J Street staffers announce departure

Two J Street staff members who have been with the organization since its inception three years ago have resigned their positions for new opportunities, the organization announced.

Issac Luria, the vice president of new media and communications, and press secretary Amy Spitalnick are leaving the the liberal pro-Israel lobby, the organization’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, announced Wednesday.

Luria has accepted a position to work on interfaith issues for the Auburn Theological Seminary in New York. Spitalnick is leaving to work for a New York City politician.

In a statement Wednesday, Ben Ami said that “I couldn’t be more grateful for all that they have done to advance the cause of peace and security for Israel and for a more open conversation in the American Jewish community.”

Here and Gone


After less than 10 months on the job, the president of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute has announced plans to step down, a development that surprised board members and raised questions about the health and future of the Jewish-owned camp, retreat and conference center.

Rabbi Isaac Jeret insisted his departure was voluntary and amicable. He said he enjoyed his time at Brandeis but wanted to move on to a more spiritually fulfilling job.

“What I found over the past year is that I missed the congregational life and lifestyle immensely,” said Jeret, 40, who will leave Brandeis July 31. “There is a spiritual intimacy between a rabbi and congregation community around life-cycle events and around long-term engagement.”

Brandeis board members say that resignation, though regrettable, would have no long-term negative impact. To take over his duties, the board has tapped Gary Brennglass, a former board chair who has a 35-year association with Brandeis. For now, the board has put off a search for a new president.

Some outside observers worry that instability at the top could make it harder to recruit a talented new leader in the future. Jeret’s exit represents the second time in less than two years that a Brandeis president has departed.

“To the outside world, it doesn’t appear that Brandeis has its act together,” said Jay Sanderson, chief executive of the Jewish Television Network and a former Brandeis director of development and marketing in the late 1980s.

Brandeis-Bardin Institute, which owns 3,000 acres in the Santa Susana Mountains — the largest piece of land owned by a Jewish institution outside of Israel — offers camping and other programs in a rural setting of rolling hills that rise on either side of a sun-baked valley. This year’s rains have made the scenery especially picturesque, spawning a rushing creek from the rocky wash that runs through the property’s center.

Jews of multiple generations remember Brandeis as the place they learned how to folk dance or how to swim, or where they bonded with other teenagers at Camp Alonim. Or where, as adults, they attended spiritually meaningful retreats.

But the peaceful, expansive setting has sometimes belied a troubled institution. Some critics say simply that Brandeis has underperformed, recently failing to reach its potential as a center of Jewish life and culture in Southern California.

Board members insist that all is well and that Jeret’s brief leadership has contributed to a bright outlook.

Brandeis has raised $3 million over the past year for a new dining commons at Camp Alonim; recruited new, young blood to the board, and added four specialty camps — basketball, soccer, arts and wilderness — that will debut this summer, Jeret said.

In the wake of such progress, Jeret’s decision came as a particular surprise to board members, Brandeis Chair Linda Volpert Gross said. Just last month, Volpert Gross said, she threw a surprise birthday party for Jeret at her Encino home that attracted most directors.

“I didn’t wish for [Jeret’s departure], but this institute has been around since 1948 and has had a lot of leaders,” said Volpert Gross, a Harvard MBA. Through all the changes in leadership, “Camp Alonim, BCI [Brandeis Collegiate Institute] and the annual dinner have gone on.'”

Like Volpert Gross, Brandeis executive board member Nathan Hochman said he felt disappointed that Jeret had decided to move on. Hochman headed the search committee that selected the rabbi.

This search process cost at least $50,000, according to some sources, although Hochman declined to confirm that amount. New York-based DRG Inc., an executive search firm for nonprofits, handled the nationwide headhunt.

Hochman insisted that Jeret had been the best choice. “We believe and still believe that Rabbi Jeret has tremendous potential as a leader in 21st century Jewish America,” Hochman said. “As it turns out, we believe he will emerge as that leader by being head of a congregation with a very devoted [local] community, as opposed to being head of an institute like Brandeis-Bardin that has a national congregation.”

Jeret said he had held Brandeis in the highest regard, but longed for congregational life. A former rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, Fla., Jeret said he had accepted a position at Congregation Ner Tamid in Rancho Palos Verdes, which had offered him the same job one year ago.

Going forward, board member Hochman said, Brandeis leaders will focus on three areas: the introduction of Camp Alonim’s specialty camps, expanding BCI and the family weekend programs. He said the core aspects of Brandeis are healthier than ever.

Nearly to a person, board members interviewed spoke of a financially healthy, untroubled Brandeis and good times ahead. No one has documentation to demonstrate otherwise.

One board member, however, speaking not for attribution, allowed that Brandeis, like many Jewish organizations, faces difficult times. He speculated that the economic challenges weighed heavily on Jeret.

A former board member with inside knowledge said she thinks Brandeis has a deficit of at least $500,000 and has drawn down $1 million to $2 million from a line of credit.

Brennglass, the new executive director, declined to discuss the institute’s reputed debt, endowment or other financial data. He noted that Brandeis owns 3,000 acres just 45 minutes outside Los Angeles, intimating that it has substantial assets.

“Brandeis will continue to do the great work it has done for 50 years,” Brennglass said.

Jeret’s predecessor said recent developments are a matter of concern.

“I don’t know what the situation is there, but what is needed by the board is an honest assessment of how Brandeis is perceived in the community, what it’s real situation is and how it can move ahead,” Rabbi Lee T. Bycel said. He left the top job at Brandeis in August 2003, after three years, when the board decided not to renew his contract.

Bycel said he hopes for the best: “The community desperately needs a successful Brandeis-Bardin.”


Cherishing Passover

As a child, Passover seders in my family were rushed affairs more about the meal than the meaning of the holiday. Hungry children and adults quickly read through the haggadah.

Surreptitious bites of matzah were silently swallowed. And all the while the aromas from the kitchen tickled our noses into reading as fast as we possibly could.

If you had asked me what Passover was about, I could tell you of all the delicious foods that were served, but not why my family gathered together to endure this strange ritual each year. And the finale was the biggest mystery of all. "Next year in Jerusalem" was a meaningless phrase we all shouted with glee — probably because we knew the night was ending.

As an adult I made a conscious effort to learn about my Jewish roots, which commence with the reason we commemorate the events of the very first Passover.

One of the purposes of the Passover seder is to teach our children the story of how the Jewish people came to be. Passover is a history lesson taught not by impersonal teachers in a sterile classroom, but by our families seated around the dining room table. When done correctly, the Passover seder should instill a sense of pride. Because with knowing who we are, we should feel proud to be Jews.

Passover commemorates the departure of the Jewish people from Egypt some 3,000 years ago and marks the birth of a nation. This is as much a celebration of our spiritual freedom as it is a jubilation of our physical liberation from slavery.

During our time in Egypt we were greatly afflicted. We were slaves of the lowest order. The men and women were separated so that no new Jews would be born. Yet, the women defied this pharoah’s edict. They snuck into the fields where the men slaved away and had relations with their husbands. No matter how hard pharoah tried, Jewish babies continued to be born. The women recognized that the nation’s existence was in danger and they took action to assure that not only would the nation continue to subsist, but it would grow and thrive as well.

We can easily draw a parallel to the Holocaust. Despite the attempts of Hitler to wipe out European Jewry, babies continued to be born in the camps, in the ghettos and in the forests.

One of the Passover lessons we need to teach our children is that the will of the Jewish people does not crush easily. We are a people to be reckoned with and we do have a place in this world. Just look at Israel today. Despite the constant threat of terrorist attacks, life goes on, babies are born.

This year, we mark the one-year anniversary of the Passover massacre at the beachside Park Hotel in Netanya, Israel. On the day we commemorate our roots and proclaim our physical and spiritual endurance, a terrorist walked into the dining room of the hotel and detonated an explosive device. Of the 250 people attending the seder, 29 were killed and 140 people were injured, 20 seriously. Victims ranged in age from 25 to 90, and Holocaust survivors were among them.

Yet, we continue to defy our enemies. In Egypt we slaughtered sheep, the animal most worshiped by the Egyptians. In essence, we threw their holy sheep in their faces. We defied Hitler by surviving. Today we defy the Arabs by our very existence.

The Passover seder is instrumental in strengthening our will and our continued defiance of our enemies. It is at the seder that our children learn who we are and where we came from. They hear the first instance of a nation’s defiance and the miraculous way in which our nation was born. The seder you have today will shape the Jew your children will be tomorrow and will ultimately affect the future path of all Jews.

Passover is a yearly proclamation to the world, but more importantly, to ourselves, that the Jewish nation is alive and well and will continue to exist and thrive despite the best efforts of our enemies and detractors. Passover is our yearly reminder to ourselves that to be a Jew is something special to be cherished and protected, nurtured and prized, relevant and treasured.

And we finish each seder with the words "Next year in Jerusalem." Next year — meaning we will be around next year, and we will continue to outlive our enemies, to defy all predictions of our demise.

Marisa N. Pickar is a freelance journalist living in Laguna Woods.