Student beaten outside Ozar Hatorah school in Paris


A Jewish boy reportedly was beaten outside the Ozar Hatorah school in Paris by youths shouting anti-Semitic epithets.

The incident occurred Monday outside the school, which the 12-year-old victim attends. He was not seriously injured.

The attack came a week after a gunman opened fire on the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, killing a rabbi and his two young sons, and the daughter of the school’s principal.

The boy in Paris reportedly was beaten about 100 yards away from the school, out of sight of police who have been guarding the school since last week’s attack in Toulouse.

Q&A with an expert on bullying


Ron Avi Astor, the Richard M. and Ann L. Thor Professor in Urban Social Development at USC, has been studying the epidemiology of school violence for nearly 30 years. In 1997, he moved his family to Jerusalem for one year to run the first-ever large-scale comprehensive school violence survey in Israel, with his partner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor Rami Benbenishty. Together they co-authored the book “School Violence in Context: Culture, Neighborhood, Family, School, and Gender” (Oxford University Press, 2005). The study is still considered one of the most rigorous and ambitious ever conducted, and there are plans to replicate it in France, Chile and Taiwan. Here, Astor discusses its findings and what it has to teach Jewish schools in the United States.

Jewish Journal: The term “bullying” means many things. What exactly are we talking about when we’re talking about bullying?
Ron Astor: Bullying covers a wide range of behaviors that are qualitatively really different from each other: name calling, social exclusion, teasing, kicking, hitting, fistfights, weapon use, ganging up on somebody, writing things about people or posting it. It used to be in the bathroom, now it’s using the Internet to upset, humiliate or threaten somebody. Generally, the person who does the bullying needs to be stronger socially and psychologically, and it needs to happen more than once.

JJ: Who are the prime targets?
RA: In general, kids who tend to be more isolated, kids who are weaker in terms of social connection, who the bullies feel [are isolated enough that] they can get away with it.

JJ: Bullying has suddenly become a very hot topic. But, haven’t people always been mean?
RA: Until 2001, we didn’t run studies on bullying in the United States, but after the shootings at Columbine, a theory came out in the media saying that the reason why these kids became shooters is that they were bullied at school. But there is no evidence to show that bullying leads to shooting; if that were true, it would be Armageddon in Los Angeles. 

JJ: Is being part of a minority group an advantage in deflecting bullying, as opposed to those who suffer in isolation? 
RA: It’s too general to say, “I’m part of the Jewish people; I’m not alone.” I could be Jewish, and be on a Jewish campus, and not have any friends and be very isolated. But, if a group becomes cohesive and organized, I think that actually protects people from being harmed. We’ve seen that with civil rights.

JJ: Some adults excuse bullying behavior as a “kids will be kids” developmental milestone. How do you deal with bullying that is really dangerous and bullying that is just part of growing up? 
RA: On the one hand, you don’t want people to go meshuggah about this stuff, where everything a little kid does has to have serious consequences. On the other hand, there have to be consequences that are appropriate. Society tends to speak only in terms of how adults respond, but that’s reactionary. What’s better is a wider belief and philosophy about what a human being should be like. 

JJ: Why did you choose school violence as the focus of your career research?
RA: It has to do, in part, with growing up Jewish. If you look at all our holidays, it’s all about being a victim and how we respond as a society to victimization. Also, growing up in L.A. at the height of Bloods and Crips, gangs in schools … living at a time when there was a lot of racial tension. We lived in a much more violent society than we have right now. So it was the combination of the Jewish questions and what I saw around me growing up.

JJ: In an essay about Jews and school violence, you wrote that American Jews don’t perceive school violence as an American Jewish problem. Why is that?
RA: At the time, Jews were following what the rest of society was saying, and society had branded youth violence as a minority problem and a poverty problem. But what this whole focus on bullying has done has told all of America that this is a problem that cuts across all categories. No group or segment of our society is immune to bullying.

JJ: You also wrote that when you began your research, almost no scientific literature existed about Jews and darker issues, such as child abuse, family violence, drug addiction, mental illness or as suffering from problems such as bullying or school violence. Was this a way of keeping a low profile on ugly issues?
RA: The Jewish community in the United States understands that even though we love to see ourselves as a model community, and I think we are, we have problems like everybody else. We’re al’ kol am [a nation like other nations], and that’s a process partially influenced by Israel.

JJ: After you conducted the study in Israel, you reported that the country saw a 20 to 25 percent reduction in school violence rates, which you believe is related to the fact that the entire educational system made combatting school violence a top priority. Why hasn’t that happened in the United States?
RA: If you looked at the average high school pre-World War II, it had 500 students. After that, when people started moving toward factory models, schools followed. Instead of teachers patrolling hallways and saying hello, they became a math teacher, a history teacher, a science teacher, and the classroom became the domain of their work. But if you look at where bullying takes place, it happens in the hallway, the playground, the bathroom — all the places where a teacher’s professional role doesn’t exist. One idea is to move back to the old view, where a teacher sees the entire child and the entire school as their domain. That’s what the whole mission of education is supposed to be about.

JJ: You’ve complained that it’s been difficult to get exposure for your findings in the U.S. Jewish community. Since this interview is happening because of the release of a movie, would you say you owe a debt to Hollywood?
RA: [laughs] I owe a debt to Hollywood and to you. This is one of most in-depth interviews I’ve done — in 20 years. My stuff has been in Newsweek, Time, NPR, CNN —  the only place I couldn’t crack was the Jewish news.

The battle to get ‘Bully’ seen by those who need it most


At Sioux City Middle School in Iowa, 12-year-old Alex Libby is the odd-man-out. Seen by his peers as different, he has golden hair, gentle eyes, a wide, flat nose and permanently puckered lips. Together, they might seem to express something both pouty and vulnerable, sweet and sad. Kids are not so kind. “People call me fish face,” he blankly tells the camera in the new documentary “Bully” by filmmaker Lee Hirsch. “I don’t mind.”

Hirsch’s camera follows Alex to the bus stop. He breathes heavily and loiters sort of aimlessly until another boy his age begins to taunt him, “I’ll break your Adam’s apple, which will kill you!” the boy shouts. On the bus, yet another boy tells Alex he plans to bring a knife to school. “I’m gonna f—- you up,” he taunts. “You’re gonna die in pain.”

The documentary, which hits theaters on March 30, comes at a time when the prevalence and perils of bullying are thick in national consciousness. Last week, former Rutgers University student Dharun Ravi was found guilty of a hate crime, convicted of 15 criminal charges including invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence for using a Webcam to spy on his roommate having sex with another man. Engaging in a practice commonly known as cyberbullying, Ravi used his Twitter and Facebook accounts to invite others to join him. “Roommate asked for the room till midnight,” Ravi Tweeted on Sept. 19, 2010. “I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” A few days later, Ravi Tweeted a second time, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”

Three days after the initial incident, Ravi’s roommate, Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.

Although Ravi was not charged in relation to Clementi’s death, the case has widely been seen as a watershed moment because, for the first time, an act of cyberbullying has been successfully prosecuted. But the phenomenon of bullying is nothing new. The word is simply a modern catchall to describe an ancient behavior; even before “Lord of the Flies,” there were Joseph and his brothers. Yet bullying covers such a broad range of behaviors — from teasing and name-calling, to threats and even physical violence — and affects an even wider swath of ages, starting as early as preschool and continuing through adulthood, when, in the workplace it’s called harassment, it could probably hold rank as one of the most challenging social problems in human history.

[Q&A with an expert on bullying]

Before bullying became a buzzword and a subject of serious scientific study, it was widely but erroneously believed to be an affliction of race or poverty. For Jews, victimization that comes from being different from the dominant culture is a familiar theme. But while a minority status determined by race, religion, gender, social status or sexual orientation often becomes a factor in discrimination, bullying is not restricted to minority groups. Nor is it believed to be more or less prevalent within one group over another.

Today, sociologists generally agree that the phenomenon is universal and that it happens on a global scale. In 2010 in the United States, 828,000 nonfatal victimizations at schools were reported among students ages 12-18, according to a survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Bureau of Justice Statistics on behalf of the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice. The same study found that nearly half of those were considered “violent victimizations,” and more than 91,000 incidents qualified as “serious violent victimizations.” It was also reported that the majority of all childhood victimizations occurred at school, including 17 homicides and seven suicides.

All this makes it likely that you, your child or someone you know has experienced some type of bullying at some point during adolescence. And more than any sociocultural identification — black, Jewish, gay, wealthy — the single most powerful determinant in whether an individual is susceptible to bullying behavior is social isolation. How strange, then, to perceive minority status as a happy accident of fate; sometimes it is precisely affiliation with a group that can be lifesaving.

“The thing I think about a lot is, ‘What are the activators of pain?’ ” Lee Hirsch, the 40-year-old filmmaker of “Bully,” said during a phone interview from New York. “I love movements and politics and platforms, but the thing that interests me the most is, what can compel people to move off the sidelines?”

All photos from “Bully,” courtesy of the Weinstein Co.

Whether there are genetic incentives for altruistic behavior is a perennial query of evolutionary biology. A recent article in The New Yorker magazine by Jonah Lehrer illuminated a scientific debate about the genetics of altruism. Is it actually biologically good to do good? “Charles Darwin regarded the problem of altruism — the act of helping someone else, even if it comes at a steep personal cost — as a potentially fatal challenge to his theory of natural selection,” Lehrer writes. “And yet, as Darwin knew, altruism is everywhere, a stubborn anomaly of nature. Bats feed hungry brethren; honeybees commit suicide with a sting to defend the hive; birds raise offspring that aren’t their own; humans leap onto subway tracks to save strangers. The ubiquity of such behavior suggests that kindness is not a losing life strategy.”

As more students report having witnessed bullying than experiencing it, converting bystanders into altruistic defenders could prove transformative. It is the message conveyed by Hirsch’s film, and it is his hope that the film will seed a social revolution — a battle against bullying, so to speak, that would make prevention and containment a permanent part of America’s educational culture.

“Tackling this idea of bullying as a nation, in a really deep way,” Hirsch wondered, “does that get at a bigger truth or bigger transformation than bullying itself? Does confronting [this issue] help us see more about life and the choices that we make?”

Hirsch urgently believes that now is the time to seize upon the spotlight and influence public discourse. “There’s something so universal and collective in the experience of bullying. There is a conversation to be had that hasn’t yet been had, and I think that’s why I’m so committed to classrooms seeing this film; what could come out of that is thrilling to think about.”

It’s too bad, and just a tad ironic, then, that Hirsch is also having to battle for his movie to be seen. When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) scarlet-lettered the film with an “R” rating for explicit language, it complicated the filmmaker’s plans to screen the movie in schools for students. Because, while the film is reliably entertaining, it’s not exactly a choice pick for a Saturday afternoon. It was designed to be consciousness-raising and educational.

“Bully” tells the story of five students and their families as they confront the real-life consequences of school-day torment. For a year, Hirsch and his camera traveled to five cities to observe the effects: To follow Alex, the documentary’s default star, Hirsch was given unprecedented access to three schools in Sioux City, Iowa — an elementary, middle and high school — where his cameras were allowed full access in hallways, classrooms and on the playgrounds. Given the many discomfiting scenes that emerge in the film — Alex is shoved, stabbed, ridiculed and threatened — it seems either miraculous or insane that the school agreed to participate. Hirsch attributes this to their desire for change. “They want to be part of the solution,” he said.

Report: Over 50 killed in bloody ‘day of rage’ clashes


At least 50 protesters were killed in in pro-democracy demonstrations throughout Syria on Friday, including 15 in the south Syrian town of Daraa, according to opposition members.

Casualties have been reported throughout the country in Homs, Latakia and Rastan, in Syria’s latest ‘day of rage’.

Earlier Friday, a hospital source reported that Syrian security forces killed 15 villagers at the entrance to the south-Syrian city of Daraa on Friday, saying they received the bodies of the villagers that were riddled with bullets.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Fight erupts between right-wing and left-wing activists in San Francisco


A dispute between right-wing and left-wing Israel activists in Berkeley, Calif., resulted in a physical altercation involving pepper spray, police and paramedics.

On Sunday, activists associated with San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs disrupted a meeting of Jewish Voice for Peace at the South Berkeley Senior Center, heckling speakers.

One heckler, Robin Dubner of Oakland, used pepper spray against two Jewish Voice for Peace members. The Jewish Voice for Peace members said the spraying was unprovoked, but Dubner said she sprayed because she was physically attacked.

Berkeley Police and paramedics were called to the scene, but no arrests were made.

More than 50 people were in attendance at an evening meeting featuring as speakers Bay Area residents Rae Abileah and Matthew Taylor, two of the five Jewish Voice for Peace protesters who heckled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at last week’s General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America in New Orleans.

Michael Harris, a leader with San Francisco Voice for Israel/StandWithUs, said the disruption of a Jewish Voice for Peace meeting was something he and his colleagues had never done before, but chose to do so “because they were having this celebration of heckling Netanyahu. Since they decided this was acceptable political discourse, we decided to do the same thing.”

Harris said that he and his nine fellow protesters acted as individuals and not as part of an organized StandWithUs action.

Jewish Voice for Peace is a Berkeley-based national organization that describes itself as a pro-peace group, but which critics say works to undermine the State of Israel. Last month, the Anti-Defamation League included Jewish Voice for Peace on its list of the 10 most influential and active anti-Israel groups in the United States.

U.S. denies giving Israel ‘green light’ to strike Iran


From HAARETZ.com:

Vice President Joe Biden’s statement that Israel can decide on its own whether to strike Iran’s nuclear sites should not be construed as an American “green light” for such an action, the State Department said on Monday.

“We are certainly not going to give a green light to any kind of military strike, but Israel is a sovereign country and we’re not going to dictate its actions,” State Department spokesperson Ian Kelly said on Monday. Read the full story at

Chabad, Getty and neighbors square off over Palisades school plan


Rabbi Zushe Cunin, head of Chabad of Pacific Palisades for 16 years, is accustomed to “overcoming and embracing all challenges,” he said. But the uproar surrounding his plans to relocate Chabad’s Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center to a vacant building off Los Liones Drive — in a canyon below an affluent Pacific Palisades neighborhood and off a service road leading to the Getty Villa — has surprised him.

In support of the school’s nature-based curriculum, Cunin, 38, believed he had found an ideal new location when he came upon an empty 3,000-square-foot former storage facility at the base of a hillside property. He tracked down the owner, longtime Pacific Palisades resident Gene Gladden, who agreed to lease the property to Chabad.


Cunin (photo) was making preparations to turn the site into a preschool, planning to open in September, when an attorney from the J. Paul Getty Trust sent a letter denying Chabad’s right to access the property via the Getty Villa’s service road.

Around the same time, members of the neighboring Castellammare Mesa Home Owners Association, which has 141 member families, began a flurry of e-mails and telephone exchanges questioning Chabad’s right to access the property alternatively through Gladden’s backyard off Bellino Drive and also raising concerns about other safety and noise issues.

Los Angeles City Councilman Bill Rosendahl has become involved, as has the Palisades Mormon Church, to which Cunin turned with a request for access through the church’s parking lot.

This might seem just an ordinary land-use dispute with, on one side, a preschool hoping to operate in a residential area — which can be allowed with a conditional-use permit — and on the other objections from neighbors who don’t want increased noise and congestion. But there is a history of high-profile, contentious disputes in this neighborhood: The Getty weathered its own heated and drawn-out legal battle with local Pacific Palisades homeowner associations, which began in 1997 when it announced plans for an extensive renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa. The clash centered on plans for a outdoor amphitheater. The much-delayed opening of the Getty Villa didn’t happen until January 2006, following years of negotiation with neighborhood associations.

Enter Chabad, an organization whose name is a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom, understanding and knowledge, and which, as part of Chabad-Lubavitch is one of the largest sects of Orthodox Judaism worldwide. Known for its evangelical outreach and zeal, Chabad has its own history of controversy in many circles.

Rabbi Cunin had been successfully operating Palisades Jewish Early Childhood Center in various locations in Temescal Gateway Park without conflict since the preschool was founded in 2000. The school enrolls approximately 50 children, ages 2 to 5, who, Cunin said, come primarily from Pacific Palisades and other Westside locations and from all levels of religious observance.

Last year the Santa Monica Conservancy, which oversees the park, voted to end the lease of the Chabad preschool as well as that of the private Little Dolphins preschool, ruling that public park area should no longer be walled off for private endeavors.

On Jan. 29, 2008, Cunin signed a three-year lease with a 20-year option on the building owned by Gladden, which sits near the service entrance to the Getty Villa, next door to the Mormon Church and across the road from Topanga State Park. Cunin began making some of the necessary renovations to the property.


View Larger Map

Everything went smoothly until April 2, when Getty Trust attorney Lori Fox informed Cunin that Chabad does not have the right to approach the building via a private Getty service road — which Chabad disputes. As a result, Cunin said, Chabad officials, teachers and workmen began accessing the property through Gladden’s driveway off Bellino Drive and down a steep stairway in Gladden’s backyard.

Neighbors became aware of the activity, as well as of the building, which was newly painted inside and staged with small tables and chairs. An outdoor area now sported playground equipment to enable prospective parents and state inspectors to better visualize the future preschool. Cunin believes that many residents assumed, erroneously, the preschool was already open for business.

Homeowners began an exchange of e-mails, and one homeowner, whose child had attended the school, contacted Cunin to clarify the school’s status. He assured her that he didn’t plan to use Gladden’s home as access for the school. She shared this information with the other neighbors.

Chabad’s attorney Benjamin Reznik, a partner at Jeffer, Mangels, Butler and Marmaro, argues that the preschool location is “brilliant.”

“It’s a building that’s safe and appropriate. It’s got a nice, flat garden around for the kids to play outdoors, and it’s got nice access: The parents can drive right up,” Reznik said.

The Getty, however, sees the site differently. Getty attorney Fox sent a memorandum to area homeowner associations on May 9 summarizing the Getty’s communications with Chabad and objections to the location.

“We have serious concerns about the proposed use of both the warehouse and access via our service road,” Fox stated in the memo, emphasizing safety concerns for the children.

The dispute over use of the service road is not surprising, given its complicated history.

Access along the service road to the Getty guard booth, which sits just above the driveway to the Gladden building, uses an easement granted by the Mormon Church, which bought its three-acre property in 1970 from a private developer, according to David Lacy, who founded Senior Realty Advisors of Covina, and who has assisted Chabad in property acquisitions for more than a decade. It was originally a dirt road, which the Getty paved and later widened, as required for its renovation.

But Gladden was granted the necessary permits in 1981, he said, to construct a building on the lower part of his property for recreation and storage. He also received permission from the Getty to access the building via the service road. Gladden subsequently rented the building to the Getty for 25 years for storage purposes, a lease which ended approximately six months ago, according to Gladden.

Because Gladden has been allowed access to his building for the last 26 years and because the Getty has never revoked that right, Lacy believes that Gladden as well as Chabad, as his representatives, “has a legal right to a prescriptive easement” on that property.

Fight or flight? A Jewish Cuban mom wonders


Melinda Lopez’s “Sonia Flew,” which opens at the Laguna Playhouse on Sept. 16, depicts the parallel struggles of a Cuban girl in 1961 and a half-Jewish, half-Cuban American boy just after Sept. 11.

Of Cubans and Jews, Lopez says, “These are two cultures that have experienced Diaspora, two cultures that are disconnected from their homeland, two cultures that stress education, family, food, laughter. When you go to Thanksgiving in a Jewish household or a Cuban household, you’ll talk about politics, tell jokes.”

Speaking from Boston, where she lives with her Jewish husband, Lopez, who was born in this country to Cuban parents, says with a chuckle: “Two Cubans in a household is just trouble.”

The first act of her new play takes place during Chanukah/Christmas vacation in 2001. To emphasize the seeming harmony of this “blended family,” Lopez indicates in stage directions that the Christmas tree is decorated with Stars of David.

Yet we sense that something may be wrong when Sonia, the protagonist, and her daughter forget to make the traditional 7-Up Jell-O salad, a symbolic failure that suggests a rift in the family, similar to what occurs in Barry Levinson’s “Avalon” when a guest, arriving late for Thanksgiving, complains, “You cut the turkey?”

In Levinson’s movie, the discord is over the relative climb up the financial ladder of the differing family members, while in Lopez’s play Sonia is distressed over her son’s decision to leave college and join the Marines.

In making a parallel between the aftermath of Castro’s revolution and Sept. 11, Lopez seems to posit that history doesn’t repeat itself but it can overwhelm families and tear them apart. Like Stephen Dedalus, who famously says in “Ulysses,” “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Sonia feels she has been doomed twice by history, once in 1961 when her parents forced her to flee to the United States, the second time in 2001 when her son, Zak, heads off to fight in Afghanistan. Like Daedalus, the namesake for Joyce’s character, who flies from the island of Crete to safety but loses his son, Sonia escapes from Castro’s oppression but never gets to see her parents again, and 40 years later she fears losing her son, too.

One of the ironies of “Sonia Flew” is that flight, which should signify freedom, comes to mean betrayal to Sonia — abandonment and a manipulation of patriotism.

With the subtext of the two hijacked airplanes flying into the Twin Towers, Lopez broaches the forgotten history of the Pedro Pan children, whose parents sent them away from Cuba on falsified student visas in the early 1960s; the play ponders why the parents never left the windows open so the children could return to their homeland.

Unlike Peter Pan and the lost boys, the Pedro Pan children don’t live in Never Neverland; they live very much in the real world, in a new country, the United States, where they have to start all over, learn a new language, make new families. In that regard, Sonia shares a bond with Sam, her father-in-law, a World War II veteran who emigrated from Europe to the United States at the time of the Holocaust.

While there is no suspense in the first half of the play about Zak’s joining the Marines, the act ends with Zak involved in an explosion in Afghanistan, followed by a blackout. Lopez leaves us uncertain for nearly the entire second act as to whether Zak lives or dies. For a scene or two, she also effectively withholds from us the key point that Sonia’s parents hated the revolution under Castro.
Occasionally, Sonia tips us off with Shakespearean-style soliloquies. Lopez began her theatrical career as an actress for Shakespeare & Company, a troupe in Western Massachusetts, and she says that when she first started acting, “I imagined myself exclusively performing Shakespeare’s plays.”

For years, she was primarily an actor. However, she enjoyed “contributing to someone else’s artistic vision” to such an extent that she decided to write her own plays. She obtained a masters in playwriting from Boston University, where she studied with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, and wrote her first play about 10 years ago, a one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” which was staged in Boston and in which she played all the parts of her bicultural family.

Since then, she has written several other short works, as well as a number of full-length plays. In addition to Shakespeare, whose Ariel is a precursor to Sonia in that she can fly, yet lacks freedom until the end of “The Tempest,” Lopez cites August Wilson as an influence. Lopez doesn’t write the way Wilson does with his flowing jazz-like riffs and authentic dialect. At times, Lopez’s dialogue veers toward cliché, such as when young Sonia, in a line uttered countless times since the dawn of movies, tells her mother, “I’m not going to end up like you, I know that much. I’m going to do something with my life.”

Despite the occasional, overly familiar line, Lopez creates characters who are inhabited with the kind of dedication and idealism we expect of pioneers. Given the waves of Jewish immigration in this country, it may not be surprising that after Lopez staged her one-woman show, “Midnight Sandwich,” her mother-in-law said to her, “You’re Jewish, and your whole family is Jewish.” Her mother-in-law then began asking Lopez if her family lit candles on Friday nights, like Marrano Jews who conducted ancient Jewish rituals in the basements of their homes after the Spanish Inquisition.

“You came over with Columbus and stopped off at Cuba,” theorized her mother-in-law.

Lopez took her mother-in-law’s comment as a compliment, though she has no idea whether she actually descends from Jews. While her protagonist, Sonia, is very attracted to Castro, whose surname, according to tradition, is a Jewish surname, Lopez does not have fond words for the aging Cuban leader.

“I don’t think he’s going to die. He’s too stubborn to die,” she said. “Nothing will change. When he does die in another 50 years, things will get worse. Scarcity will be greater. I’m not very optimistic.”

JewsOnFirst.org Continues Fight Against Aggressive Christian Activities


Several months ago, activist Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak learned of a Jewish family allegedly forced to flee its Delaware town after protesting aggressive Christian activities in the public schools.

The Los Angeles rabbi is co-founder of JewsOnFirst.org, perhaps the only Web site exclusively devoted to the Jewish take on separation of church and state (and a counterpart to Christian efforts such as Leftcross.com). Its mission, according to the site: “Defending the First Amendment against the Christian Right, because if Jews don’t speak up, they’ll think we don’t care.”

One goal is to champion cases largely ignored by the mainstream press.

Thus Beliak zeroed in on the Delaware family — Mona and Marco Dobrich and their two children — who had filed a lawsuit along with a family known only as the “Does” about a year ago. Their complaint alleges that teachers preached Christianity, that Bible Club students received special privileges, and that a local minister prayed for one of the children to accept Jesus at her high school graduation, among other charges. The Dobrichs moved to Wilmington, Del., when the suit allegedly made them “the focus of hostilities from neighbors and local media,” Beliak said.

The rabbi and his JewsOnFirst co-founder, union activist Jane Hunter, promptly conducted extensive research on the case, including interviews with school officials and the Dobrichs’ attorneys. After they published their Web expose in June, The New York Times interviewed Beliak and Hunter for its own story, which ran on July 29. In the Washington Jewish Week, an Anti-Defamation League official praised JewsOnFirst for its “robust” amount of information on church-state issues.

Beliak and Hunter created the site after becoming alarmed by increasing efforts by churches to back political candidates. Last week’s site included articles with titles such as “Religious right powerhouses mobilizing for 2006 elections,” “New Jersey school district to approve pro-prayer ruling” and an e-mail petition on behalf of the Dobrichs.

Most of the conflicts take place in Bible Belt states, Beliak said, because “those areas present a more accurate picture of this country than cities like Los Angeles. Most of America is not comfortable with diversity.”

JewsOnFirst will monitor how Los Angeles churches use an upcoming California pro-life ballot measure to back candidates — because lending support to individual candidates violates religious institutions’ tax-exempt status, Beliak said.

“Jews understand that liberty must be constantly guarded, and where we see threats, we must mobilize,” he added.

Unhappy New Year!


OK, I’ll be absolutely honest — I spent this past New Year’s Eve alone. Sure, I could have salvaged the situation with a round of frantic last-minute calling, but I never got around to it because I had to go and get into a fight. Fortunately, I was the only one who got hurt. You see, I picked a fight with myself. And on New Year’s Eve day, no less. Almost out of nowhere and with virtually no warning, I started in on myself.

So, who’s your lucky date for New Year’s Eve?

Please. You know darn well I don’t have any date tonight.

What? The Duke of Dating flying solo on New Year’s? I’m stunned. How can it be?

I don’t want to talk about it. It just worked out that way.

It doesn’t “just work out that way.” You worked it out that way. How many coffee dates have you had this past year?

Too painfully many to remember.

And not one of them was available for New Year’s Eve?

You don’t just ask someone out on a date for New Year’s Eve. It’s a very meaningful night. A very expensive night. It’s not for “a” date; it’s for “the” date.”

So with all those coffee dates, how come none of them worked out into “the” date?

You want a reason for each? She wasn’t attracted to me. I wasn’t attracted to her. She wanted someone who made more money. I wanted someone who talked about something other than herself. She wanted to have more kids. I wasn’t communicative enough for her. She didn’t have a sense of humor. I didn’t have a passion for four cats. Shall I continue?

You know what you’re doing, don’t you?

What am I doing?

It’s so obvious. For every woman you meet, you’re finding some reason, any reason, to keep you from starting a relationship.

That’s ridiculous.

Is it? You mean to tell me you meet a woman who’s perfect in every way, except she has four cats, and that’s the deal-breaker?

Look, I never said she was perfect otherwise. And besides, if I didn’t want a relationship, what am I doing spending all this time and energy meeting women?

You really want to know?

I asked, didn’t I?

You’re addicted to dating.

Get out of here.

Exactly. That’s the message you’re giving these poor women: “Get out of here.” For you, it’s all about the thrill of the chase. Ms. Right’s just around the corner. The next one’s going to be flawless. Well, get this, oh Sultan of Singles: There is no Ms. Right; there is no flawless, and there is no satisfaction for you if you keep on this way. One day you’re going to wake up to find yourself 78 years old and on your way to your next coffee date. That what you want, Pops?

Of course not. But none of the ones I’ve met this year feel right. I’ve had coffee dates where everything just clicks, we start dating, and before long, we’re in a relationship.

Sounds lovely. And where are those “everything-clicks” women now?

They didn’t work out.

They didn’t work out? Or you subconsciously torpedoed the relationship so you could get back to your addiction?

I, uh…

You know, I’ve about had it with you. You disgust me. Get out of my sight.

I can’t. I’m you and you’re me.

What did I do to deserve this?

Well, come on, don’t give up on me. What do you suggest?

I don’t know. Since I am you, I’m somewhat limited in my perceptions and insights.

You don’t have to insult me.

I’m sorry. OK, look, let’s try something different this year. One word: “Stop.” Stop the coffee dates. Stop the singles Web sites. Stop the matchmaking services. Stop the personals ads. Stop the singles parties and dances. Just stop.

Are you heading for a celibacy thing? Because that’s not what…

I’m trying to keep you from a celibacy thing. Just live your life. Do your work. Be with your friends and family. Volunteer for something. Be out in the real world. She’s out there, but you’re trying too hard. Stop trying. Start living.

I don’t know. I’ll think about it.

That’s all I ask. Now let’s get some Thai food, and for the love of God, no “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.”

I was in no mood to fight with myself any more. I picked up some Thai food. I called a few loved ones. I watched a Marx Brothers movie. And I gave some serious thought to what I’d said to myself. It wasn’t so bad. Yes, I was alone, but not lonely, really. And maybe next New Year’s Eve, I’ll have a date. She can even bring her cats.

Mark Miller, a comedy writer and performer, can be reached at

The Disengagement Summer


The column of armored SUVs waited, engines humming, as a phalanx of bodyguards ushered Prime Minister Ariel Sharon into the third truck from the end. As the convoy cleared the main gate of the Israeli government head’s residence, a set of decoy vehicles turned north, toward Jerusalem, while the remaining units proceeded south toward the Negev, where Sharon planned to tour absorption sites being built for hundreds of Israeli families soon to be evacuated from their Gaza Strip homes.

For Sharon, the site inspections this spring were a welcome excursion beyond his Jerusalem office compound or his Negev ranch. But for officers charged with protective security, the outing rivaled an elite combat operation.

Hours earlier, crack teams descended on each of the six kibbutzim and farming villages on the morning’s itinerary, creating “sterile” zones for Sharon to meet with prescreened residents and local leaders. At each stop, a bridgehead of agents cleared the way for the advancing prime minister while, 15,000 feet overhead, an unmanned reconnaissance drone scanned the scene with high-powered optics.

“We don’t spare any effort, money and tools in order to protect the prime minister from the growing threat,” Avi Dichter, the recently retired director of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, told JTA.

Dichter was talking less about Palestinian terrorists seeking to harm Sharon than about “Jewish ultra-extremists who are sure that one way to block the disengagement is by harming, if not killing, the prime minister,” he said, referring to the controversial plan to withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank that Sharon pushed through his government.

As the planned mid-August pullout approaches, many fear that protests against the Sharon government could give way to acts of violence. As ringleaders from the far right vow to thwart the withdrawal, security officials are increasingly warning of the prospect of Jewish terrorism.

According to Dichter, the Shin Bet has assessed a number of scenarios, including the prospect of a Jewish suicide bomber.

“We’re not ruling out a Jewish suicide bomber who might use ‘tamut nafshi pilishtim’ as his rationale,” Dichter said, referring to Samson’s words in the Bible as he brought down the Philistine temple around himself, “Let me die with the Philistines.”

The Knesset Finance Committee last month authorized a budgetary increase of nearly $90 million to cover extra costs associated with Sharon’s personal protection, which a committee aide estimated at some $230 million a year.

While many protective measures were mandated by a commission of inquiry following the 1995 assassination of then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin — and extended to a wider net of officials after Palestinian terrorists murdered Tourism Minister Rechavam Ze’evi in October 2001 — one recently retired Shin Bet official said the security around Sharon was unprecedented and was directly related to the Jewish terror threat.

“The tension here, the atmosphere here, seems like we’re on the eve of a civil war,” Sharon noted in an interview earlier this year on NBC television. “All my life I fought to defend Jews. Now, for the first time, I am taking steps to defend myself from Jews.”

Little more than a decade ago, Rabin used to walk the Tel Aviv streets to his Shabbat-morning tennis session. With his security detail trained to keep watch from a deferential distance, dog walkers and other early risers had no difficulty approaching Rabin in his tennis whites.

“Rabin rejected the notion that he could become a target for domestic violence,” said Oded Ben-Ami, who served as Rabin’s media adviser at the time.

Even as the atmosphere grew increasingly menacing, with political opponents and rabbinical authorities demanding Rabin’s removal for his “traitorous” dealings with the then PLO leader Yasser Arafat, his 1995 slaying by a religious university student stunned Israel and the world.

On that fateful night in November 1995, Israelis lost not only a leader but also their relatively free access to those in positions of power in the government.

In retrospect, said Hezi Kalo, a former Shin Bet official, the incitement against Rabin pales in comparison with the invective hurled at Sharon and supporters of the withdrawal plan, such as “Sharon: Lily is waiting for you,” a reference to the prime minister’s recently deceased wife.

“Today it’s much uglier. We haven’t learned our lesson,” Kalo said. “We’ve already seen how verbal violence can lead to murder.”

Ephraim Sneh, a Labor Party legislator who chairs the Knesset Subcommittee on Defense Planning and Policy, is privy to what he said were ominous briefings by security officials concerning the Jewish terror threat.

“The potential for political assassination and civil war here are no longer just rhetorical,” he said. “The poisonous atmosphere is getting worse.”

“We’re hearing very disturbing reports about the theft and stockpiling of IDF weapons by a small minority of fanatics who could sweep up the entire Israeli society and the region into catastrophe,” he said.

Beyond political assassinations, catastrophic scenarios range from the indiscriminate killing of Jewish civilians to guerrilla-style warfare against military and police units charged with implementing the withdrawal. Details of one plan that could have resulted in scores of victims were revealed May 18 in an indictment brought against two brothers, residents of the West Bank settlements Yitzhar and Homesh.

According to charges brought in Tel Aviv District Court, the pair loaded two gasoline-doused vehicles with mattresses, tires and other flammable items and planned to set them ablaze at one of the most congested areas of Tel Aviv’s Ayalon freeway during the morning rush hour.

“The suspects practically and intentionally endangered the security and the lives of all drivers and citizens in the vicinity of the vehicles,” the charge sheet proclaimed. “All this was driven by the suspects’ opposition to the disengagement plan.”

Dichter said the early May plot easily could have become a double suicide attack.

“Certainly they would have been killed instantly,” he said of the two planners, “but the rest would have depended on who crashed into them — a passing bus filled with children? A fuel tanker? God only knows what could have happened there.”

Soldiers will not be precluded from defending themselves if settlers open fire during the withdrawal, said the IDF’s new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, who called on settlement movement leaders to rein in extremists and prevent events from spiraling out of control.

So, too, have dozens of rabbis who have banded together to criticize colleagues whose interpretations of Jewish religious law appear to sanction violence and insubordination in the army.

“We have a special responsibility to preserve pikuach nefesh,” or the sanctity of life, Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, the head of the Religious Kibbutz Movement, told JTA in July.

Leaders of the Yesha settler council have backed resistance to the withdrawal but stress that such resistance should be nonviolent.

Gilad and 80 other rabbis — many of them passionately opposed to the withdrawal plan — insist that civilians must not take the law into their own hands, nor should soldiers refuse orders from their commanders.

Kalo, now a research fellow at the Herzliyah-based Institute for Counter-Terrorism, stresses that most in the right-wing camp are patriotic citizens exercising their right to protest nonviolently against what they truly believe is a betrayal by Sharon and his government.

Nevertheless, Kalo estimates that there are dozens of hard-core opponents, many of them veterans of elite IDF fighting units, with the capability and intention of carrying out terrorist acts.

Meanwhile, Sharon and top brass from the IDF and police force are trying to boost the morale of soldiers who will have to confront any anti-withdrawal extremists. As the clock ticks down to the mid-August evacuation, senior officers sense that the esprit de corps is eroding, particularly among troops from nationalist communities where the anti-withdrawal slogan “A Jew does not expel a Jew” has deeper resonance.

In the past several weeks, nearly three-dozen soldiers have been disciplined, reassigned or arrested for refusing orders, a top Israeli general told JTA in late July.

In addition to the possibility of Jews attacking other Jews, security officials also are afraid of a Jewish extremist attack on the Temple Mount mosques in Jerusalem or other Islamic sites. Their vigilance led to the arrest in April of four suspects in two separate attack plots.

Those who hope for a peaceful outcome this summer often look back to the 1982 evacuation of Israeli settlements in the Sinai — part of Israel’s peace agreement with Egypt — when worst-case scenarios didn’t materialize.

“We were ready for the phenomenon of snipers,” recalled Oded Tyrah, a retired IDF brigadier general who managed the withdrawal operation in Sinai’s Yamit settlement. “We had a unit of Golani anti-terror forces ready to go, but we didn’t deploy them.”

As challenging and heart-rending as the Sinai evacuation was, security sources say it may seem like child’s play compared with the pullout from Gaza and the northern West Bank. This time around, they face a more emotional and committed group of resisters who have a much more spiritual, financial and cultural attachment to the place they’ve called home — some for more than 20 years.

Simha Weiss, 47, who has lived for 16 years in Shalev, a tiny settlement in southern Gaza, insists most longtime residents of the cluster of Jewish communities known as Gush Katif would never think of provoking violence against Israeli forces who come to evacuate them.

“These soldiers are like my own children,” she said. “I think I speak for most when I say we will never lift a hand against them, nor will they against us.”

Nevertheless, the mother of six said she fears events could lead to bloodshed.

“I’m afraid there will be very tough violence,” Weiss said. “It will be Jew against Jew.”

“More than 90 percent of the people in Gush Katif are very loving and law-abiding. We don’t want violence,” she said. “But the other small percentage, they are looking for trouble.”

There’s also concern about what will happen in the northern West Bank communities that also are scheduled for evacuation. Since Passover, 30 families and another 25 young men have moved to Sa-Nur to “assist us in our fight against the government’s expulsion plan,” the community spokeswoman Miriam Adler said.

Speaking to reporters in early July, ahead of the government’s closure of Gush Katif, Adler said thousands of people might flock to Sa-Nur to join what she predicted could evolve into armed resistance. And while security forces also are expected to cordon off Sa-Nur and the other three northern West Bank settlements slated for evacuation after Gaza, residents say it will be much more difficult to limit the influx of supporters due to the area’s hilly topography.

Adler said plans called for groups to hide in the hills, barricade themselves in structures and otherwise “drive the security forces crazy.”

“We won’t initiate any violence, but developments in the field will depend on the military,” she told visiting reporters. However, she warned, “If security forces will start to beat pregnant women or pull babies out of mothers’ arms, things may spiral out of control.”

Adler said residents have no intention of turning in their weapons to security forces, insisting that they need them for self-defense against “the enemy.”

Asked if she considers the IDF the enemy, she replied, “The IDF is our opponent, not our enemy. By Ariel Sharon sending the army in here against us as if we are terrorists, he is turning the army into our opponent.”

The IDF’s Tyrah said he’s tired of the doomsday scenarios about withdrawal, which lend what he considers unwarranted credibility to “marginal criminals and hooligans.”

“After the evacuation,” Tyrah said, “we’ll have to live with these people and fight alongside them against the real enemy. So it’s imperative that our government and our security establishment accomplish this mission with utmost determination and professionalism, but also with compassion.”

Â

Talmudic Tax Write-Off


 

Few people are eager to pick fights with the IRS. Michael Sklar, now well into his second voluntary tax lawsuit, is definitely an exception.

Sklar is an Orthodox father with several children in Jewish day school. His courtroom quest: to establish religious school costs as tax deductions.

It all comes down to the Church of Scientology. The Scientologists struck a deal with the IRS that has allowed them to count the cost of their spiritual “auditing sessions” as tax deductions since 1993. The Tax Code OKs this practice for any religious expense paid in exchange for intangible spiritual benefits (for example, it also works for High Holiday seats, church pew rents, tithes, etc.).

Sklar goes further and claims that Jewish day school is no different from the Scientologists’ spiritual auditing sessions, and should also be tax-deductible.

“The idea is that everybody should have the same benefit,” said Jeffrey Zuckerman, Sklar’s attorney.

“You get 25, 30 people, you put them in a classroom and you have a guy get up and instruct them in the tenets of the Church of Scientology,” Zuckerman said. “That strikes me, in a jurisprudential sense, as indistinguishable from a teacher instructing 25 kids in Torah.”

But even if one does equate the two activities, there are still questions about the dangers of pushing government even deeper into religious life simply to establish equity with the Scientologists.

“The comfort level that the Jewish community has in this society in good measure stems from the separation of church and state,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, executive director of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles. “It’s certainly clear to me that the Sklars are looking for a loophole,” said Greenebaum.

Interestingly, in 2002, Sklar voiced similar fears in this publication. “As a Jew, I was terrified by what [was] going on,” he said about the Scientologists’ deal. “The current Tax Code amounts to state-sponsored religion, and Jews never fare well under those circumstances.”

But today he seems to have taken parity with the Scientologists as his main concern instead.

“[Even] if we went back to nobody being able to take [the deduction], that would not accomplish anything because then the government would have gotten away with discrimination for 10 years,” Sklar said last week.

Mayoral Election: 102 Days and Counting

Bob Hertzberg’s campaign is rapidly emerging as the assault troop of the Los Angeles mayoral race.

The most recent example: An online petition demanding that the mayor participate in a KNBC televised debate at the Museum of Tolerance on Dec. 2.

Hertzberg writes on his Web site: “Jimmy Hahn is continuing to avoid debating me and my fellow challengers. I don’t know about you, but I am deeply offended by the fact that he is continuing to hide behind press releases.”

“The fact that the mayor is running for re-election, and has raised a ton of money to run TV commercials, but is refusing to stand up and defend his record, we believe is an insult to the voters,” said Matt Szabo, spokesperson for Hertzberg.

Hertzberg’s petition had been electronically signed by 456 people as of Nov. 18.

“Apparently the mayor decided that defending his record would be more damaging than refusing to show,” Szabo said.

The mayor said he simply has a scheduling conflict.

“We actually asked them if they’d be willing to do the debate on another night, but obviously they were not willing,” said Julie Wong, spokesperson for the Hahn campaign.

The debate was originally scheduled for October, but organizer Scott Regberg said it was postponed to avoid distraction with the presidential campaign — and because the mayor asked for another date then, as well.

The mayor has committed to attending another debate later in the month. Expectedly, the Hertzberg campaign is challenging Hahn on choosing to attend the debate three days before Christmas.

“Mayor Hahn will be at the Dec. 21 debate which will be held at the League of Conservation Voters,” Wong said.

She added that this won’t be the last time for a meeting between the candidates by any means.

“I think we’ll have plenty of opportunities for the mayor and others in the race to talk about their vision for L.A,” she said.

Hotel Union Asks Guests to ‘Check Out’

The union representing hotel workers from nine major companies in Los Angeles asked the public to boycott their employers on Nov. 11.

UNITE HERE (formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union), Local 11 has been engaged in a battle with the Millennium Biltmore, Westin Bonaventure, Hyatt Regency, Wilshire Grand, Regent Beverly Wilshire, Century Plaza Hotel & Spa, St. Regis, Hyatt West Hollywood and Sheraton Universal since last spring.

One of the central disputes between the union and management is the controversial two-year contract. The union wants to renegotiate in 2006, when many other hotel unions nationwide will also be in contract negotiations.

Joining together in 2006 would put them in a much stronger position to bargain for benefits with the multinational hotel chains, rather than negotiating city by city.

The hotels oppose a two-year deal, saying the dispute is local and nationwide union contracts should have nothing to do with it.

In the meantime, with no contract between the L.A. workers and hotels in force, management has suspended the free health care workers had been receiving and began charging a fee.

The long-running dispute is beginning to attract political attention.

City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles) and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) attended the Nov. 11 boycott announcement.

California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) has publicly called for a quick resolution, saying the clash could hurt the city’s economy.

Economy Project Crunches L.A. Numbers

Several weeks ago, a variety of newspapers published numbers from a recent report on the health of the Los Angeles economy. The report, called the LA Economy Project, was put together by the Milken Institute and the Economic Roundtable.

Their numbers showed that L.A. workers are at risk of being undereducated for the types of jobs that will be created here in the near future.

Problem is, the study wasn’t finished.

“It’s something that wasn’t supposed to happen for a while,” said Michael Klowden, executive director of the Milken Institute. “Part of the report is done. We’re finalizing the rest of it, but it was essentially incomplete information.”The partial information that was released indicated a huge gap between income levels for native English speakers compared to non-native English speaking immigrants. It showed that the majority of the working poor in the city are clustered around just a few low-paying industries like restaurants, construction and housekeeping.

Klowden said that the sections of the report on how to actually address this problem in terms of public policy are still unfinished. He added that matching the workforce numbers with business data hasn’t been done yet, either.

“The mayor’s office has really been interested in what our findings are,” said Klowden. Joy Chen, a former deputy mayor under Hahn, played a prominent role in the project. Klowden said that Hahn has publicly announced his plans to incorporate the LA Economy Project’s findings into his strategy for the city, and would like to have it “coordinated from their end.”

It’s unclear how exactly the statistics-laden numbers that were prematurely released reflected on Hahn when they made the rounds in the major newspapers. It’s also unclear whether the final report will be more favorable to Hahn or not.

But one thing is guaranteed: They will definitely be released in time for the mayoral election.

 

Chaos Comes to Town


Merhav Mohar never lost a match until a Latvian at the Sheraton Plaza in Israel took away his winning streak. KO’ed in the first round, the 21-year-old Israeli boxer said, "It was the best knockout ever seen in the Holy Land."

In America for the first time through Golden Boy Promotions — Oscar De La Hoya’s company — Mohar is confident that at the March 25 nationally televised event, he’ll come out the victor.

The Israeli-born boxer always knew he would take the athletic route.

Starting in karate and then moving on to Muay-Thai (kickboxing), Mohar beat out the competition and wanted to compete in a more visible sport. Fans and contenders nicknamed him "Chaos" for his constant energy in the ring — making it difficult for his opponents to anticipate his moves. After being raised in Kenya and then moving to Israel, Mohar experienced a rough adjustment — learning a new language, attending a new school and making new friends.

Well-adjusted now, the junior middleweight has no second thoughts about living in Israel, convinced it’s where he belongs. A descendent of generations of Israeli pioneer fighters, Mohar proudly serves in the Israel Defense Forces (he has a line of "Hatikva" tattooed on his right arm), and commands a team of soldiers in security and intelligence. With five months left of his service, it has been tough juggling both his boxing career and his military life, but the army understands the demands of the sport.

His parents never thought he would opt for a career in the ring.

"My mom is a Jewish mom, she’d obviously like me to be a doctor," he said with a chuckle.

Interestingly enough, Mohar disappointed his father by not choosing a combat route in the army. Though his mother has never seen him fight, she makes him apologize to his defeated opponents.

"If I knockout someone," he said, "she says, ‘OK, now go over and say you’re sorry.’"

As an Israeli fighting in an American ring, Mohar hopes to be an ambassador of peace, and show Americans that Israel is more than the war zone they see on TV. Will he make a living out of boxing? He boxes for the love of the sport and for himself first, but if this premier fight jump-starts a career, "Why the hell not?" he said.

The fight will be held March 25 at Grand Olympic Auditorium at 7 p.m. and will be televised live on HBO Latino. For tickets, call (213) 480-3232.

Yoffie Emphasizes Need to Forge Links


Reform Jews cannot go it alone.

That was the message at the Reform movement’s 67th biennial in Minneapolis last week.

Despite numerically dominating the North American Jewish landscape, Reform Jews must reach out to other Reform Jews in Israel and Eastern Europe and fight anti-Semitism by forging closer ties to Christians, said the movement’s president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

"There is no such thing as Lone Ranger Judaism," Yoffie said at the convention of the newly named Union for Reform Judaism, delivering the keynote address to a Shabbat morning service of 4,500 delegates.

The address marked less of a philosophical sea change for Reform Judaism than Yoffie solidifying an agenda he has promoted since ascending to the top of the largest American stream of Judaism in 1996. Since that time, Yoffie has spearheaded calls both to infuse the movement with more tradition and to invigorate ritual through participation.

On Shabbat, he underscored his points with a distinctively progressive twist. Since God made the covenant at Mount Sinai with the Jewish people, he said, "every religious Jew has understood that she cannot fully observe Torah and reclaim the holy moment at Sinai unless she does so as part of klal Yisrael," the people of Israel.

First, Yoffie said, the movement would invigorate its support for Reform congregations in Israel, in addition to Reform Jewish communities in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

Yoffie urged members specifically to raise money to help build two new Reform synagogues in Modi’in and in Mevasseret Zion, both led by women rabbis, while also helping train Reform Jews in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union to launch new communities.

He also urged the movement to support Israeli students at the Jerusalem branch of the movement’s seminary, the New York-based Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, with two-year scholarships and two years of post-ordination salary. To raise such funding, Yoffie asked each of the movement’s 920 congregations to ask each member to donate $18 annually — "about the cost of two movie tickets."

Seeking inspiration for this work, Yoffie looked no further than the ultra Orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidic movement, which has built outposts throughout the world.

"It is hard for me to say this, but I will say it nonetheless: We must follow the example of Chabad," Yoffie said. "I disagree with Chabad about practically everything, and I am appalled by the messianic fervor that has flared up in their midst. But I envy the selflessness of their young men and women who fan out across the world to serve Jewish communities in distress."

A Chabad spokesman, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, declined to comment on Yoffie’s remarks.

Yoffie also called on Reform Jews to rebuild the bridges they have forged with non-Jews as a path to fighting anti-Semitism and promoting Middle East peace.

While Reform Jews led interfaith efforts for decades, those ties have declined recently, and in "many communities, little survives beyond Thanksgiving services and model seders," he said.

Yoffie urged synagogue leaders to invite neighboring churches to join in studying a seven-session course on biblical texts and the religious and political issues surrounding Israel.

Whether synagogues can forge those ties remains to be seen, but his call came with joint endorsements by the major Protestant group, the National Council of Churches of Christ; the Presbyterian Church; the Evangelical Lutheran Church; the United Methodist Church, and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Reform Jews know that our community is ill served by the embrace of narrow tribalism," Yoffie said.

Yoffie also urged Reform Jews to look inward. He called on members to study Torah for 10 minutes daily, saying those who complete 100 hours of study using a "Ten Minutes of Torah" Web site will be honored at the group’s 2005 biennial in Houston.

Aiming for the youth market, Yoffie also unveiled a "Packing for College" kit for 11th and 12th graders, a nine-session, two-year course about choosing a college and drafting a "personal Jewish action plan."

In the political realm, Yoffie underscored the movement’s longtime support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, urged a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza and called for dismantling new settlement outposts. Yoffie said he is raising the issue because of what he called "the threat that the settlements pose to Israel’s sovereign survival."

With the number of Jewish settlers doubling from 115,000 to 230,000 in one decade, the Jewish and Palestinian populations are becoming so "intertwined" that separation will soon prove "impossible," he said.

After three years’ of intensified violence, "there is a sense of desperation" about how the right-wing Likud government of Ariel Sharon is handling the situation, he added.

"I don’t understand, where are they moving?" he said. "The settlers are turning Israel over to the Arabs. — JB

The Great Jewish Hope


Dmitriy Salita doesn’t fight on the Sabbath, which gives his competition a much-needed day of rest from this powerful junior welterweight. With a 13-0, 10 KO record, the 5-foot-9, 139-pound fighter who goes by the moniker "The Star of David," is a rising star in the boxing ring.

Salita, 21, studied karate in Odessa until age 9, when he and his family immigrated to the United States. Though his parents were not religious, they understood that as Jews in the Ukraine, their family could not live in complete freedom. They hoped Brooklyn would bring their sons better opportunities. With little money to spare, the new immigrants could not afford to continue Salita’s martial arts training. Four years later, acting on his brother’s suggestion, 13-year-old Salita walked into the Starrett City Boxing Club.

"That was it. I was hooked, addicted," said Salita, who won the 2000 U.S. Nationals Under-19 and the 2001 New York Golden Gloves amateur championship title.

Salita, who fights in shorts embroidered with a gold Star of David, was not always observant; he slowly grew into his relationship with Judaism.

"In the Ukraine, Jews were traditional in knowledge, but we weren’t religious," he said.

Salita rediscovered his religion when his mother, Lyudmilia, was diagnosed with cancer in 1998. Lyudmilia’s hospital roommate’s husband introduced Salita to the Chabad of Flatbush. There, under the mentorship of Rabbi Zalman Liberov, Salita studied and embraced Jewish practices.

"It didn’t happen overnight, it took years. Each week it was something different — no TV on Shabbat, no driving on Shabbat, keeping kosher and so on," said Salita, who prays at local Chabad houses when he’s on the road. "I feel comfortable at Chabad, they’re down with people."

Chabad is also down with boxing. It was Liberov’s brother, Israel, who introduced Salita to his promoter, Top Rank’s Bob Arum.

Arum, who is an active member of Chabad of Southern Nevada, has promoted numerous champions including Muhammad Ali, Oscar de la Hoya and George Foreman. Israel sent Salita’s tape to Arum’s rabbi, the rabbi showed it Arum, and Arum signed Salita immediately. Salita was thrilled with the match.

"Bob was raised in an Orthodox family, so he’s totally supportive of my beliefs. He understands my Judaism, my schedule, plus, he’s just a really good guy," said Salita, who won his U.S. Nationals title after rescheduling the final mid-Sabbath bout for Saturday night.

"I’m proud of my Judaism," he said. "When my parents came to this country, they came here for freedom. My Judaism is a part of that freedom."

Salita looks for another post-sundown win on Saturday, Sept. 20, when he meets Joe Bartole (8-2, 5 KOs) in the ring at the Arrowhead Pond of Anaheim.

"I’ve been training hard and I’m looking forward to a good performance, to putting on a good show," Salita said. "And I’m happy to be in Los Angeles. It’s a great city, an exciting city, a glamorous city," Salita said.

Salita’s fight will be televised locally on KCAL 9, Sept. 20, 8 p.m. Tickets for the fight are available through TicketMaster.

Clash Over Council, School Board Seats


In the North San Fernando Valley lies District 12, which has been represented by Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson for 24 years. Bernson, 72, is retiring because of term limits, and the battle for his seat has resulted in the nastiest fight in years.

Not since "the Richards" — Katz and Alarcón — duked it out for the Assembly have there been so many accusations between two candidates. In one corner is Julie Korenstein, the longest-sitting member on the Los Angeles Board of Education, on the other is Greig Smith, Bernson’s chief deputy.

Each has a long record of public service: Korenstein has been on the Board of Education since 1987, while Smith has been Bernson’s top aide since 1980. Both are on the May 20 ballot to replace Bernson, whose district covers Chatsworth, Northridge, Granada Hills and parts of Canoga Park, West Hills and Encino.

Both candidates have long lists of endorsements. Korenstein’s backing reflects her political links: Reps. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters and the United Teachers Union of Los Angeles. Smith has the political support of state Sen. Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), United Firefighters of Los Angeles and former Mayor Richard Riordan.

In the hotly contested battle, each has accused the other of, among other things, lying, playing dirty and being beholden to special interests. Smith says Korenstein is tied to the unions, while Korenstein says Smith is hand-in-hand with developers.

Korenstein’s main challenge in the race is to convince voters that she is City Council material. In this, she believes her Board of Education experience has served her well, noting that as a board member, she has had oversight of a $9.9 billion budget.

"Los Angeles Unified covers 28 cities or parts of cities," Korenstein said. "We have a transportation division, a construction program with 120 schools, which are going to be built in the next five to six years. So I think I’m ready [to work for the city]."

In an appeal to Jewish voters, Smith took credit for helping North Valley Jewish Community Center (NVJCC) advocates secure funding in order to begin the process of purchasing the site from the troubled Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA).

"I went in and fought to keep it open," Smith said. "I was offended by the [JCCGLA] saying there weren’t enough Jews in the area to maintain it, when there is a very large Jewish community in the area that wants to keep the center open."

Andrea Goodstein, vice president of the NVJCC board, confirmed that Smith did attend the meetings to help secure the center, either with Bernson or as Bernson’s representative. However, she said that members of the NVJCC are split on the candidates. The center has held "meet-and-greets" for both candidates, but cannot endorse either one.

"We hope whoever takes Hal’s place will continue to work to support the center," Goodstein said.

Both candidates have been vocal on many of the issues in the district, most notably the Sunshine Canyon landfill. Smith differs with both Bernson and Korenstein in his approach to the North Valley area.

"Hal’s viewpoint is more global, as far as dealing with transportation and air quality, and looking at the city as a larger entity," Smith said. "I really want to focus my attention on the street level and work with the neighborhood councils."

Korenstein said she sees land use and transportation issues as "the most frustrating to people in the northwest Valley." She is concerned about equestrian property owners who moved to the area because it was horse-friendly and now are seeing their favorite trails eaten up by development.

One development of which she would approve, however, is a freeway.

"We really need another north-south freeway, because the San Diego Freeway can’t take the traffic anymore," she said. "We also need to improve bus service and look at a light-rail system. We need to bring our public transportation into the 21st century, like San Francisco or London or any normal city."

Elsewhere, two-term Board of Education member David Tokofsky is facing a strong challenge from Nellie Rios-Parra, a Lennox schools administrator and teacher, in what has shaped up as sharply contested battle. The two are vying for the Fifth District seat, representing an area whose student population is largely Latino.

Sue Burnside, Tokofsky’s election consultant, said polls show the incumbent is ahead as Election Day nears. However, Rios-Parra has received strong support from the Coalition for Kids, a political action committee backed by Riordan and millionaire businessman Eli Broad.

"We run on things that are very David Tokofsky, like textbooks and kids graduating with reading and writing skills and fiscal oversight," Burnside said. "We’re still ahead in the polls, but if our voters don’t turn out, we lose. It’s all an issue of who’s going to be there on Election Day."

The Battle Over Mesivta


At a shabby, deserted golf course in an isolated area of Calabasas, a half-started construction site sits idle, and some 31 yeshiva bocherim learn Talmud at the makeshift campus of Mesivta of Greater Los Angeles.

Rabbi Shlomo Gottesman had opened the high school with nine students in 1997, hoping to transform it into a first-class yeshiva complete with dormitories, a beit midrash (study hall) and a basketball court. But, now five years later, his plans are stuck in the mud, because of a legal battle with a nearby homeowners association.

The protracted court case, which is now awaiting an environmental impact report (EIR) from the school, shows how badly a school building project can go when met with fiery opposition by the surrounding community.

The opposition first began in July of 1998, when one-third of the residents of Mountain View Estates — a gated community of million-dollar homes located a half-mile west of the yeshiva — signed a petition protesting the project and brought it before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Among their objections were noise, traffic congestion, airborne contamination from digging at the site and "negative impact on the visual quality" of the rustic neighborhood. Representatives of Mountain View’s homeowners association even staged a protest for visiting members of the county’s regional planning commission on at least one occasion.

Despite the residents’ objections the board granted Mesivta a conditional-use permit. But the fight wasn’t over. Following the ruling in 1999, Mountain View sued the County for awarding Mesivta the conditional-use permit without an EIR. Last year, the homeowners won in the appellate court, which ordered Mesivta leaders to cease construction until they could come up with a full EIR. Gottesman said he hopes to have the document completed by the end of the year.

Gottesman said he is "disappointed but not heartbroken" by the legal battle. "Our momentum has slowed down but it hasn’t been lost," he said. He hopes that the homeowners association’s new board of directors — rumored to be voted in soon — will be able to conduct better relations between the two groups.

But could the whole process have been avoided if Gottesman had worked with the homeowners’ group prior to embarking on the project?

Initially, Gottesman had been surprised at the objections. He had intended to be a good neighbor, he said, meeting with Calabasas city officials and representatives of the community of Hidden Hills — but not with those at Mountain View. After the battle began in earnest, Gottesman told The Journal in August 1998 that he could have done things differently.

"I admit it was a mistake on my part, not to get in touch with them earlier," Gottesman had said. "Now the hard-earned funds for teaching Torah are instead being used to pay legal fees."

Several current and former members of the Mountain View Estates homeowners association board were contacted for comment, but all declined to speak to The Journal.

Despite the unfinished campus, the school has managed to attract 31 students this year, split among the ninth, 10th and 11th grades. Mesivta even graduated its first class of seniors last June, although there will be no such class this year because of the county’s restriction on enrollment for the 1999-2000 school year.

Currently, the school employs three teachers fulltime and eleven parttime, plus a trio of kitchen and ground staff. Most of the students live on campus in rudimentary dormitories, although a few commute in from the city with their teachers.

A majority of the infrastructure has been completed, Gottesman said, for what will be an 11-building campus, including grading the property, installing retaining walls and constructing the paved areas for several buildings. They have also put in a sewer system and conduits for water and gas lines.

That work, plus the initial purchase of the 8.5-acre property and legal fees, amounted of $2.5 million, Gottesman said — nearly all of the money raised to date. The rabbi said he has additional commitments that should bring in another $400,000, but will need to raise $6 million on top of that to complete the project.

"There’s a lot of money yet to be raised. We have no mortgage and we have taken no loans, but if we have to we will take out a construction loan," Gottesman said. "The advantage of the project is we don’t need one lump sum, because there are 11 small buildings instead of one big one, so we will be able to go in phases."

"I certainly see a challenge ahead but I am optimistic," Gottesman said. "I think as soon as people see action, action begets action. The action of construction begets the action of donation."

Americans Fight Terror With Aliyah


Howard and Dora Green were inside Jerusalem’s packed Sbarro pizzeria last August when a suicide bomber blew himself up and killed more than a dozen others.

The Greens suffered personally from the terrorist attack — their niece still lies in a coma in Tel Aviv — but it prompted the couple to emerge stronger and more dedicated to preserving the Jewish people.

The "best way to fight back" said Howard Green, is to make aliyah. Nearly one year later, the Orthodox couple from New York has moved to Israel. They were among nearly 400 North American Jews — 150 under the age of 12 — who made aliyah in what is believed to be the largest group of North Americans to immigrate at one time to Israel.

Israel was "always a dream we could never fulfill" for financial or other reasons, said Dora Green, 51, as she prepared for her departure from JFK International Airport on Monday.

But now, with her husband’s retirement benefits and a financial boost from a new organization dedicated to easing the financial burden of aliyah, the Greens are officially new immigrants.

In fact, the group that helped the Greens, Nefesh B’Nefesh (From Soul to Soul), was founded by someone dedicated to replacing lives lost to terror with new Jewish immigrants.

After his cousin was killed in a 2000 terrorist attack in Israel, Rabbi Joshua Fass of Boca Raton, Fla., wanted to "come stand in his stead."

Describing his inspiration to others, the 29-year-old Orthodox rabbi found a burgeoning group of like-minded prospective immigrants whose only impediment was finances. In November, he resigned from his congregation and joined local businessman and congregant Tony Gelbart to launch the group. They placed ads in Jewish papers across the country and urged the North American offices of the Israel Aliyah Center to direct prospective immigrants their way.

Of the $3 million Nefesh B’Nefesh raised, $2 million came as a grant from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises money primarily from Christian donors.

Nefesh B’Nefesh offered the new immigrants from $5,000 to $25,000 in grants, averaging $20,000, to ease their move to Israel. The group includes Jews from 23 states and Canada. The first planeload of new immigrants arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to great fanfare on Tuesday morning. Three-fourths of the group are Orthodox, according to Fass, who went with his wife, Batsheva, and three small children.

But others among them said a secular Zionism propelled their move. Mike Lewin was leaving his best friend and family behind in Cleveland to begin a new life.

"I’ve always been a strong Zionist," said Lewin, 28, who describes himself as a Reform Jew in America and a secular one in Israel.

It’s a feeling that’s grown, he said as he was leaving, since his first visit there as a 16-year-old on a federation-sponsored teen tour. "Not every Jew needs [to make aliyah]," he said, but those who are ready "to make a commitment should go," he said.

One of the main reason American Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, don’t make aliyah is because they can’t afford the expense of relocating, said 63-year-old Stan Rabinowitz, a ba’al teshuvah (return to Judaism).

Indeed, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says that if Nefesh B’Nefesh proves that to be the case by continuing to raise the numbers of American aliyah, then American Jewry must address the issue. Eckstein, who himself recently made aliyah, said, "This aliyah happened because Christian Americans helped make it happen."

North American aliyah has steadily decreased by 15 percent every year for the last five years, with slightly fewer than 1,200 North Americans making aliyah last year. But this year, Dan Biron, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center, which handles immigration to Israel by North American Jews, expects an increase of 20 percent due to the work of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Nefesh B’Nefesh plans to continue operating out of Florida and Israel with 130 more scheduled to depart later this summer, and another 1,200 immigrants next year.