The happiness of paying it forward
Michal Sayas remembers all too well those days when she couldn’t afford a peach at the supermarket. Today, she could buy the entire store — and all the peaches her heart desires.
It is from this personal experience of being in need that the Israeli immigrant created the organization Be’Simcha (Hebrew for “happiness”) in order to give hope to local Israeli-American and Jewish families. The nonprofit assists people with everything from school supplies to utility payments.
It all started with a chance encounter while standing in line at Burlington Coat Factory, where she overheard the woman at the front of the line arguing with the cashier.
“She was pregnant and had three small children with her,” Sayas said. “And she was arguing in Spanish about an item she purchased in installments. … The woman at the register told her that she didn’t finish the payment plan and the customer insisted she did. For me, it was a sign that I’m at the right place and at the right time. When it was my turn to pay, I asked the cashier how much the woman still owes and paid the entire sum. The woman couldn’t believe what was happening. She couldn’t stop thanking me — things like that don’t usually happen to her.”
From that day on, Sayas, 52, said she took it upon herself to pay off the remaining balances of the store’s layaway customers who didn’t have enough money to pay for their items. She had only one condition: not to reveal her identity to the customers. She also didn’t reveal her secret charity work to her husband, Yossi, and three children, Adam, Orian and Roy.
Sayas, who came to the United States in 1986, was not always a woman of means living in a Calabasas mansion. And her husband was not always successful in the construction business (where Sayas used to help in the office).
“I remember us, a young couple with no money. We came here with nothing,” she said. “When I was pregnant with my first child, Orian [25 years ago], we went to the supermarket and saw a big and beautiful peach. I told my husband, ‘Oh, how much I would have loved to eat it.’ But of course, I knew we couldn’t afford it. … Later on that day, my husband went back to the supermarket and bought that peach. I told him, ‘Are you crazy? We can’t afford it, go back and return it.’ He went to the kitchen and quickly cut it to pieces before I’d be able to do anything about it. Of course, I didn’t have a choice but to eat it.”
Today, even though the couple’s financial situation is much improved, Sayas said she has never forgotten those harsh days of calculating every dollar spent and serving sandwiches on Friday night instead of a warm and festive Shabbat meal.
In November 2013, two months after the death of her mother, Simcha Koobi, Sayas decided to take her charity work to a new level. Her youngest child was already 16 and the two older ones in their 20s, and Sayas found herself with a lot of time on her hands. Her solution was to establish her own charity.
“I invited 14 friends over and asked my husband and children to join us and told them how I’ve paid all the debts of buyers in Burlington during the past seven years. My husband and children were shocked. They had no idea,” Sayas said. “My girlfriends were very supportive and agreed to join my charity organization, which I called after my mom’s name: Be’Simcha. The only condition my friends had was that we are going to support only Israeli or Jewish-American families, which I had no problem with.”
Sayas approached three Jewish schools, which provided her with a list of families needing help. Then she filled 135 boxes with school supplies for them.
Should parents vaccinate their children? One pediatrician thinking about measles
Every pediatrician, each in his or her own way, faces those few parents who are afraid to immunize their children. It’s not a dramatic moment. Fairly early in the process of getting to know who this patient is, a parent will say, “It’s too much.” Or, “It will overwhelm his immune system.”
This opens up a new window into who they are, along with a question — will I be able to convince them or not? In a way, it’s basic medicine: You find out something new about someone, and now you have to figure out what it means and what they will need from their doctor.
The measles virus, like the polio virus, only lives — in the strange way that viruses live — in people. These viruses are part of the natural world. We aim to improve upon nature by getting rid of these illnesses, thereby making this virus extinct, without apology. Smallpox was eradicated in the 20th century. The eradication of polio was a goal within reach, though now it seems to be slipping further from our grasp.
My father had polio before it was preventable. Both of his legs were paralyzed. In his childhood, he got around on a kind of homemade skateboard, or he was carried like Dickens’ Tiny Tim. After many surgeries a long train ride from home, he got around quite well with a brace and crutches. His handicap was an important part of my formative experience, 30 years after the polio virus had done its damage to him. Of course, I got the polio shots as soon as they were available. And soon after that, I got the oral vaccine too, just to be sure.
Lots of things are complicated, but why is the immunization of children against measles one of them? It should be a no-brainer. Measles is a serious illness, bad enough that it’s worth preventing.
Antibiotics don’t do anything against measles. Treatment is “supportive,” meaning watch and wait, managing complications as possible. Days of fever of 104 degrees and higher, maybe pneumonia, maybe hospitalization — burning through your deductible — and sometimes permanent consequences. I saw a patient once who was having seizures every minute for years after measles.
Around the world, measles is still a major cause of mortality in children. Almost all of us over 60 are “survivors”; we had measles when we were little. I had measles and got over it. And I rode around in a car without a car seat or seat belt and survived that, too. Not everyone was so lucky.
Seat belts and car seats save lives. And immunization works. It works so well that U.S. cases, which used to number in the hundreds of thousands every year, have been knocked down to fewer than a hundred, until recently. The MMR vaccine prevents measles, mumps and rubella. Incidentally, we don’t see as much infertility from mumps as we used to. And congenital rubella — a much worse illness than measles — has mostly disappeared from this part of the world, for now. I’ve seen congenital rubella with my own eyes: a frail blind girl, with a tiny brain that didn’t work very well.
Most of the people in the world live in places where measles is seen all the time. Mainly, it’s just one, and not the worst, feature of poverty. Since the continuous circulation of measles ended in the U.S. in 2000, we have had occasional measles outbreaks, each starting with an importation. Since then, measles in the U.S. has mostly been imported by Americans returning from Europe and Asia. Someone inhales the measles virus in the course of his or her adventure. Later, safe at home, a nasty “flu” with “pink eye,” fever and cough ensues. Days pass in misery without any rash. Friends, classmates, co-workers, health care workers are exposed. With every cough, he is spreading measles virus generously around; it lingers for an hour or two wherever he’s been. No one has figured out he has measles yet because the rash comes later.
Now we come to “herd immunity.” No vaccine works perfectly, meaning that some people get measles when exposed in spite of having been immunized. But for each individual, the chance of getting it is very much reduced by having been immunized. The fewer the people in the “herd” — more felicitously known as the community — are vulnerable, the lower the chance that the “index patient,” the importer, will be able to infect someone else. For those who cannot be immunized — especially babies, people with HIV or on chemotherapy — “herd immunity” means they hope to get away with being vulnerable because measles won’t start going around if all the contacts of the index patient are immune.
And because the vaccine isn’t perfect, even those of us who are immunized benefit from the herd, because the fewer people around us have measles, the lower our chance of being in the 1 or 2 percent “vaccine failure” group.
So why is there so much push back? Stumbling blocks were deliberately placed in front of the blind: False and fraudulent assertions of a link between the MMR and autism were made. Although the claims were finally and definitively debunked several years ago, spinoff descendants continue to appear. In the American spirit of “Don’t Tread on Me,” parents — like physicians — don’t want government telling them what to do. And some people believe they can protect their children from all harm if they avoid “toxins” and “chemicals” — never mind the “toxicity” of the diseases themselves to muscles, fertility and sometimes to the brain. Others are leery of “Big Pharma” and the Medical-Industrial complex. And not a few parents are just anxious.
Should a pediatrician refuse to take care of children whose parents refuse immunizations? Should a doctor refuse to see people who are sick? We routinely treat folks who eat too much, watch too much TV, don’t exercise regularly, smoke or drink and put others at risk, and even who ignore good medical advice. Why should some absurd ideas about immunization be a disqualifying condition for having a doctor?
Very few of us are completely rational, and for those who are, it’s usually seen as a disability. Our judgments of priority are colored by our experiences. I didn’t need medical school to know that polio was bad. Everyone sees the world from a different point of view. The physician has to start by listening to the patient. Immunizations are important; lots of things are important.
To what extent is the pediatrician, an agent of the state, charged with enforcing some standard? Our primary obligation is to the children in our care, but we rely on the parents to provide it; there is rather little we can do without their active participation. So pediatricians perform a delicate dance — we have to convince the parents to see it our way.
But now measles is here. This week, I began requiring my patients who can be immunized to be immunized against the contagious illnesses that could jeopardize my other patients.
I have to take care of the patient that I have in the family that he has, in the context where I find him. Being invited to enter into that world is a privilege, and it’s my main tool. It’s also where the real drama is, and where both healing and prevention begin. But I am reminded that the context of the physician-patient relationship includes the community of my practice — my “herd.”
David H. Keene, M.D. is a pediatrician in Los Angeles.
My son is too young to be vaccinated
I remember when I read the news on January 5th about measles being linked to Disneyland visits between December 15-20, 2014. I frantically googled how long someone can be exposed to measles before the disease manifests. I found out that at the longest, it’s three weeks. I was relieved, and then I was angry.
My son isn’t vaccinated.
I was relieved because it had been just about three weeks since my family, including my then 2-month-old son, were at Disneyland. And I was angry that measles, a preventable disease, was spreading through southern California.
Even though we were safe from the initial outbreak at Disneyland, we live just a few minutes away from other places where the outbreak is just beginning to show up.
My son wasn’t vaccinated because he’s too young.
I believe in vaccines. I am also a baby-wearing, breastfeeding, co-sleeping, and organic-eating mommy (or try my best to be.) I’m not super “crunchy,” but some would argue I have a lot in common with the stereotypical “anti-vaxxer.” My son is lucky; he did not get measles. He has passive immunity because he is breastfed, and I have been fully vaccinated.
I am a “vaxxer.” I believe vaccines not only help my own child, but are our social responsibility to others who are medically unable to vaccinate to protect themselves. While pregnant, I had my entire family (30 people) get their TDaP booster because I was not risking my son getting whooping cough. He can’t protect himself yet, so it’s our responsibility to protect him. Likewise, the people of society should do so for each other. We might not be family, but we must live together.
Those who are medically able to withstand the minimal risks/ effects of a vaccine should be vaccinated. I know vaccines aren’t 100% effective in preventing a disease, but they do a great job of arming the body with immunity to fight against the disease. So, if someone were to contract the disease, that person is less likely to pass the disease to another and is better able to fight it, making the duration of the symptoms shorter and less intense than if that person had no immunity whatsoever.
Furthermore, even IF vaccines caused autism (which they don’t), I’d rather have a living autistic child than a deceased non-autistic child from a preventable disease like measles.
Having most members of a community, 95% vaccinated, creates herd immunity. People who are immunocompromised, or severely allergic, or too young (like my son) to receive vaccinations depend upon that immunity. It's what keeps preventable diseases at bay and keeps diseases from mutating. It is because so many have been vaccinated that this measles outbreak isn't worse.
That’s why the measles vaccine has been so effective. The strain has remained relatively the same for the past five decades. However, with so many anti-vaxxer clusters, communities have created a sort of petrie dish allowing the virus room to mutate. We see how readily viruses mutate each year with the flu. And measles is much more contagious than the flu.
Do you wonder why we see mothers in poorer countries walking miles to vaccinate their young children? It's because they have seen death first–hand from preventable diseases. There is a reason why we see so few deaths in the US from measles and other preventable diseases. It is because of our access to vaccines and healthcare.
I would hate for children too young to receive a vaccine to die because of another parent’s selfish choice to not vaccinate their child. It’s selfish because that choice affects others. The scariest thought is if the disease is allowed to mutate, then no one, not even the vaccinated, will have immunity.
Marty Sklar: Disney legend, mensch
In 2001, Martin (Marty) Sklar, now 79, was officially recognized as a “Disney Legend” — The Walt Disney Co.’s version of the Hall of Fame. In 2009, another exclusive distinction was bestowed on the low-key leader who had for decades guided Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI), the group that designs and constructs Disney’s theme parks and resorts worldwide: On his final day before retiring, Sklar was honored with a window dedicated to him on Disneyland’s Main Street.
Sklar, who is Jewish and grew up in Southern California, recently chatted with the Journal about his years at Disney and about some personal memories of Walt himself — including the widely disseminated rumor that Disney was anti-Semitic.
The story began in the spring of 1955, toward the end of Sklar’s junior year at UCLA, when he applied for a program that sent about a dozen students to India every summer.
“The whole idea was to show America in a different light from the way it was shown in the media,” Sklar said. “So they picked students who were from a variety of religious backgrounds, and two of them were always Jewish. I was in the running, but in the end, I wasn’t chosen.”
Although Sklar was disappointed, he was buoyed when he was tapped to become — for his upcoming senior year — editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, then, as now, the campus newspaper.
It was because he was in charge of the Bruin — and because he wasn’t in India — that Sklar got the opportunity that would change his life and set the trajectory of his career.
“It was June 1955,” Sklar said, “a month before Disneyland was set to open. I received a call to come in for an interview at Disney, with the head of marketing. It turns out that they wanted to put out a tabloid newspaper to be sold at Disneyland’s Main Street, so they hired me to do that.
“Finishing every park — since then, I’ve been involved with all of them — is chaos, especially at the end. But Disneyland in Anaheim was the first one, so it was even crazier because it had never been done before. … Here we were, two weeks before Disneyland was scheduled to open, and it was total chaos.
“It was at that time that I was called in to have a meeting with Walt, the Walt Disney, to present my concept for the tabloid. Remember: I was 21; I’d never worked professionally, still a student at UCLA. … I was plainly scared as hell. If it was no good, I was out the door; they’d find some professional to do it.
“But Walt liked what I presented, and that was the start of my 54 years at Disney. … If you have a turning point in life, that was mine.
“I’ll tell you what I learned from that meeting,” Sklar continued. “First, I was shocked that Walt had time for this little thing: a 10-cent tabloid to be sold on Main Street. But, like with everything he did, there was always enormous attention to detail.
“And second, for Walt, Main Street was a real town. And every town, at the early part of the 20th century, had its own newspaper. So Disneyland, at that time, without its own newspaper, was not a complete story. That was what I learned: It’s the details that make the Disney parks work, that attention to detail. And you have to make it a complete story, which means striving to be accurate about whatever story you’re telling, down to the smallest details.”
During his first few years at Disney, still in his 20s, Sklar wrote a film about Epcot, the international-themed park adjacent to Disney World in Orlando, Fla. The film was titled “Experimental Prototype for a Community of Tomorrow.”
“That was probably the most interesting experience I had with Walt,” Sklar said, “because it required me to spend several meetings in his office, just the two of us, and I still have pages of notes from one of those meetings. When I look back on it, I can see that he wrote the script of that film. I put the words on paper, but it was really his thoughts.
“He was so clear — so absolutely crystal-clear — about what he intended. And the big thing, and I have it on about three different pages of my notes, he kept repeating: ‘I want to meet the needs of people. I want to meet the needs of people …’ It just permeates everything that Disney does.”
Putting Sklar’s Disney lessons, lore and anecdotes inside the covers of a book has been one of his projects since his retirement in 2009. And now, the Disney imprint has just released “Dream It! Do It! My Half-Century Creating Disney’s Magic Kingdom.”
Sklar said one reason he wrote the book was to “debunk” many myths about Walt Disney, “including the one that he was supposed to have been anti-Semitic. … I never saw a shred of anti-Semitism in him,” Sklar said.
“I’ll tell you a story. During the High Holy Days, Walt tried to call me, and when I came back, I called his office and said to Tommie Wilck, his secretary, ‘What did Walt tell you when you told him I was celebrating Yom Kippur?’ She said that Walt told her, ‘Well, that’s where he should be, with his family.’
“So it’s a bunch of bull, but you know, I can see where it came from,” Sklar said. “Walt was from the Midwest, he wasn’t used to being around Jews. And then he came out here, [where] most of the people in the entertainment business were Jews, so he was the guy out in the cornfield; he was different, and I think that’s where it came from. It never came from anything he said. Not ever.”
The offices of the Imagineers are located on Disney’s Glendale campus, a nondescript industrial area with no animation-themed architecture or nostalgia-infused sculpture. You can drive through it without even realizing you’re on a Disney campus. In recent years, however, this area has been spiffed up somewhat, although it still consists largely of blocky, single-story warehouses.
The Glendale campus’ bland exterior, however, lies in contrast to the inventive work carried out inside, especially by WDI, which Sklar led for decades and continues to inspire. In a way, Sklar himself is similar to the Glendale campus: He cloaks his (literally) groundbreaking creativity within a self-effacing exterior. When Sklar became a Disney Legend, Roy E. Disney, Walt’s nephew, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying that Sklar “is not interested in getting credit for anything … [yet] he has influenced everything we’ve ever done.”
In “Dream It! Do It!” Sklar writes about his final years at Disney, when he had the job of “ambassador,” teaching and preaching “Mickey’s Commandments,” which included Sklar’s rules for “leadership” and “followership.” Clearly, Sklar learned the first two commandments from Walt himself: “1. Know your audience,” and 2. “Wear your guests’ shoes.”
Occasionally, in these commandments — as if with a sly wink — Sklar’s Jewish roots emerge. For example: “Take time to teach — mentors are mensches.”
Indeed, during his years as Disney ambassador, Sklar expanded Mickey’s Commandments from 10, to 20, to 30, and eventually to 40. In his book — poking fun, perhaps, at his own low-key image — Sklar sends apologies “to God and Moses, who somehow managed to stop at 10.”
When asked about that, Sklar laughed. “Compared to me, Moses was a piker,” he said.
LA leaders find inspiration at innovative special needs programs for adults in Israel
Eliza Wilson’s holy moment in Israel didn’t come at the Western Wall. Sure, the 21-year-old with autism was honored and moved to place a note in the Wall on behalf of the 40 people traveling with her on a mission to learn about Israel’s programs for adults with special needs.
But Wilson’s most intense inspiration came at Beit Issie Shapiro, an innovative nonprofit promoting disability inclusion programs for children and adults in Israel. There, Wilson visited the Snoezelen room, a multisensory Mecca of lights, textures, sounds and aromas meant to both calm and stimulate those with developmental disabilities.
“When the lights went on, it was like being at Disneyland. It was amazing. I was blown away by it,” Wilson said.
She spoke about the July mission at a meeting Nov. 5 at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles for 140 parents, advocates and professionals who came to hear what members of the Federation-sponsored trip learned in Israel, and what could apply to Los Angeles’ rapidly growing population of young adults with special needs.
“I know that a lot of you were thinking we were going to come back and we were going to build a kibbutz over here in West L.A. — and we did think about that while on the trip,” said Judy Mark, an activist who co-chaired the trip.
But, she said, while the group saw many examples of innovative programs, what became most apparent was the need for a force to benefit the entire emerging field.
Mark and others on the mission outlined a list of goals centered around funding, advocacy, research and collaboration, and said they hoped to mobilize working groups quickly.
At the same time, the Federation has invited the mission’s leaders, as well as a targeted group of Jewish professionals and lay activists in the field, to a planning meeting at the end of this month to chart a comprehensive communal approach for adults with developmental and intellectual disabilities.
“This has become a priority for the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and we are very proud to partner with so many of you in this room and to see how we can go forward and make a difference and meet the needs,” Lori Klein, the Federation’s senior vice president in charge of Caring for Jews in Need, told the meeting.
The move toward comprehensive planning comes at time of heightened focus on helping adults, and not just children, with developmental disabilities. In addition to the Israel mission, lay activists locally are working on creating a pooled trust, so that parents can set up communally monitored private accounts to fund long-term care for their adult children. Etta Israel, an advocacy and service program for individuals with special needs, has just merged with Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services, a social service organization in New York, raising its profile and programming expectations. Various parent groups are experimenting with independent living models, and Bet Tzedek legal services is spearheading a task force focused on the elderly with disabilities.
Federation and Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles together run HaMercaz, an information clearinghouse and communal umbrella group for families of children with special needs. But HaMercaz is not yet equipped to meet the exploding needs of adults with special needs.
In the next few years, the population of adults with autism is expected to rise by 500 percent. Parents need to plan for the long term by finding not only stable living situations, but programs that will enable their children to have meaningful daily activities, friends, jobs and romance, said Michelle Wolf, who co-chaired the mission to Israel.
The goal was to bring home ideas from successful Israeli programs.
At the Nov. 5 meeting, a film showed highlights of the trip and members of the group described visiting Kibbutz Harduf, where residents with developmental disabilities grow their own organic food and serve it in a cafe they run, and where they create pottery and handmade paper. The film showed Kishorit, a village where residents live mostly in private quarters and participate in the village’s industries — making toys, breeding champion dogs and raising horses, goats and free-range chickens.
The group also visited other models, where those living in private apartments in the community receive enough support services and job opportunities to live independently.
They visited inclusive playgrounds that are being replicated across the world and a deaf/blind theater ensemble.
“It exemplified how they are bringing out the best in each person,” said Elaine Hall, director of Vista Del Mar’s Vista Inspire programs, which bring art and spirituality to children with developmental disabilities. “We can do the impossible because it’s being done every day in Israel.”
While Israel still has some work toward becoming a fully inclusive society, mission-goers were inspired by a man with Down syndrome who works at an army base, and by parent advocates who work to bring together government and private funding to get their needs met.
Mark said the group was most inspired by the collaborative model at Beit Issie Shapiro, a model she can see replicating in Los Angeles, and, she said, Beit Issie Shapiro is committed to helping Los Angeles lay the groundwork.
While Beit Issie Shapiro creates programs, facilities and therapies, Mark said she is more interested in the advocacy aspect of its work, which supports widespread innovation and brings different groups together.
“I see at least a half-dozen of you sitting here today who are building something of some sort, and most of you don’t know each other. One of the best things we as a group can do is to introduce you to each other,” Mark said.
That collaboration is one of six goals Mark and others outlined at the meeting. In addition to bringing cooperation and communication where before there was competition, they hope to raise inclusion awareness, advocate for more government and private funding and provide families with thorough, accessible information. They also hope to fund research into quality of life issues, and then to use that research to fund the most effective programs.
While expressing gratitude for Federation support, Mark cautioned that the needs of the community are too urgent for bureaucratic slow down.
“I think we have to figure out the balance between being inclusive and getting as many voices as possible heard, and moving forward as quickly as we can, because we’re in an urgent situation,” Mark said.
Klein responded that the understandable sense of urgency has made this process evolve faster than anticipated, and Federation is eager to organize the various strands.
“We are not holding this up for the sake of holding it up, but there are things to consider. Every time we have a conversation, everyone has their own priorities, whether it’s about housing or a resource center or a pooled trust. Everyone has what they want, and we believe it is our role to say we’re going to take the lead on this and figure out what are all of the communal needs, and how are we going to prioritize those,” Klein said.
Mickey Mouse and Co. heading to Haifa
Haifa is poised to be the next home to a Disney amusement park.
A 20-acre, $168 million entertainment complex including a 25-screen multiplex and a Disney amusement park is set to be built near the Carmel Tunnel.
The Walt Disney Company’s investment arm Shamrock Holdings and the Israeli New Lineo cinema chain announced the plans Tuesday.
The new complex is estimated to open in 2013.
Visit with special people makes for special summer
Going to Disneyland with your family or friends is always an experience. But going with a group of developmentally disabled adults turns out to be unforgettable.
This summer, I participated in Yad B’Yad, a program where a group of high school students and a group of developmentally disabled campers from around the United States travel together, along with a staff of counselors.
The joy that I saw on so many faces when we were boarding “it’s a small world” is something I will cherish forever. Joy can be found in simply buying clothing or seeing a movie, but seeing someone laugh at a showing of “MuppetVision 3-D” sparked a type of pure joy I had never encountered.
We hadn’t planned to end up in Disneyland.
Yad B’Yad, sponsored by the Orthodox Union’s Yachad program for the disabled, was set to begin on July 18. I was incredibly excited for this amazing opportunity.
The summer after 10th grade is a summer where most teens look to hang out with friends — in Israel, particularly — and just have a great time getting to know people. I had a different agenda in mind: I wanted to spend my summer in Israel, as well, but I wanted to know I would grow from the experience.
But the day before we were supposed to leave for Israel, I received a call from my father.
“Israel is canceled because of the war in Lebanon,” he told me.
What was going to happen to the summer of my life?
Well, the next day the program began anyway, with a new destination — the West Coast. A little disappointed (especially since I grew up in L.A.), I boarded the buses and began the journey that would become the greatest experience of my life. Apprehensive at first, I grew more and more comfortable with the high school and Yachad members and was able to establish personal relationships with each and every one of them.
While the program is set up for the high school students to give the disabled or handicapped participants the times of their lives, the reverse was also true and overwhelming. The joy and fun the Yachad members brought to all the participants was and will forever be unforgettable. Waking up to smiles every morning and going to sleep with the exact same happy faces at night is an indelible memory.
The first Shabbat everyone met and established connections with as many people as possible. This was a great success and set the tone for the rest of the summer. We started in San Francisco and went to Palo Alto and Los Angeles, including our stop at Disneyland.
Prayer services took place three times a day; in the morning, the boys put on their tefillin. One Yachad member I had the privilege to assist with his tefillin was Navid Harouni, one of the three Los Angeles participants on the summer program. Every morning, he and I would recite the Shema together.
On the last day of the trip, when we reached the last word of the first paragraph, my eyes were close to tearing. The type of joy and love Navid expressed by saying a few words that so many people say carelessly gave me the warmest feeling and one of most rewarding experiences of my life.
The last week of camp we traveled to Arizona. When we got to the Grand Canyon for a magnificent sunset, everyone was clicking away with cameras, observing God’s amazing creation. Once the sun had almost set, one counselor from Israel, Shachar ben David, asked everyone to pick a different spot on the platform and simply think about something meaningful in perfect silence.
I sat down looking at the spectacular sunset with lightning crashing down on the background and was astonished at the beauty God could create. Then, looking around at everyone else sitting in silence, I thought, “Wow, look at how God was able to create a program like this, as well.”
The night after the program ended, I received at least 50 e-mails from people on the program saying how hard the separation is and how different life will be without 65 amazing people joined together. A reunion occurred Aug. 24, only three days after the program concluded. The ties and relationships established through the program are the types that remain forever.
Participants in these programs go with a specific goal in mind — to give more than you get. Those are the types of people who try to perfect this world and assist in bringing unity to the Jewish nation as a whole.
Ian Lurie is an 11th grader at YULA.
Ten Days in L.A.
A Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reception welcomed 18 students participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by the Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Fourteen students from Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon School and four students from their paired partner, Northridge’s Abraham Heschel Day School, gathered to reflect on their experience as the Israeli students — all ages 13 and 14 — wrapped up their 10-day visit to Los Angeles.
"This trip was very important to me, because I actually got to meet the kids I’ve been writing to for four years and see how they live in Israel," Gordon student Maya Levit said.
While in Los Angeles, the Israeli students experienced American culture, both exotic and mundane, including trips to the mall, Disneyland and Universal Studios. The students also took part in some charitable work: half the group participated in helping the homeless, while the other half volunteered at an AIDS Project Los Angeles food bank.
On the penultimate day of their visit, the Israeli teens conveyed their impressions of American culture and of their life in Israel, which is rarely divorced from the ongoing violence and political turmoil. The Israeli students unanimously feel that their country, in recent years, has become isolated and inoculated from worldwide support.
Merav Schechter even considered her stay a diplomatic mission.
"I wanted to get more support for Israel from Jews in L.A.," she said.
"We need support from Jews here, even if they don’t think Ariel Sharon is doing the right thing," Eliran Raz said, to which Gil Asher added, "Israel needs support in the media."
The Israeli students said they were struck by cultural differences with their American counterparts, who seemed more connected to Jewish tradition. Aviv Benn-Sa’ar said he admired the inclusion of religious ritual at their host Conservative day school.
"In Heschel, every Friday they go to beit midrash," Benn-Sa’ar said. "In Gordon, we don’t do it."
Heschel’s students were equally moved by their Israeli pen pals’ visit.
"It has impacted me a lot," said Ali Baron. "Now the situation in Israel is actually more real to me."
"It reinforced for me how every Jew in the world is connected," Daniel Kattan said.
Gisele Feldman learned that Los Angeles was not as religiously polarized as Israel is. "There, it’s Orthodox or nothing," Feldman said.
The Federation reception was organized by Galia Avidar, Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s assistant director of Israel and overseas relations. Also present were Judy Taff, director of Judaic studies and exchange coordinator at Heschel, who oversaw the L.A. visit with the help of Pam Teitelbaum, mother of Heschel participant Adam Teitelbaum. Lois Weinsaft, the Federation’s vice president of international planning, heads the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.
The Israeli teens were accompanied to Los Angeles by Gordon staff members Maya Mendel and Tal Atiya and Gordon parents Shoshanna Gatenio and Menachem Reiss. Special programs leaders Sara Brennglass and Hyim Brandes also took part.
The Tel Aviv students said that they would leave with good impressions of Los Angeles’ way of life.
"It was a really good experience for me," Tal Erdinast said. "It will change my life forever."