The second annual Camp Neshama attendees come together in the lodge of the Dovid Oved Retreat Center in Running Springs. Photo courtesy of Pico Shul.

Moving & Shaking: Pico Shul goes skiing, BJE and AFOBIS celebrate

Pico Shul went to the mountains over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend with a shabbaton organized by the Orthodox congregation and the young professionals group JConnect.

The three-day retreat, called Camp Neshama, was held at the Dovid Oved Retreat Center in Running Springs, Calif., which is owned and operated by Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles, the local branch of the international religious Zionist youth movement.

More than 30 young professionals took advantage of the surroundings, spending the weekend skiing and snowboarding at the nearby Snow Valley Mountain Resort, sledding on tiny hills inside the grounds of the retreat center and enjoying communal kosher meals.

“People go to what they want, or they can hang out, relax and make new friends and talk, and have conversations into all hours of the night,” Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, spiritual leader of Pico Shul, said in a Jan. 15 interview as people prepared for car rides back to Los Angeles.

The weekend was the congregation’s second Camp Neshama. The inaugural event was held last Labor Day.

A Friday night dinner kicked off the retreat. On Saturday, people spent daylight hours doing yoga, going on nature walks and attending a lecture on relationships by Bookstein’s wife and Pico Shul rebbetzin Rachel Bookstein.

On Saturday night, people wore wireless headphones to listen to two stations of music — one with Israeli dance tunes and the other with contemporary pop hits — and boogied silent disco-style.

Decked out in ’80s-style snow gear, artist, yoga instructor and writer Marcus Freed was among those who braved the slopes on Sunday before reconvening with the rest of the group in the afternoon for lunch.

The event culminated with a farewell breakfast Monday morning. Shelli Carol, a tutor from Palo Alto, said she appreciated the philanthropic Alevy family for sponsoring the gathering, adding, “I spent my weekend having way too much fun and not getting enough sleep.”


Los Angeles City Councilman David Ryu speaks at a ceremony honoring seven firefighters who volunteered in Israel. Directly behind him are (from left) councilman Bob Blumenfield, fire chief Ralph Terrazas, city controller Ron Galperin and councilman Paul Koretz. Photo courtesy of Council District 4.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas joined Los Angeles City Councilmembers David Ryu, Bob Blumenfield, Mitchell Englander and Paul Koretz at City Hall on Jan. 20 to honor seven local firefighters who traveled to Israel in November to fight the deadly blazes that erupted there.

The seven men, six from the city fire department and one from the Los Angeles County Fire Department, took time off from work and paid their own expenses to travel to Israel with the Emergency Volunteers Project, an Israeli government-backed organization that trains emergency responders abroad to assist in Israel in times of need. The organization counts 950 volunteers trained since 2009.

The men were LAFD firefighters Elan Raber, Shaun Gath, Aaron Brownell and Ben Arnold, LAFD engineer Dennis Roach, retired LAFD apparatus operator Mike Porper and L.A. County Fire Department firefighter Jake Windell.

The major fires that broke out across Israel, from both arson and natural causes, left more than 1,000 people homeless and caused about a quarter of the city of Haifa to be evacuated.

The firefighters also were honored the same day at the headquarters of the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles.

“The state-to-state relationship, as well as the personal friendships that have developed between the first responders in Los Angeles and Israel, serve as a reminder of the strong ties between the two countries,” a statement from the consulate said.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg, Consul for Political Affairs Yaki Lopez and Consul for Public Diplomacy Maya Kadosh attended the ceremony at the consulate.

Eitan Arom, Staff Writer


From left: Errol Fine, chair of the West Coast board of AFOBIS; Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg; AFOBIS board member Lee Samson and his son, Daniel; and Benjy Maor, director of global resource development at Beit Issie Shapiro. Photos courtesy of American Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro.

The American Friends of Beit Issie Shapiro (AFOBIS) West Coast regional gala 2016 was held at Sinai Temple on Nov. 17.

ms-sharon-cermakThe event honored Sharon Cermak, a professor in the department of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, with the AFOBIS humanitarian award.

“I’ve always done work with kids with disabilities and I think Beit Issie is one of the premier institutions for work with children, so being honored by Beit Issie, by a Jewish organization, really meant the world to me,” Cermak said in an interview.

Cermak currently is involved with a program at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, adapted from an initiative at Beit Issie Shapiro, that creates a sensory-friendly environment for children with autism receiving dental care. As part of the program, soothing music is played, the dental office lights are dimmed, and a vest is placed on patients so as to apply deep, comforting pressure to them.

“We’ve developed something at Beit Issie Shapiro, a butterfly vest, which provides children with a ‘hug’ from a butterfly,” Cermak said. “The vest on the chair wraps around the child and provides deep pressure, which is calming for children [and] helps kids be calmer.”

Beit Issie Shapiro is an Israel-based organization that serves children living with disabilities. Located in Ra’anana, Israel, the organization offers early intervention and medical services as well as special education programs to children living with autism, and it develops technologies that improve the quality of life for people living with disabilities.

Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Sam Grundwerg attended the event and said the organization demonstrates that Israel is more than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Beit Issie Shapiro is a glowing example of Israel as an innovation nation imbued with compassion, combining high-tech and high heart,” Grundwerg said. “As a global leader of innovative therapies and state-of-the-art services for children and adults with disabilities, Beit Issie Shapiro is an unparalleled ambassador for the State of Israel.”

Additional attendees included Avishai Sadan, dean of the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC.

Headquartered in New York, AFOBIS raises funds to support Beit Issie Shapiro.


Attendees at the Builders of Jewish Education gala included (from left, top row) Philip Miller, Gil Graff, Alan Spiwak, Adrian Miller, Larry Miller and Jerry Katz, as well as (from left, bottom row) Judy Miller, Judy and Louis Miller, and Caryn Katz. Photo courtesy by Mark Lee.

Builders of Jewish Education (BJE), the central agency for Jewish education in Los Angeles, honored 20 members of the philanthropic Miller family and recognized professionals Phil Liff-Grieff and Monise Neumann on Jan. 18 at Sinai Temple.

“It was phenomenal,” Miriam Prum Hess, director of donor and community relations at BJE, said of the evening. “We honored an amazing family that really is a role model from generation to generation — l’dor v’dor — and two professionals who are the epitome of creativity, professionalism and caring.”

More than 530 people turned out at the event, which raised more than $500,000.

Funds raised will benefit the BJE March of the Living program, which is in need of additional staff historians to accompany teenagers on the upcoming March of the Living trip to Poland and Israel, as fewer and fewer survivors are alive or physically able to go.

The funds also benefit the BJE Hebrew Language Proficiency Project, which is focused on maximizing day school students’ acquisition of Hebrew language skills. The Journal reported in 2015 that the program has “had an impact on 2,000 students, 65 teachers and 27 Hebrew coordinators and lead teachers.”

Members of the Miller family honored included the patriarch and matriarch of the family, Louis and Judy Miller, the namesakes of the Miller Introduction to Judaism Program at American Jewish University.

Marjorie Gross, Natalie Roberts, Angel Schneider and Sheila Baran Spiwak co-chaired the event, which saw the Daniel Raijman Ensemble perform and Dr. Mark Goldenberg serve as emcee.

ms-landresShawn Landres, co-founder of Jumpstart Labs, a Los Angeles-based incubator of Jewish innovation, in December was elected chair of the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission (QPC), which oversees the nation’s oldest and largest local government innovation fund.

He is serving a renewable one-year term.

Landres has served as a member of the commission since 2013. He was first appointed by former Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky in 2013 and reappointed by Supervisor Sheila Kuehl in 2015. He chaired his first meeting on Jan. 23.

Landres also serves as board co-chair of Jumpstart Labs.

In addition, the father of two is a senior fellow at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and chair of the City of Santa Monica’s Social Services Commission.

Moving & Shaking highlights events, honors and simchas. Got a tip? Email 

How three Arab-Israeli kids from a poor village with limited Internet access won a tech prize

Tamim Zoabi knew that if he and his classmates could win at the Young Engineers’ Conference, it could mean a ticket to a better life – a coveted university scholarship for this truck driver’s son from a poor village in northern Israel.

But no Arab team had ever won at the conference, a competition among Israeli high school entrepreneurs to come up with the best high-tech startup idea.

Zoabi grew up a world away from Israel’s thrumming high-tech scene, with its hyper ambitious entrepreneurs and millions in venture capital. Though his school is focused on technology studies, it lacks many of the resources needed to help students develop the kind of app Zoabi and his teammates hoped to enter in the competition. Even reliable Internet access is hard to come by.

On the day of the conference, Zoabi’s team’s stood near a helmet that manipulated brain waves to alleviate depression and down the row from a prototype for a robot that detects land mines. Their presentation was a 3-D diorama of a neighborhood with a toy firetruck.

But when the judge’s verdict was announced on Feb. 23, Zoabi and teammates Ruaa Omari and Masar Zoabi (no relation), had achieved something unprecedented for a group of Arab students: They won third place.

“I’m always impressed by new things, technology, machines,” Tamim Zoabi said. “This was a surprise.”

Zoabi and his teammates are students at Bustan El-Marj Sci Tech High School, part of the ORT Sci-Tech network of high schools, which aims to narrow achievement gaps by providing science education to students of diverse economic backgrounds. Tamim Zoabi’s father is a tow-truck driver and seasonal farm laborer, while Omari’s is a handyman. Masar Zoabi’s father died this year, and her mother does not work.

“Most of the students, their parents don’t have higher education,” said Shada Omari, a teacher at Bustan and the team’s adviser. “They’re working in agriculture and industry, not in high-tech or advanced things. If the students were in a population where the parents had higher education, they would have gotten further.”

Competitors in the conference work on everything from biomedical devices to military technology, but the Bustan team put its efforts into addressing a local problem. Each year, forest fires ravage the area where they live, a cluster of impoverished villages near Nazareth in the Galilee. Sometimes the fires burn for hours before their local understaffed fire department is able to extinguish them.

At first, the team set an ambitious goal: to build a robot that could enter a blaze and begin to fight it. They were supposed to begin the project halfway through 11th grade, but their school couldn’t afford the necessary resources or budget class time for the project. So they scaled back, focusing instead on an app capable of locating the nearest fire hydrant and identifying the fastest route for firefighters to get there.

“It’s like Waze,” said Masar Zoabi, referring to the crowdsourced traffic mapping app. “Waze helps people get to places they don’t know. The hydrant might be next door, or around the back, and they won’t find it. This will show them the way.”

Beginning in their senior year, the team was given eight hours of class time per week to work on the project. But the lab at their school had unreliable Internet access, so they used their teacher’s cellphone as a hotspot. Team members also faced the challenge of writing a scientific abstract in Hebrew, their second language.

Some of the other projects in the competition required the purchase of sensors, robotics and prosthetic limbs. The Bustan team looked for free help wherever it could. Tamim Zoabi taught himself the programming language Javascript. Masar Zoabi used a free online tool to connect a database of every hydrant in Israel to Google Maps and then used Google’s software to automatically calculate the shortest route.

The team placed behind a system for monitoring abdominal aneurysms and an automatic-transmission bicycle, but third prize was still good enough for a partial scholarship to study science, technology, engineering or math at an Israeli university.

“They invested a lot,” Omari said. “They’re very dedicated students and they have a lot of potential. They worked hard and got it. It’s a stunning app.”

Firefighters’ families share the language of loss

Bat-Sheva and Hofit Hayat, mother and wife of deceased Israeli firefighter Danny Hayat, shared their story and grief with the families of the 19 Hotshot firefighters who died on June 30 in the Yarnell, Ariz., wildfire. The two women relayed their experience in Arizona when visiting Los Angeles as a last stop before returning to Israel. As native Hebrew speakers, Hofit and Bat-Sheva struggled to express themselves in English as tears streamed down their faces and sorrow filled their voices when talking about Danny in Los Angeles. They said a similar scene took place in Arizona, however, the Hayats were speaking a universal language families in Arizona understood: the language of loss.

The Hayats lost Danny to the Mount Carmel forest fire in Israel in December 2010, as the 44th and final victim. He died rescuing Israeli Prison Service and police officers from a bus near the fire. Bat-Sheva initially reached out in writing to the 19 families of the firefighters in Arizona to send her condolences and share her personal and very similar tragedy.

After the letter, Keren Hayesod, an Israeli nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the priorities of the State of Israel, paid for the Hayats to travel to Arizona. According to Bat-Sheva, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also blessed the trip.

The Hayats said they felt they had to support the families of the fallen firefighters in Arizona. In sharing their pain and suffering, they hoped to bring power and solidarity to the community.

“I came here to strengthen the families and the American people, but they strengthened me,” Bat-Sheva said.

With this newfound strength came uncommon emotion. In Israel, Bat-Sheva said, she tried not to cry to avoid looking weak. In Arizona however, it was a different story. 

“I look at the families and I see myself. I cry for them and I cry for myself,” Bat-Sheva said with tears in her eyes.

Bat-Sheva mourned with the community in Prescott, Ariz., at the memorial service for the firefighters and was joined by Hofit at a commemoration organized by the Jewish Community Association on July 9. 

Hofit, Danny’s wife of nine years and significant other for 13, said she uses Judaism to deal with her loss. She tells her three children that “everything happens for a reason.” 

“I think this is the destiny of Danny. I think God brought him to that road because that was his mission in life,” Hofit said. 

Bat-Sheva remembers her son as a dedicated, loving and selfless individual. She and her daughter-in-law still marvel at his constant choice, in his career and in life, to serve others before himself. 

“Danny was the hero of the fire, a firefighter hero. But for us, Danny was a hero every day, every hour,” Bat-Sheva said. “He was our hero.”

Israeli firefighters, underfunded heroes

Amir Levy, fire chief of the Western Galilee, remembers encountering a little girl in an elevator while he was training in the United States a year ago. She looked at him admiringly, commenting to her mother how firefighters are heroes.

“That’s not the reaction we were used to getting in Israel,” Levy told an audience of 250, including Los Angeles city officials and the morning shift of the Beverly Hills Fire Department, at an executive breakfast meeting of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) on Dec. 14 at the Beverly Hilton.

Following the inferno in the Carmel forests earlier this month that left 44 dead, Israel’s firefighters are now getting recognition as heroes — but heroes whose skill and bravery are undermined by insufficient resources.

“The supplies have been depleted, the equipment has been used,” said Mark Egerman, a former mayor of Beverly Hills and the Western regional director of JNF’s Friends of Israel Firefighters. “They are in dire need of restocking, resupplying and building the organization to the next step.”

Israel’s fire departments are funded publicly at the municipal level, leaving them shortchanged, Egerman said. The ratio of firefighters to residents is 1 to 8,000, compared to the average of 1 to 1,000 in the Western world. Since the fire broke out on Dec. 2, JNF has raised more than $3 million. 

Levy expressed gratitude for the dedicated backup from around the world of firefighting forces who offered help.

“All firefighters around the world are one big family,” Levy said in a speech translated from the Hebrew, acknowledging his Beverly Hills counterparts in the audience.

“Really, the best family that God ever gave me was the fire department,” he said, relating his own personal story of growing up as a foster child with the dream of becoming a firefighter.

Levy made his home as a teen at the Akko fire station, where the firefighters adopted him and encouraged him to finish school. At 36, he is the youngest fire chief in Israel’s history.

In a gesture of solidarity, Capt. Dennis Andrews, president of the Beverly Hills Firemen’s Association, pledged $2,500 to Friends of Israel Firefighters and declared his interest in exchanging expertise.

“Hopefully this is the beginning of a long-term relationship.”

The Circuit

Heroes in Town

Friends of Israeli Firefighters (FIF) recently hosted a weekend community outreach to raise awareness for the battle against terrorism in both Israel and America. Various community-based functions were held throughout the weekend, including a forum on terrorism at the Clarity Theatre on Sept. 11 where members of the Israeli delegation answered questions and provided information about the mutual cooperation that exists between Israel and the United States in their battles to combat terrorism.

FIF was created to provide assistance to Israel’s first responders who are unable to afford new fire engines and equipment throughout the country due to budget cuts and financial deficits in individual municipalities. According to Mark Egerman, FIF West Coast chairman and former mayor of Beverly Hills, the organization’s goal is to increase public awareness about terrorism. In addition, forests and property in Israel are being lost to fires, and firefighters are in desperate need of trucks and equipment to provide help and assistance. FIF’s goal is to raise funding for 70 firetrucks for Israel by the end of 2006.

For more information, call (310) 777-3177.

The Best of Life

Los Angeles Family, the local chapter of Larger Than Life, the Israeli children’s cancer charity, held its second annual West Coast Dream Flight Aug. 24-Sept. 7.

A group of 21 Israeli children and teens with cancer, ranging in age from 9 to 19, traveled here from Israel for two weeks of fun and excitement. The kids enjoyed trips to Universal Studios, Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Venice beach and a helicopter flight over Los Angeles, while they stayed at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel. In Las Vegas, they were treated to a showing of the Blue Man Group and various Vegas attractions. San Diego was their last stop, where they visited Sea World, before coming back to Los Angeles for a joyous and dance-filled farewell party at the home of a supporter.

“The trip is a lot of fun, it helps you to disconnect from the doctors and hospital,” said Nir Fraiberg, 17. “It gives me strength.”

“After a long time of treatments, it cheered up my life,” said Stav Ribenfeld, 17.

On Aug. 27, the organization’s second annual gala dinner was held at the Sheraton Universal Hotel. Actor Joshua Jackson was there to show his support, as were “Sister, Sister” stars Tia and Tamara Mowry. The issue of cancer is very personal for the sisters, who lost an uncle to brain cancer.

“We will do anything to encourage children and make them smile, give them a sense of hope and joy in the midst of pain,” Tia Mowry said.

To the delight of the children, Israeli superstar actresses Noa Tishby and Michal Yanai were present as well. “I’m here to give back,” Tishby explained. “Through these kids you learn the true value of power, optimism, and true strength.”

Also in attendance that night was Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) and Israeli Consul General in Los Angeles Ehud Danoch. The master of ceremonies was Israeli actor Dan Turgeman, who accompanied the children throughout the trip.

The children were treated like stars themselves, posing for photographs and enjoying the grand event put on for them. Lights flashed constantly while two huge inflatable spheres and a large projector showcased images showing the children during their activities with the organization. The images also displayed how the money raised also funds research labs for cancer treatments and pre-treatment and recuperation rooms in Israel’s oncology wards equipped with computers, games and music players. The 500 people in attendance raised more than $500,000 that night with the help of a live auction and a car raffle.

Israeli singers Noa Dori and Racheli, gave sensational performances. Yael Greenberg, whose daughter Shani — a participant on last year’s trip — died just a few months ago, said,”Thanks to Larger Than Life, Shani was smiling and in good spirits when she returned. Larger Than Life provided the comfort, love and support so desperately needed,” she said. “Love and support are what makes the difference in how you cope.”

Eyal Turtz, 9, told the audience how “Larger Than Life gives me and all of the children hope, one of the most important feelings.”

The goal of the nonprofit organization is to improve the quality of life of Israeli children with cancer, regardless of religion, race, or ethnicity, by providing them with activities that allow them to forget for a moment life in an oncology ward. In addition to the two-week trip to the West Coast, the organization takes different groups of cancer stricken Israeli children and teens to trips to such places as Orlando and Europe, a family vacation in Eilat, as well as a summer camp in northern Israel, among others.

For more information about Larger Than Life, contact Iris Goldstein-Hagay at (818) 224-4600 or visit — Roxana Pourshalimi, Contributing Writer

U.S. Rejects Israel’s Offer of Aid Workers

The United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.

Instead, the United States solicited material assistance from Israel that was probably superfluous by the time the shipment arrived on the evening of Sept. 8.

The reasons behind the decisions are unclear. Experts have offered a number of explanations, including the bureaucratic difficulties involved in absorbing thousands of foreign first-responder personnel, the belief that the existing first-responder infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was well equipped to handle the crisis and the potential political fallout from asking foreign nations to help the world’s greatest power save lives on its own turf.

Such a request would have been “a tremendous admission of failure,” said one official of a nongovernmental organization involved in current rescue efforts, who asked not to be identified because of his relationship with U.S. government officials.

Critics have excoriated federal, state and local officials for their alleged failure to attend quickly to a disaster that for days left tens of thousands of people stranded, exposed to disease and at risk of drowning. Democrats and some Republicans, as well as a welter of newspaper editorials, have especially targeted President Bush and his administration for what Democrats contend was a slow and at times remote response to the crisis.

Israel would have been uniquely qualified to help, because a cadre of medical experts originally trained to respond to terrorist attacks has honed its expertise at earthquake and hurricane zones across the world. Most recently, Israel rushed medical personnel to Sri Lanka within hours of the tsunami in late December. In 1998, Israel’s lightning response to Al Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in east Africa — hours ahead of the arrival of U.S. rescuers — was credited with saving dozens of lives.

The original Israeli offer after Hurricane Katrina was for “the dispatch of medical teams numbering hundreds of people, considerable medical equipment, medicines and additional necessary equipment,” according to a statement from the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office. But the Bush administration turned down that and other offers of first-responder and medical-professional help from abroad, although Bush did cite Israel’s assistance in a speech last Friday, thanking countries for their offers of help.

Officials at the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency and the State Department did not return calls seeking comment.

Israel’s offer on Sept. 1, a day after the Bush administration declared Katrina’s aftermath a public health emergency, came within the four-day window when such assistance is crucial. Israel might have had personnel on the ground by Sept. 2. Authorities did not start evacuating the New Orleans Superdome, where most refugees from the hurricane had gathered, until Sept. 3.

Officials involved in coordinating assistance did not want to comment on the record, but they said complex U.S. regulations regarding accreditation of doctors and other personnel might have been a factor, in contrast to Israel’s experience in developing nations, where such rules are more flexible. Additionally, no one anticipated that the most advanced medical system in the world would be so easily overwhelmed, experts said.

First-responder assistance from outside the region would have been crucial in the first days, said Garry Briese, executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“These communities lost their firefighters,” he said. “Buildings don’t exist, homes don’t exist, equipment doesn’t exist.”

Briese, who has a relationship with Magen David Adom (MDA), the Israeli relief agency, dating back to the 1970s when he helped train MDA medics, said Israel would have been uniquely able to assist. But he wondered if the Israeli experts could have arrived in time, given the travel distance.

There no longer is a need for first-responder assistance, and his organization has called on its members to stop going to the region, Briese said.

In the end, the United States asked Israel and other countries to deliver equipment and material. Israel came through on Sept. 8 with 80 tons of food packages, diapers, beds, blankets, generators and other essentials on an El Al flight, partially funded by the Jewish National Fund, that landed in Little Rock, Ark.

“Jewish tradition says, ‘To save a life is to save the entire world,’ and this comes from the hearts of the Israeli people,” said Eyal Sela, a senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official who accompanied the material.

Dean Agee, a vice president of International Aid, a relief group known for its work in the tsunami zone. foresees the need for more long-term assistance from Israel and other nations in rebuilding the region.

“In Mississippi alone there are 200,000 roofs needing to be repaired,” he said. “I have two photographs in front of me of Sri Lanka in March and of Gulfport [Miss.] now. In terms of damage, you can’t tell the difference.”

Chanan Tigay contributed to this story.