Memoir recalls educator’s hardships, success in Iran


When local Iranian Jews gathered to honor Elias Eshaghian, a pivotal educator and director of many Jewish schools throughout Iran during the last century, Temple Beth El in West Hollywood was filled to capacity.

Treating him like a rock star, the crowd mobbed 70-something Eshaghian, seeking an autograph or photo op during the May 20 launch party for his Persian-language memoir, “A Follower of Culture.”

The book is a chronicle of the history of Jewish education in Iran during the 20th century, an effort that was supported by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), a French Jewish nonprofit education and cultural organization.

“In Farsi we have a proverb from Saadi, the great poet, that says, ‘Attend to people’s needs and cure their pains, so that they will elevate you to their leadership,'” said Frank Nikbakht, a local Iranian Jewish activist. “Mr. Eshaghian is a living testimony to the correctness of this ageless saying. His vision and his style of leading by example, if embodied within the present generation, will guarantee the continuation of a high quality social work among our future generations.”

Eshaghian’s inspiration to record his experiences of educating Jews in various cities in Iran came from his 20-year bout with lung cancer. He didn’t want the community to forget the important role AIU played in their family member’s lives.

“If the Alliance schools had never existed, Iranian Jews would not have attained education and become so wealthy and well off as they are today,” Eshaghian said. “They went from constantly being harassed by the Muslim majority in Iran to becoming among the most educated and respected in the country.”

Iranian Jewish professor Goel Cohen, a faculty member at Teheran University, who helped research and co-write Eshaghian’s memoirs, said the book was a milestone in the community’s history because no other scholar had previously researched the dramatic impact of education on Iran’s Jews during the last century.

“You can see from this book that just within three decades, Jews in Iran went from being among the poorest students to becoming among the highest level of specialists in medicine, engineering, social sciences, pharmacology and education,” Cohen said. “When we as Jews have the right to learn and opportunities in a free society, we definitely do our best to contribute to society.”

For centuries, Jews in Iran were prohibited from receiving any form of education and restricted by Iran’s monarchs to live in poverty-stricken ghettos because of their religious impurity, according to “A Comprehensive History of The Jews of Iran” by Dr. Habib Levy. It was not until the Pahlavi dynasty (1925-1979) that Jews and other religious minorities in Iran were granted greater individual freedoms, permitted to leave their ghettos and attain higher levels of education.

The AIU was only able to establish its first school in Tehran in 1898 with the special permission of the country’s then-ruler, Nassir-al-Din Shah. During the early 20th century, subsequent AIU schools were established in Hamedan, Esfahan, Sanandaj, Shiraz, Nahavand, Kermanshah, Bijar, Borujerd, Yazd and Kashan.

Eshaghian said he had tremendous difficulty as an AIU school director in initially attracting Jewish students in the different Iranian cities, where young children typically worked in their family businesses.

“I literally went from store to store of the poor Jews in the city of Yazd and had to drag their kids to get an education at the Alliance schools — many of those children today in the United States are among the most respected physicians, scientists, engineers and successful businessmen in our community,” he said.

Yazd’s Jewish community in the 1950s didn’t have a single doctor and most youth didn’t continue their education beyond the seventh or eighth grade.

“When I asked the Jews of Yazd why their children did not go to school after seventh or eighth grade, they told me that fervent anti-Semitism from the city’s Muslim majority made it difficult for their children to study and travel about. They believed the Jews were najes, or ritually unpure, and made it impossible for them to lead normal lives, let alone seek any serious high education,” Eshaghian recounts in “A Follower of Culture.”

Cohen and Eshaghian said they collaborated on the book to help future generations of Iranian Jewry in America understand their roots.

“I wrote this book only with the goal of educating future Iranian Jews about what circumstances we lived under in Iran, how we educated ourselves and pulled ourselves out of poverty,” Eshgahian said.

Cohen also said that despite the tedium of researching and interviewing, he was grateful to Eshaghian and Eshaghian’s family for their time, as well as their willingness to record an integral part of Iranian Jewish oral history before it was lost forever.

Eshaghian has been successfully waging a battle with lung cancer for the past 20 years. Where others might have long given up, the educator dedicated his time to community activism. Eshaghian said he has drawn tremendous strength to continue his battle with cancer by focusing on activities that directly benefit the local Iranian Jewish community.

“About eight years ago they elected me chairman of the [Iranian American Jewish Federation] and I told them I honestly could not with my health, but they told me it was a good idea because it would move my focus away from my illness,” Eshaghian said. “I must admit now they were right about it.”

Cohen said that there are plans to eventually translate Eshaghian’s memoirs to English.

“After 60 years of my life’s work in this community, I finally realized the fruits of my labors with the publication of my memoirs,” said Eshaghian, who began the project three years ago. “My goal with this book was for our young people to truly understand the tremendous obstacles we had to overcome as Jews trying to educate ourselves in each individual city in Iran.”

Read Karmel Melamed’s extended interview with Elias Eshaghian by visiting his blog, jewishjournal.com/iranianamericanjews.

For more information, visit followerofculture.com

AIU: http://www.aiu.org/ANGLAIS/index_ang.htm

Low Wages Force Workers to Struggle


For Vera Haim, teaching Jewish children about their
religion, history and culture gave her life a deeper meaning. For 17 years, the
53-year-old Israeli-born educator taught at Jewish nursery schools throughout Southern
California, most recently at Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. Nothing made
Haim happier than helping young students develop self-esteem and a curiosity
about their roots.

But her dream job held the seeds of a nightmare. Earning
just $15,000 annually and with no health-care benefits, Haim landed in dire
financial straits after she and her husband divorced last year. Unable to
support herself, she had to move in with her 31-year-old son. In short order,
she left Kol Tikvah and nearly doubled her income by opening a home day-care
business in her son’s house.

“I think babysitters make more per hour than nursery school
teachers, especially at Jewish schools,” Haim said. “You work so hard with
those children, but what you get paid is nothing, nothing.”

She and other Jewish day-school teachers are not alone in
their frustration. From social workers caring for Holocaust survivors to cooks
preparing kosher meals for the elderly, many Jewish communal workers complain
that low wages make it nearly impossible for them to buy homes, take vacations
or live a comfortable middle-class existence. Some even must work two jobs to
eke out a living.

A study by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish
Education found that nearly two in three people working at Jewish nursery
schools failed to receive company-paid medical benefits.

Not everyone at Jewish organizations or synagogues has to
pinch pennies. Top agency executives and rabbis make upward of six figures,
with some Westside religious leaders earning $300,000.

The focus on Jewish communal workers’ wages and benefits
comes at a time when labor issues have assumed increasing importance. Thousands
of supermarket employees throughout the Southland are striking to protect
medical benefits. A short, nasty strike by MTA mechanics earlier this year
crippled Southland transportation. And rising health care costs are putting
tremendous pressure on employers and employees in all sectors of American society.

Locally, Jewish agency executives and rabbis said they would
like to pay their employees more but simply lack the means to do so. With
donations flat and workers’ compensation and health-care costs skyrocketing,
salaries for low-wage workers appear unlikely to improve anytime soon.

That infuriates Jon Lepie, a consultant to the American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 800. He said nearly
20 percent of the 450 full- and part-time unionized workers at The Jewish
Federation of Greater Los Angeles, Jewish Family Service (JFS) and five other
agencies earn less than $20,000 a year. To cite but two examples, a full-time
nursery school teacher assistant at the West Valley Jewish Community Center
(JCC) makes less than $16,000, while a SOVA driver delivering food to the needy
from the food bank makes about $12,500.

“It’s a shonda that Jewish agencies should pay anybody less
than a living wage,” Lepie said.

Even nonexecutive Jewish professionals lag behind their
counterparts. Unionized registered nurses and licensed clinical social workers
at Jewish agencies earn, on average, $47,795 and $38,474, respectively. That’s
nearly 10 percent and 33 percent less than they could make at other local
nonprofits, according the Center for Nonprofit Management, which recently
surveyed 419 area nonprofit organizations.

Workers at Jewish agencies and synagogues are by no means
the only ones struggling. Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County
Economic Development Corp., said good jobs are vanishing both locally and
nationally, especially in manufacturing.

“There’s this ongoing concern that you’re going to end up
with this two-tiered society, with a few skilled people with high wages and
many more low-skilled workers with low-wage jobs,” he said. “You’re seeing the
great middle-class disappearing.”

 

Some Employers Fall Short

Rabbi Mark Diamond said he thinks Jewish institutions should
do more. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern
California said Jewish law mandates that workers receive fair wages and
benefits.

He said synagogues and Jewish organizations should serve as
“community exemplars.” That some fall short upsets him, especially since so
many Jewish leaders loudly proclaim support for unions and workers’ rights.

“Before we point fingers, we need to look inward and make
sure we’re treating our workers and staff in the Jewish community with fairness
and equity,” Diamond said. “I’m aware that not every synagogue or organization
lives up to the ideals of Jewish tradition.”

Joe Paulicivic, director of human resources at Catholic
Charities of Los Angeles, said nonprofits like his don’t pay “big fat” salaries
for a less nefarious reason: low administrative costs mean more money goes to
the needy. Catholic Charities, which serves an estimated 1 million people
annually in Southern California, pays its social workers slightly more than
Jewish agencies. However, its cooks earn less, comparisons show.

Low wages notwithstanding, many temple and Jewish communal
employees express high job satisfaction. They enter their chosen professions
not to grow rich but rather to make a difference. They also like the
family-friendly work environments and time off for Jewish holidays, including
Shabbat, said Marla Eglash Abraham, associate director of the School of Jewish
Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los
Angeles.

But with Jewish day-school tuition at about $15,000, two
weeks of Jewish camp going for $1,500 and synagogue membership costing about
$2,000, some communal professionals “who want to raise Jewish families and for
whom this is important by and large don’t have access” to Jewish institutions,
Eglash Abraham said.

Such is the case for JFS social worker Susan Hallett. A
single mother of two with a master’s degree in social work from California
State University, Long Beach, she earns just $36,500. Her salary is so low that
her son and daughter qualify for Healthy Families, the state’s health-care
program for children of the working poor.

Hallett wanted her children to go to Hebrew school but
couldn’t afford the fees. She figured her status as a Jewish communal worker
would entitle her to a discounted rate. But after a supervisor told her
otherwise, Hallett said she gave up on the idea of her daughter and son getting
a bat and bar mitzvah through a synagogue.

She said she could make much more working at a hospital,
given the demand for qualified social workers. But caring for Holocaust
survivors gives Hallett such satisfaction that she has no desire to leave the
agency. Her bosses also give her flexibility to leave work on short notice if
she needs to take her children to the doctor.

Still, Hallett said life is a struggle. She saves almost
nothing and has $10,000 in credit-card debt and more than $20,000 in student
loans. Hallett lives in a dilapidated two-bedroom Sherman Oaks apartment with
dirt-stained carpeting, a couch without legs and a makeshift chair fashioned
from a milk crate and a pillow. The whir of passing cars and trucks from an
adjacent four-lane thoroughfare is constant.

“I just scrape by,” she said. “I still have to call my mom
from time to time to help me financially. I’m almost 40. Give me a break.”

 

Kitchen Workers Struggle

Hallett has it good compared to some of the men and women who
work at the JFS-operated Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen. Most of the cooks who
prepare the meals; kitchen assistants who chop the vegetables, scrub pots and
lug out the trash, and the drivers who deliver food to seniors’ homes make less
than $19,000 for full-time work.

One helper in his late 30s said he earns so little that he
must work a second job as a dishwasher to support his wife and three young
children. Some nights he gets home from his restaurant job at 4 a.m., sleeps
for a couple hours and then drags himself out of bed to begin his shift at the
Hirsh kitchen at 6:30 a.m.

The man, who requested anonymity, said sleep deprivation has
taken a toll on his marriage. Irritable with fatigue, he and his wife fight
often, a situation exacerbated by having five people living in a one-bedroom
apartment. He said he constantly puts drops in his eyes to flush out the
redness.

“When I was in Mexico, my friends said, ‘Hey, let’s go to
America. There’s easy money there,'” said the helper, who cannot afford health
insurance for his children and takes them to the emergency room whenever they need
medical attention. “After coming here, I’ve learned differently.”

A Hirsh kitchen cook in his late 20s also needs a second job
to support his family. Although he enjoys his time at the kitchen and at a
supermarket, his 63-hour work weeks leave him precious little time with his
wife and two daughters. He speaks wistfully about spending weekends in the park
with his family, something he rarely does because of his hectic schedule.

Paul Castro, JFS executive director, said he sympathized
with the plight of the Hirsh kitchen workers. He said he wished he could pay
them and other JFS employees more, but that the money simply isn’t there.

As difficult as the kitchen workers might have it, they at
least have health insurance, sick days and paid vacations, unlike many others
in the food service industry. JFS also pays them more than the minimum wage.

“We’re doing the best we can,” Castro said.

 

Trying to Do Right

So is Wilshire Boulevard Temple. Senior Rabbi Steven Z.
Leder said the synagogue provides fully paid health care and pensions for its
employees. The rabbi recently invited religious school teachers and their
spouses to his home for a Chanukah party. In the spring he will host an all-day
barbecue in Malibu for temple workers and their families.

As much as Wilshire Boulevard Temple does, though,
sometimes, good intentions run up against hard economic realities.

The temple, like many businesses and institutions, doesn’t
provide health insurance for employees’ family members, forcing workers to make
difficult choices. At a minimum of $231.87 per month to cover a  spouse and
$424.32 per family, some employees opt to take their chances.

That’s what happened to a temple maintenance man. After his
uninsured wife fell ill, he found himself near financial ruin as medical bills
mounted. Upon hearing of his plight, Wilshire Boulevard Temple executives
raised thousands among themselves to help defray the woman’s medical expenses.

“Everybody’s a part of the family here,” Leder said. “We
take care of each other.”

Similarly, Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah said he does
what he can to improve the lives of his workers.

Jacobs considers himself progressive in the best sense of
the word. Employees at his synagogue attend High Holiday services for free. Two
years ago, the rabbi won the Walter Cronkite Freedom and Faith Award for
recognition of his interfaith and civil rights work. An active union supporter,
Jacobs said he played a role in ending the recent janitors’ strike.

Like many synagogues, though, Kol Tikvah has struggled in
recent years. That has led to painful decisions. To cut costs, the synagogue
reduced the hours of four full-time teachers and made them part-time employees.

In the process, the educators lost their health insurance.
Now, none of Kol Tikvah’s 40 nursery and religious school teachers receive
medical coverage through their jobs, although they get paid sick days and
vacation.

“I think what we need to do is somehow figure out on a
communitywide basis how we’re going to take care of our teachers, how we’re
going to take care of our social workers,” Jacobs said.

One communal agency is trying to address that. The Jewish
Free Loan Association (JFLA) recently launched a program that loans up to
$10,000 to Jewish day-school teachers buying their first homes. The educators
can use the money for closing costs and emergency repairs.

Mark Meltzer, JFLA executive director, said he hoped the
loans would increase teacher retention by making it easier for them to own
property in the neighborhoods where they teach. He also wants to expand the
program to include all Jewish communal workers. But with the median housing
price in Los Angeles County at a record $339,000, JFLA’s largesse might not be
enough, he said.

“Unfortunately, teachers and most Jewish professionals need
family or spousal assistance if they ever hope to buy in this market,” Meltzer
said.

One nursery school teacher assistant at West Valley JCC
needs financial help from her two grown children just to get by. The
middle-aged Iranian immigrant loves working with young children, even
performing such mundane tasks as giving the children snacks during recess.

But her $16,744 salary makes going out to dinner, taking
vacations and going to movies an unaffordable luxury. She said she’s relieved
she works during the day, because she doesn’t have enough money to keep her air
conditioner running. The woman, who requested her name not be used, said her
situation has deteriorated since her husband retired two years ago.

After 18 years at Jewish schools, she said she deserved more
than $7.83 an hour.

“It’s hard, but my husband and I have managed,” she said.
“If we need help, our children will help. What can we do?”  

Finding a Role for Woznica


David Woznica was anything but a model Hebrew school student. At Congregation Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, his exasperated teachers often made him sit alone on "the bench" as punishment for interrupting them with jokes and whispers.

Fast forward 35 years. On a recent Friday night, Rabbi David Woznica, the 48-year-old executive vice president for Jewish affairs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, returned to Adat Ari El, for the first time in decades, to deliver a speech before a sold-out audience of 250 on how to feel the presence of God by living as a committed Jew. His voice rising, he admonished the crowd to invite a lonely Holocaust survivor over for dinner, to help those less fortunate and to pray for their children on Shabbat.

"You don’t need a Ph.D. in Judaism or even know an alef from a bet," Woznica said. "All you have to do is put your hands on their heads and touch their souls with yours. Think of that. Think of how easy that is, yet how meaningful it is. They will remember it forever."

With his days of Jewish rebellion long behind him, Woznica has won a legion of devotees with his passion for Judaism. Since returning to Southern California in mid-2001, Woznica has spent the past two years at The Federation putting together lectures and courses. With the fervor of a missionary, he sees his role as nothing less than to spread the word about the beauty of Judaism and to help Jews see their religion’s relevance to their daily lives.

From 1991 to 2001, Woznica served as director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where he oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year.

The rabbi’s work has taken him across the globe. Over the years, he has talked about God with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, and moderated discussions with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Harold Kushner and author Amos Oz, among others. He recently interviewed presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and his wife, Hadassah, discussing politics, religion and social issues. C-SPAN aired the event.

"I like him as a person and as a rabbi to his students," Wiesel told The Journal. "Whatever he does, he does with all his heart and soul. He speaks well, understands well. He possesses all the qualities a good rabbi has."

Plaudits like those led Federation President John Fishel and former Chairman Todd Morgan to aggressively pursue Woznica, beginning in 2000, for a post at The Federation. The decision to hire him has earned kudos along with some criticism. Woznica’s ability to touch people has generated enthusiasm among many local Jews. However, a few observers wonder whether those talents are being put to satisfactory use. They question how Woznica — hired at a six-figure salary less than six months before the organization laid off several employees for budgetary reasons — has earned his keep, especially since he has worked under the radar of many Southland Jews, with the exception of donors and Federation employees.

"It is not apparent to me that The Federation, on any level, has a strategy for using him as a speaker, strategizer, educator, spiritual force or inspirer in any major, public way," said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and board member. "His talents are underutilized, and, as a result, I think the community is undeserved."

Indeed, The Federation has just put together a special committee to come up with ways to find "more opportunities for putting him in front of people," said Morgan, now a Federation board member.

Fishel said his organization had hoped to replicate the 92nd Street Y’s success when it brought Woznica on. Initially, The Federation had wanted to open a community center on a property adjacent to the now defunct Bay Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC). There, Woznica could have offered classes and sponsored high-profile talks as he did in New York, Fishel said. But the JCC’s financial problems and the soft economy forced The Federation to delay those plans indefinitely. Also, crises in Israel and Argentina demanded the organization’s attention, which meant Woznica "was a little slow to get traction at first," Fishel added.

Nonetheless, Fishel said that he thought Woznica is a valuable addition to The Federation, and plans to renew his contract. One idea bandied about is for the rabbi to hold events at the West Valley JCC in West Hills or the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard on a regular basis in the near future.

"I’d like to bring him to the masses in a thoughtful way, and am still jazzed about the prospect of having something parallel to what the 92nd Street Y does," Fishel said. "I think if you can get people to think Judaically and see Judaism in their lives, they’re going to see the importance of Federation and other Jewish organizations."

One benefit of such connections could be increased donations to The Federation, which raises money to fund 15 recipient organizations, including Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For the past decade, giving to The Federation’s Annual Campaign has been relatively flat, hovering around $40 million. Fishel and others hope that an offshoot of Woznica’s heightened visibility could spark a flow of dollars into the organization’s coffers from enthusiastic, re-engaged Jews.

It worked in New York. Daniel R. Kaplan, former president and chairman of the 92nd Street Y, said Woznica’s work helped attract new donors to the organization, where 1,200 people regularly attend the rabbi’s High Holiday services.

"David would travel and lecture everywhere, bringing joy and increasing the Y’s image," Kaplan said. "Fundraising is partly image, and David certainly enhanced our image. No question about that."

One common question among critics is why The Federation hired Woznica when it already employs Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. They ask: Why does the organization need two rabbis?

Fishel said both men make important — but different — contributions. Diamond helps with interfaith activities and works with area rabbis in rabbinical associations. Woznica infuses The Federation and the community with Jewish values.

To help boost The Federation’s profile, Woznica said he has worked tirelessly since coming on board. In one week in early May, he held a study session on the Ten Commandments with young attorneys and gave four speeches, including one at UCLA for Israel Independence Day. He has also given a series of lectures in the Conejo Valley about what makes Judaism beautiful and worth perpetuating; he has overseen a 10-week course on Jewish leaders, including Moses, and Jewish ethics for The Federation women’s lay leadership; and he held a dialogue with Weisel in February at a Federation dinner for large donors. "I want to reach Jews across the board," he said.

Woznica said he hoped to hold more high-profile dialogues here with major public figures, as he did in New York. He also wants to offer a course for newlyweds on Jewish insights on marriage, parenting and family.

"I feel so busy and torn in so many directions but in a good way," he said in an interview at his book-lined office. "I always feel I can do more, and I would hope I can make as significant a contribution to the L.A. Federation as I did to the 92nd Street Y."

Woznica grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Grant High School in 1973. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA. It was around this time that future author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager entered his life, exposing the future rabbi to the power and pleasure of Judaism, Woznica said.

Prager, then director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, challenged him to think about the religion, its mission and its responses to contemporary moral and spiritual questions. Inspired by Prager and others, Judaism became an integral part of Woznica’s life, informing his decisions, actions and world view.

"I saw immediately in him this rare combination of conscientiousness, goodness and a fine mind," Prager said.

Woznica later enrolled in the rabbinical program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. In 1987, he headed east to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, which ordained him in 1990.

Woznica said his love of Judaism and desire to share its beauty led him to the rabbinate. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, though, he conceded other forces might have also played a role.

"Is the Shoah part of my motivation for being Jewish? Yes," he said. "Why? Because other people suffered so much for the principle I have the privilege of living."

In 1990, Woznica, fresh out of HUC-JIR, landed a coveted position running a Jewish outreach program at the 92nd Street Y. Kaplan said that his earnestness, decency and knowledge so impressed executives that they promoted him one year later to head the newly created Bronfman Center. Despite Woznica’s relative inexperience, he beat out 11 highly qualified candidates for the position, Kaplan added.

Under Woznica, Jewish education flourished at the 92nd Street Y and a cavalcade of major religious and political figures dropped by to give speeches. The rabbi, his wife, Beverly, and their two young sons were quite happy in New York. Woznica found the city’s intellectual environment stimulating and enjoyed his work. Beverly Woznica, a fundraiser, worked as director of the Wall Street division at UJA-Federation of New York. Under her directorship, the division grew from $20 million to $30 million in five years.

So when Fishel and Morgan began pursuing him, Woznica was in no hurry to leave the Big Apple. But after a year of wooing, he eventually took the job at The Federation. Woznica said he came to that decision, because he thought he could have a big impact. He also wanted his children to be close to their surviving grandparents.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Woznica should successfully transplant some of that New York magic to the Southland.

"The Jewish community and the L.A. Federation are very lucky to have a person like him," said Hier, who spoke at the 92nd Street Y during Woznica’s tenure. "He reaches out to everyone in the community, and his agenda is to foster understanding and unity among Jews. He’s very effective at it."

Being Greene


Brian Greene thinks of himself as a product of the University of Judaism (UJ).

Since 1983, when he left his native Vancouver to pursue a UJ undergraduate degree, he has largely remained connected to the university, as a student first and then as a faculty member in the school of education. In 1994, he was named executive director of Camp Ramah in California, which operates under UJ auspices.

But his UJ days are now behind him. Greene has moved to Washington, D.C., where he’s taken over the reins of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO).

Founded in 1924, BBYO is America’s oldest and largest Jewish youth organization, offering social activities, summer camps and Israel trips to some 20,000 high school students from across the Jewish spectrum. It also has branches in England, France, Eastern Europe, Israel and Australia.

Though Greene admits that BBYO has lagged in popularity in recent years, he sees the group as poised for growth. His appointment comes as BBYO is in the process of gaining autonomy from B’nai Brith International, in the same way that Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League have separated from this same parent organization in recent years. As international director, Greene reports to a new governing board entirely focused on BBYO concerns.

Under Greene’s leadership, Camp Ramah has offered year-round programming, including retreats and specialty weekends. But the heart of the operation has always been Ramah’s summer camp. Closely affiliated with the Conservative movement, it accommodates close to 1,300 children each summer, along with a staff of 225, in an environment that combines outdoor fun with prayer and Jewish learning. Ramah veterans speak of the camp’s warm familial atmosphere, which encourages both campers and staff to return year after year.

Though well-aware of what he leaves behind, Greene said welcomes the challenge of working on the national and international level. He’s particularly intrigued by the fact that BBYO is committed to a nondenominational approach:

“It really is all about klal Yisrael [the unity of the people of Israel],” Greene said, noting that “almost 50 percent of Jewish teenagers today have no Jewish connection in their lives. BBYO is a very welcoming organization for a Jewish teenager who has very little knowledge or background.”

It has long served a particularly vital role in parts of the country where the Jewish population is small. Greene would like to increase its appeal in cities where denominational youth groups offer stiff competition.

Given that he considers himself a Jewish educator, as well as an administrative expert, Greene hopes to bolster the Judaic content in BBYO social activities. At the same time, he plans to continue the BBYO mandate of providing “a chance for Jewish teens to build networks, connect to each other and develop Jewish leadership skills.” Youth-led activities have always been a BBYO tradition, and many of today’s Jewish leaders first discovered their calling while planning BBYO events.

Jake Farber, chairman of the board at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, headed the Camp Ramah board during Greene’s tenure. Farber praises Greene’s organizational skills, which have helped him handle both a major Ramah construction project, and the recent huge surge in Ramah’s popularity. This past fall, only a week after applications were sent out for summer 2002, nearly every slot was filled.

“It’s a great loss for us, but a great opportunity for him,” Farber said.

What’s the Jewish Stake in LAUSD?


Helen Burnstein, the former president of the United Teachers of Los Angles, used to argue, “Teachers want what students need.” Many Jewish educators and parents feel the same way about Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). “Jews want what LAUSD needs.” Educational excellence, higher standards, and more enrichment activities have become the mantras of educational reformers.

But de facto segregation seems to have returned to LAUSD despite court- ordered busing, and the Belmont and South Gate fiscal disasters have done little to alleviate the widespread perception that the opaque complexity of LAUSD’s bureaucratic structures are wasteful, counter-productive, and scandalous.

Board of Education members Valerie Fields and David Tokofsky, along with other board members, have been shaking up LAUSD, hiring a new interim superintendent, announcing bold programs and discussing splitting LAUSD into 11 subdistricts.

Amidst the chaos and numerous educational disappointments inside LAUSD, an awkward question has re-emerged. “What’s the Jewish stake in LAUSD?”

LAUSD, established in 1855, remains the second largest school district in the nation, serving over 680,000 students and employing approximately 36,521 certificated personnel as regular kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. In addition, the district employs 27,728 non-teaching personnel, totaling more than 64,249 regular employees. The $7.5 billion dollar educational institution also stretches over 708 sq. miles.

“The monster is too big,” says Jayne Murphy Shapiro, a candidate for 41st Assembly seat and founder of KIDS SAFE, representing the conventional wisdom of many Jewish residents in the San Fernando Valley. “Smaller is better.” Shapiro, a 23 year Valley resident, has made educational reform and breaking LAUSD into smaller, more manageable districts a cornerstone of her candidacy.

But a breakup of LAUSD could be seen as another suburban gesture of noncommitment to Los Angeles inner-city residents. Whether by accident or design, the sharp social and geographical separations seem likely to increase. Educational and social concerns seem to be gaining the upper hand over civic pride in a strong urban school district.

Over the last 40 years, LAUSD has experienced a huge demographic shift. The latest figures show that only 10 percent of LAUSD students are white. Further, approximately 65 percent of students are Hispanic and 20 percent of students do not speak English in their home.

If Los Angeles County has become the “new Ellis Island,” then LAUSD has become the major force for introducing immigrants to American society. The focus on a multicultural curriculum and bilingual education, often grounded in racial classifications, might have increased the alienation of some Jewish families, say observers

“People don’t understand the classroom situation,” sighed a Jewish high school social studies teacher with 14 years experience with LAUSD school in a poor neighborhood. “We’ve got 15-year-old kids who come here speaking no English from rural Mexico who haven’t gone to school in years. Juan might read at the third-grade level by his senior year, but that’s up from zero. We’ve helped Juan — and yes, he’s below the national grade level. Shock, shock.”

A Teacher’s Guide to Parents


What do Jewish educators think about Jewishparents? To get the inside scoop, I turned to “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” It’s a recent co-venture by Joel Grishaver and Dr.Ron Wolfson, both veteran teachers and observers of the Jewisheducational scene. The irrepressible Grishaver, who publisheshundreds of books through his Torah Aura Productions, has designed achatty little volume that made me feel I was eavesdropping onconversations in the faculty lounge. Though most of the text is byGrishaver with contributions by Wolfson, the book is chockful ofinput (lesson plans, suggestions, e-mailed quibbles) from scores ofteachers nationwide who’ve played a part in its development.

The starting point is the assumption thateducators and parents need to join forces to achieve their mutualgoal of imparting Jewish knowledge to the younger generation. AsGrishaver tells his readers, “You may not be Mr. Chips, the world’smost beloved teacher. They may not be Tevye and Golda, quintessentialauthentic parents, oozing Judaism with every step. But, you need eachother. This book is a guide to finding that cooperation andunderstanding.”

Grishaver makes clear that good parent-teachercollaboration does not come about automatically. In fact, manyreligious school and day school teachers dread their encounters withthe parents of their pupils. In an opening chapter entitled “ParentsAre Not the Enemy,” Grishaver carefully explains why Jewish parentscan be so prickly in one-on-one sessions with their child’s teacher.Their attitude stems largely from their own ambivalence about thevalue of Jewish education.

On the one hand, parents demand a lot from theirchild’s Jewish studies. In an increasingly complicated world, they’relooking to Judaism to provide what Grishaver calls “a shared bond, afamily process — A RITUAL — which against all the odds, can holdtheir family together and give their children the stability neededtobuild a good life.” On the other hand, parents themselves are oftenproducts of a hit-or-miss Jewish education that stopped abruptly atage 13. (“When it comes totheir Jewishness, most Jewish adults arestill teenagers — and just barely teenagers at that.”) Thisexperience has left them with memories of dreary classrooms, and hasinstilled in them a bitter sense of their own religious inadequacies.Parents want their children to be proudly Jewish, and they hope thatJudaism will magically help their kids steer clear of life’spitfalls. But these adults — so frequently overachievers in theirprofessional lives — remain defensive about their own lack ofsuccess as educated Jews.

Still, even the most ambivalent parent who sendshis or her child to religious school has made a commitment that ahuge number of Jewish parents no longer choose to make. (Someresearchers believe that less than 50 percent of today’s Jewish kidsreceive any substantive Jewish education at all.) Grishaver andcompany argue that the trick is to involve the parent in the child’seducation in a positive, unthreatening way that increases theparent’s own body of Jewish knowledge. The book’s epigraph comes fromMordecai Kaplan: “To educate the child without educating andinvolving the parents and the entire family can be compared toheating a house while leaving the window open.”

But teachers who try reaching out to parentsthrough family education days and family homework assignments shouldrecognize there are pitfalls that must be avoided. It’s never safe toassume that a child’s mom and dad are married to one another, northat both partners in a marriage are Jewish. Parents may not readHebrew; they may be in the dark about even the most commonplaceJewish rituals. Though there’s much to be gained by bringing parentsand children together for a special learning experience, it’s wise toavoid educational games that are highly competitive in nature. One ofGrishaver’s collaborators, educator Sharon Halper, bluntly warnsteachers to “be careful with competition. Parents do not needdemonstrations of what they do not know!”

Given all this, it’s remarkable that more teachersdon’t throw in the towel. Yet some of the best minds in Jewishcommunities across the nation have dedicated themselves to makingJewish education work. This book is filled with innovative ideasabout how to go beyond “shabbat-in-a-sack” and the standardmodel-seder where the kids perform and the parents watch. It’s clearthat the educators cited by Grishaver feel deeply about theimportance of what they’re doing. The extent to which they care andthe energy they put into developing new approaches may come as asurprise to parents, who tend to regard religious school instructorsas well-meaning but basically ill-equipped amateurs.

Ron Wolfson tells me this little book has been abest seller among educators. He and Grishaver are discussing acompanion volume, a work intended for Jewish parents that gives thelowdown on Jewish teachers. The theme? How to get the best out ofyour child’s Jewish education. Until that book sees print, parentswho seek a better understanding of their children’s teachers — andof themselves — will find much to ponder in “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” If nothing else, it will help them regard Jewisheducators with new respect.

Since I began writing this column, I have beenimpressed with the number of experimental programs being launched inour local Jewish classrooms. The Journal would like to spotlight someof these exciting new programs. Schools that are moving beyondbusiness-as-usual are welcome to contact me with news of theirspecial events. Mailings should be sent to me in care of the Journal;I can also be reached via e-mail at bc027@lafn.org.

Beverly Gray writes about education from SantaMonica.

All rights reserved by author.

Families, Then and Now


Joel Grishaver.

The Bible is rich in stories of passion, plagues, miracles and betrayals, but what about good parenting?

“In truth, there is no good fathering in the Bible,” said author and Jewish educator Joel Grishaver.

Grishaver, who was asked by the Skirball Cultural Center to create a Father’s Day workshop centered around the topic, said that in the Bible, “the focus is much more on husbands and wives, or the relationships among brothers. Childhood is not the focus. People go from birth to adulthood in one sentence.”

So, instead, Grishaver, the creative director of Torah Aura Productions and a popular speaker on the family-education circuit, has created “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages.” The June 15 workshop will be a lively and provocative mix of role-playing, art, debate, discussion of Jewish texts and, ultimately, an exploration of family issues closer to home.

Grishaver is an accessible and witty storyteller, adept at weaving traditional Jewish sources into contemporary discussions. In conversation, he illustrates points with references to everything from Rashi to Rod Serling, Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe. His facility with pop culture, combined with an unflagging enthusiasm for Torah study, makes him a provocative discussion leader for second-graders and seniors alike.

One segment of his Skirball workshop will be a “paper-tear midrash,” a concept first developed by Jo Milgrom. Grishaver presents a story, a midrash that may deal with anger and forgiveness, for example. After discussing any parallels to their own experience, family members then create their own visual midrash, using torn paper as the medium.

“Tearing the paper is a way to free people from the constraints of worrying about whether they can draw or not,” Grishaver said.

Another segment will be devoted to what he calls “biblio-drama,” a form of role-playing first developed by Peter Pitzele. To spark discussion, Grishaver will present several stories that highlight the emotions, ethical conflicts and risks faced by biblical parents. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, for example, had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to place their endangered male infant in a basket hidden among the reeds in order to save him. Later, an adult Moses faced the dilemma of whether to bring his family to Egypt or to send them home. Jethro was charged with the task of taking care of his own daughter as well as his grandchildren — Moses’ offspring.

“With biblio-drama, people voice the feelings of these characters in sort of a self-created midrash, and, obviously, several layers of thought and feeling emerge during discussion,” Grishaver said.

Another session of the two-hour workshop is “family beit din,” a sort of mock court in which family members are separated and placed into two or three groups that serve as tribunals for cases presented to them by Grishaver. The scenarios are thoroughly modern. The sources he cites are from centuries ago. The essential conflicts are timeless.

A case in point: Mom and Dad are divorced but have good custody arrangements. Both, however, want the child for an upcoming vacation that each is planning, respectively. The child is asked to choose between them. What to do?

A similar scenario was pondered by Jewish sages ages ago, Grishaver explained, in the form of this question: Mom and Dad both ask for a glass of water. Who should the child serve first?

“In the Talmud,” Grishaver said, “the conclusion is drawn that the child should serve Dad, since, anyway, it’s Mom’s obligation to serve Dad too. These were, after all, pre-feminist times.

“In the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ it’s decided that the child should serve whomever s/he chooses. It’s the 16th-century commentator Marashal who comes up with a pretty enlightened response. The child should put the glass of water on the table and let the parents work it out between them. In essence, Marashal concludes that it’s an unfair question to ask kids. It’s the parents who should decide.”

The Father’s Day workshop dovetails with the publication of Grishaver’s most recent book, “The Bonding of Isaac,” a collection of short fiction and essays about gender’s connection to spirituality. He described the book’s central theme as an exploration “of the dysfunctional myth of the functional family.” Using Torah as his framework, he makes the case that conflict is organic to family units, not some aberrant sign of failure.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., on Sunday, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s free with museum admission and designed for participants 7 and up. Space is limited to 50 people. Advance registration is recommended. Call (310) 440-4647.

“The Bonding of Isaac” (Alef Design Group, $21.95) may be ordered by calling (800) 845-0662.