discusses the hybrid identity of Iranian Jews in L.A.

Saba Soomekh held up her book, “From the Shahs to Los Angeles: Three Generations of Iranian Jewish Women Between Religion and Culture,” revealing the image of a child bride on the cover. 

It was her then-10-year-old great-grandmother on her wedding day.

Speaking to a group of about 70 people on Dec. 2 at CSUN, Soomekh explained that she grew up listening to stories about life in Iran from her grandmother, and realized little was written about her homeland. So, inspired by the women in her life, she set out to fill the void.

Her book was the starting point for the recent lecture and discussion “From Babylon to Tehrangeles: A History of Iranian Jews in the Diaspora,” on the history of Iran and how L.A. became home to the largest community of Iranian Jews outside of Iran. The lecture hall was filled with students and interested community members — some even sat on the floor — for the hourlong program. 

“My inspiration was that nothing was written about these amazing women who were married at such a young age. In my community, these women are so strong and it was important to me to record their oral histories before they passed away,” said Soomekh, who teaches religious studies at CSUN and is a visiting professor of Iranian-Jewish history at UCLA. 

Born in Tehran, Soomekh left Iran with her family when she was 2 and grew up in Beverly Hills with her sister, actress Bahar Soomekh (“Saw III”). During the lecture, she used photos of her family to illustrate life in Iran, including the time between 1925 and 1979, when Jews enjoyed increased freedom after enduring segregation under Shia Islamic law. The Pahlavi dynasty emancipated the Jews during this time and made great strides in reducing the belief that Jews were najasat (ritually impure). 

The rush of immigrants to Los Angeles followed the revolution of 1979, which converted Iran into an Islamic Republic, and during the Iran-Iraq War that began in 1980. While the country was once home to about 80,000 Jews, that has dipped to closer to 15,000 today, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. (Other estimates put current figures even lower.)

Tens of thousands of Iranian Jews and their descendents have found a home in L.A. Many families, like Soomekh’s, set up residency in Beverly Hills and in 2007 elected Jimmy Delshad as the first Iranian-American mayor of Beverly Hills.

The cultural chasm between the Iranian identity of the women that came before her and her own dual identity growing up in Los Angeles is a topic Soomekh, 38, explored during the discussion at CSUN. This hybrid identity is a marriage of their global identities and the local culture of their adopted homeland, where they can develop their own Iranian-Jewish identity free of the traditional tendencies of modern Iran. 

Soomekh says Iranian Jews are grateful to have found a welcoming home here. However, that wasn’t always the case. The 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, during which American diplomats were held captive for more than a year, led America to cut political ties with Iran. Consequently, the negative connotation of the term “Iranian” led some to distance themselves from any backlash by reclaiming their “Persian” connection.

“The community prioritizes the Jewish identity and keeping the Persian-Jewish culture,” Soomekh said. 

Soomekh talked about the “suitcase mentality,” where Iranians left Iran with the assumption they would one day return. 

“There’s a longing for that homeland that is gone,” she explained. “Their spiritual home [now] is Israel. Israel and America are No. 1 in their hearts. The Iran that they’re nostalgic for, the Iran of their youth, no longer exists.”

While her great-grandmother and grandmother were both child brides and thus products of a much different time, Soomekh’s mother, who grew up during the time the shah made it illegal for anyone younger than 16 to wed, married at 23 and attended Tehran University.

Soomekh herself has traveled the world and lived in Israel. She has a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from UC Berkeley, a master’s from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in religious studies from UC Santa Barbara.

She admits there are certain gender norms that haven’t evolved with the times despite a greater sense of egalitarianism cultivated in America. 

“When my sister and I went away to college, everyone asked my mom, ‘What did you do to them to make them want to leave?’ ” 

When Soomekh mentioned this, the room collectively laughed and nodded in agreement, which led her to joke: “Our families don’t know the meaning of the word ‘boundaries.’ 

“The modern Jewish woman is highly educated, with many going on to be doctors and lawyers,” Soomekh added during a phone conversation following the lecture. “The younger generations of women are traveling on their own instead of waiting to get married, but there is still the pressure to get married.” 

She said that Shabbat is a great opportunity to maintain intergenerational relationships and for youths to learn about Iranian-Jewish culture. 

“My parents don’t talk about what Iran was like. My dad is more Americanized while my mom is more of a traditional Persian,” said student Nina Dallal, 22. “I related to the idea of double identity [Soomekh] mentioned. I tell my parents it’s OK to go away to college.” 

The “Persian-Jewish-American identity” may be a struggle for the younger generations who don’t have a full grasp of the nuances of each individual culture, but to Soomekh, that is all the greater reason to make an effort to learn. 

“We take for granted what our parents dealt with as immigrants. They left everything behind to start all over again,” she said. “Our grandparents and great-grandparents struggled to keep their Jewish identity. If we don’t learn from them, then it will dissipate.”

Pro-Israel campus groups actively stand up for Israel

From last year’s boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association to protests at campuses across the country, it’s apparent that colleges are not the friendliest places for pro-Israeli students and advocates these days. 

Even before this summer’s violence erupted between Israel and Hamas, people scribbled hateful messages about the Jewish state last school year at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), according to senior Alex Beyzer. There’s also an active anti-Israel website run by a CSUN math professor, and efforts have been made to bring the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement to campus. 

But these incidents and demonstrations of prejudice didn’t stop Beyzer from standing up for the country he loves. 

“A lot of people simply don’t know what’s going on outside of their little bubble in their college lives,” he said. “They’re very vulnerable to hearing some kind of outrageous claim that would spark biased emotions toward Israel. It’s important to be proactive and show that we’re a friendly, united group of people who are only trying to promote peace.”

Beyzer is the leader of Matadors for Israel, CSUN’s pro-Israel group that has six dedicated members. The students partner with StandWithUs, an Israel advocacy group, as well as Hillel and Chabad. They host movie screenings, put together seminars on the history of Israel and current events happening in the Middle East, and hold their own Yom HaAtzmaut celebration, where they give out free falafel and demonstrate their support for Israel. 

“Given what’s going on in the world with the anti-Israel bias and what’s going on in Europe, which is reminiscent of what was happening pre-Holocaust, it’s very important for us to be active, spread the word, and inform the public that Israel is not the evil state that people make it out to be,” Beyzer said.

In Westwood at UCLA, pro-Israel students can join Bruins for Israel, which is run by senior Eytan Davidovits and has around 300 members. Last school year, he and his group organized a West Coast Students Conference that brought together the boards of different pro-Israel student groups from college campuses throughout the state. They hope to make it an annual event, he said. 

UCLA has been a hotbed of controversy in recent months when it comes to Israel. In the spring, Students for Justice in Palestine was among the groups on campus that asked those running for student government to pledge not to go on trips to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Hasbara Fellowships. Ultimately, 18 of 30 candidates signed the pledge.

“There are so many groups focused on spreading Israel hatred that it’s important that there is a group to counter it,” Davidovits said. “We got signatures to say that the ethics pledge should not be tolerated.”

In February, UCLA’s student government also held a contentious, all-night debate on a divestment resolution, which ultimately failed. Davidovits expects that there might be even more issues this year because of the fighting between Israel and Hamas. 

“I think tensions are going to be heightened,” Davidovits said. “The campus climate after the divestment resolution last year was extremely hostile, and now I think it’s going to be even worse. I think they will desperately try to bring it in a much harsher form much sooner. We are preparing for that.”

Unlike its peers at UCLA and CSUN, USC’s pro-Israel group Trojans for Israel (TFI) hasn’t had such problems with pro-Palestinian organizations, according to president Judah Joseph, whose primary goals this school year include informing students about what’s happening in the Middle East. 

“I’m confident in TFI’s efforts on campus, because I believe campus leaders want to understand this conflict more fully. News coverage may have piqued their interest, and TFI aims to quench their thirst for knowledge,” Joseph said.

TFI partners with other student clubs on campus, and every semester it holds leadership dinners, where attendees can listen to speakers talk about the relationship between Israel and the United States and current events. 

Joseph said it’s crucial that his organization exists “in order to educate campus leaders and to encourage them to think critically. The USC campus leaders of today will become the CEOs, politicians and influential Americans of tomorrow. As such, it’s imperative that we help them to understand the issues facing Israel.”

Lizzie Stein, an Occidental College student, was inspired to support the Holy Land after visiting. 

“I went to Israel and studied abroad for a semester,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with the country. I felt this was a home for me. I felt very attached to Israel, and I knew I wanted to get involved with Israel advocacy on campus.”

When she came back, she joined J Street U Occidental, a chapter of the liberal advocacy group that supports a two-state solution. This year, she is president of the club, which brings speakers to campus to discuss global politics and shows movies. Last fall, they created a campaign where students designed postcards saying they were in favor of a two-state solution. Afterward, the postcards were mailed to the local congressional office. 

Overall, Stein said, there hasn’t been any discrimination against J Street U Occidental. On campus, “There was one incident of a swastika being drawn on a whiteboard. That was taken care of quickly by the administration.” 

She said, however, that she has brought students together and “been able to have conversations and avoid the anti-Semitism.”

Stein said she was surprised to return to school recently and attend a Hillel dinner where the war in Gaza went unmentioned. 

“Over the summer, people were hearing a lot more about Israel and the conflict. There was not one mention of what happened [this summer] at [the] Hillel dinner, though.” 

Although the fighting has died down, Stein said that as the head of the club, she still has the desire to talk about it on campus and keep the conversation alive. Like her fellow pro-Israel leaders at the other schools, she wants her peers to be educated about current events in Israel. 

“People are going back to the status quo of not talking about it,” she said. “What happened in Gaza over the summer demonstrates an urgency. That old status quo is not sustainable, and we need to change course.”

Studying abroad in Israel: Safe and life-changing

When Ariel Brotman studied abroad in Israel two years ago, her most memorable lessons didn’t take place in the classroom.  

Brotman, who graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, this spring, attended Hebrew University of Jerusalem from September 2012 to January 2013. During that time, she befriended locals, improved her knowledge of Hebrew and developed a fascination with Israeli politics, ultimately adding Middle Eastern Studies as a second major. 

But Brotman’s time in the country also coincided with Operation Pillar of Defense and warnings of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip. During the first siren warning, she said, Israelis told her there was no time to run to a shelter, and she ended up hiding in a stairwell. The second time, she was in a library, having just left a class called “Trauma and Resilience.”

“It was ironic that just as I’d gotten out of that class, the siren goes off,” she said. 

The experience was traumatizing, she said, but ultimately helped solidify her commitment to Israel. An aspiring lawyer, Brotman hopes to pursue a law career that in some way relates to Israel.

“Being abroad just made me want to send a pro-Israel message,” she said. 

Brotman is one of several students at California universities to travel to Israel in recent years. Following a U.S. Department of State warning in 2002, the year of the Second Intifada, the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems put their Israel study abroad programs on hiatus. UC reinstated its program in 2009, and CSU followed suit in 2012. 

CSU’s program places students for an entire school year at the University of Haifa International School, which offers courses in subjects from history to economics. Students are required to take an intensive language course in Hebrew or Arabic and continue foreign language studies throughout the year.

Mike Uhlenkamp, CSU’s director of public affairs, said four students will study in Israel this fall, starting Aug. 31. There haven’t been any enrollment changes in response to the recent Gaza war, he said, adding that the Israel programs have historically been very small compared to programs in other countries. 

Uhlenkamp said student safety is always a priority for the administration. CSU officials work closely with local law enforcement in Israel to make sure students are never in danger.  

He described studying abroad as an opportunity for students to participate in all aspects of Israeli life and immerse themselves in the local culture. 

“It’s not something you can really replicate,” Uhlenkamp said.  

The UC system’s study abroad program in Israel has been in place since 1962, said Briana Sapp, deputy to the associate vice provost and executive director of the UC Education Abroad Program. 

The partnership with Hebrew University began in 1968, and under the leadership of the UC system’s former president, Mark Yudof, the program was expanded to include a partnership with Ben-Gurion University last year. The Ben-Gurion option was added, in part, to try to encourage more students to join the Israel program, but Sapp said the change didn’t really make a difference. The UC system is also currently exploring the possibility of sending engineering students to Technion, the Haifa-based Israel Institute of Technology.

About 10 to 20 students sign up for the Israel program each year, Sapp said. She attributes the relatively small numbers of participants to the fact that students generally want to study in places like Europe. She said this year’s Israel program enrollment has not changed in response to the Gaza war.

“I think people go for lots of different reasons — personal, cultural, historical,” she said. 

The UC system provides comprehensive insurance through ACE USA that covers travel, health and other expenses, Sapp said, and communicates any warnings from the State Department or insurance company to students. 

For Brotman, studying abroad in Israel was a defining period in her life, and she says she would “100 percent” repeat the experience.  

“Studying abroad really changed me so much, affected me so much,” she said. “You really feel a part of it.”

What she remembers most about Israel is the hospitality its citizens showed to her. She describes Israel as a place where you can walk up to a stranger at the bus stop and ask for directions, and that person will take the time to help you reach your destination. 

“People you barely meet want you to stay at their house and have Shabbat with their family,” she said.

CSUN Hillel became temporary classroom following Northridge earthquake

In the months after the Northridge earthquake, the Hillel House at California State University, Northridge (CSUN) became a makeshift classroom facility for hundreds of students as many university buildings had been damaged.

“It was an unusual experience for us,” said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, the CSUN Hillel director at the time. “Jewish students knew where Hillel was, but to have hundreds of students coming every day for their classes — anthropology, English, history, lecture classes — it was quite an experience for us to be hosting that.”

Goldstein recalled how, in order to reach the Hillel building, which had minor damage, students would walk past a new $11 million parking complex a few yards away that had collapsed during the tremors.

“I think all of us had a sense of wonder,” Goldstein, now 77, said. “Had it been a few hours later, that parking structure would have been filling with cars and students. That would have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.”

According to Goldstein, currently the secretary of the Sandra Caplan Community Beit Din of Southern California, the university’s Jewish student population had numbered about 4,000, with an average of 40 to 60 students at Shabbat dinner and services.

“It was really regarded with great pride by the students and by me to be of great service to the university community,” Goldstein said. “It symbolized the strength of Jewish survival that the Hillel house stood and could offer hospitality to anybody who needed help.”

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life

Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Two academicians challenge anti-Israel professor from CSUN

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin stood before the board of trustees, the highest governing authority of the 23-campus California State University (CSU) system, and in her allotted two minutes stated her case against a professor who levels consistently hostile charges against Israel on his university Web site. 

Standing behind the 25 trustees on Sept. 25 in Long Beach were the legal, academic and administrative resources of the largest four-year college system in the United States. Rossman-Benjamin, a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, was backed only by Leila Beckwith, a professor emerita and child psychologist at UCLA.

The two women pretty much represent the total leadership and staff of the Amcha Initiative (AI), whose purpose, according to its Web site, lies in “investigating, documenting, educating about and combatting anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America.” They founded the organization in 2011 and qualified it as a nonprofit the following year.

If the odds — and resources — hardly favor the two academicians, they make up for it in passion, persistence and hard work. As a result they have forced CSU to fight a lengthy defensive battle against AI’s charges.

The trigger for these confrontations is David Klein, a mathematics professor at the CSU Northridge campus (CSUN), as well as publisher of the “Boycott Israel Resource Page” on the university Web server. Besides linking boycott enthusiasts of all stripes, Klein’s Web site labels Israel “the most racist state in the world at this time,” and accuses the “apartheid state” of ethnic cleansing and mass murder.

Underlying much of the emotions, arguments and lengthy briefs is a question that has challenged legal scholars, pundits and Jewish defense organizations for years: When are attacks on Israeli policies and actions legitimate expressions of constitutional and academic free speech, and when do they serve as cover for outright anti-Semitism?

“I have been wrestling with such questions for 35 years in Jewish life,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). “Not every criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but that doesn’t mean that none is.”

When Klein calls Israel the world’s most racist state, that is so obviously untrue as to smack of anti-Semitism, Stern said.

The seeds of AI — not related to the Israeli organization that aids Holocaust survivors, Amcha (Hebrew for “Your People”) — sprouted when Beckwith spent a sabbatical year on the Santa Cruz campus and met Benjamin. Both felt that university administrators, the federal government and the Jewish community at-large were ignoring the spread of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel agitation on California university campuses, and they decided to do something about it.

“I lived through [the era of] World War II and the birth of Israel, and I am not going to let the Jewish state be demonized and delegitimized,” Beckwith said. “I knew it was only a step from condemning Israel to condemning Jews.” 

Rossman-Benjamin, the mother of two college-age children, noted, “As a teacher of Hebrew, I’ve had students come to me crying about being harassed or that one of their professors was an Israel-basher. This is scary stuff, and nobody bats an eye about it.”

Initially, AI took on UC’s then-President Mark Yudof, who is Jewish, charging that his and various campus administrations failed to act against harassment of Jewish student and anti-Semitic incidents.

For the past two years, AI’s main focus has been on Klein, who through his Web site and capacity as adviser to two student groups has become the chief campus advocate of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Amid a steady exchange of letters, memos and legal opinions, AI has accused CSU of allowing Klein to violate various sections of the California Education Code by misusing the university’s server to promote boycotts, while also endorsing the candidacy of a pro-boycott congressional candidate running against the “extreme Zionists” Brad Sherman and Howard Berman last year.

Over the course of the last two years, AI’s appeals have been consistently denied by authorities, starting with California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, whose staff determined that Klein had not misused CSUN’s name and resources. Last month, on Sept. 23, CSU’s interim general counsel, G. Andrew Jones, wrote Rossman-Benjamin that, while both he and CSUN President Dianne Harrison disagreed with Klein’s views, the contents of his Web site do not violate California law and count as “constitutionally protected speech.”

Jones told the Journal that Klein’s Web site did not imply that CSU endorsed his pronouncements and that substantial private misuse of state resources, which is illegal, is hard to pin down.

“If you are a state worker and use the phone to call your mother, is that misuse of state resources?” Jones asked rhetorically.

In his e-mail to AI, Jones also mentioned, “We have consulted with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which agreed that [Klein’s] Web site’s contents were not anti-Semitic.” Later, he clarified that “although the university based its conclusion on the ADL briefing, the ADL did not issue an official opinion regarding Professor Klein’s statements.”

Those quotes connect indirectly to Rossman-Benjamin’s complaint that while she has received some backing from the Zionist Organization of America and the pro-Israel group StandWithUs, most mainstream Jewish organizations had not given any support to her efforts.

Amanda Susskind, director of ADL’s Pacific Southwest Region, said the meeting between local ADL lay and professional leaders and their counterparts at CSUN did not focus on the Klein case but was rather a general courtesy briefing for incoming president Harrison on ADL’s concerns and services on college campuses. 

“Certainly, if there are any incidents on campus, whether labeled anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, ADL will jump in,” she said in a phone interview.

For his part, Jones said he understood that part of the meeting was set aside to focus on the Klein case. Neither Susskind nor Jones was present at the meeting.

The Journal attempted to speak to Klein, but as on a previous occasion, he hung up the phone when the reporter identified himself. 

Klein’s own religious leanings are uncertain. According to a 2011 interview in the Los Angeles Daily News, “The 23-year CSUN professor declined to discuss his own religious background.”

Jody Myers, coordinator of CSUN’s Jewish studies interdisciplinary program, counseled against making too much of Klein’s influence. 

“He has a certain following among the faculty, not much among students, but I’m sure he loves all the attention,” she said.

“Jewish life on campus is very good,” Myers added, noting that much more worrisome than any “Boycott Israel” activity was the cutback in community funding for the local Hillel, which has deeply cut into its outreach to Jewish students.

Like all public and private institutions, CSU would rather do without persistent critics, and some established Jewish defense organizations might feel that dealing with campus anti-Semitism is a job for professionals. On balance, however, what Beckwith and Rossman-Benjamin have accomplished is pretty impressive.

Working without any staff, they conduct their campaigns almost entirely via e-mail. They put the number of supporters — people who have contacted them, signed the AI petitions and sent money — at 5,000, and they have received donations of between $150,000 and $200,000 during the last year. 

Despite any legal setback, they even hope to expand their operations from California to the rest of the country.

As the AJC’s Stern noted, “These two ladies are not a bad thing — certainly better than total apathy.”

Independence for teens with special needs

Most freshmen feel overwhelmed during their first year at college. But for Sarah Selinger, a 19-year-old woman from West Los Angeles, her first semester at California State University, Northridge (CSUN), was almost unbearable.

“In the beginning of the school year, I didn’t know how to get from the classroom to the dorm without panicking,” she said.

A graduate of Summit View School, a Help Group K-12 school for students with learning differences, Selinger faced other challenges at CSUN, including learning her way around campus, adjusting to larger classes and following the fast-moving subject matter. 

For support, Selinger and her parents turned to Advance LA. Organized by The Help Group, a local nonprofit that offers programs for children and young adults with special needs, Advance LA provided Selinger with coaching that helped her find her way to class as well as improve her social life and her GPA.

“[We noticed that] a lot of students who graduated and were going to college needed continued support to succeed,” Help Group COO Susan Berman said.

Berman says that Advance LA, which provides workshops, social clubs, coaching and transition services to teens and young adults with special needs, has grown to serve a few hundred clients since its launch a year and a half ago, and she expects that the program will serve a thousand in just a few years. Berman says some students need tutoring while others need help with time management and organization, independent living skills or learning how to advocate for themselves. 

On May 11, Advance LA is hosting “Prep.Launch.Elevate: Supporting Teens and Young Adults in Their Transition to Independence” at American Jewish University (AJU), its first conference on preparing teens and young adults with special needs for life after high school. The daylong conference is aimed at parents, educators, clinicians, researchers and students, with continuing education credits available for professionals.

“Prep.Launch.Elevate” will feature workshops and speakers, including Peter Gerhardt, chairman of the Scientific Council for the Organization of Autism Research; Richard Guare, director of the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, N.H., and co-author of “Smart but Scattered”; Elizabeth Laugeson, director of The Help Group-UCLA Neuropsychology Program; and Dr. Lou Vismara, board chair of the UC Davis MIND Institute.

In addition to the conference, Advance LA is planning a one-week Summer College Institute in August at AJU to help prepare teens and young adults with special needs for college and the workplace.

Although Selinger receives accommodations from CSUN, like a dedicated note taker in some classes and extra time for tests, she says her classes are still challenging. She credits Advance LA’s coaching with helping her to advocate for herself and talk to her professors about her disabilities, which include seizures and ADD. 

“I do not believe she would still be in school if not for Advance LA,” said Henry Selinger, her father. “It was just a lifesaver for us. She’s grown and grown from getting 20 to 25 hours a week [of coaching] down to four to five hours a week.”

He added proudly, “She’s getting really good grades — a lot of A’s, and passing a tough math class.” 

For more information, visit

An evening with professor Ilan Pappe and others like him

On the surface, the anti-Israel lecture that CSUN sponsored on President’s Day was fairly typical of other, similar events that are becoming more common on American campuses.  Always delighted to showcase anti-Israel Jews, especially if they are Israeli, the sponsoring groups brought academic Ilan Pappe.  He didn’t disappoint.  His gently delivered, slick screed was filled with what scholars in his field have denounced as his systematic factual errors, falsification of evidence, and fabrication of quotes.  He stripped away the history of Arab and Palestinian wars, terrorism, and rejection of Israel’s right to exist in order to malign Israeli self-defense as motivated by aggressive, expansionist ambitions.  He discounted Jewish historical ties to Israel and debunked any two state solution as unjust to Palestinians. He demonized Israel to justify his call for a one state solution—the dismantling of Israel.

The audience, too, was fairly typical of these anti-Israel events.  About 300 attended, largely older community members and about 75 students.  Some of the older attendees were passionately anti-Israel, and clapped loudly when Pappe made particularly damning statements or put down questioners who, given the rules of Q and A, could not follow up on Pappe’s “questionable” answers. The sponsoring groups were also fairly typical: the Students for Justice in Palestine [SJP] and the Muslim Student Association [MSA] who have made delegitimizing Israel their primary goal.  The format was also typical. Though Pappe’s views are known to be extremely controversial and his scholarship has been questioned and severely criticized,  CSUN administrators did not ask that the format be a debate with another scholar directly responding to Pappe.  Instead, Pappe had the stage.  The audience would not be educated by the event, but rather indoctrinated.

Despite these typical features, the event was different in disturbing ways.

The anti-Israel discourse is becoming increasingly extreme. Anti-Israel agitation on American campuses began to soar when the Palestinian terrorist campaign was unleashed in September, 2000.  But there were certain red lines.  In the early 2000’s, speakers who called for a one state solution that is, destroying Israel, were marginalized, dismissed as fanatics or irresponsible extremists.  Not anymore.  Those red lines have been crossed.  Speakers like Ilan Pappe raise the one state solution, not as a possible alternative for resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but as a cause for which they are fighting.  Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government is even hosting a conference on the “One State Solution” in early March.  The organizers’ website underscored that the conference crossed a red line: “To date, the only Israel/Palestine solution that has received a fair rehearsal in mainstream forums has been the two-state solution. Our conference will help to expand the range of academic debate on this issue.”

Make no mistake. Advocates don’t recommend a one state solution because they believe it would benefit Jewish Israelis as well as Palestinians or because they believe it is a more feasible alternative.  They call for one state to punish Israel and any Jews who believe the Jewish people have a right to self-determination.  Ironically and tragically,  Israel’s effort to reach peace through a two state paradigm has backfired and turned into questions, not about the legitimacy of creating a Palestinian state, but rather about the legitimacy of the existence of the Jewish state.  We appear to be back in the trenches of 1947-48. The CSUN event indicated that radical opponents of the 64-year-old state’s existence are trying to mainstream their views.

The venue for the Pappe event was also disturbing.  CSUN has a large Jewish student population and has been relatively apolitical on the Israel issue.  This event may mark a turning point for CSUN, and suggests that many formerly quiet campuses may also begin to experience anti-Israel agitation, as Penn did when a new student organization formed last fall largely in order to host a highly controversial national BDS conference this past January.  Another difference between this event and former anti-Israel events is that SJP and the MSA recruited some unlikely student organizations as co-sponsors.  The CSUN Greens and the South Asia Club got on board as did another unlikely group, the CSUN Communications Association.  As one student observed, it was entirely unclear why the Communications Association would get involved.  But it is clear that the anti-Israel groups are working hard to form coalitions with organizations that have been indifferent to or neutral on the Palestinian-Israel conflict in the past.

It is noteworthy that the event occurred when there are no major dramas about the Israel-Palestinian issue on the front pages. In the past, demonstrations and lectures were held at the height of violent conflict, such as the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign, the second Lebanon War, Israel’s war against Hamas, and the Flotilla incident.  Today Syria’s brutal repression of protestors and Iran’s rush to build nuclear weapons have seized the headlines.  Yet, these pressing issues weren’t on the radar at the event, other than Pappe’s shocking remark that the world seems more upset about Iran’s nuclear ambitions than about Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal, as though democratic Israel resembles the fanatical leadership of Iran, the world’s main state sponsor of terrorism and the country that has vowed to destroy its neighbor, Israel.  The lesson is that anti-Israel activists aren’t waiting for high conflict events to spread their toxic message. 

In general, university administrations have publicly distanced themselves from anti-Israel events and agitation.  They have defended the sponsoring groups’ right to hold events or demonstrations filled with hate speech under the principles of free speech or academic freedom, but just as adamantly, many administrations made it clear that their universities did not endorse the content or agendas of the speeches.  CSUN did not make this distinction.  The flyer for the Pappe event read, “California State University, Northridge, Presents a Lecture by Ilan Pappe,” and the announcement was distributed by the University’s Office of Academic Affairs.  The current acting president of CSUN, Harold Hellenbrand, in fact signed a public letter last fall calling for CSUN not to reinstate its study abroad program in Israel.  The letter falsely accused Israel of murdering young Americans, discriminating against visitors to the country on the basis of race or religion, and of being an apartheid state.  Hellenbrand’s evident biases would likely make him unwilling to publicly distance the university from the extremist views expressed at this event.

A worrisome aspect of the CSUN administration’s reaction is that it helps the effort to make anti-Israel propaganda appear to be reasonable academic discourse.  The reaction also indicates that many universities will not enforce the standard that faculty and administrators not use the university or its resources to promote their personal political agendas.  CSUN’s Professor David Klein, a leader of the anti-Israel movement on campus, used the CSUN website and server to promote BDS (the boycott movement against Israel). His website link is filled with anti-Israel propaganda and blood libels.  When there was a public outcry, CSUN’s administration defended Klein, pleading academic freedom even though Klein’s field is mathematics which has nothing to do with Palestinians or Israel.

Penn Professor Amy Kaplan was caught on tape at Penn’s BDS conference advising faculty to surreptitiously inject anti-Israel themes into their classroom content to inspire students to support BDS.  When some people wrote the chair of Kaplan’s department to protest, they were told that Kaplan was protected by academic freedom—even though she had admitted she was using her classroom to promote her political agenda.  Academic freedom and free speech are bedrock values that should not be compromised, but it appears that universities will not try to enforce any distinction between professional and private views or try to prevent the abuse of their university’s names and resources, and their faculty positions, for political purposes.

Finally, the event was disturbing because it revealed that even when peers expose a colleague’s fabrications, distorted quotes and other violations of scholarly standards, the criticism doesn’t necessarily stick. It may even increase interest in people like Ilan Pappe.  This reaction may also undermine the scholarly standards of the relevant academic discipline.

A sizeable portion of the students and community members in the audience opposed Pappe’s views.  They respectfully asked hard questions. Given the format, they had to remain silent while Pappe answered or evaded their questions. Many of them are concerned that this event is the start of increasing anti-Israel activism at CSUN. One faculty member confided that he is especially concerned that such efforts will foster a hostile environment for Jewish students.  As often happens on campuses when anti-Israel activism erupts, previously apolitical CSUN students who support Israel are inspired to organize themselves and counter the propaganda.

Roberta Seid, PhD is the education director for StandWithUs, and Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs.

Why can’t California students go to Israel?

How do you nudge the largest four-year college system in the United States to change its mind and greenlight its students for study at Israeli universities?

Answer: It takes the combined voices of politicians, student activists, a raft of Jewish organizations, influential citizens, and Israeli diplomats and emissaries.

Take the California State University system (CSU or Cal State), with 23 campuses and 420,000 students, which shut down its Study Abroad program in Israel nine years ago, during the height of the Second Intifada.

CSU — not to be confused with the University of California system, with Berkeley and UCLA among its 10 campuses — based its 2002 decision on a U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel, which currently also targets such countries as Mexico, Kenya, Colombia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The warning about Israel is still in effect and urges U.S. citizens to “refrain from all travel” to Gaza and the West Bank, to “remain vigilant” while in Jerusalem and to exercise a “high degree of caution” at restaurants, nightclubs, places of worship and bus terminals throughout the country.

While the University of California, as well as the State University of New York, have reinstated their Israel programs, and most private universities, including the Ivy League institutions, pretty much ignored the government warnings all along, CSU has cautiously stuck to its ban.

Speaking for CSU, Leo Van Cleve, director of international programs in the office of Chancellor Charles B. Reed, cited his primary responsibility for “the safety and security of our students” as the chief reason for keeping the ban in force.

During the remainder of 2011, Van Cleve said, he will conduct a “risk assessment study,” consult with such Israeli institutions as the Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University, Ben-Gurion University and University of Haifa, and develop guidelines for a resumption of the program.

If all goes well, and the situation in Israel remains stable, Van Cleve is looking toward the first group of CSU students departing for studies in Israel in the fall of 2012.

Van Cleve said he has held numerous discussions with government officials, community supporters of Israel, Israeli diplomats, and CSU faculty and students, and that he is “always interested in what people have to say.”

Those who have been pressing for a favorable decision range from student advocates to legislators and Israel’s visiting deputy foreign minister, and they are confident the Israel study program will resume next year, having exerted respectful but persistent persuasion to hold the CSU administration to its announced plans.

The main players, working separately or in combination, include:

Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), consisting of 33 organizations ranging from Americans for Peace Now to the Zionist Organization of America, has been steadily urging American colleges to reactivate their study programs in Israel under the banner “Let Our Students Go.”

ICC executive director Stephen Kuperberg points out that CSU is not alone. “There are still quite a few institutions, such as the University of Michigan, reluctant to lift the ban as long as the State Department travel warning remains in effect.”

In encouraging American universities to resume or expand their study programs in Israel, Kuperberg sees ICC’s role mainly as “helpful collaborator.”

His associate Andrea Sorin noted, however, that to get the administration’s attention, any successful advocacy must start with sufficient interest among students.

Key players in such an effort are the Israeli shlichim (emissaries) assigned to Hillel chapters on some 30 campuses by the Jewish Agency for Israel.

One shaliach, Yohai Shavit, has been busy on the CSU “campaign” since last December, concentrating mainly on the students and faculty on the Cal State San Francisco campus.

The 26-year-old Shavit doesn’t buy the perception that today’s Jewish college students are less interested in Israel than those in years past.

“The real difference is that students today are interested in finding their own connections to Israel,” Shavit said. “In a sense, they are more individualistic and sophisticated in mapping their own paths, which reflects their more sophisticated relationship to life in general.”

A standard pitch doesn’t work anymore, Shavit observed. “We have to personalize our approach. Some students may respond for religious reasons, and for others the motivations may be political, a matter of personal identity or an urge to see things with their own eyes.”

About half of Shavit’s prospects have participated in the Birthright Israel experience and, in general, applicants are not deterred by fears of terrorist attacks or border fighting.

Alexander (Ally) Poret, an 18-year-old freshman at San Francisco State, said she is unconcerned about physical risks, and her parents in Tarzana are encouraging her plans.

However, she is still undecided whether to study in Israel, Germany or Spain and said her Judaism won’t play much of a role in her ultimate decision. More important is whether the chosen foreign university will have the courses to advance her future career in the hospitality and tourism industry.

While chancellors of public universities like CSU pay attention to student and faculty activism, they are particularly sensitive to the voices of state legislators, who control large chunks of annual budget allocations.

So when Daniel (Danny) Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, visited California recently, he made a point of explaining the importance of student exchanges in meetings with the leaders of the state Assembly, Speaker John A. Perez, and of the Senate, President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, as well as with Gov. Jerry Brown.

Perez, for one, phoned CSU Chancellor Reed to urge him to reinstate the Israel study program, and it probably didn’t hurt that Perez also serves as an ex-officio CSU trustee.

Israel’s two consuls general in California, Akiba Tor in San Francisco and Jacob Dayan in Los Angeles, also added their discreet but persistent voices.

Besides Perez and Steinberg, other legislators also made their case to CSU’s Reed, including Los Angeles assemblymen Michael Feuer and Bob Blumenfield, chair of the Assembly budget committee, whose district includes Cal State Northridge.

Blumenfield was perhaps the most ardent advocate, to the point that he jumped the gun, and the CSU timetable, by issuing a news release in April with the somewhat immodest headline “Blumenfield Gets CSU to Reinstate Israel Study Abroad Program.”

Jewish organizations mobilized their expertise for the cause, foremost the Jewish Public Affairs Committee, the political lobbying arm of the state’s Jewish federations, social service agencies and defense organizations.

Cliff Berg, JPAC’s legislative advocate, said that he and Caron Spector, the organization’s executive director, invested “a substantial amount of effort” in explaining to legislators that the security situation in Israel had greatly improved since the CSU ban went into effect.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles channeled its advocacy through its membership in JPAC, said Catherine Schneider, the Federation’s senior vice president for community engagement.

“This was a real team effort and showed what can be done when we all pull together,” she said.

Equally active in the JPAC effort was the San Francisco federation, represented by its Jewish Community Relations Council.

An additional ally was the national faculty organization, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, representing 60,000 academics on U.S. campuses, said executive director Samuel Edelman.

Given all the efforts, how many American college students actually study in Israel?

The most authoritative source is the Washington, D.C.-based Institute of International Education (IIE), whose latest figures, for the 2008/09 academic year lists the number as 1,958.

That represents a 15.7 percent drop from the previous year’s figure of 2,311, which, however, was the highest number recorded for the past decade.

When the figures are counted for the current academic year, they will include about a dozen U.S. students who left their studies in Cairo and transferred to Israeli institutions when anti-government protests erupted in Egypt.

Not surprisingly, in 2002-03, at the height of the Second Intifada, the U.S. student count in Israel dropped to 340, gradually rising over the following years.

But here’s where the number game, and the study abroad figures in general, become a bit tricky.

The IIE count includes every American student enrolled in an Israeli institution of higher learning for a year, semester, study tour or summer course, as long as his or her home college in the United States awards academic credits for the Israel study.

That leaves out many American students who study in Israel on their own and have to sacrifice automatic re-enrollment and recognition of academic credits, as well as substantial financial help by their home institutions.

No one appears to have a precise count for the number of independent students, frequently from universities like CSU that do not have a formal study abroad program in Israel.

Gil Artzyeli, Israel’s deputy consul general in Los Angeles, after informally checking with Israeli and American sources, believes that the number of uncounted students may be as high as 1,000 per year.

While IIE public affairs director Sharon Witherell acknowledged that her numbers were probably conservative, Artzyeli’s count, experts say, is probably on the high side.

Given the time and efforts by Israeli universities and representatives abroad, why is it so important to the Jewish state, with all its other problems and priorities, to attract students from the Diaspora, especially Americans?

There were many answers, frequently emphasizing the excellence of Israeli universities, but perhaps Shavit, the Israeli emissary in San Francisco, put his finger on the most crucial point.

“I consider the connection between Israel and the Diaspora as the state’s raison d’etre, and student exchanges play a key role weaving such ties,” he said.

“Israel represents the core element of Jewish identity,” he added, “and without Israel, the Jewish people cannot retain their sense of peoplehood.”

Unearthing China’s hidden Jewish past

When Shi Lei finished a presentation about China’s hidden Jewish past recently, his California State University, Northridge (CSUN), audience was full of questions.

They wanted to know more about the former synagogue in Shi’s hometown of Kaifeng and about his Jewish ancestors who settled there 1,000 years ago. One yenta, however, had more contemporary concerns on her mind:

“Is there a nice Jewish girl back in China for you to marry?”

Perhaps, but there can’t be too many, given that only about 500 people in Kaifeng, a city of more than 4 million in eastern China, identify themselves as Jews. How that came to be is a largely untold story that goes back centuries.

“I don’t think many people hear about Chinese Jews in Kaifeng,” Shi told the capacity crowd of about 100 on March 2. The tour guide, who has studied in Israel, visited the university as part of a cross-country speaking tour.

Originally, the Jewish merchants who were his ancestors came from Persia to China via the Silk Road. The first to settle was a group of about 1,000 that arrived in the late 10th or early 11th century. At the time, Kaifeng was China’s capital, and they were received by the emperor.

Shi said the emperor was pleased with their wares and happy to welcome them into his country. They were allowed to follow their own customs and even received citizenship. There was one problem, though.

“The emperor was confused about the names of these Jews. How to pronounce their names? No clue. What to do?” Shi said.

An easy solution, he said, was to give them the emperor’s own surname and those of his six ministers.

In 1163, the Jews bought property downtown and built their first synagogue, its size and location evidence of the merchants’ success. The structure, which no longer exists, mimicked the architecture of Asian temples.

Eventually, Shi explained, the Jewish community realized that the path to success in China was not through business but by civil service. In a way, this led to the community’s undoing.

“They [became] more and more involved in Chinese learning, but somehow at the expense of their Judaic studies,” Shi said.

Over time, they became ignorant of Jewish practices and began to intermarry. Their last rabbi died in 1810, and after rebuilding the synagogue numerous times over the years due to river floodings, they abandoned it in the 1850s.

“They forgot, in a word, all the Jewish practices,” Shi said.

They did not forget, however, their roots. The fact that they came from a Jewish background continued to be relayed from generation to generation as part of the culture’s stress on ancestor worship.

“These words — ‘You are Jewish. You are from Israel.’ — get passed down,” Shi said.

He speaks from experience. Always filled with a desire to go to Israel, the 33-year-old studied there for several years before returning to Kaifeng. Others have followed his example.

While Shi said that Israel does not consider the Jews of Kaifeng to be Jewish according to halachah, the community in China is in the process of revival. Individuals study Hebrew together, and even though there is no rabbi or synagogue, they celebrate major holidays and Shabbat in their own way.

Some physical reminders of the ancient community still exist. Inscribed stone monuments provide evidence of its history, not to mention Torahs and manuscripts housed around the world. (The Skirball Cultural Center offers occasional exhibitions on the Jews of Kaifeng and permits private group tours of related items from its collection.) Little remains in Kaifeng, however, where Shi has turned his grandparents’ house into a mini-museum dedicated to the city’s Jewish history.

He takes joy in talking about his past, like how the Jews of generations past circumvented a requirement to have a tablet in every house of worship praising the emperor by adding the word “shema” in golden Hebrew letters above the required inscription, indicating that God was above all else.

But he likes talking about the future, too.

“The community died,” he said. “Now it’s living again.”

Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, said she believes Shi’s presentation offers an important way to remind people that Jews can be found across the globe.

“It’s a way to really show that we are a diverse people and we’re very interesting,” she said.

Shi’s speaking tour was sponsored by Kulanu. The New York-based nonprofit, whose name means “all of us” in Hebrew, supports isolated and emerging Jewish communities around the world.

“Kulanu stands for the idea that the Jewish world is a diverse world, that not all Jews are white or American or Israeli, that there are Jews in places you never thought of,” said Harriet Bograd, the organization’s president. “We think that American Jews are enriched by a knowledge of that.”

CSUN exemplifies the changing face of ‘Jewish Studies’

Jewish studies programs at American colleges keep growing, but the enrollment curve of Jewish students in such programs remains largely flat or is drooping.

The explanation for this seeming paradox is that more and more non-Jews are signing up and, to continue this trend, universities must reach out to other ethnic and religious groups, professor Jody Myers said.

That’s exactly what’s happening at the California State University, Northridge, where Myers has coordinated the Jewish Studies Interdisciplinary Program for two decades. In any given year, non-Jews make up 50 percent to 70 percent of some 800 students in Jewish studies classes, Myers estimated, and she is bullish that the long-term trend will continue.

CSUN is the major college in the San Fernando Valley, but little is known of its Jewish component outside the area, to Myers’ quiet frustration. Most of the Jewish community’s attention, and philanthropic money, go to the higher-profile and better-publicized programs at UCLA and USC.

Leaving the academic aspect aside for a moment, if one marker of a university’s “Jewishness” is the number of Jewish students on campus, then CSUN can hold its own, with the size of its Jewish enrollment reflecting the growing Jewish population of Los Angeles’ one-time “bedroom community.”

The most recent data from campus Hillel centers indicate that UCLA still tops the list with some 4,500 Jewish students, representing about 12 percent of the total student body. (In the 1960s and ’70s, the proportion of Jewish students was estimated at 25 percent or higher)

CSUN and USC are next, both claiming about 3,300 Jewish students, with other strong concentrations at Pierce, Valley and Santa Monica community colleges. Most Jewish students at CSUN, like their classmates, are older than the national average, often attending part-time or seeking career changes. They tend to focus on practical subjects, such as business administration.

In Jewish studies classes, the ethnic and religious variety of the non-Jewish majority includes Christian Asians and Armenians who want to learn about the ancestral roots of their religion, African Americans probing problems of ethnic identity, spiritual seekers, explorers of mysticism whose interest has been sparked by Madonna and other kabbalah-quoting celebrities and many who are just plain curious why Jews and Israel are constantly in the news.

“We are an interesting people,” Myers observed.

Myers celebrated a landmark of sorts this year, when the three members of the first graduating class majoring in modern Jewish studies received their bachelor’s degrees. An option for a minor concentration in Jewish studies has been available since the beginning of the program in 1969 and graduated 15 seniors this year.

The menu of 24 courses in Jewish studies ranges from such staples as classes in “Introduction to Judaism,” “Elementary Hebrew and Conversation” and “The Bible” to the more exotic “Cultural Theories and Methodologies,” “Issues in Jewish-American Writing” and “Natural Environment and Judaism.” Looking at the breadth and depth of Jewish study offerings at CSUN, Myers asserts that “UCLA and USC [not to mention American Jewish University — formerly University of Judaism — and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion] aren’t the only game in town.”

That’s true, but the “game” has different goals. They reflect the different missions of California’s higher education systems, as well as certain distinctions dividing — like the Santa Monica Mountains — the Los Angeles basin from the San Fernando Valley.

CSUN does not have prestigious research centers like UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies or USC’s Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life, which draw distinguished scholars from around the world and stimulate classroom courses. By contrast, Myers said, “at CSUN we’re part of a campus whose mission is mainly to produce teachers and managers, not researchers.”

She sees the education of Jewish teachers as a top priority of her program, but also high on her list is raising the Jewish profile on an ethnically diverse commuter campus. To that end, Myers tries to organize public lectures that will be of interest to the general campus, such as one by a Jewish expert on bioethics in an era of new technology, and “What Kind of a Jew Was Jesus?”

At the same time, Myers is connecting with the outside general and Jewish communities in the Valley, which she describes as a “generally educated audience, with many intercultural interests.” She has launched a Jewish-themed film series and scheduled some public lectures at off-campus locations. Another important outreach is through the well-established course on “Service Learning in the Jewish Community,” a combined academic and job program, which places students with Jewish social agencies and synagogues.

Myers, a native of Minneapolis, studied at Brandeis University and received her doctorate at UCLA. In 1985, she joined the faculty at CSUN, where she also holds the title of professor of religious studies. She juggles these responsibilities with her other life as a wife and mother of three children, while also writing scholarly articles and books, most recently “Kabbalah and the Spiritual Quest: The Kabbalah Centre in America,” coming out this month.

She has now taken on the additional job of fundraiser, aiming for a $2.5 million endowment fund to take the Jewish studies program to the next level. At the top of her wish list is an endowed professorship in Modern Middle Eastern Jewish Studies, and expanded community service and public lecture programs. Guiding the effort will be a community advisory board chaired by Mark Lainer.

For more information, call Myers at (818) 677-3007 or visit, or contact Myers by e-mail ( or phone (818-677-3007).

A Major Reason to Study at CSUN

Jewish students who want to extend their college experience beyond Friday night dinners at Hillel and into the lecture hall are in luck at area universities this fall.

Two new entries for Jewish studies can be found at Cal State Northridge (CSUN) and UCLA. CSUN has introduced a major in the subject this fall, and at UCLA, the Center for Jewish Studies has launched a new program on Modern Jewish Culture.

CSUN’s major in Modern Jewish Studies in the College of Humanities will focus on the era beginning around the 17th century. The degree won’t require proficiency in ancient languages or classical texts, but will concentrate on history, sociology and culture — areas where the university already has strong faculty.

This focus allows students to examine when the Judaism of today began to evolve, as religious and cultural diversity began to take hold, said Jody Myers, coordinator of the Jewish Studies Program and a CSUN professor of religious studies.

Many non-Jewish students take the courses, but Myers sees a particular benefit for Jewish students. “It’s really important that we have Jewish studies at university,” she said. “It is different than what they get in religious school and synagogue, where the main criterion is to make you more Jewish or observant.”

The cross-disciplinary Jewish Studies Program at CSUN was established in 1969 and adding the Jewish studies major gives the department both more substance and significance in the academic and wider Jewish community. An estimated 3,500 to 4,000 of the 31,000 students at CSUN are Jewish. This semester about 400 students are enrolled in 14 Jewish studies classes, and a handful have designated Jewish studies as a major. The major also is being offered at California State universities at Chico, San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco, and students can take courses at any of the campuses.

Myers wants Northridge to be a serious option in the minds of Jewish parents who want a Jewish experience to be part of their children’s college experience.

“The larger Jewish community thinks of Jewish studies at universities and they think of UCLA and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion [HUC-JIR] and the University of Judaism, and they stop there,” she said. “I hope that this makes people sit up and take notice.”

Jewish life at CSUN is distinct from many other universities, since only about 10 percent of students live on campus. Students tend to be career-oriented, so Hillel programming includes mentorships and networking opportunities. Hillel-sponsored Shabbat dinners are more likely to happen at people’s homes in satellite neighborhoods than on campus. A service-learning program, administered by the Jewish studies department, allows students to earn credit for interning at Jewish or other social service organizations.

Since students are on campus for classes and not much else, being able to offer Jewish content in an academic setting is vital, said administrators.

“The more opportunities we can afford Jewish students, the more well rounded their college experience will be,” said Renee Cohen, Hillel director at CSUN.

While UCLA has no Jewish studies major — a focus on Jewish studies earns a degree in Near Eastern studies — its Center for Jewish Studies has been building up interdisciplinary course offerings, public programming and research initiatives since it was established in 1994.

This fall, the center’s new Modern Jewish Culture program will include courses on the Jewish interface with secularism, culture in Weimar Berlin, American film, the visual arts and the counterculture.

“Jews have been extraordinary creators in the fields of literature, art, music, film, theater and scholarship,” said center director David Myers, who is not related to Jody Myers at Northridge. “It is important to study this remarkable body of achievement not only to acknowledge the Jewish cultural genius, but also to understand better a major pillar of Western culture in the modern age.”

David Myers hopes that the undergraduate courses will become the foundation for a larger institute on modern Jewish culture, one that would offer graduate and research opportunities as well as a full calendar of public events.

Some of the other existing programs, of course, remain top draws. Students at USC can focus on Jewish studies while earning a degree in religious studies, and courses are offered in consort with HUC-JIR, which sits on the edge of the USC campus.

For information on the major at CSUN visit For information on UCLA’s program in Modern Jewish Culture, visit


A War of Words

Students, faculty and staff members at CSUN were up in arms last week regarding an exhibit sponsored by the university’s Muslim Student Association (MSA). The "Museum of Intolerance" exhibit, part of planned activities for the campus’ Islam Awareness Week (Oct. 21-27), showed photographs of Muslims under attack in several nations including what it called Palestine, with prominent pictures of Israeli soldiers and of Palestinian Arabs throwing rocks.

The exhibit, put together by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, appeared at numerous locations on campus during the weeklong event, which was billed on the MSA’s Web site as intended "to dispel any confusion, misconceptions and anger towards Islam and Muslims."

"We wanted to say clearly what Islam said and where we stand regarding the events of Sept. 11," said MSA President Husnain Mehdi.

Several Jewish students and faculty members, as well as Hillel director Rabbi Jordan Goldson, confronted Muslim students at the display. "Things got very heated," Goldson said.

In addition to conflicts at MSA’s table, Goldson said he also heard from Jewish students that anti-Israel remarks were made during an Oct. 24 lecture in the CSUN Student Union titled "The Truth About Islam."

Marc Reichman, a 21-year-old junior, was very upset by the exhibit.

"It basically ridicules and degrades Simon Wiesenthal’s Museum of Tolerance," he said.

Sandy Struman, a staff employee at CSUN, said she, too, found the exhibit appalling.

"I attended the Islamic exhibit believing mistakenly that it was intended to promote peace and understanding," Struman said. "But what I saw was a photograph mounted on the exhibit with a slogan underneath that stated ‘Zionism is Nazism’ which is the antithesis of peace and understanding."

Struman was told there was nothing to be done when she spoke to campus management.

"It was a horrendous thing to have on campus, but it all falls under freedom of speech," she said. "I respect that, but there’s a fine line between freedom of speech and inciting hatred, and I don’t know where one starts and the other stops."

"The intention wasn’t to make people confrontational, but to raise awareness as to what’s happening [in Israel] and other countries," Mehdi said. "Just because it’s controversial doesn’t mean it should not be brought up."

The MSA exhibit came as no surprise to Sharon Kupferman, a junior studying child development and leader of CSUN’s Student Israel Public Affairs Committee. Kupferman said she was approached about a joint program by MSA student leaders following the Sept. 11 tragedies.

"They seemed interested but then they changed their minds," she said. "I also went to their lecture the week after [Sept. 11] and it was very anti-Israel, anti-American. So when I heard about the intolerance museum I wasn’t surprised."

Kupferman said Jewish student groups are working on a response to the incident, including setting up their own tables on campus to show support for Israel. Arrangements are also being made to provide interested students with training sessions to learn to respond to anti-Israel sentiment on campus according to Aaron Levinson, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Valley office.

Reichman said he plans to get active promoting pro-Israel sentiment on campus.

"We don’t want people just to be exposed to the Arab viewpoint," he said.

Allegations at CSUN

Jacquelyn Barnette received the news during a recent meeting with Cal State Northridge officials: A CSUN administrative review had concluded that she was not fired from her student health center job because of anti-Semitism or retaliation.

Earlier this year, the medical records supervisor, who is African-American and Jewish, had charged that she was let go after confronting the center’s assistant director for administration, Jan Loritz, for allegedly making anti-Semitic remarks. Aaron Levinson, director of the Valley office of the Anti-Defamation League, subsequently spoke to half a dozen present and past center employees who asserted they had overheard Loritz making such remarks.

However, after interviewing more than 40 present and past center employees, a CSUN administrator found that none alleged witnessing anti-Semitic actions on the part of Loritz. There had been not even a single report of an anti-Semitic action by Loritz during her 16 years at the center, the report concluded. Nor was there any distinguishable difference in Loritz’s written performance evaluations of employees who were Jewish and non-Jewish. Loritz, moreover, did not participate in the decision to terminate Barnette; other supervisors made that decision, the administrator concluded.

Barnette’s final performance evaluation alleges that she incurred excessive tardies and absences, a charge Barnette denies.

The university offered the medical records supervisor two months of retroactive pay, which would roughly cover the period of the administrative review, per university practice, as well as another job on campus, “though that has nothing to do with the allegations she made or the university’s response to them,” says CSUN spokesperson John Chandler. Rather, CSUN is offering Barnette another job because of “the conclusion that there were procedural irregularities with the personnel process by which she was let go,” Chandler said. &’009;

Barnette, for her part, told the Daily News that administrative review was a “whitewash” of Loritz. In an interview with the Journal, she said she has retained an attorney and intends to sue the university for breach of contract. She has also rejected the job transfer.

While Levinson says he is pleased with the thoroughness of CSUN’s review, he is “still concerned there may be a problem at the center, because we have corroborated stories of anti-Semitism.”

In a written statement, CSUN Interim President Dr. Louanne Kennedy indicated that the university “is still reviewing the allegation that anti-Semitic comments were made.” She has also appointed a four-person committee to review broader operational and administrative issues at the center.

“We have an extremely diverse student body, including a sizable Jewish population, so whenever there are subjects raised that could be a threat to our environment we take them very seriously,” Chandler said.