51 Birch Street: House of Blocks . . . House of Cards?


We all know about “the generation gap.” The “mother-daughter bond.” Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons.” Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” or any number of his plays for that matter. Our literature and our language are rife with expressions of the struggles inherent in that most primal bond Doug Block with his fatherbetween parents and children.

In his personal documentary, “51 Birch Street,” filmmaker Doug Block sets out to explore his relationship with his father. His mother has died, and Block wants to document the dismantling of the family home before it is sold. A “baby-boomer” who came of age in the “let it all hang out” ’60s, Block is taken aback when he learns that his parents’ 54-year marriage was not at all what it seemed. Wrestling with disturbing revelations, Block’s film questions how well any of us truly know the people we love, how well we might really want to know them, and perhaps most importantly, what right we have to know.

On the surface, the Block family is a typical, post-war, middle-class suburban Jewish family. Mike Block and Mina Vogel married shortly after World War II, had three children over the course of four years and moved from Brooklyn to a brand-new house in the suburbs to raise their family. They were among the founding families of a Reform congregation that became the center of their social lives. Their children — two girls and a boy — went to (or more accurately “suffered through,” as son Doug describes it) Hebrew school through confirmation. Mike worked long hours as a mechanical engineer while Mina stayed home to raise the children, working outside of the home only as the children grew up. Mike and Mina were “inseparable.”

Mina’s death was shocking not only in its swiftness, but for the maelstrom of unexpected revelations that followed. Three months after his wife’s death, Mike Block traveled to Florida, returning only to announce that he was moving there to live with Kitty, his secretary from 40 years earlier. They wed shortly thereafter. As if this wasn’t enough for the Block siblings to absorb, Mike and Kitty decided to sell the family home on Birch Street. It fell upon Doug and his sisters to help their father sort through the accumulated detritus of 50 years of family life.

Block, a documentary filmmaker by vocation (“Home Page” and “The Heck With Hollywood!”) and an inveterate home-movie-maker by avocation, always felt close to his mother; her death left him bereft. In contrast, he felt both very different than and distant from his father. He hoped to use his camera, as was his wont, to help him get to know his subject — in this case his father — better.

As we travel with Block through his arduous path of discovery, watching long-buried secrets of his parents’ unhappiness slowly come to light, we see his family struggle with their newfound knowledge. And we struggle alongside them, wrestling not only with our own fears about trust and intimacy, but with questions of privacy and disclosure.

These questions come to a head when Block uncovers volumes of personal diaries his mother had written over a three- year period. Pained as his father obviously is by seeing them, he nevertheless tells his son to “save them.” Block is both drawn to and fearful of reading them, and decides to consult an “expert” on the ethical issues involved.

He turns to Rabbi Jonathan Blake, a young rabbi with a warm smile and quick wit, who Block felt was “wise” beyond his years. Asking Blake if it’s “right” to read his mother’s diaries (the mention of which causes an amusing moment of eyebrow-raising by Blake on camera), Blake first answers in true Rabbinic fashion, with another question: “What does your heart tell you to do?” Yet after wrestling a bit with the dilemma, Blake tells Block that learning more about one’s parents can be valuable, if the knowledge is used for “a holy purpose.”

Thus encouraged, Block decided to forge ahead — at times ambivalent, at times stunned.

“From the outside, to us, we thought they were actually wonderfully compatible. They had similar interests, they traveled, they bickered a bit but never argued,” Block said in an interview.

But as his mother’s diaries revealed, she was deeply unhappy in her marriage.
Block searched for ways to reconcile his image of his parents’ “model marriage” with the emerging picture of discord, anger and infidelity.

Although the film contains no explicit explanation of how Block, a “cultural” but non-observant Jew, interpreted the rabbi’s words, Block said he believed the rabbi “meant if I’m using it to honor and celebrate my mother’s life … it’s a holy thing.”
Yet, during the process of making the film, it wasn’t always clear to Block that his work hewed to this “holy” purpose.

“There were many times I thought it was a holy mess! I thought, all I’m going to do is burn in hell,” he said. “My mother will come off looking horribly, and I’ll look even worse for doing this.” He said he spent “many sleepless nights feeling the weight of picking out the right phrases and words of all the volumes of writings, to honor her complexity, her intelligence, to show her as a rounded human being.”

“On one level,” Block said, his film “is a story of assimilation, of city Jews moving to the suburbs and trying to fit in,” the pressures of which were one source of his mother’s unhappiness. Block says it’s also “very Jewish” that his family “covers up a lot of stuff through sarcasm and humor.” And he believes that his film was a profound act of teshuvah, a concept he discussed with Los Angeles Rabbi Judith Halevy while filming. Creating a portrait of his parents’ lives, including their fallibility, was for Block an “act of coming to forgiveness, and somehow getting cleansed in the process.”

Yet “51 Birch Street” is also a universal tale. Ultimately the story is — like the complex lives it reveals to us — a mass of contradictions. On the one hand, it is a truly sad story: of thwarted potential, of betrayal and of the defeat of good intentions. But it is also a story of redemption, of two men who manage to transcend the pain of their lives to forge new relationships: Mike Block with Kitty, and Doug Block with his father.

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights


I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

The Key Is Rejoicing


A story is told about a Chasidic rabbi visited by an enthusiastic follower. The man eagerly wanted to update the rabbi on his latest religious undertaking.

“I have decided to inflict my body and deprive myself from mundane pleasures,” the man said. “Every day I roll in the snow after receiving 39 lashes; I sleep standing, put nails in my shoes, drink only water and eat only raw vegetables. I feel that I am taking off my bodily garb and dress up in a spiritual, heavenly cloth.”

Instead of responding, the rabbi started walking with his follower around the village until they arrived at a stable. There the rabbi paused and, gazing admiringly at one of the horses, asked the man: “Isn’t this a magnificent animal?”

The man could not control his frustration.

“Rabbi, this is truly beyond me,” he complained. “I am talking spirituality here and you are thinking about horses?”

The rabbi remained unmoved by the man’s outburst and answered calmly, “This horse drinks only water and eats straw, sleeps standing and has nails in its shoes; its master uses the whip ruthlessly and rolling in the snow is its daily ritual, but after all it is still a horse.”

The rabbi might have been inspired by this week’s portion. At first glance, admittedly, it seems like an eclectic collection of laws and instructions, dealing with such disparate issues as dietary laws, agrarian laws anti-paganism campaign and more. A close look at the Re’eh, though, will reveal a key word that illuminates the working thesis of this collection of laws.

The root “shin, mem, chet” — be happy, rejoice — appears in the parsha seven times, and it is always in the context of the family and the community. You should rejoice in the place your God has chosen, with your sons and daughters, and servants, with the sojourners and with the Levites who have no permanent residence in the land of Israel.

This key phrase is an insight into what Judaism considers to be the true way of serving God. It is a way of life that is imbued with happiness and gratitude. It is sharing your blessings with family, friends and the less fortunate. It is one of the main reasons for the agrarian laws, which guarantee social justice and equality, as well as a partial reason for the rejection of paganism.

A bitter, angry man can only wreak havoc, even more so if he thinks he represents God. Jacques Barzun, the famous historian tacitly described the motive for religious wars: “Be my brother or I will kill you.”

This is exactly the pagan attitude shunned in Re’eh. The Torah warns against the pagan practice of wounding one’s flesh as a sign of mourning or spiritual fervor (Deuteronomy 14:1) and against the horrifying practice of offering one’s offspring as a burnt sacrifice to the gods (Deuteronomy 12:31).

These two practices not only are linked but they are the breeders of religious fanaticism.

If you are willing to inflict physical pain upon yourself as a service to your god, why not treat others to the same spiritual experience? Paradoxically, they will be killed or harmed because of your love for them.

What other atrocities can be committed by those who murder their own children in the name of God? We would like to think that such practices are extinct, but unfortunately this is not the case. There are still religious sects around the world who herald asceticism and acts that border with masochism. In some cases it leads to religious or ethnic terrorism, and in others to a complete apathy and indifference to the fate of the less fortunate (India, abundant with Yogi, Brahmins and fakirs, is a good example as home to spirituality seekers from around the world but also to millions of untouchable who live in subhuman conditions just because they were born into a certain caste).

The practice of human sacrifices did not disappear with the demise of the Phoenicians or the annihilation of South American cultures by the conquistadores as we would like to think. Since the dawn of humanity fathers and mothers have been marching their children off to unnecessary wars in the name of bloodthirsty gods.

The message of this week’s parsha reverberates with that of Isaiah: “Is such the fast I desire, a day for men to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: to unlock fetters of wickedness and untie the chords of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry and to take the wretched poor into your home … then shall your light burst through like the dawn” (Deuteronomy 58:5-8).

Haim Ovadia is rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, a Sephardic congregation in West Los Angeles. He can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Performers Go It Alone and Like It That Way


Michael Raynor moves with the balletic grace and cocksure athleticism of a former pickup basketball player and street fighter. He simulates dribbling a ball between his legs with the adeptness of the highly recruited hoops star he once was, then he assumes his grandfather’s boxer’s crouch, takes on the gravelly voice of the onetime Louis Lepke associate and throws the jab. Effortlessly, Raynor switches time periods and voices, at one moment playing his sassy mother with her elbow against her rib, her wrist bent, and then his grandmother, with her stooped posture and her Old World idiosyncrasies.

In “Who Is Floyd Stearn?” playing at the Sidewalk Studio Theater in Toluca Lake, Raynor goes on a Rashomon-like search for the essence of his father, who left the family when the actor was a little boy. Was his father a deadbeat dad? A mentally ill genius? A con man?

The rugged-looking actor’s only props are a chair and a black-and-white photograph of his father with his arm around him as Raynor, the little boy, plays a guitar. Raynor speaks with the sing-song patter of the New York City streets. He is a Jewish man who hails from an older tradition — the Jews of the first half of the last century: tough Jews, who dominated sports like boxing and basketball and served disproportionately in the first two World Wars and in the ranks of gangsters. But he also has a vulnerability mixed in with that toughness, like John Garfield, to whom he has been compared.

Despite courageous performances by actors like Raynor, solo-show performers have been lampooned often by the likes of Martin Short and mocked by many as self-absorbed narcissists, bent on exploring their own navels rather than advancing the art form of the theater. Nonetheless, one-person shows continue to proliferate and provide performers with a unique outlet for meta-theatrical expression.

Stacie Chaiken, who runs a solo workshop in Santa Monica, says the medium is “a way for actors to take control of their destiny,” but she also admits, these shows are “cheap to produce. It’s very easy for a one-person show to travel around.”

There are some big-name Jewish performers like Billy Crystal, who recently toured with his Tony-winning homage to his father, “700 Sundays,” and Eve Ensler, creator of the “Vagina Monologues.” But in recent months, many L.A. theaters have produced one-person shows featuring lesser-known Jewish talent, such as Judi Lee Brandwein, star of “Fornicationally Challenged,” which played at the Hudson Guild and is moving to New York; Linda Lichtman, whose one-person show, “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” is playing at the Actors Playpen; and Carla Zilbersmith, a singer and actress who revisits her days on the wedding circuit in “Wedding Singer Blues.”

While each show follows its own trajectory, Chaiken points out that many Jewish-themed plays explore the issue of legacy. These performers describe conflicted feelings about their parents and the aspirations held out for them. As clichéd as such scenarios may seem, they speak to the pain and humor of family, a commonality that usually resonates with audiences.

Zilbersmith, who has a music degree from the New England Conservatory of Music and a theater degree from NYU, cites the lineage of the art form: “The ancient conversation we call theater has always contained some form of solo performance, and I would argue that the most successful solo pieces acknowledge these theatrical roots.”

Those roots surely include King David, who soothed Saul by singing and playing the harp or lyre, troubadours during the Middle Ages who wandered from town to town and entertained crowds, and, in the past century, Lord Buckley, the now-forgotten, Beat-era monologist who started out in vaudeville and later told tales in a bebop idiom that centered on historical and biblical characters like “the Nazz,” a jive take on Jesus. Buckley’s influence could be seen in the work of Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan, the latter a modern-day Jewish troubadour, who cites Buckley in his recent “Chronicles, Vol. 1.”

Notable works in the field include, of course, Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain in “Mark Twain Tonight!” and Julie Harris’ Emily Dickinson in “The Belle of Amherst,” formal one-person shows about external subjects. In the past 15 years or so, as memoirs, particularly those of addiction and recovery, have staked out a dominant place on the bookshelf, solo shows too have become much more personal, including the work of performance artists and monologists.

Chaiken, who teaches acting and solo performance at USC and who studied with Spalding Gray at the Performance Group in New York, credits Gray with formulating “a me that was very close to the me that was him,” and ushering in a new sensibility for monologists.

Fred Johntz has partnered with Mark Travis for seven years in writing and directing numerous one-person shows, including “Fornicationally Challenged.” Johntz says that performance art by L.A. performance artists such as John Fleck (whose work was denied NEA grants due to its provocative subject matter) and Sandra Tsing Loh are “pretty much in the same vein” as the one-person shows he directs.

The trend in self-involved storytelling, which may have reached its apotheosis in the blog phenomenon, has also led to the dissemination of many factual errors and even hoaxes. Likewise, one-person shows and their variants often could benefit from editing. Many suffer from poor storytelling if not outright posing.

Not surprisingly, there have been parodies even in one-person shows. In “Wedding Singer Blues,” Zilbersmith at one point portrays a performance artist as a brain-dead, pot-headed character who spins naked on a rotating East Village stage.

Women have been among the pioneers in this avant-garde art form. Anna Deveare Smith used journalistic techniques for her solo gigs. In the aftermath of the 1991 Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn and the 1992 Rodney King riots here in Los Angeles, she took to the streets with a tape recorder in hand and captured the colloquialisms that would later inform her award-winning performances in “Fires in the Mirror” and “Twilight: Los Angeles 1992,” respectively.

Most one-woman shows, however, favor sexual politics over political or racial issues.

Lichtman regales us with stories of her liaisons with younger men in “The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” — a brave performance, not least because she is in her 60s. She invokes Jewish icons like the Dodgers of the 1950s, intersperses her act with Yiddish expressions and speaks in characteristically Jewish syntax when she utters lines like, “Lucky, I didn’t set myself on fire.”

Are Jews particularly well-suited to one-person shows?

Zilbersmith, starring in “Wedding Singer Blues,” now playing at the Coronet Theater, says that while she has a variety of students at the College of Marin in the Bay Area, where she teaches solo performance, those who tend to focus on writing and storytelling are Jewish. But she also notes the strong oral traditions of African Americans and the Irish; she says that most of her friends who are solo performers are African American.

One of Chaiken’s students, Frankie Colmane, wrote and acted in “Body and Soul,” a one-person show about her experience as a French Algerian Jew living in America. With immigration a searing topic both in this country and in France, Colmane’s show, which moved on to the Edge of the World Theater Festival in downtown Los Angeles, transcends Jewishness and speaks to all audiences. Of course, it also speaks to her.

As Chaiken says, “We’re all very interested in ourselves.”

“The Bride Can’t Stop Coughing” plays Mondays, 8 p.m., through July 31 at the Actors Playpen, 1514 N. Gardner St., Hollywood, (310) 560-6063 or (310) 582-0025.

“Cheerios in My Underwear” plays July 30, 3 p.m. and on selected Sundays, once a month, at the Empty Stage Theater, 2372 Veteran Ave., West Los Angeles, (310) 308-0947.

“Wedding Singer Blues” plays Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m., through July 16, at the Coronet Theater, 366 N. La Cienega Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 657-7377.

“What’s the Story?” a series of new works-in-progress, plays July 10 and on selected Mondays, once a month, at the Powerhouse Theater, 3116 Second St., Santa Monica, (310) 450-1312.

“Who Is Floyd Stearn?” plays Thursdays, 8 p.m., at the Sidewalk Studio Theater, 4150 Riverside Dr., Toluca Lake, (323) 960-1052, (818) 558-5702.

“Zero Hour” opens July 7, plays Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., through Aug. 13, at the Egyptian Arena Theater, 1625 N. Las Palmas Ave., Hollywood, (323) 860-6620. Special gala dinner and performance on Sunday, July 9, honoring West Coast Jewish Theater founder Naomi Jacobs.

Abortion Doc’s Son Weighs Thorny Past


“Absolute Convictions: My Father, a City and the Conflict That Divided America” by Eyal Press (Henry Holt and Co, $25).

Every father should be a hero to his child. But a child’s hero and an adult’s hero are often two different people, even when they inhabit the same body. Eyal Press, in his debut book, undergoes the difficult but riveting task of reconciling those two versions of his father, whom he clearly holds in heroic esteem. As the child of a Buffalo, N.Y. gynecologist who performs abortions, Press had a front-row seat for the abortion debate during its most tumultuous and violent years of the 1980s and ’90s, peaking with the 1998 assassination of Dr. Barnett Slepian, Press’s father’s colleague. Gunned down in his home by an anti-abortionist sniper’s bullet after attending Friday night services, Slepian became a symbol of the violent wing of the movement to oppose abortion.

The release of “Absolute Convictions” could not be more auspiciously timed, given the recent passage in South Dakota of the most far-reaching anti-abortion legislation nationwide. That law, and proposed bills in other states, has reignited debate over the future of Roe vs. Wade. The case, decided in 1973, “would turn tens of thousands of Americans, some of them housewives, others previously disengaged evangelical Christians, into full-fledged crusaders,” Press writes.

It would also deeply affect the career of Press’ father and the life of his family — who arrived in Buffalo in February 1973, just three weeks after the Supreme Court’s decision came down.

Over the next three decades, the Presses would find themselves at the center of an increasingly shrill and dangerous abortion debate, one that would lead to the death of their colleague and bring terms like “24-hour surveillance” and “death threats” into their own lives. Less than a decade after Slepian’s death, Press returned to his hometown to dive into the cavernous questions of “life,” “choice” and “freedom” that the abortion debate encapsulates. The book, a well-reported work of journalism with a personal heart, is not content to simply recount the fear and chaos that followed Slepian’s murder, but instead seeks to understand how such a violent act came to pass in the first place. The great strength of this fine book is that it successfully presents twin narratives: a clear-eyed journalistic look at the evolution of a movement — political and religious — to oppose legalized abortion, and the story of a son coming into an adult’s understanding of his father and the role he played in that larger drama. Press, a left-leaning investigative reporter who has published in The Nation, the American Prospect and The New York Times Magazine, adeptly mines his family’s history while never losing his journalistic passion for social policy issues.

Press writes of his admiration for his father, Israeli-born Dr. Shalom Press, in somewhat simple terms — the pride a child feels in the vague sense that his dad does something worthwhile for a living. Throughout “Absolute Convictions,” however, Press’s admiration graduates from that youthful feeling of “My dad does the right thing” into an adult appreciation that enables him to report and reflect more thoroughly on the history and meaning of the anti-abortion movement.

The moment in the book when Press embraces this mature and more complex view takes place in the Rev. Rob Schenck’s Washington, D.C. office. Schenck is the founder of the evangelical advocacy organization Faith and Action and a leader in the pro-life movement. Sitting in Schenck’s office, listening to him describe with exhilaration and passion why he felt that protesting abortion clinics — including Press’s father’s practice — was “one of the most spiritual exercises [he] had ever engaged in,” Press is forced to admit that there is genuine conviction behind the pro-life perspective.

“If I place myself in Schenck’s shoes, I can imagine his sense of exhilaration,” he writes. “At the time, I could not contemplate the idea that a noble impulse might be motivating the protesters — they were doing their best to make my father’s life miserable. But if I step into the moral universe Schenck described to me — a world where every unborn child represents God’s creation and life begins at conception, where this is not a matter of debate but of truth as handed down in Scripture — the ethical imperative is clear.”

At a moment when all eyes are cast forward, Press’ account is a wise attempt to look back, reminding ourselves of how this issue, which once attracted the attention mainly of Catholics, became the center of the moral and political universe for so many evangelical Protestants — some of whom demonstrated their convictions through violent means. Press’s complicated journey takes his readers to that murky crossroads where religion, politics, family and law all meet.

Article courtesy The Forward.

Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer who lives in Arlington, Mass.

 

Parental Values Do Influence Children


It was 12:45 a.m. on a Sunday, and my 14-year-old son and I were returning from a rap concert. It wasn’t my kind of music, but the entertainers were talented, and it had been fun dancing along with the concert crowd. The occasion also gave my son and me time for one of our many small intergenerational exchanges.

I admitted to my son that I didn’t understand the thrill of people shouting the infamous “N” word from the stage or the responding cheers of the audience. He said that he could understand my bewilderment because he couldn’t see why anyone (meaning me, of course) would listen to the Beach Boys. We both laughed.

By the time we arrived home, we had discussed various musical styles, how music can be an expression of cultural rage, sexual inquiry and misogyny, and how music often tells the stories of lives very different from our own. We felt close. It was a satisfying parental moment.

Having an open dialogue — about things like rap music, Xbox games or Polly Pockets — is essential for raising moral and ethical children. Creating the stage begins in infancy. There are no guarantees about the results of our parenting efforts, but there are ways we as parents can tilt the odds in our favor.

The competition is tough: television, movies, popular music, billboards, computer games, Internet access to almost anything and that most powerful competitor — peer pressure.

We will never eliminate the presence and ultimate access to views and values that we would rather they not have. But we can influence our children by displaying our own values through our behavior and words, and by understanding their world so that we can develop a relationship where anything can be talked about with mutual respect for views and feelings.

We can place our children in a school and community where they are likely to meet families with values similar to our own. But we cannot escort our children to every party, or to every friend’s house, or supervise every access to Internet pornography or even illicit drugs.

As my own children grow into adulthood, I do not want to — and can’t –control their choices; however, I do want to be a part of their internal and external discussions as they make their own choices.

Here are seven tips for creating and sustaining that kind of parent-child relationship.

1. Hold, cuddle, and talk with your children from birth. Look into their eyes; be aware of their body tension and yours — at every age. Bonding with parents is the cornerstone of moral development. Talk about moral and ethical issues in the course of daily life and help them understand the meaning of behaviors and events. While parents often worry about trusting their children as they become adolescents, the bigger issue is whether they will trust you.

2. Empathy is essential for moral and ethical behavior. Let your children know how their behavior affects you and others. Teach them to care for other people and their feelings.

3. Observe Shabbat and the holidays, using them as opportunities to celebrate Jewish values. Invite friends to the Shabbat dinner table and guarantee time and attention for each person’s thoughts and feelings, regardless of age. Use Shabbat to teach your children to make time to just think and contemplate — essential ingredients for moral behavior.

4. When your children are young, get on the floor and play with them. Then talk about these adventures both with your children and with adults when your children are present.

5. When your children become adolescents, listen with them to their music. Get the words to the songs. Talk with them about their music as an expression of their world, as you would talk with your friends about their interests. Do not condemn your child’s taste; this stops the conversation (as it would for you). Share the car radio.

6. Compliment moral and ethical behavior. When they make tough decisions, exhibit pride for their contemplation. Disagree with a choice or a behavior, but don’t attack them personally — and always do this away from their friends to protect them from humiliation.

7. Create “car talks” when you want to talk with your children about something important but which is uncomfortable for them. A car talk is a pre-planned opportunity to say one brief idea. Limit it to about 10 sentences and five minutes. In a car ride you have a captive audience for a few minutes. You and your child know this is going to be over soon. Car talks, of course, don’t always have to take place in the car.

Raising moral and ethical children in an often-immoral world can be difficult. Tilt the odds in your favor by creating the conversation.

Dr. Ian Russ is a marriage and family therapist in private practice, and consults at many Jewish schools in Los Angeles.

 

Agencies Join to Aid Special-Needs Kids


Sally Weber never felt so alone.

Nearly three decades ago, she learned her daughter had a severe language disorder that hindered her development. Besides dealing with the shock of having a child with special needs, Weber found little solace in the local Jewish community that had hitherto had given her so much joy.

At the time, Southland temples and institutions offered no Jewish camps, day schools or programming for special-needs children and their families. In Jewish circles, as in society at large, children with developmental disorders such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome and cerebral palsy were often seen as burdens to bear, rather than as joys to celebrate.

“I was completely isolated,” said Weber, now director of Jewish Family Service’s Jewish Community Programs. “There was no place to go as a parent.”

Thanks to her and two other Jewish communal professionals with special-needs children of their own, local Jewish families grappling with similar issues now have somewhere to turn for help.

In November, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles brought together seven other agencies, including, the Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles, the Jewish Free Loan Association and Etta Israel Center, to create Hamercaz, a central resource for Jewish families raising special-needs children under 22.

The brainchild of Weber and Michelle Wolf, The Federation’s assistant director of planning and allocations — whose 11-year-old son has cerebral palsy — Hamercaz, or the center, offers a variety of services through its partner agencies, ranging from interest-free loans for diagnostic testing to support groups for overwhelmed parents to Shabbat dinners for children with special needs.

“Before the creation of Hamercaz, a person would have to make several phone calls or talk to friends of friends of friends to get what they needed,” said Wolf, who along with Weber, works part time on the Hamercaz project. “Now, you can get it all in one place.”

To access available services, parents can call the toll-free number, (866) 287-8030, and discuss their situation with Hamercaz’s program coordinator Amy Bryman. A licensed social worker, Bryman makes referrals to partner and other service agencies and later follows up with a phone call. In the program’s first six weeks, she received 30 calls from parents.

“It makes me feel good to see parents getting help with their newly diagnosed children,” said Bryman, the mother of a 6-year-old son with autism.

Some of the partner agencies and the services offered include:

  • Jewish Free Loan offers interest-free loans up to $10,000 to help finance diagnostic tests, therapy and treatment for children with autism and other special needs.
  • Jewish Family Service has a program that sends trained volunteers into the homes of families with special-needs children to perform any number of tasks, including taking children to the park to give parents a respite.
  • The Bureau of Jewish Education refers parents to Jewish schools that can accommodate their children’s needs. The bureau also holds lectures throughout the year addressing such topics as autism and how to get proper diagnostic testing.
  • The appearance of Hamercaz comes at a time when autism and other developmental disorders appear on the rise. Locally, an estimated 6,000 Jewish families in greater Los Angeles have children with developmental or severe learning disabilities, according to Jewish groups. Nationally, one in 166 newborns has autism, the Autism Society of America said. Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Education and other government agencies, autism is growing at a rate of 10 percent to 17 percent a year, the Autism Society added.

Autism is a complex developmental disability that affects the normal functioning of the brain. People with autism typically have problems with verbal communication, social interaction and play activities.

Hamercaz got its start with the help of a $48,700 grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. That money has allowed the center to hire Bryman for 15 hours a week and has also paid for a media campaign.

Support from Rabbi Mark Diamond has also helped get the word out. The executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California recently sent letters out to the group’s 270 member rabbis, encouraging them to promote Hamercaz to their congregations.

“Sadly, for too many years, families were told, ‘Your child can’t get a Jewish education. Sorry, your child can’t go to a Jewish day school,'” said Diamond, who has worked with children with special needs for more than 25 years. “I think it’s a sacred mandate of the Jewish community to take care of our own, and that means taking care of each and every one of our children.”

On April 2, The Federation will host a fair for Jewish parents of children with special needs at the New Jewish Community Center at Milken in West Hills from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Representatives of all partner agencies will be in attendance. For more information on the event or Hamercaz, contact Michelle Wolf at MWolf@JewishLA.org.

 

Letters


Misunderstanding

I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Director
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request

Portraits

What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington

 

The Circuit


Tackling the Taboo

The leadership of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center hosted an interactive lecture event on Aug. 7 at its Tarzana location, focused on discussing drug and alcohol abuse, frequently a taboo topic among Iranian Jewish families.

The audience of nearly 200 Iranian Jewish parents and their children listened to the event’s panel of experts, including Iraj Shamsian, the founder of the Iranian Recovery Center in Westwood; Dara Abaee, an Iranian Jewish community volunteer helping drug addicts; criminal defense attorney Alaleh Kamran; and Dariush Sameyah, an Iranian Jewish L.A.P.D. sergeant.

“We have been the only Iranian Jewish organization trying to help drug addicts in our community for years to get them to rehab,” said Dariush Fakheri, co-founder of Eretz-SIAMAK. “This is the first time we have gone public with this issue because this epidemic is really getting out of hand with our young people.”

Recovering Iranian Jewish drug addicts also openly spoke to the crowd about the horrors of drug abuse, which in recent years has become more prevalent in the Iranian Jewish community. — Karmel Melamed, Contributing Writer

State of the Valley

On Aug. 12, nearly 100 Valley community leaders and members gathered at the El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana for the Anti-Defamation League’s third annual State of the State Valley Legislative Breakfast. Five members of the San Fernando Valley’s delegation to the state legislature discussed issues ranging from hate crimes and bigotry to traffic and the environment. The event was hosted by Leon Lewitt and Brad Hertz, who also chaired.

Delightful Dodgers

The mood was happy and upbeat as spirited professional competition recently joined with good cheer when 100 Chai Lifeline children, parents and siblings watched the Los Angeles Dodgers take on the Cincinnati Reds during the organization’s annual Dodger Day.

Families gathered in a reserved section of Dodger Stadium with catering by Jeff’s Gourmet Kosher Sausages. Following dinner, Chai Lifeline volunteers passed around goody bags, compliments of Chai Lifeline and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also provided the evening’s tickets. The Children were given the chance to reunite with fellow campers and counselors and relive happy memories.

Chai Lifeline provides emotional, social and financial support that enables families to cope with the short- and long-term repercussions of life-threatening and chronic pediatric illness. On the West Coast, the Sohacheski Family Center offers two-dozen free year-round programs and services to children, their families and communities.

For more information about becoming a Chai Lifeline volunteer or donor, or for assistance, contact the Sohacheski Family Center at (310) 274-6331.

Stand for Hadassah

Take a Stand, a newly established program at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, is capturing the attention and imagination of its young leaders and donors. At the recent convention it raised $180,000 — in one day.

The program is designed to allow women, 45 and younger, to put their Jewish values to work. Take a Stand offers participants the opportunity to advocate on behalf of stem cell research in the United States and support the state-of-the-art Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

“We want to give young women in the Jewish community the opportunity to take action,” said Shelley Sherman, national chair for Young Founders. “This is the group that is considered the sandwich generation…. By both advocating for favorable stem cell legislation in the U.S. and supporting the scientific developments at our hospitals in Israel, these women can make a difference in the lives of their relatives and friends.”

Hadassah, the largest women’s organization in the U.S., is the leading proponent in the Jewish community of embryonic stem cell research and funding. This past spring, in the largest advocacy effort of the organization’s 92-year history, Hadassah delegations visited 50 state capitals to urge their legislators to pass favorable legislation. And, just recently, some 1,800 Hadassah delegates to Hadassah’s national convention visited Congressional representatives from 37 states in Washington, DC, holding more than 150 meetings to encourage favorable stem cell legislation, among other issues of concern.

For more information about Take a Stand, call (866) 229-2395 or e-mail youngwomen@hadassah.org.

 

Support Still Lags for Special Needs


What happens to a Jewish child who can’t sit still for religious classes because of severe attention-deficit disorder? Or one who doesn’t understand the meaning of the holidays because she has Down syndrome? What happens when your autistic son is nearing the age of 12 and hasn’t received the kind of Jewish education that will allow him to celebrate his bar mitzvah along with his peers?

While a handful of new initiatives are carving out a place for special-needs children in L.A. Jewish educational settings, families of these children have long felt excluded when it comes to participating in such basic functions as Shabbat services and Hebrew school.

Although there are no formal studies conducted as yet, it is clear that the number of Jewish families with special-needs children is growing, just as the number of cases grow nationwide (for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in every 167 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 500 in 1998). That means the problem of special education for Jewish children is becoming more complex every year.

The Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) has had a special-education unit since the 1970s, yet no formal network of support for special education exists in Los Angeles-area Jewish religious schools. Most non-Orthodox day schools in Los Angeles that have been approached about beginning a special-education track have declined, says one educator who has petitioned them for such a venue.

Even the associate director of the BJE expressed his dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in this area, saying it is time for the bureau to be more systematic in helping the special-needs community.

“We are the first ones to admit that special-needs programs coming through the bureau are very limited,” Phil Liff-Grieff said. “There is always a tug of war between needs and resources.”

The BJE recently created a new task force to examine what role it should have in fostering special education among religious schools. Liff-Grieff said the task force will perform a “careful survey of the client population,” look at existing programs outside the L.A. area, and then decide from there how it should proceed.

“Special education is very costly work; to do it right and to do it well requires a lot of resources,” he said.

Liff-Grieff added that in the Orthodox community, education programs are generally perceived as more inclusive of special-needs children, noting that “day school education in the Orthodox community is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he said.

A few Los Angeles-area synagogues are working to support inclusion, or to provide alternative programming. One of the newest programs is Koleinu at Pressman Academy, overseen by Temple Beth Am of Los Angeles and made possible by a BJE grant. The Koleinu program began in October with a minyan for special-needs children and meets several times a month (see sidebar).

Koleinu uses a “buddy program” whereby each disabled child is partnered with a more typical child who sings with them, helps them keep track of the service and makes the service more fun, according to Susan Leider, religious school principal and director of Shabbat programming for Beth Am. “The idea is typical kids entering into their environment, versus the special-needs kids having to come into a typical environment,” Leider said.

Pressman is also ready to launch a religious school program for second grade through fourth grade if they can enroll enough pupils. The religious school program will mirror the curriculum of the regular school program for that age group, with units on the synagogue, Jewish holidays and the book of Genesis.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman is one of the Pressman Academy religious school instructors leading the Koleinu program.

“I love to see these children start to enjoy being Jewish, to have a positive prayer experience and a positive Shabbat experience,” she said. “I don’t think they are beyond understanding the concept of God with the right conversation and the right questions.”

She said her ultimate goal is to persuade non-Orthodox day schools — which she says have largely ignored children with special needs — to begin a special education track.

“I’ve spoken to almost all the non-Orthodox principals in the Los Angeles area, and most of them think creating programs for children with special needs in their schools would [negatively] affect the school’s reputation,” she said. “Most schools have resources to provide extra help for typical kids who need it, but nothing more; others say they do not have the space.”

Some parents, tired of waiting for the general community to respond, have started their own programs and support networks. Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer teaches at the University of Judaism and is the mother of three children. Her middle son was diagnosed with autism in 2000, when he was 4.

“Shortly after we received Ezra’s diagnosis, I was talking to a friend who also had a child with issues,” she recalled. “We were discussing the multitude of therapies and interventions we had for our children, and we realized something was missing. My friend suggested that that something was Torah and said to me, ‘What are you going to do about that, rabbi?’ So I pulled together a circle of friends, all of whom had children with special needs.”

Ozreinu, a cross-denominational and multidiagnosis support group that meets in people’s homes, has since evolved into three support groups — one in the city and two in the San Fernando Valley. The groups meet once a month to study Torah and discuss what they learn from the text and how it can help them meet the spiritual challenges of raising a child with disabilities.

Fields-Meyer said that, like Naftalin-Kelman, she would like to see more schools embrace children with special needs. Her two other children attend Pressman, but Ezra goes to public school.

Community leaders agree that changing the scope of Jewish education to include children with special needs means putting various support structures in place, such as training programs to help teachers and principals learn to work with special-needs children and a fund to provide financial support.

“We are, as a Jewish education system, far from where we would like to be,” Liff-Grieff said. “But the leadership of this agency is ready to roll up their sleeves and say to the community, ‘Let’s tackle this problem.'”

The following is a sample of the programs available in the Los Angeles area for families of school-age children with special needs. Most are open to the public (i.e., synagogue membership is not required):

Synagogue Programs

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• Temple Aliyah’s Otzar program is a self-contained class for children in second through fourth grade who need a small-group setting. Students are included in all religious school activities including music, art, prayer and special events. 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. For information, call Pam Rooks at (818) 346-3545.

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• Temple Beth Am’s Koleinu program includes a twice-monthly minyan for special-needs children in third through sixth grade and up, plus a religious school program for second- through fourth-graders. 1039 S. La Cienaga Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call Susan Leider at (310) 652-7354, ext. 268.

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• Valley Beth Shalom has long been at the forefront of special education for Jewish children. The synagogue has several programs to serve the special-needs community from school-age children to adults. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call Neal Schnall at (818) 788-3584.

Support Programs

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• Ozreinu is a parent support and learning network that holds monthly meetings in three locations (one in Los Angeles and two in the San Fernando Valley). For information on upcoming meeting times and locations, contact Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer at ozreinu@yahoo.com.

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• The Support Program for Families with Special-Needs Children is a collaborative program of Jewish Family Service and Sinai Temple in Westwood. The group meets on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, from 7:30-9 p.m., at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P.s are mandatory, in order to place your name on the parking list. For information and reservations, call (323) 761-8800.

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• The Friendship Circle, operating under the auspices of Chabad of the Conejo, pairs special-needs children with West Valley and Conejo Valley teenagers to help foster social skills. The Friendship Circle also provides support opportunities for mothers and siblings of children with various developmental and learning differences. For information, call Devorah Rodal or Chanie Malamud at (818) 991-0991.

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• In addition to its many other programs for special-needs children, the Etta Israel Center also runs a support group for Iranian Jewish families. For information, call (323) 965-8711 or visit www.etta.org.

Would you like to be included in future resource listings? Please send information to Julie Fax, education editor, at julief@jewishjournal.com.

Building Dignity


Near railroad tracks and industrial buildings, Santa Ana’s East Adams Street is a modest neighborhood of stucco homes and spare yards distressed by late summer’s heat. From within a fenced lot, the discordant timpani of hammering disturb the quiet a block away.

Armed with hammers, tape measures and tool aprons, a swarm of inexperienced laborers energetically build framing for the interior walls of a new home. Overlooking bruised thumbs, sore muscles and sunburns, by week’s end the construction crew will bubble excitedly over their measurable progress that began with a bare foundation, said Thayne Smith, construction director for Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity.

“They’re way ahead of our expectations,” said Smith, even before the crew had completed its first day.

Using social action to create affordable housing, the construction crew consists of about 20 Jews drawn from Reform congregations around North America. They signed up months ago for an Orange County house-raising that began Aug. 15. The aim of the weeklong project on Adams Street, like last year’s in Vermont, is to build both a home for a needy family and a community among a group of common faith.

But with the High Holidays only weeks away, for some the project is also proving an unlikely source of spiritual preparation for the coming New Year and Day of Atonement.

“This gives me more personal insight into the working poor,” said Deborah Bock, of Los Angeles, who put aside her hammer for lunch and a seat in the partial shade of a construction trailer. “I work with my brain,” she said, a job difficult to compare to a typical day laborer.

The 26-year-old rabbinical student volunteered in order to pump volume into the abstraction of repairing the world, or more routine good works such as advocacy for Israel or raising money for the homeless.

“They’re not permanent. This is so much more concrete to work on the concrete slab,” she said.

Bock believes she will come away changed by the experience.

“We talk about a God that provides food and shelter, but it takes human intervention to take an active role to make it happen,” she said.

Throughout their stay, local synagogues provided lunch and dinner for the volunteers, whose home base was an airport hotel. Their number also included local congregants from Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek.

Issues of housing and poverty, extracted from the High Holiday liturgy, were also the group’s study and worship subjects. That message was further underscored toward the week’s end with daily roars from the shofar, heard throughout the month of Elul to rouse Jews to repent.

“The prophet Isaiah, in the Yom Kippur reading, asks us to fast to sensitize us to the ways of the poor,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, the Reform movement’s western regional director, who revised his planned teaching to lean more heavily on High Holiday themes.

The High Holidays were also on the mind of Jane Paterson, 50, of Calgary, Canada. Drinking in her own mid-century mark as a liberating elixir, Paterson is pursuing the postponed.

“Can you think of a better vacation?” Paterson asked, poised on a dirt mound.

“I’ll have fewer bread crumbs to throw in the river,” she predicted, referring to Tashlich, the widely celebrated custom of “throwing away” one’s sins into water before Rosh Hashanah

“It’s nice to use your muscles spiritually and physically for someone else,” added Toni Kennedy, 52, also of Calgary.

“Even if I never meet the people who live here, I know they’ll have a certain dignity I helped give them,” said another volunteer, Ginger Jacobs, 62, of Sherman Oaks.

Louis and Joyce Mogabgab, Santa Ana building contractors professionally, also signed on as volunteer supervisors.

“What amazes me is people without construction experience are accomplishing so much,” Joyce Mogabgab said, noting her own expertise is limited to phone and paperwork. “It gives me more appreciation for what my husband does.”

Habitat estimates that 90,000 people in Orange County live in substandard housing or are homeless. The group’s labor pool is more typically drawn from Christian groups working on weekends.

Few have experience, Smith said, “but everything is built well beyond the acceptable level of building.”

Smith said the four-bedroom Adams home is one of five currently under construction locally. The $136,000 lot was acquired with a federal government subsidy as well as reduced city fees. While Habitat requires 500 hours of sweat equity by each prospective owner, a family had not yet been selected for the Adams house, he said. A neighboring Habitat-built, five-bedroom home belongs to Maria and Rigo Gomez and their nine children. They previously rented a two-bedroom La Habra house.

“We try to be mission driven, to end poverty housing in Orange County,” said Joe Perring, a real estate developer and chairman of the local Habitat chapter, which builds 10 homes a year. “Urban affiliates have the dual challenge of fundraising and the scarcity of available land.”

“If we can find land, we can get the other resources,” he said. l

Mixed-Marriage Study Defies Logic


Since the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) confirmed the continuing high rate of intermarriage, it’s been quiet on the "outreach"vs. "in-reach" front. The Jewish In-Marriage Initiative is slowly becoming active.

No new money has been added to the paltry funding the Jewish community devotes to outreach to the intermarried. As policy advocates search for support for their positions among a dearth of social science, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s new study, "Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage," takes on inordinate significance.

Fishman’s main conclusions are based on a very limited sample: interviews of 43 mixed-married couples who said they were raising all of their children as Jews, and four focus groups, each with perhaps eight children of intermarried parents.

Any qualitative study raises interpretative issues. Which of the participants’ behaviors and understandings does the observer choose to emphasize or even mention? Although Fishman said that the personal stories of her subjects, along with her analysis, "now become texts themselves for a broader discussion," only glimpses and excerpts, not the underlying interview transcripts, are available for interpretation by others.

"Double or Nothing" is replete with comments suggesting that Fishman is not a neutral observer: At the lowest point, she even implies that outreach advocates are "Christianizing."

In a comparable debate, the Boston Globe recently reported that proponents of gay marriage were criticizing, as methodologically flawed and politically biased, social science research that purported to reveal significant differences between children raised in opposite-sex and same-sex couples.

My main concern is Fishman’s assertion that the vast majority of mixed-married families who say they are raising their children as Jews "incorporate Christian holiday festivities" into their lives, which makes them "religiously syncretic" — combining Judaism and Christianity — such that Jewish identity is not transmitted to their children, even though they say that these festivities have no religious significance to them.

This central conclusion is not supported by the research itself, is inconsistent with other available evidence and provides a wholly inadequate basis for the very dangerous policies it will be used to justify.

Twice, Fishman suggests that the participation of mixed-married families in Christian holiday festivities amounts to an affirmation of the divinity of Jesus. She equates having Christmas trees and Easter eggs in the home to "bringing the ideas [and] beliefs of the Christian church into Jewish households."

This defies logic. When mixed-married couples explicitly deny that their conduct has religious significance, as Fishman acknowledges that at least some of her subjects did "emphatically," and when their children say they experience these holidays in a secular, commercial, cultural, nonreligious way, how can their behavior amount to an affirmation of a religious belief?

Fishman’s conclusion is inconsistent with other available information. In liberal American Jewish communities, it is hard to miss mixed-married families whose behaviors look as — if not more — "Jewish" than the average Jew’s, with the added component of nonreligious Christmas and Easter celebrations. It is equally hard to miss the many young adult children of such families who strongly identify as Jewish.

Last year the InterfaithFamily.Com Network’s essay contest, "We’re Interfaith Families Connecting With Jewish Life," attracted 135 personal statements from such individuals. While contest entrants are not a representative sample, the quantity and consistency of their statements — all of which are publicly available for observers to draw their own conclusions — suggest a positive theory that mixed-married families’ participation in Christian holidays need not compromise the Jewish identity of their children.

Fishman clearly has moved beyond the traditional equation that Christmas is not Jewish, so anyone who has anything to do with Christmas is not Jewish. She recognizes the possibility that, short of conversion, a mixed-married family can be "unambiguously Jewish" — if, in her view, their participation in Christian holidays takes place only outside their own home and is accompanied with explicit statements that the holidays are the relatives’ and not "ours."

While that is an excellent approach for mixed-married families to take, the boundary of acceptable conduct could be drawn more broadly to include families who say that their participation, whether in their own home or not, does not have religious significance.

This is a high-stakes disagreement. My fear is that we will now hear Jewish leaders saying that the "latest research" supports two destructive policies: That mixed-married couples who are trying to raise their children as Jews shouldn’t bother, because they won’t succeed, and the Jewish community shouldn’t waste resources on outreach to mixed-married families, because the vast majority are not "really" raising their children as Jews.

My hope is that any responsible Jewish leader would insist on conclusive social science research on a scale far beyond "Double or Nothing" before writing off the new families of the half of all young Jews who are intermarrying, thereby alienating their Jewish parents and relatives as well.

Instead of arguing about whether mixed-married families raising their children as Jews should see a Christmas tree in their own home or only in the home of relatives, rejecting the former but not the latter, everyone’s focus should be on increasing the Jewish engagement of all liberal Jews — including those in interfaith relationships.

The real question about the transmission of Jewish identity in mixed-married families is not what they do around Christian holidays, but what they do the rest of the year. As one contest entrant said:

"I am not worried that the sight of Santa will turn [my daughter] into an instant Christian. I have faith in the power of Judaism as a religion and as a way of life. Assimilation happens because what is outside, over there, looks better than what is inside. You don’t guard against it by building a higher wall between you and the rest of the world. What you do is make sure the life you have is irresistibly worth leading."


Edmund Case is publisher of

Balance Paramount to UPN Head Ostroff


Dawn Ostroff, who in addition to being a religiously observant wife and mother, has worked her way up to a glamorous, powerful and exciting position: president of entertainment at UPN. Offering insight into the art of balancing home and work life and achieving one’s professional dreams, she reminds us that it’s never too late.

Determine what is important.

Ostroff is responsible for all creative aspects of the network’s entertainment, including programming and development for weekly shows, specials, movies and miniseries. Additionally, with the help of a nanny, she cares for her two young children, while her husband Mark is across the country half of the month. She also volunteers on professional committees, but only a select two that are very close to her heart. While others are soliciting her leadership, she prioritizes what causes are most important, and turns down the other committee positions.

Focus and compartmentalize.

To balance her personal life with her professional responsibilities, the 44-year-old UPN power-exec stays focused.

“When I’m at work, I’m really able to focus on work, and when I’m at home, I’m really able to focus on my family. Of course, there are always times when things cross over, like when my child is sick or I have an obligation at school. Or, when I’m home and the phone is ringing and I still have work to do,” Ostroff said. “But for the most part, I really try to be respectful of wherever I am in my life, and covet the time and focus on what I need to get done. Or when I’m with my family, really focus on just enjoying them.” Having a toddler, she joked, “who is just demanding and wants you certainly makes it easier to focus on him.”

Balance your schedule to work for you.

Ostroff starts her days at 4 a.m. and usually works until 6 a.m., when her son Michael usually wakes up. After spending a couple of hours with him and her baby, she is at her desk at about 9 a.m. Ostroff is typically busy with meetings, returning telephone calls and “keeping up with everyone.” She also visits a set to watch rough cuts or catch up with other production-related duties. Ostroff usually gets home around 7:30 p.m., has dinner with her family and relaxes with her husband.

“And the weekends, we spend as a family,” though she has also devoted herself over the years to philanthropic organizations such as the American Jewish Committee, which brings international relief to victims of hate and bias.

Ostroff flies to New York about once a month to see her two stepsons. Her husband commutes to New York every other week, and has an office in both locations.

“We definitely have a challenging lifestyle, but it works for us,” she said.

Passion, patience and persistence.

Ostroff has a motto for her success.

“I believe in the three Ps: passion, persistence and patience. I always feel that if you have these three things, good things will come to you if you set your sight on something,” she said.

Good things have come her way since she began her career at 16.

“At 16, I was already very interested in the media and wound up answering request lines at a local station in Miami. Then I ended up interning at a lot of different TV stations down there. By the time I was 18, I was a reporter for the CBS ‘All News’ radio station WINZ in Miami.” All while attending college.

“I was very determined. I worked weekends at the radio station as a reporter and an anchor and I worked the weekdays as an intern at the local CBS television affiliate on sort of a local ’60 Minutes’-type show called ‘Montage.’ I really started to figure out what part of the business interested me and started to explore all different areas. I worked in the promotions department, the news department, and produced documentaries,” she said.

Fine-tune your interests.

After trying different positions, Ostroff made the critical decision that news didn’t fit the way she wanted to live her life: “At 18, I had seen more tragedy, death and despair that most people see in a lifetime. I decided that there might be a happier way for me to earn a living.”

A college graduate at 19, Ostroff began her career from the bottom up all over again.

“I had an opportunity to move to Los Angeles and go into the entertainment side of the industry, and I just took the chance when it came up and moved to L.A. by myself when I was 21,” she said.

In Los Angeles, she worked as a casting assistant, a secretary floating for different departments at 20th Century Fox and then figured out the area that really interested her: development.

Develop your skills

From there, she got development jobs and worked her way up.

She was at 20th Century Fox as an assistant for several years before securing her first opportunity as an executive for a small independent company called Kushner Locke, where she produced different “Movies of the Week” and television programs for HBO.

“As I started to develop my skills,” Ostroff said, “the company was developing at the same time.”

Take intermediate steps

Following her seven-year stint at Kushner Locke, Ostroff was offered a job at Disney to be a producer with writer Michael Jacobs. Together, they produced sitcoms for several networks and worked on shows like “Dinosaurs” and “Boy Meets World.” She stayed with Jacobs for five years.

“We enjoyed a good amount of success. ‘Boy Meets World’ is still on the air all the time now,” she said.

Ostroff’s career took off at high speed from there. She was offered a position at 20th Century Fox, where she served as president of development.

“A couple of shows really seemed to strike a chord, so that was really great. In fact,” she said. “One of the shows I developed was ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer.'”

Work well with others.

By “developed,” Ostroff means that producers and writers bring her an idea and, as an executive of the studio, she develops it with them, helps them sell it and “sits on the sidelines as a guidance counselor/champion of the project.”

“In no way do you create it” she said. “You are just there to support the creative entities and make sure all the pieces fall into place so the show can be successful.”

She is involved in casting, script notes, selecting the director and the other important pieces of the puzzle. It is then pitched to the network.

Keep up the stride.

Following her executive position at 20th Century Fox, Ostroff was offered a position at Lifetime and, under her stewardship, it rose from the sixth highest-rated network in cable television to the No. 1 in prime time.

“A lot of people didn’t believe that a network geared toward women could ever become the No. 1 cable network,” she said, but attributed its success to good projects, network talent, and a supportive board.

This was the last rung on a long ladder to success before landing at UPN.

Always evaluate where you are at.

Would she change any step she’s taken during the course of her career?

“I think there were different times when I would have changed things, but in hindsight the experiences that I had helped make me a better-rounded executive, and that’s the thing that I’m most appreciative of.”

“I do believe that everything happens for a reason,” she added. “One of the things that I am really grateful for is the many experiences I’ve had behind the camera, in front of the camera, as a producer, as an executive, that I feel that I can identify with everyone throughout the process and I understand what everybody’s going through. I understand what their issues are and I think that makes me a better executive because I am able to really able to put myself in everyone else’s shoes and know what they have to do to get the best project.”

Remember, you can have it all.

And after the weekend, she is just as motivated to once again rise at 4 a.m. to meet the challenges of her job. According to the tireless Ostroff, she has a great passion for her work.

“It’s never a chore,” she said. “Never. I can’t really say that there’s too many days when I wake up and say, ‘Ugh, I’ve got to go to work,’ like I felt about school. I’m excited every day and I’ve been doing it forever.”

Rabbis’ Tact Puts Sex Victims First


David Schwartz, who pleaded no contest last year to charges associated with child molestation at an Orthodox summer camp, has been released from a yearlong stay at a residential treatment facility and is now living in the Pico-Robertson area. Rabbinic and mental health professionals are taking steps to help the victims and their families, as well as the community at large, feel safe and protected from a man who allegedly sexually brutalized and psychologically tormented 4-year-old boys at a Culver City camp for the arts in summer 2002.

Despite his plea, outside of courtroom proceedings Schwartz has maintained his innocence. His wife Nitzah, a preschool teacher at Yeshivat Yavneh in Hancock Park (where Schwartz himself used to teach), has stood by him throughout, saying to rabbis and others that there is no way the father of her children could have committed the lewd acts attributed to him.

While some rabbis who know the family have quietly supported Schwartz and his family, many prominent rabbis and community leaders have been strident and outspoken in their support for the victims — an indication that the Orthodox community has overcome its historic hush-hush approach to abuse. Taking its lead from Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, a group of rabbis has attended hearings, counseled the victims and inserted itself into the case.

Several high-profile cases in recent years — both locally and nationally — have helped foster a newfound willingness among rabbis to work with mental health professionals not only to handle crises, but to take proactive measures as well.

"The families see us there and the community knows we’re there, and I think that it’s an important factor for them to know we are not just going to sweep this under the rug," said Rabbi Berish Goldenberg, chair of the Rabbinical Council of California’s (RCC) Family Commission and a member of Aleinu’s Halachic Advisory Board — groups that often collaborate and have overlapping membership.

In a plea bargain reached in January 2003, Schwartz pleaded no contest to one count of committing lewd acts with a minor under 14. Eight other charges were dismissed, and Schwartz received a six-year suspended prison sentence and one year in a treatment facility, and is now on probation for an additional four years. He must undergo another year of therapy, cannot work as a teacher or with children and must register as a sex offender for life.

Upon Schwartz’s release in late January this year, Superior Court Judge Katherine Mader at the Airport Courthouse ordered Schwartz to stay out of an area roughly encompassing the Pico-Robertson and south Westwood neighborhoods. Schwartz, his wife and their three young children reportedly live just east of Robertson Boulevard, one of the boundaries, but have been ordered by the court to move east of La Cienega Boulevard. In addition, Schwartz must stay 100 yards away from a list of synagogues and schools where some of his victims may attend.

In a letter filed with the court March 2, RCC’s Goldenberg and Rabbi Avrohom Union recommended the judge also prohibit Schwartz from attending any synagogue where children are present and only allow him to attend synagogues populated mostly by senior citizens. They also asked that Schwartz be ordered stay away from all schools and be prohibited from using the mikvah (ritual bath). Mader rejected those recommendations.

"The court has commented that the victims need to step back and let the man lead his life," said Vicki Podberesky, Schwartz’s attorney. "The court put on restrictions it feels are appropriate and the DA thought those restrictions were appropriate."

Podberesky said that while she can’t comment on the Schwartz case, in general the criminal justice system is imperfect and innocent people do get convicted. "Sex offense can carry a life sentence and people make decisions many times about how to handle their case based on the fact that they want to ensure that they will see their family again," she said.

The rabbis say their job is not to retry the case, but to accept Schwartz’s plea and treat him as a sex offender. The RCC, together with the Halachic Advisory Board, oversees a beit din (rabbinic court) to deal with such issues. Schwartz has been invited to sit down with the beit din.

Goldenberg, who is also principal of Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Toras Emes, said that the beit din’s aim is not to penalize Schwartz, but to protect the community and to work with Schwartz to help rehabilitate him — perhaps help him find a job and a synagogue.

"In one sense we want to be harsh and tough and make him understand that he is going to be monitored," Goldenberg said. "On the other hand we are here to help and we are willing to come to an agreement. If we can tell the victims’ families that he is going to follow what he is supposed to do and be where he is supposed to be, we can help make things better for him and his family."

The most likely scenario, many acknowledge, is that Schwartz will leave town, which he can do with proper permission from the court. Jewish sex offenders have been known to resettle in Israel or other Jewish communities.

Such was the case with Rabbi Mordechai Yomtov, who divorced his wife and left Los Angeles soon after he was released from prison about a year ago. In February 2002, Yomtov pleaded guilty to two counts of committing continuous sexual abuse on a minor and one count of lewd act on a minor at Chabad’s Cheder Menachem. He was in prison for a year and his whereabouts are currently unknown.

While both Schwartz and his victims would likely be happier with him out of Los Angeles, the beit din acknowledges its responsibility to keep tabs on him. "There is no question that theoretically the ideal situation would be for him to leave town, assuming he could be monitored," said Rabbi Shalom Tendler, a member of the Halachic Advisory Board. "It would be entirely wrong and irresponsible for us to just push our problem on somebody else."

The Halachic Advisory Board has taken a strong stand on issues of abuse. Aside from working directly with Aleinu Director Debbie Fox to respond to crisis situations, the board helped draft and implement guidelines for schools and camps to prevent, recognize and deal with situations of abuse.

Those guidelines have set a national standard in the Orthodox community, and have since been modified and adopted by schools throughout the country.

"That is the beauty of our community — the rabbonim and JFS and Aleinu work together on crises and we provide advocacy and support from a spiritual as well as a mental health model," Fox said.

The victims’ families will need that support, now that Schwartz is back in the neighborhood. One mother of a victim said her son had been doing better but is now having nightmares and acting out again.

She plans to take him to the Culver City Police Department, where detectives have been helpful all along, so they can explain to him how Schwartz is free but the child will still be safe.

"He’s always been so worried about other kids getting hurt, so the police made him a special junior detective," the mother said. "Now they’ll give him one more badge and promote him."

For more information on Jewish Family Service’s Aleinu Family Resource Center, call (323) 761-8816.

Married to It


Kim and Rob Cavallo had worked out a lot of the tough issues
that confront an interfaith family. But when she asked him to get rid of the
Christmas tree because it would confuse their two children, Rob, who was raised
in an Italian-Scottish Catholic home, pushed back. And he used a strategy he
knew would work.

“We went to the rabbi, and I said I would agree to do
anything the rabbi says,” Rob explained. “And I knew the rabbi would say I
could have the tree. I knew he would take the position that if I couldn’t be
who I truly am, that would destroy the marriage and the family.”

Rob was right.

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, the
Conservative rabbi who had counseled the family in the past and built up a trusting
relationship with them, told the Cavallos to keep the Christmas tree.

“Here I am sitting down with this family, trying to help
them initiate a new Jewish relationship for their family, and you can’t demand
this kind of give-it-all-to-me-now approach, because it’s just not fair,” Vogel
said. “If somebody like Rob is willing to build a Jewish home, you have to give
that time to evolve. So for that family, at that time — and that is a very
important distinction — in the evolution of their journey, I felt it was the
right place to begin.” 

Now the family actively celebrates Chanukah — they also
sleep in their sukkah and celebrate Shabbat every Friday night — and they share
Christmas with daddy.

Kim and Rob have come a long way since Kim showed up at Temple
Aliyah looking for a preschool six years ago and ended up in Vogel’s office,
moved to tears by a Judaism she was ready to reconnect with. With Vogel’s help,
Kim and Rob made compromises, with Rob agreeing to send the children to day
school, sometimes joining her at synagogue and even getting into the
philanthropic work that Kim took on at The Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance
and Heschel West Day School.

“Rabbi Vogel was really supportive of us as a couple, not
just of me as the Jewish partner, and that was key in making it so my husband
felt super comfortable, not feeling like every time he turned around we were
taking something away from him,” Kim said. “We’ve been able to take baby steps
and incorporate Judaism into our lives, not have it take over and make it so
Rob doesn’t know where he stands and doesn’t feel comfortable in his own home.”

Not that it hasn’t been difficult.

“Marriage is a series of compromises, but I guess religion
seems so pure, and when you have to dissect it all the time, it loses a
little,” Kim said.

Last year Temple Aliyah honored Kim and Rob — who is a Grammy-winning
producer of such entertainers as Green Day, Goo Goo Dolls, Fleetwood Mac and
Phil Collins — for their service to the wider Jewish community.

The fact that an intermarried couple was honored at a
Conservative shul is an indication of a newly surfacing willingness among a
growing number of rabbis — even traditional rabbis — to integrate intermarried
couples into Jewish life.

“Rather than tolerating them, we need to openly embrace
them,” Vogel said. “If we really want to help them create caring, committed
Jewish homes, then we have to actively welcome them.”

Roughly half of all American Jews who marry choose non-Jews,
a number that held relatively steady in both the 1990 and the 2001 National
Jewish Population Surveys. The vast majority of those families — two-thirds,
according to some numbers, a lot more according to others — will write Judaism
out of their lives. The children of intermarriages have only a 25 percent
chance of marrying another Jew.

“If nothing is done, you are dealing with the hemorrhaging
of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Harold Schulweis, who has initiated an
aggressive new outreach program at the Conservative Valley Beth Shalom.

However, others fear the open embrace will send a message
that intermarriage is fine and that long-held Jewish norms will be left in
tatters.

“We have a responsibility to educate and inspire [interfaith
couples] to try to raise a Jewish family,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive
vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “If you ignore them
or alienate them, you lose the real potential to impact their lives.

“At the same time,” he said, “I think one has to be careful
not to ignore the fact that the goal is to raise in-marriage, so policy has to
be designed along the lines of not creating the false impression that there is
no difference as to whether you in-marry or intermarry, because it could all be
fixed up anyway.”

Even within the Orthodox community, there are subtle shifts
in attitude.

While intermarriage is still condemned in no uncertain terms
— most Orthodox rabbis advise their congregants not to attend the mixed
marriages of immediate family members — only a small minority of Orthodox Jews
still follow the age-old custom of sitting shiva over children who intermarry.

“In terms of the statement made through intermarriage, it is
not the same act of rebellion it once was because we live in such an open
culture,” said Rabbi Asher Brander of the Westwood Kehilla, “so all the
accessories that used to go with intermarriage — like sitting shiva — I really
haven’t heard of that being done today.”

There is a recognition today, more than in the past, that
Jews who intermarry — even the growing number of strongly affiliated Jews who
intermarry — still want to keep Judaism as an integral part of their lives, and
if the non-Jewish spouse is willing to go along, the community is more willing
to embrace him or her.

What the Jewish community is facing then is a fluctuating
definition of success in the universe of Jewish marriage. Is the goal to bolster
Jewish identity to lower the rate of intermarriage? Is it to increase the rate
of conversion? And if a spouse doesn’t convert but agrees to raise the children
Jewish, is that too a success?

Even those who hold up prevention as the answer — pointing
to the fact that the more Jewish education a person has had, the less likely he
or she is to intermarry — acknowledge that even hugely successful efforts to
encourage in-marriage will still leave hundreds of thousands of interfaith
families who need to be tended to or lost.

Most in the community strive to uphold the Jewish-Jewish
marriage as the ideal while reaching out to the intermarrieds, but others say
those goals can be mutually exclusive.

 “When you state affirmatively that intermarriage is not a
good thing and should be prevented, that has negative consequences for people
who are already intermarried or who are going to be intermarried,” said Edmund
Case, founder of Interfaithfamily.com, a Web site with 20,000 readers. “What
they are going to remember is that their relationship is not approved of and
then they won’t want to get involved.”

While to some this smacks of giving up on in-marriage
altogether, demographer Gary Tobin thinks that a radical change in attitude is
what can turn the intermarriage numbers around, bringing in converts to cushion
the deficit from those who leave the fold.

“The Jewish community has an enormous opportunity to grow
itself if it quit being so insular and paranoid,” Tobin said. “There are a lot
of people interested in being part of the Jewish people, and it is our fear and
obstructionism that makes intermarriage a self-fulfilling prophecy of disaster.

“If you don’t do anything to help those families be Jewish,
then you shouldn’t be surprised when a lot of them end up not being Jewish,”
said Tobin, who spoke at Valley Beth Shalom on Dec. 3.

When it comes to creative and proactive outreach to
intermarrieds, Los Angeles is far ahead of the rest of the nation, Tobin said.
Reform synagogues in Southern California consistently win a disproportionate
share of the movement’s annual awards for outreach.

At Valley Beth Shalom, Schulweis has made outreach a
priority, focusing a Rosh Hashana sermon on it and hosting a lecture series on
the topic through the fall. He established a mentoring program, in which
members are paired with those who are unaffiliated.

An intermarriage discussion group at Shomrei Torah in West
Hills met for six weeks this fall and will be followed by a more intense
program. The group at Shomrei Torah was led by Ken Elfand, who was trained as a
lay consultant through the Keruv program of the Federation of Jewish Men’s
Clubs (FJMC), a group on the cutting edge of pushing the Conservative movement
toward involving intermarrieds in Jewish life.

The program, which also publishes material and holds
conferences, initially met with resistance both at the top levels of the
Conservative movement in New York and among some lay leaders.

“Some institutions are afraid that by reaching out to
intermarrieds, we are conveying the message that we are accepting of
intermarriage,” said Rabbi Charles Simon, executive director of FJMC. But
grass-roots support from synagogue lay leaders and rabbis in the field has made
the program a success.

“We find that couples and members’ children who have
intermarried are for the first time feeling comfortable going to synagogue,
because they realize they are not going to be turned away,” Simon said.

The Reform movement’s “Taste of Judaism” three-session
icebreaker has reached hundreds of thousands across the country, as have its
programs aimed at preschool and Hebrew school parents.

The success rate of such programs is impressive. A survey
conducted by the Jewish Outreach Institute, a group in New York, found that
synagogue affiliation, ritual observance and cultural participation all jumped
considerably for intermarried families who had taken part in programs as
diverse as intense introduction to Judaism classes or one-time events.

There is a growing bank of anecdotal evidence that suggests
that more people convert after marriage, usually attached to a life-cycle
event, according to Tobin.

Schulweis, along with Tobin and a handful of other leaders,
encourage both rabbis and family members to invite potential Jews into the
faith. Jews-by- choice, Schulweis said, are often more committed than the born
Jews they marry, a fact that should help the Jewish community get past its
ingrained prejudice against converts and the misconception that converts “water
down” Judaism.

However, some non-Jews bristle at the idea of being asked to
convert.

“Just the idea that someone would want you to convert is so
upsetting,” said Judy Arad (not her real name), who has sent kids to day school
and kept a kosher home for 20 years, despite never having converted.

“It’s such a personal decision — it doesn’t get any more
personal than that,” she continued. “I don’t think anyone should ever convert
because they are getting married. If you convert, it should be because you are
really embracing Judaism.”

Schulweis said it is all in the approach, in not offering an
ultimatum but an opportunity.

“I am asking for them to feel the ambiance of Jewish wisdom,
and I am convinced they can be persuaded to eventually become Jews-by-choice,”
Schulweis said. “It must be a process as opposed to ‘do it now for marriage or
it’s all off,'” he said.

That was the case of Charity Brockman. Raised in a strict
Christian home, where her father preached his own brand of Christianity,
Charity felt no affinity toward her faith. When she and her husband, Adam, were
married by a Reform rabbi, she had no desire to convert but agreed to raise the
children Jewish.

The Brockmans celebrated the Jewish holidays with his family
at Valley Beth Shalom and had a Christmas tree at home.

“As time drew nearer for us to think about having kids, I
wanted to take a class or get some more knowledge about what does ‘raising my
children Jewish’ mean,” she said.

She enrolled in the University of Judaism’s introduction to
Judaism class, which has a high rate of conversion among its graduates.

“I think if they had been pressuring me, it would have
pushed me away from the idea, but they were so open and accepting, saying this
is what it is, this is our community and this is our lifestyle,” Brockman
continued. “The fact that I felt so enveloped in the community gave me a real
inside view of what it meant to be Jewish.”

Brockman converted last October and renewed her vows with
her husband. Their daughter, Rachel, was born a few weeks later.

To get to the point where an intermarried couple feels
comfortable being part of the community, rabbis are figuring out both halachic
technicalities and the choreography of including non-Jews in synagogue life.

Can a non-Jewish parent of a bar or bat mitzvah address the
child from the bima? Can the parent stand on the bima for an aliyah or even say
the blessings? And rabbis face a whole series of questions around brises, baby
namings and even funerals when a non-Jewish spouse dies.

In Reform synagogues, non-Jews are welcomed as members.
Official policy in the Conservative movement does not allow non-Jewish members,
although most shuls now offer a family membership to intermarrieds.

Rabbi Steven Jacobs of Kol Tikvah, who has been officiating
at interfaith weddings for 35 years, complains that too many of his Reform
colleagues are being pulled by Reform’s return to tradition and won’t officiate
at intermarriages, effectively closing the door on any relationship between the
couple and the rabbi.

Rabbis who won’t officiate at intermarriages are more
sensitive today than they were 20 years ago, working to soften the rejection of
“I can’t marry you” and to leave the door open for future affiliation.

That is an approach that may have sat better with Arad,
rather than the outright pressure to convert she received from family, friends
and the rabbi before she married.

 “I remember how horrible I felt after we spoke,” Arad said
of the Westside Conservative rabbi who she and her husband met with before they
married. “I remember the rabbi saying that our kids would be rejected from the
community, that we were going to have problems, that life would be difficult
and that we were doomed if I didn’t convert. It was all negative, with no
sensitivity or compassion.”

Today, compassion has entered into the framework of
intermarriage, even in Orthodox circles, where intermarriage retains nearly all
of its historic stigma. Still, outreach-oriented groups are more likely than in
the past to accept non-Jewish partners who want to learn about Judaism.

Blanket rules have given way to a more nuanced approach, in
which rabbis take into account each individual situation and then may decide,
for instance, that it is not appropriate to follow the standard dictum of
turning a potential convert away three times.

“In some cases, because of concern for the family, you do
what you can to unify the couple and unify the family, to get them to express
Judaism more and get them to a relationship that is more peaceful,” said Rabbi
Yaacov Deyo, who runs programs and meets individually with young couples
through Aish HaTorah. “We have our beliefs, and we have to love people, and we
need to do both.”

Tobin argues, though, that passive tolerance won’t do the
trick. What is needed, he said, is serious investment. And that, he noted, is
nowhere to be found across the spectrum of the Jewish community.

“If you look at the total budget being spent on helping
interfaith families become part of the Jewish community, it is as statistically
close to zero as it could possibly be,” Tobin said.

While the Conservative movement publishes some material, the
only program they have right now is through the FJMC. In its major budget
crisis a year ago, the Reform movement cut all its regional outreach directors,
though enough money was raised locally to keep the Pacific Southwest regional
director going for two more years.

“It is the biggest mistake the Jewish community makes, not
spending more time and effort and dollars on these folks,” he said.

Tobin is convinced, as is Schulweis, that bringing people in
does not have to mean lowering standards or watering down Judaism. In a
best-case scenario, the spouse converts and the community grows. In a
second-best case, the spouse doesn’t convert, but the family is Jewish.

For now, Kim and Rob Cavallo are happy to be in that second
camp.

“My own Italian Catholic heritage is too strong to allow me
to turn my back on it,” Rob said, “so we live in a mixed household, and it
actually works.”

With the children in day school and the home unmistakably
Jewish, Rob and Kim are both happy with the choices they’ve made.

“We wanted to give our kids something that Kim did have and
I didn’t, which was a religious moral background and a feeling of belonging to
a community,” Rob said, “which I think is great gift.”  

Sound of Silence


"So, maybe we should get to know each other."

My husband Glenn’s voice cracked like an adolescent as he broke the hour-long quiet inside the car. Glenn looked expectantly toward Jacek, a partner at a Warsaw-based software company and Glenn’s business contact.

When I had decided to tag along with my husband on his business trip to Poland, I had been surprised when his colleague volunteered to drive us during the three-day vacation portion of our trip.

Now Glenn’s suggestion lingered in the air, as did most of our attempts at chatting with our new acquaintance over the last few hours. I felt bad for my loquacious husband, who rarely struggled for conversation. Funny, I always thought I’d enjoyed silence. As an only child until my teen years, I often relished quiet moments to myself. This week, it felt like I had a few too many. As our time with Jacek progressed, I noticed a parallel between our host’s behavior and the history of his country.

A few days earlier, I had gone sightseeing in Warsaw. Unable to secure a tour from a local Jewish organization, I joined a regular bus and walking tour. I was baffled when the guide took us to the grounds of a historic palace and rattled on about government buildings for over an hour, but simply skimmed over the Jewish parts of the city. I was in total disbelief when we merely stopped by the Warsaw Ghetto. The other passengers agreed that since it was drizzling, we would view the Monument of the Ghetto Heroes through the cloudy bus windows rather than getting out to see it up close. Luckily, Jacek had taken us to the ghetto and the Nozyk Synagogue, Warsaw’s only shul that survived World War II, the night before. During the visit, I’d assumed that his silence was a sign of respect.

After six of the quietest hours of my life, we arrived at Auschwitz. Before we got out of the car, Jacek reminded us that we still had a few hours of driving to get to our final destination, a mountain resort called Zakopane. I felt pressured as we entered the concentration camp I’d heard about since my Hebrew school days. Every time Glenn and I exited one of the exhibits, Jacek was waiting for us, having finished moments before. While I did my best to take everything in — most memorably, a display containing a huge pile of human hair, a bin filled with confiscated children’s clothing, suitcases marked with handwritten family names and rows of mug shot-like pictures of the prisoners — I could swear that I felt Jacek’s mounting impatience. My unease continued as we headed for Birkenau, the larger camp.

The gravel crunched under our feet as we made our way up the railroad tracks leading to the entrance. The sheer size of the facility was startling. Even though birds chirped and the grass sparkled green, I had the same sick feeling I get when I visit a cemetery. I became conscious of my furrowed brow. Glenn was contemplating whether it was wrong to take pictures. I assumed Jacek was thinking that we needed to hit the road. But this time, I was wrong.

"My father was Jewish," Jacek revealed quietly as we walked along the same tracks where more than a million Jews were sent to die. "Some of his family was killed here."

This time I couldn’t speak. Why hadn’t Jacek mentioned his half-Jewishness earlier? We mentioned our religion at least of dozen times in (attempted) conversation. Was he ashamed of it? Disconnected from it? Or did he, like me, feel hollow visiting the site where family members were killed?

It suddenly occurred to me that the Holocaust was an attempted silencing of the Jews. While World War II was decades ago — and the camps were liberated — the quiet lingers. We’re so far away from it all in the United States. In Poland, the wounds are still raw and it isn’t something that the locals are comfortable talking about.

I wondered if we reminded Jacek of his Jewish roots and brought up issues he didn’t want to think about. Maybe he wanted to put history behind him. Or maybe we’re simply very annoying guests.

Whatever the reason, Jacek’s silence gave me the time to reflect and feel connected to my long-gone relatives in Poland. I hope our presence helped him feel more comfortable with his Jewish identity.

Failing Minds Fall Prey to Holocaust


"Why did you come? Go, go before it’s too late," Laja Szydlowski warned her daughter, Hanna. She then whispered, "They’re killing people here. You don’t understand."

This encounter did not take place in 1940, with Szydlowski holed up in a cramped apartment in the Lodz ghetto in Poland. This happened less than a year ago, in a cheerfully furnished room at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging (JHA). However, in Szydlowski’s mind, she was back in Lodz. This time the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than the Nazis, imprisoned her.

"What happens," explained Dr. Marla Martin, a clinical psychologist who has worked intensively at JHA for more than 10 years, "is that the sense of time is impacted by dementia, and the person again becomes the young man or woman struggling against all odds to survive."

Szydlowski, 93, has been reliving the Holocaust for the past six or seven years, according to her daughter, Hanna Golan. However, her Alzheimer’s disease has now progressed to where she can no longer verbally communicate. "She is constantly crying," Golan said.

Szydlowski is one of an estimated 11,000-12,000 Holocaust survivors living in Los Angeles County, whose average age is 81. With nearly half of all elderly people 85 or older affected to some degree by Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, the number of those Holocaust survivors, who are reliving in their minds the roundups, selections, starvation, brutality and the killing of family members, often in their presence, is significant.

Even without dementia, many survivors have nightmares, fear abandonment, act secretively and read anti-Semitism into innocent interactions. They react adversely to such seemingly normal activities as standing in lines or dealing with uniformed personnel. Some even avoid the oil well on the Beverly Hills High School campus, now painted with flowers, because it is a reminder of the smokestack at Auschwitz.

Helen Zisner, 82, who is in early stages of dementia and living at the Vista del Sol Care Center in Culver City, is not catapulted back into the Holocaust but reacts to certain stimuli.

"You can’t approach her from behind," her son, Benjamin, said. "She’ll ask, ‘Who are you here for?’ because she’s reminded of guards entering her concentration camp barracks."

But for survivors with more pronounced dementia, the Holocaust experience exacerbates the paranoia and suspiciousness, and, Martin said, "Those people are much more likely to experience flashbacks."

JHA, with a population of 800 residents, houses only 41 Holocaust survivors in its residential and skilled-nursing facilities, according to Laurie Manners, administrator of the Grancell Village campus. The number is small but, with over two-thirds of them suffering from some degree of dementia, the behaviors stand out.

"We have people who hoard food, who stockpile it in their rooms," Manners said. "And we have one resident who is convinced that noxious fumes are coming in through his air conditioning vent. ‘It’s poison gas. I’m suffocating,’ he tells us."

Holocaust survivors, who felt so deprived, often cannot adjust to living with a roommate, whom they may believe is plotting against them or stealing their possessions. Some are very distrustful.

Haya Berci, JHA’s executive director of nursing, said, "If something goes wrong, some survivors are afraid to say anything, for fear of retaliation."

They also have issues surrounding money, such as one resident who believed a rabbi had stolen her $50,000. Many want to sleep with their cash. These behaviors happen more readily in an institutional setting, where survivors feel less in control, according to Martin.

"They can react to showering or to undergoing a medical procedure," she said. "They think the hospital is performing experiments on them and their family has been murdered."

Also, she said, many lose the ability to speak and understand English and are frightened by people talking in what they perceive as a foreign language.

Most survivors, however, according to Paula Fern, director of Jewish Family Service’s (JFS) Pico-Robertson Storefront and the Holocaust Survivors Program, like most elderly, generally live in their own homes, alone or with paid caregivers or with relatives.

JFS works with about 650 survivors in their 60s and older, about 10 percent of whom suffer from some type of dementia. Caseworkers in four storefront facilities make home visits, assisting the survivors and their families. Additionally, JFS provides adult day care for Alzheimer’s clients in three locations, as well as respite time for families.

Still, JFS has seen its share of survivors with Alzheimer’s or dementia who, according to Fern, "are caught in the moment of the Holocaust and relive all that terror, anguish, anxiety and peril."

Fern tells of a past client, a physically fit man in his 70s, who, donning a suit, tie and hat, and putting his financial papers and money into a leather briefcase, disappeared. He stayed with various friends, a few days at a time, and only occasionally resurfaced.

"It took a long time to figure out he had been a courier in the Paris underground and was re-experiencing those days," Fern explained. Because he had no family, JFS arranged for a private conservator.

"This phenomenon is not a new revelation," Fern said. JFS has had survivor clients since 1945 and began a program specifically for aging clients in 1997.

Currently JFS has an extensive program for survivors and their families funded by the Conference for Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and the Morgan Aging With Dignity Fund, as well as private donations. Additional training on Alzheimer’s and other aging issues is provided by the Alzheimer’s Association and JFS staff.

"Training, training, training," stressed Berci of JHA, which provides training to new employees, along with ongoing education for all staff members, on Jewish culture and issues, including the Holocaust. Recently, JHA received a grant from Wells Fargo Bank to set up a comprehensive program specifically to assist Holocaust survivors, including those with dementia, and their families.

Interestingly, while the Holocaust population in general is decreasing, this subset is actually increasing as survivors, like the general population, are living longer, and thus are more likely to become demented.

"The cruel irony," geriatric psychiatrist Daniel Plotkin said, "is that dementia doesn’t protect these people. Their long-term memory remains intact."

Plotkin stressed the importance of a trusting relationship, whether it’s with the spouse or a hired caregiver.

For Szydlowski, that trusted person is her husband, Michael, 94, who also lives at JHA and comes to his wife’s room every day before she rises.

"He is afraid to have her wake up and have him not there, because that would be terrible for her," Golan explained. "He doesn’t sleep because he’s afraid of oversleeping."

He stays with her in the Alzheimer’s day room, taking time off only to eat and, at his daughter’s urging, to play bingo a couple times a week.

"I’m not sure she recognizes my father or me, but she feels safe with us," she said. "With everyone else, even nurses who have cared for her for years, she struggles."

For some, artistic pursuits help tame the Holocaust demons. Sam Gal, 81, entered JHA in 1998 and took up painting for the first time. He spent every day in the art room, creating a prolific portfolio of paintings, which gradually became lighter, in both content and appearance. About two years ago, as dementia set in, he was forced to stop.

Medication can sometimes help control the agitation and paranoia, though it can’t prevent flashbacks. People can also often be distracted, with a song or a walk. For those with severe dementia, just holding their hand or talking to them in their language of origin can comfort them.

"Our philosophy is to know each person," Manners said. "What were his hobbies? What did he do for a living? Often, we can calm someone by doing something familiar."

Some known triggers can be eliminated, even in institutional settings. In JHA, patients can be given baths rather than showers. The overhead paging system is rarely used. Bank statements have been simplified, to make them more understandable, and residents have a locking drawer in their room, to securely store their possessions.

Facilities can also be made as homelike as possible. JHA’s Goldenberg-Ziman Special Care Center, which opened a year ago on the Eisenberg campus with 96 beds for residents with dementia, offers lots of sunlight, with floor-to-ceiling windows, carpeted rooms and a soft décor. Some residents simply become less agitated as they become familiar with their surroundings and staff and relax into a routine.

"However," Fern said, "most children are extremely reluctant to place their survivor parents in facilities. It’s a tough sell even to get them into adult day care."

Miriam, who declined to give her last name and whose mother, 78, suffers from Alzheimer’s, arranges care for her parents in their own home. That is also their wish.

"They’ve gone through so much in life," she said. "I don’t want anything at the end of their lives to resemble the hardships they went through at the beginning."

Golan’s parents, on the other hand, independently made the decision to move into the JHA in 1995. She visits them several times a week, though she’s not certain her mother realizes she’s there.

"She’s fighting for her life," Golan said, explaining that her mother’s first husband was beaten to death in front of her, just before her 2-year-old daughter was taken away. She subsequently spent time in Auschwitz, Treblinka and Mauthausen.

"Once was enough," Golan said. "Once was too much."



Remembrance Rites to Mark Holocaust

Two Holocaust remembrance events will be held on April 29 and May 4 at the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument in Pan Pacific Park.

The April 29 observance, starting at 11 a.m., will bring together approximately 1,600 students from 25 public, Jewish and Catholic schools for a memorial program conducted by students and for readings by Holocaust survivors. Each participating school will receive four books for its library.

One of the books is "Abiding Hope, Bearing Witness to the Holocaust," by Benjamin A. Samuelson. The author, who uses a pen name, was forced to work as a member of the sonderkommando, which operated the crematoria. He later was wounded fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. The books are being donated by the Greta Savage Memorial Foundation.

The other three books are "Witness to the Truth," by survivor and philanthropist Nathan Shapell; "The Children of Willesden Lane," by Mona Golabek; and "In the Shadow of the Past, Lest We Forget," the stories of 12 survivors.

Both events are being underwritten by Jona Goldrich, chairman of the Los Angeles Holocaust Monument, and co-sponsored by the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and Second Generation.

The Holocaust Monument is located at the north end of Pan Pacific Park, between Beverly Boulevard and Third Street, adjacent to The Grove and Farmers Market.

The May 4 observance will be held at 1:45 p.m. Free transportation will be available from Westwood and the San Fernando Valley by preregistration. For information, phone (310) 280-5010 or (310) 821-9919. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Domestic Violence: A Jewish Issue, Too


During Jewish holidays and festivals, many of us recite the
familiar blessings for our loved ones. As a Jewish communal professional for 30
years and a synagogue member for 23 years, I wonder why congregations don’t devote the
same time and attention during religious services to discussions of Jewish
family issues as we give to prayers for the Jewish family. The former might
make the latter more meaningful.

One of these issues is domestic violence, in all its
virulent forms and varieties. Jews, despite their reputation as a peaceful and
family oriented ethno-religious group, are not immune from domestic violence.

Nevertheless, there is a prevalent myth that Jewish men don’t
beat or sexually abuse their wives and children. When there is a publicized
incident involving a Jewish family, Jews gasp in horror and disbelief. After
all, these things don’t happen in the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most notorious incident in recent memory was the
1988 story of Joel Steinberg and Hedda Nussbaum, an upper-middle class Jewish
couple in New York City. Steinberg was an attorney who systematically beat his
wife.

Both Steinberg and Nussbaum beat their 6-year-old adopted
daughter, Lisa, and it was Steinberg who struck the blow that killed her. When
this violence was discovered and during the subsequent trial, this family was
headline news in this country. How could a Jewish couple be so physically
violent? Yes, Jews commit acts of domestic violence, like our gentile
neighbors.

It is estimated that 2 million women in the United States
suffer as victims of spousal-partner abuse each year, and that between 3,000
and 4,000 battered women in this country die each year from physical abuse.
Equally tragic is that 2,500 abused children in the United States die each year
from abuse. Figures show that 95 percent of the perpetrators of domestic
violence are men.

The incidence of domestic violence in the Jewish community
approximates the incidence in the general community. Domestic violence is an
equal opportunity phenomenon. It transcends racial, religious, ethnic,
geographic, sexual orientation and socioeconomic boundaries. Children who are
victims of abuse often become abusive as adults, abusing their children and
spouses or partners.

In Jewish homes, there is an intensified shame and stigma
associated with family violence. When there is violence in the Jewish family,
both victims and perpetrators go through great pains to conceal it from their
friends, employers, clergy and other segments of their social and community
life. Jewish victims tend to go to family and friends for shelter and financial
help.

What can the Jewish community do?

Spokespeople in the Jewish community, such as rabbis,
educators and other Jewish communal professionals, should learn the following:

1. Signs and symptoms of victims, as well as perpetrators.

2. Mandatory reporting requirements, with respect to child
and elder abuse.

3. Local community resources, such as the community’s Jewish
Family Service. The staff there can provide many direct services and refer the
calling party to other important resources, such as domestic violence shelters,
law enforcement agencies, other social service agencies, legal assistance,
medical care and financial assistance.

4. Rabbis and other congregational leaders should talk about
domestic violence at religious services, in children’s classrooms and in
adult-education programs. Domestic violence issues should be on the curriculum
for all age groups, as prominent as Torah study. Identify religious and sacred
texts and traditions that are the foundations for the sanctity of life and
teach them to all congregational members.

While we are talking here primarily about physical abuse,
let’s remember that relationship abuse can also be economic, emotional, verbal
and sexual. All forms of abuse are seriously damaging to individuals and
families.

If you know someone who is being abused, be supportive and understanding.
Help the victim develop a safety plan and assist the victim in securing
assistance to ensure survival, safety and recovery.

If our religious traditions believe that human life is
sacred, then domestic violence is wrong in any form and under any
circumstances. We have a collective responsibility to educate ourselves about
the problem and to do everything possible to prevent domestic violence and
reach out and help victims and perpetrators alike. Â


Mel Roth is executive director of Jewish Family Service of Orange County.

Support Group Helps Second Generation


As the only child of two Holocaust survivors, Dr. Morry Waksberg was always under enormous pressure to succeed — to carry out the dreams that his parents never had the opportunity to realize.

"It made it hard to be a kid," Waksberg said. "How could I complain about some little adolescent thing when they had lost their families and been through so much?"

But when his childhood friend, also the son of survivors, hung himself at 14, Waksberg began to realize that he wasn’t the only one living a conflicted childhood. Other children of survivors shared a similar experience.

Some 41 years later, Waksberg has not forgotten his childhood friend, nor has he forgotten his past. He serves as vice president of Second Generation Los Angeles, an organization that aims to address the unique and often overlooked issues faced by the adult children of Holocaust survivors.

The organization, sponsored by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which was stagnant for a little over a year, has recently been reestablished under the leadership of Waksberg and founder and current president Klara Firestone, daughter of Renee Firestone, one of five Hungarian survivors who appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, "The Last Days."

Second Generation Los Angeles is one of hundreds of organizations that supports children of survivors, but the only one of its kind in Los Angeles.

"Now that many children of survivors are 40 and 50 years old, the effects of their past are more manifest, and they’re now caring for their parents in many cases and not being cared for themselves," Waksberg told The Journal.

"They often aren’t married and don’t have relationships where they have a support system, and there isn’t even much sympathy for them, because they didn’t go through [the Holocaust]," said Waksberg, who himself never married. "I really wanted to help a group that I felt so close to."

Waksberg believes that children of survivors usually follow one of two paths in life: "Either they become very empathetic and go into the ‘helping fields,’ or they put up a wall and become very unfeeling to anyone’s pain, because they stopped themselves from feeling at an early age."

He chose the first option. Today he sits behind a desk stacked with medical charts in his ophthalmology office in Beverly Hills. He decided to become a doctor because of his childhood experience.

"Children of survivors were born into an environment where our parents were depressed and had gone through so much trauma and emotional upheaval," Waksberg said.

Waksberg was born in 1947 in a displaced persons camp in Stuttgart, Germany. His mother survived Auschwitz, and his father survived Dachau.

As a child, he said, his mother used to hold back tears as she lit the Shabbat candles, and his father often got lost in his own thoughts, becoming visibly angry. Waksberg only discovered when he was older that his father’s first wife and three sons were murdered in the Holocaust.

Waksberg said he was shocked when he found out, "but in my case and the case of most children of survivors, you couldn’t really be angry, because your parents were such victims of this horrible treatment, that you felt guilty being angry at them — and at the same time you had issues that created frustration or anger or disappointment."

"So you were always in a cognitive dissonance, struggling between the emotional reaction to what happened that you didn’t like and your empathy and love for your parents," Waksberg said. "You couldn’t even own your own emotions. So you learned to suppress emotions and kind of make the best of things and keep moving forward. It’s not a very healthy way to grow up."

Children of survivors often don’t seek help for the issues that they face as adults, and as a result, there is very little scientific study on the subject. Of the little information that does exist, much of the research comes from Rachel Yehuda, founder and director of the Specialized Treatment Program for Holocaust Survivors and Their Families at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City.

"Adult children seem to have a greater prevalence of mood and anxiety disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder," Yehuda reported in a study.

With a recent grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Yehuda hopes to study the physical and emotional health of the second generation.

"Our goal is to study why some children feel relatively unscarred, while other offspring complain about depression and anxiety and often experience post-traumatic stress disorder," she said.

However, Yehuda has encountered great difficulty finding people to participate in the research. "There is this pervasive feeling in society that research is exploitative, but it is the only chance we have in being able to help people in the short and long run," she said.

Waksberg said Second Generation provides a much-needed service, judging from the volume of e-mails, faxes and phone calls he receives from children of survivors, who are looking for help. Currently the organization has approximately 200 members and nearly 1,000 names on its mailing list.

"Every day, I meet people who either have friends who are children of survivors or are themselves, and didn’t know that there was someplace to go," Waksberg said. He does not believe that traditional psychologists and social workers understand the dynamics of second generation.

Second Generation Los Angeles gives the children of survivors a place to go, he added. "Our goals are to make the lives of children of survivors better and to make sure that the message of the Holocaust has communicators."

In an effort to further both causes, Second Generation offers a wide range of activities, including Project Remembrance, an oral video testimony project documenting family histories; an ongoing psycho-social support group and dialogue with the German community; an annual citywide Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) event, and an educational outreach program for primary and secondary schools affiliated with the Martyrs’ Memorial Museum of the Holocaust.

Past speakers have included Leopold Page, the man who brought the story of Oscar Schindler to Spielberg, and Douglas Greenberg, chairman and CEO of the Shoah Foundation.

Perhaps most beneficial is the social outlet that the organization offers the children of survivors. "A lot of people don’t want to face the pain and they want to have fun," Waksberg said. "We do our missions and have fun and develop relationships — there’s a sense of family. A lot of survivors don’t have much family. We’re very much there for each other, and we offer activities people look forward to."

Do Jewish Schools Make Good Neighbors?


Every Jewish school should have a neighbor like Scott Meller of Feldmar Watch & Clock Center.

The Pico-Robertson business, which has been around for over 40 years, is located directly across from the Chabad educational institutions on Pico Boulevard (Bais Chana School for Girls, Bais Rebbe Junior High and Bais Chaya Muska Elementary School). "They’re great," said Meller, whose family owns Feldmar. "It’s nice because the whole area is affected by the fact that the schools are there. It brings people to the neighborhood so the property value increases. They’re good as neighbors."

Meller doesn’t bat an eye when discussing the big hole in the ground across the street — otherwise known as the future Bais Sonya Gutte campus — where an additional school building is under construction. When it’s completed, it will house the high school, junior high and elementary students, as well as the children at the Gan Israel/Garden Preschool, whose facility is down the street. Traffic is a concern, Meller conceded, but on the whole he wasn’t bothered.

"We’ve always had a nice relationship with the neighborhood," said Rabbi Danny Yiftach, the school’s administrator. When local residents expressed worries about traffic and parking, they decided to build two subterranean floors in the new building for extra parking, Yiftach said.

Local schools are anything but a deterrent for those interested in the community, said Meredith Michen of Landmark Realtors, which services the Pico-Robertson area. "Most of the people who move to that area think it’s a good thing to have the schools there," said Michen, adding that Pico-Robertson real estate prices are affected by demand, not by the schools in the area.

But not all Jewish schools are as fortunate. For Jewish parents, who often seek out a particular neighborhood just to be closer to a day school to send their children, sometimes there is such a thing as too close. Issues such as construction, noise, traffic, parking and environmental concerns cause residents to wonder: do Jewish schools make good neighbors?

Currently, the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School West campus sits on a rented hillside property in Agoura Hills. In a plan to expand the school, Heschel West purchased 70 acres off of Chesboro Road in Agoura Hills five years ago. Throughout the permit process, the school board received concern from local residents who live in an area known for its open space and semirural environment.

Jess Thomas, president of the Old Agoura Hills Homeowners Association, is opposed to the project, because he said that the scope of the project has increased over time. "They said they were going to build a smaller school in the back of the canyon and away from the homes and the number of students they were talking about didn’t seem like a problem," he said. Because of the large number of additional students, Thomas feels that the amount of traffic will overwhelm the streets’ capacity in the surrounding area.

"We’ve put a fair amount of time into addressing the neighbors’ concerns," said Brian Greenberg, Heschel West’s school board chairman. Greenberg plans to stagger school hours so as not to overlap with traffic from other local schools. In addition, Heschel West has changed their proposed placement of the new school’s entryway three times to accommodate the neighbors’ preferences.

Over in West Hills, the New Community Jewish High School opened its doors this September inside the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Center. Head of School Dr. Bruce Powell, who was responsible for opening both Yeshiva University Los Angeles High School and Milken Community High School, said that local residents were supportive.

Powell, who owns a consulting company, Jewish School Management, which helps open Jewish schools around the country, is only too familiar with neighborhood complaints. "Neighbors see the word ‘school’ and think the [students] are going to be rowdy like any other high school kids," said Powell, who has broken up only two fights in his 23 years in the field. "First of all, [these students are] at a Jewish school. They care about education. We’ve got ninth-graders here taking 10 classes. They’re serious, college-bound kids." Powell feels the school has a responsibility to educate the neighborhood as such.

Before Yavneh Hebrew Academy moved into their Hancock Park neighborhood four years ago, finding a home in the former Whittier Law School building on Third Street, locals filed lawsuits with worries of noise and traffic — but that was then. "Our neighbors have thanked us," said Headmaster Rabbi Moshe Dear, who attributes the positive relationship to mutual cooperation. Making accommodations like quiet hours and rules for carpooling to ease traffic problems has earned Yavneh respect.

While there are some people who feel that living near a school is a drawback to community living, others find a sense of security in education. Ira Sherak, 32, said that when he decides to purchase a house in Los Angeles someday, he does not want to live within a one-block radius of a public high school. When it comes to Jewish institutions, the Brentwood renter is less wary. "A Jewish school is a private school, so you know it’s not that bad," said the New Jersey native. "[The students] are not generally hanging out and looking for trouble."

Above all, local Jewish educators seem to agree that developing good neighbor relationships means practicing what one preaches. "As a Jewish school we want to teach good values and mitzvot," Dear said. "And part of that means we should be good neighbors."

Heschel West’s administrators expressed similar sentiments. "Our philosophy is commitment to Jewish learning and internalizing Judaic values. Part of our community outreach is to go out in the community and befriend them," said principal Jan Saltsman. Greenberg agreeed. "My sense is that since we’re a religious school, we’re going to be more sensitive to being good neighbors."

Shades of ‘Grey’


Before Tim Blake Nelson wrote and directed his controversial Holocaust drama, "The Grey Zone," he set out to create a play about his family’s escape from Nazi Germany just before Kristallnacht.

"But it just felt like the same old survivor’s tale," the erudite director said during an interview at the Mondrian Hotel. "And with all the extraordinary work that’s been done on the Holocaust, I felt I’d better not go there, unless I could say something new."

He found it upon reading Primo Levi’s essay, "The Grey Zone," about the Sonderkommandos — Jews who ushered prisoners into the changing rooms, hosed blood and feces from the gas chambers and shuttled corpses into the ovens. Aiding the death machine bought them extra months of life with unheard of privileges, including permission to scavenge the food and belongings of the dead.

Nelson — who likes to describe himself as "a Jew from Tulsa" — said he grew up attending synagogue and Hebrew school, but had never heard of the Sonderkommandos. "I couldn’t have contrived a more extreme moral dilemma," he said. "As an able-bodied Jewish man in my 30s, I realized I could have been faced with their impossible choice, had I been swept into a cattle car in 1944."

Nelson, who attended Brown University and Juilliard, went on to write and direct an Obie-winning 1996 play, and a brutally realistic new film that follows Birkenau Sonderkommandos as they plot a rebellion and discover a girl still alive in the gas chamber. Loosely based on real events, the edgy drama — starring Harvey Keitel and David Arquette (see sidebar) depicts the squad’s grisly work in meticulous detail, including the repainting of soiled gas chamber walls and the handling of bodies with specially designed pokers.

Without the sentimentality of Holocaust films such as "Life Is Beautiful" or "Schindler’s List," Variety reports that the movie "may well evoke the mechanized horror … of the Nazi death camps more vividly than any fictional film to date."

Nelson explained that his goal was "to break many of the conventions of the Holocaust film. The Jews in this movie don’t pray or cower. They are crass and profane. They treat bodies like bolts of fabric. They seem to be working in a factory, which is what they had to do to survive."

Nelson, the son and grandson of survivors, said ethical concerns were paramount in his childhood home. His mother, Ruth, who heads Tulsa’s housing authority, served as president of charities such as Planned Parenthood.

"My grandfather often told me that I shouldn’t be alive, and my mother, in particular, spent her life ‘earning’ her right to be alive by improving conditions for others," the director said.

Nelson also hoped to make a difference by acting in weighty films, but was relegated to comic roles because of his appearance (he is 5 feet 6 inches tall and, in his words, "odd looking.") Although he turned heads with hilarious roles such as Delmar, a dimwit hillbilly in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" he began writing and directing his own work (including the 1997 parable, "Eye of God") to tackle serious issues.

To research "The Grey Zone," he read at least 7,000 pages of material, including Sonderkommando diaries found buried at Birkenau and the memoir of Dr. Miklos Nyiszli, a Jewish pathologist who was at Aushewitz, portrayed in the film by Keitel. On location in the village of Giten, Bulgaria, Nelson supervised construction of an almost life-sized crematorium based on Nazi blueprints.

The hyper-realistic set fueled the performances: "It was enough to literally make you sick," said Oscar-winner Mira Sorvino, who plays a member of the camp underground. "It was so oppressive, that it was the only time in my life I felt I did almost no acting."

Like many of the other actors, Sorvino — who ate 600 calories a day for weeks to appear emaciated — agreed to minimal pay because of her personal connection to the material. "I’ve been obsessed with the Holocaust from the time I was 10, and I read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank,’ and our German housekeeper told me to stop crying because it was all a lie," she said. "After that I had nightmares about being hunted by Nazis, which recurred after making the film."

Despite the best efforts of the cast and crew, the movie has already received criticism. Nelson said several viewers have objected to his depiction of Holocaust victims as less than angelic.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Museum of Tolerance said he declined to screen the film, because its graphic sequences would "upset our survivor constituency."

Perhaps the staunchest critic of all — at least initially — was Dario Gabbai of Los Angeles, who worked at Birkenau’s crematorium as the camp was "processing" 24,000 corpses in 24 hours. After his first viewing of the film, he complained about details such as the lavish feasting of the Sonderkommandos, which was not his experience.

But Gabbai — who changed his mind after spending hours with Nelson — cried during the premiere last month at a benefit for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. "Since seeing the movie, I am dreaming again about the flames and the bodies," he said. "But it is a story that needs to be told."

Ask Wendy


Absent Father Wants to See
Daughters

Dear Wendy,

My father left my mother when my sister was 8 and I was 5. His visits became increasingly infrequent until, about 20 years ago, we stopped hearing from him altogether. Recently he got in touch with my sister, told her he was dying of cancer and asked her to come visit. Where my sister sees closure, I see the opening of something I sealed off years ago. But she is afraid to go alone and wants me to go with her. She needs the moral support, and I don’t want to let her down.

Knotted Up Over Family Ties

Dear Knotted,

Your sister, if she decides to go, is embarking on a journey, not a simple day-trip. She may view this reunion with your father as a necessary excursion, but it sounds like you view it as heading off on something of a safari. Unarmed. I agree that your sister should not make her trek alone. But there must be plenty of other travelers — with nothing at stake — who would be happy to go along for the ride. A word of caution: Resolving one’s feelings is very different from “sealing them off.” Make sure you know the difference before you decide against seeing your father. This may be your last chance.

Gram’s Caretaker Thinks Judaism Is
Evil

Dear Wendy,

My ailing grandmother lives in a Jewish nursing home in Florida. She has a sweet and devoted caretaker who attends to her needs six days a week. I am very thankful that we have found her. There is one small problem: The caretaker is a devout Christian. She has informed me, on more than one occasion, that she prays every day that Jesus will open our hearts. The last time we spoke, she informed me that Judaism is an evil religion. I worry that she will take advantage of my grandmother’s confused state to convert her to Christianity. My mother and my aunt — my grandmother’s daughters — are amused by my account. But I am angry and very bothered. Any advice?

Worried About Grandma

Dear Worried,

If your grandmother is anything like mine was, it is more likely she will convert her caretaker to Judaism before she welcomes Jesus into her heart — no matter how vulnerable or confused she may be. Your grandmother’s caretaker may be the wrong religion for your taste, but I’d rather have a devout individual who feels she is doing God’s work than a hired hand who cares only about making a living. Or worse, someone whose caring and kindness you question as soon as you leave the room. My grandmother had a driver in her later years when her eyesight had failed. He would drink and make anti-Semitic remarks; when he was sober there was no sign of his prejudice.

Caring for the elderly is not a job many people seek. If you are not prepared to care for your grandmother yourself, be grateful that she has a companion who is above reproach in every way that matters. If it makes you feel better, I suggest you specify that when reading aloud to your grandmother, she select portions found in the Torah and not the Christian Bible.

Mixed Relationship Has Woman
Confused

Dear Wendy,

My mother is Jewish, my father is not. Growing up, I never knew what I was. I recently went on a Birthright Israel trip and felt deeply connected for the first time to my Jewish heritage. Here is my problem: I have been dating a non-Jewish man for over a year. If I ended the relationship I would regret it for the rest of my life. But I am constantly weighing my relationship with him against my feelings for the land of Israel and my desire to return there. I could not ask someone to convert to satisfy my needs. But if we have children, they would grow up as I did — confused, with nieces and nephews of other religions.

Struggling With Interfaith Issues

Dear Struggling,

There need be no such thing as a confused child. There are only ambivalent or ineffective parents who fail to transmit a clear identity to their progeny.

Yours is not the typical tale of crossed lovers. You cannot fault yourself for having discovered late in life what being a Jew means to you, nor for having fallen in love with a non-Jew before you did. Your dilemma is black and white but the solution is not. This is a matter of the heart. The worst thing you can do to yourself is to impose a deadline by which time you must choose either your religion or your man. The decision will come to you, and when it does, it will be clear. Your boyfriend will also have something to say about how this turns out. Just keep walking and see where you end up.

Jewish Groups Help Sept. 11 Victims


The stench in New York after Sept. 11 reminded Julia Millman of Europe.

"I have seen it. I know what it’s all about," said the 76-year-old survivor of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen.

In addition to losing her 40-year-old son, Ben, in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center — he was a construction worker on the 101st floor of Tower One — Millman said the death and devastation revived gut-wrenching memories of her family’s murder in the Holocaust. As a young girl, Millman was forced to tie a rope around her dead mother’s neck and drag her gassed body to a pile of other victims. Now those old feelings of motherlessness and abandonment have returned.

"If it wasn’t for my social worker that tried to console me, that tried to help me in my sorrow, I don’t know if I would be here today," Millman said.

Millman is one of thousands who have received assistance from Jewish social service agencies for traumas associated with Sept. 11. For the most part, they praise the aid they received.

The Jewish community launched a massive, coordinated effort to help both Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the attacks. The UJA-Federation of New York raised funds in New York, where two of the planes hit, and the United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella group of North American federations, raised funds throughout North America.

In areas affected by the attack, Jewish federations and their affiliated social service agencies also received government grants or private funding from foundations and/or individual donors. The funds have been used to provide support groups for victims and those re-traumatized by the incident, including Holocaust survivors or new immigrants. The funds also were used to provide cash assistance and job counseling and to help victims navigate the bureaucracy to obtain financial aid from government and private agencies.

The UJA-Federation of New York, one of 13 major charities comprising the 9/11 United Services Group, a resource for victims in New York City, has been at the center of the Jewish communal response. As of mid-August, the federation had raised $7.6 million in special funding for its agencies to expand services for Sept. 11 victims.

Of that sum, $2.1 million came from the UJC, which plans to add another $166,000 in the coming weeks, and $3.5 million came from The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund. The UJA-Federation raised the other $2 million.

On a smaller scale, the American Jewish World Service, an international development organization, distributed more than $650,000 to community-based organizations providing assistance to undocumented and low-income workers unable to obtain relief from mainstream sources. The organizations that received assistance included the Arab-American Family Support Center, Chinese Staff and Workers Association and American Pan-African Relief Agencies.

For its part, the UJC has raised $5.28 million, dispersing $3.9 million of it for immediate needs. It plans to disperse the rest by the end of the year for long-term services, such as tuition assistance and additional trauma counseling.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington — in the city where the third plane hit the Pentagon — received $100,500 from the UJC. The UJC also allocated funds to hard-hit New Jersey commuter areas like Monmouth County, which received $210,600, and Bergen County, which received $133,121.

Barry Swartz, vice president of UJC consulting, said the federation system did a "remarkable" job of quickly coordinating a response to the crisis. "We told federations right away, if families need money, they’re to disburse the funds, and we would reimburse" them, he said.

Several direct service providers said they were pleased with the response from the organized Jewish community. There wasn’t "one second that we felt that we were out there alone," said Jeff Lampl, executive director of Jewish Family Services of Bergen County. That was mainly due to the federation system and the local federation, "which immediately supplied us with a small amount of money to get going," he said.

The agency’s client pool "doubled almost overnight" after Sept. 11, Lampl said. "Almost to this day, taking care of these families has become the central concern of this agency," he added.

Many of those who received services praised the response. Robin Wiener, who lost her brother, Jeff, 33, in the attack on the World Trade Center, said the sibling support group she attended — sponsored by the Jewish Social Service Agency of Greater Washington, the primary Jewish organization responding to local victims there — was "amazing." The sibling support group, sponsored by the agency, was formed following a February gathering of friends and family members of Sept. 11 victims.

The "emotions you go through and the loss that you feel is a loss that is unique to the relationship you had," said Wiener, 38. "My brother and I were very close and very similar in many ways, and I just always assumed he’d be there."

Weiner’s brother, a senior financial executive, had been about to leave on a vacation in Spain with his wife and had been planning a family, she said. It "breaks my heart for him, what we lost together.

"I never realized how small our family was until now," she said. To know there are other people out there going through the exact same thing" is "kind of eerie, but it’s also extremely helpful."

Robert Alonso praised the Jewish Child Care Association, which helped his family. When the planes hit, Alonso’s wife, Janet, 41, managed to make a quick phone call from the 97th floor of Tower One to tell her husband that she loved him. The call was their last conversation. The sudden death of his wife, the family’s primary breadwinner, left Alonso and his two young children — one of whom has Down’s syndrome — reeling.

The Jewish Child Care Association has provided weekly meetings with a psychologist for Alonso’s children Robbie, 2, and Victoria, 3. It also has helped him obtain the maximum government funds for his family.

Gregory Hoffman, 37, said he "would not have survived" without the Twinless Twins of Sept. 11 program, which he and his wife, Aileen, created. Since his identical twin, Stephen, a bond broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, was killed in the World Trade Center, Hoffman says he feels like Tower One before it fell — still standing but "out of balance," separated from its twin and with a gaping hole inside it.

To date, the Hoffmans have identified and contacted 38 twins who lost siblings in the attack. Six of them participate in the weekly support group meetings led by a twinless twin, and 22 have participated in social outings. Many of the participants have become close friends.

For Marjorie Judge, caseworker Joan Kincaid, director of the Jewish Association for Services for the Aged’s Pets Project, has been "exceptional." Judge, 82, who lived four blocks from the World Trade Center, was evacuated from the building and prevented from taking her cat. Police later rounded up the pets in many buildings, but not in Judge’s.

One week later, aided by police and Judge’s building superintendent, Kincaid entered the evacuated building — dark from failed electricity and reeking of rotten food — and climbed eight floors to rescue Sheba, who was waiting, parched, at the door. All that for a cat Kincaid "hardly knew," Judge said.

While many victims praised the Jewish communal response, some had complaints. Several family members of victims in Washington said there was no outreach from the organized Jewish community, except for their synagogues, according to the Washington Jewish Week. The federation defended its work, saying it was the first agency in Washington to hold a memorial service for victims, and that the Jewish Chaplaincy immediately called the families of Jewish victims to offer help.

The federation has dispersed the nearly $500,000 dollars it raised in its Sept. 11 fund to Jewish and non-Jewish agencies, according to a federation official. UJC funds were earmarked for Jewish needs, the official said, adding, "We really did everything we could."

Wiener, of the sibling support group, saw it differently. There was "plenty of comfort, but not a lot of information," she said.

And while Millman raved about her nurse, Rebecca Bigio, she also complained that "she’s not enough." Bigio said she and a social worker visit Millman at least twice a month and call frequently. But Millman, an ailing widow, said she needs more attention so that she won’t "feel so alone and so lost."

Louise Greilsheimer, vice president of agency and external relations of the UJA-Federation of New York, who coordinated its response to Sept. 11, said complaints are inevitable. "You are always, with this quantity of people, going to find issues," she said. But, she added, "I haven’t heard one horror story in the Jewish community."

"I truly believe the agencies came together and put together not only a coordinated approach," but one that was thoughtful, caring and ongoing, Greilsheimer said. "We’re staying here to follow up and to be able to work with communities that need the support."

Varsity Blues


As the summer draws to a close, Jason Kahan feels anxious and excited: soon his firstborn, Aron, is to begin his freshman year of college at UC Santa Barbara.

"On one hand, I recognize that he’s going to a good school and it’s a great opportunity for him," admits the psychologist from Playa del Rey. "But at the same time, it’s very difficult to imagine that come Sept. 23, we’re going to drop him off and he won’t be in house anymore. It’s pretty heavy duty."

Whether the distance is 100 miles or 1,000 miles, the experience of letting a child go off into the world can be just as stressful for parents as it is for the child, if not more. From nursery school to college, parents are having separation anxiety over issues such as safety, religious observance, independence and social concerns.

This year, Beatrice Levavi of Los Angeles will send her third of seven children off to college. She’s already sent Reuben to NYU, and this year, 18-year-old Max will leave home to join his big sister, Rebecca, at Brandeis. "It always feels as though someone is cutting off a limb," jokes Levavi, who works in public relations at Shalhevet High School. "At some level, it doesn’t get any easier. You feel this intense pride that they can function independently. At the same time, you feel this stark terror that you haven’t prepared them enough."

While Levavi admits that losing the presence of a child changes the family dynamic, in her own experience, the bonds have remained as strong as ever. "What you save on food bills, you spend on phone bills," she says. The advent of e-mail and Instant Messaging has also helped the children keep in touch with their older brothers and sisters.

Because her son has participated in a number of summer programs on the East Coast, actress Sarah Jane Schwartz of Hollywood Hills isn’t quite as apprehensive about Trevor’s departure for Princeton University. Schwartz is more worried about her son’s physical safety. Trevor spent this past summer at an internship in Washington, D.C.

"In a way, that was a bigger leap because while he lived in the dorms of George Washington University, he was pretty much on his own as far as getting around, and that was scary for us," Schwartz says. "This summer we were anxious to hear from him out of concern, but when he goes to Princeton, we’ll want to hear from him out of curiosity." Schwartz says that Trevor is very passionate about his Judaism and plans to become involved with the school’s active Hillel.

Ellen Greenberg of Beverly Hills has mixed emotions about seeing her daughter, Blair, off to Ohio University. "It’s difficult. In one respect, I’m going to miss her, but in the other respect I think it’s a very healthy thing for her to spread her wings, live on her own and learn self-discipline," says Greenberg, who works in the film industry. Since Blair flourished as a student at Beverly Hills High School, Greenberg is confident that her daughter will continue to prosper academically. In addition, Blair went to summer camp back east, so Greenberg feels that she’ll adjust quickly to being away from home. Her biggest concern is that Blair will leave behind the culturally rich city of Los Angeles. "She’s going to a very small college town that has one movie theater. There are no malls, no department stores and all the activities are campus-driven. I have a feeling she’s in for a culture shock," says the Beverly Hills resident.

Empty-nest syndrome isn’t unique to parents of college students. Parents of preschoolers also experience a loss when their children begin their early education. Alissa Block is adjusting to the fact that her 2-year-old daughter, Rachel, will start preschool in a few weeks at B’nai Tikvah in Westchester. After a six-month stint of caring for Rachel and her baby brother at home, Block is ready to go back to work as a legal recruiter. To ease the transition, she is currently helping Rachel assimilate to the school a few hours each week.

"It’s bittersweet," Block admits. "I’m excited for her, but it definitely pulled at my heartstrings when I saw her be aloof and not having friends, yet, while the other kids paired-off." Block is confident that both she and Rachel will adjust to the new situation, as she’s watched friends go through the process with their own children.

Heidi Birnbaum, who already went through the preschool experience with her 5-year-old son, isn’t worried about sending Jessie, her 2-year-old daughter, to Temple Etz Chaim preschool in Thousand Oaks. "I’m actually excited," admits Birnbaum."I haven’t had any free time since my son was born, because we don’t have any other family out here to watch the kids." The Agoura Hills resident is also comforted by the fact that her child will only be gone three hours per day.

As Kahan continues to prepare his son for his new life in Santa Barbara, he is comforted by the fact that Aron will be relatively close by. While his child is "not overly religious, but Jewish in his heart," Kahan is also relieved that Aron plans to be active in UCSB’s Hillel program.

While Levavi jokes that her house will be "much quieter, much neater and much less interesting" when Max leaves this fall, she feels that the process is a natural progression.

"As much as [children] are the most important things when they’re in the house, they can’t be the sum total of your life because that’s too big a burden on them," she says. "Everyone has to shift, and the family restructures itself. You begin to accept it as a healthy stage of their life and you just pray that you’ve put enough into them that they’ll flourish wherever they’re going."

Hints for Parents of College-Bound Kids

1. Find out if the school has a parents’ weekend and get information on it.

2. Ask your child if he/she would like to come home for the High Holy Days or Thanksgiving.

3. Make sure you have your child’s new address so that you can send mail and care packages.

Some schools have prepackaged goody baskets with things like laundry detergent, shampoo, a toothbrush, school supplies and study snacks that parents can send to kids.

4. Some synagogues offer college care packages for various Jewish holidays like Chanukah and Passover.

5. Get your child’s e-mail address. This is a great way to keep in touch without bombarding your son or daughter with phone calls.

6. Feel free to send reminders of home, like local newspaper clippings, homemade cookies and photos from recent family events.

7. If your child is far away, sign up for frequent flyer programs available through various airlines.

8. Try to keep your emotions at bay when you talk to your child. Remember, he or she is the one going through the biggest adjustment.

9. Talk to friends who are in the same situation so you can commiserate, if needed.

Taking It to the Streets


For years, an empty lot in Van Nuys was gathering garbage, used appliances, old furniture and was a "home" for the homeless and their shopping carts. Distraught neighbors were constantly calling the police and city officials, but to no avail. As the years passed, the problem grew worse and the neighbors more agitated.

Then last March, Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo launched the Neighborhood Prosecutors Program, assigning one veteran prosecutor to each of the city’s 18 Police Department divisions. Some of the opponents were Jews, bringing with them the desire to fight for social justice. The idea of the project was for prosecutors to become involved with quality-of-life issues in the community before they got into the courtroom. Prosecutors would then team with LAPD senior lead officers, and work with city officials, neighborhood groups and various city agencies to address problems such as speed racing, prostitution, vagrancy, trash and graffiti.

Delgadillo believed that neighborhood prosecutors, working with the police, could bring about change more effectively than after a case had arrived on their desks. So far, he’s been right. The program has been so successful that this past June, at an official ceremony in Watts, Mayor James Hahn unveiled the program’s budget for the 2002-2003 fiscal year.

As for the empty lot, neighborhood prosecutors for the Van Nuys division, Liora Forman-Echols and Tamar Galatzan, were able to cut through years of red tape. "We sat down with everyone who had any kind of jurisdiction over that area, and asked, ‘What do we need to do?’" said Galatzan, who was job sharing with Forman-Echols. "It took a lot of phone calls and involvement of several agencies, but the empty lot is now fenced and clean. No one before had been empowered to lock all the players in one room and say, ‘Let’s clean this up, because the community deserves it to be clean.’"

Both Galatzan and Forman-Echols knew immediately upon hearing about Delgadillo’s project that it was something they wanted to try. Forman-Echols was the third generation of a Jewish family that had served its community — her grandfather and father before her were both law enforcement officers.

When it came time for Forman-Echols to join the force, though, her mother forbade it: "Nice Jewish girls become lawyers," and so, she did. As a prosecutor, Forman-Echols found herself far from the community activism that she longed for. "In court, things are filtered down to us, but here was a great opportunity to do something different, in a direct way to help the community."

Last March, Forman-Echols signed on as the new L.A. deputy city attorney for the Van Nuys division — a division that spans 40 square miles and has been plagued by many long-term community woes. This June, as she prepared for maternity leave, she handed the mantle over to Galatzan, who had been on leave to have a baby.

For Galatzan, this program has been a great opportunity to work proactively on quality-of-life issues and to return to her first love of community service.

"It’s a great opportunity to work with a whole team — law enforcement, chamber of commerce, homeowners association, neighborhood watch groups and business concerns — to solve problems before they reach the level of prosecution."

As a team member, Galatzan explained, the deputy city attorneys must wear a number of different hats and be able to work on a grass-roots level, mingling with the community. Neighborhood prosecutors don’t carry all the weight, but what weight they do, goes a long way. She’s found since being on the job that the community has been overwhelmingly welcoming. "They’re a little skeptical at first, but after seeing what we can do, they like having us there."

Angelenos, like Nancy Lamb of Venice, have been writing letters to the Los Angeles Times describing just how well the Neighborhood Prosecutor’s program is working. "I was elated that someone in city government actually responded to my plea [about parking violations in her neighborhood] and took on the responsibility of fixing the problem," Lamb wrote. "Delgadillo should be commended for instituting such an innovative and effective program."

Even though Delgadillo initiated the program, he doesn’t take all the credit, citing that the community has a part as well. "When you solve neighborhood quality-of-life issues, the people help you solve the bigger issues," Delgadillo told The Journal.

"I give Rocky Delgadillo an A for this program," Forman-Echols said. "He’s passionate, committed and comes through. He realized the need for [neighborhood prosecutors] by getting this program up and running. It’s been the greatest step in improving lives for all Angelenos."

Your Letters


Don’t Circle the Wagons

In his attempt to critique the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) survey on anti-Semitism in America, our friend and former colleague David Lehrer has misinterpreted ADL’s findings in three key ways (“Don’t Circle the Wagons,” July 5).

First, there is nothing in this latest poll on anti-Semitic beliefs to suggest that ADL believes American Jews are under siege. Yes, there was an increase overall to 17 percent in anti-Semitic beliefs, which we found disappointing. However, that was an increase of 5 percent over the findings in 1998, in which time ADL reported that anti-Semitic beliefs had reached an all-time low at 12 percent. Moreover, other findings in the 2002 poll found, through the same methodology, that there were almost no anti-Semitic beliefs among students and faculty on campus.

Second, Lehrer misreads a statement in which ADL expressed concern that this was the most dangerous period since the 1930s. He suggests that this was a reference to Jewish life in America; in fact, it was a reference to the situation in Europe and the Middle East which, in all its complexities, can legitimately be characterized as the greatest threat to Jews in 60 years.

Third, Lehrer misreads the meaning behind ADL’s statistics regarding foreign-born Latino attitudes towards Jews. He suggests that ADL was looking for a target as reflected by our not looking at other recent immigrant attitudes. In fact, we were perplexed by the high degree of anti-Semitic beliefs among Latinos generally, but found hope in the fact that Latinos born in the United States were far less likely to have anti-Semitic beliefs than foreign-born Latinos. This pointed to education and acculturation as a way to improve attitudes. In other words, the interest in focusing on this distinction was to provide hope rather than hype.

The ADL’s role is to tell it like it is. The recent surveys live up to that role.

Judge Bruce J. Einhorn, President ADL Pacific Southwest Regional Board

The Reason Why

I read Vic Cohen’s “The Reason Why” (July 19) with sadness but also, with some disgust. Cohen writes: “The reasons marriages end are as private, personal and often as baffling as the reasons they begin.” Marriages end because spouses either stop loving each other or because they are no longer willing to compromise. There is nothing baffling about that. If either one of these factors still exists, there is no reason a marriage should end.

R. Sharell , Los Angeles

Terrorism Won’t Stop HUC-JIR

I was very pleased to read the article on Mark Miller, the rabbinical student, and his friends from the Hebrew Union College who decided to study their first year in Israel in spite of the security issues (“Terrorism Won’t Stop HUC-JIR,” July 19). Indeed before leaving for Israel about a month ago, we, too, were very concerned about security. But once we got there we found life there quite enjoyable, and felt secure enough to eat in outdoor restaurants of Tel Aviv, which often were quite full, and walked in crowded places like the Tayelet (promenade) of Tel Aviv on Saturday night like many other Israelis. In short, life in Israel is as normal as possible under the circumstances, and our visit in Israel was just great. We are already planning another trip next year, inshallah!

Yona Sabar, UCLA professor of Hebrew and Aramaic Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures

‘Blanche and Dorothy’

It was with much disgust that I read the latest issue of The Journal. Your article about the two 60-year-old women who left their husbands to become gay lovers (“Not Exactly Blanche and Dorothy,” July 12), should not be in what I thought was a Jewish family paper. If someone left their family to become a born-again Christian, I would assume you would not find this praiseworthy. If a person destroys a traditional Jewish family structure, it shows a lack of commitment to family and Jewish values. A shonda like this should either be condemned or omitted from your paper.

J. Solomon Moore, Valley Village

Bill Would Segregate Israelis

In Eric Silver’s July 12 article (“Bill Would Segregate Israelis”), he and MKs Sarid and Bishara all dangerously and incorrectly label MK Druckman’s bill “racist.” Jews are a people and not a race. Anyone can become a Jew by being born to a Jewish mother or by conversion.

Discrimination based on true “racism” is always evil. One can argue that Israel may be unwise in some of its policies that discriminate against a minority population, but this is not “racist.” Since so many Jews in Israel are mixtures of Sephardim and Ashkenazim, the “discrimination” that is being alleged is among people of the same race.

With the United Nation’s Zionism-equals-racism resolution still fresh in our memories, this is no time for us to be casual about accusing Israeli policies of being racist.

Dr. Robert J. Meth, Marina del Rey

Corrections

The correct address for Chabad of Greater Los Feliz is 1727 N. Vermont Ave., No. 107 (“Where Religion Meets Bohemia,” July 19).

The caption for “A Unique Sound,” (July 19) should have listed Howard Parmet as Magen David Adom West’s executive director.

The author’s name of “Missing in Action” (Letters, July 19) should have read Dr. James Honigman.

When Breast Cancer is Hereditary


In some families, breast and ovarian cancers take an inordinately fierce toll, striking one generation after another, menacing mothers, daughters, sisters and cousins. And for the women in these families, wondering if and when cancer might strike becomes a daily burden.

Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE) is a Web site designed for women living with this oppressive uncertainty. FORCE provides information and support to women who may wish to learn — or already know — whether they are at high risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer due to genetic predisposition, family history or other factors. These issues are of particular concern to Ashkenazi women, who are more likely to carry certain genetic alterations associated with increased incidence of breast and ovarian cancers.

While hereditary breast cancer accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases, as many as 70 percent of those cases stem from alterations in one of two genes, called BRCA1 and BRCA2. Ashkenazi women have a 2.5 percent chance of having one of the altered genes, compared to about .1 percent of the general population. Over the course of a lifetime, a woman carrying one of the gene alterations may have as high as seven times greater likelihood of developing breast cancer, and as high as 33 times the likelihood of developing ovarian cancer, as a woman in the general population. (Men inheriting one of the genes have a slightly higher likelihood of prostate cancer, and can also pass the gene along to their children.)

Susan Friedman developed FORCE three years ago after learning that she carried the BRCA2 alteration. The Florida veterinarian was 33 years old when she underwent a mastectomy. Eight months after her surgery, she experienced a recurrence in her lymph nodes, requiring a regimen of chemotherapy and radiation.

It was by coincidence that Friedman, who does not have a family history of the disease, read about the high incidence of breast cancer gene alterations among Ashkenazis. "A red light went off in my head," says Friedman, who soon got herself tested. Once she tested positive, she opted to undergo preventive removal of her other breast and ovaries, a procedure which appears to reduce future breast cancer risk by 90 percent.

Acknowledging the difficulty of taking such drastic measures, Friedman says, "I can’t say it was an easy decision, but it was a much easier decision for me than it would be for someone who has never had cancer. There’s no right or wrong answer."

FORCE aims to assist women in making such decisions by giving them information and empowerment. In addition to a message board and chat room, the Web site features a 10-page resource guide with links to information on such topics as how to evaluate medical resources on the Web, the advantages and disadvantages of genetic testing, researching one’s family history and ways to lower one’s risk. It also includes a listing of cancer genetics professionals nationwide.

Friedman coined the term "pre-vivor" to refer to those with a predisposition to cancer. "The decisions they have to make are every bit as agonizing as those for a breast cancer survivor, and their need for support is every bit as valid," she says.

For example, Friedman notes, the decision whether to undergo genetic testing is fraught with difficulties. Depending on a woman’s individual situation, the test may not be able to provide definitive information. Some women may prefer not to know whether they carry an alteration. And those who find out, face dilemmas around informing other family members and risking potential insurance or employment discrimination.

Yet for some, she says, "It can be a huge relief if a woman comes from a family with a BRCA mutation and she tests negative." (Not only would the woman herself be at lower risk, she also would not be passing on the high risk to her children.)

Friedman urges women considering testing — which ranges from several hundred to several thousand dollars — to see a risk assessment counselor or genetic counselor, professionals trained to discuss the complex issues surrounding such a decision.

If a woman does test positive for one of the gene alterations, she faces a number of options, "none of which are ideal," Friedman says. These include careful monitoring via mammography and clinical breast exam; taking tamoxifen, a drug that may prevent the disease; or undergoing preventive removal of the breasts and ovaries. Additional measures can be taken to monitor for ovarian cancer.

While not every woman who tests positive will develop breast or ovarian cancer, she will live with the knowledge that the odds are against her. On the other hand, since hereditary breast cancer accounts for only 5 to 10 percent of all breast cancer cases, those with no family history — and those who test negative — have no guarantee of avoiding the disease. For women at normal risk, experts recommend monthly breast self-exams, an annual clinical breast exam and yearly mammogram. In addition to following those guidelines, it seems the best defense is knowledge.

The ‘Uglification’


"So, how’s the ‘uglification’ of the house coming along?" Gabe asks as he walks in the front door.

By uglification, he means that we have removed the dirty, shredding wallpaper that adorned many of our walls.

By uglification, he means that we have replaced the cracked and peeling vinyl flooring in the master bath.

And by uglification, he means that, for the first time, with the help of a design consultant, we will live in a house that doesn’t look like a student apartment.

But, as Woodrow Wilson once said, "If you want to make enemies, try to change something."

Danny, 11, still mourns "couchie," the dilapidated, threadbare brown corduroy sofa he knew for the first three years of his life. Jeremy, 13, wishes we still lived in our old house, where he spent the first nine years of his life. And Gabe thinks we should be painting the entire house white — or blue.

"Look at these depressing kitchen walls," he says. "What kind of color is ‘badger’? Have you ever seen a happy badger?"

"How about a happy 15-year-old?" I ask.

This home decorating project — chalk it up to premenopausal madness, pre-bar mitzvah anxiety or post-Sept. 11 cocooning — began last January.

Previously, it made no sense to invest emotionally and financially in our surroundings. Not with four boys who regularly punched holes in the plaster walls, treated the den couch as a mechanical bull ride and rearranged the living room furniture into an armed fortress, using every blanket and toy weapon in the house.

Previously, my husband, Larry, and I, who see eye-to-eye on sex, money, religion and child-rearing, the issues most couples fight over, couldn’t choose a new paint color or silverware pattern without a highly charged battle ending in stalemate.

But now the boys are less destructive.

And now, in a capitulating and generous bow to marital harmony, Larry has given me, within a prescribed budget, full reign. "Surprise me," he said.

I admit to being style-challenged. I don’t know the difference between feng shui and fen-phen, between Martha Stewart and Martha Washington and between colonial, contemporary, craftsman or counter-culture.

But, like the Supreme Court definition of pornography, I know ugly when I see it.

Like coral-colored bedroom walls.

Like an incongruously ornate living room fireplace mantel.

Like a wrought iron dining room chandelier, sporting, in the exact center, an oversized rooster.

And I know the value of professional advice.

The penchant for never completely settling in might be attributed to my being a Jew, who is not called "wandering" for nothing. From escape from Egypt to exile in Babylon to expulsion from Spain, we Jews are always in transit. Under constant threat, even to this day, of persecution or annihilation, our lives are better suited to the fragile, temporary huts of Sukkot.

This penchant might also be attributed to my being an American, a person who, on average, moves every seven years. I myself have moved 17 times, from the Midwest, to Israel, England, New England, Northern California and, finally, Southern California.

Or to my merely being a Californian who, having experienced the 1994 Northridge earthquake, learned the transient nature of material possessions as I witnessed, in a matter of 15 seconds, all of our household belongings crash to the floor. But now I want a home that serves as the center of our Jewish family, a bulwark against the outside world, a comfortable refuge. A place where the kids, as they begin to move out and establish families of their own, can return for Shabbat dinners, for seders, for Sunday barbecues.

I have no illusions that our house will ever be a showcase. Nor do I wish it. We will always have to accommodate Larry’s old radios, Felix the Cat collection and Coca-Cola paraphernalia; my myriad rabbits and needlepoint projects; a shot-glass collection belonging to my oldest son, Zack; and all the boys’ baseball caps and sports trophies, LEGOs and trading cards. As well as countless boxes of papers, projects and artwork, representing 49 cumulative years of school and preschool.

Plus, I have no illusions that my sons will stop leaving their shoes and balled up, inside-out socks in every room in the house. Or using the front hall as a dumping ground for their backpacks, binders and books. Or doing their homework on the living room coffee table.

Nonetheless, I think it’s time for a change. After all, as I constantly remind Larry, "My next move is to the Jewish Home for the Aging."

Your Letters


Republican Jews

We were very disturbed to read Joel Kotkin’s article (“The Christian Right, Conservatism and the Jews,” June 7) and the accompanying article about Jews turning to the GOP (“Israel Bolsters Local GOP Support,” June 7).

Many of the so-called leftists are in no way anti-Israel, but simply question the current policies of the Israeli government. As for the Jewish swing to the Republicans, there are many issues of vital importance to the world, to Israel and to America, which should be considered when one votes.

The Jews allied with Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? Strange bedfellows indeed!

Richard and Ann Edelman, Los Angeles

I would never reject the political and financial support for Israel that comes from religious conservatives. Joel Kotkin makes the point that “today’s fundamentalists and evangelicals are, on average, better educated and more affluent than the average American.” But Joel ignores the fact that many of these Christians help finance the $250 million-per-year evangelical Christian Crusade that targets Jews for conversion. Our struggle for Israel’s survival is urgent and we need all the allies we can get. However, evangelical Christians must understand that their support of missionary groups like Jews for Jesus destroys Jewish families, threatens Jewish continuity and is an insult to our heritage. I would suggest and welcome that more Christians denounce deceptive efforts to convert Jews. This, in addition to their support of Israel, would be a true demonstration of unconditional friendship.

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, Founder Jews for Judaism International

A Stand in Sacramento

I want to take this opportunity to thank The Jewish Journal and commend Tom Tugend on his coverage of the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California (JPAC) mission to Sacramento from May 7-8 (“A Stand in Sacramento,” May 24).

Now it is as important a time as ever, given our state’s budget deficit, to strengthen our relationship not only between our legislators and their constituents, but between our educational institutions and social service agencies that provide so many invaluable services to not only our own Jewish community, but to the greater statewide community as well.

I invite those who were unable to participate this year to get active in their local community’s JCRC or other communal agencies and together join JPAC in Sacramento in May 2003.

Barbara Yaroslavsky, Chair JPAC

Watching Elie

I read the article by Mojdeh Sionit on (“Watching Elie,” May 31) and was very impressed. I have lived in Los Angeles for over 20 years and have met many Iranian Jews that have migrated to the United States and read their articles. I have never seen anyone who has such powerful English writing skills. I am also thankful to The Jewish Journal for accepting and printing this article from Sionit. I hope we will see more articles from her.

I am sure when Sionit is settled in the United States, with better orientation and guidance to the American society, the role of Jews and Iranian Jews in this society, she can be a top contributor to The Journal and other magazines she chooses to write for.

Farshaad Rafie, Los Angeles

Dirty Facts

Phil Shuman claims there are certain “dirty facts” about Israel (“Dirty Facts,” May 31). “Things like Israeli’s bulldozing homes with people inside … sharp-shooting soldiers taking out old women … [and] denying, food, water and medical care to [the] injured and dying.”

The problem is, the crimes of which he has accused the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are not facts. They are rumors, and sometimes, outright lies that have been trumpeted long and loud enough to gain a currency they do not deserve.

Example: the only people to whom food, water and medical care were denied were those still engaged in combat against the IDF in Ramallah and Bethlehem. I can testify that combat was ongoing in Bethlehem at the time that I was there. Palestinian gunmen in the Church of the Nativity were firing from snipers nests throughout the compound. To suggest that Israel was obliged to provide aid to combatants still firing upon them is utterly and completely absurd.

The “dirty truth” is that sometimes the press gets played for chumps, and well-meaning people, like Shuman, quote the lies as “dirty facts.”

Dan Gordon, Thousand Oaks

The Curse of Certainty

As parents of a Shalhevet Middle School student taught by Alexander Maksik (“The Curse of Certainty,” May 24), we think it important to convey our impression that he is an imaginative, effective teacher. We are sorry that he will not be returning to Shalhevet next year.

Barry H. Steiner and JoAnn Victor, Los Angeles

Combatting Hunger

I just read with interest your informative article about the wonderful work being done by SOVA, MAZON and Project Chicken Soup (“Combatting Hunger,” June 7). I then turned back to Page 7 and reread with disgust the piece about the hot dog-eating contest (“Dog Days of Summer,” June 7). What motivates this conspicuous consumption? How can otherwise intelligent, caring people find pleasure in stuffing themselves when there are hungry families in our own community? Who pays for these gobbled hot dogs? Wouldn’t it be better to donate them to the hungry children in our midst?

Lee J. Soskin, Studio City

A Matter of Crime

Thank you for the piece written by Teresa Strasser, (“A Matter of Crime,” May 31). It truly indicated a positive change in her column. You based the piece on research, and it concerned an important topic — safety (as opposed to, say, the angst associated with a laser peel).

Liz Parr, Laguna Hills

Correction

The correct spelling for the director of Jewish Family Service’s SOVA Kosher Food Pantry Program (“Combatting Hunger,” June 7) is Leslie Friedman. For anyone who wishes to contact the SOVA program, the phone number is (818) 789-7633.

Thinking Ahead


My attorney, Irwin Goldring, is a wise man. Never pushy, never alarming. Fifty years in estate planning, you learn something about people.

"Hey, for me this is just a questionnaire," he tells me. "For you, it’s something more."

I’ll say. Irwin has sent me two legal forms stating when and who can act on my behalf, if need be. All I have to do is make choices, name names. I call these "thinking ahead" forms, a way of facing now what I might not later on. Five times he tells me, "May these forms never be needed."

Still, even hypothetically, it’s not so simple. How do I feel about life-sustaining technology? At what point, if ever, would food and water be a form of futile prolonging of life?

And what about hope? For loved ones, does it ever end? But would I want them to wait forever? Under what circumstances would I stop hoping to be "healed" and desire only kindness and care?

"I want to live my life with dignity and for my loved ones to have pleasant memories of my final days," reads the form called "advanced health care directive." Yes, indeed.

It’s not lung cancer, or at least not cancer alone, which gives these matters their urgency. It’s living. You’d think that as a middle-aged woman, I’d have faced it before: life’s a crapshoot. But reading Irwin’s forms, I try to imagine the potential decisions my legal designees might have to make on my behalf, and my heart is filled with gratitude, well in advance. May their judgment never be needed.

Can we talk about death? It sure is asking a lot. It’s easier to discuss sex, or money, or God — all famous sources of argument, disagreement and despair, but whose province lies squarely in life.

My husband, whose 15th yarhzeit I mark this week, denied the possibility of death, even from his hospital room. Never once uttered the word. Macho, maybe. Self-contained, perhaps. Fearful, certainly.

He continued to practice law from his bedside briefcase, between bouts of heart failure. He made out a will for his personal property. But he protested all the way. The subject was depressing, he said. It implied a lack of confidence in his immortality.

Now it’s my turn. My husband’s choice is not mine. I have my motives for talking about death here and now.

First, maybe I can be like the biblical Isaac, who grabs hold of his terrors of dying, prematurely blesses his sons and then lives a good, long time. Isaac knew that one way to get beyond anxiety is to deal with it.

Second, I want you, dear readers, to talk to each other about the Big D.

We are living in such a high-tech age, in which confusion over end-of-life issues grows by the day. Ignoring the challenge does not help. Yet vulnerability keeps us silent. Facing end-of-life issues, we know exactly how little we know.

These forms are important insurance against fate. The ancients feared death, as the Psalmist writes, "on that day his plans come to nothing." But we moderns rightly fear death in the midst of life. We cannot solve this by denial, and must be ready with surrogates to protect us against life on a tube.

For Jews across the denominational spectrum, the spiritual challenge can become intense. What is God’s will? Have I a right to prolong or shorten life by providing an antibiotic or refusing a respirator? Where there is no right and wrong, an open heart and clear thinking can go a long way.

I am sitting in the park with my friend, Dr. Ken Leeds. For 10 years, Leeds was on a Cedars-Sinai bioethics committee, applying Jewish values to end-of-life issues.

"Where things go wrong," Leeds tells me, "is when people don’t talk to each other. If there’s a disagreement in understanding what the patient wants, it leads to trouble." In the absence of agreement, the doctor is often put in the middle, opting to maintain life against the patient’s desire. It can turn ugly.

None of us should be alone in these difficult decisions. End the death taboo. Do not expect to have all the answers at once, but do get started. Get your forms in order. Talk to a rabbi. Talk to your children. Start the conversation. Discussion brings light.

And may your plans, once resolved, never be needed.