Federation may face lawsuit over fundraiser Prizant’s firing


A looming lawsuit is threatening to shake up The Jewish Federation ofGreater Los Angeles — causing a blanket of silence to descend on the city’slargest Jewish philanthropic organization.

The former top fundraiser for The Federation is reportedly planning to filesuit against the agency over his dismissal, possibly as early as this week,alleging that a friendship between The Federation’s president and asubordinate was the reason for his firing. As of The Journal’s press deadlineTuesday, no decision on the lawsuit filing had been made.

Craig Prizant served as the agency’s executive vice president for financialresource development from 2003 until he was fired on Jan. 12 by John Fishel,president of The Federation since 1992. In a memo to staff, Fishel gave noreason for the decision, and no replacement has been named. Prizant alsoserved as the Federation’s senior vice president for marketing andcommunications for two years.

The Federation is an umbrella agency that supports local and internationalprograms with a broad range of humanitarian efforts.

During Prizant’s tenure, contributions to the agency have increasedsteadily. From 2003 to 2006, donations to The Jewish Federation’s annualcampaign increased from $42.4 million to $48 million. In 2006, TheFederation surpassed its fundraising goal by $500,000.

Attorney Fredric N. Richman, who is representing Prizant, told The Journalthat “The Federation had made an unacceptable offer [for severance payment]and litigation will ensue shortly…. I am certain that my client’s rightswill be vindicated.”

One person familiar with the case said that if the suit goes to trial, asseems very likely at this point, “it will be a blockbuster.”

Over the past week, The Journal has spoken to 15 Federation lay leaders,donors and present and former staff members, in addition to lawyers forPrizant and for The Federation. Four additional persons did not returncalls.

Most members of The Federation’s executive board declined comment, citing anedict from Federation lawyer Wayne S. Flick that no one discuss the casewith outsiders, particularly the press. Almost all sources insisted onanonymity as a precondition for speaking at all.

One major donor to The Federation, Richard Lewis, said he had asked personalfriends on the executive board for information after learning of Prizant’sdismissal. “I found out, zero, zero, zero,” he said.

However, by piecing together various interviews, primarily with thoseobjecting to Prizant’s dismissal, it is possible to form a general pictureof their version.

Since top Federation executives declined to speak to The Journal, theirversion of events is unknown.

According to the pro-Prizant explanation, the root cause of his firing wasprofessional friction between him, as the chief campaign professional, andSue Bender, who had been hired by Fishel to direct The Federation’s primephilanthropy office, a program geared to “elite leaders in our community whopossess the capacity to make a significant, multiyear commitment to fund anexisting program or create a new one that addresses their passion,”according to The Federation Web site.

Bender’s job was to cultivate the largest donors, those able to make giftsin six figures and above and to fund new programs. Both Prizant and Benderreported directly to Fishel, but as the friction continued, Bender wasallegedly able to count on her friendship with Fishel to favor herviewpoint, culminating in Prizant’s dismissal.

Prizant’s defenders allege that his firing was for personal, notprofessional, reasons and assert that fundraising totals grew steadily underhis stewardship.

The case is now in the hands of two lawyers, Flick for The Federation andRichman representing Prizant. Both are specialists in employment law, andRichman used to serve on behalf of The Federation in its labor negotiationsfor many years.

Flick initially declined comment, but on Monday he e-mailed a statement toThe Journal that emphasized that “neither the specifics of Mr. Prizant’semployment nor any ongoing discussion between him and The Federation areappropriate for public consumption or discussion at this time.”

The statement continued, “The Federation is aware that, unfortunately,certain unsubstantiated allegations and inaccurate assertions may have beendisclosed to persons outside The Federation, by individuals who do not haveknowledge of all relevant facts.

“In keeping with its intent to treat personnel matters confidentially …The Federation will not at this time comment specifically on thoseallegations or attempt to correct what appear to be numerous inaccuracies.

“After a careful review, The Federation is confident that no employee hasbeen treated unfairly or improperly. The Federation will address any and allcontrary allegations in the appropriate forum, and not in the press.”

Informed of Flick’s statement, Richman responded, “It is regrettable thatThe Federation, through its counsel, decided to go public with respect tothe claim of our client, Craig Prizant, who had requested that the matter behandled privately so as not to cause The Federation and its officersembarrassment.

“But there is no doubt in my mind that by going public, ultimately andregrettably, the efficacy and vitality of The Federation and its campaignwill be mortally wounded.”

One Federation board member, who did not wish to be identified, called thedismissal “an injustice, which is being swept under the carpet, while theold guard [on the board] doesn’t want to be bothered.

“The morale of The Federation staff is low; they’re scared to speak out,scared of losing their jobs, everybody is walking on eggshells,” the boardmember said.

Rabbi Gafni Ousted for Misconduct


Mordechai Gafni, 46, a rabbi whose charisma and brilliance dazzled students and large audiences in spiritual renewal communities in Israel and America, even as he dodged rumors and accusations about improper sexual behavior for more than 25 years, has been dismissed by the leadership of Bayit Chadash in Israel, a Tel Aviv-based prayer and study group he co-founded and where he served as teacher and religious guide.

Gafni also has had a large following in Los Angeles, where he frequently preached and served as a scholar-in-residence at the Stephen S. Wise Temple. During one such stay, 1,000 people came to hear him even on the second day of Rosh Hashanah — traditionally a low-attendance day at Reform congregations — and hundreds more came to evening lectures during the week.

Gafni’s dismissal came last week after four women, including students of his and a staff member, filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Gafni with the police in Israel.

“We feel we were deceived,” Jacob Ner-David, a co-founder of Bayit Chadash, told The Jewish Week, which first reported on allegations against the rabbi in September 2004.

“He should not be called a rav [rabbi], his was not the behavior of a rav and he should not be in a teaching or counseling position,” said Ner-David, who noted that the incident “is my worst nightmare come to life.”

He added that Gafni is “a sick man, and has harmed so many.”

A statement issued by Ner-David and his Bayit Chadash co-founder Avraham Leader said “there is no place for relations like this between a rabbi and his students or between an employer and his employees, whether consensual or not. It would seem that this is the opinion of Mordechai, since he swore all the women involved to eternal and absolute silence.”

Gafni achieved much attention here and in Israel as a leader of the New Age Jewish movement. He taught classes, led retreats, wrote several books and appeared in a PBS documentary about the quest for spirituality.

In a statement this week to his followers, he took blame for his actions and said he was “infinitely saddened and profoundly sorry” for the pain he had caused. He acknowledged that he was “sick,” and said he planned to enter a treatment center and leave his “rabbinic teaching capacities.”

Gafni, who was divorced from his third wife about a year and a half ago, said in 2004 that he had “made mistakes in my life” and had “a sense of exaggeration” and was “too ambitious.” But he insisted he had done teshuvah (repentance) and was the victim of a longstanding “witch hunt” from a small cadre of women accusers and Orthodox rabbis jealous of his success.

“I am moral and ethical,” he said during a series of conversations with this reporter in 2004, during which he asserted that he was sharing his “deepest truth.”

Ner-David said that one of the women involved with Gafni over the last 18 months came forward to Leader, and that soon after, another woman spoke out about her relationship with the rabbi.

“And then we discovered there were two more,” he said.

Leader and Ner-David asked the women to give sworn statements to an attorney, which they did. At this point the police have not acted on the complaints, which address the boundaries of relationships between teacher-student and employer-employee.

“We have no doubt that they [the women] speak the truth, and willingly risk our personal credibility and integrity in support of their testimony,” Leader and Ner-David said in their signed statement.

“For us it was a complete surprise,” Ner-David said, noting that as recently as a month ago he had a conversation with Gafni affirming that immoral behavior could never be tolerated within Bayit Chadash.

Ner-David, who first met Gafni when he was a 13-year-old at summer camp in the United States and the rabbi was his counselor, said he had long known of the allegations about the man born Marc Winiarz in the Midwest. Winiarz moved to Israel in 1991 and took the Israeli name Gafni after a series of controversies about sexual improprieties dogged him when he was a youth leader and later a rabbi in several U.S. communities.

He was ordained by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, founder of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City and now chief rabbi of Efrat, in the West Bank. Riskin revoked his ordination in 1994 after his former student, in a lengthy interview in the Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, called for restoring a balance between the erotic and the spiritual in Judaism.

Gafni’s response was that he had other ordinations and had moved beyond Orthodoxy.

Ner-David said he was guilty of having relied on information from others in seeking answers to questions about Gafni’s past. Several prominent Israeli educators hired the rabbi as a teacher despite complaints from some women and rabbis who asserted he was unfit to work with students. Those who hired Gafni said he was a gifted teacher, that he acknowledged past wrongdoings (though he was vague about them) and that they could find no current cases of women with complaints against him.

Some of the charges went back more than two decades.

Ner-David said he realizes now that Gafni was “a master manipulator,” but in the past he had felt justified in working with him because no one had come forward with recent complaints about the rabbi’s behavior.

Rabbi Saul Berman, the founder and director of Edah in New York, has been an outspoken defender of Gafni. In a letter taking this reporter to task for writing about the controversy in 2004, Berman, Rabbi Tirzah Firestone and ethicist and author Joseph Telushkin said they had looked into past allegations and found them “totally unconvincing.” They described the article as “unfair” and “scandalous.”

This month, Berman said he is “deeply regretful” of his prior support for Gafni, and worried that his past defense may have prolonged the rabbi’s “predatory behavior against women.”

“I was clearly wrong in stating that Rabbi Gafni’s continued role as a teacher within the Jewish community constitutes no risk to Jewish women,” he wrote in a statement.

Berman said he had felt the earlier accusations “were not justifiable foundations for public disgrace and exclusion,” and noted that he will “continue to struggle with the ideal line between presumption of innocence and protection of potential innocent victims.”

He said the Gafni case underscores the ongoing need for a mechanism to investigate allegations against rabbis “in a way that the community has confidence in, so that when it’s over, it’s over.”

He said that rabbis are “not capable of enough objectivity to handle such matters themselves,” and called for a collaborative effort of rabbis, lay leaders and professionals in the health care field who deal with abuse.

Other institutions and individuals who had supported Gafni in the past also spoke out this month. Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia said he felt “sad, angry and betrayed” by Gafni’s behavior, noting that it “raises questions once again about how to walk that thin line between spiritual ecstasy and the domineering frenzy that is not only damaging in itself but sometimes even leads to sexual abuse.”

One of the criticisms of the spiritual renewal movement is that its emphasis on charismatic teachers and the search for religious bliss lends its members to being emotionally manipulated.

Ner-David, acknowledging that he will be asking himself “for a long time what lessons can be learned” from the Gafni episode, said that Bayit Chadash “must make sure not to allow anyone to become a guru.”

He said the members of the group, which includes hundreds of Israelis who pray and study together, are determined to go on with their work even though Gafni, their spiritual leader, has been removed.

As for whether Gafni truly understands the pain he has caused and can be rehabilitated and return, Ner-David said it was too early to say.

“It is hard to tell if he really means it or not,” he said.

This article appears courtesy The Jewish Week.

Gary Rosenblatt is editor and publisher of The Jewish Week.

 

L.A. Gafni Event Canceled


Revelations about sexual misconduct have led to the cancellation of an upcoming local event featuring prominent Rabbi Mordechai Gafni.

Gafni had been scheduled for a public talk at Stephen S. Wise Temple on June 9. Over the past two years, since being appointed to the Wisdom Chair in September 2004, Gafni has returned every few months to the Bel Air shul, where he’s had a loyal following.

Last week, four women in Israel — students and staff members at Tel Aviv’s Bayit Chadash, the Jewish renewal center that Gafni co-founded — filed complaints of sexual misconduct with Israeli police. In a public letter, Gafni, 46, admitted to being “sick” and promised to seek therapy. Leaders of Bayit Chadash immediately dismissed him.

Gafni was appointed to the Wisdom Chair at Stephen S. Wise two years ago — despite anecdotal allegations that he had a history of sexual misconduct. The temple’s senior rabbi this week issued a short statement denouncing Gafni.

“It is with a deep sense of shock and disappointment that I have learned of the sexual misconduct that has led to Rabbi Mordechai Gafni’s dismissal from Bayit Chadash,” senior Rabbi Eli Herscher said in a written statement responding to an inquiry from The Journal. “His actions, including vast deception, are indefensible.”

Herscher declined further comment, but the temple canceled Gafni’s June participation in a public conversation with commentator Dennis Prager.

Before being appointed to the Wisdom Chair, Gafni had been a regular scholar-in-residence at the 3,000-family Reform synagogue since 2002. His lectures and sermons attracted thousands.

Congregant Alan Finkelstein said he remembers Gafni’s 2003 Rosh Hashanah sermon as, “my finest moment in shul. He involved the crowd, He helped you connect with the person next to you. It was one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard.”

Finkelstein said he was moved to go back to hear Gafni on several other occasions.

But Gafni’s popularity was undermined by persistent rumors that he had, in the past, manipulated women into sexual relationships. In October 2004, The Jewish Journal reprinted a Jewish Week article exploring allegations that Gafni had inappropriate sexual contact with students when he was 19.

Attendance reportedly decreased at Gafni’s events following the publication of the article.

At the time, Herscher said he had discussed the rumors with Gafni and, after investigating them on his own, found them baseless. Herscher was in good company defending Gafni, as some of the country’s top Jewish thinkers, of all denominations, called Gafni a remarkable teacher who was the target of a malevolent campaign. Herscher also decried Jewish newspapers for printing lashon harah (malicious gossip).

“Rabbi Gafni coming to teach here makes a deeply important Jewish statement – that if rumors and allegations and innuendo are allowed to destroy someone who only wants to teach, Jewishly, that is tragic,” Herscher said in October 2004.

This week, Hersher’s sympathies lay elsewhere.

“I pray that all who have been misled and hurt by him — first and foremost the women he has harmed — will soon recover,” Herscher wrote.

 

Deep Spiritual Rift Grows in Prague


He fought a desperate battle against communism, crafted award-winning plays and books and functioned as an intellectual and spiritual compass for Prague’s Jewish community for more than a decade.

But in late June, something extraordinary happened: Karol Sidon was forced out as the community’s chief rabbi.

Leaders from Jewish Community of Prague, the governing body that dismissed him, said that the Orthodox rabbi could no longer perform his duties. Although Sidon will keep his post as the Czech Republic’s chief rabbi, three other rabbis will share local religious and leadership duties. But while Sidon’s dismissal from his important leadership role — just weeks before the community celebrates the High Holidays — shocked local Jews, it also exposed a profound ideological rift between the country’s aging Orthodox community and a tidal wave of younger, liberal worshippers.

“We are an old community with a death rate of about 80 people per year,” said Tomas Jelaapluralistic community.nek, leader of Prague’s Jewish community. “To attract the hundreds of Czech Jews who are not affiliated, we have to build a pluralistic community. We need a different approach. No one group should have a monopoly.”

Such is the debate among Prague’s Jews, a community of about 1,600 averaging 58 years of age. As many 10,000 Czech Jews live in the country today, but secularism has taken its toll, and to the members of Prague’s leadership, a large segment of the country’s Jews remain frustratingly unaffiliated. Some think the community will dwindle even further if a new approach is not taken.

While Reform and Conservative Jewish groups attract new members at a swift pace, membership in Prague grows at a crawl. Many wonder if the community can survive without members of different sects. Some even see signs that it will soon be forced to include members without Jewish mothers or Jewish grandparents.

Deep Secularism

In the eyes of halacha, Martin Smok is definitely a Jew.

Born to a Czech Jewish mother who unveiled her heritage after the fall of communism, Smok knows his way around a Prague synagogue, can navigate the nuances of Hebrew prayer and song and is familiar with the ritual of Kabbalat Shabbat. But despite his comfort with the religious rituals — developed after his mother revealed her secret — Smok remains uneasy with the spiritual side of Judaism.

“If I was in this country and I was trying to live a religious life, I would feel like I was putting up a theater show,” Smok said. “It’s really about the religion not being a part of me in my formative years. I feel that I would be faking it — it’s not who I really am.”

Such is the outlook of many Jews in what is now the Czech Republic, home to the same Jewish community that included Franz Kafka, Rabbi Loew and the legend of the Golem. If the attitude of today’s Czech Jews could be captured in one phrase, it would be this: Jewish in heart, secular in spirit.

“I think the rule here, especially in Prague, is that the Jewish tradition has always been to not have any Jewish tradition,” Smok said. “What I have observed is Czech Jews not interested in being Jewish, and non-Jews extremely interested in being Jewish.”

After Hitler murdered 85 percent of the country’s Jewish population, the surviving community of Czech Jews found themselves driven toward secularism once the communists took over and institutionalized religious persecution. Many Jews simply surrendered their religious heritage to intermarriage and assimilation.

But when the last of the Soviet tanks finally rolled out of the Czech Republic in the late 1980s and democracy took a foothold for the first time in decades, many Czechs surprised their families by revealing a Jewish heritage.

“My mother, like many, ‘came out’ after communism fell,” Smok said. “But she worshipped in her own way, which sort of combined Christian and Jewish symbols.”

Such a patchwork of religious practices is typical, if there is even a religious element at all: for many Czech Jews, the decades of religious oppression stripped their Judaism of its spirituality, leaving them with cultural roots but no desire to actually worship. With so many Czech Jews declining to embrace their religious legacy, the community has begun exploring ways to expand its membership beyond the traditional definitions of what it means to be a Jew.

A recent post-communist influx of non-Orthodox organizations like the Reform group Bejt Simcha and Conservative group Bejt Praha, have encouraged many Czech Jews to challenge the notion that one must have a Jewish mother to be fully accepted as Jewish. These younger organizations court halacha Jews, but also younger, liberal Jews who might have a Jewish grandparent or might have no Jewish ancestors at all.

“A lot of this is happening because there is so much intermarriage, that even people with a Jewish background do not have a Jewish mother,” said Rabbi Arnold Turetsky, one of the co-founders of Bejt Praha. “There is a lot of desire to convert.”

An Uncertain Future

If you were to take a lunchtime stroll into the building that houses the Jewish community’s leadership in Josefov, you would most likely find a large, cavernous lunchroom filled with a few small clusters of members talking quietly. Despite the large space and many tables filling the building’s cafeteria, most of the chairs sit empty. To Barash, this practically empty room is an obvious symbol of the failure by the community to capture the hearts of Czech halacha Jews.

“The community for the last eight years has had a membership between 1,500 and 1,600,” said Chabad Rabbi Manis Barash, who recently replaced Sidon as the official rabbi for the Old-New Synagogue. “There has never been a real campaign to try and get new members into the community. People who do come here come on their own accord, almost as if it is discouraged to do so. The only benefit to join right now is a subsidized lunch, and even then there are only about 10 regular members who take advantage of this. There is a feeling toward those who want to join the community that, ‘We don’t want you to be a part of our community — this is my community, not yours.'”

But Barash still maintains that halachic Jews are the key to the group’s survival.

“We have a real opportunity to make this community grow,” Barash said. “I’m not talking about non-Jews. There are enough [halachic] Jews here, but surely the community can do better than it has done. Anything would be better.”

Many blame the community’s membership woes on the application process itself, saying that becoming an official member of the Jewish community is far too complicated and intimidating, even for Czech Jews born to a Jewish mother.

“The community has the potential to be one of the most important Jewish communities in Europe,” Barash said. “But it is easier to become a Czech citizen then to join the community. You have to provide proof of a Jewish mother, and it is a complicated process. As Jews, we have to have the [physical] security to protect ourselves. But we should be welcoming in other ways — especially to those who seek us out to join.”

There are some promising signs that the community is opening itself up to non-Jews.

Jelaanek says he has been working since September 2001 to expand the official community beyond membership, and points to a recent development in which the community began to offer affiliate membership to those with a Jewish grandparent. But to the liberal groups on the outside who receive neither funding nor support from the community itself, the move simply isn’t enough. They say that the leadership should represent the typical Prague Jew.

“Why should we be in secular Prague with an Orthodox rabbi?” said Sylvie Wittmann, leader and founder of Bejt Simcha, a Reform Jewish congregation based in Prague made up of more than 145 Czech Reform Jews. “Everyone is interested in their roots, but we are a secular community. The roots of Czech Jews are not Orthodox.”

Western Influence

Today’s Czech Jews face a question they never had to confront until the early 1990s: explaining which type of Jew they are. Before the Velvet Revolution forced the communists from power in 1989, Jews were simply Jewish. But, with the Iron Curtain drawn back, several Western groups moved in and put down roots in the Czech Republic during the tumultuous and exhilarating years of the early 1990s, Smok said, inadvertently fracturing the community.

“The activists moved in after the fall of communism and began using these labels,” Smok said. “Now, if you are labeled as a Reform Jew, it’s often used as an excuse not to learn certain things. Many of the liberal Jews show up to the synagogues, happy to embrace the Jewish faith. But in the end, they sometimes don’t even know how to pray.”

If you strip away the confusion brought on by Western-style labels, however, some say that the community’s fractious discord is less an issue of theology and more an issue of authority over the restored Jewish monuments and memorabilia that remain in Prague. After the Nazis and communists stripped Czech Jews of nearly all of their prized property — from synagogues to artwork — the community spent the years since the fall of communism attempting to regroup and reclaim it, said Tomas Kraus, leader of the nation’s Federation of Jewish Communities. This important responsibility continues today, but the various groups disagree over who exactly would do the best job handling it.

“This is how we started in the 1990s,” said Kraus, of the small group of Jews who banded together after communism to rebuild the community. “No social network, no organization. We had to start from scratch. Of the properties taken during the Holocaust, 90 percent were not returned. We had to fight for them and are still fighting for them.”

While different factions argue over the future of these historical and religious sites, Reform groups like Bejt Simcha feel completely left out of the decision-making process.

But here is increasingly distant hope among community leadership that Czech Jews would ever fill these synagogues, however, even if the synagogues stayed places of worship. With diminished birthrates across the country, some Czech Jews feel that the millions of dollars earned by tourist visits to Prague each year should be used to recruit members into the community. But whether that recruitment focuses on Reform, Conservative or Orthodox members still remains to be seen.

“Right now, we have a complicated system where not everyone is equal,” Jelaanek said. “But if change is going to be made, it has to be made soon. If we don’t get to people now, we will die out.”


Jennifer Anne Perez is a former Los Angeles Times reporter now working as an international freelance journalist based in Prague. Andrew Steven Harris is a former Los Angeles Times editor who now teaches journalism at the State University of New York’s international campus in Prague.

Dark Cloud Looms Over JCRC Future


The shock waves created by recent dismissal of Michael Hirschfeld as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) continue to reverberate both locally and throughout the country as JCRC supporters worry about the future of community relations.

"The sky’s not falling, but there are some very dark clouds," said Jay Tcath, chair of the National Association of JCRC Directors and head of the Chicago Jewish Community Relations Council.

The layoff of Hirschfeld, a respected 24-year veteran who lost his job amid a budget crunch and retrenchment at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, comes at a time when many JCRCs have fallen on tough times. Several JCRCs have seen their budgets slashed and staffs shrunk in the past year.

Locally, Hirchfeld’s dismissal and what it portends for communal relations were on the minds on many Jewish activists last week. On Sept. 10, Federation President John Fishel discussed the matter with the body’s executive committee. The following day, he met with JCRC lay leaders. Fishel, according to several participants, said he hoped JCRC would be stronger than ever and that eliminating the executive directorship as a full-time position only reflected the Federation’s budget difficulties — not a lack of institutional support. He also talked about JCRC on Sunday at a New Leaders’ Project meeting.

Despite Fishel’s attempts to calm tensions, the executive committee and JCRC meeting were contentious, participants said. At the JCRC gathering, Fishel allegedly shouted at a lay leader from the Valley who had harshly criticized him. Fishel said he thought the meetings went well overall and that he hoped the controversy has heightened community awareness about JCRC’s importance and might increase participation.

Still, several community activists continue to fume. Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair, said Fishel failed to support community building during Welinsky’s term and "tried to pull the rug out." He said he thought Fishel should resign or get fired for his lack of leadership. Fishel said he had no plans to quit and that he has always worked to further the JCRC agenda.

The Federation’s president also said he expected JCRC to emerge stronger than ever. For instance, efforts are underway to recruit more lay people to lobby politicians to support Jewish and other causes.

"I sincerely believe that if we put our minds to it and work together we’ll build on the strengths of past year," he said.

Still, Los Angeles’ challenges are not unique. With organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center promoting tolerance and interethnic cooperation, some community relations committees have seen their influence wane, said Gary Tobin, president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Relations in San Francisco.

JCRCs appear to have also lost their direction in the past decade, said Amy Wasser-Simpson, assistant executive vice president for planning and agency relations at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. From the 1970s until early 1990s, they played a vital role in freeing Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and relocating them to Israel. But with resettlement efforts nearly completed, that has left a void that has yet to be filled, she said. Three months ago, Seattle eliminated a vice president’s position that oversaw community relations because of budget problems.

Federations’ relatively flat fundraising have added to the woes of JCRCs, which historically have spoken out on governmental policy, advocated for Israel and world Jewry and forged ties with other minority groups. Since most JCRCs receive the bulk of their funding from federations, their financial problems have hammered JCRCs’ bottom-line, said Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella group for the nation’s 123 community relations councils.

"When there’s fewer dollars in the field, there’s worry that [JCRCs] can be given short shrift," she said.

That’s already happening. In Philadelphia, that city’s JCRC has seen its annual budget decline to $525,000 this year, a nearly 14 percent drop since 2000. That led to the layoffs of two JCRC employees last year. Another three community relations staff members quit in protest after the local Federation announced plans to absorb the JCRC by 2004. Now, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Philadelphia has four full-time staff members, down from nine just a year ago, JCRC executive director Burt Siegel said. More layoffs are possible.

Even recently revived JCRCs are struggling. Trudi Licht became director of the JCRC of the Jewish Federation of Palm Springs and Desert Area with the mandate to grow the moribund committee. Three years later, she has no board of directors, subcommittees or steady community participation. She blames apathy among retirees and the high number of "snowbirds" who flee during the summer for the lack of JCRC support. Still, Licht feels frustrated.

"I’m trying, but it’s not happening," said Licht, who also heads the Women’s Division Campaign.

Some JCRCs have fared well. The Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco has 14 full-time and six part-time employees, making it one of the largest in the country. It even added a security consultant to work with synagogues and Jewish agencies to prevent terror attacks, Executive Director Doug Kahn said. But reduced foundation funding has led to the Bay Area JCRC’s New Leader’s Project being placed on hiatus, he added.

Hirschfeld, the departed L.A. JCRC executive director, said he thought federations have erred in diminishing the importance of community relations. Far from wasting valuable resources, taking stands on political issues, building bridges with other minority groups and fighting for the downtrodden, the types of things JCRCs do, energizes people.

"I believe it’s a mistake for federations to be jettisoning JCRCs," Hirschfeld said. "Oftentimes, they are the key for bringing in the next generation of Jewish leaders and donors into the federation community."

The L.A. Image


The best thing about David Lehrer’s firing as head of the local Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has been the local reaction, which has done more to awaken Los Angeles’ Jewish leadership than anything in recent memory. The worst thing about Lehrer’s firing: That the ADL’s New York leadership thought it could get away with it, and, sadly, it probably will.

Over the past decade, Los Angeles’ leadership — not confined to Jews — has become all too willing to allow others to dominate its civic life and even perception of itself. The process started in the late 1980s, when the local economy began to feel the impact of the post-Cold War defense build-down and the takeover of the Republican Party by Texans.

Cast adrift by the first Bush and global events, Los Angeles also deconstructed itself. The once confident notions about Los Angeles’ eventual emergence as "Capital of the Pacific Rim" — and notions of equalling or surpassing New York as the center of global capitalist civilization — dissipated. The 1992 riots devastated our bland confidence, particularly in the Jewish community, that we could make multicultural democracy work in a way that our East Coast counterparts never could.

Los Angeles’ Jewish community, particularly its intellectual and media elites, contributed to this destructive pattern. Radical Los Angeles-bashers, like the now widely discredited Marxist author Mike Davis, found welcome audience and many well-wishers among the Jewish elites. Hollywood cooked up endless images of Los Angeles as dystopia for national and global audiences ("Grand Canyon" being arguably the most effective).

The contrast with the largely Jewish media crowd in New York couldn’t be greater. Movies, television and magazine pieces portrayed a revived New York as a kicky, cool place for the Gen-X crowd; the "Age of Seinfield," ironically produced in Studio City, probably did more to restore the city’s luster with the mass audience than anything else. New York was hip, while Los Angeles remained a dystopic, cartoonish "City on the Edge." Real Jews, the smart, sassy and soulful ones, lived in Manhattan, not Manhattan Beach.

Media and corporate power helped Gotham with promoting this shift of image. New York under Rudy Giuliani brilliantly promoted its resurgence, with the help of a largely compliant local and national media, mostly based in New York. Meanwhile, Los Angeles lost its bid to become a serious nonentertainment media center. The Financial News Network, once based in Los Angeles, merged into New Jersey-based CNBC. Fox may have kept entertainment and sports in Los Angeles, but placed its more critical, and highly successful, news operation in Gotham.

In contrast, Los Angeles increasingly had no real media voice on the national stage and, by early in the century, no major outlet to call its own. Even the Los Angeles Times, the historic power center of the region, had become a unit of the Chicago-based Tribune Co., a valued but ultimately subordinate satrapy of a vast media empire. The Daily News, its erstwhile rival, remains under the rule of a Denver-based media mogul with no demonstrable nonfinancial interest or vast ambitions for the region. Even our alternative weeklies, New Times and the L.A. Weekly, are part of national chains.

Largely at the mercy of unsympathetic national media managers, most of them in New York, Los Angeles only slowly managed to shed its hell-on-earth image. Although the economy recovered, and political order was restored by the leadership of Richard Riordan, the city seems to fail in capturing the imagination of the new generation. In contrast, the arts, music and publishing in New York, San Francisco and even Seattle enjoyed powerful boomlets. In business, Wall Street resurged, and Montgomery Street thrived by financing the rise of the information economy. In contrast, Los Angeles hemorrhaged Fortune 500 companies, and even its hot start-ups, such as Earthlink, tended to get gobbled up by firms elsewhere.

In this environment, Los Angeles’ ethnic, economic and political culture produced few notable leaders. Here, Lehrer was a bright exception. In contrast to the defensive and bureaucratic leaders who dominate the national and local Jewish establishment, Los Angeles-based Lehrer was outward looking, articulate and courageous. He became arguably the only prominent Jewish leader in Los Angeles whose voice was heard not only among the various Jewish communities, but in the other portions of this amazingly diverse community.

So how could Abe Foxman think he could eliminate this one shining star? In large part, suggests longtime community activist David Abel, precisely because Los Angeles now lacks the media, political and economic power to make itself felt in the concrete canyonlands of Gotham.

"The fact that Foxman felt he could get away with it," Abel suggests, "says a lot more about Los Angeles than it does about David [Lehrer]. I can’t imagine a Los Angeles-based organization doing that to one in New York."

Is it because they hate us? Or do they simply not really care? Its probably the latter. Los Angeles is not important enough anymore to New Yorkers to hate the way they did back in the 1980s, when Los Angeles seemed to epitomize the "wave of the future." It’s not even deserving of whacks from the likes of Woody Allen.

Back in the 1980s, New Yorkers worried what the L.A. media was up to. Now, Foxman probably feels he can easily survive anything the Los Angeles Times or this newspaper say about Goliath’s slaying of our David. After all, who cares, as long as it doesn’t make waves at the New York Times? Oddly enough, Sept. 11 and its impact on New York has, if anything, made the city even more self-centered than usual.

"I don’t think Los Angeles figures in much at all in the mind of New York these days," suggests Fred Siegel, an urban historian at Cooper Union well- acquainted with the Jewish communities on both coasts. "Los Angeles shows up, but it’s not very important."

In this context, how the ADL board here and the Jewish community respond may say much about how Los Angeles "figures" in future, not only in our community, but overall. If the board kvetches, squeals and then acquiesces by choosing a replacement for Lehrer, it will have earned the contempt that Foxman and the other New Yorkers clearly feel for our city. We will have, by our weakness, once again accepted colonial status.

On the other hand, if board members stand up and refuse to accept the encyclical of the national ADL’s self-professed "pope," they will have struck a powerful blow for regional self-respect –not just for L.A. Jewry but for the whole city and the future of its civic culture.

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