Memo to Oscar: Just Say ‘No’ to Swag


 

The contrast was just too much. On one channel, I watched as tens of thousands of people struggled to survive the devastating impact of the tsunami that left more than 250,000 dead and countless others injured and homeless, and on another channel, presenters at last month’s Golden Globe Awards leaving the ceremonies with their “travel-themed” gift baskets worth $37,890 each.

The Golden Globes took place exactly three weeks after the tsunami struck Southeast Asia, creating the largest natural disaster in our lifetime. The gifts, which were contained in a custom wicker ottoman, included:

• An Australian wine adventure package with first-class Qantas airfare and accommodations at Rosemount Estate, where guests will create their own wine (value $16,000).

• A sitting with portrait photographer Judy Host ($5,000).

• Ehrlooms diamond pendant ($2,700).

• Sports Club L.A. six-month bicoastal membership ($2,250)

• Brite Smile teeth whitening ($1,100).

• Missoni shawl ($900).

• Chopard watch ($865)

• Janet Lee luxury pet carrier ($400).

This tradition continued at this year’s Grammys, where each presenter and performer received a $35,000 basket.

Gift baskets have become a cottage industry. They are a part of every major Hollywood event. I have never understood this concept. These people are already blessed with so much. They are pampered and catered to at every turn. Why do they need these extravagant presents? Why do people who need it the least receive the most?

The companies that donate the goodies for the baskets do so because they see it as a great advertisement and endorsement for their products.

Where will it stop?

In 2002, the Academy Awards baskets were worth $20,000 — each. In 2004, they were estimated at $100,000 each and contained more than 50 items, including a seven-day cruise to the Mediterranean or Caribbean and a 43-inch, high-definition Samsung TV, coupled with one year of Voom HD satellite service. The baskets were given to approximately 100 presenters, performers and other select individuals.

The perks actually begin as soon as the Oscar nominations are announced. For example, Estee Lauder gave each of this year’s 20 nominees in the acting categories a Michael Kors leather bag filled with such goodies as: Manolo Blahnik sandals, a personalized Loro Piana cashmere blanket, Baccarat crystal and La Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot champagne. They were also invited to a private spa in the penthouse of the Regent Beverly Wilshire (value $15,000).

Victoria’s Secret gifted the five best-actress nominees with a pair of black lace panties that have a little something extra — a removable 7.2-carat diamond and pink sapphire brooch. The lingerie comes in a pink leather clutch, with another sapphire-and-diamond piece, a detachable four-leaf clover ($15,000).

The full contents of this year’s Academy Awards basket is being kept under wraps until this Sunday’s show. However, a few gifts have been revealed: a red leather case filled with Shu Uemura cosmetics, including mink eyelashes; and Kay Unger cashmere pajamas. It’s amazing to realize that just one basket could probably pay for a child’s four-year college education.

I would love to see one of the award shows step forward and set a precedent by discontinuing the gift basket extravaganza and instead, have the various companies honor the presenters by making monetary donations to their favorite charitable causes.

Because of the magnitude of the tsunami disaster, it would have been most appropriate to not distribute any baskets at the Golden Globes, Grammys or Oscars this year. However, because these groups decided to proceed, it would have great meaning if each recipient would make a matching monetary donation equivalent to the value of their basket to tsunami relief or another charity of their choice.

Another option would be for them to sign the basket, and then put it up for online auction, with the proceeds going to tsunami relief or another favorite charity. It would be wonderful to see these ideas become an ongoing tradition at all award shows, whenever gift baskets are distributed. (Kudos to the presenters at the Critics’ Choice Awards for auctioning their baskets to aid tsunami charities.)

Celebrities have tremendous influence in our culture. Turning gift baskets into charitable contributions is an opportunity to be a role model and teach everyone, especially our children, about gratitude and the importance of helping others.

One organization is already a shining example of these lessons: Clothes Off Our Back. which was conceived by a group of actors, including “Malcolm in the Middle” star Jane Kaczmarek; her husband, Bradley Whitford of “The West Wing”; and his co-star, Janel Moloney. The project encourages celebrities to donate the gowns, tuxedos and accessories that they wear at award shows to an online auction (www.clothesoffourback.org). They have given $350,000 to various children’s charities in the past three years.

They raised $130,000 following the Golden Globes in support of the UNICEF Tsunami Fund. The highest bid was $31,000 for “Desperate Housewives” star Teri Hatcher’s gown. Their Grammy auction, which is taking place online until March 1, includes dresses donated by such celebrities as Beyonce.

They will continue their fundraising efforts with the Oscars. Kaczmarek described the group’s purpose so eloquently: “The idea behind the auction is all about what you can do to give back.”

It is a sentiment all of us can take to heart, especially at this time. As Maurice Sendak once said, “There must be more to life than having everything.”

Gloria Baran develops social action and community service programs for children, including a variety of tzedakah projects for Camp Ramah.

 

Rites to Mark Argentine Terror Attack


At 9:53 a.m. this Sunday in Buenos Aires, a loud siren will sound in front of 633 Pasteur St., where the AMIA Jewish community center is located.

The siren will mark the moment 10 years ago when a bomb went off, killing 85 people in the most devastating terrorist attack in modern Latin American history. Hundreds of Argentines are expected to be standing on Pasteur and in nearby streets to commemorate the anniversary of the tragedy.

The DAIA political umbrella group, together with AMIA and Familiaris de Las Victims — the biggest group of victims’ relatives — jointly organized the commemoration ceremony in Buenos Aires.

The following day, DAIA President Gilbert Lei will be in New York to take part in a commemoration there of the AMIA attack.

The American Jewish Committee, which recently gave an award to Argentine President Nestor Kirchner for his friendliness to Jews and Jewish interests, is sending a delegation to Buenos Aires to take part in the ceremony.

Kirchner said he’ll attend the July 18 commemoration at the AMIA center, and the day will be declared a national day of mourning. The president attended last year’s commemoration a few weeks after taking office, and he has been praised for his commitment to investigating the attack.

Because of infighting in the community, Familiaris at first opposed co-sponsoring the demonstration with local Jewish leaders.

“We finally decided not to show our differences to the world on such a day,” explained Sergio Bernstein, a prominent Familiaris member. “We’re privileged to honor the victims.”

Barely a week before the commemoration, Familiaris still hadn’t chosen a speaker. “We need to make sure we have someone that won’t break down,” Bernstein said.

The Familiaris speech will come after speeches by representatives of AMIA and DAIA. AMIA President Abraham Kabul said he will speak on the 10-year investigation of the attack, focusing on how the case has lost its focus.

Ten days before the ceremony, DAIA leaders also had not chosen a speaker.

“No matter who talks, he’ll express the will for truth, justice and unity that DAIA feels,” said Jorge Kirszenbaum, DAIA vice president.

Many Jews are concerned that DAIA officials — aside from Lei — are still linked to the organization’s former president, Ruben Barrage. Barrage has been criticized by local Jews, because of his ties to former Argentine President Carlos Menem and the former investigative judge on the AMIA case. Menem has been implicated in media reports of hindering the AMIA investigation, because of his ties to Iran, which is believed to have been behind the 1994 attack.

When many Argentine Jews were furious about the slow pace of the investigation into the AMIA bombing, Barrage refused to criticize the authorities. Barrage currently is in prison for developments related to a bank bankruptcy.

DAIA is considering having a victim’s relative speak to avoid public criticism, according to local press reports.

Two other organizations of victims’ relatives, Memorial Active and Anemia, are not taking part in the main celebration. Memorial Active, which for years has been harshly critical of the investigation, will hold a ceremony Saturday night in front of the city’s central courthouse and will then hold an overnight demonstration with the Youth in Guard group.

Congregations Rally to Aid Fire Victims


By phone, e-mail and word-of-mouth, the bad news kept piling up at Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino.

The homes of six families had been burned to the ground in the devastating wildfires sweeping across Southern California.

Another 30-40 families had been forced to evacuate their homes, and no one knew the present whereabouts of eight other families.

Rabbi Douglas Kohn, the Reform congregation’s spiritual leader, was at the point of utter exhaustion.

“I haven’t slept more than 10 hours since Shabbat,” he said Monday evening.

“I can see the tall flames from my study,” he added. “Embers, soot and ashes are falling on the synagogue and we can’t use the air conditioning. We have evacuated our Torah scrolls and original Marc Chagall paintings; one of our members, an officer in the fire department, is on the fire-line; and our Jewish police chief is also in action.”

“Every one of our 420 families is out helping others, everyone is concerned about everyone else,” Kohn said.

Emanu El is the only synagogue in San Bernardino, some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and it is also the oldest in California, having been in continuous operation since 1851.

San Bernardino — with some 185,000 residents — and its surroundings were hardest hit, accounting for one-third of the 1,500 homes destroyed in the region’s 10 major wildfires by Tuesday morning, but there were losses and suffering elsewhere.

Many congregants of Congregation Etz Chaim in Ramona were evacuated and the fate of their homes were unknown at press time.

To the south, in San Diego County, the 20 classroom trailers of the Chabad Hebrew Academy of San Diego in Scripps Ranch were totally destroyed by the fire, while an adjacent brand-new $25 million building, almost completed and surrounded by flames, was spared, said Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

Also in San Diego, Temple Emanu El closed its preschool and transferred its Torah scrolls, said Rabbi Martin Lawson. Tifereth Israel Synagogue also took its Torah scrolls to safety after nearby residents were ordered to evacuate their homes.

The United Jewish Federation building was ordered evacuated, and all San Diego residents were asked to remain home Monday.

In another hot-spot, Simi Valley, Mount Sinai Memorial Park reported minor damage to buildings and more extensive burning of trees and park areas. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, also in Simi Valley, was untouched by the fire.

Temple Judea in Tarzana and Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge expressed concern about the well-being of the many congregants from the Simi Valley.

In the San Gabriel Valley, four employees of the local Jewish Federation reported that their homes had been entirely or partially destroyed.

The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregants reported that temples in Big Bear, Victorville and Thousand Oaks appeared to have survived unscathed.

Jewish communities rallied to aid the homeless and other victims.

Some 11 Chabad centers in Southern California turned themselves into relief and counseling centers, providing clothing, furniture and food.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California called on all member congregations to provide assistance, said executive vice president Rabbi Mark S. Diamond.

Staff Writer Rachel Brand contributed to this report.


Donation Information

The Jewish Federation has established the Southern California Fire Emergency Relief Fund and coordinated with community agencies to provide the following assistance opportunities, as well as relief services.

Monetary Donations

Donations can be made online at www.jewishla.org. Send checks to The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90048, payable to The Federation with “Fire Relief Fund” on memo line. (323) 761-8200.

Food Donations

Jewish Family Services’ (JFS) SOVA Food Pantries will be accepting donations. (818) 789-7633.

Valley Site:

6027 Reseda Blvd., Tazana. (Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m.-noon and Sun., 10:30 a.m.-noon. Sun. Nov. 2, 9:30 a.m-3 p.m.)

West L.A. Sites:

11310 Santa Monica Blvd. (Mon. and Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fri., 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.)

Beverly-Fairfax Site:

7563 Beverly Blvd. (Mon. and Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and Sun. (except first 10 a.m.-noon.).

Donations can also be dropped off at the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, 22622 Vanowen Street, West Hills; and The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

Clothing Donations

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) will be accepting donations at their thrift shops. (323) 655-3111.

Los Angeles:

11571 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 477-9613

455 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 651-2080

1052 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 938-8122

12120 Venice Blvd., (310) 572-9158

West Hollywood:

7818 Santa Monica Blvd., (323) 654-8516

Van Nuys:

14526 Victory Blvd., (818) 997-8980

Canoga Park:

21716 Sherman Way, (818) 710-7206

Crisis Counseling Services

JFS offers crisis counseling services.

Valley: (818) 464-3333

West Los Angeles: (310) 820-4111

Monetary Assistance

Contact the Jewish Free Loan Association at (323) 761-8830.

Jews in Venezuela: A Vanishing Community?


These are sad days for the Jewish community in Venezuela as many begin to question whether this country, once so hospitable to Jewish life, can still be called home.

As the country faces nearly its sixth week of a devastating strike calling for early elections or the resignation of President Hugo Chávez, Venzuela’s economy, already set to shrink by 6 percent this year, has been hurled into utter chaos. Poverty levels are estimated at 80 percent — a tragedy for one of the wealthiest and most stable countries in Latin America.

The economic deterioration that began with the Latin America debt crisis of 1983 and has continued unabated is now coming to a head under the rule of Chávez. A former army officer and ex-coup leader, Chávez has initiated a self-styled "revolution" marked by fiery, anti-wealth rhetoric and little action. His close ties to Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and leftist policies have deeply polarized the country, with two entrenched camps on both sides of the strike — neither of which is showing any signs of backing down. After a month of paralysis, more people are armed, food and supplies are growing scarce, and oil production has ground to almost a halt. The nation is on the brink of chaos, and anything could happen.

Venezuela’s present predicament is particularly disappointing. Once viewed as a beacon of democracy in a region dominated by military dictatorships, Venezuela had enjoyed nearly a half-century of stability and economic growth — thanks largely to its great reserves of oil. The resulting opportunities drew substantial numbers of Jews to Venezuela.

Although Jews began immigrating to Venezuela at the beginning of the 19th century, it was not until after World War II that most Jews arrived and formed a strong and vibrant community. The Jewish population received yet another boost after the Six-Day War in 1967, when a large influx of Sephardi Jews from Morocco arrived and settled mostly in the capital of Caracas.

At the peak of the boom years, the ’60s and ’70s, it was estimated that affiliated Jews numbered approximately 30,000, split evenly between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. Middle-to-upper-class professionals and business owners established associations, schools, synagogues and community centers. They developed deep ties to the country and a strong sense of patriotism. They acculturated and settled into a comfortable "live-and-let-live" rapport with the government — the government welcomed the community and the Jewish community kept a low profile.

A snapshot of the Jewish community at present shows a different picture. On the economic front, many Jews, just as the population at large, are slowly being squeezed out of the middle class. Once lucrative professions now barely pay enough to make ends meet. An experienced university professor, for example, now makes approximately $200-$300 a month. This forces professionals to become small entrepreneurs, or leave.

Dr. Marcko Glijenschi, founding member of the Confederation of Israeli-Venezuelan Associations, an umbrella organization that organizes the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Venezuela, reports a notable increase in assistance recipients. An average caseload prior to Chávez was around 100 cases; it now is approximately 400. In addition, the requests are changing from items such as matzah and candles to staples, such as soap or toothpaste.

Another telling event is the recent closure of one of the campuses of the well-established day school in the old Jewish neighborhood of San Bernardino in Caracas. The 450-student school was under financial strain. Its capacity to provide aid to an increasing number of families requesting scholarships, or enrolling their children and not keeping up with payments, became impaired by the simultaneous reduction in donations.

All this may seem reminiscent of Argentina. But according to Venezuelan community leaders, the Jewish community’s present predicament is not the same. Argentina’s social structure was different, with a large Jewish proletariat class. By contrast, Venezuela’s Jews are mostly middle to upper class. Argentina has seen a full quarter of its Jewish population slip into poverty, while in Venezuela, the Jewish community’s economic problems are, so far, small enough to be handled locally, within the community. Resources are strained, however, and time is running out. The red flags have been raised, prompting a visit from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to instruct community leaders as to what to do if the situation deteriorates.

Although these events are alarming, the greatest current threat to the community is widespread emigration. Since the 1980s, Jews have been gradually emigrating due to worsening economic conditions. Under Chávez, the trend has become dramatic. Glijenschi comments that prior to Chávez’s election in 1998, the population of affiliated Jews numbered 20,000; now, it has shrunk to 14,000.

The custom of sending college-age children abroad — often to the United States — to get a university education and then return to settle in Caracas, is now turning into a slow emigration pattern. Children are no longer encouraged to return. In addition, many Venezuelans are physically leaving the country, but still keeping business ties. Finally, young professionals facing an unpromising future are being forced to leave. Just recently, for example, 250 professional Jewish Venezuelans met in Miami to discuss prospects for immigration to the United States and a new life. Understandably, the mood has become bleak and pessimism prevails. Will the community survive?

Rabbi Pynchas Brener, head rabbi of La Unión Israelita, a large modern Orthodox temple that also runs a day school and community center for approximately 1,500 families, sees three potential scenarios, all linked to the outcome of the present conflict: If Chávez stays in office, and continues present policies, Jews will continue to emigrate at the rate of 2 percent to 3 percent a year, slowly but systematically shrinking the community; if Chávez succeeds in his Castro-style "Bolivarian Revolution" and implements extreme leftist policies, 50 percent of the community would leave rapidly; and, if Chávez loses the present conflict and resigns, the community would be invigorated by the return of 30 percent to 50 percent of the recent emigrants.

Ena Rotkopf, director of the Venezuelan Federation of Jewish Women, agreed: "If the situation changes, I have no doubt that those who emigrated will return because our community is very united, the country is beautiful, and the Jews who left have very deep ties. Our present leaders are all graduates of our day schools, they love their community, they love their country."


Julie Drucker, a language and marketing consultant for the Latin market, grew up in Venezuela and lives in Los Angeles. She can be reached at JulieDrucker@yahoo.com.