Community Briefs

Soulful ‘Hatikvah’ Ends Wiesenthal Farewell

It was an unscripted, final moment that may have best captured the Monday memorial at the Museum of Tolerance for Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who died last week at age 96.

The ceremony had been held outside. As long lines of mourners waited amidst rows of folded chairs to return into the museum, an elderly, white-haired man began singing Israel’s national anthem, “Hatikvah,” in a loud, lone voice. A ripple of applause followed after Gedalia Arditti, a 77-year-old Greek Jew, belted out the song’s last word — “Yer-u-shal-a-yim!”

Then, Arditti yelled out: “I was there! And I walked those four miles — from the train to Mauthausen!”

He knew that it was for him and for the millions who didn’t survive that Wiesenthal had labored all his life.

The event drew more than 500, including politicians, diplomats, Holocaust survivors and their adult children. L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered a short appreciation.

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s associate dean, paused several times while introducing the evening’s speakers. A co-worker said it was a combination of emotion combined with very little sleep. Cooper had traveled to mourn Wiesenthal in Austria and attend his burial in Israel. And the center’s senior leadership was coping with the loss of not just its namesake, but a world figure.

“It’s a difficult evening,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the center founder and dean, during the main eulogy. He said that Holocaust survivors “walked a little taller,” knowing that Wiesenthal was hunting their tormentors.

Hier also had a frenetic week, responding to media inquiries from around the world and attending the premiere of his new documentary, “Never Again,” which disturbingly chronicles the rise of anti-Semitism around the world. The special early screening at the Directors Guild in West Hollywood occurred the day that word came of Wiesenthal’s death. The museum staff, too, had scrambled, putting together an exhibit on Wiesenthal’s life. (See article about exhibit on Page 64.)

“I see that there is a great stirring in heaven,” Hier said at the memorial, “as the souls of the millions murdered during the Nazi Holocaust get ready to welcome Shimon ben Asher who stood up for their honor and never let the world ever forget them.”

The memorial attracted Argentine, Belgian, Croatian, Israeli, Spanish and Turkish diplomats. Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss said the Vienna-based Nazi hunter had been a longtime role model to young Austrians.

“They don’t need many heroes, they just have to pick their heroes wisely, and Simon Wiesenthal was one of them,” Weiss said.

A Buddhist peace group from Japan created the large floral arrangements for the memorial event stage. Seven boys from Yeshiva University High School carried in a Torah scroll named in the Nazi hunter’s honor. The ceremony ended with the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer of mourning, and ended again in the hopeful notes of the survivor’s song. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Valley Cities JCC Makes New Death-Defying Escape

Like Houdini, the Valley Cities Jewish Community Center — ever on the verge of a permanent shutdown — has made another death-defying escape.

For the past four years, executives at the JCC have fought without pause to prevent the center’s closure and sale by its debt-ridden parent, the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. A couple months back, Valley Cities’ fortunes took a sharp turn for the better, when a buyer/savior stepped forward to purchase/save the property. That deal fell apart for undisclosed reasons.

Now, an anonymous donor has agreed to obtain the property from the center’s parent group for an estimated $2.7 million, insiders said. The benefactor has promised to help underwrite the costs of renovating Valley Cities.

Details of this latest effort were not immediately available. The earlier deal, like the present one, called for the renovation of Valley Cities, along with the possible relocation to the center’s property of an unnamed Jewish group.

At the time of the failed original deal, several developers had expressed interest in building senior housing on the property adjacent to the JCC.

The latest Valley Cities deal is in escrow and is expected to close soon, board President Michael Brezner told The Journal. He declined to release specific details.

Relieved center supporters have formed new committees for fundraising, programming and planning, he said. The hiring of a program director is also under consideration.

“I am excited about our rebirth in the community and more excited for the people of the community,” Brezner said. The donor “has secured our future for another 50 years.” — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Terror Alert System

As the High Holidays approach, Jewish leaders in Los Angeles and New York are streamlining their security communications through the Secure Community Network (SCN), a new alert system tying 55 major Jewish organizations to local police and federal agencies.

“We’re the first community to take measures like this,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, vice chairman of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. “We’re a unique community in this regard, because we’re a prime target.”

SCN uses e-mails, pagers, cellphones and home and office numbers to alert community leaders to potential terrorist threats. Alerts also can deal with rumor control regarding false threats. The information comes through SCN’s liaisons with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the New York City Police Department — and, soon, the Los Angeles Police Department.

When leaders of 55 major Jewish organizations are alerted by SCN, each group decides how quickly it will pass on the alert to its members. Individual synagogues, day schools and Jewish community centers are not designated as primary contacts for SCN alerts, which currently go only to major Jewish organizations.

“That’s a problem,” said Stephen Hoffman, SCN board co-chair and a former United Jewish Communities president. Because of these limitations, “we’ve encouraging local communities to get their own security going,” Hoffman said during a conference call last week with reporters.

SCN’s leadership includes former FBI Assistant Director Steven Pomerantz, a security consultant who last week met with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Local security concerns and security measures have increased due to the arrests in Torrance of two robbery suspects with alleged ties to prison-based Islamic gangs. Their targets included two Pico-Robertson synagogues and the Israeli consulate, according to sources.

The alphabet soup of groups backing SCN include UJC, the Anti-Defamation League, both AJCs (American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress) and the three major denominational groups — the Orthodox Union, Union for Reform Judaism and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Each pays a $200 annual fee toward SCN’s $500,000 yearly budget, which Hoffman said comes largely from private donations. — DF

Israeli Official Lauds Gaza Pullout Benefits in L.A. Visit

Top Israeli officials got an uncharacteristically warm reception at the United Nations this month, following Israel’s pullout from Gaza. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon then returned to Israel, while Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom visited Los Angeles for two days to meet with Jewish and government leaders here.

Following a meeting with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Israel Consul General Ehud Danoch, Shalom briefed a receptive audience of more than 100 invited guests on the immediate aftermath of the Gaza disengagement.

“There is a real change in the attitude of the world to the State of Israel, and we see it even in our relations with Arab neighbors,” Shalom said during the event last week at The Jewish Federation headquarters. Shalom described this change as the beginning of “the dropping of the iron curtain between Israel and the Arab world.”

He cited diplomatic breakthroughs with Pakistan and Tunisia as an immediate expression of this new attitude. “What needs to be done in these days is to strengthen the moderates and weaken the extremists,” he said.

Syria and Iran, however, still remain a dangerous threat, Shalom said, expressing concern over Iran’s potential to become a nuclear power: “Israel can’t live with the idea that this tyranny will have the nuclear bomb.”

Despite limited, yet hopeful Arab-Israeli diplomatic progress, Shalom also pointed to some “worrying” developments in Gaza, in particular the increased strength of Hamas, a terrorist organization, and ongoing arms smuggling.

“When we ended the withdrawal, we hoped the Palestinians would take the lead,” he said. Overall, though, the withdrawal presents “a glimmer of hope.”

Shalom concluded his talk to The Federation by announcing that Schwarzenegger has approved the opening of a California economic interests office in Israel. Approximately 20 other states already have such ventures.

During his visit, Shalom also met with community business leaders and with state officials to encourage investment in Israel and to strengthen California-Israel ties.

In addition, the governor and Shalom agreed to establish a joint committee to explore cooperation in the fields of high tech, agriculture, solar energy, the environment, biotechnology and homeland security. — Orit Arfa, Contributing Writer

Chabad Telethon Raises Record $6.2 Million

The 25th annual Chabad Telethon raised $6.2 million during its nine-hour run last week. As expected, the Sunday event was marked by young Orthodox rabbis and rabbinical students dancing as if in a spiritual mosh pit, while the tote board numbers rose.

“Some of them had so much energy they came out every five minutes,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, West Coast Chabad spokesman and son of its leader, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin. “It was an incredible evening, an incredible outpouring of love and support from people all over the country.”

The telethon was broadcast live on the Internet and on four TV stations in San Francisco, New York, Las Vegas and on the Asian community-driven KSCI in Los Angeles. In the first hour of the telethon, radio talk show host and Jewish moralist Dennis Prager commented that “Chabad helps everybody, so I guess everybody can help Chabad.”

Eight hours later as the telethon wound down, the still-standing Prager donned a rebbe’s black hat, while playing the accordion. Other prominent faces who appeared included L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, L.A. City Councilman Jack Weiss, attorney Marshall Grossman, actors Louis Gossett Jr. and Leonard Nimoy, Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and The Moshav Band. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in a taped greeting.

The telethon included 25th anniversary reflections and old TV footage of the May 1980 fire that destroyed Chabad’s West Coast house in Westwood and killed three people.

“That’s how the telethon was born,” the film’s narrator said.

The $6,216,193 raised eclipsed the just-under $6 million raised at last year’s telethon. The money will go to Chabad’s 200 community centers, schools and addiction-treatment centers and also to hurricane relief. — DF


Exhibit Links Shoah, Cambodia Genocide

Midway through Roland Joffé’s 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” journalist Sidney Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, visits the family of his friend, Dith Pran, who has been captured by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. The scene takes place in New York City, where Schanberg tries to comfort Pran’s wife. As the action unfolds, the camera allows us to see in the background graffiti spray-painted on a wall — there is a Star of David and underneath it what appear to be the words, “I suck.”

The juxtaposition of a Jew (Schanberg) and a Cambodian with the defaced Star of David subtly links the Holocaust, a genocide of the past, to the more recent Cambodian tragedy.

It is the synchronicity between peoples who have been massacred that inspired the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust to exhibit “Encountering the Cambodian Genocide.” The exhibit features the photographs of Chantal Prunier, who visited Cambodia in the past year and came back with haunting images of mass graves, torture devices and survivors.

The 48-year-old Prunier, a native of France who has always been fascinated with Southeast Asia, devotes a number of photos to Tuol Seng, the infamous former prison. One image, a low-angle shot, is taken from beneath barbed wire that to this day surrounds the building. The low angle accentuates the menace of the spiked spirals.

The Tuol Seng photos also reveal a dilapidated structure whose interior and exterior brick and plaster walls have taken on faded pink and brown hues, earth-tone colors that blend in with the red traces of the land in other shots.

Beneath these color photos are black-and-white images, primarily archived photographs, accompanied by Prunier’s text. She uses the photos to narrate a brief history of the Cambodian people, quickly moving on to the genocide engineered by Pol Pot.

Pol Pot seized power in April 1975 and then liquidated more than 20 percent of his country, somewhere between 1.5 million and 2 million people, according to most accounts. Prunier estimates that the number may have been even higher if one factors in those who died of famine. She writes that “official sources indicate” more than 3 million people died from 1975 to 1979.

In an interview with The Journal, she noted that the Cambodian government claims the number of victims as 3.3 million. Even if that figure is inflated, the massacre approaches the unparalleled depravity of the Shoah.

Pol Pot especially targeted city dwellers and the educated, whom he believed had been corrupted by Western colonialists and imperialists. But he also targeted ethnic Vietnamese, exterminating thousands of them living as civilians in Cambodia, something Prunier does not mention other than in passing.

The exhibit’s thoughtful touches include floor lights surrounded with long twigs to evoke the Cambodian jungle, where so much of the suffering occurred. Dictator Pol Pot emptied cities to reshape his country through a forced agrarian revolution.

What was behind Pol Pot’s murderous madness?

A definitive answer is as unreachable as any attempted decoding of Hitler. One extreme view is that Pol Pot was provoked into his radicalism by the Nixon administration’s secret (to the American public) bombing of Cambodia beginning in 1969. The bombing was an outgrowth of the Vietnam War.

Cambodia was a neutral country, but its territory was being used for supply routes by the North Vietnamese. Prunier dismisses this blame-the-U.S. theory as the product of “some very devious people,” though she accepts that the bombing campaigns helped to energize Pol Pot.

Visitors to the museum might be shocked by photos of articles of clothing worn by the murdered that still float to the surface, some 30 years later, where water gathers after rainfall.

With some photos, the captions are curiously understated or even unnecessary. In one print, two Cambodians sit on a bench at Cheoung Ek, where many victims perished. More than the caption, their melancholy gaze tells the story.

Also on display is an iconic 1970s black-and-white photo, not taken by Prunier, of an unknown Cambodian woman with a disfiguring spot on her forehead and a tag with the number “27” clipped by baby pins to her black shirt. The numbered tags, the unmarked piles of skeletons, the unidentified clothes on the ground — all mirror the Holocaust and speak to the uniformly impersonal and dehumanizing nature of genocide.

Pol Pot was never brought to justice for these crimes against humanity. Just as the facts of his birth are disputed (some reports say he was born in 1925, others in 1928), his death in 1998 also remains shrouded in mystery. Reportedly, he suffered a fatal heart attack, even as he was being sought to stand trial at The Hague.

The Cambodian exhibit keeps with the museum’s mission, said Rachel Jagoda, the museum’s executive director. Jagoda, 32, has sought to broaden the scope of the Holocaust Museum since being hired three years ago. Her first major exhibit focused not on Jews, but on the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany.

Under Jagoda, the museum, which she says has the largest primary source archive of any Holocaust museum on the West Coast, has begun raising significant funds, more than $500,000 in the last year, compared to roughly $20,000 annually in the past.

She and board member Manfred Kuhnert also report that they have obtained more than $3 million in capital for a new permanent facility designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, which would be located in Pan Pacific Park in the Fairfax District. The new museum would be partially underground to simulate walking into a cemetery.

The current museum space on Wilshire Boulevard would never be confused with the Getty. The Cambodian genocide exhibit is small, shoehorned into the back of the first-floor museum, but the photos are powerful.

The most salient image may be the opening shot of the ruins of an Angkor temple. Superficially, it has nothing to do with the genocide. But flowing over the ruins are the multiple trunks of an ancient banyan tree whose roots, from a distance, resemble the bones of victims — of this genocide or any other. The people have vanished like the Easter Islanders, but the roots of their tragedy remain.

“Encountering the Cambodian Genocide” is at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, 6435 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles. Free. Exhibit runs through Nov. 15. For information, call (323) 651-3704.