Miranda Milner and Austin Shalit: Engineering their future

High School: Milken Community Schools
Going to: George Washington University

High School: Milken Community Schools
Going to: Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Miranda Milner and Austin Shalit have been friends since they were kids, and now the Encino teens are graduating seniors at Milken Community Schools, looking ahead to college and professional futures in engineering, robotics and artificial intelligence that will also help shape the world’s vision of the future. 

As co-captains of the Milken Knights robotics team, Miranda and Austin led their squad in a six-week process to design, fabricate and test a robot in time for competition at the FIRST Robotics World Championship. This year’s challenge charged the team to build a robot that could breach opponents’ fortifications, and weaken and capture the opposing tower. The Knights built a catapult to throw “boulders” (foam balls) at the opponents’ tower. 

“Our robot was also capable of traversing many of the defenses in place to defend the other team’s tower through the use of large pneumatic wheels,” Miranda said. 

This year, Milken’s team achieved its highest ranking to date, placing 26th out of 600 teams.

“I’ve always been a quiet person, and robotics has made me a much louder and outgoing person because it gave me a space where I felt truly comfortable,” Miranda said. “I have always had an interest in science and art, and once I got to high school, I found that engineering is actually kind of a perfect marriage between them, because it’s all the exactness that comes with science and all the creativity that comes with art.”

Austin said he found being on the robotics team was an essential part of his personal and intellectual growth.

“I have always been a science-slash-technology person,” he said. “I wasn’t going to be the kid to join the soccer team but I had to join a team; I needed the lessons you can learn from being on a team and also the fun. It’s fun to work with people … deal with different levels of thinking and different ideas, moderating interactions between people.”

Miranda explained that this year’s robot was a particular point of pride for her and the team. “The only thing we decided we cared about was whether or not the robot worked, and it did work, which was incredible. … We went back to engineering basics: We didn’t care how it looked, just about building a good robot.”

In addition to their regular schoolwork, the two are involved in a bevy of extracurricular clubs and social justice initiatives, and are generally busy helping friends and classmates. It’s no wonder that they both credit their time at Milken with helping them develop time-management skills. 

For instance, Miranda juggled robotics with playing varsity volleyball and being assistant coach for the boys volleyball team. She also engaged in social action on behalf of hunger relief and volunteered at a local animal sanctuary. Austin runs a tech-support business and uses the income to fund his travels to school robotics competitions. He also is known as a source of support and help for other students.  

“Whenever someone needs something, I’m just there to take care of it,” he said. “They can ask me and I’ll take care of it or point them in the right direction.” 

His schoolmates found him so helpful that at Milken’s siyum (closing awards ceremony), Austin was awarded the Head of School Award. At the same ceremony, Miranda was honored with the Mitchell Academy of Science and Technology Nat Stoller Scholarship Award. 

The precise borders of their professional futures are as yet undefined, but both see the opportunities ahead. 

“I really want to do something interesting in the world,” Austin said, pointing to a company like SpaceX as an example. “I think it would be amazing to say, ‘I helped program the fuel flow’ or ‘I programmed the rocket to land,’ that I can look at something and say, ‘I helped make that happen.’ ” 

Miranda anticipates that her interest in engineering and art will combine during her college years toward her work in artificial intelligence. Last summer, she worked at the USC Laboratory of Neuro Imaging, where she tracked infant brain development through the growth of neural pathways, trying to understand how to reverse engineer the human brain, a vital step in developing artificial intelligence. 

On a more fanciful note, she also has recently discovered a passion for “painting her friends,” using their skin as canvas. “I’m obsessed with ‘Face Off’ [a TV show about movie makeup],” she said. “Not many people see the connection between art and science, but it’s [all] about coming up with something new.”

Can grieving together help cope with loss? There’s HOPE

On a recent Thursday evening, inside a children’s library in the basement of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino, 10 women and three men, all grieving the recent loss of a spouse, sat in a circle around a box of tissues.

With a reporter in the room, most participants agreed to keep their nametags — which included first names only — on display as they discussed the Mother’s Day that had just passed and a Father’s Day fast approaching.

“Father’s not gonna be there,” said Lynne, who recently lost her husband. “I still haven’t accepted it.”

Norm spoke of how spending Mother’s Day with family still left him with an empty feeling. 

“I spent the day with my son and my daughter-in-law and my grandkids, but it was extremely lonely,” he said.

Leading the participants through the 90-minute meeting for the nonprofit HOPE Connection was Sheila Newton, a licensed marriage and family therapist. It was one of several weekly meetings organized by the group across the Los Angeles area. (Other sites for gatherings include Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus in West L.A.)

Founded in 1979 by oncologist Avrum Bluming, HOPE Connection regularly draws more than 70 people to its Thursday night spousal loss groups at VBS. About 30 people come to its Tuesday evening spousal loss groups at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and its three other spousal and parental loss groups at VBS, in a West L.A. office and in Westlake Village draw about 25 people every week. The vast majority of the members are Jewish, although there is no religious requirement to attend.

Jo Christner, a clinical psychologist and HOPE Connection’s executive director, said she would like to create groups for sibling and child loss once there is sufficient demand. 

The organization runs primarily off the fees paid by its participants, who pay a one-time $50 orientation fee, and then $30 per meeting. Every group of at least five people is led by a licensed therapist, who guides the participants through an intimate, open and honest discussion about the grief they are experiencing, and their difficulty (or success) moving on. 

At any given point, depending on how many people are signed up in the program, HOPE has five to six groups, each segmented based on the duration of time since loss. Group 1 includes people whose loved one died one to four months ago; Group 2 is five to eight months; Group 3 is nine to 12 months; Group 4 is 13 to 17 months; and Group 5 is 18 to 24 months. Graduates then join the “New Beginnings” group, which meets twice a month, and serves as a sort of check-in for people who are experiencing loss in a very different way from how they were two or more years ago.  

“It’s easier for people in early grief to sit with other people in early grief,” Christner said. “People in Group 1 are not talking yet about taking off wedding rings. People in Group 3 might be doing that.”

 As part of the recent meeting she led, Newton handed out a list of things that many mourners find frustrating or painful to hear from friends who want to help, but don’t know how. Each participant took turns reading, and there were suggested responses, such as: “If you don’t know what to say, just come over and give me a hug or touch my arm, and gently say, ‘I’m sorry’ ”; or, “Ask me how I feel only if you really have time to find out. I am not strong. I am just numb”; and, “I will not recover. This is not a cold or the flu. I am not sick. I am grieving.”

“Oh, God, is this true,” said Lynne, choking back tears.

Maddie, who was anticipating her son’s upcoming 30th birthday party in New York, said it would be the first time she’s seen him since her husband, his father, died.

“The shadow of Dad not being there just crushes me,” Maddie said. 

She told the group that she was recently at a local cancer center to visit a friend who was undergoing chemotherapy. It was the same cancer center where her late husband was treated, and she ran into two nurses who had taken care of him.

“They say, ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ ” Maddie said. “I just look and I go, ‘So am I. So am I.’ ”

Just outside the library, in the main lobby of VBS’ youth center, the New Beginnings group of 16 women and one man sat on couches and chairs, engaging in a mix of thoughtful conversation and banter. There was a markedly different mood among these people — each of whom lost their spouse more than two years ago — from those just a few feet away in the library.

“The way you talk about death now is very different than two years ago,” said Evelyn Pechter, the psychologist leading the group. “You’re able to talk about it, for one thing.”

And, yet, the wound doesn’t heal; at best, it becomes a scar.

“Is there a time clock on grieving?” asked a woman named Betty. “You still go home. You are alone, you’ve got the pictures, the love of your life is not there anymore.”

The idea behind HOPE Connection is simple — grieving with others in a similar situation is healthier than grieving alone. Christner said HOPE Connection’s weekly groups help compensate for the “very isolating” nature of loss.

“People that go to groups and heal in community with each other and understand the loss that they’re having just do better,” Christner said. “They heal and they start realizing they’re not alone.”

New Beginnings is also more than just the name of a HOPE Connection group; it also has facilitated some new relationships. Christner said there was a 90-year-old widower who met a 90-year-old woman who was grieving her husband’s loss.

“He’s happy again,” Christner said. “When you have your partner who’s been your partner, your buddy, your best friend, your confidant — you yearn to have that connection again.”

Virginia Lawrence Paige, who started attending New Beginnings meetings in March, turned to HOPE Connection six weeks after the death of her husband, John, about 2 1/2 years ago. John died of melanoma, just seven weeks after he was diagnosed. Paige said when she first started, she just sat and cried quietly, but now she’s in a very different place.

“We’re actually living our lives now rather than hunkering down under a blanket,” she said. “The group has become a very important part of my life.” 

New Beginnings members often spend time together outside of HOPE Connection meetings, like meeting up for walks at Lake Balboa and going out for dinner.

Of course, there is no pretense that HOPE, or anything else, can repair a loss. It is a tool for coping and a medium to create connections with other people in similar situations.

Joel Saltzburg, 76, lost his wife in November 2013 to pancreatic cancer, 10 weeks after being diagnosed. Saltzburg is now a mentor to new participants, which includes walking them through the orientation and application process, and accompanying them on their first visit to a group.

“I realized that everybody has their story, and basically — it is a loss,” Saltzburg said. “I remember days where I sat in front of the television set without turning it on for five hours at a time, wrapped up in a blanket. By sitting in the meetings and listening to everybody, it somehow helped.”

Lazer Lloyd, Israel’s king of Blues, comes to L.A.

Lazer Lloyd has been dubbed Israel’s king of the blues, but, for the last few weeks, you could say his entire country has been singing the blues.

“The pain is so deep, we can’t even fathom it,” he said via Skype from his home in the ancient city of Beit Shemesh, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “We have rockets falling all over Israel. We had to go in the bomb shelter a lot. It’s very nerve-racking.”

Lloyd, who will perform in Encino on Aug. 21, said he feels sympathy for the Palestinian victims of the war, though he doesn’t necessarily blame Israel for their hardship.

“These people are suffering as well. The Arab countries use them as footballs; they keep them poor. They use these people as their tools,” Lloyd said.

Despite the daily fears of war, Lloyd is currently focused on recording a new album, which may become a double album, with one acoustic disc and one electric disc. The new album features old blues sounds with African elements thrown in — a nod to Israel as a crossroads of multiple continents and cultures.

“It sounds like someone playing an old Robert Johnson guitar together with an Egyptian oud — something really strange,” Lloyd said. “I’m trying to find out what my sound is. It’s always developing.”

The working title of the forthcoming album is “Burning Thunder,” and if that sounds downright biblical, it might be because Lloyd is a deeply spiritual person, sporting a long, salt-and-pepper beard and side locks that shake back and forth as he plays his guitar. He connects with the Chasidic movement, though he adds that he has Sufi teachers as well.

“I try to keep it real,” he said. “For me, to be Jewish is to be real. Religious is someone doing something because they did it yesterday. You want to be new each day.”

Lloyd grew up in a secular Jewish home in Connecticut as Lloyd Blumen — Lazer is his Hebrew name. He began playing guitar at 13 and started gigging at blues clubs at 16. He studied music at Skidmore College before moving to New York and recording demos for Atlantic Records. It was there that a chance encounter changed the course of his life.

“I met this homeless guy in Central Park. He ended up being a Jewish guy. I gave him a bagel and a few bucks,” Lloyd said. The man brought Lloyd to his synagogue and introduced him to the late Shlomo Carlebach, an Orthodox rabbi and prolific songwriter known as “The Singing Rabbi,” who specialized in reaching out to disaffected Jews.

“He was like the hippie guru of Judaism,” Lloyd said.

The two played a concert in Manhattan, and as Lloyd recounts, “I was just blown away. I never saw anyone sing like that or perform like that. He convinced me to come play with him in Israel.”

Carlebach died soon after, but Lloyd decided to stay in Israel. He made aliyah 20 years ago; for the past 16, he’s lived in Beit Shemesh. When he first arrived in Israel, there wasn’t much of a blues scene. He looked like an anomaly — an American observant Jew rocking out with an electric guitar. Now, he says, the blues are thriving in Israel:

“In the last 10 years it really opened up. Almost every night in Israel, you can find some kind of blues concert going on.”

Lloyd is married and has five children; his oldest, Yoseph, is 17 and plays keyboards, guitar and sings. So, would Lloyd recommend that his son follow in his father’s footsteps?

“I encourage him to follow in his footsteps,” Lloyd said with a laugh. “My parents told me to do what I think is my thing, and I want [my kids] to do what they think is their thing.”

Of course, a music career will have to come after Yoseph’s military service, which begins next year, and his father faces that fact with a heavy heart.

“I got a lot of kids that come to the concerts that were in the middle of the war. I got neighbors’ kids, I got family members. It’s very heavy. It’s really rough. The closest you get to living is when you feel you’re close to dying. On the one hand, it’s really bad. On the other hand, everything is just put into perspective on such a deep level. You have to find the light inside the darkness. That’s what the Jewish people are renowned for doing. But, as a father, it’s a scary thing.”

Lloyd credits his spiritual life with helping him see that light. Early blues musicians sang about God, and about their physical slavery and spiritual slavery. Lloyd sees his version of the blues as an extension of that era of music, and even reaching back to biblical times.

“King David, he [was] the first blues singer,” Lloyd said. “If you look in the Psalms, those words he sang there, he was speaking out about his personal struggle. He was also singing out about the struggle of the world. He sings about God’s struggle, about family problems, about women. This is the real blues context. It says he was playing instruments. We don’t know the real melody, but he was accompanying himself with the music and clearing his heart out.”

On this tour, Lloyd will be joined by the rhythm section of the Chicago Blues Kings, drummer Kenny Coleman and bassist Felton Crews, each an accomplished musician in his own right.

“It’s great working with him,” Coleman said of Lloyd. “He’s a gentlemen, and he loves his country. He’s living in a war zone. I often say that I’m in a war zone because I live in Chicago — we have a lot of killing here — but he’s really in it.”

Lloyd’s style ranges from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Coleman said, adding that he and Lloyd have played together in Chicago and Indiana. “He’s an excellent musician, and I can say that because I’ve worked with some of the best and some of the worst.”

This will be the first show in which Crews joins Lloyd on stage, and he said he’s looking forward to playing in a power trio. “We’ll provide him a nice horse to ride on into the groove,” Crews said. “We know how to fill it up. It’s our intent to give the music some feeling and some life and some energy.

“Music is like a recipe — every new ingredient you add is gonna change it,” Crews added. “So I’m looking forward to seeing how we mesh and what direction we’re gonna take.”

Lloyd often ends his live performances with a cover of Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah” (“The Hope”). As he tours the world, Lloyd said, he sees himself as an ambassador for Israel, and a messenger of healing and peace.

“I want to bring the light of Israel to the world,” he said. “Music is the way you have to do it.”

Lazer Lloyd will perform in Encino on Aug. 21, at a special concert and live recording session. Tickets are $25 and are available at

Los Angeles community reacts to violence in the Gaza war

Two simultaneous events in Los Angeles last week that focused on Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip revealed a community split between progressives who expressed some criticism of Israel even as they supported its efforts at security, and more unconditional supporters of the Jewish state.

On July 31, more than 1,000 people attended an event at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS), a large Conservative synagogue in Encino. The event, titled “Shoulder to Shoulder: A Community Gathering in Support of the People of Israel,” displayed American-Israeli solidarity to full effect. 

“We have a strong Jewish community in this country and around the world. And we are organized, and we are powerful, and we’re inspired. And we know that we have a homeland to fight for that is just, that is moral,” Israel Consul General in Los Angeles David Siegel said at VBS, appearing alongside the congregation’s Rabbis Ed Feinstein and Noah Farkas, as well as Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, and others. 

At the same time, about 250 others from the Jewish community wrestled with issues pertaining to Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in Gaza at an event titled “Crisis in Israel: What Now What Next?” at the Westside Jewish Community Center (JCC). The town hall-style event featured Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Daniel Sokatch of the New Israel Fund, UCLA Jewish history professor David Myers, Americans for Peace Now’s David Pine and J Street’s Yael Maizel. 

“Tonight, we actually come together to reflect and to think about and hear about how we got to this place, and what in the world we can possibly do so that we might be able to find our way out of here,” Brous said, explaining her discomfort with Israel’s activity in Gaza. “There are so many Israelis who are taking the lead in this conversation now, artists and activists and thinkers and academics, people who are, with their own broken hearts, able to say, ‘What kind of country do we want to build, what are [the] great dreams we want to dream?’ We wanted to create a space for that conversation to happen here in Los Angeles, as well.” These two events illustrated how, even when the L.A. Jewish community is united in support of Israel during this latest operation against Hamas, turning out repeatedly in recent weeks in large numbers at rallies, vigils and memorial services for the three kidnapped and slain teens Gilad Shaar, Eyal Yifrach, and Naftali Frenkel — a Saban Theatre shloshim on July 30 drew more than 1,000 people and featured speakers Roz Rothstein of Stand With Us, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Jewish Journal President David Suissa and others — it is not homogenous in how it processes what is happening inside Gaza. 

Some have found an outlet by expressing absolute harmony with the decisions of the Israeli government. 

Others are trying to carve out a moderate position between those who would call Israel’s action “genocide” (more on that later) and those who are embracing Israel now more than ever. 

Chabad of Northridge congregant Andrew Miller is an example of an ardent Israel supporter. An attendee at the VBS event — where audience members wore yarmulkes with Israel and U.S. flags stitched to them, and a video screen situated between a U.S. flag and an Israeli flag displayed pictures from Israel -— Miller said the event demonstrated that the American-Jewish community stands behind Israel. 

“It’s so nice that we had the opportunity to all get together and show our support for Israel, especially now, when they need it most,” he said. 

For some, neither option suffices. This appeared true at the Westside JCC, where emotions ran high when one audience member, L.A. Jews for Peace member Rick Chertoff, yelled out and interrupted the panel’s discussion to declare that the death of Palestinian civilians in Israel’s current war with Hamas is more than just collateral damage — these deaths, he said, reflect a concerted Israeli effort to wipe out Palestinians. 

Security officers quickly escorted Chertoff out of the event because of his disruption, which also included cursing at other members of the audience. 

It was clear that, for the segment of the Jewish community present at the JCC — whom Sokatch described as the “progressive Jewish community of Los Angeles, who care deeply about Israel and who care deeply about Palestine” — Chertoff’s claim that Israel is intentionally targeting Palestinians is too radical. 

“We do not believe Israel engages in deliberate slaughter of its neighbors and represents the sole criminal actor on the world stage,” Myers said.

“[But] I think that as we contemplate the prospect of moving forward, we have to hope for a mix of more sophisticated statecraft [in Israel] … for realist morality that has been sorely lacking for the last number of years now,” Myers said. 

Later the same week, on Aug. 2, between 1,500 and 3,000 people turned out for a pro-Palestinian rally in Westwood. And they signaled that they would, likely, dispute Myers’ remarks. Marching to and fro between the Wilshire Federal Building and the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, which is located just over a mile west of the Federal Building, protesters carried signs that read, “Zionists, Get Out of Gaza Now!” and “Israel Is Mass Murdering Children.”

The event, as has been true of other rallies on both sides during the past several weeks, had its share of rowdiness. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) arrested one person for sexual battery, according to LAPD-West L.A. Division Officer Hornback, who described the incident as “involuntary touching of a private area.” No further details were available. 

Additionally, Israel activist Steve Goldberg, carrying a large Israeli flag, engaged in shouting matches with a group of pro-Palestinian demonstrators at one point; a woman covered in fake blood carried a baby doll also covered in fake blood and marched with duct tape over her lips; demonstrators clashed with Bible-thumping Evangelicals who stationed themselves on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard behind a banner proclaiming support of Israel as the Jewish homeland.

“We stand with you,” 22-year-old Cerritos College student and pro-Palestinian group ANSWER Los Angeles member Waylette Thomas told the Journal when asked if there was any message she’d send to Hamas, the governing party in Gaza.

The climax of the event occurred about two hours in: A sea of protesters were marching eastbound on a closed-down Wilshire Boulevard under the 405 Freeway, their pro-Palestinian chants echoing against the walls of the underpass. 

Viva, viva, Palestina,” Spanish-language protesters chanted as they made their way back to the Federal Building later that afternoon. 

“We’re demanding that Israel end its indiscriminate bombing and its indiscriminate genocide of the civilian population — we ask it to end and demand for it to end its siege on the Gaza Strip,” Gus Hussein, 25, a Palestinian UC Riverside graduate student and Students for Justice in Palestine member, said, marching with the large group. 

The tone of the rally was not only vastly different from the sentiments expressed at the Westside JCC and VBS, but also from those expressed at an Aug. 5 morning ceremony at Los Angeles City Hall, where L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city’s top leaders, including City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield, who organized the media event, officially expressed their solidarity with Israel. But even in those Israel-friendly rooms, there was a universal eagerness to see the conflict end as soon as possible. 

Siegel predicted, however, that Israel will face difficulties even after it ends its war in Gaza. (As of press time on Aug. 5, a 72-hour cease fire had gone into effect and peace negotiations were expected to begin soon in Egypt, with both sides already claiming victory, according to a JTA report.)

“The day after this conflict is over, it only just begins,” Seigel said, noting that the country will face “one-sided international investigations” aimed at limiting Israel’s ability to defend itself.

Brous, meanwhile, expressed hopes for a day when events like the ones last week won’t be necessary. 

“I want to suggest there is another way for us, not to put aside the pain and suffering but to hold it and grieve over it and to contemplate what in the world we can do to get out of this place, so that we don’t have to meet again in another 18 months, or two years, to have a community forum in which to grieve the loss of so many more lives,” she said.

Los Angeles history: Jewish dreamers, schemers of the San Fernando Valley

Have you ever been lost on Ventura Boulevard, a street that’s long on history? One night, I found myself west of the 405 Freeway, searching for the street on which to turn left to pick up my teenage son and realized I’d totally lost my bearings.

Separated from the San Fernando Valley by a range of mountains and life choices, I don’t come here often. A couple of Jewish weddings at the Sportsmen’s Lodge, visits to Valley Beth Shalom for our son’s Hebrew High School graduation, a family wedding at the L.A. Equestrian Center, and beyond that, for this Mid-City dweller, it’s the great ek velt (boondocks).

Trying to reset my compass as the storefronts rushed by, I searched for landmarks: a kosher restaurant, a synagogue, a large clock with Hebrew numbers. I remembered that I was supposed to turn left at a deli.

Demographically speaking, I knew where I was. Years earlier, I had edited a Los Angeles Jewish population survey. On a graph, a dense swarm of blue dots marked the area of Encino through which I was driving. Each dot represented a Jewish household, and each household represented a story of Jewish migration.

Some had moved there from Boyle Heights and the Adams District in the postwar boom years of the early 1950s. Others, since the 1980s, had moved from the city’s metro region looking for what they described in the survey as a “better area.”

But long before that, in the closing years of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century — a time not counted in any survey — Jews also migrated to the San Fernando Valley, not so much because it was better, but because it was bigger and open, and they came to build dreams.

A few blocks later I found Jerry’s Deli and made my turn. But instead of heading up the street to get my son, I was drawn by the light of the deli case in the window and turned into the parking lot.

The case was jammed with stuffed cabbage, kugel and pickled tomatoes. But then I saw the pumpernickel. “An East Coast baker must have migrated to the Valley,” I remember thinking.

As I was discovering, the Valley was built on stories of Jewish migration, with even the wheat grown to make bread figuring prominently in its history.

Isaac Lankershim —yes, the boulevard is named after him — is introduced by the online Jewish Museum of the American West as both “Creator of the San Fernando Valley Breadbasket and Enigma.”

In the 1850s, Lankershim, who moved to the United States from Bavaria, made a name for himself in San Francisco, where he was known as the “Wheat King.”

In the late 1860s, Lankershim moved to Los Angeles, where, according to David Epstein, the co-publisher of Western State Jewish History (which created the online museum), Lankershim became associated with Harris Newmark and other Jewish businessmen. “The Jewish community thought of him as an idiosyncratic Jew,” said Epstein, who pointed out that though Lankershim had converted to the Baptist faith before moving to Los Angeles, “He thought Jewish,” Epstein said.

According to the museum, “In 1869, Lankershim and investors from San Francisco purchased 60,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley for $115,000, forming the San Fernando Valley Farm Homestead Association.” 

The ranch consisted of what we know today as Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Encino, Sherman Oaks, Van Nuys and North Hollywood. It stretched from Roscoe Boulevard down to the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains, and from the Calabasas Hills to the western city limits of Burbank.

At first, Lankershim used the land to raise sheep, but after a drop in prices, he turned to farming wheat. Following a few seasons of drought, he harvested a crop so large that he had to build a wagon road to carry it to the pier in Santa Monica. The current 405 follows some of that same path.

In the following decades, Jewish dreamers and schemers began to subdivide Lankershim’s map.

In 1923, Victor Girard Kleinberger, a former imitation-Persian-carpet salesman, founded the town of Girard, which in the 1940s would change its name to Woodland Hills.

The Los Angeles Times has called him “a land huckster with big dreams.” But, Betty Bowler, the historian for the Woodland Hills Country Club, which she said was founded by Girard in 1925, prefers to think of him “as a dreamer.” 

“We have Jewish weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs here,” she added.

In 1899, Girard — who had dropped his last name — moved to Los Angeles. According to Kevin Roderick’s book “The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb,” the young real-estate tycoon started Girard on 2,000 hilly acres. His plan was to subdivide and sell tiny lots — 25 feet wide, just large enough to build a cabin.

To attract prospects to the part of the West Valley that had no street cars and was accessible only via a Sepulveda Pass much steeper and serpentine than it is today, Girard booked “sucker buses,” to bring them to his development.

Wanting to create the illusion of an up-and-coming city, according to the Times, Girard erected false storefronts. On the corner of what is now Topanga Canyon and Ventura boulevards, Girard built a “Turkish city” — an assortment of minarets and gates.

In 1929, the stock market crash, as well as reports that he had double-sold some of the parcels, spurred Girard to leave, along with some of his town’s residents.

As to his legacy, in Woodland Hills today, many of the more than 100,000 eucalyptus, pepper and other trees Girard planted on the hillsides can still be seen along Canoga Avenue, south of Ventura.

Some of Girard’s original cabins still exist, though many have been modified. “I feel like I’m on vacation every day living here,” said Heide Bowen, who has rented one of the original cabins for the last six years. “It’s tiny, cozy and has a fireplace,” she added.

In the 1930s, another Jew, movie star Francis Lederer, would also leave his mark in the San Fernando Valley by building a mission-style home on a 300-acre ranch in what is today West Hills.

After a successful acting career in Europe on both stage and screen, Lederer came to America in 1932 to be on Broadway. Seeing what was happening in Europe, he decided to stay.

“The grim events in Germany are a lesson to the whole Jewish race,” Lederer said in 1934, as reported by JTA.

The handsome matinee idol, memorialized by a star on Hollywood Boulevard, played the lead in such films as “The Gay Deception” and “One Rainy Afternoon,” eventually appearing as the lead in “The Return of Dracula” in 1958. Also that year, he played Otto Frank in a theatrical production of “The Diary of Anne Frank” on a U.S. tour.

Lederer’s Spanish Revival home, built with the help of John R. Litke of natural stone and meant to look old, sits on a hilltop on Sherman Way. In 1978, the house was declared a Los Angeles landmark. A nearby mission-style stable, also built by Lederer, was also declared a landmark and today is an event site, known as the Hidden Chateau and Gardens.

Lederer’s house is now on the market, and, according to real estate agent Sarah Cartell, the Lederers used to “shoot up fireworks to let the neighbors know when cocktail hour had started,” she said.

Jill Milligan, the proprietor of the Gardens, who knew Marion Lederer, Francis’ third and last wife, said, “Marion would have liked to have the property seen as a tribute to Francis, who has had such a legacy in the West Valley.

“For many years, Francis was an honorary mayor of Canoga Park,” she added about the movie star who died in 2000 at the age of 100. 

Dan Brin, president of the West Hills Neighborhood Council and former editor of the now-late Jewish newspaper The Heritage, added of the home: “I’m very much in favor of somebody stepping forward and making it possible for the entire community to enjoy this resource.”

Back at the deli, where this journey through San Fernando Valley Jewish history began, I bought a loaf of bread and drove up the hill to retrieve my son. Taking the same route as Lankershim’s wheat to get home, we headed through the Sepulveda Pass. 

Mitzvahland: For all your Jewish needs

On Sunday, my wife and I drove out to the Valley to buy a new sukkah. It was time. I’d bought our old sukkah from an Armenian Catholic who supplied booths to vendors in farmers’ markets. When his orders began to spike in September, he realized he could have a good little side business selling these things to Jews for their holiday of Sukkot. Only in America.

That was 15 years ago. This time, I couldn’t find a listing for his company, but I did reach the owner of a place called Mitzvahland on Ventura Boulevard in Encino.

He spoke in a thick Persian accent, and I felt like I had just reached the trading pit on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. “Sukkahs? Yes! Size? Yes, we got it, we got it! Tarp, yes, come!” And he hung up. If you want a sukkah, call a Judaica store the day after Yom Kippur. If you’re looking for customer service, call L.L. Bean.

So we drove to Encino, the Old Country. When I grew up there, there were Jews, but nothing like what’s happened since. In the late ’70s, the Iranian Jews arrived. Then waves of Israelis settled in. We third-generation Ashkenazi children moved to the city or farther west, to Conejo. What was once a monochromatic, acculturated, if not assimilated, Jewish community became more observant, diverse, multiethnic.

We pulled into a mini-mall near Balboa Boulevard. Across a large storefront shul hung a huge banner that advertised the time for prayer services. Mitzvahland took up two more storefronts. 

Inside, it was the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. An elderly Iranian-Jewish man was behind the cash register, helping a customer and speaking into his cell phone. The store phone rang. He picked it up and now had three conversations going — one in English, one in Hebrew, one in Farsi.

A dozen customers crowded the sukkah display, next to which lay a stack of shiny metal pipes and a huge mound of bamboo poles. Two young religious Jews helped them make sense of the sukkah kits for sale. A woman in a low-cut blouse — unlikely to be Orthodox — waited patiently. Behind her two barrel-chested Israelis wearing tight T-shirts advertising a nightclub held pounds of bright plastic fruit decorations, eager to pay. Another Israeli man walked in, checkbook in hand.

“What is the end of the line?” he asked, slightly mistranslating the Hebrew phrase. 

At the counter, a young father ordering his first sukkah presented a list of specs right out of “This Old House.” “Just get the kit,” the owner said.

My wife went to the back of the store, where a vast table was covered in neatly laid out etrogs and boys formed branches of myrtle, willow and palm into a sheaf of lulavs. A boy of perhaps 8, wearing an embroidered velvet kippah, was braiding dried palm fronds together to form the holster that holds the three branches together. “Does that come with the sukkah?” a woman, clearly a first-time sukkah buyer, asked. 

Nope — another $45, at least.

Growing up, most of my friends were Jewish, but we didn’t know from lulavs and etrogs or even Sukkot. Those were the “Mad Men” years. It was edgy and funny to be culturally Jewish, like Barbra or Woody, but to practice the rituals, to identify religiously — that was for the Orthodox.

Slowly, that has changed — partly because of the immigrants, unabashed in their affiliations, and partly because the needs that the mysteries of tradition and community fill could not long go unmet. The doomsayers keep telling us that a new generation is turned off to Judaism. But one sure sign they’re wrong is the number of non-Orthodox Jews who now put up sukkot, or celebrate the holiday with others. 

“Thirty years ago, people thought sukkot were only for synagogues,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, who grew up Conservative, told me. “It was a revelation you could build one in your backyard. Now, everyone and their mother is selling sukkot on Pico-Robertson.”

Sukkot turns an average autumn evening into summer camp. No one does it because they have to, like Yom Kippur, but because they want to. 

And so, even as the American Jewish community has grown wealthier, more powerful, more stable, we find ourselves pulled toward Sukkot, the symbol of a tentative existence.

 “We dwell in fragile booths because we are secure,” wrote Rabbi David Wolpe. “Only someone who feels safe chooses a rickety dwelling.”

In our solid, complicated lives, we yearn to reconnect to what is true, simple and sweet: shelter, food, community.

The night before we decided to buy a new sukkah, I had a dream that I was 15 years old and working at Miss Grace Lemon Cake, where I worked on and off through high school. 

In my dream, I was packing the warm sugary cakes into their tins — just as I used to do as a teenager — but every so often I’d stop to eat a slice. In the morning, the dream meant nothing to me.

It was only after we loaded our sukkah kit in our car and drove away that I realized: Miss Grace Lemon Cakes used to be located in the exact storefront where Mitzvahland is now. What was sweet, is still sweet, and will remain sweet — and we will keep returning to it, as the saying goes, generation after generation. There is no end of the line. 

See their commercial here:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Dybbuk debuts ‘Darkness and Light’

It’s well past 10 p.m. on a Wednesday evening, and the halls of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) are filled with the sounds of creativity. In one room of the Encino Conservative congregation, the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony winds down its rehearsal, packing up instruments as its musicians prepare, finally, to go home. 

Farther down the long corridor that traverses the center of the synagogue, in the temple’s social hall, a different kind of noise can be heard. Men and women chanting. The sounds of feet stomping. A cantor singing. The sounds of Theatre Dybbuk preparing for its newest piece, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot,” which will premiere at VBS after Shabbat on Aug. 31.

When Aaron Henne, artistic director of Theatre Dybbuk, was approached by his friend, playwright Michael Halperin, about doing something at Halperin’s synagogue last year, he wasn’t sure what to expect. “This is an unusual and lucky collaboration,” Henne confided, as he wound down after the show’s first run-through. “It’s really been inspiring to see what a synagogue can be.”

After speaking with Halperin last year, Henne met with VBS’ senior rabbi, Ed Feinstein, who suggested that Theatre Dybbuk do a theatrical sermon during a Friday night service. So Henne put together “a 25-minute piece called ‘Vessels,’ ” which dealt with the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and was performed in April on the 75th anniversary of the event. That piece brought in a crowd for the Friday night service, and, afterward, Feinstein suggested that maybe Henne and Theatre Dybbuk would like to do a larger piece at the synagogue. And thus, “Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” was born.

“Unlike most services, Selichot doesn’t have an exact, set order,” Henne explained. That flexibility made the service ripe for theatrical interpretation. 

“I use a process that is a development process. … We cast a show before a single word is written,” Henne said. “I write it, but we’re all having conversation about the topic and the structure.”

Although all of the actors in the piece are professionals from outside the VBS community, “both the cantor and the rabbi have been involved since the beginning of the piece and helped to influence its shape.” And the clergy team will be heavily involved in the performance.

The piece is a mixture of movement, gesture, monologues, chanting, music and prayer that serves to enhance the basic Selichot service, which is woven into the body of the piece. Themes of forgiveness, death and life resound. Sometimes the performers transition directly from theater to prayer, breaking out in the Shema, for instance. The cantors of VBS will chant during the piece, and the congregation will participate by praying along with them.

“The High Holy Days are a supremely existential time,” Henne explained, “and Selichot in some ways is the most existential part of that. Traditionally, the service takes place at midnight. You are literally caught between night and day, between death and life.”

The performance will take place in the chapel at VBS, and that has been an interesting and exciting change for Henne, who’s been working in professional theaters for years. “It’s kind of, in a fun way, a reminder of what theater can really be, which is people in a room. We don’t need 400 light cues and 200 sound cues; it’s about what we’re creating with our bodies and voices.”

And the project has even helped Henne get closer to his Jewish side. “It’s been interesting as an artist to re-engage with the notion of what ritual does,” he said. “We are here to connect you to your spirituality, to help you get in touch with who you are.”

For Feinstein, the choice to invite Theatre Dybbuk back to VBS was an easy one. “A thousand years ago or so, we rabbis threw the artists out of the synagogue. Artists, like prophets, are dangerous to a community’s stability. So we dismissed them. And we are poorer for that. We need to restore the creative artistic spirit that once animated synagogue life. We need to bring the artists home,” he said.

Theatre Dybbuk is part of a larger plan, he said. “VBS is working to create a home for the Jewish arts,” Feinstein said. “Not just a place for artists to be, but a real dialogue and collaboration between the artist and the community. We are hoping to continue our relationship with Theatre Dybbuk in future projects. And we are hoping to extend this collaboration into the visual arts, music, writing and other forms of creative expression.”

“Ritual is a form of theater. It is meant to move us emotionally, to inspire us, to teach us,” Feinstein explained. “The tragedy is that for some time, our ritual hasn’t been good theater.”

Henne, for now, is anxious to see how the new project will be received by the congregation and hopeful that it will have a profound effect on those who see it. “We don’t know what the morning’s going to bring,” he said. “We’re still in the middle of the night.” 

“Between Darkness and Light: Selichot” will be performed by Theatre Dybbuk on Aug. 31 at Valley Beth Shalom. Services begin at 7:30 p.m. Free. 

Cultivating Next Gen communities

It started with a cup of coffee.

About two years ago, Effie Braun and her husband, Nate, sat down with Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino to discuss an idea — VBSnextGen.

The rabbi’s idea was to create a community within VBS for couples under 40 — dating, engaged or married — who were entering a period in their lives where active participation and membership with a synagogue would soon become a serious option. For Effie Braun, 27, the prospect of joining a relatively small, tight-knit community within VBS’ large congregation of 1,500 member families was a big draw.

“I wanted to meet people that were more stable, not people going to clubs until 5 in the morning,” she said. 

Farkas, a 30-something rabbi in his sixth year at the synagogue, wanted to focus VBS’ young adult outreach on couples like the Brauns because, as he put it, “When you think you found a partner in life who you are pretty serious about, your life begins to become more stable. 

“It’s at that moment that you are open to more stable types of institutions, like synagogues,” he concluded.

While it’s no secret that synagogues implement young adult programs in part to increase the number of paying members down the line, VBS and many other local congregations aren’t interested in simply adding names to a membership list — they expect young adult participants to meaningfully contribute to programming and to pursue growth in their own religious lives.

Like many local synagogues, VBS has tiered pricing, with reduced membership fees for younger congregants. Its significantly discounted fee for VBSnextGen members is $250 for married couples, $125 for unmarried couples. But like a growing number of local synagogues’ young adult programs, VBSnextGen also is laser focused on creating Jews who, in Farkas’ words, are “producers of Judaism, and not just consumers of Judaism.”

When couples first join VBS, Farkas’ first “ask” is for them to attend a Shabbat dinner hosted by another young couple. VBSnextGen members host about three Shabbat dinners per month. The goal is not only to build a social and religious community, but, as Farkas said, “to take those training wheels off and start practicing Kiddush,” to the point where the first-time Shabbat dinner guests will eventually become hosts who can “train” new members on the to-do list of Shabbat dinner. 

“That is the turning point,” he said.

At IKAR, a nine-year-old independent congregation located in the Westside JCC, the turning point comes at the moment of sign-up, when new members have to make a “membership brit” (covenant) — a commitment to Torah learning, a commitment to helping grow the IKAR community and a commitment to tzedakah, charitable work. 

Each commitment has several options. Someone, for example, can attend one prayer service a week (Torah), welcome people on Shabbat (community growth) and serve meals in homeless shelters (tzedakah). Like VBS, IKAR has a reduced fee for younger members in addition to its expectation that members will actively grow in their Jewish involvement.

“We want to lower the barriers of entry but raise the bar for participation,” said Melissa Balaban, IKAR’s executive director. “When you come, we are going to ask stuff of you. And we are going to make you think, and we are going to challenge you.”

Caroline Engel, a 24-year-old who moved to Los Angeles from Pennsylvania in February, joined IKAR when she arrived. Engel, who sometimes reads Torah on Shabbat for the congregation and volunteers at social events, said that IKAR “challenges you to be involved and to give your spare time to help build that very strong community.”

About two miles away is Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue with 675 member families that has, over the last two years, created a “young professionals” minyan, the crux of which is a weekly Shabbat morning service and a monthly Shabbat dinner that consistently draws more than 100 people. 

Daniel Schwartz, 28, who helped create the young professionals group with four other young adults shortly after he moved to Los Angeles, said that the impetus behind the minyan was twofold — bring more young Jews into the door and get as many as possible regularly involved in what Schwartz says is a close-knit young adult community.

“It can be going to events, it can be coming to minyan, it can be taking a leadership role in some of the volunteer events. Our expectation is just for people to be more involved,” Schwartz said.  

That involvement can even be something as simple as being a greeter at Shabbat dinners and chatting with new guests to make them feel welcome.

Nikki Fig, 22, a recent college graduate, attended her first Beth Jacob young professionals Shabbat dinner in March, about six months after moving to Los Angeles. 

Until that dinner, she said, breaking into the young adult Jewish scene was a grind. Now, Fig attends as many dinners as she can, participates in Shabbat morning services nearly on a weekly basis, and said that she met her closest group of friends in Los Angeles through Beth Jacob’s young professionals scene. 

She hopes to eventually become what every synagogue hopes its young adult programs produce — a new member. 

“They are showing me why I want to be Jewish, and ultimately that will translate,” Fig said. “When I do have a more stable position, of course I will become a member and hopefully give back.”

Q&A with Rabbi Ed Feinstein

On Sunday, May 11, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom, will be feted for his two decades of service to the synagogue. He talks in this edited version of an interview about changes in synagogue life, his theology and what he prays for.

Jewish Journal: Twenty years. Does it feel like a long time?

Ed Feinstein: Some days. (laughter)

JJ: So, how do you think that synagogue life has changed in those 20 years?

EF: In the beginning of the 20th century we were very active and very conscious of creating a new modern form of Judaism, an American form of Judaism. In the middle of the 20th century there were two traumas: The Holocaust and the creation State of Israel. And the community consciously decided to stop the process of re-creating itself. They adopted continuity as a motto. Which meant we weren’t going to continue the creativity that had marked the community in the early part of the century. And for a generation, the community hunkered down and protected itself. It created all kinds of institutions — it created synagogues and summer camps and seminaries; there was a lot of philanthropy. But there wasn’t a great deal of institutional creativity, and ideological, philosophical creativity. And that worked from the end of the Second World War, until the end of the 1980s. But by the ‘90s, that numbness wore off, and the community once again returned, by force, because the kids asked their parents a very powerful question: Why be Jewish? Up until that point, if anyone ever asked that question, what you answered with was a narrative of the holocaust. You dropped your eyes and lowered your voice and whispered something about the 6 million, and the conversation was over. But all of a sudden kids weren’t responding to that language anymore.

JJ: And that’s when you came here.

EF: And that’s about when I came to Valley Beth Shalom [VBS]. So this last 20 years has seen the return of what I think is an enormously energetic creative process of reinventing American Judaism, reinventing Judaism for modernity. We are renegotiating our relationship with the state of Israel; we are finding a way to tell the story of the Holocaust; we are finding a way to tell the story of our own identity. We’re trying to figure out what is our relationship to the outside world. What does it mean there are so many among us who weren’t born Jewish, and yet are participating in the Jewish community? We are trying to figure out our politics in America; we’re certainly trying to figure out our relationship with God.

JJ: Do you the model for a large synagogue like VBS — I don’t know how many families you have…

EF: A million.


JJ: No seriously, about how many is it?

EF: About 1600.

JJ: That’s huge by many standards.

EF: Yeah thank God they don’t all want a bris on the same morning.

JJ: Do you think that’s a good model for the future?

EF:  In order to survive the ups and downs of the economy, institutions have to be big. When the economy tanked VBS made a very clear statement: We will not lose a family because of money. And we were able to keep that promise because the institution is big enough and has a broad enough reach to absorb an economic downturn and still move forward. However, because community is what a synagogue is about, connecting people to people, to God, and to their traditions, it has to be small. So, while the synagogue is an institutional framework that is very big, within it are dozens of micro-communities that are very small. And my job is to bridge those two realities. On Shabbos morning we have 5 or 6 minyanim that are meeting. And people get to pray with the people that they love. We have many many classes all over the city there are classes, there are lunch time classes being offered. We have a number of small groups of people going out to do social justice work. The only time the whole community really meets is on the high holidays. And the wonderful thing about the high holidays is that’s when you get to see all of your friends from all of your micro communities sitting with each other, and you realize how interwoven all of these micro communities are. That’s the model.

JJ: Can you define your theology?

EF: Theology for me begins with the question of “what is the meaning of my existence?” “Why am I here?” What are the passions that get me up in the morning and move me through life? Theology doesn’t begin with the metaphysics with the way the universe is constructed it begins with the realization that my life has meaning, that I matter, that I’m important, that I have significance. And the question is what kind of universe would I have to imagine in order to recognize that my life matters and that I have meaning in my existence. It’s a universe that bears the possibility of repair. If I posit that the universe is so broken and it’s broken pieces could never fit together, then I really ought to go become a Buddhist. Because the Buddhist tradition teaches a withdrawal from the pain of being in the world. But the Jewish tradition teaches a different message. That there’s a possibility of tikkun. And because there’s a possibility of tikun, our efforts to do justice in the world, to bring gentleness to the world, to care for each other, make a difference. That is a faith statement.

JJ: How do you reconcile that against things like the Boston bombings?

EF: The brokenness is still deeply profound.  There is a deep brokenness in this world, and that brokenness is also expressed through human beings. And our job is to try and repair the brokenness. I think the story that all of us wept at is the story of all the men and women who went running toward the explosion.

JJ: Did you grow up thinking you were going to be a rabbi?

EF: No, not even close. In fact some mornings (laughter) I don’t wake up thinking that way.  My mom and dad owned a bakery in the West San Fernando Valley. Dad’s a baker, Mom’s a bakery lady. Mom created a community in that bakery. Go on a Sunday morning, every Jew in America was in that bakery. And there was a sense of belonging and caring in that community. I always want to be part of community.

JJ: So, in a sense, it’s turned out that you’re doing what you imagined, it’s just a different role.

EF: I never would be like this. Because when Rabbi Schulweis asked me in 1993 to come here, this was a dream. I never thought…I fell in love with him when I was 16 years old. I watched him on that pulpit, I watched the magic that he would do; I listened to his words. All through college and rabbinical school, my dad would send me tapes of Rabbi Schulweis’ talks, because I was so taken with the power of his mind and the power of his oratory and the power of his soul.

JJ: So what’s the most fun part of your job?

Friday morning, telling stories to kids. I still do it, I’ve done it since I was ordained, I get on the floor and I tell the kids all these Jewish stories. And I watch their eyes grow wide. The story I love to tell, it’s a true story, the week I was ordained a rabbi, no the week I started my first job as a rabbi, in Texas, Nina, my wife sent me to the grocery store to buy some milk, and I was walking up the aisle. And there was a shopping cart coming the other way, and it had one of the 3 year olds from the nursery school in the jump seat, and the kid looks at me and he looks at his mother and looks at me and he points and says “Look mom, it’s God!” True story.

JJ: And what did you say?

EF: I said God bless this kid, I hope he joins the board of directors. No I realized, you know, you imagine God to wear the face of the people who teach you about God. You imagine religion to have the same emotional tenor of the people who teach you religion.  Too many of us were raised by teachers and rabbis who were cold and forbidding and distant. And if I could be close to kids, hug kids, engage kids, tell them stories that contain the wisdom of the tradition but do it with laughter and joy, that’s a gift to a generation. So Friday morning, you’re always welcome, 9:20 am, you can hear about the boy who turned into a chicken. “Sheldon the Shabbos Dog” is one of our favorites.

JJ: So what’s the least fun?

EF: Oh God. The least fun is when the institution of the synagogue and the sacred community of the synagogue don’t correspond. And they rub up against each other. Dealing with financial issues, dealing with personnel issues, dealing with the business of the synagogue when it doesn’t correspond with the sacred character of the synagogue. The least fun is when — this is too honest, but the least fun is when I don’t have the time or the energy or the presence to actually meet the needs of the people whom I need to meet the needs of. When someone says “I was in the hospital, and you didn’t come,” or someone says “I was in pain and you didn’t respond.” And they’re right. Because there’s one of me and there’s a lot of them and its hard to keep track and its hard to get there.

The torah’s all about this. This is Moses’ complaint to God — he says “What did you do this to me for?” And I know exactly what he feels like. The least fun part of the job is when the doctor says to me, there’s nothing else I can do. Would you like to tell the patient or shall I? And I have to go in and sit with somebody who I deeply care for and say we have to talk about what’s coming next. And you know it’s painful, it’s just so painful. That’s the hardest part of the job.

JJ: Often we look to the rabbi for a solid sense of faith. As a rabbi do you find that it’s hard to be human in those ways?

EF: No, and I’ll tell you why. Because what Rabbi Schulweiss taught me is that that’s not the rabbi’s job. It’s not my job to have faith when all of you have doubt; my job is to put your doubt into words. It’s my job to remind you that you’re not the first person to argue with God in that way. To give you the courage and resolution to get up, and to recognize that your indignation in the face of the world’s evil is in fact the most glorious part of your humanity.

JJ: I think you just hit your theology in a different way.

EF: Absolutely.

JJ: Do you worry about anti-Semitism?

EF: Only among Jews.  I mean that very seriously, and without facetiousness. No, I do not. Yes I worry about Al-Qaeda, like everybody in America. We saw in Boston what happens when two lone wolfs can set off an explosion and ruin a national moment. Like everybody, I worry about that. But in terms of specifically anti-Semitism…no. What I worry about is the viciousness of Jews against other Jews. The perverse irony of Jewish history is that at moments when the outside world is ready to accept us, we find new ways to be self-destructive. Look at what’s going on in Israel. You know, there used to be the joke about what would happen if peace broke out. And in Israel, that is sort of what’s happening right now. They’re beginning to focus on the internal life of the country and all the unresolved conflicts within the internal life of the country are now being recognized.  

At VBS, we have been very successful in creating an environment in which everybody knows that they’re going to hear lots and lots of points of views they disagree with. We brought Jeremy Ben Ami from J Street, we brought Mort Klein from ZOA. And we have brought people from the New Israel Fund. And we’ve brought people from much more Right Wing positions. And I have worked very diligently to say again and again that our job is to listen, to evaluate, to judge, you don’t have to agree, but you have to listen politely.

JJ: Here’s a very personal question: What do you pray for?

Peace. Everywhere. Peace in the world, peace for Israel. A vision for Israel to find its way to peace. A vision for America to find its way to peace. Vision for the Jewish community to fnid its way to wholeness. And personal, I just pray for the capacity to find peace. to find moments of peace and moments of joy, moments of recognition. To me you don’t pray for stuff as much as you stop and recognize what’s in front of you. Prayer to me is not as much petitionary as it is appreciative. So, to get myself to stop worrying, and stop wrestling with the world, and just recognize how blessed I am. You know, I’ve gotten to work with Harold Schulweis for 20 years; what a gift. For 20 years I get to sit next to the greatest Jew of the 20th century, every Shabbos morning, and schmooze. I have five young rabbis I work with, brilliant, wonderful souls. I’ve made friends in this community, the other rabbis in this city are my friends. And I’ve been blessed with a wonderful family. So I ask God to slow me down and help me see the blessings that are mine.

JJ: And what would you ask us to pray for?

EF: Certainly peace. (long pause). I don’t know what I’d ask you to pray for. I’ve asked the community over and over again to live with meaning. To live on purpose. To live with significance. To build lives that matter. To not waste the gift of life. To not waste the moments that are given to us. To not waste the opportunities that have been given to us. To me, this is the purpose of Torah, to teach us how to fill moments with significance, and to take seriously this notion that I carry the image of God and to live that way. I want people to live with significance, and not waste life. So that every day of your life, you know that you matter, that your life matters, that the work you’ve done in the world matters,  that your relationships matter. That’s what we pray for.

Benjamin Reznik: L.A. based lawyer who takes on Goliath

Among land-use attorneys working in Los Angeles, Benjamin Reznik is better known than most, perhaps because of his success at suing the City of Los Angeles. In 2009, the partner in the firm of Jeffer Mangels Butler & Mitchell LLP told the Los Angeles Times he had probably sued the City of Los Angeles about five or six times a year.

Reznik, 61, leads a 15-lawyer team that focuses on government, land use, environment and energy cases, and he has represented major clients, many who have changed to the shape and skyline of the city. A little more than a decade ago, Reznik helped one developer get more than 3,000 apartments approved downtown. 

So how did this powerhouse attorney come to be in Los Angeles’ City Hall on two successive days in June, arguing on behalf of a partially built Chabad synagogue in Sherman Oaks that will have a capacity of about 200 people, and will stand barely two-stories tall? 

“I believe that these kinds of institutions belong in neighborhoods and they’re very difficult to get approved,” Reznik said, sitting in his corner office in Century City. Reznik describes himself as “not a good board-member type person,” so he said he instead chooses to support Jewish communities by offering to help them gain approval, occasionally dealing with neighborhood opposition, often working on a voluntary basis or for reduced rates. 

He’s worked with a number of synagogues, including the one where he and his family are members, Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. He’s worked with other Chabad communities, and in Chabad of Sherman Oaks’ case, though the scores of religious Jews in the community who came to the two hearings certainly helped persuade the Los Angeles City Council to allow the project to go forward, Reznik’s simple testimony, which focused on what the law allowed, no doubt prepared the ground for the approval. 

Reznik doesn’t consider himself an ideologue or a “rabid property rights advocate”; there are certain clients he won’t take on, and though he’s usually representing the interests of builders, he has argued on behalf of clients who oppose developments, as well. Reznik pointed out the windows at a neighboring vacant lot on Avenue of the Stars, where a developer is seeking permission to build more office space than the current city plan allows. The owners of every adjacent office building teamed to hire Reznik’s firm to oppose that effort. 

“There’s a balance between community and development,” Reznik said. 

So-called NIMBY activists — the acronym stands for “Not In My Back Yard” — regularly oppose the building of senior residential facilities, a stance that Reznik said was not in line with the needs of the whole community. 

“I don’t think we have to house all our elderly on major boulevards,” Reznik said, “just because that way the neighborhood doesn’t have to see them.” Rather, Reznik said, there should be some consideration to having such facilities built in residential neighborhoods, which are, of course, the neighborhoods where those people grew up and lived. 

“I think those are Jewish issues,” Reznik added.

Reznik began his own law practice in the San Fernando Valley by taking on the kinds of clients who couldn’t pay the rates that firms like JMBM charge, and he still sees himself as something of an upstart — even when representing developers who might appear to have tremendous resources and power at their disposal. 

“Compared to the city, the developer is David and the city is Goliath,” Reznik said. “The city’s resources are endless.”

In September, Reznik was in the familiar position of arguing against a Los Angeles city attorney in court, this time at a hearing regarding a planned single-family project in the exclusive neighborhood of Benedict Canyon. Reznik’s client, a Saudi prince, has faced relentless opposition from a billionaire couple who once tried to buy the property, and September’s hearing was aimed at forcing the city to drop a technical objection holding up the project. 

That, Reznik explained, “is why so many of my cases ended up in court — because that’s where my client can get a fair hearing with the politics removed.”

Reznik hasn’t met this particular client — he deals with an intermediary — but he’s fairly certain that, ironic though it might seem, the Saudi prince is aware that the lawyer representing him is not only Jewish, but an Israeli-born Jew who is fluent in Hebrew. 

“I’m sure I was vetted,” said Reznik, who has Hebrew listed as his foreign language on his resume.  

Born in Haifa in 1951, Reznik said his parents came to Israel from Poland after the Holocaust. His father, who survived by “hustling on the black-market routes in Russia” as a young teenager, selling coffee, tea and tobacco, worked as a truck driver in Israel. 

But he was ambitious, and in December 1960, when Reznik was 9, the family moved to the United States. After a few years in Rochester, N.Y., they moved to Los Angeles in 1962. Reznik’s father bought an interest in a liquor store in South Central — Reznik worked there as a stock boy during summers and when he wasn’t in school — and managed to send his children to college and law school on the proceeds. 

Reznik went to UCLA as an undergraduate — he met his wife, Janice Kamenir-Reznik, at the Hillel there — and then on to USC for law school. The Rezniks have, over the years, gotten involved in a number of political causes — they were active in the movement to free Soviet Jewry — and Janice went on to become the founding president of Jewish World Watch. 

Not surprisingly, starting in 1975, when they helped recruit volunteers for Zev Yaroslavsky’s successful campaign for Los Angeles City Council, the Rezniks have also involved themselves in supporting candidates running for various offices. They recently held a fundraiser for Jackie Lacey, who is running for Los Angeles County district attorney. 

And the Rezniks, who built up their practice in the Valley together, look like they’re about to have one more lawyer in the family; their youngest son just started law school. 

Reznik, when he was just starting out, said he went into business for himself, in part because he enjoyed all different aspects of legal work, but also because he had a good deal of his father’s independent personality in him. So I asked if — in 2012, in today’s economy — a young lawyer, like his son, could set up shop on his own and have the kind of success Reznik has. 

“Absolutely; clients are rate-sensitive,” Reznik said, thinking back to his own experience of taking on the clients who were priced out of bigger firms. “You just have to work, really, really hard.”

My Single Peeps: Robert P.

As soon as Robert sits down, his gaze continually shifts from the window to me. I make up reasons in my head: He’s on the run from the cops. He owes money to a bookie, and they’re coming after him. His partner is outside casing the joint. “I’m looking for parking enforcement.” Illegally parked. I’ll buy it for now.

Robert lives in Encino and has worked at Victoria’s Secret since he started as an undergrad — but he’s ready to move on. “You can only handle women for so long. You being the only guy, and for some reason they all have their menstrual cycles at the same time.” That’s when you don’t want to be working, he joked. “But it’s been a great job. And the perks are great.”

Robert’s plan was to go into law, but after speaking with a criminal judge, a family lawyer and a real-estate lawyer, he learned that it caused their lives to deteriorate. “They all had divorces, always worked … that wasn’t the life I wanted after college.” Instead he got a master’s degree in history, with plans to go into teaching; but after a conversation with a friend who’s a cop in Van Nuys, he changed his mind again. He’s applying to join the police academy in October. “I also have a backup — applying at the same time for a teaching credential. This way, if I get disqualified, I have the teaching credential to back it up. I tell my mom, ‘No matter what, I’ll be professional in the next year and a half.’ ”

He sits like a cop. Good posture. And as I watch his eyes dart between the window and me, I realize he’s probably going to fly through the academy. He’s smart, competent and seems to be in it for the right reasons. “If you’re doing it for the pay, there’s a ton of different things you can do for pay. You have to do it because you really want to go out there and, as corny as it sounds, make a difference. Just seeing the cops out there all the time, there’s a respect issue and an honor issue. And just being able to be someone’s protector gets me to the point where I want to be that guy.”

When we shift the conversation to relationships, he’s less sure about himself. “I don’t know what I want. I think the one thing I really want is the companionship — being able to always have someone to share something with. A best friend and a girlfriend in one. The one thing that’s making me move toward a Jewish girl, specifically, is raising a family having a Jewish mother and father allows the raising of children to be more fluent.” “Fluent?” I ask. He corrects himself: “Fluid. Sometimes I choose the wrong word to describe what I’m feeling, even though I know what I want to say. In my fraternity, they call [them] Robert-isms.” 

“What’s the best thing about you?” I ask. “I’m very truthful. I try to never lie. I’m going to tell you how I feel about you. I’m not going to cover it up.” When it comes to dating, “I don’t like going to trendy places. I prefer the typical coffee date, go to a bar, talk … I really want to get to know you, so I want to talk the whole time. I’m old-school. I like doing stupid things on dates, whether it’s miniature golfing, bowling and park picnics, as pathetic as that sounds. I love going to restaurants, trying new foods, except — and I mean a big except — Indian food. I can’t do that. We will never ever eat spicy food.” I tell him that Indian food isn’t necessarily spicy. “It’s not?” He shrugs. “I didn’t know that.”

If you’re interested in anyone you see on My Single Peeps, send an e-mail and a picture, including the person’s name in the subject line, to mysinglepeeps@jewishjournal.com, and we’ll forward it to your favorite peep.

Seth Menachem is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter. You can see more of his work on his Web site, sethmenachem.com, and meet even more single peeps at mysinglepeeps.com.


Ner Maarav to merge with Ramat Zion

Twenty-five years ago, Temple Ner Maarav in Encino served nearly 450 families. Today, that number has dwindled to 65.

After more than half a century, the Conservative congregation will shut its doors on June 30. Many of its remaining congregants will join with Northridge’s Temple Ramat Zion under a merger plan, and Ner Maarav’s Torahs will be marched to their new North Valley home on July 1.

Uri Grinblat, Ner Maarav’s president, says the constant migration of young families to the Conejo Valley has played a large part in the attrition.

“Over the last 10 years, our number came down as many young families moved to Agoura and Thousand Oaks,” Grinblat said. “Unfortunately, we do not have too many young families around us and naturally, without them, a temple cannot exist.”

Ramat Zion’s membership has held steady at roughly 300 families over the past few years, and the merger is expected to add approximately 50 Ner Maarav families.

Rabbi Ahud Sela of Temple Ramat Zion said he is committed to bonding the two communities into one united congregation.

“We’re thinking of it like a marriage,” Sela said. “In fact, many of the people know each other already. These are friends with deep connections already in place, and it’s really a joyous thing for us to come together.”

Grinblat agreed, “The biggest benefit of merging with Temple Ramat Zion is the formation of a symbiotic relationship. The people at Temple Ramat Zion are extremely nice and similar to our congregants. I feel that it is a good match.”

Ner Maarav held its first service in the Sherman Oaks Women’s Club on July 8, 1955. Founded as Maarav Temple, the congregation broke ground at Magnolia Boulevard and White Oak Avenue in 1956, and completed construction the following year. In the late 1980s, the congregation merged with Temple Ner Tamid of Van Nuys to become Temple Ner Maarav.

In October 2011, Ner Maarav sold its site to Held Properties for $4 million and has been leasing the property since. Held plans to use the site to develop luxury apartments.

Bernie Bubman, past president of Ner Maarav, said he is relieved that memorabilia from Ner Maarav will be displayed at Ramat Zion.

“To have a home for our artifacts, especially our memorial plaques, is of paramount importance to us,” Bubman said.

Jeffrey Stern, president of Ramat Zion, is looking forward to the changes this new chapter will bring.

“On a personal level, the merger has provided an incredible degree of satisfaction to me. People are enthused about the influx of potential members to Temple Ramat Zion, and there is talk of new programs and events,” he said. “I believe all those involved are incredibly positive about the opportunities provided by this merger.”

One of the main goals of the merger is to ensure a Conservative Jewish presence in the northern part of the San Fernando Valley, Stern said. “There can be no hiding from the fact that shuls are having a difficult time retaining existing members and enrolling new ones.”

Although both congregations are looking forward to the merger, the change is bittersweet for the members of Ner Maarav, especially those who have been with the congregation for many decades.

“Perhaps the largest challenge will be in acclimating to a new environment and feeling comfortable in a new setting,” Bubman said. “We are pretty steeped in our ways, and to meld as one family will take a proper mindset and willingness to learn to do things, perhaps differently, than we have in the past. It is always more difficult for the congregation who will be moving to a new location than for the congregation who will be accepting.”

Ner Maarav’s clergy also must acclimate to a new reality. Rabbi Jason van Leeuwen will take over as senior rabbi at Temple B’Nai Hayim in Sherman Oaks, replacing Rabbi Beryl Padorr. Cantor Linda Rich is still undecided on where she will continue her work.

Grinblat, who will be the final president of Ner Maarav, said he is hopeful for the future.

“I see a smooth transition, and I feel that in a year from now, we will be one people,” he said.

“Those of us from Temple Ner Maarav who will be joining the new synagogue,” Bubman said, “look forward with great expectation that at our new home, we, together with those at Ramat Zion, will continue to be a source of pride for the Jewish community.”

Opinion: Danny and Marie

Tuesday, Feb. 21, marked the 10-year anniversary of the day we learned that Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl had been murdered by terrorists in Pakistan.

That morning I drove to the Daniel Pearl Magnet High School in Van Nuys, where I was to moderate a panel discussion titled “Journalists in Harm’s Way,” that featured four reporters who, like Pearl, have risked their lives to cover conflict.

The school is located just south of Birmingham High School, from which Pearl graduated. 

I grew up in Encino and went to Birmingham, too, a few years (OK, several) before Pearl. Driving back there was strange: past the long stretch of green parkland on Balboa Boulevard, past the tennis courts on the left, the golf course on the right. The buildings looked the same, drab stucco and chain link fence. I pictured myself riding my 10-speed bike through Balboa Park, then I pictured Pearl doing the same. 

I never knew Danny Pearl, but, like so many of us who live here, I understood his roots. He was familiar before he became iconic. What I couldn’t understand is how the people who murdered him could possibly see him as a target, as anything other than family.

Being part of this panel was, in a word, humbling.

About 300 high-school students packed the auditorium. I sat in front alongside four foreign correspondents: Rick Loomis, a Los Angeles Times photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for his images of the siege of Fallujah; Jonathan Friedland, a colleague of Pearl’s at The Wall Street Journal; Alexandra Zavis, who has reported for The Times from Africa and the Middle East; and Doug Smith, also from The Times, who reported from Iraq.

Before we spoke, Loomis played a short, raw video of himself under fire with some U.S. soldiers in Fallujah. The chaos, the blasts of automatic fire, the screams as Loomis ran across an open stretch for cover — the students got the idea.

Journalists have long been exposed to great danger, and too many have died while doing their jobs, so I asked Friedland: What stood out about Daniel Pearl’s death?

“What happened to Danny was, for the first time, somebody was murdered deliberately and visibly and in a particularly brutal way,” Friedland said, “which made everybody feel a lot more vulnerable.” 

The journalists urged the high school students to spend time learning their craft, as well as learning the language and culture of a place before heading into danger zones. When you’re focused on your job — finding a story, figuring out how to transmit it, looking for batteries — you can push aside the sense of vulnerability, these veteran journalists agreed.  Zavis said she received some training for her difficult overseas assignments — “It was useful to learn first aid” — but in most cases, journalists are expected to hit the ground running.

“The way to prepare for any situation like that is to have a clear sense of why you’re there, what you’re there for, and keep focusing on that,” Smith said.

That, Friedland added, was part of Pearl’s gift. 

“He was really, really curious,” Friedland said, “and would spend a lot of time with people, learning how they function, and take the time to tell the story with great craft.”

In a time when so much of what passes for journalism revolves around Lindsay Lohan’s sex life, HuffPo rehashes or primary campaign gotchas, it was, as I said, humbling to be in the presence of people who put their lives on the line for journalism’s mission: to share the world’s stories with the rest of us.

Tragically, the danger didn’t end with Danny.

Ten years after his murder — on the same day our panel discussion took place — Marie Colvin, a correspondent for The Sunday Times of London, was murdered in Homs, Syria, along with the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik. They were covering the Syrian government’s continuing, unchecked slaughter of its own citizens.  Many reports claim Syrian forces deliberately targeted Colvin.

In fact, in the 10 years between the murders of Pearl and Colvin, 625 journalists have died in the line of duty. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the most dangerous country in the world to be a reporter is Pakistan, where Pearl died.

At the end of the panel, the magnet school’s principal, Janet Kiddoo, invited Pearl’s parents, Judea and Ruth Pearl, to address the students. After more than an hour and a half of listening, the students sat stock still, attentive.

Judea Pearl spoke first. “Who serves today as the moral compass of society, and, like ancient prophets, risks his or her life by exposing corruption, institutional injustice, terrorism and fanaticism? The journalist. The true journalist will never compromise on those principles to protect humanity. And will never forget that all people, including our adversaries, need to be portrayed with dignity and respect, as children of one God.”

Then Ruth Pearl spoke.

“I want to say a few words about what this school means in our life,” she began. “We feel you are carrying Danny’s legacy, so we feel a very strong kinship to you. We feel you are part of our family, and we thank you. Any time you’d like to come to us, please feel free to contact us.”

These kids will have to be tough to follow in the footsteps of Daniel Pearl and Marie Colvin. But in that moment, you could understand why so many of them were crying.

Save Los Encinos

Things change; I get it.

My favorite diner — Benice, in Venice — closed this week after 24 years in business. Life goes on. They pave paradise. Joni Mitchell is 67, for Pete’s sake.

So why does the impending closure of Los Encinos State Historic Park rankle so many people, me included?

Partly because the five-acre park off a busy stretch of Ventura and Balboa boulevards has been in use for hundreds of years. First it was a Tongva Indian village, then a cattle ranch, a sheep farm, a stagecoach stop. Since 1949, the natural spring, the unadorned but stately old buildings and the stands of oak, sycamore and willow have served as a public education and visitors’ center. School kids learn that Encino really has a history. Parents bring their kids to feed the ducks. It is a small compound, dwarfed by the surrounding malls and streets and ranch homes and office buildings just outside its ring of cinderblock walls. The simple De la Ossa Adobe, built in 1849, was home to the rancheros who ran the 4,600-acre Rancho Los Encinos. The two-story limestone Garnier Building was built by Basque sheepherders who took over in 1868. The Garniers also built the pond, lined with limestone, in the shape of a Spanish guitar.

Earlier this year, the State of California announced that Los Encinos was on the list of 70 state parks slated for closure due to budget cuts. The park was targeted because it doesn’t bring in revenue, and the state simply couldn’t find the $210,000 per year it needed to maintain the park and pay the rangers, who function as interpretive guides.

A group of residents, led by Amy Zidell and Encino Neighborhood Council member Kathy Moghimi-Patterson, have banded together to fight the closure. Around Christmas, an anonymous donor wrote a check for $150,000 to keep the park open until July. After that, it goes back on the chopping block. 

I didn’t visit the park in order to write this story, because I don’t have to: I know it like I know my backyard. I grew up in Encino, about a half mile from the park, and Los Encinos was my personal retreat, my youth’s ideal companion. It’s where I went to read a book, to daydream the spring into Walden Pond, to picnic on the Tempo falafels from across the boulevard.

I’m writing this to pay the park back for all those peaceful moments, and to pay it forward for the next bookish, sensitive teenager who needs a refuge from suburbia.

But, like I said, life moves on. Why, in the scheme of things, is closing the park that big a deal?

One reason — not a surprising one, mind you — is that it shows just how dumb and shortsighted we are. After all, we didn’t create the park. We inherited it from the many generations before us, who preserved and protected it, who saw fit to spend their resources on it, so that we and our children would enjoy it.

You would think that if we can’t just pick up the bill for the park, we could be imaginative enough to find alternative ways to support it. Perhaps there is a public-private solution: Let a restaurant or other concessionaire develop a plan. Rent it out for the occasional high-end weddings and bar mitzvahs, like The Adamson House in Malibu. Hold great public concert series there, and charge. Encino has more celebrities than the Huffington Post homepage: Can’t they put on one benefit each year for their own neighborhood? I know residents are concerned about parking and other issues, and that State Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Calabasas) is now actively seeking all suggestions. But c’mon folks — five beautiful acres in the middle of a car-choked city, and the best solution anyone has so far is to buy a padlock? 

How ironic that we send money to buy trees for parks in Israel, and let one just down the block from us languish.

My friend Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, likes to say that the holiday of Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish “New Year of the Trees,” which we will celebrate on Feb. 8, shows our ancient rabbis at their most prophetic. Somehow, in a world still comprising vast, fearsome wilderness, they saw that as civilization progressed, our survival would hang on our ability to understand the natural environment, and revere and protect our open spaces.

If that wasn’t so obvious then, it is now.

“The places where we live are killing us,” says Dr. Richard Jackson in “Designing Healthy Cities,” a six-part documentary airing this month on PBS.

Produced by the Media Policy Center (on whose board I sit), the documentary details how the built environment affects our physical and mental health.

“Good designers, good architects, good political leadership are really important to create communities that work for people,” Jackson says.

Open space, spaces for retreat and connection — to one another and to our past — are part of what define and nurture healthy communities.

That is to say, keeping Los Encinos open is not about preserving our past. It’s about protecting our future.

To make a donation to Los Encinos State Park, visit calparks.org/losencinos.

Listener, advocate for the dying

Getting old, as Bette Davis famously said, is not for sissies. And developing a terminal illness, as Davis later learned, is no picnic either. Yet while most of us fear sickness, aging and the end of life, hospice volunteer Michael Curtis finds solace and purpose — pleasure, even — in being with the elderly as they face death.

Curtis, 62, has been volunteering for a dozen years with Skirball Hospice in Encino, a program of the Los Angeles Jewish Home. He brings to his hospice work skills honed over many years spent helping people through difficult times — starting with his 28 years at Rancho San Antonio Boys Home, a residential rehabilitation facility for adolescent boys who have been in and out of foster care. While working at Rancho, Curtis became a licensed massage therapist and volunteered with AIDS patients through The Heart Touch Project, a nonprofit that delivers compassionate and healing touch to the ill. He has volunteered for Chernobyl Children International, several times traveling to Chernobyl to help children who still suffer the ongoing effects of the 1986 nuclear disaster. And in 2008, he became an instructor certified by the International Association of Infant Massage; he currently makes his living training others in massage techniques for use with medically fragile infants, including those born premature or drug-exposed.

As a Skirball Hospice volunteer, Curtis is part of a team that can include a doctor, nurse, social worker, home health aide, therapist, counselor and dietitian. Volunteer coordinator Lee Rothman said she asks each volunteer to commit one hour a week to a patient, yet Curtis “will visit every day if he has the time.” But it’s not just the amount of time he puts in that makes him unique, she says: “Because of his training, and just who he is, he brings a sensitivity and maturity to working with patients that other volunteers don’t have.”

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