Diversity is good for Jewish college students


In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

P. S. Tikkun Olam: Veteran Jewish educator opens charter school driven by vision of a community


Strolling through his new charter school’s rented quarters on a recent morning, Matt Albert swings open a restroom door and smiles.

“Look,” he said, gesturing toward the tiled space. “Clean bathrooms. Often, that’s the scariest place in a public school.”

The citrus-hued rooms of the Oasis Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard near Highland Avenue might not seem like a standard site for a new public school. But maybe, Albert believes, a little diversity is just what the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) needs.

After two years of fundraising and petitioning the district, Albert is opening the doors of New Los Angeles Charter School (New L.A.) on Sept. 3 to 75 sixth-grade students. The former Milken Community High School educator hopes the middle school’s small class sizes and community-service-oriented curriculum will fill a need in a part of the city that has been underserved for years.

“We want to nurture a diverse body of students who are passionate about learning, engaged in their community and have respect for themselves and others,” said Albert, founder and executive director of New L.A. “We want kids to work on solving problems in their own communities and grow up to become civic-minded adults.”

To Albert, who also served as admissions director at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), that means getting the children out of conventional classroom programming and into the world around them. Once a week, students will walk three blocks south to Wilshire Crest Elementary School on Olympic Boulevard to read to second- and third-grade kids, through the Jewish Federation’s KOREH L.A. literacy program. They will aid cleanup efforts at the 200-acre Ballona Wetlands Ecosystem in Marina del Rey. Albert is also trying to partner with a local retirement community so the students can visit the elderly, soak up their oral histories and gain greater appreciation — and empathy — for senior citizens.

These community service activities, Albert said, will foster among New L.A. students a gut-level understanding of what makes up a neighborhood and the hard work, pride and leadership it takes to make one flourish.

“Teaching civic responsibility and the importance of knowing what’s going on in the world is a big part of the mission,” said educator Tanya Kennedy, who will teach Earth science at the school. “We want students to be connected — as part of the school community, the city community and ultimately as a citizen of the world.”

Such a mission would not be easy to carry out at a traditional public school, according to Albert.

“LAUSD is a huge, bureaucratic district with almost 800,000 students,” he said. “There are a lot of obstacles to actually getting things done within the district.”

With a charter school, Albert could create an outside-the-box educational program, while still keeping the school free and open to all L.A. students.

New L.A. is meant to serve students from both the Carthay area, which has not had a local middle school for decades, and the Mid-Wilshire area, which is served by John Burroughs, a large LAUSD middle school a few blocks away from New L.A.’s Wilshire Boulevard site.

“At some public middle schools, there are 2,000 kids,” he said. “You have a 10-year-old walking through the halls, and nobody knows them. This is a critical time for them.”

Private schools can provide a top-notch learning environment for students, Albert said, but soaring tuition fees keep many families out.

Yet charter schools — which collectively serve about 41,000 students in the Los Angeles area — come with their own set of assets and pitfalls. They are authorized and funded by LAUSD, but don’t have to follow the district’s standard classroom protocol. In exchange for greater freedom in terms of budget, curriculum and programming, they must find their own location and startup funds.

New L.A.’s initial enrollment is made up of 75 sixth-graders who will be divided into three classes, and the six classrooms at the Oasis Theatre, owned by the non-denominational Oasis Christian Center, provides ample space.

The school’s faculty will set aside time at the end of the school day for an intervention program that will focus on enrichment and skill-building. Kids will also meet with a student adviser for 30 minutes each day to talk about social and emotional issues, tolerance and community building.

“Our teachers have taken a huge risk coming here,” Albert said. “They’re out of the union; they’ve had to resign their positions at LAUSD. But they are confident about our mission.”

For Adina Ackerman, who will teach language arts and history, the chance to work at New L.A. was “something I couldn’t pass up.”

Ackerman has known Albert since her sophomore year at Milken Community High School, when he was her Jewish history teacher. They also worked together as counselors at Camp Ramah in Ojai.

The Los Angeles native got her start as a fourth-grade teacher at Temple Israel of Hollywood’s day school and then taught third grade at Figueroa Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles.

“There is very little freedom within the curriculum and a huge emphasis on testing,” she said of her experience with LAUSD. “You can’t really be a great teacher because you’re spending all your time preparing for tests.”

South Africa native Tanya Kennedy said she was also drawn to New L.A.’s creative atmosphere after three years teaching second and third grade at an inner city San Diego school.

The other two teachers on Albert’s five-member staff bring a range of personal talents to the mix. Math teacher Lena Liu, fresh from a five-year stint at an elementary school in Koreatown, is also a violinist who has played with hip-hop orchestra daKah, MC Mos Def and musician Rahzel. Humanities teacher Stephen De Sal has 20 years’ teaching experience, including for gifted and talented students in the Pasadena Unified School District.

Toward a better Federation


I recently accepted the chairmanship of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Although I did so somewhat reluctantly, I accepted this new responsibility because I believe that without a healthy revitalized Federation, Jewish life in Los Angeles will suffer.

It is no secret that The Federation, in recent years, has struggled to attract new supporters and increase its annual contributions. Acknowledging those facts is necessary in order to correct our agenda and improve the health of the organization.

At our last board meeting, I spoke to our board members about hope, growth and involvement. I’d like to share those thoughts with the community at large.

Hope: We, at The Federation, need to reignite the flames of hope for our donors, for our beneficiaries and for those of us (both lay and professional) who work at The Federation. Rekindling hope cannot be accomplished with words, but rather with growth and greater involvement in Federation activities, especially among the young people of our community.

Growth: In order to grow this organization, we need to do several things simultaneously. We need to focus our efforts on fewer activities. The projects and programs we need to choose must not duplicate others in our community, and those we do we must do at a level of excellence. In many cases, that means doing them in partnership with other Jewish organizations that have expertise and depth in a particular area. We need to support all Jewish organizations in Los Angeles and applaud their accomplishments. They are us.

In the area of growth, it is my plan to focus The Federation’s activities on:

1) Israel and overseas activities: We have a unique advantage over other Jewish organizations in our community in this area. We can build on our successful Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership and provide a meaningful Israel experience for all Jews traveling to Israel, no matter the sponsoring group.

2) Community: The Federation, representing the entire Jewish community, is best suited to begin partnerships with other ethnic and religious communities in Los Angeles, especially the Latino community, which demographically will soon be the largest community in Southern California.

3) Leadership: It is our job to identify and train future Jewish lay leaders not only for The Federation, but for all Jewish institutions in our area.

4) Education: We are nondenominational, and we ought to be inclusive. We are particularly situated to stimulate the growth of Jewish educational institutions from preschool to grammar school to high school and college-level Hillels. The demand for these services is overwhelming, and we can do this in partnership with other institutions in our community, including our synagogues.

5) Vulnerable services: The Federation has historically taken care of those in our community whom no one else cares for and we need to continue to do it in a meaningful, efficient and fair way.

The Federation needs to be seen as a place for seed capital in the nonprofit Jewish world. We need to encourage Jewish institutions of all stripes to begin, to grow, to prosper and we need to applaud their accomplishment, even if they compete with us for supporters and contributions. Competition is good, and we should not be afraid of it; it will make all of us stronger.

Involvement: In recent years our membership has receded. I believe that the reason for this is the failure to involve in a meaningful way the young people (ages 25-50) in our Federation and its activities. We ask for their money, but we have not provided them with meaningful opportunities to become involved in the activities of The Federation. I have promised myself and the board that within two years, one-half of our board will be made up of young people.

In order to achieve the strategic goals of hope, growth and involvement, we need to make three tactical changes. We need to continue, but at a more rapid pace, the emancipation of our agencies. In many cases, the agencies have become more dynamic than The Federation and we need to be less paternalistic about their activities. We need to fund projects and programs at the agencies that are consistent with our focus: Israel, community, leadership, education and vulnerable services. We need to applaud their success and see it as our success.

We also need to make changes to The Federation’s governance. A 135-person board is too large to effectively push the organization forward rapidly. Rather, we need a large assembly or congress of all Jewish organizations in the city to meet at least twice a year. The purpose of such meetings is for The Federation leadership to hear the broad macro-issues effecting our community so that we can focus our energies and attention on solving those issues; so that we can assist those with programs and projects that address the community’s priorities.

In contrast to the assembly/congress, The Federation itself needs a small board and executive committee in order to attack the day-to-day issues facing The Federation.

Finally, The Federation needs an army of campaigners to restore the prominence of our annual campaign, and we need to embrace directed giving if such giving is to one of our sponsored programs or projects. We have, in recent years, turned over the responsibilities for raising sufficient funds to The Federation staff. That trend is a mistake. It is lay leadership, with their networks of friends, family and business acquaintances, who have the responsibility to raise funds necessary to provide our programs. Under the general campaign leadership of Bettina Kurowski we have begun that process, but it requires everyone involved in The Federation to be a part of it. One cannot be involved on the distribution side unless one has made an effort on the revenue gathering side. This is not two Federations; this is one integrated Federation with lay leadership responsible to the community generally, both in fundraising and the distribution of money for services.

I believe that we can again make The Federation exciting and relevant to the Jewish community. I ask you to join with me in a new inclusive Jewish Federation; one that is especially welcoming to the young professional leaders in our lay community. If the challenge appeals to you, don’t hesitate to contact me … we’ll find a meaningful position for you. The responsibility of Jewish continuity and the Jewish future and Klal Yisrael is not a job for a small group of elite Jews, but rather a job for all of us and I hope The Federation will be your door to fulfilling that responsibility.

Stanley Gold is the recently appointed chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders tell all


“Where are we as a people?”

On Monday, the three heads of the leading Jewish seminaries tackled this question, as well as the challenges of teaching a new generation of Jews in an hourlong plenary session that stepped outside the overriding focus on Israel at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (YU); professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) spoke about training the next generation, led by moderator Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president, policy development, of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Campus for Jewish Life, is three years into his job at the Orthodox YU, and Eisen, chair of the department of religious studies at Stanford, is the newly elected chancellor of the Conservative JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.

Although it was not a “Kumbaya” session, where the three leaders of the universities “waved candles and sat together,” as Joel said in a post-meeting discussion with the three leaders and The Journal, that was not his ultimate goal. Instead, they focused on their common challenges and goals, while still delineating their differences.

They share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, “The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life.” They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.

“There’s no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us,” Eisen told the thousands of people at the morning plenary. “There’s a lot that’s not working, a lot that’s not worth joining and there’s a lot that’s not directed at them. We can’t really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.”

Joel said he was having “deja vus all over again,” because in 1969, at a similar meeting, the younger generation disrupted the meeting, saying the elders didn’t understand them, and they wanted their voices heard. They said, “If only they would be allowed to join the conversation, it would be different!” Joel said, “They were allowed in, and it is different.”

But also, in many ways, he said, it’s not different.

“Young people are young people,” he said. “They would like to matter in the world.” The challenge, he said, is not understanding them but “feeding them” by educating them.

This next generation, said HUC-JIR’s Cohen, is “searching for answers. If we can provide communities of meaning that can draw them in, that will enable them to struggle with the enduring question of life that we all have; they will ultimately be drawn in.” Cohen discussed the synagogue as the way to engage the younger generation.

Overall, the three expressed hope and optimism that there are ways to engage the next generation, although during their public discussion, they were light on specifics. JTS’s Eisen brought up Birthright, the fully sponsored free trips to Israel offered to people 26 and under. He called it the most successful program for the Jewish continuity “since the bar mitzvah” and suggested that the community do something similar for older people.

After the plenary, the three discussed ways that they are implementing change within their seminaries. “The training at the colleges is radically different today” than it was 20 years ago, Cohen said.

For example, he said, instead of simply taking classes, students are mentored, and they work in the community.

Eisen said that from his perspective at Stanford, he sees the JTS students as living in a cocoon “surrounded by people committed to Jewish professional careers,” and he wants to get them into the real world. “I think that all of us have a problem that a huge portion of the rabbi’s job is something they’re not prepared for,” he said, referring to everyday problems, such as dealing with synagogue boards. Joel added that YU has now begun tracking its rabbinic students to find out which ones plan to go onto pulpits, into education or other professions, so they can tailor their education accordingly.

Cohen of the Reform seminary said one of the biggest challenges is to create collaboration between the denominations.

“We are tremendously fragmented,” he said. “How do we begin to see each other as partners?”

During the plenary, Cohen encouraged the federation system to be the mediator and unifier in bringing synagogues and institutions of different movements together.

“Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision,” Cohen said.

But Joel was quick to point out both publicly and privately that their vision is not exactly unified.

“Let’s acknowledge some clouds,” he said. “We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can’t bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries.”

The Reform and Conservative movement share challenges that are different from the Orthodox, such as intermarriage, assimilation and engaging the next generation. The Orthodox are grappling with how to apply the Torah and moral learnings to the secular world and how to engage their Jewishly educated children in the world, while the Reform and Conservative are looking at how to apply the lessons of the outside world to educating their children Jewishly.

For example, Reform and Conservative congregants and students focus on social action programs, such as helping people in Darfur, to which they apply accompanying texts from the Torah and rabbinical teachings. YU students, on the other hand, might have studied at yeshiva in Israel and learned the “Ethics of the Fathers” but don’t know how to apply it in their own communities or other communities.

Middle-Class Squeeze


In the past six years, Diane Demetras and her husband, Marcel Indik, have taken one low-cost vacation and have dined out only on rare occasions. They don’t buy themselves new clothes, they drive old cars and rent movies rather than go to them because weekend activities have been whittled down to what is cheapest.

They’ve done this — willingly and without regrets — so they could afford to send their two children, Emile and Olivia, to Temple Israel of Hollywood Day School, where they feel their kids are getting a great education, a grounding in Jewish tradition and a sense of belonging to a values-based community.

The Demetras-Indiks are solidly middle class. She is an academic adviser at USC and he is a successful commercial photographer. They co-own the fourplex they live in, and, if not for the $30,000-plus a year they spend on their kids’ school and camp (that’s including a few thousand dollars in financial aid), they would be considered comfortable in the Southern California economy.

But it is families like theirs who are feeling the squeeze of the upward crawl of day school tuition over the last several years, which has brought the average tuition for elementary and middle school to about $12,600 and for high school to as much as $20,000. Those numbers are about 30 percent above what a year of schooling cost four years ago and nearly double 10 years ago.

To be sure, at secular private schools tuition has risen just as sharply, and often far more so, but non-Orthodox Jewish schools are competing on two fronts: with the lure of fancy private secular schools for many who can afford to pay whatever it takes, on the one hand, and with the tuition-free option of public schools, particularly the gifted magnets or other specialized programs for those who are struggling to make ends meet, on the other. Neither socio-economic group is willing to compromise educational standards, which means Jewish schools have to maintain a high academic bar, but also give the added value of a Jewish education — making the latter a convincing selling point to those who might opt for just Sunday school enrichment.

Most of the 10,000 students in Los Angeles’ Jewish day schools come from families with too much income to qualify for significant financial aid, but many are not wealthy enough to easily absorb such a significant hit on their budget. And there are also those who do not see themselves as “scholarship families,” and who choose therefore to send their kids to public schools rather than open their financial records for the aid applications.

About 14 percent of school-age Jewish children in Los Angeles are enrolled in day schools, the majority of them in Orthodox schools.

In the past 15 years, day school enrollment across the country has boomed. Between 1992 and 1998, enrollment jumped by 25,000 students, and from 1999 to 2004, another 20,000 students enrolled, bringing the total to 205,000 nationwide. Much of the growth occurred in non-Orthodox schools, new schools and in high schools.

While Los Angeles has generally mirrored that growth, in the past five years the number of students enrolled in L.A. day schools declined by about 400 students. Last year saw a turnaround, however, with an increase that brought the number close to its 1999 peak of 10,000 students.

But the decline has educators concerned, and while they know that cost is not the only factor — there was also an overall economic downturn and demographic dip in school-aged children — tuition increases certainly don’t help.

Over the past 11 years, Temple Israel has seen its enrollment increase from 82 children to 200, but the school has had losses, too. Like many families, the Demetras-Indiks had to make a tough choice. Tuition at Temple Israel Day School went from $9,500 four years ago to $12,170 for the next school year. So come this September, Emile will be attending public school for the sixth grade.

“We couldn’t handle the cost anymore,” Demetras said.

Diminished day school enrollment — or enrollment from a narrow socioeconomic stratum — hurts the entire Jewish community. Population studies have shown that day school alumni are more likely to retain a lifelong affiliation rate with Judaism, and to educate their own kids Jewishly. Day school graduates, in a sense, boost the knowledge base of the entire community.

“We have learned so much about what keeps kids Jewish in this world that is always pulling at them, and the day school movement is such an important contributor to the Jewish people. To not be able to make a day school education affordable for people who want it is an awful alternative,” said Rennie Wrubel, head of school at Milken Community High School.

Over the past decade, with increasing sophistication, schools are looking to sources other than tuition to make ends meet. They are setting up endowment funds, ramping up marketing both to potential parents and donors, and nurturing new supporters — from alumni and grandparents to people and foundations previously unconnected to day schools.

“If we believe in this, and we believe in how powerful it is — and some of us do — then we have got to have the whole community get behind all of our efforts,” said Bruce Powell, head of school at New Community Jewish High School in West Hills. Powell believes a massive communal endowment — $1 billion — needs to be set up to cover the cost of Jewish education.

Lisabeth Lobenthal couldn’t agree more. Lobenthal is a synagogue director who put her son, Aaron, at Temple Beth Am’s Pressman Academy for kindergarten. A single mother who does not receive child support, Lobenthal was making $48,000 a year when she applied for financial aid. She tried to make do with the $2,500 break on the tuition of about $9,000 — she was told it was the maximum she could receive and never asked for more — but once she paid for tuition, rent, basic bills and groceries, she was, literally, penniless.

“They called me for a donation for a pizza party, and I couldn’t give them the $10,” Lobenthal said.

She pulled Aaron out in first grade and put him in public school, where he’s been happy, but his Jewish identity has suffered. Now 11, Aaron hates Hebrew school.

“I’ll be happy if I can get him to have a bar mitzvah,” Lobenthal said.

Currently, the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE), a Federation agency, allocates $2.35 million to Los Angeles’ day schools. For the past two years, the wheels have been turning to set up a $20 million endowment fund for day school education. The Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Foundation have each pledged $1 million to the fund, and are working with BJE to secure lead donors. The interest from the endowment — about $1 million annually — would leverage endowment dollars raised in the schools at a rate of 25 cents to the dollar. So if a school raised $1 million for its endowment, the fund would then pay the school an additional $250,000, according to Miriam Prum-Hess, the director for day school operational services at BJE. That approach, rather than, say, discounting every child’s tuition, works for a city the size of Los Angeles. With nearly 10,000 students, a community fund to discount tuition by $2,000 per child would cost $20 million. With this model, schools have incentive to raise their own money, and then can use the money however best suits the particular schools.

Other communities have managed to generate large gifts in the last two years. In late 2004, three philanthropists gifted $45 million to Boston’s 16 day schools, and other communities have seen numbers between $13 million and $20 million.

“I have found a great willingness among major Jewish philanthropists to invest tremendous amounts of capital in models of Jewish education that work,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE).

Elkin also believes that with the right training, technology and motivation, the 759 day schools that serve 205,000 students nationwide can double their annual giving to cover the gap between tuition revenue and what it costs to run a school.

In Los Angeles, while some schools have to make up about 10 percent of their budget in fundraising, others find themselves with gaps of 40 percent or more. And with a huge jump in insurance — particularly workman’s comp — and increased security costs since Sept. 11, as well as the pressure to keep teachers’ salary and benefits on par with public schools, raising tuition is a tempting way to make up the shortfall.

But Prum-Hess, who moved into her position at BJE after serving as vice president of allocations for The Federation, hopes that schools can hold the line on tuition by tapping into unrealized revenue potential.

This year, as part of a national Match Grant program, she helped 13 schools raise a combined $1 million from new donors, which earned the schools an additional $500,000 from the Jewish Funders Network and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. Schools also brought in $1 million in homeland security grants, with Prum-Hess’s help (see sidebar).

She wants to see schools think more strategically, setting up endowments and seeking bequests.

“I think the biggest problem that day schools have is that many live hand to mouth and it’s very hard to think beyond the immediate when that is the way you operate,” she said.

Change is coming slowly. A handful of schools have already started endowments.

Emek, an 824-student Orthodox school in Sherman Oaks, last year set up the Emek Heritage Endowment Fund, asking every family to contribute $200 a year. Now at the end of its second year, the fund garnered 100 percent participation and has $70,000, and administrators hope to reach $1 million within 10 years.

But long-term planning isn’t going to help the Katz family (they asked that their real name not be used to protect their privacy). Jennifer is a social worker; David is in the allied medical field. Both have advanced degrees and good jobs. But between the housing market in Los Angeles and the cost of day school — even with financial aid — they have made the decision to move to Cleveland this summer. There they can trade up from their two-bedroom duplex to a four-bedroom house that costs $250,000, and they will pay $11,000 less than they do now to send their three children to an Orthodox day school.

“We’re just not getting ahead,” Jennifer said. “We can’t take trips that we want to take to see our family on the East Coast. We’ve got three kids living in one bedroom. We work too hard for our money to have nothing to show for it.”

Prum-Hess calculates that to send two kids to day school and live decently in Los Angeles, a family has to earn about $160,000 annually.

“Part of the message that we need to give is that you might be earning $150,000 and saying ‘I’m earning a great salary and I can’t pencil out what is wrong,’ and we say we know you’re not making ends meet, and you need to apply for a scholarship,” Prum-Hess advises.

All Jewish schools have scholarship programs, with a wide range of giving levels and procedures for how parents can access than money.

At Milken, tuition and fees for the 600 students is about $24,000 each. The school gave out $1.2 million in scholarship money. New Community Jewish High School, where tuition and fees run about $22,500, has allocated more than $1 million for the 320 kids it has coming in next year.

Pressman Academy, a Conservative K-8 school where the bottom line comes to more than $12,000, gives out $340,000 to its student body of 367. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a Reform elementary school, allocated $200,000 to its 210 students last year to defray the $14,000 price tag. In the school’s seven years of existence, the temple has kicked in more that $1.5 million to the school’s budget.

The Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood parcels out $77,000 annually among its 200 students, but caps aid at 30 percent of tuition so the school can help more families. On the few occasions where families who apply aren’t able to afford the day school, Temple Israel guides them toward the religious school, where no child is turned away for financial reasons.

“It’s a very difficult situation for all of us who are passionate about Jewish day school education,” Temple Israel Day School head of school Eileen Horowitz said. “We want to be able to help as many families as we can.”

Other Reform and Conservative synagogue schools acknowledge that while they only rarely have to turn students away, they don’t often see those families that truly can’t afford the education. It is an economically self-selected group that even applies.

That is not the case in the Orthodox community, where a day school education is seen as mandatory, even when a family has six, seven or eight kids. Schools that serve the Modern Orthodox population give out about 30 percent to 40 percent of tuition revenues in scholarships every year, compared with 10 percent to 20 percent in non-Orthodox schools.

At the YULA boys high school, last year $1 million was distributed among 195 boys to help cover the $19,000 tuition.

“There is no such thing at YULA as a student unable to attend because of inability to pay tuition,” said boys’ school principal Rabbi Dovid Landesman. “At the same time, we will put as much pressure as we can on parents who can pay. It has to be their most important priority — they can’t say ‘we prefer a Jewish education, but not at the expense of a nice car or going to Puerto Rico for Pesach.'”

The “no child turned away” policy finds extreme expression in the ultra-Orthodox community, where in some schools as much as 80 percent of the student body receives financial assistance, including some who pay only a nominal amount.

At Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, the two principals, Rabbi Berish Goldenberg and Rabbi Yakov Krause, handle financial aid personally. Last year, the school allocated more than $2 million in tuition subvention. Goldenberg estimates that only 350 to 400 of his 1,100 students are paying full tuition, which added to fees comes to about $12,000 a year for the first child (as at most schools, there is a sibling discount and teachers get an automatic break).

The parent body includes many teachers at other schools, as well as rabbis and Jewish communal professionals who serve the wider community. Many of them have large families.

Toras Emes is currently phasing in a minimum tuition requirement of $3,500, so that every family is paying something. (Goldenberg expects exceptions to that minimum, too.)

Like most yeshivas, Toras Emes functions in the red, constantly begging and borrowing to make payroll and pay bills.

“This yeshiva exists on miracles, and you only see it when you sit behind this desk,” Goldenberg said. “Somehow Hashem [God] takes care of us.”

“God will provide” is also the mantra at Chabad schools, which have an open-door policy for anyone who wants a Jewish education.

Rabbi Baruch Hecht, director at the girls’ elementary and junior high schools Bais Chaya Mushke and Bais Rebbe, allocates about half his budget toward financial assistance.

“There is no point sitting in my chair if you are not prepared to do what we do,” he said. “If you are going to run a Jewish day school, then part of that process is knowing you are going to be handing out scholarships — a lot of them — because your mission is to make sure every child has an opportunity for a Jewish education.”

But for now, most middle-class families either aren’t willing to ask, or don’t qualify for much help. Instead, they make lifestyle choices to support their educational goals for their children.

Joanne Helperin went back to work full time when her daughter was 2 so her two kids, now 7 and 4, could attend Maimonides Academy, an Orthodox day school in West Hollywood.

“And I feel guilty about it every day,” Helperin says of the need to work full time.

Helperin is a journalist, the senior features editor at Edmunds.com. Her husband, Robby, is the owner and bandleader of Spotlight Music and the Simcha Orchestra. Business is booming, but with the high cost of living in Los Angeles combined with day school tuition, they find it hard to refuse the offer of tuition help from the grandparents.

“And the question is, will I be able to do that for my grandchild? And what about college? I think we’re going to have to work longer and retire later,” Helperin said.

Tuition assistance programs that have sprung up in small communities across the country over the past five or six years are aimed at precisely this demographic. In Morris County, N.J., tuition was automatically capped at $5,500 for families who earn less than $120,000, and those who earn more can qualify, too.

In the Bay Area, the Levine-Lent Family Foundation set a goal of doubling the number of day school students in Northern California by the year 2010. In 2002, the foundation gave every child enrolling in the newly opened Kehilla Jewish High School a $9,000-a-year tuition voucher for four years, and the following year entering students were offered $7,000 vouchers. The school had expected 18 students in its first class; 34 enrolled, and half of those students had not gone to a Jewish elementary school.

But with 10,000 students at 37 schools, a similar endeavor in Los Angeles would cost tens of millions of dollars — a daunting figure.

The Avi Chai Foundation, a leader in promoting day school education, launched a pilot program in 1998 in day schools in Atlanta and Akron, Ohio. Students were given $3,000 vouchers, but analysts concluded that while the vouchers did help attract and retain students, more important factors were the child’s happiness and the quality of the education.

“The cost of education is not the only challenge the day school world has,” said Elkin of Boston’s PEJE. “We have to market Judaism. We have to market the quality of the education, we have to deal with concerns about ghettoization, concerns that that the schools are too narrow and that kids will be socially crippled when they get out of school. There is a whole range of selling we have to do. There is no silver-bullet panacea for the day school world.”

In Los Angeles, where the non-Orthodox day schools compete for students not just with public schools, but also with other private schools — which cost more and are often perceived as offering more than day schools — competition has increased among the Jewish schools, which is one of the reasons tuition has gone up. Schools vie for the best teachers and pay for extras to attract kids who might end up at Harvard-Westlake or Buckley.

“We want great teacher-to-student ratios, and great science labs and great sports,” said Rabbi Steven Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple. “We want an orchestra and computers and art and dance and music — and, and, and. It costs a lot of money and I’m not embarrassed or ashamed of that fact. It simply needs to be made a priority and we need to go out and raise it,” he said.

Powell of New Community Jewish High School agrees. “How can we do any less 60 years after the Holocaust, when we have not even replaced the 6 million? How can we turn Jewish kids away from Jewish school, kids who want to learn how to live a joyful Jewish life?”

 

Choosing Pluralism


We were all seated in our respective minyanin when a large outburst sounded from the Orthodox group down the hall. Within a few moments, teenagers were running out from every direction, anxious to see what the excitement was about. As I edged closer, I realized it was not disagreement, but joyous celebration filled with shrieks and songs.

Before I could gather my thoughts, someone grabbed my hand and I was swept up in a whirlwind of excitement and shoved against Jewish teenagers of every denomination in a celebration of Shabbat, Israel and Jewish pluralism.

Attending the North American Association of Jewish High Schools’ (NAAJHS) leadership conference last year awakened me to the great possibilities of Jewish pluralism. NAAJHS was founded as a forum for Jewish community high schools to exchange ideas and work toward the betterment of Jewish education.

Sensitive to the needs of students that affiliate themselves with different denominations, the heads of the program offered a variety of minyan choices, from liberal nature services to Orthodox services with a mechitza. However, as Shabbat approached and we gathered in our separate alcoves, a spark of enlightenment surged across the room as we felt the need to enact the Jewish pluralism that we discussed in our daily seminars.

Clasping hands with Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist Jews, we proclaimed our love for Judaism in an outburst of song and dance, putting our differences in belief behind us.

Hidden beneath such Jewish rituals and celebration lies the true nature of pluralism. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis discusses in his essay, “The Pendulum of Pluralism,” the Talmud prescribes benedictions for all of life’s wonders — upon seeing a rainbow, nature, the ocean — but upon witnessing a Jewish audience we are commanded to pronounce: “Blessed is he who discerns secrets, for the mind of each is different from the other, as is the face of each different from the other.”

Are we living up to this commandment?

Earlier this year, Rabbi Schulweis came to Milken Community High School to engage in a discussion with teachers and students about pluralism. As a school that prides itself on pluralism within a community setting, Milken sought clarity and distinction about a concept that can become cloudy and convoluted.

I was seated on a panel with other students and faculty members, and after our prescribed questions were asked and answered, one teacher in the audience asked a monumental question, one that broadened the question of internal Jewish pluralism to our place in a larger, pluralistic culture: How can we truly embrace pluralism within our society if we are the chosen people, deemed by God to be prosperous and blessed?

Rabbi Schulweis answered the question without hesitation.

“I don’t believe that any religion is chosen by God,” he said, “I believe that we are a choosing people, not a chosen people.”

If we as Jews were to walk around deeming ourselves higher than our surroundings, we would fail to accept others as equals. However, the first step in solving this problem of universal pluralism is addressing the problem of denominational pluralism within our own faith.

Too often we neglect the tension that exists between the Jewish people in order to focus on more prominent, global concerns. By choosing to engage in study and discussion with Jews from all denominations, we will instead model the very behavior we wish to incorporate into larger American society. As the modern enactors of our ancient covenant with God, we must emphasize “choosing” over “chosen,” equality over factionalism and denominationalism.

This transition from passivity to action must first be implemented in solving what Rabbi Schulweis identifies as a key tension within Judaism — the sectionalism among Jewish youth. Conservative teens attend United Synagogue Youth (USY) events, Reform teens attend North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) events, and Orthodox teens attend National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY). Each youth group provides a comfortable environment for teens to interact with one another, forming friendships that emphasize Jewish values and the importance of Israel. After reviewing the mission statement on each group’s Web site, I found an abundance of overlap and commonality. Each group aims to develop a strong attachment to the Jewish people and to the state of Israel by engaging in study, participating in services, and living a Jewish life. Why don’t these groups explore their own beliefs and values through interaction with each other?

As a student of Milken Community High School, a school in which Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teenagers study together, I have made it my personal goal to traverse the boundaries of my affiliation with the Conservative movement. If we take a step back from our differences in opinion — take a step back from the confines of our denominations, the limits of our beliefs and the restrictions of our own subjectiveness — we will truly be able to embrace pluralism. As Rabbi Schulweis writes, “Pluralism is not the surrender of debate or the bleaching of passionate conviction … pluralism calls forth an ethic of openness, a disposition to inclusiveness.”

Ashley Reich is a senior at Milken where she is co-editor of The Roar, the school’s newspaper.

‘Thin’ Exposes Hefty Secrets and Lies


Alisa, a 30-year-old Jewish divorcee, consumed 200 calories most days. But every few weeks, she repeatedly binged on gargantuan amounts of junk food, then purged by vomiting, swallowing diuretics and Ipecac. After several days, the mother of two usually landed in the hospital.

“I remember at one point thinking … ‘This is the one thing I want so badly, to be thin. So if it takes dying to get there, so be it,'” she says.

Alisa is one of several severely ill eating disorder patients profiled in “Thin,” the film debut of renowned photojournalist Lauren Greenfield. The raw documentary also profiles Polly, who slit her wrists after eating two slices of pizza; Brittany, a goth teenager determined to lose 40 pounds, and Shelly, who was force fed through a surgically implanted stomach tube for five years. Handheld cameras follow their rocky physical and emotional journeys at the Renfrew residential treatment center in south Florida.

The movie joins an expanding body of work on female dietary obsessions, including the PBS documentary, “Dying to be Thin”; Eve Ensler’s play, “The Good Body,” and Greenfield’s own 2002 book and exhibit, “Girl Culture.”

Her documentary focuses less on the complex causes of eating disorders than the Herculean task of recovery for patients who use food the way addicts use drugs. Polly, a shy psychiatric nurse, weighs in at 84 pounds, but blissfully talks about the days when she sucked food out of her feeding tube with a syringe. Brittany reminisces about the “chew and spit” game she used to play with her mother: “We’d buy bags and bags of candy and just chew it and spit it out. We just thought of it as a good time.”

During 10 intense weeks at the center, Greenfield learned that while societal pressures often trigger eating disorders, they are actually mental illnesses with grim statistics. Anorexia is the deadliest of all psychiatric disorders, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, with mortality rates of up to 20 percent. No statistics exist on Jewish women, but experts say they may be particularly vulnerable, in part, due to more zaftig body types and the drive to look all-American (i.e. svelte).

All seriously ill patients are tough to treat: “Secrets and lies are a big part of eating disorders, because you have to hide your habits from friends and family,” Greenfield explains from her Venice, studio. “At Renfrew, women would clandestinely jog in place in the shower, or conceal weights in their clothing to cheat the scale.”

The center’s rules, therefore, are strict. When Polly arrives at the clinic, staff members promptly search her luggage and whisk away “contraband” such as cigarettes and prescription drugs. In another scene, the usually feisty Polly is obliged to eat a cupcake for her birthday, which she consumes slowly and with disgust. Afterward, she cries bitterly.

Alisa also appears pained when required to sketch a silhouette of herself, which she draws as an obese figure — though after a month at Renfrew she is healthily trim, with an uncanny resemblance to Natalie Portman. She traces her eating disorder to age 7, when her pediatrician declared her fat and she was placed on a 1,000 calorie per day diet.

On camera, she does not discuss how her Reform background fueled her disease, but she answered e-mailed questions through Greenfield.

“Alisa believes that Jews are a proud people; they are very concerned about self-image and there is a strong emphasis on education and money,” the director says. “She thinks that makes for more of a need to overachieve and be perfect, which can drive an eating disorder. So her sense is that being Jewish contributed a lot to her [illness].”

The filmmaker, who is also Jewish, relates to her subjects because she was once obsessed with the scale. At 12, she began physically comparing herself to the other girls at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu and went on to become a chronic teenage dieter. At Harvard University, she “went on a crash diet and lost 26 pounds, in the process gaining so much confidence that I threw myself into my first serious relationship,” she says.

Eventually Greenfield — named one of 25 top photographers by American Photo magazine — dedicated much of her career to chronicling how the Barbie-doll culture scars women. But her 2002 book only touched upon the life-threatening topic of eating disorders, save for several pictures snapped at Renfrew. The artist remained haunted by one of a gaunt patient standing backwards on a scale so as not to see her weight gain.

In June 2004, Greenfield returned to Renfrew with cinematographer Amanda Micheli to further explore the subject, this time in a cinema verite-style film. But she found that earning patients’ trust proved difficult.

After many setbacks, Greenfield won them over by showing she would turn the camera off whenever she was asked to do so. Polly made the request while on a suicide watch, but changed her mind after the director spent the night talking with her. She allowed Greenfield to shoot her purging her breakfast the next morning, an act that is almost always done in secret and is forbidden at the center.

Alisa also purges on camera, but expresses a moment of hope during one group therapy session.

“For a fleeting moment I imagined a better life,” she says. “And maybe — pun intended — I can taste recovery.”

“Thin” will screen at the Sundance festival Jan. 19-29 and on HBO this fall.

 

Lucky Man


Two years ago, my wife and I proudly stood on the bimah as our son, Benjamin, became a bar mitzvah.

He had worked so hard for this day and he looked as handsome as could be in his dark suit draped with a striking new tallit. All four grandparents were shepping nachas from this joyous event.

But when I was Benjamin’s age, I never imagined that I’d witness such a remarkable ceremony. Sure, I figured that I’d marry and have children. And I figured that I’d probably have a son. However, I also assumed that my wife would be Roman Catholic and very likely of Mexican descent. But there I stood two years ago, a Chicano and a Jew-by-choice, as Benjamin read from the Torah.

If one were to do a survey of people who convert to Judaism, I suspect that most do so because he or she had fallen in love with someone Jewish. I am no exception. I grew up in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood near downtown Los Angeles and attended 12 years of Catholic school before going off to Stanford University. Thus, prior to college, most of my friends were Catholic and almost all were Latino. University life was a bit of a culture shock as I became friends with Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists and Jews. Although I had learned of the world’s religions while attending a Jesuit high school, I had never really had the opportunity to socialize with people from those religions. And the idea of marrying a non-Catholic, frankly, did not register.

Then came law school. When we began at UCLA School of Law, my future wife and I were assigned to the same section. This meant that, for the first year, we had the identical class schedule. Sue and I became friends right away as we discussed politics, the law and life in general. We shared a similar worldview even though I was this Chicano boy from a working-class neighborhood who was active with La Raza Law Students Association and she was a Jewish girl from the Valley who had interests in bioethics and women’s rights. But it happened: we fell in love. And then life became complicated.

Two weeks into dating, Sue said to me: “If we get married and have children, they must be raised in the Jewish religion.”

She explained that a large part of her family had not survived the Holocaust and that it was her duty to make certain that her offspring could help offset this loss.

“And they couldn’t have died for nothing,” she added.

I said: “I love you and respect you, and you’re Jewish so why should I have a problem with that?”

I also asserted that I had no intention of converting but that I didn’t want to be a father who stood by the sidelines without anything to add to his children’s religious upbringing. So, we joined Hillel and Sue opened up her rather extensive Jewish library to me. In addition to the programs offered by Hillel, I read the Torah and books by Alfred J. Kolatch, Elie Wiesel, Abraham Joshua Heschel and others as my informal Jewish education began.

About five years after Sue and I met, we were married in a Reform synagogue; although I had not yet converted. My informal Jewish studies continued and, two years later, I decided to convert. My wife was delighted but she had never pushed me on this point. She respected me too much to tell me to change my religion for her. And I suspect she knew that I would not have reacted well to such a request.

After additional study with the rabbi who married us, I went through my conversion ceremony on July 8, 1988, the birthday of my late grandmother, Isabel Ruez Velasco, the only grandparent I’d ever known and our last, direct connection to Mexico. She’d lived long enough to meet Sue but had died several years before we married. Though my grandmother knew Sue was Jewish, her judgment possessed no bigotry or malice. She simply smiled, patted my hand and said through a thick accent: “She’s a very pretty girl.”

When we’re young, we can’t imagine where life is going to take us. But in our youth, we think we can plan it all right down to the type of person we’re going to fall in love with and what kind of family we’re going to build. At least, that’s how I thought. But when I look at my wife and son, I have to laugh at myself. I knew so little when I was young — not that I’m so much wiser now. But I do know one thing: I’m a very lucky man. It’s that simple.

Daniel A. Olivas (

Seattle Reform Camp Gets L.A. Support


Reform Jewish parents from the Pacific Northwest who are not willing to put their children on an airplane or drive 15 hours to California so they can go to camp will have an alternative by summer 2005, thanks to the generosity of a Los Angeles family.

The Kalsman-Levy family has donated $5 million to the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) to buy the property for a new camp in Washington state. Camp Kalsman, named for grandparents Lee and Irving “Red” Kalsman, will become the movement’s 13th camp in North America.

Mark Levy, who along with wife, Peachy, donated the money to buy the camp, says the idea of helping build a new camp in the Pacific Northwest was very appealing to the family.

“As we grew more and more involved in Jewish life, we become convinced that the most important things to keep Jewish kids involved in a Jewish life are Jewish camps and trips to Israel,” Levy said. Their children and all their grandchildren, including one family living near Seattle, have been to Jewish summer camp when they were old enough and Levy adds that Peachy’s parents were also sold on the importance of Jewish camping.

Irving Kalsman and Levy were both real estate developers and Peachy Levy is a Jewish textile artist. The family has made numerous generous gifts to Jewish causes, including a naming gift for the new UCLA Hillel, and a $3 million gift to establish the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism. The institute operates on Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus.

More than 10 years ago, the family set up the Levy Youth Fund to distribute hundreds of scholarships to enable teenagers to participate in youth conclave weekends, summer camp and high school programs in Israel. The family also has set up a program to enable teens with various physical challenges — mobility and visual impairments as well as autism and other disabilities — to enjoy summer camp at one of the union camps. At last fall’s annual meeting of the URJ in Minneapolis, Mark and Peachy Levy were awarded one of the movements highest honors, the Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award for work in service to the Reform movement.

Levy said he knew the movement was hoping to build two new camps in the near future. They were attracted to help build the camp near Seattle because they have a number of connections to the Pacific Northwest, including their daughter, Janet Levy Pauli, who lives with her family on Bainbridge Island and is involved in both the Bainbridge Reform synagogue, Congregation Kol Shalom, and a Conservative shul in Seattle, Congregation Beth Shalom.

Pauli, who grew up in Los Angeles but has lived in Washington for 25 years, has not put her kids on a plane to attend camp in California. Both her boys have attended the Conservative movement camp near Olympia, Wash., Camp Solomon Schechter, but her family has participated in Reform family camps both in California and Washington.

She is looking forward to having a new place for both kids and families to go to camp in the Pacific Northwest.

“It’s exciting because I so believe in camp. That’s something that has been passed on to me and my generation and I’ve passed it on to my kids,” Pauli said, adding that she also enjoyed hearing at the Reform biennial in Minnesota last fall how excited Jews from Alaska were to have a camp a few states closer to them.

For 10 years, Rabbi David Fine, URJ regional director, and others have been pushing for a new Reform camp in the Pacific Northwest. During that decade, the region has grown from 20 to 33 congregations, with two more due to affiliate within the next year. The number of children and families interested in Reform Jewish camping has grown along with the congregations, Fine says, noting that two Seattle synagogues run their own 10- or 11-day summer camps and 200 people attend a Seattle family camp outside of the city every Labor Day weekend.

“Eric Yoffe, president of the URJ, has expressed a desire for increased camping beds,” Fine said. “Camp is where our young leaders are nurtured and grown. The majority of rabbinical, educator, cantorial and communal service workers grew up in the camping movements.”

The URJ runs 12 camps across the country, including two in Northern California, which attract some young people from Washington, Oregon, Montana and Alaska. Fine said he looked at 35 properties over the past three years before a bankruptcy sale made the beautiful and spacious Love Israel property a bargain the movement could not refuse.

The new camp will be about 60 miles northeast of Seattle, between the towns of Arlington and Granite Falls in Snohomish County, on the western foothills of the Cascade Mountains. There’s a natural lake on the property and it’s less than a mile from a river.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a wonderful place for reflection,” Fine said. Surrounded mostly by farms and government property, the camp will also be a great place for kids to make noise and have fun during the summer.

Pauli is the only member of the Kalsman-Levy family to have seen the new camp property and gives the site rave reviews.

“It is just spectacular. The group that’s been there — the Love Israel — people have clearly loved the property, their gardens, the fruit trees, the grape arbors,” she said. “When I left I had this feeling not in the people that I met, but in the physicality of it, that the property was kibbutz-like.”

The URJ paid $4.2 million for the 300-acre property as part of Love Israel’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy plan to pay off a $5.2 million debt. The alternative Christian community, called a cult or commune by some, has nothing to do with the Jewish state or the Jewish people, but rather is a different way of saying the phrase, “love is real,” which is the group’s founding vision. Their beliefs are tied to the 1960s counterculture and the Bible.

The leader of the Love Israel family, who is also called Love Israel, was the only person willing to say anything amusing about the coincidence of the organization’s name and the new owners of the property. When asked by a local newspaper, The Everett Herald, where the group would be going when they left their bucolic Arlington, Wash., ranch after living there for 20 years, he replied, “It’ll be an orderly retreat, an exodus, leaving Egypt for the country. I’ve been able to live in a park. Now I’ve got to park myself somewhere else.”

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser, wrote in a Jan. 2 column distributed the by Religion News Service that there is nothing very amusing about the Love Israel family. He calls the group a cult and describes them as a “bizarre combination of Christian beliefs and New Age ideology, with a charismatic, dictatorial leader.” He expressed his pleasure that the beautiful camp property would now come under the stewardship of the real “Children of Israel.”


Donna Gordon Blankinship is a free-lance writer living in Seattle.

All-Female Plays Fill Niche for Frum


At Chabad’s Bais Chana High School on Pico Boulevard, a number of girls are sitting around a table with director Robin Garbose, reading through a new scene of "Portraits in Faith," their upcoming original musical. In the scene, a gold-digging wife tells her hapless husband that he no longer has any claim to his fortune and that she is going to use his money to party. The husband is Jewish, the wife is not, and her non-Jewishness infuses her with a particularly nasty streak of anti-Semitic superiority. It’s a meaty scene, and though the girls are reading the lines for the first time, they are handling them with aplomb. The wife’s malicious insults become more delightfully sinister in the reading, whereas the husband becomes the lame coward who gets weaker with every word.

On a dramatic level, the musical is a multigenerational historical drama that takes place in mid-19th-century Germany, and is replete with marital discord, class conflict and religious struggles. It highlights the dissonance between the Orthodox and the Reform. On an educational level, the play is a vehicle for the girls to become more self-confident and use their talents for performing arts in an environment that remains faithful to halachah. In keeping with the laws of Kol Isha, which prohibit a woman from singing in front of men for reasons of modesty, and tznius (general modesty) the play will be performed to audiences of women only. And the play itself is not just a drama — it’s a story with a moral. At the end of it, the audience is meant to appreciate the courage and dedication of Jewish women in keeping Torah alive through the ages and feel inspired about the beauty and the holiness of the mitzvah of going to the mikvah (ritual bath).

Garbose expects that at least 1,000 women will come out to see the play when it is performed on March 3, but judging from past audiences at other all-girl productions, that estimate seems conservative. In February, Bnos Esther, a small Chasidic girls’ high school on Beverly Boulevard, put on an all-girl production called "Simply Not The Same." The theme of the play was the importance of Torah, and more than 1,000 women showed up to see it over two nights, a large number considering that Bnos Esther only has 50 girls in the entire high school. Last year Bais Yaakov High School performed their biennial "Halleli" — an all-girl song, dance and drama fest — and drew an audience of 4,000 women over two nights.

The reason for the great turnouts is clear. The plays cater to women and girls in the ultra-Orthodox community who restrict the amount of popular culture that they let into their lives, because of what they see as its irreligious and immodest content. Nevertheless, these women still want to be entertained, but they just don’t want to compromise their religious principals in doing so.

"Most of the people who come to these things do not go to outside entertainment," said Chaya Shamie, the co-curricular director at Bais Yaakov and the producer of "Halleli." "This is an opportunity for them to go to an all-women’s performance that is done in a Torah fashion, that follows all the [halachic] guidelines."

"These plays are the only shows that I would take my daughters to, because as innocent as so many things seem, there are many hidden cultural messages in the popular entertainment out there," said a mother of two girls from the Fairfax area. "I want my daughters’ culture to be a Torah culture. It’s very empowering for them because they see themselves up there in a few years."

For "Portraits in Faith," Garbose’s husband, Levi, adapted a novel by Marcus Lehman, a 19th-century German writer who is something of a John Grisham of the Orthodox world. His books typically are plot-driven, hard-to-put-down novels that are infused with messages of faith. For the songs of the musical, Levi wrote original lyrics to Chasidic nigunim (wordless melodies). For the set design, Garbose plans on new visual possibilities using interesting lighting and some carefully chosen set pieces that will evoke the atmosphere of a different era and country without blowing the minimal budget that Bais Chana set aside for the play. All the girls in the school are involved in the play in some way, either as actresses, prop designers, costume makers, ticket sellers or stage managers.

"Things like Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl make a very compelling argument for all-women’s productions," she said. "What happens when you have a production that is for women only is that it takes the whole sexual component out of it. It’s incredibly empowering."

"Portraits in Faith" will be performed on March 3 at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 4357 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles at 7:30 p.m. For tickets call (310) 278-8995 ext. 405.

Humanistic Service Entices the Secular


At Temple Adat Chaverim in the San Fernando Valley, the High Holiday services make no reference to a supernatural God. Adat Chaverim — and members of a sister group in Los Angeles — will join some 40,000 secular Jews throughout the world in Humanistic services.

“A Humanistic Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur emancipates us from the beliefs and rites of those who prostrate themselves before an all-powerful deity,” Adat Chaverim reader Joe Steinberg will say when explaining the meaning of the observance to the congregation. “They offer self-forgiveness and the occasion to restate our belief in personal and human responsibility for our lives, our behavior and our destiny. For us, the High Holidays are not a punishment or a threat, but an opportunity to gain ongoing insights into our being.”

The numbers of Humanistic Judaism are small — especially given the millions of Jews in the world who identify themselves as nonreligious — but Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine of Detroit, who founded the Society for Humanistic Judaism in 1969, remains optimistic.

He notes, for one, that Sivan Malkin Haas, the first Israeli to complete the five-year rabbinical course at the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, is returning to Jerusalem to lead the Humanistic congregation in the Jewish State.

In North America, some 40 Humanistic “communities” will observe the High Holidays, mostly guided by madrichim (trained lay leaders). Only in eight cities — New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Detroit, San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and the Miami area — will ordained Humanistic rabbis be available to conduct the services.

At Adat Chaverim, the Valley Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, the resident madrich is Steinberg, who organized the group with three other people two years ago.

“Now we have 53 members,” Steinberg said, “and we rent space from a Methodist church in Tarzana. The next step is to get our own storefront place.”

Adat Chaverim broke away from the older Los Angeles chapter, partially to shorten driving distances, but mainly because “we wanted more music and ritual,” Steinberg said.

A vigorous 82, Steinberg worries about the aging membership of Adat Chaverim, a general concern among many Humanistic communities, as among Jewish organizations and synagogues in general. To attract younger families, Steinberg doubles as director of the congregation’s Children’s Jewish Cultural School. Its goal, notes a brochure, is to teach children “the real history of a real people in all its diversity” and to allow them “to develop their own convictions honestly on the basis of knowledge.”

Attorney Shirley Monson serves as treasurer of the Los Angeles Society for Humanistic Judaism, with some 60 members.

Her grandfather was Orthodox, her parents Conservative and Monson attended a Reform temple, “until I grew out of it and became a Humanistic Jew,” she said. “I also didn’t want my kids to get a [religious] education they didn’t believe in.”

As a secular woman, Monson rarely encounters antagonism when meeting members of more conventional Jewish denominations. But occasionally, when the conversation turns to religion and she mentions that she doesn’t pray to God, “they’ll treat me like I had leprosy” Monson said.

A third center of secular Judaism in the Los Angeles area is The Sholem Community, which consists of 120 families and operates a Sunday school, from kindergarten through ninth grade, for 75 students. The center’s credo is encapsulated in the words, “To the best of our abilities, we are the authors and publishers of our Book of Life.”

Hershl Hartman, Sholem’s vegvayser, Yiddish for guide, recalled that the first secular Yom Kippur was celebrated in Los Angeles in 1973. In preparation for the upcoming High Holidays, Hartman said, “Some traditions change, so we don’t sacrifice a young bull, a ram and seven lambs. Some traditions don’t change, so we blow the shofar.”

It is difficult to ascertain the number and percentage of secular Jews in the United States, with Wine putting the figure at a high of 47 percent.

The 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York, cited 1.7 million self-identified Jews who described their households as atheist, agnostic, secular, humanist, or having no religion.

Whatever the precise number, given the large pool of like-minded Jews, why is membership in the Society of Humanistic Jews, and similar groups in 11 other countries, so low?

According to Wine, some 15,000 to 20,000 North American Jews are “fully connected” to the Society, up from 10,000 a decade ago, while an additional 20,000 attend lectures and other activities, or get married under Humanistic auspices.

Wine believes that the future growth of his movement is linked directly to the number of trained rabbis it can produce, saying that Humanistic congregations led by rabbis, rather than lay leaders, are expanding and attracting young families.

Currently, there are six candidates studying in the rabbinical program, but, “If I had 50 rabbis to send out, the movement would grow rapidly,” Wine said.

He is convinced that secular Jews must get together and organize, especially in the face of the growing fervor of religious fundamentalists.

“Unless we are organized, we have no voice,” Wine observed. “And ours is a voice that needs to be heard.”

For information on the Society for Humanistic Judaism,visit www.shj.org .

‘JAM’-packed Campus Outreach


It’s not unusual to see 60 students cramming into an
nonairconditioned duplex on fraternity row on a Saturday night at UCLA — unless
those students happen to be surrounding a havdalah candle singing Hebrew songs.

But so it is on this warm winter Saturday night, as a crowd
of Jewish students gather for sushi and havdalah at the home of Rabbi Benzion
Klatzko. Affectionately referred to by students as “Rabbi K,” with his energy
and youthfulness, Klatzko, 34, could easily pass for a student if it weren’t
for the “Rabbi With Attitude” sign on his front door. Klatzko serves as one of
the on-campus rabbi for JAM, the Jewish Awareness Movement at UCLA, an outreach
organization that aims to help unaffiliated Jews “return to their roots,” as
Klatzko said.

With a population that is approximately 8 percent Jewish,
UCLA houses many different Jewish groups on campus. Some, like the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee and Bruins for Israel, are political, and
others, such as Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, tend to be more
social or religious. 

 Recent years, however, have seen the coming of new
organizations  — those that are taking a more aggressive approach in instilling
Judaism into students.  

“Our role is for people who don’t know enough about Judaism
to be looking, or have had a negative experience growing up,” said Klatzko, who
can often be found casually conversing with students on Bruin Walk.

On this crowded Saturday evening, Klatzko is comfortably
milling around his home on the second floor of the building that he and his
family share with JAM’s other on-campus rabbi, Rabbi Eli Bloom. Mingling with
students, he stops to talk to Sara Monroe, a sophomore who was turned on to the
organization when she was approached by Klatzko while sitting at a table on
campus and has been involved in the organization ever since. How did the rabbi
guess that the blond, blue-eyed Monroe was Jewish?

“He asks everyone,” she replied.

Many students find Klatko’s and JAM’s active, hands-on
approach to Judaism appealing.

“The rabbis are really accessible to talk to about anything
that is going on in your life,” said sophomore Aaron Weinberg.

JAM was established in 1993 as a joint venture between UCLA
Hillel and Westwood Kehilla, the neighborhood Orthodox synagogue, to serve the
needs of Orthodox students on campus. It was funded by a three-year grant from
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles; when the grant ended in 1996,
current JAM Directors Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Zaret took over the organization
and transformed it into an outreach organization hoping to make students more
religious. JAM is currently one of four of its kind that exist on campuses
throughout the United States.

“We’re focusing on Jews with no background at all. It’s our
expertise and it’s where we saw the greatest need,” Zaret told The Journal.

With a database of 2,000 students, JAM’s events tend to be,
well, jammed. The organization events include a weekly portion learning group
and a service that matches a student with an Orthodox family for Shabbat
dinner.

Its JAM’s most popular programs are its winter and summer
trips to New York and its summer trips to Israel, where participants interact
and experience life within various Orthodox communities. “It breaks
misconceptions that these people are cold and hard and ultra-religious,” Zaret
said. Approximately 600 students have participated in the highly subsidized
trips over the past seven years.

Freshman Haggie Mazler went on the New York trip with some
50 students in December. The students visited the diamond exchange in Midtown
Manhattan — where many Chasidim work — and went to Monsey, N.Y., a religious
suburb in Rockland County.

 “The New York trip was about learning how Orthodox people live
and how they study and how they survive in the real world,” Mazler told The
Journal. “Even if you disagree with what you see, you still learn so much and
you have such an appreciation for Judaism,”  Haggie said.

Some students and educators disagree with what they see as
JAM’s monolithic approach.

Junior Tami Reiss praises JAM’s educational work, but is
critical of the organization’s insularity. “Because Rabbi K doesn’t think the
Conservative and Reform movements work as well at keeping people within the
faith, he doesn’t expose students to them,” she said.

Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of Hillel at UCLA said,
“I often feel that there’s a tension between the different approaches of two
teachers. One teacher is saying, ‘come to me, I have all the questions’ and the
other saying ‘come to me, I have all the answers.’ I tend to see Hillel as a
place that says to students, ‘come let’s explore these questions together, but
I can’t promise you that at the end we will find the answer. All I know is that
we will confront the problem with integrity.’ The other approach would
guarantee that there must be an answer, and that we will certainly find it.”

Hillel, which has a global network of more than 500 regional
centers, campus foundations and student organizations, caters to the
approximately 2,500 Jewish students at UCLA.

“At Hillel, we want to give students an opportunity to
experience the rich rhythms of Jewish life, so that they will be able to make
an intelligent decision as to how they want to grow Jewishly and to what extent
they want to be involved,” Seidler-Feller said. He believes that students will
go in a variety of different directions and “we have to legitimate and nurture
the different paths that they choose to take.”

Despite their different philosophies, Hillel and JAM do
occasionally run programs together and their student participants often
overlap. One such example includes a recent joint Hillel-JAM Shabbat dinner.

“JAM is for the student who won’t feel fulfilled unless they
are doing something uniquely Jewish,” Zaret said.

Zaret and other JAM leaders view their approach as
open-minded, noting that students are also exposed to Jews who are leaders in
the secular community in the fields of finance, entertainment and politics.

“Where there are people that are reconnecting to their
Judaism, even though it’s through Conservative, or perhaps Reform, we — in
principle — are delighted to expose students to such people, and in practice we
have done it.” (They recently had entertainment agent David Lonner as a
speaker.)

“We’re looking for people with a passion that have their
foot in both worlds — both the Jewish world and the secular world, whether it
is politics, finance, or entertainment,” Zaret said. “Generally speaking, we
notice that the people that are most passionate about their reconnecting to
Judaism happen to be within the Orthodox community.”

According to Rabbi David Refson, dean of Neve Yerushalayim
College in Jerusalem, compared to other campus outreach organizations around
the country, JAM at UCLA has one of the highest percentage of students becoming
shomer Shabbat.

Ultimately, Zaret hopes that the students will retain some
aspect of what they are exposed to through JAM. “When you’re dealing with
hundreds and hundreds of students over time, the reality is that the majority
doesn’t become Orthodox,” Zaret said. “But, the overwhelming majority develops
a much stronger connection to their Jewish roots, and perhaps it will mean not
intermarrying and perhaps it will mean keeping the Sabbath.” 

To register for JAM’s first spring New
York trip, March 22-30, contact Rabbi Benzion Klatzko at sagewannabe@aol.com
 or at (310)
209-4934. p>

A Small School With Big Plans


On a recent Thursday afternoon at the New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills, 20 students fill the biology lab to hear a guest speaker discuss cryogenics. Next door, another 14 teenagers sit in a semicircle as their English teacher describes their next chapter in Homer’s "The Odyssey." Down the hall, four students in the beginning Hebrew classes learned the Hebrew names for other languages.

In other words, NCJHS — or "New Jew," as the students call it — is pretty much like any other high school, only on a much smaller scale.

Located at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, NCJHS opened its first year with 40 students, offering a curriculum split 30/70 between Jewish and secular studies — with an integration between the two.

During the school’s grand opening ceremony on Sept. 17, Head of School Bruce Powell outlined NCJHS’ mission: to be a place "where students take advanced placement kindness, where science and math are the grand tools in tikkun olam … and where the precious legacy that resides in the souls of our children is nurtured, one mind at a time."

A respected educator in the Los Angeles Jewish community, Powell’s holistic approach can be seen in everything from the curriculum to the weekly schedule. For example, the school has a kehillah where students and teachers gather after lunch several days each week for 40 minutes of Jewish song or Israeli dancing.

"Judaism, when given to students only through text and history, can become very dry," Powell said. "You need both the cognitive and the affective, the intellectual and the spiritual."

Spiritually speaking, NCJHS bills itself as non-denominatinal. While over the last decade much of the Jewish community has been moving both to the left and the right, creators of NCJHS hope it will fill a middle ground between the more traditional Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles and the Reform-leaning Milken Community High School of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air.

The process began three years ago, when a group of Los Angeles parents and community leaders decided they needed an option between the Orthodox and Reform schools. They joined a group of parents whose children were attending Abraham Heschel Day School in Northridge, who were interested in starting a high school. The two parties merged to form the initial board of directors for what would become NCJHS.

Schools feeding into the new high school include Kadima Hebrew Academy in Woodland Hills; Heschel Day School in Northridge and its Agoura sibling, Heschel West; plus three synagogue day schools: Valley Beth Shalom, Adat Ari El and Temple Beth Hillel.

The mix makes for some interesting arrangements. In order to accommodate students from many different schools, a flexible schedule was key, said Rabbi David Vorspan, the NCJHS Jewish studies director and official rabbi-in-residence.

It also makes for a varied student body. "We have kids who have been home-schooled; we have kids who come from public school programs," Vorspan said. "We have kids who did not know an alef from a bet when they came in, and kids who were involved in heavy text study when they were in day school. So we have had to create a program that could meet everybody’s needs."

The NCJHS offers three levels of Hebrew, from basic to advanced, and several tiers of other academic classes such as English and math. There are also innovative electives, like American Sign Language (made possible by a donation from Shirley and Aaron Kotler in memory of deaf relatives), computer science and art classes that take advantage of the Milken’s gallery.

Like any Jewish private school, the cost of Jewish education at NCJHS does not come cheap. Tuition for the 2002-2003 school year is $17,500 — not including the application fee, textbooks and other costs such as school trips that can add another $1,825 or more. Financial assistance is available, and there is a nice perk: once enrolled, students and their entire families automatically become members of the West Valley Jewish Community Center.

In addition, the students get to use the 10,000-square-foot gym and a swimming pool on the $4.5 million Ferne Milken Sports and Youth Complex which opened in 1999.

Although only enrolled for a few weeks, on this hot Thursday afternoon, the students seem comfortable in their new and somewhat quirky environment, where one is as likely — while going from one class to another — to encounter a group of tots from the JCC’s preschool as to run into a fellow student. Elan Feldman, 15, of Woodland Hills was at Heschel for four years and chose the New Community Jewish High School after looking over the descriptions of the teachers and classes.

"My parents said I could go pretty much anywhere I wanted to go as long as I could get good grades," he says. "Dr. Powell was at Milken and my brother went there and it was good. I liked the idea of starting a new school. I want to start something new, be a pioneer."

Feldman says that going to a small school is both challenging and interesting. "It’s nice that I know most of the people that are going here," he says. "It is kind of small and I might like a bigger environment, but the people are so great it makes up for it."

Talya Vogel, 14, comes to NCJHS from Kadima, which she attended since kindergarten. Like Feldman, she chose the school over nearby academic decathlon-winning El Camino Real High School.

"I preferred to come here," she says. "I think the people you meet influence who you are and I would rather be with people more like me. The classes are great, the teachers are great and the faculty makes the school."

Vogel says that some of her friends are considering switching back to public school after this first year. "They just came here to experiment with it. Some of them might go to El Camino or even switch to Milken, just because they are bigger schools. But, I think this is exciting. We are what will start everything, what will be remembered."

As for the future, Powell and the board are in the process of looking for a site on which to build the school when it outgrows the current facility — although the intention is to keep NCJHS a small and user-friendly school.

"I would like to see the school be 100 students per grade," Powell told The Journal. "I believe that is the ideal size for a high school. A lot of research has been done now on high schools showing schools of 250 to 400 are optimum. They are able to offer the programs that are necessary yet maintain the smallness so no child is missed."

Marlene Canter


Public schools remain a central part of civic life, the linchpin through which the middle class remains committed to the city. On June 5, Westside/Valley voters have the opportunity to bring fresh ideas to the board. I am endorsing Marlene Canter for District 4.

An experienced educator and a successful CEO, as well as a parent, Marlene understands that Los Angeles parents, teachers and administrators must act as one to reform and improve our schools. Over many years, her company designed programs for the training of teachers, especially in the difficult area of classroom performance and decorum. As a former special-education teacher, she brings up-to-the-minute understanding of teaching methodologies and student issues to the table. She understands that students learn in different styles and modes and is committed to bringing this understanding — which is now commonplace in private schools — to all of our children. She is committed to continued reform, especially to improving the all-important middle schools.

This school board runoff election is critically important to our community. More than 100 new schools must be built in the nation’s second-largest school system. The travesty of students lacking textbooks and basic supplies must end. We must recruit new teachers, encourage parent participation and make sure that students throughout the city get the active support of administration. We must hold our schools to high standards. In short, we need to bring efficient management experience to our common problems. Marlene brings a well-modulated personal style, substantial business experience and a deep commitment to our neighborhoods and to these tasks.

Marlene Canter began this race as the outsider, but she has won the endorsement of virtually every Los Angeles area newspaper, including the Los Angeles Times, Daily News, LA Weekly and La Opinion. She is beholden to no group but is committed to the exploration of the most effective ideas to improving Los Angeles education. She will help bring change and mature leadership to an institution bogged down in politics and rhetoric.

Marlene Canter will be a thoughtful, responsible and responsive steward of Los Angeles’ public schools. Our children and our communities deserve nothing less. I hope you will join me in supporting her candidacy; she will be a superb member and reform leader of our school board.

125 and Still Growing


It’s been a landmark year for the four-campus seminary serving Reform Judaism, which has been celebrating its 125th anniversary since last September.

And it’s a time of growth and new visibility for the 47-year-old Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), which is expanding its faculty and course offerings and will ordain rabbis for the first time a year from now.

This Sunday, HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school will celebrate the seminary’s 125 years with a day of study, song, and partying. Along with the school’s resident faculty, the featured teacher will be Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of many books on Jewish symbolism and spirituality and rabbi-in-residence at HUC-JIR’s New York campus.

The public is invited to the celebration, which includes lunch, workshops, a musical presentation by local Reform cantors and cantorial soloists, and birthday cake.

"This is an exciting time for the College-Institute and the community," said Dr. Lewis M. Barth, dean of HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles school.

Hebrew Union College, the oldest rabbinical seminary in the United States, has come a long way since Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise gathered 17 teenaged boys in the basement of a Cincinnati synagogue in 1875 and began to train them for the rabbinate. The school’s first library, locked away every night in a box to protect it from mice, contained 103 books. Today, the libraries at the four HUC-JIR campuses hold a total of more than 700,000 volumes.

In 1950, HUC, by then long established on a stately Cincinnati campus, merged with the liberal Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. The merger gave Reform Judaism a New York center for training rabbis and cantors.

The Los Angeles school was founded in 1954 in response to the growing presence of Jewish communities and Reform synagogues along the West Coast. In 1963, HUC-JIR established a campus in Jerusalem, mainly as a center for biblical and archeological research, but it is now the school at which all Reform rabbinical, cantorial, and education students spend their first years of study, and it began ordaining rabbis in the 1980s.

Since its inception, HUC-JIR has ordained more than 2,500 Reform rabbis, and it has invested close to 400 cantors since its School of Sacred Music opened in 1948.

Similarly, the Los Angeles school has come a long way since its early years on Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, when classes met in a big house on a wooded lot with a drained pool in the back and a refrigerator for a library.

Based a block from the University of Southern California since 1970, HUC-JIR/LA houses the oldest school of Jewish communal service in the United States and one of the nation’s premier training centers for Jewish educators. After many years of offering rabbinical training only through the third year, the Los Angeles campus this year has fourth-year students, who are on track to be ordained in Los Angeles in May 2002.

"We’ve been very excited this year to finally have a fourth-year class," said Rabbi Richard Levy, dean of the rabbinical school, "and to begin with them the journey of increased exploration of our texts, our history, and our tradition that comes with the final two years of rabbinical study."

Dr. William Cutter, professor of education and Hebrew at the campus since 1965, said that there were "legitimate budgetary concerns" that kept HUC-JIR from expanding the Los Angeles rabbinical program through ordination but that the administrators "worked slowly and lengthily … toward fuller standing."

Over the years, Cutter said, "the California school made itself look a little less like a West Coast outpost and more like a full partner."

To Prof. Sara Lee, director of the Rhea Hirsch School of Education, however, the prospect of ordination next year simply adds to the luster of a campus that already contains two flagship schools for Jewish professionals.

"While it’s true that this campus was not an ordaining campus, [the education and communal service] schools give to the Los Angeles campus a national presence in the larger Jewish community," Lee said. "Of course, what the decision on ordination means is that same national importance is accorded to the rabbinical program as well."

To date, more than 450 men and women have graduated from the Irwin Daniels School of Communal Service, 160 of whom have positions in the Southern California Jewish community, and the Hirsch school has granted degrees to 260 Jewish educators.

Plans are also under discussion for building a full cantorial program at the Los Angeles school. "The national administration of HUC-JIR, as well as the leadership of the UAHC, is very interested in the development of the sacred music program here at the Los Angeles campus," Barth told The Journal.

Dr. Norman Cohen, provost and acting president of all four HUC-JIR campuses, told The Journal that while there is no target date for establishing a full cantorial program in Los Angeles, the College-Institute is "committed to expanding offerings," possibly as early as this fall.

HUC-JIR/LA also houses the Edgar F. Magnin School of Graduate Studies, which offers advanced degrees in Judaic studies, and the Jerome H. Louchheim School of Judaic Studies, which provides courses in Jewish studies to USC undergraduates.

Several Los Angeles administrators mentioned HUC-JIR/LA’s relationship with USC, which includes a joint master’s in social work program with the Daniels School, as a major factor in the school’s growth.

They also credit Barth, who began his second stint as dean of the Los Angeles campus in 1997. "He brought a new energy to the campus," Lee said, adding that he is largely responsible for attracting new young faculty and new lay supporters to the school and lauding "the excitement of his leadership and his vision for the school."

"We’re in very good spirits," Cutter said.

HUC-JIR/LA’s 125th birthday celebration will be held Sun., April 22, 10:15 a.m.-3 p.m., 3077 University Ave. (corner of Hoover and 32nd streets). Registration opens at 9:30 a.m. The $12 fee includes lunch and materials. For more information, call (213) 749-3424, ext. 4205.

The Man Behind a Quiet Revolution


Rabbi Richard Levy was in Reform rabbinical school the first time he attended a traditional morning minyan. It was a requirement for his liturgy class, but for Levy, who some 35 years later is one of the most influential Reform rabbis in the country, it became much more.

“I found that I loved it. I bought my first tallis at the synagogue where we davened, and the pair of tefilin that I still use,” says Levy.

By the end of his first year at HUC in Cincinnati, Levy was well on his way to keeping kosher, to wearing a kippah full-time and to observing a traditional Shabbat.

Levy, along with his wife Carol, became what some might view a walking contradiction, but what history would prove was actually the future of Reform Judaism: a firm believer in the Reform ideology of personal choice and an evolving Judaism, who also observed many of the rituals long thought to be solely in the domain of the more traditional denominations.

“God didn’t give the mitzvot at Sinai, some to Reform Jews, some to Conservative Jews, some to Orthodox Jews,” says Levy, 62. “The whole of the Torah was given to the Jewish people.”

That kind of thinking comes through in the Pittsburgh Principles, Levy’s brainchild, a document the rabbinic arm of the Reform movement passed a few months ago, under Levy’s presidency. The statement opens up “the whole array of mitzvot” to Reform Judaism, which historically rejected many rituals and mitzvot as antiquated and irrelevant.

Levy, soft-spoken and unassuming, shepherded this quiet revolution in American Judaism’s largest movement from its premise through its passage. Reform leaders from around the country lauded Levy’s work in guiding the extensive and often raucous revision process, which involved hundreds of rabbis.

If his impact on the national scene has been broad and deeply felt, it is about to become more immediate and quantifiable on a local scale. After spending 24 years as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council, Levy recently became the director of the rabbinical school at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, which will soon begin to ordain rabbis.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, national president of HUC-JIR, says the decision to allow students to complete their studies in Los Angeles, rather than having to move to New York or Cincinnati, is a reflection of the burgeoning significance of the Reform movement in the Western states.

And, he says, Rabbi Levy, along with Dean Lewis Barth and Provost Norman Cohen, can make this program work.

“As a person who has worked with college students in the past, Rabbi Levy understands their needs and aspirations and knows how to recruit them,” Zimmerman says.

“His impact is already being felt on the campus as students gravitate to him naturally for both matters having to do with their course of study and because he is an extraordinary counselor, mentor and mensch,” Barth says.

Levy says he plans to tap into the array of professional schools at the Los Angeles campus — from education to Jewish communal service — to create an integrated approach to the rabbinate.

“Too often the academic, spiritual and professional elements are seen as isolated,” Levy says. But a more holistic approach can “deepen the spiritual experience of the rabbinical students so they can help other people deepen their own spiritual lives.”

One way he plans to do that is through a Shabbat minyan at HUC, which will also be a testing ground for the new Reform prayerbook, due out in a few years. Levy, who edited a Haggadah, High Holiday prayer book and Shabbat prayerbook, all published by KTAV and Hillel, is on the editorial committee for the new Reform prayer book as well.

“The book will have both creative examples of prayer and it will restore some of the prayers which have been missing from Reform prayer books for 100 or so years,” he says.

That dualism — innovation and appreciation for tradition — is very much at the heart of Levy’s Reform Judaism.

Levy says he knew he wanted to be a rabbi from the time of his bar mitzvah in suburban New York. He is intellectually honest, refusing to give pat, dogmatic answers about his complex beliefs.

He regards the Torah as divine, but believes critical scholarship is essential. He views ritual as meaningful but not mandatory.

“God is revealed through history and through time, through text and through our experience and our prayer. If we are open to it we can be parties to ongoing revelation,” he says.

And now while Levy is best known for his push for tradition, he is also a great innovator, one who pushes for social action and equality for women.

Both Richard and Carol are staunch supporters of liberal Judaism and social action. Richard spent a night in jail in St. Augustine, Florida, during the civil rights movement, two weeks after he was ordained. They joke that one of their first dates was attending a Soviet Jewry rally. The two have often taught together, and for 15 years ran an experimental, egalitarian minyan in their home.

“I think both of us care deeply about the future of the Jewish community, and what shape it will take for the future. Both of us have devoted our lives to thinking about these issue and working on small solutions toward a larger answer,” says Carol.

Carol, who was once a professional singer, appearing on Broadway and in commercials, recently became assistant campaign director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation, after serving for several years as executive director at the American Jewish Congress.

She is as gregarious as he is quiet, as flamboyant as he is understated, but the two do not fall neatly on either side of the intellectual/creative divide.

Richard has written poetry, was editor of the Harvard Crimson, and Carol has taught at Brandeis-Bardin on topics as diverse as women’s ritual, the environment, tzedakah and Jewish communal structures.

“Richard is more than the intellectual, spiritual guide people see him as, and I am way beyond the vivacious cheerleader that people see,” Carol says.

They are each other’s mentors, and have taught their two daughters, Sarah, a teacher in New York, and Elizabeth, a student at the University of Chicago, to live by a guiding principle.

“What the individual does makes a difference,” Richard says. “It’s important to act on what we believe in because we really do mentor for other people. If we are not afraid of doing new things and trying to change things, we usually find there are unnamed numbers of people who are waiting for somebody like you to take a step, and they will join you.”

Education Israel as a Core Requirement?


My daughter flew home for Thanksgiving with two college friends in tow. At the dinner table, the conversation revolved around computers and the antics of the Stanford Band. At some point in the course of that whirlwind four-day visit, Hilary informed me that, though she’s been diligently studying Hebrew since she started college, a Junior Year Abroad at Hebrew University is no longer part of her plans. It’s not that she’s changed her mind about someday returning to Israel, where she spent an amazing summer two years ago. But she’s convinced that, given the stringent requirements of the high-tech major she seems to have settled on, even a semester in Jerusalem would derail her progress toward her degree.

Like most American Jewish moms, I think of myself as both loving and pragmatic. And, so, I fully support Hilary’s decision. When college students make their course of study a top priority, when they march steadily down the path toward graduation and employment, parents can’t help but rejoice. Still, when I heard that Israel was no longer on my daughter’s agenda for the near future, I couldn’t help thinking of a recent breakfast gathering in Jerusalem, where Levi Lauer addressed a contingent from the Jewish Federation’s Golden Anniversary Community Mission to Israel.

Lauer, originally from Ohio, was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1972. He ultimately moved to Israel, became halachically observant, and assumed the directorship of a respected coed learning center, the Pardes Institute. He’s currently affiliated with Jerusalem’s Melitz Center for Jewish and Zionist Education. Each summer, he jets to California to serve as scholar-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Collegiate Institute. Both here and in Israel, Lauer spends much of his time with young adults. As a parent, he also knows firsthand what it’s like to raise Israeli children to adulthood.

One of Lauer’s central themes is the difference between young Israelis and young American Jews. His own children have lived through the sealed rooms and gas masks of the Gulf War era. And they have gone a dozen times to the cemetery on Mount Herzl to bury friends who died in military clashes or terrorist attacks. They accept being part of a culture where those still too young to shave are required to make life-and-death decisions on the field of battle.

Today’s American Jewish kids are different, both from Israelis and from earlier generations of Americans who had their own wars to fight (or to resist). American young people, says Lauer, “take it for granted that the world is a safe place. They don’t foresee real suffering. They literally believe that anything is possible.

“[As a father], I envy your kids the fact that the hardest decision they’ve ever had to make is what car to buy or who to go out with or what graduate school to apply to.”

But an objective eye could find American Jewish young adults “intolerably pampered.” They are lacking in basic moral education. They’ve never really had to think beyond themselves.

The fact is: Young American Jews need Israel, and Israel needs them. Israelis can teach our kids the value of commitment to a community. As Lauer puts it: “They need to learn the language of their ancestors. They need to share the experiences of real people, not Zionist propaganda.” In exchange, American Jewish young adults can make important contributions to Israeli society.

Beyond studying at Israeli universities, they can — and should — significantly participate in Israel’s daily life. Lauer makes clear (though many who heard his talk failed to grasp this important distinction) that he does not advocate sending American Jews to fight on Israeli battlefields. But he does envision young Americans forming a sort of Job Corps to do the public work for which Israel is currently importing Third World laborers at enormous cost. He can imagine Americans building roads and hooking up Arab villages to Israel’s central power grid. Such labor would teach them the meaning of social interdependence. As a bonus, it “just might lead them to marry someone who’s also Jewish.”

Lauer doesn’t let young Israelis off the hook. Like their American Jewish counterparts, they are developing a tendency to measure their self-worth in terms of intellectual achievement and material gains. Israelis, he quips, “will buy anything that’s electric and lights up — even if it doesn’t work.”

But young Israeli men and women are soon taught by their army experiences that they are not a world unto themselves. Klal Yisrael takes on a whole new meaning for those who, as part of the Ethiopian rescue operation, were asked to “get up in the middle of the night and schlep 14,000 Jews six centuries.” Israelis may grumble about the constant need to look out for their fellow Jews, but they pitch in when the chips are down. Lauer’s message is that, through an extended stay in Israel, young Jewish Americans can absorb the same lesson.

But how willingly would our kids disrupt their busy American lives to make the trip? Here’s where parents come in. Lauer gently suggests that we, in our eagerness to give our youngsters the best that America has to offer, have steered them down the wrong path. He proposes that we start teaching our children, from age five onward, “not to go to UCLA or Stanford but to go to Israel between the ages of 18 and 20.”

Later, perhaps, after they’ve learned from Israelis what it’s like to live in a Jewish society (and, by their own example, have helped teach Israelis the value of American Jewish pluralism), they can