Koreatown residents visit the synagogue next door

When Charles Kim called Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple last year, it didn’t take long for the Korean American leader to get to the point.

“He was wondering if the temple was for sale,” said Stein, head of the synagogue’s Center for Religious Inquiry. “I can’t sell you the temple, I replied, but I hope I can sell you on a relationship.”

A series of discussions about how to bring the Korean and Jewish communities together followed. After Stein accepted an invitation to address a Koreatown Rotary Club meeting in December, he invited the Korean American community to the Byzantine-style synagogue on Feb. 27.

During an evening open house reception at Wilshire Boulevard Temple that featured desserts such as sticky sweet rice cakes and hamantaschen, Korean Americans and Jews gathered to dialogue about mutual understanding and to discuss conditions in the formerly Jewish Wilshire Center district, which is now home to the largest Korean population outside of Seoul.

While the Jewish and predominantly Korean communities have had dialogues before, this intercultural initiative marks the first time the Wilshire Center synagogue has opened its doors to the surrounding Korean community, which is predominantly Christian. About 80 people attended the event, which included Korean business and educational leaders as well as synagogue clergy, staff and congregants.

“It took us 34 years to get here,” said Kim, national president of the Korean American Coalition. “Thank you for making us feel at home. Shalom.”

A major topic of discussion between the Jewish and Korean communities was the shared use of the building’s facilities, which already house a predominantly Hispanic charter school during the day. Proposed joint ventures include introductory Judaism courses taught in Korean, a brown-bag lunch lecture series, and educational trips to Israel and Korea.

But a more daunting, shared problem facing the area is gang activity, Stein said. Among the 11 most dangerous L.A. gangs recently identified by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, one is active in Koreatown.

“That’s our neighborhood,” said Stein, gesturing to the entire room. “We all have to work on that.”

Kim echoed Stein’s enthusiasm for cooperation between the ethnically, religiously and culturally distinct communities.

“Up until now, we have been like many islands, instead of one community,” said Kim, who traveled to Israel in 1987 as part of an Asian goodwill delegation.

This is not the first attempt at Korean-Jewish togetherness. A decade ago the American Jewish Committee launched a project to bring local Korean and Jewish business and political leaders together, and in 2005 the Simon Wiesenthal Center and The Jewish Federation held a “Talking Tolerance” discussion with Koreans and Jews. In the heart of Koreatown, the Rev. Yong-Soo Hyun runs the Shema Educational Institute, which promotes the study of Hebrew and Jewish culture.

Wilshire Boulevard Temple hopes to become an ongoing and significant partner in the life of the neighborhood.

The corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Street was once known as “the Jewish address” in Los Angeles, according to the synagogue’s literature. Originally dedicated in 1929, the building is actually the third inhabited by Los Angeles’ oldest synagogue community, founded as Congregation B’nai B’rith in 1862. After much of the Jewish population shifted West, Wilshire Boulevard Temple built the Audrey and Sydney Irmas Campus on the corner of Olympic Boulevard and Barrington Avenue in the mid-1990s.

The synagogue recently commissioned a demographic survey to determine how many Jewish families live in the surrounding mid-Wilshire area, and officials were surprised to discover a near 30 percent increase in Jewish residents within a 20-minute drive of the Koreatown campus.

“We are deeply committed to this neighborhood and plan to be here for hundreds of years to come,” Senior Rabbi Steven Z. Leder said.

Following the reception, guests were led on an hour-long tour of the synagogue, which features biblical murals by artist Hugo Ballin and a 100-foot dome in the Edgar F. Magnin Sanctuary.

“It is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” Kim said of the sanctuary.

When Stein told the story of a synagogue’s Torah scroll being rescued from a barn in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust, the Korean guests were awed.

“Wow,” said Jun Su, executive director of the Korean Institute of Southern California, an educational organization. “A miracle.”

Stein nodded and smiled.

A spirit of hope and optimism surrounding a new friendship dominated the event, but there was one point of dispute between the Jews and Koreans. During the press conference, Kim strode up to the podium after Stein and said in a very solemn tone, “I have one correction to make.”

Kim looked to Stein and joked, “I never asked Stephen to sell me the temple. I asked him to give it to me.”

Wilshire Boulevard Temple, ‘ target=’_blank’>www.kacla.org

Shema Educational Institute, Briefs: Survey to catalog landmark Boyle Heights buildings to prevent destruction; Chabad expands on

Chabad Expands in Vegas

Across the parking lot of the neighborhood pub/casino in the Summerlin suburb of Las Vegas, Jewish residents, community leaders, local officials and passersby stood in the 110-degree heat recently to watch the ribbon-cutting ceremony of a new Chabad shul.

The imposing $4.5 million structure, built from Jerusalem stone, stands at the corner of an outdoor shopping mall, not far from a day spa, French bistro, lakefront clubhouse and residential communities that boast one of the fastest-growing Jewish populations in the United States.

The new shul is a testament to the Jewish community’s growth in the area, which already houses another equally large Chabad campus close to the Las Vegas Strip.

Chabad of Summerlin, located about 12 miles northwest of the Strip, first made its appearance in the community about 10 years ago, when it held Shabbat and holiday services in a storefront. The number of congregants grew over the years, until some people had no choice but to pray standing in the aisles.Rabbi Yisroel Schanowitz, the shul’s rabbi, hopes that the new Chabad of Summerlin will “continue the growth of the Las Vegas Jewish community and also build strong youth activities.”

Chabad recently hired a couple from New York to assist with youth programming to make the shul experience in Las Vegas more holistic and diverse. They now have the facilities to do so: classrooms, offices, social hall, kitchen and a mikvah.The woman’s balcony of the new shul overlooks the spacious sanctuary and the delicate woodwork of the ark of the Torah.

At the opening, Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nevada) addressed the crowd, sharing her positive experiences with Chabad and praising it for its contributions to Las Vegas.

While Jewish tourists are more likely to use the Chabad campus near the Strip for services, Schanowitz believes that Chabad of Summerlin is more likely to draw visitors seeking to make their home in Vegas.

“There has been interest from people in Los Angeles to relocate here,” he said. “When they find out there is an active Chabad center, it helps their decision to move.”

For more information, visit www.chabadofsummerlin.com.

Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Oy! What A Ringtone!

A company is bringing Yiddish humor to the masses with new ringtones. MyNuMo, a California-based company that enables users to publish mobile content and sell it, announced this month that it will provide “yentatones,” Yiddish and Jewish humor ringtones voiced by San Diego actress Martha Kahn.

— Jewish Telegraphic Agency

School Bond: A Way to Show You Care

Some friends and I were watching the news a couple months back, as journalists were covering the opening of a new high school in South

Los Angeles. The TV reporter asked a student attending his first day of class on this beautiful, brand new campus what the new school meant for him. The student thought for a moment, looked at the reporter and said, simply, something like, “It’s nice, because it shows that somebody cares about us.”

As L.A. citizens, that moment made my friends and me proud. We didn’t help build that school; we weren’t even there on the day it opened; and until recently, I personally had not followed the school district’s construction effort that closely. But, my neighbors and I remembered voting for school bonds that had helped that student and thousands like him feel like somebody cared about them. As voters, we were that somebody.

Now, we all face the choice of whether or not to support another school bond. It’s called Measure Y. Some folks ask, “What, another one? Why now?”

What these folks may not remember is that until the late ’90s, we had not passed a school bond for 35 years. In other words, for almost four decades, we got a free ride as our population swelled and our schools got more crowded.

More kids had to get on a bus to go to a school an hour or more away, because their neighborhood schools had no room for them. Our existing schools became more run down, and our kids’ education deteriorated.

From following the news, from my own observations and from speaking to district officials, I know that thousands of repairs have been made to our existing neighborhood schools. And dozens of new schools are opening. When I checked recently, I learned that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) opened 14 last year; it will open 32 more this year. This fall, at the start of the school year, the school system opened 13 campuses on a single day. To my knowledge, no other school district has ever done this.

Things are finally looking up. The school bond program is a success story.

But more schools need to be built. We as a community aren’t done.

Yes, it’s true, as some have pointed out, that the school district already has the money needed to reduce much of the overcrowding at middle and high schools. However, if we don’t pass this bond, we are ignoring our most needy elementary school students; over 20,000 elementary school students will not be able to return to the traditional, nonyear-round schedule that we all grew up with. Without this bond, over 20,000 elementary students will not feel overcrowding relief.

This bond, Measure Y, besides building schools, helps accomplish other important tasks, too. It finishes the job of furnishing all schools with up-to-date fire alarms — can you believe that currently almost 100,000 kids go to schools with old, substandard fire alarm systems? The bond also finishes the job of mitigating the lead paint and asbestos hazards that still remain at over 121 schools that house almost 160,000 kids.

So yes, the school district and we citizens are making up for lost time. This bond allows us and the school district to fulfill a promise that has taken decades to meet. A generation of students did not get the schools they needed and deserved.

That was a crime against the future. It would be another crime to repeat that mistake, and there is absolutely no reason to do so. The school district has shown us that it can and will build the schools once we, the voters, provide the funding.

Decent school facilities serve more than an educational function. Our schools serve as important hubs of community activities. The school district works with the city of Los Angeles and other governmental agencies to place schools in coordination with other community amenities like parks and community centers — more than 40 joint-use agreements are already in place. In fact, one of the new schools opened this September with an agreement to allow its fields to serve as a community park after hours and on weekends.

More than 8,400 community meetings are held at our schools every month. Community agencies and local civic organizations — such as local community councils, the registrar of voters, public health agencies, adult schools and youth programs — all take advantage of our schools as truly public facilities. Schools were used as emergency shelters for the Chatsworth fires. Modern, well-maintained public schools serve the whole community.

Some say the district doesn’t do enough joint use or joint planning. The figures belie that notion. The thousands of community meetings, dozens of joint-use agreements and the improved designs of new facilities are doing far more than some are aware of. Besides, you can’t do joint use without building the schools in the first place. Let’s keep our eye on the ball: These kids need and deserve these schools.

The new schools are designed to be energy efficient, environmentally sustainable and have already received many national design awards. The new schools, by design, average less than half the size of our existing larger schools.

The new leadership of the LAUSD understands inequities regarding education. Overcrowded elementary schools contribute to this inequity. This bond measure is all about addressing such issues.

Obviously, school buildings aren’t the whole story when it comes to improving Los Angeles’ schools. The district also has made significant strides academically; it still must do much, much more.

But having classroom seats and a positive school environment are a vital part of the picture. We, as a community, can and must fix this by voting for Measure Y in November.

How many of our kids in overcrowded elementary schools saw that student my friends and I saw on TV and think, “I wonder if someone cares about me?” We — each of us — must be that ‘someone.’ We can’t let our kids down.

Dr. Stu Bernstein currently serves on the executive board of the Association of Jewish Educators and is a member of the Education Advisory Committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council. He is a former LAUSD teacher and administrator


Israel Tourism Drive Focuses on Latinos

Missions to Israel are a staple of Jewish organizations, but when Pepe Barreto leads a group tour there in August, it’ll represent something new.

Barreto is perhaps the most popular drive-time host on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles and a major player in a new drive to boost travel to Israel among California Latinos.

The campaign is a key part of a program outlined by Daniela Aharoni, the recently arrived director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for the Western United States. With Hispanics/Latinos making up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County and one-third of the state, this demographic will be of ever-growing importance in the years to come.

“We have found that Latinos are free-spending tourists, with a strong religious interest in the Holy Land,” said Aharoni, sitting in her office with an expansive view of midtown Los Angeles.

Aharoni served previously as deputy director of the Israel tourist office here from 1994-98, and she has been amazed at the rising influence and economic status of Latinos during the intervening seven years.

While American Jews remain Aharoni’s main clientele, she is also putting increased effort into attracting the Christian community.

“If we can convince the pastor of a church to go, his congregants will follow him,” said Aharoni, who is now organizing specially tailored seminars and promotional material for pastors and ministers.

Next year, Aharoni plans to explore the possibility of increasing tourism from the large Korean community in Southern California.

Her jurisdiction includes 13 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii among them, and she acknowledged that it’s tougher to sell Israel tourism in her territory than in the Northeast and Midwest.

“You have a much longer travel time to begin with, and Israeli sunshine isn’t that much of a selling point to people in California or Arizona,” she said.

After a near-disastrous slump in tourism to Israel during the past four years of the intifada, the statistics are beginning to look better. In 2000, the last “normal” year, a record-breaking 2.7 million tourists arrived in Israel. Two years later, the figure had plummeted to 206,000, rising to 379,000 for 2004.

The upswing is continuing, with figures in January and February of this year in the key North American market showing a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement over the same months last year. If the general Middle East situation doesn’t worsen drastically, Israel expects a total of 1.7 million tourists in 2005, 1.9 million in 2006 and 2.1 million in 2007.

Despite the gloom of the intifada years, Israel has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure and added a host of new attractions, Aharoni said. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the Davidson Center and archaeological park near the Western Wall, a new Yad Vashem historical museum, Israel Park in Latrun, Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv and Begin Museum in Jerusalem. There’s also easier access to Masada and new facilities and projects in Sefad, Tiberias, Akko and Eilat.

Aharoni’s office will trumpet Israel’s old and new attractions at the May 15 Israel Independence Day festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys. A week later, on May 22, Eilat will join 20 other Los Angeles sister cities at a fair at the Page Museum gardens, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Aharoni hopes that the easing last month of the U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel will further encourage tourism from the United States.

Aharoni’s father arrived in Israel as a youngster from northern Iran, near the Kurdistan border. The tourist office director, who was born in Jerusalem, regrets that she didn’t learn Farsi (she’s picking up Spanish), but is now learning how to cook Persian-style.

After army service, Aharoni studied at Hebrew University and Israel’s official School of Tourism. She first joined the Ministry of Tourism in 1988 and has been working in the tourism field since, both for the government and in the private sector.

“Tourism is absolutely vital to Israel and its economy,” she said. “For every additional 100,000 visitors, 4,000 new service jobs are created.”

For information about Israel tourism, call (323) 658-7463 or visit www.goisrael.com

Support Pledged on Marking Historic Ruling

May 17 will mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling Brown vs. Board of Education that outlawed separate educational facilities as inherently unequal.

Less well-known is Orange County’s role in establishing that historic precedent. In 1947, a group of parents led by Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez of Westminster fought to end California’s segregation of its Latino school children. Their suit came to the attention of the state’s governor at the time, Earl Warren, who went on to hear the Brown case as chief justice of the nation’s highest court.

"This is an opportunity for us to join with the fastest-growing community in Orange County," said Marc Dworkin, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s local chapter. "We are natural allies over civil liberties," said Dworkin, who recently met with Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Santa Ana). He pledged the Jewish community’s support for a pending congressional resolution to give national recognition to the Mendez family’s role in history.

Dworkin had company. He enlisted support from Rabbi Shelton Donnell of Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Chelle Friedman, staff to the Jewish Federation’s Community Relations Council, to champion Jewish issues in a collaborative approach. "This way we can have a more coordinated effort," Dworkin said. "It strengthens everyone to go in together."

Cultivating Latino-Jewish relations is a priority for Dworkin. Last month, he helped convene a two-day regional summit between Latino and Jewish leaders in Arizona and San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange counties. He has also asked the O.C. Human Relations Commission to help start an ongoing Latino-Jewish dialogue this spring among leaders, similar to the diverse "living room" discussions started after Sept. 11.

Invest in Your Community

It has been one year since a financial crisis engulfed the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA). In response to this crisis, JCCGLA was forced to close facilities, cut services and lay off scores of staff. Programs that served more than 1,000 people were discontinued. It was a very difficult year — but we survived.

In a city that is divided by geography, class, denomination and national origin, every Jewish institution questions its mission. In a time when assimilation, the economy and security issues consume us, every Jewish institution questions its relevance. Surviving the crisis helped JCCGLA appreciate the central role it plays in addressing critical issues affecting the L.A. Jewish community.

As highlighted by the recent National Jewish Population Survey, American Jews are profoundly concerned by evidence that our Jewish community is fractured and in decline. Whether the discussion focuses on the survival of Israel, interfaith marriage, our aging population or divisions among the denominations, people are searching for meaningful connections with others. In Los Angeles, this dialogue takes place in a region that is physically vast — compounding the difficulty of creating a sense of community.

JCCs address many issues raised by this dialogue. We provide Jewish continuity and cohesion. We are open to the entire Jewish community — Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Reform, unaffiliated, intermarried or agnostic, fifth-generation American or recent immigrant. We offer programs for young children, teenagers, families, single adults and seniors. The range of programs is impressive: from the Celebrity Sunday Staged Play series and Israeli dancing to basketball leagues and the Zimmer Children’s Museum. JCCs are gathering points for the entire community.

According to the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey, 41 percent of L.A. Jews who married during the previous five years married non-Jews. Some 66 percent of Jewish households in Los Angeles are not affiliated with a synagogue. JCCs serve as the bridge to Judaism for a significant portion of the L.A. Jewish population. In many instances, the programs run by JCCs are the single most important link to these at-risk Jews.

I often joke that my family is the poster family for the role JCCs play in Jewish life. I was not raised in a religious household. We were cultural Jews, unaffiliated with a temple but unquestioning in our knowledge that we were Jewish. I met, fell in love with and married a wonderful woman from Maine — no, she isn’t Jewish. We established our home in Los Angeles, far from family and tradition.

When our daughter reached preschool age, I hesitated to suggest the Westside JCC — although it was only six blocks from our home and operated a well-regarded preschool. I didn’t want to impose my religious background on our interfaith family. My wife recommended that we visit the school and when we saw the happy children, the decision to attend was simple and obvious.

Westside JCC was welcoming and supportive. The Shabbat dinners, holiday festivals and Judaic curriculum, educated and enriched our family and provided a warm sense of community. Summer day camp at Camp Chai followed preschool. We established lifelong friendships. I became involved in center leadership.

Today, our family often lights candles to celebrate Shabbat. We attend High Holiday services at a local temple and my daughter looks forward to attending her religious class on Sundays. I have no doubt that Westside JCC made all this possible.

This past year confirmed that Los Angeles’ JCCs were taken for granted for too long. Years of neglecting the aging facilities and the failure to address long-term financial stability took their toll. The facilities must be renovated, highly trained staff professionals must be hired, programs of excellence must be reestablished and expanded.

The challenges ahead are significant. These goals will be accomplished only if the community financially supports the renewal of the L.A. JCC movement. The issue of funding this renewal in Los Angeles is sensitive. Los Angeles is home to more than 500,000 Jews. Despite these resources, The Jewish Federation’s annual campaign is disproportionately smaller than campaigns of cities with significantly fewer Jews (i.e., Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore and Cleveland). Clearly L.A. Jewish organizations must do a better job of engaging the community.

The financial investment is worth it. A visit to the thriving new JCCs on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, La Jolla or Scottsdale, Ariz., confirm that state-of-the-art facilities with sufficient programming staff are central hubs of Jewish life.

Westside JCC has raised more than $5 million for its capital campaign to renovate its aging campus. The capital campaign’s goal is $14 million. While we are well on our way, moments of opportunity are fleeting and must be seized. After Westside JCC is rebuilt, other JCCs in Los Angeles must renovate their facilities. State-of-the-art buildings must open to serve new communities.

If the L.A. JCC movement is to succeed, the L.A. Jewish community must recognize the important mission played by JCCs and support this renewal with significant investments. Failure to recognize and support this mission is an opportunity lost to build a stronger more cohesive L.A. Jewish community.

Michael J. Kaminsky is president of the Westside Jewish Community Center advisory board and a member of the board of directors of Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles.

Show You the Money

I get hit up, boy do I get hit up. I don’t always say “yes,” of course, but that’s not the point of this story. The point is who is asking me for money.

Over the past year, the fund seekers have included at least 20 yeshivas in Israel; four settlements in the West Bank; two school systems in Israel; four Jewish organizations in Montreal, six in New York; 15 Chabads around the world; a soup kitchen in Jerusalem; Sephardic organizations in Canada, Israel and South America; and, oh yeah, a few organizations in Los Angeles.

Do you see a pattern here?

Remarkably, it seems as if the most aggressive Jewish fundraising in Los Angeles is coming from out-of-towners. So why am I bringing this up? Three words: Jewish Community Centers (JCC). We’ve all heard about the recent JCC gloom and doom: out of funds, out of date, out of vision and, presumably, out of business.

It’s the “out of funds” that really gets me. Sure, the facilities can be vastly improved and brought into the new century with some grand, coherent vision. But growing up in Montreal, I spent 10 wonderful years enjoying the worn-out facilities at the local Jewish Y. We didn’t give a hoot that the lockers and bathrooms were run-down, the paint on the walls was chipped, or that the cashier at the cafeteria was older than my great-great grandmother. We were too young to let those things interfere with our freewheeling frolicking among good friends. While the grown-ups were in meetings debating mission statements, we were in the gym playing gaga ball.

Which brings me back to the “out of funds.” Let me try to yell this as loud as I can: Where art thou, ye JCC fundraisers? Why have I never heard from you? It’s not as if I’m not connected to you: First, you’re right in my backyard, and second, three of my kids have been frolicking in your pools and gymnasiums for the past three years, just like their father did in Montreal. And, as if that wasn’t enough, isn’t there a halacha that says Jews must first donate locally before they think globally?

In business, we often use the term “disconnect.” It describes something that makes no sense, and it’s usually a source of outrage. Well, the JCC running out of funds in arguably the wealthiest Jewish city in the world is one big, fat disconnect. I won’t pile on here with another litany of reasons for the downfall, but I will give the JCC one word that might have prevented the downfall in the first place: hustle.

Why not hustle with the same passion and creativity as the out-of-towners who camp outside my house or office lobby with their colorful binders, and who never worry that their yeshivas are “rundown”? Are their causes any more virtuous?

It’s time the JCC loses its inferiority complex and stops apologizing for its facilities. You provide enough “fun-raising” to justify a whole bunch of honest fundraising. Put on a brave face, realize how much you’re worth, and for heaven’s sake, open your local phone book.

David Suissa is founder and editor of OLAM Magazine, and founder of Jews for Truth Now. Marlene Adler Marks is on vacation and will return next week.