The Joys of Rena


Rena Sofer always seems to land ethnic roles. As the newest regular on NBC’s “Just Shoot Me,” Sofer plays Vicki Costa, a hairdresser from Brooklyn, whose name is Greek, but whose ethnicity is undefined. It’s reminiscent of her Emmy-award winning role of Lois Cerullo Ashton, the brassy Italian Brooklynite she played for five years on the soap opera “General Hospital.”

She’s also known for playing journalist Rachel Rose, the stereotypically ideal Jewish woman who goes out with a Reform rabbi (Ben Stiller), in the 2000 film “Keeping the Faith.”

In real life, Sofer doesn’t date a rabbi — she was raised by one, albeit of the Orthodox persuasion. Perhaps it’s her religious background — intermittently attending Lubavitch and Conservative day schools in Pennsylvania and New Jersey — that gives her the edge of authenticity.

For example, when she went to audition for the part of the Orthodox Jewish bride-to-be in the 1992 film, “A Stranger Among Us,” she knew she stood a good chance of getting it. “All these blonde Nordic-looking women are going over their lines,” she said, and they were making eye contact and flirting for their “first time” meeting with the groom. But Sofer knew better. She wouldn’t look him in the eye or touch him. “It’s negiyah,” she said, referring to the Jewish prohibition of men and women touching. Sofer landed the part.

Words like negiyah easily roll off Sofer’s tongue, probably because she was raised in a religious home. Sofer was 2 when her parents divorced, and she moved with her father and brother from California to Pennsylvania and then New Jersey. There, Sofer attended a Lubavitch school.

Sofer said that since an early age she has questioned her religious upbringing. Lubavitch “turned me off to a lot of it, but I love the ritual of Judaism and I love the spirituality of Judaism,” she said.

Although it may seem unorthodox for the daughter of a rabbi, she began modeling at age 15, when she was discovered in New York’s Greenwich Village. Her father was always encouraging and paid all the expenses. “As religious as he is, he’s always been supportive of my life and my choices,” she said. Her father believed modeling would help her since, “when I was younger, he saw me as a child that didn’t have a lot of confidence.”

She quickly decided that modeling was not for her, and went into acting. She got her first steady gig as a teenager in the role of Rocky McKenzie on the ABC soap “Loving,” working her way up to parts in TV shows like “Melrose Place,” “Friends,” “Seinfeld” and a recurring role on “Ed,” as well as in Steven Soderbergh 2000 film, “Traffic.”

The role of Judaism in her life has carried over into at least three parts. In addition to “Keeping the Faith” and “A Stranger Among Us,” Sofer played a Jewish character in an episode of the sitcom “Caroline in the City” titled “Caroline and the Nice Jewish Boy.” She’s also had an appearance on “Politically Incorrect,” with Bill Maher, discussing God and the meaning of life. Sofer sees her casting in these kinds of roles as quite logical. “I’ve been studying to play a Jew my whole life. I can walk in there with an authenticity.”

Sofer’s Judaism may not fit into her father’s mold, but it’s clearly a big part of her life. She refused to wear a cross for her role on “General Hospital,” and a wedding scene that called for her to kneel before a large crucifix had her in tears. And despite her first marriage to a non-Jew (her co-star and husband on “General Hospital,” Wally Kurth), one thing that was always understood was that their daughter would be raised Jewish. Sofer does say that the fact that Kurth wasn’t Jewish “made a difference in my life.” She compares it to her current relationship with fiancé director/producer Sanford Bookstaver (“Fastlane”). “When I go to temple with my fiancé, I don’t have to explain what’s going on.”

Today, Sofer lives in Los Angeles with fiancé, her father and her daughter from her marriage to Kurth.

These days, Sofer’s planning her wedding. “Dad, God willing, will perform the ceremony.”

Of her role on “Just Shoot Me,” she said she’s thankful for the security. “The gift to me is to be able to come in for 22 episodes, as opposed to doing a pilot where you don’t know.”

Her other recent work was in this month’s television remake of Stephen King’s horror classic, “Carrie,” where she played the compassionate gym teacher, Miss Desjarden. Sofer, whose first name means “joy” or “song” in Hebrew, was particularly pleased to get to play this part because of her love of King’s books. Her own idea of joy is a road trip with the “Bag of Bones” book on tape, read by King, playing on the car stereo. “Listening to him scare the crap out of you — it’s fabulous!”

“Just Shoot Me” airs Tuesday nights at 8 p.m. on NBC.

Lung Donor Needed to Save Young Life


On a cool November evening, the Avrech family — Robert, Karen, and Ariel — sit within the cozy confines of their Pico-Robertson home, where an Emmy Award that Robert won for his 1999 Holocaust-themed drama, “The Devil’s Arithmetic,” graces the mantle.

But this is not your typical family scene. Ariel, Robert and Karen’s 21-year-old son, breathes with the assistance of an oxygen tank.

“There are good days and there are bad days,” Ariel said of his lung condition, which, while stabilized via steroids, produces emotional and physical highs and lows.

Unfortunately, this is not Ariel’s first brush with a life-threatening disease. At 14, he endured massive chemotherapy to eradicate a brain tumor. The procedure worked. However, this past spring, the Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles graduate was walking up a hill at Baltimore’s Ner Yisroel campus, where he was continuing his education, when he experienced difficulty breathing.

“At first, I didn’t think anything was wrong,” Ariel said.

In May, doctors diagnosed his condition; the chemotherapy that conquered his cancer left him with severe pulmonary fibrosis.

Now Ariel is in dire need of a living lobar lung transplant. With his family disqualified as suitable donors, a worldwide search for two willing, healthy males is underway.

“We’re reaching out to all communities, not just the Jewish communities,” said Rabbi Heshey Ten, director of Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim, which is facilitating the search. “We need to find two people to donate one of their five lobes to Ariel. The best intervention would be a living lobe transplant or a cadaveric transplant” (the latter option, for which Ariel is on a national donor list, is not being handled through Bikur Cholim).

According to the Lung Transplant Program at USC, lobar lung transplantation is an alternative for those patients who are too critically ill to survive the waiting list for cadaveric donors.

“I have a rabbi at YULA [Yeshiva University of Los Angeles] who has a list of people he would like to be cadaveric candidates,” joked Robert, screenwriter of “A Stranger Among Us.”

Humor is only one way that the Avrech family — including Ariel’s sisters, Leda, 17, and Aliza, 14 — is coping. The Avrechs have also relied on faith, one another and community to get through these trying years. As members of the Young Israel of Century City, they have received much support from the Orthodox community.

“Ariel has made a lot of personal connections,” said Karen, a school psychologist. “In his quiet way, he has a magnetism that attracts many people.”

Both Robert and Karen, who have known each other since the third grade, hail from the same Orthodox community in Bensonhurst, N.Y., a neighborhood in Brooklyn, where Karen’s father was a rabbi. Karen has great admiration for her son’s fortitude. During the seventh grade, Ariel grew bored with his school and wanted to attend Yeshiva Gedolah of Los Angeles

“That determination is getting him through his illness,” Karen said. “He’s very hard on himself but doesn’t wallow in self-pity.” Ariel says that Torah study is crucial to his positive mental state. While on sick leave from the yeshivah, he learns with a study partner.

“When I go for a day without it, I feel like I’m not living a real life,” Ariel said. “It’s very frustrating when I’m sick and can’t study as much.”

Although 47 candidates have been tested to become Ariel’s living lobar donor, none have been suitable matches. Yet Robert and Karen remain hopeful that a match will come forward. “Many people think if they’re Jewish, they’re not allowed to donate organs, but that’s not true,” Karen said.

According to the Halachic Organ Donor Society (www.hods.org), organ donation has been a controversial topic in the Jewish community because, on the surface, the medical practice contradicts certain biblical commandments concerning the handling of a cadaver. For example, the precept of “nivul hamet” forbids the needless mutilation of a cadaver. But rabbis across all denominations have, over time, come to agree that pikuach nefesh (“saving a life”) supersedes the observance of such corporeal biblical prohibitions.

Ariel offered a message to prospective living lobar donors:

“Anyone who does this will become a partner with me, a partner in my life,” he said. “I’m going to accomplish a lot and he’ll have a portion of those good things. It’s an opportunity for him as well.

“My parents love me, God loves me, and I have the strength to make it happen,” he added. “All these things, I have no doubt that they will come together.”



For information on how to help, contact Jewish Healthcare Foundation Avraham Moshe & Yehudis Bikur Cholim at (323) 852-1900 or visit www.bikurcholimonline.org/ariel.htm .