Hebrew Word of the Week: ezrah
I give money to homeless people who ask me for it. Always have. I figure if someone has the courage to ask a stranger for help, I will help them. I always keep cash in both my glove compartment and my wallet. A day does not pass where I do not help someone. Sometimes I buy people food, or toiletries. One time I bought a lovely man a pair of shoes. I think kindness matters and when I give someone money and they offer me a blessing, it makes me happy every single time.
Last week I was asked for some help from a man on the street. I gave him a dollar and wished him well. He looked at the dollar and asked me, “Is that all you’ve got?” I was startled for a second and didn’t understand what he was saying. He looked me in the eyes and said, “Is that it?”. I told him to have a good day and left as my chin started to quiver and I burst into tears. It hurt my feelings and made me sad. It was as though the man felt disrespected, which wasn’t my intention.
I have had people ask me why I give money to those who are going to use to get high or drunk, but I never wonder what they’re going to do with the money. I can’t give them money with restrictions on what they can do with it. It is not personal, political, or judgmental. It is simple kindness. Who am I to judge anyone? I help when and how I can, so when this man asked if that was all I could do, it made me wonder if I should maybe stop giving money and instead just look away.
My friend George deals with homelessness every day as he works in law enforcement in an area of the city where there are a lot of homeless people. He has seen it all and helps save a lot of people. Not give them a dollar save, but actually get them off the street save. He thinks it is sweet I give everyone money, but feels it is only a matter of time before someone responded like this man. He never tells me not to do it, just to be aware not all people will appreciate it.
We view homelessness very differently. When I see a kid asking for money I want to invite them over to have a shower, get some clean clothes, and feed them a home cooked meal. George wants to find out why they’re there, investigate if they can go home, then give them tools to get off the street. For me, I want to put a Band-Aid on a gaping wound to fix it, while he wants to perform emergency surgery to stop the source of the bleeding. Both ways are valid to me.
How do I not help someone who asks? Even the guy who sits at the freeway off ramp wearing Beats headphones gets a dollar from me on occasion. He sits for hours in temperatures over 100 degrees, so why not give him a dollar? I am angry this one person could make me rethink giving money. He shouldn’t have that power over me. In all the times I have given out money, this is the first time I can remember experiencing something unpleasant in response.
I will continue to give money to people who ask me for it. Whether they spend it on food, a bottle of water, or drugs, if whatever they buy brings them a moment of happiness, or comfort, or quiet, then God bless them. There but for the grace of God go I. Everyone has a story to tell and everyone can appreciate a Band-Aid when it is offered to them. To the man who was unhappy with my gesture, I hope someone else gave you a bigger Band-Aid and you are keeping the faith.
After we posted the video clip yesterday on Natalie Levine, a lot of people asked me: How can we help? What can we do? I felt a twinge of guilt that I told a very sad story without much hope. So this morning I decided to go back and see if I can find her. My heart sank when I saw that she wasn’t there. Because she had told me she “likes Jews,” I figured she was still in the neighborhood. So I drove around, very slowly, looking at sidewalks. Finally, I saw something from far that looked like it could be a homeless person sleeping. It was on the same side of Pico Boulevard where Natalie and I first met. I parked my car and walked over. It was hard to see her face, but as I got closer I realized it was her. She almost had a heart attack after I said her name.
“It’s David,” I said. “We met yesterday.”
“Oh hi,” she replied.
“A lot of people want to help you, Natalie. I posted that film we did yesterday and people want to help.”
She didn’t say much. She just gave me an easy smile and said, “Oh OK.”
But she had a very emotional reaction—a mix of excitement and tears– when I told her that her old Hebrew day school in Connecticut had seen the story and reached out to me. It was as if her childhood had come rushing back into her consciousness, cutting through the pain of the present.
I realized at that point that helping a homeless person takes tactical skill. So, first, I made her promise that she would not leave the spot for a few hours. I gave her water, 20 bucks and my cell number, and told her, “I’ll see you in a bit.”
The first thing was to find a safe place for the night. Actually, no, the very first thing was to clean her up. My amazing friend, Aliza Wiseman, offered to take her to her home until I found a place. She also went to Ross to buy some clean clothes. So, while Natalie was taking a hot shower, getting into new clothes and eating an omelette, I called around looking for motels that would take her. I made several calls, but had no luck until my friend Elaine Courtney, who saw the story on Facebook, suggested a place.
I called. A woman named Lucy answered. She said they had one room left, but it would be more expensive because it had a separate bathroom.
I booked the room. $70 a night, cash only.
As you can see in the photo above, Natalie is now in her room.
Meanwhile, my daughter Mia is setting up a crowdfunding page to give people a chance to help.
Next update on Monday.
In response to the devastation wreaked on the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit land on Nov. 8, killing thousands and obliterating whole towns and villages, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has set up the Philippines Typhoon Relief Fund.
The solicitation for donations went live on Monday, Nov. 11, on the Federation website, jewishla.org, according to Mitch Hamerman, Federation’s senior vice president of communications and marketing.
The L.A. Federation’s response is only one example of local Jewry attempting to reach out to Filipinos suffering in the aftermath of the largest storm surge in modern history, despite the absence of a sizable Jewish population on the Southeast Asian island country. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has already sent emergency teams, and the Israeli nonprofit IsraAID has dispatched a team of humanitarian workers. The L.A. Federation is working with both organizations.
“We know our community wants to take action in this time of crisis,” a statement issued by Federation said.
On Monday, members of Congregation B’nai David-Judea in Pico-Robertson received an email from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky asking for donations to IsraAID.
“We're all aware of the horrible death and destruction that occurred in the Philippines over the weekend. There is a special connection, as you may know between the Philippines and the State of Israel,” Kanefsky wrote, emphasizing that members of the Filipino community often are the healthcare workers who care for elderly Israelis.
Israel’s reaction to the storm has been robust, with the Israel Defense Forces and Magen David Adom both promising aid. Israeli consul general in Los Angeles David Siegel estimated that “several hundred” people, representing the Israeli government and Israeli non-government organizations, may join the relief effort in the Philippines.
“We’re very happy to do this, and I think you’ll see Israel put not insignificant resources into this, both in aid and in the representatives that we send,” he said. As a leader in trauma medicine, Israel is expert at responding in the immediate aftermath of mass casualty events. And helping another country in need fulfills the obligation of tikkun olam, Siegel said.
“Whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, we’re poised to be the first, if not one of the first, to provide immediate aid,” Siegel said.
Additionally, The United Kingdom’s World Jewish Relief organization has said it plans to offer help, and a fund launched by American Jewish World Service is providing support to local Filipino-run groups on the ground in the Philippines.
Jewish groups are joining the effort to help those displaced by the tornado in suburban Oklahoma City.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, announced Tuesday that his organization will collect donations and distribute them to the American Red Cross and others on the ground in Oklahoma.
“We are numb with grief, and yet inspired by the heroic resilience of the people of Oklahoma,” Jacobs said. “Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those impacted by this horrific tragedy.
“As other needs arise, perhaps including volunteers to assist with the clean-up and rebuilding, we stand ready to help in any way possible.”
The Jewish Federations of North America also has started a fund to aid the relief effort of the Jewish Federation of Greater Oklahoma City.
[Know of other Jewish relief efforts? Please comment below with information]
“Our hearts go out to all those who were in the path of this disaster and who are grieving the loss of their loved ones,” said Michael Siegal, chair of the JFNA Board of Trustees. “This was a terrible tragedy. The destruction of an elementary school filled with students and teachers was especially painful.”
B’nai B’rith International has opened its Flood, Tornado and Hurricane Disaster Relief Fund.
Meanwhile, the Chabad Community Center of Southern Oklahoma has opened its building as a shelter and is collecting supplies for those displaced by the tornado that hit Moore.
Israel said on Tuesday it was launching an airlift of supplies to help Turkey cope with a devastating earthquake, following a request from Ankara, with a first shipment of prefabricated homes destined for shipment on Wednesday.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Ankara had sought the aid via the Israeli embassy there, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered assistance in a telephone call to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan after the quake struck on Sunday.
The humanitarian step taken as more than 400 were reported dead in the disaster that struck southeastern Turkey, was seen as possibly easing diplomatic strains between the allies over the incident involving the Gaza-bound flotilla last year.
A spokesman for Israei Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that “tomorrow (Wednesday) afternoon a first aircraft will fly from Israel to Turkey with several prefabricated homes,” suggesting the shipment would be followed by others.
Israeli Foreign Ministry Yigal Palmor said Turkey had “relayed a request to the embassy in Ankara for mobile homes” and that Israel was checking into the logistics of shipping these supplies.
“We are checking what we can do, and will do whatever we can,” Palmor said.
In Ankara, a Foreign Ministry official said Turkey had requested prefabricated housing and tents from more than 30 countries.
“We informed all countries who offered help, including Israel, of a request on specific items for post-emergency material, such as prefabricated houses, containers and tents,” the official said.
Israel, geographically close to Turkey, with each country situated on opposite sides of Syria and Lebanon, has sent equipment and rescue teams to Turkey after past earthquakes. Turkey sent fire-fighting planes last December to help Israel battle a brush fire that killed 41 people.
Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc denied on Monday that Ankara had declined an offer of aid from Israel.
Tensions between the two U.S. allies increased last month when Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador after Israel refused to apologise for the Turks killed last year.
Israel said its marines acted in self-defence in clashes with pro-Palestinian activists aboard a vessel bound last year for Gaza, which is ruled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Additional reporting by Ibon Villelabeitia in Ankara and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Michael Roddy
Steve Maloney is a wandering Jew.
For almost two decades, he has been wandering the streets of Los Angeles looking for food and shelter.
His adult life has been one long transient experience.
So when a holiday like Sukkot comes along, and he enters a sukkah, it’s not a big leap for him to feel the message of the holiday and the transient life of our ancestors.
It’s his life.
For most of us, however, connecting with the message of our Jewish holidays doesn’t come that naturally. At the Passover seder, for example, we are supposed to feel the bondage of the ancient Jews and their arduous journey to freedom. But who are we kidding? The noisy company of family and friends — not to mention the four glasses of wine — make it more likely that we’ll be caught up with our own crazy journeys than feel the pain of our ancestors.
On Sukkot, we build frail huts next to our sturdy homes to remind us what it was like to be homeless in the desert. But again, how many among us use the sukkah to feel the insecurity of transience and homelessness?
Try as we might, the connection with our holidays and our ancient stories happens more inside our heads than inside our kishkes.
This is why I think that this year, with the global financial meltdown coinciding with the ritual of being inside a wobbly hut, we might see the kishkes make a comeback.
When we enter our frail sukkahs this year, we will be more likely to feel in our kishkes the impermanence of our material possessions — spooked as we are by an economic crisis so severe and uncertain that David Brooks of The New York Times wrote: “….Even the professionals have no confidence … we’re dealing with uncertainty on stilts while the wolf breathes down our neck.”
After seven years of obsessing over security in the context of terrorism, we’ve all been blindsided by a more pervasive form of terror: sudden financial insecurity.
And the source of this crisis? According to the experts, it’s the bursting of the housing bubble. In other words, the bursting of our confidence in the value of our homes.
Imagine that. As we sit in our fragile sukkahs, the invisible hand of capitalism has come to remind us of a key message of Sukkot: That all homes are fragile. This is a Sukkot for the kishkes, if not the shpilkes.
One person I know who has never had difficulty feeling the message of Sukkot is Steve Maloney.
Ever since I moved to Pico-Robertson two years ago, I’ve seen Maloney hanging around the neighborhood. On most mornings, he’ll take the 720, 212 and 7 buses from downtown Los Angeles and arrive in the area at around 6:30 a.m. From there, he will do his morning rounds in the neighborhood shuls and raise just enough in donations to pay for a tiny room in a rundown motel on skid row.
Maloney didn’t always have it this good. For years, he slept on the street near Schwartz’s Bakery on Fairfax Avenue. Sleeping on cold cement for so long damaged his legs, which he has tried to heal through tai chi and acupuncture. A few years ago, to boost his donations so that he could afford a room with a bed, he put on a pair of tzitzit and a kippah. He says that having a Jewish mother who married an Irishman named Maloney wasn’t good for business — so he also changed his name to Lenny Mills.
I was introduced to Mills by what he calls his “two best friends in the Jewish community” (Rabbi Schlomo Schwartz and his son, Rabbi Mendel of the Chai Center). Over coffee one morning next to the newsstand on Robertson Boulevard, Lenny, a heavyset guy with a cherubic face who’s 54 but looks 44, told me his life story.
Born in St. Louis, he grew up in Miami, became a political activist at a young age, left law school after a year to care for his mother who had cancer, eventually went back to law school but got cut out of mother’s will, quit law school under emotional stress, married his high-school sweetheart but divorced after 18 months, moved to California with little money in early 1980s to look for a better life, became a left-wing activist in Berkeley, worked in boiler rooms and got ripped off on a business deal, moved to Los Angeles in the late 1980s but could never find steady work and has been living off his wits ever since.
After several hours of schmoozing with Lenny, the two things that struck me about him were his absence of bitterness and the quality of his conversation. In fact, the subject of his homeless journey wasn’t that interesting to him. He preferred to talk about the state of left-wing activism (not good), a new article he’d read in The Nation magazine (really good), his new diet (no more Danishes) and, of special interest to him, what he calls “The Seven Rules of Telemarketing,” which he wrote and would like to publish.
A few weeks after our encounter, as I was reading the dark news on Wall Street, something else struck me about Lenny: He might be among the few people in America who won’t be affected by the financial meltdown.
His financial meltdown happened a long time ago.
Since then, he has lived a life that wouldn’t be foreign to our biblical ancestors: wandering his world, looking for food and shelter and a little sanity. For Lenny, it’s as if the experience and message of Sukkot has been imbedded in him for 20 years.
What I found remarkable, though, is that after 20 years of material insecurity, what Lenny craves the most is not a sturdier sukkah to live in, but the simple and lasting joy he feels from a human encounter.
Considering that the deeper message of Sukkot is the affirmation of life in the full knowledge of its uncertainty, and that we call this time “z’man simchatenu,” “the season of our joy,” it’s easy to see why Lenny Mills would feel Sukkot in his kishkes.
David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.
With the start of the High Holy Days, the pace of communal life starts to change, and our focus is on reflection, reconciliation, repentance and the annual response to new beginnings.
For too many in our community, however, this season will hold more angst than joy.
The economic situation in our country presents us with challenges unseen for nearly a generation. Too many will sit in synagogues through this season and be equally concerned with their own economic situation as they will the state of their soul. Increasingly, senior citizens on fixed or limited incomes are seeing their resources challenged. Young adults are concerned about job security. Too many of our people of all ages have lost jobs, been downsized or live on the edge of job and financial uncertainty.
This reality presents our community with a unique and necessary opportunity to become an even more meaningful “caring community.” This is a time when no one should be left to feel that they are “l’vado” (alone). This is a time for community and relationships to be enhanced and expanded, so that our congregations can be seen as responsive to and involved with those who are hurting.
In every community are untapped human resources: people who may have some time to give, who have experienced life and, if asked, might be willing to assist leadership in developing support systems for individuals and families in need. At the least, a call can be made to members who have experience in the workplace, who have counseled people in job changes and career moves.
Establishing a congregational or communal service corps with members willing to give advice and direction — or just lend a sympathetic ear to those who might be searching for new directions — is one possible course of action.
During a similar economic downturn in the early 1980s, I worked in Philadelphia and was involved in helping congregations create a communitywide job bank. It had some success helping people in our community get back to work. We simply polled the members of the community’s congregations for possible job openings and advertised those openings throughout the area so members could see what was available from those within their own community.
This could be done again. Synagogues can join other local organizations, JCCs, Jewish Family Service and others to broaden the base of opportunities to search. Even in this day of electronic and Internet job searches, personal networking and relationships go a long way in opening doors.
A difficulty in some of this may be the unwillingness on the part of many to come forward. So often we face this challenge of having people admit they may need some assistance, guidance or help in establishing goals. Transitions are tough and filled with fear. But let us not forget the power of the pulpit. The simple act of the rabbi offering a sermon on the need for this type of caring “inreach” can help worshipers see their congregation as more than a life-cycle institution.
The High Holy Days are a perfect example of a moment in time when Jews attend synagogue. Why not take a few moments at each service to launch this internal support network? Why not have in each prayer book a form that someone can fill out who has a job opening or position request, or has a willingness to give time to counsel or advise a fellow congregant on career change and possibilities?
Use your caring community committee to organize these forms and launch, right after Yom Kippur, a Sukkot of Transition so that all can feel the possibility of a “sukkat shalom.”
We soon will enter our season of possibilities. In each of our communities there are those we need to support and those with the ability to create that sense of support and caring. All we need to do is ask.
Rabbi Richard F. Address is the director of Union for Reform Judaism’s Department of Jewish Family Concerns (www.urj.org/jfc).
Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency
Judi Kaufman has trouble remembering numbers. So the two-time brain cancer survivor, who is now living with her third tumor, assigns colors to numbers to help keep them straight.
The system is simple and intuitive: zero is white, 13 is black. Eighteen — chai — is red.
“Red is the color of courage,” said Kaufman, 64. “Life takes courage.”
If Kaufman’s courage ever falters, few could tell from her brisk schedule of activities. She’s a member of the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Board of Governors. A one-time recipe tester for Bon Appétit magazine, she holds kosher cooking classes for adults and children. And she gives the bulk of her time and energy to Art of the Brain, a nonprofit she founded in 2000 to help fellow brain cancer patients navigate the disease’s often-profound physical and mental effects — through art.
“People who have brain cancer oftentimes turn to art to feel better,” Kaufman said at her Beverly Hills home on a recent afternoon. “They learn to stop judging their work. Any kind of art can help, whether it’s music, writing, filmmaking, painting. We are always trying to help patients find their own artistic talent.”
Kaufman began writing poetry to counter feelings of despair following her diagnosis in 1997. Since then, she has composed enough material for four books. Proceeds from the sale of her books help fund Art of the Brain, which through galas and partnership events has so far raised more than $3 million for cancer research at UCLA.
As the organization gears up for its ninth annual fundraising gala at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall on Oct. 4, Kaufman hopes Art of the Brain can reach out to more cancer patients in need of comfort and hope.
“Brain cancer is the most lonely cancer,” she said. “It affects the way you act and feel. You think, ‘Should I go out and be seen like this, or stay inside?’ It’s easy to just stay inside.”
That’s a decision Kaufman still wrestles with. She sometimes turns down lunch dates with friends because her speech, which was damaged by her two surgeries, often comes out slurred and normal conversation takes as much energy as “running around the block.”
But Kaufman said her personal struggles are what make other people with brain cancer — many of them lonely and misunderstood — able to relate to her.
“Unless you walk this trip, you don’t really know what people are going through,” she said. “You don’t have much left after brain cancer. I felt I was only half a wife, half a woman. One of the premises of Art of the Brain is to restore peoples’ self-esteem.”
The organization is built on a system of 20 volunteer “illness mentors” who visit with cancer patients and their families and offer both physical and emotional support. These volunteers, affectionately called “Brain Buddies,” aid with everything from meal preparation to explaining the nuances of the disease. They also help patients cope with anger and depression by encouraging them to pick up, for example, a paintbrush or a pen.
When Kaufman first started sketching out poems in 1997, she found she had a lot to say that she wasn’t able to tell family members or friends.
“I tried not to burden other people with my depression, so it came out in my writing,” she recalled. “That was how I survived. I learned to take layers off — to become more truthful. I lost all my inhibitions.”
Kaufman’s poetry deals with cancer and sex, social acceptance and forced limitations. Her humor, which she freely deems “cockeyed,” can be jarring, as when she compares her tumor to an unconventional pregnancy. Her sadness and strength are palpable in her 2007 book “Do You Want Your Brain to Hurt Now or Later?” as she dwells on the value of flaws:
Perfection is not about real human beings.
Perfection is a cartoon, without the humor.
Perfection cuts away the core of caring.
Perfection is a hidden illness.
Writing was a catharsis for Kaufman, whose initial misdiagnosis almost cost her her life.
For two years, Kaufman had chalked up her recurrent headaches to menopause. When the headaches eventually turned to seizures, her husband, Roy, rushed her to the emergency room. Doctors there told her she’d had a stroke and sent her home with no medication.
“Seizures are often a symptom of strokes; that’s why brain cancer is often misdiagnosed as a stroke,” she said. “They told me, ‘Go home, rest.’ But I still felt that something was wrong.”
Kaufman went to UCLA’s Neuro-Oncology department for a second opinion, where she was properly diagnosed and booked for emergency brain surgery.
“They said, ‘The good news is you didn’t have a stroke. The bad news is you have a brain tumor the size of a golf ball,'” she recalled.
After her surgery, Kaufman sought a meaningful way to thank Dr. Timothy Cloughesy, director of the UCLA Neuro-Oncology Program. She wanted to create a support system for other brain cancer survivors, stripped of their professional skills, deprived of basic mental functions and plunged into an uncertain new lifestyle marked by fear and self-doubt.
Kaufman and Cloughesy founded Art of the Brain based on Cloughesy’s observation that the creative process had helped many of his patients find release and hope on the often-steep hike to recovery.
“We want to give people back a sense of purpose in life,” said Kaufman, who dealt with her own feelings of loss after having to abandon a successful career as an entrepreneur and business owner.
A Pasadena native, Kaufman got her degree in home economics from CSUN, and went on to work for the Southern California Gas Company giving home cooking demonstrations. She tested recipes for the newly founded Bon Appétit magazine in the early 1970s, and in 1977 — after a “wild vision” — established a mail-order confection company Grand Chocolate Pizza in her own kitchen.
After she and her husband adopted and raised two daughters — Jennifer and Suzy — Kaufman gave a series of cooking classes she called “Building Bridges by Breaking Bread,” based on the notion that sharing food fosters friendships.
Perhaps most devastating to Kaufman, when her brain cancer returned in 2003, was being deprived of her ability to cook.
Kaufman couldn’t speak or walk after her second surgery. She lost her senses of taste and smell for two years. She lost her ability to comprehend numbers permanently.
“I wasn’t able to cook because I couldn’t measure,” she said. “But then I said, ‘Oh, forget the measuring.’ Now, I just feel the art of it.”
Recently, Kaufman began giving cooking classes again, and can often be found in her stainless steel kitchen baking mandelbrot. She calls the jagged scar on her scalp, usually hidden beneath a heap of honey-blonde hair, “my badge of courage.”
Having cancer has emboldened Kaufman in other ways, too — after her first surgery in 1999, she traveled to Israel for the first time.
“I wanted to learn more about my roots,” said the 30-year AJC member, who is active on both the Los Angeles chapter board and the national Board of Governors. “When I think about hope, which can be a little shaky, I go to the Torah to learn lessons about motherhood, belief, family struggles, life and death.”
Kaufman’s tumor is inoperable, and she doesn’t know how much time she has left. But in late August, she got to experience a milestone she didn’t expect: becoming a grandmother.
“I never thought I’d live to see this,” she said of her grandson, Garrett. “I feel like I’m in God’s hands right now. I have been reborn twice, after my first and second surgeries. Now there is a third new life — my grandchild. What more could I ask for?”
To learn more about the cooking classes, call Judi Kaufman at (310) 858-7787. Kaufman’s poetry books can be found online. Art of the Brain’s ninth annual gala takes place Oct. 4, 6:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall. For more information, call (310) 825-5074 or visit
United Jewish Communities begun a campaign for donations to help in the recovery from recent hurricanes.
The umbrella organization of North America’s Jewish federation system is urging the 157 federations and 400 independent Jewish communities it serves to contribute to the effort, which will go to help Jewish communities in the country’s coastal region that were affected by the hurricanes and to nonsectarian relief efforts.
Initial relief will go toward short-term disaster needs such as food, water and medicines, and for intermediate needs such as mental-health counseling and other counseling, according to the UJC’s emergency committee chair, Fred Zimmerman. Other needs will be determined.
UJC staff have spoken daily with the president and chief executive officer of the Jewish federation in Houston, Lee Wunsch, as well as to community leaders elsewhere.
In an effort to coordinate a response to the storm, UJC also has talked with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff; national, state and local relief agencies; and national Jewish groups and religious movements.
Initial reports said the community in Corpus Christi, Texas, was safe following Hurricane Ike over the weekend, according to UJC. Also in Texas, efforts were continuing to reach Jewish evacuees in Galveston—one report emerged over the weekend that people were trapped in a flooded synagogue there. UJC coordinated with local and federal law enforcement agencies, who investigated and reported the synagogue was empty.
Checks should be mailed to United Jewish Communities, P.O. Box 30, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10113, Attention: UJC Hurricane Relief Fund, or go to www.ujc.org to make online donations.
When 18-year-olds Seraphya Berrin from New York, and Arielle Perlow from Melbourne, Australia, arrived in Israel last fall after spending a week in Poland as part of their B’nei Akiva year abroad program, they were inspired to take action on the world’s current genocide, taking place in the Darfur region of Sudan.
“The trip [to Poland] made me realize that we would be negligent as Jews to our promise of ‘never again’ if we didn’t stand up and do something about it.”
Since February 2003, half a million Sudanese civilians from the Darfur region have been killed by the Khartoum government of Sudan, via proxy Arab terrorists called Janjaweed, as well as by air attacks by the Sudanese army acting in response to rebel attacks on military installations. Journalists have been arrested, the U.N. envoy was forced to leave the country, and Sudanese civilians have been subjected to brutalities including gang rapes and the burning down of homes and religious buildings. More than 3 million have been forced to flee.
Initially, the pair intended to volunteer for existing Israeli efforts; they were shocked to discover that there weren’t any. Just three days after their arrival, on Sept. 17, tens of thousands of people in more than 30 countries around the world were gearing up for Global Day for Darfur, an international rally meant to apply pressure on governments to force the U.N. Security Council to protect the Sudanese civilians. Israel was not on the list.
So, Berrin and Perlow, along with a group of friends from various yeshivas and seminaries across Israel, decided to take matters into their own hands. They planned a last-minute solidarity event, which took place in conjunction with the global efforts, on King George Street in Jerusalem, attracting the participation of some 150 supporters.
Berrin said that during the rally several Israelis approached him to ask, “Who is Darfur?”
“Israelis are rightly so engrossed in their country’s own problems,” Berrin said. “But I believe very strongly that just because we have our own problems at home, that doesn’t mean we can’t help people outside of Israel.”
“I think it’s important for us to keep our domestic home secure, but as Jews it’s important for us to be involved in more global issues,” adds Rachel Kupferman, 18, a student at Yeshiva University in New York, who like Berrin and Perlow is currently on a year program in Israel.
As foreigners in Israel, Berrin said Diaspora Jews like the three of them can play a key role in turning Israel onto global issues.
“In general people from the West are in a special position to do something very positive for Israel,” he said. “We can import some of our positive values and awareness. In this case, we want the average Israeli to know what’s going on in Darfur and to care about it.”
In addition to supporting the citizens of Darfur, the rally’s purpose was to raise awareness in Israel and to encourage activism among Israelis.
“The more people talk about this humanitarian crisis, the faster it will be resolved. As soon as the oppressors don’t think it is in their best interest to continue, they will stop.” Berrin said.
Kupferman is a child of Holocaust survivors, which makes the situation in Darfur resonate all the more vividly for her. “We are not defending the Sudanese government,” she said. “We are defending those who are being persecuted by the Sudanese government.”
Following the success of the rally, the initiators have taken the momentum and founded a full-fledged advocacy group called Hatzilu et Amei Darfur (HAED), which translates to “Save the Nations of Darfur.” It has representatives in yeshivas, seminaries, universities, high schools and youth movements across Israel, and a mailing list of about 400 people that each day rises by 15 to 20 new e-mails, about 75 percent of them in Hebrew.
“Relative to how long we have been up and running, I think we have had a huge impact on the Israeli public,” Kupferman said. “I think we are really making a difference.”
HAED held its second rally in November at Zion Square in Jerusalem, this time attracting some 600-700 people. Speakers included Rabbi Yehuda Gilad of Ma’aleh Gilboa, professor Elihu Richter of Hebrew University and Holocaust researcher Elana Yael.
“All different kinds of Israelis came out — charedi, secular, activists from the right and left wings,” Berrin said. “The turnout really represented the rainbow of Israeli society.”
The group’s efforts did not go unnoticed, particularly not by Eytan Schwartz, winner of the 2004 Israeli reality show “The Ambassador,” and like-minded activist for the citizens of Darfur.
“Seeing these young kids from foreign countries put together this fantastic demonstration was really inspiring,” said Schwartz, who appears on morning shows on Israel’s Channel 2, and who is currently working on his master’s in Middle Eastern studies at Tel Aviv University. “What I was touched by most is that you never see Orthodox people at human rights demonstrations; at least not in Israel. This was an amazingly powerful message.”
While HAED was gathering steam, so, too, were Schwartz’s efforts to establish a coalition of about 10 different organizations in Israel, all dedicated to helping the refugees of Darfur, dubbed the Committee for the Advancement of Refugees of Darfur (CARD).
But unlike HAED, which is aiming to end the genocide, CARD’s primary focus is the Sudanese refugees in Israel. Over the last two years, some 250 refugees from Darfur and southern Sudan have made their way to Israel. When they first started arriving, they were temporarily detained according to Israel’s Law of Entry, since Israel does not grant refugee status to nationals of enemy states. However, the Sudanese nationals were eligible for judicial review, and after a period of months in the Maasiyahu Prison in Ramle, the refugees were released and found their way to kibbutzim and moshavim.
“Unlike HAED, we don’t have our sights set on solving the issues in Sudan; we just want to help the refugees who are in Israel right now,” Schwartz said, adding that their objectives are to raise Israel’s media awareness, fundraise, and find volunteers to make sure the refugees’ immediate needs are looked after.
“We cannot reject these people just because of their nationality,” he said.
“They have escaped genocide and we should be embracing them.”
For most kids, time off from school means hitting the beaches or other fun-filled attraction. For 17-year-old Neta Batscha, spring break sent her to the storm-ravaged Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina relief efforts.
Under the auspices of Milken Community High School’s YOZMA social action leadership initiative, the 11th-grader and more than 100 of her classmates spent four days clearing away debris in parts of Natchez, Miss., and in New Orleans, which was still reeling from the hurricane’s destruction. She also built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and, with money raised by her Milken peers, replenished provisions at food shelters unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance.
“It made everyone feel good about themselves, that we can make a difference,” Batscha said. “In my school, we’re taught to give back, even when we’re younger. We’re taught not to be selfish. In Judaism, it’s important for everyone.”
More and more, Jewish kids are taking the lessons they’ve learned about tikkun olam, Judaism’s spin on community service, and translating it into action. Through school-based programs like YOZMA, b’nai mitzvah service projects or simply their own initiative, children are finding creative ways to channel their interests and desire to help others into unique, personal contributions to those less fortunate. In so doing, they are building a reservoir of critical skills and laying the groundwork for a lifetime of compassion and civic responsibility in the Jewish tradition.
“Doing mitzvot and tikkun olam are in everything we do in Judaism, in every book we read,” said Daniel Gold, director of the Los Angeles Bureau of Jewish Education’s (BJE) Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning. When children perform charitable acts, Gold added, they connect teachings from God with the work they do on earth, and to their own identities.
Josh Lappen’s work on behalf of Jews in Ethiopia has played a formulative role in the development of his Jewish awareness. Since the age of 5, Josh, now 12, has been fundraising under the auspices of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), a nonprofit group that helps Jews survive in Ethiopia and reach Israel.
He accompanies his grandparents, active NACOEJ members, to local festivals where they sell Ethiopian handcrafts, and he recently began his own initiative selling cookies at his Hebrew school.
“My work gets me involved in the community. I almost feel like I’m getting to know them,” said Josh, who has studied the history of Ethiopian Jews and occasionally speaks with groups to raise awareness of the challenges they face. While he has never seen the fruits of his labor firsthand, Josh feels a deep connection with Ethiopian Jews and is planning to participate in NACOEJ’s bar mitzvah twinning program with an Ethiopian boy in Israel next year.
Realizing tikkun olam as a central pillar of Jewish practice, synagogues throughout the country require children to perform service projects before becoming b’nai mitzvah, sensitizing them to their growing responsibilities toward others as they approach adulthood. In many cases, these projects have been the inspiration for ongoing philanthropic endeavors.
Clara Clymer had intended to donate books to a neighborhood school for her bat mitzvah project. Instead, on the advice of Hebrew school staff at Leo Baeck Temple, she decided to become a tutor for KOREH L.A., The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ youth literacy program. The 12-year-old from Brentwood now meets once a week with a first-grade student, helping to strengthen her reading and comprehension skills. And while Clara was only required to fulfill five hours of service, her satisfaction knowing that she is making a difference in someone’s life has been all the encouragement she needs to continue as a KOREH L.A. volunteer for the foreseeable future.
“If everybody helps somebody who needs help, it makes it a nicer place to live,” she said.
In addition to the religious benefits, studies show that children who volunteer have higher self-esteem than those who do not, are happier and feel empowered by the knowledge that they are bringing about positive change, BJE’s Gold said. On the academic side, they consistently demonstrate higher test scores and rates of school attendance. Community service also helps children develop good work habits and job skills, such as leadership, planning and organization.
“Kids who participate in community service must determine what they want to achieve and figure out creative ways of meeting their goals,” said Sande Hart, who facilitates youth volunteer workshops for the Orange County BJE.
Hart saw proof of this when her son, Matt, organized “Shoot Away Cancer,” a basketball tournament to raise funds for pediatric cancer research at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, as his bar mitzvah project three years ago. Matt secured support from a local basketball league and brought together 180 elementary- to high school-age students for a day of three-on-three play in Santa Ana. While teams paid a $30 registration fee, most of the $7,200 Matt raised came from raffled gift certificates and donations he solicited from local businesses and attractions.
Now 15, Matt continues to volunteer to help those in need. For the past five years, he has been traveling to Mexico where he spends time with orphaned children and helps build houses for homeless families on behalf of the Irvine-based Corazon de Vida Foundation.
“Volunteering gives you a warm feeling that you’re dong something right,” the Rancho Santa Margarita High School sophomore said. “It has changed me as a person. If more kids would go out and do this, I think the world would be a lot better.”
When I walk into the Santa Monica restaurant, it’s easy to spot the Sisters, as they are young, fresh-faced, sitting straight backed, looking expectantly at the door.
They’re not nuns, but missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which means Mormon by the way, although I know as little about their religion as they know about mine.
I promised a Mormon friend I would meet with them. They had met with some Orthodox rabbis, but my friend thought I could give them a broader, nondenominational perspective on Judaism.
“We wanted to understand your religion,” says one of the sisters in a lilting South African accent. Incongruously, she works Beverly Hills and Bel Air.
“There are a lot of Jews there,” she says ruefully implying that it’s not easy for a black, South African Mormon missionary to go cold-calling there.
“We want to know about all religions,” says the other, a blonde-haired, rosy-cheeked 22-year-old straight from Central Casting (Salt Lake City).
What they want from me is a basic understanding of Judaism.
“Why?” I ask.
“We don’t want to say the wrong things, come at the wrong times. We want to know who we are talking to.”
“Talking to about what?” I ask.
“The message of Jesus,” they say.
Duh. They’re missionaries.
It’s at this point of the lunch that many others would walk away, or maybe start a covert disinformation campaign (“Jews have horns and worship the grass and they eat shoes”) just to thwart them.
But I don’t. Hasn’t Borat done enough?
Besides, aren’t Jews meant to be a light onto other nations?
They pull out their questionnaire.
“What are the fundamentals of the Jewish faith?” they ask.
Hmm. Good question.
“What’s a fundamental?” I ask.
“What do Jews think about the afterlife? Do they believe in reincarnation? What do they think about the Messiah?”
“Did you ever hear the phrase, ‘Two Jews, Three Shuls?'” I say.
They shake their heads keenly, as if I am about to pass on a most important tenet of my faith. I consider telling them the joke about the Jews stranded on the desert island (the one with the punch line: “that’s the synagogue I don’t pray in.”) but I could tell from their earnestness they aren’t ready for the subject of Jewish humor, cynicism and a long tradition of apostasy, Jesus being the prime example.
Even though I can readily explain the concept of the World to Come (“Did you hear the one about the rabbi in heaven posted next to the blonde in the bikini?”), eschatology isn’t my really my strong point, and I’m not sure it’s the point of Judaism.
“The point of being Jewish is here on this earth: To follow God’s commandments, create a Jewish family, contribute to the Jewish community, make the world a better place,” I say.
God help me, I’m beginning to sound like them, I think. On the other hand, my rabbis would be proud.
“There’s so much to learn,” Sister Salt Lake City gushes.
Oh, you don’t know the half of it, sister.
Sister South Africa looks slightly overwhelmed, like she didn’t know how to use any of the information I’d given her in the tony neighborhood of Beverly Hills.
“Are there any times I shouldn’t go into a Jewish house?” she asks.
I decide to be honest with her, poor girl. First apartheid, now this. Why didn’t they send her to an easier neighborhood, like South L.A. or Watts?
“Look, it doesn’t matter when you knock on someone’s door, because if they’re Jewish they’re probably not going to talk to you no matter what,” I say. “They see your name tag, and the words ‘Church’ and ‘Jesus’ and the door will slam.”
She nodded miserably. The past week she’d spent four hours in a Jewish neighborhood and didn’t get invited into one home.
“Jews don’t like missionaries,” I explain. “We’ve had centuries of being persecuted, corralled and decimated — often by the Catholic Church or its adherents — and so we’re not about to convert to Christianity.” (Mormonism is a sect of Christianity, apparently. Who knew?)
“But I don’t want to convert them — I can’t hardly convert Christians. I just want to get the message across,” she says. “And I want to get to know them.”
Hmm. Get to know them. Why would a Jew want to get to know a missionary?
“Well, maybe you could tell them that,” I say. “That you know they’re Jewish, and they don’t like missionaries, but you wanted to have a discussion on the tenets of your faiths,” I offer this though I doubt it will work. But if they only need to say their message, not convert anyone, then who knows? It’s like taking a flyer from an underpaid temp on the street. Even if you’re going to toss it, it helps them.
She looks cheered at the prospect of a new tactic. She recalls some successes: a group of teenagers in Beverly Hills, an old Jewish man who said he didn’t believe in any religion. Nothing to get into heaven with, if you ask me.
As we walk down Colorado Boulevard, they with copious notes they plan to hand out to other missionaries, Sister South Africa wonders aloud why she hasn’t been sent to some place easier, to Kenya, for example, where “my own people are.”
But, “Los Angeles is a strange place,” she says. “There are a lot of lost souls here.”
I don’t know whether I’ve helped her or hindered her, helped my own people or set myself on a path straight to our version of hell, but on this one point, if no other, I have to agree.
Fran Rosenfield answers the door of her Northridge home a few moments after the musical doorbell has cycled through its tune. This 79-year-old grandmother was slowed by a recent spinal injury that has rendered her dependent on a cane or walker to get around. But her passion for a cause she championed 15 years ago is going strong.
Inside, her dining room has been transformed into a makeshift shipping department. On the table are wrapped gifts stacked three- and four-boxes deep that are waiting to go to children who are autistic, chronically ill, poor, abused or neglected. Hundreds of gifts were picked up the previous week, and now this batch has to be cleared out to make room for more that will soon arrive.
Welcome to Fran’s Project.
“I do what I do because it’s what I have to do,” said Rosenfield, who is known as Bubbe Fran at Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom. “I can’t stand the thought that anywhere there is a child who is hungry or doing without.”
Her inspiration for the project came from the Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker Program, which she helped a fellow congregant pitch to the Valley Interfaith Council in 1991.
“These caseworkers are overloaded, and they can’t keep track of everything,” she said.
Rosenfield started out collecting donations for one caseworker from the Department of Children and Family Service, and found she was so successful at motivating people to give that she adopted another caseworker a year later.
Before long the former personnel manager had adopted the entire North Hollywood office.
“You hear stories, like a mother and two kids who are living in a garage on $325 a month or a family whose gas was turned off,” she said. “How can you not want to help these people?”
For Rosenfield, the only December dilemma has been how to collect more gifts than the previous year. This former sisterhood president collected more than 1,000 gifts in 2005, which she donated to four different agencies, including Family Friends, a project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. For 2006, she added Jay Nolan Autistic Services to her roster of groups that receive her gifts.
Every morning in the run-up to Christmas, Rosenfield gets on the computer and phone with her list of names and uses her “Jewish mother guilt like crazy, honey.”
The gifts donated to her program from synagogue members and others range in price from $20 to $100, and include toys, clothing, grocery scrip and gas cards. Rosenfield was hoping to break her 2005 record by collecting between 1,500 to 2,000 gifts to put under children’s trees.
Born in Minnesota, Rosenfield moved with her husband, Lenn, to Panorama City in 1950.
“We didn’t even have a phone for the first three years,” said her husband, a former advertising art director who designs the annual posters for Fran’s Project.
Rosenfield’s efforts reflect a family tradition of responding to a crisis. After Hitler came to power, her father rented a home in Minneapolis, declared it a synagogue and brought one or two family members over at a time to serve as its rabbi or cantor. Her father would then find work for the newly arrived relative and put in another request to fill the empty leadership position.
Building on her success with Fran’s Project, Rosenfield recently started a birthday twinning program at Temple Ahavat Shalom. A Hebrew school student is paired up with a child in need whose birthday is on or near the same day, and she provides them with a gift suggestion list.
“I tell them that there are kids who are not as lucky as they are whose parents can’t afford to give them birthday parties and gifts,” said Rosenfield, who serves as the synagogue’s social action chair.
While Rosenfield says she doesn’t know what drives her to do what she does, she counts herself as one of the luckiest people in the world.
“How many people can feel that they’ve made a difference in a child’s life, and then do that by thousands?” she said.
Rebecca Levinson grew up always doing things for the community.
“This is what you do,” the 17-year-old junior at North Hollywood’s Oakwood School, said matter of factly.
Just recently Levinson, who goes by Becca, joined PEP/LA, the Peer Education Project of Los Angeles dealing with HIV/AIDS. She has been trained to lead informal discussions with other teenagers on ways to avoid risk-taking sexual behaviors. Already Levinson has spoken at Children of the Night, an organization dedicated to helping child prostitutes.
In addition, for a second year, Levinson is mentoring Francisco, currently a fifth-grader at North Hollywood’s Monlux Elementary School. She meets with him weekly, tutoring him in whatever subjects he needs help.
“He is super-duper cute and obsessed with magnets,” Levinson said.
And last summer she spent a month in El Salvador through Putney Student Travel Global Awareness in Action program. She traveled with 15 other teenagers to San Salvador, where the group learned about the country’s history as well as immigration, globalization and other issues.
They then traveled Santa Marta, a small town on the Honduras border, where they lived in a communal home and assisted the local residents. Levinson, who chose to look into economy and gender issues, worked in a women’s bakery every day, baking bread and talking with the workers. Additionally, she did some AIDS outreach education.
“It was a great experience,” she said. “It taught me how one country’s decisions affect the world.”
Volunteering is in her blood. Her father, David Levinson, is the founder of Big Sunday, which began in 1999 as Temple Israel of Hollywood’s Mitzvah Day and evolved into an annual citywide day of volunteering, now co-sponsored by the mayor. Last year’s event had 30,000 volunteer participants.
This past Big Sunday, Rebecca Levinson manned the clothing market at the Figueroa Street School carnival, which was actually a schoolwide fair and community service day coordinated her mother, Ellie Herman. Levinson’s job was procuring and selling clothes for a minimal amount.
“It was more stressful than I thought it would be,” she said. “Only about five people spoke English.”
While Levinson’s activities seem disparate, she explained the connection.
“They are all interactive. It is necessary for both people to gain something,” she said.
An exception, however, is the American Cancer Society Relay for Life event she organized last year at Walter Reed Middle School.
“A lot of people in my family have had cancer, and I felt an obligation,” she explained. She will facilitate the event again this year, hoping to broaden the turnout.
Levinson’s other major interest is drawing, which she hopes to combine with her passion for social justice. “There are a lot of different ways to communicate with people that interest me,” she said.
As for her future, she wants to become fluent in Spanish. She’s also developed an interest in economics as well as international relations after her summer in El Salvador.
“We’ve been dragging the kids along ever since they can remember, whether to nursing homes to sing or to furnish apartments for the homeless,” David Levinson said. “But Rebecca has found her own path and knows where she can be most useful.”
For the past 20 years, Yoram Hassid, a 60-something financially successful general contractor, has been quietly helping scores of local Jews — in particular Iranian Jews — avoid the courtrooms, acting as an unpaid mediator in disputes over everything from multimillion dollar real estate deals to challenging family conflicts.
“I’m not a storyteller, I’m only here to help solve people’s problems,” replies a humble Hassid when asked how many people he has aided or how much money he has had his clients donate to international Jewish charities in lieu of receiving fees for his services.
Hassid started as a mediator in the Iranian American Jewish Federation’s committee to help the community resolve business troubles outside of the court system, but now volunteers his mediation services alone. After the death of the committee’s chairman, Davood Ghodsian, Hassid and other committee volunteers a few years ago formed the Arbitration and Mediation Committee, an independent mediation group based in Beverly Hills.
Hassid said that he primarily handles cases of misunderstandings between the parties, rather than intentional fraud, because in the latter, one of the parties is unlikely to agree to attend mediation sessions.
“I’ve had success in resolving 80 percent of the cases that have come to me, where I was able to convince both parties to accept a mutual settlement,” Hassid said.
But he refuses to take all the credit for his successes, and he said local rabbis, community leaders and even attorneys have been instrumental in referring cases to him and providing support during mediation sessions.
“He knows the ‘bazaar mentality’ from Iran and is able to speak with people with that in mind,” said Noah P., an L.A. area real estate broker and former Hassid client, who did not want to give his name for business reasons.
“Getting the money was not important to me, but I will forever be grateful to him because of the fact that he voluntarily came forward to help me and spent a substantial amount of time on my case when others were not able to do so”.
“Mr. Hassid has been very instrumental in resolving several tough cases which others have not been able to conclude,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills. “His activities are a blessing for many who might otherwise land in the court system and we are grateful for his help.”
The American litigation process was initially an unfamiliar concept to Iranian Jews, who for centuries in Iran resolved business disputes with the aid of elders in their communities. In Iran, their cases were heard by community leaders, and all parties were persuaded to find a fair compromise, since Jews often did not have recourse of going to the country’s Muslim-dominated courts.
While Hassid has never had any formal legal education, four of his six children are now attorneys.
“The first thing he has is an incredible ability to go inside the heads of both the parties and understand their perspectives; this is not a gift that everyone has,” said Hassid’s daughter, Yifat, a Century City attorney. “He also has an uncanny ability to skip through all the great nonsense and force the parties to get to the heart of matter with the goal of finding a solution.”
The Arbitration and Mediation Committee can be reached at (310) 860-1826.
A month ago I lost my wallet.
I had just picked my son up from day school at 5 p.m., run an errand, then returned to pick up my daughter, whose religiousschool classes got out at 6:30 p.m.
It was one of those days. My wife was out of town on a work trip, and between my own job and drop-offs and pick-ups, I’d logged about 100 miles, and the day wasn’t over.
I had until 7 p.m. to make it to the auto shop to switch cars, and the clock was still ticking on dinner and baths and bedtime. That last sequence of “Good Fellas” where Ray Liotta has to do a drug deal, launder cash, run family errands and avoid the Feds? That was me, without the drugs, cash and cops.
Trying to shave a minute off deadline, I parked a block from the school, ran at a dead heat up La Cienega Boulevard, grabbed my daughter and power-walked back to the car. Then off through rush hour traffic to Miller Honda, where I arrived as the giant metal garage doors were rolling shut. I hurried to pay for my repairs — without my wallet.
It wasn’t gone, I told myself. It was black, my seats were black and the sun had set. I searched. The kids searched. Small hands went in and out of seat cracks. It took me a good two minutes to go from bemused to perplexed to frantic.
Forget the 100 bucks. What about the credit cards? The driver’s license? The identity theft. The hours on the phone navigating voice commands. A crazed thief showing up at our home address. My ATM card somewhere on its way to Vegas.
I drove back to the school. By cellphone I alerted the security personnel there, who quickly scanned the sidewalk and came up empty-handed. I traced my steps and found nothing.
“If you dropped it in the hallway,” one guard comforted me, “whoever finds it will give it to us. If you dropped it on the street, forget it.”
Of course he was right. It was dark. That section of La Cienega hosted a stream of transient foot traffic from the bus stop to 7-Eleven to dark alleys where pickpockets warmed their hands around trash can fires kindled with the useless receipts from emptied wallets … or so I imagined. I was, at that point, without hope.
And my kids, hungry and tired, were aching for food, which I had no money to pay for.
Just before I left school, I had the idea to call my work phone. Who knows? There was a message, which I’ve saved: “Hi Rob. This is Michael. I’ve found your wallet. Give me a call. I’m sure you’re probably looking for it.”
I pulled over and called. The young man on the other end of the line gave me his address, which turned out to be on Corning Avenue, the next block over. He was waiting out front when I swung around.
I rushed out to shake his hand, to thank him. I thrust a reward at him, which surprised and slightly embarrassed him. Somehow I figured words weren’t enough.
When I drove back to school to thank the security guards and share the good news, they were astonished.
“In this city,” said one of them, “That’s one in a million.”
They asked how old he was. Around 20. They asked what color he was. I said black. They shook their heads. From their faces, I could see their stereotypes melting about as gently as nuclear fuel rods.
A little while later I called Michael Evans to thank him a bit less breathlessly.
On the one hand, he didn’t cure cancer or rescue an endangered species or rush into a burning building. On the other hand, he found a wallet full of cash on a dark street, made the effort to contact the owner, and returned it. No big deal? Not if it were your wallet.
Michael told me he is 22. He was born in New York City and moved out here when he was 10. His parents died when he was 4 — not a subject he wanted to delve into — and he was raised by his grandmother, a retired schoolteacher. She’s 92 now, and Michael decided to live with her to watch after her.
Michael attended Carthay Circle Elementary, Hamilton High and Los Angeles City College. He works as an accountant in Burbank for Smith Mandel and Associates.
The night we met, he was walking up La Cienega toward the 7-Eleven to buy his grandmother a newspaper when he saw my wallet.
“I thought I might as well go and help this person,” he told me, verbally shrugging off the whole incident. “It’s not inconvenient, and I’d want somebody to do the same thing for me.”
He searched out my business card, called me and e-mailed me. “I don’t think it was too much trouble to go and do that.”
I told him what the security guards said, that in a city like this, he’s one in a million.
“It’s just the right thing to do,” he said. “There really was no other option.”
This is the second year The Jewish Journal has compiled a list of our “Top Ten Mensches.” Let other magazines slobber over the 50 Sexiest or the 400 Richest or the 20 Most Influential. Rich, sexy and powerful are easy. Mensch is hard.
How hard? You could make all those other lists and still not qualify for ours. There are three crowns, says the Pirke Avot, the crown of the law, which is knowledge; the crown of royalty, which is power and wealth, and the crown of priesthood, which is holiness.
But the crown of a good name surpasses them all.
Thus, Michael Evans.
“Why is the world so silent — why are Jews so silent about the plight of Jews being held captive in Iran?” Elana Tehrani, an Iranian-born Jewish woman now living in Los Angeles asked a crowd during a speech at the Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills.
Tehrani believes her son is being held captive in Iran, and after 12 years of trying to quietly work through channels, she and 11 other families — who also believe their loved ones are in the same situation — have filed suit against Iran’s former president, Mohammad Khatami, in U.S. Federal Court. They are asking that the U.S. courts hold Khatami responsible for the kidnapping, imprisonment and disappearance of loved ones between 1994 and 1997.
“As a citizen of the United States,” Tehrani said at a rally in New York, “I ask that President Bush and those in Congress help me retrieve my son from the hands of the Islamic Republic!”
Tehrani began speaking out on Sept. 20 before a crowd of more than 30,000 people who were gathered outside the United Nations in New York for a rally organized by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations to protest Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presence at the United Nations. With her were Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, U.S. senators, national Jewish leaders and Israeli officials.
“I was hoping that from this rally … the world would become more aware of this issue,” she told The Journal in an interview from her West Los Angeles home. “But I don’t know why there was no media coverage of it anywhere, and no one said another word about it since.”
She believes her son, Babak, was kidnapped and imprisoned by Iranian secret police while trying to flee Iran in 1994.
“We have been trying for the last 12 years to get our sons back, but since we have not heard anything about their status after all these years, we were forced to take this action against Mr. Khatami,” Tehrani said. “We want to tell the world that with every day that passes by, we will pursue this issue more and more, until the Islamic Republic of Iran gives us answers”.
A homemaker who also works with her husband in their downtown L.A. shoe store, Tehrani said doctors have told her she has developed glaucoma as a result of excessive crying.She said she has developed a closer bond with her two other sons, who also live in Los Angeles, and an inner strength from praying three times a day.
“I refuse to give up on Babak and give up hope that he’s still alive,” Tehrani said. “We have witnesses that have seen him, and I will not stop looking for my child until he is back in my arms.”
Tehrani said her worst nightmare became a reality on June 8, 1994, when Babak, then 17, and his 20-year-old friend, Shaheen Nikkhoo, attempted to secretly leave Tehran. Because they were the age of military conscription, leaving the country was illegal. The two boys, both Jewish, arrived with their smuggler, Atta Mohammed Rigi, in the southeastern city of Zahedan, near the Pakistani border. Witnesses saw them being arrested there by non-uniformed Iranian secret police, Tehrani said.
Leaders from the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF), a Los Angeles umbrella group of Iranian Jewish organizations, have made quiet diplomatic efforts for the last 12 years to help secure the release of Babak Tehrani and the other imprisoned Jews. Six years ago some activists in the Iranian Jewish community, among them George Haroonian and Frank Nikbakht, became so unhappy with the IAJF’s lack of progress, that they began to pursue a more vocal public approach in attempting to secure the release of the prisoners.
IAJF leaders have long advocated minimizing criticism of Tehran’s regime out of fear of retributions against the approximately 20,000 Jews still living in Iran. Despite internal differences of opinion, the various factions within the local Iranian Jewish community recently banded together in support of victims’ families’ lawsuit.
“Our entire community is united in demanding the immediate release of these individuals and will support any legal and moral course of action that their families may choose to pursue,” the group said in a statement released by the IAJF.
In 2000, with the assistance of various American Jewish groups, the Iranian Jewish community spread news of the case of 13 Iranian Jews from the city of Shiraz who had been imprisoned in 1999 on fabricated charges of spying for Israel. Ultimately the international exposure put pressure on the Iranian regime, prevented the execution of the “Shiraz 13,” and they were eventually released.
Babak Tehrani was last seen in 1996, according to Fereidoon Peyman, an Iranian Jew who was the Tehranis’ neighbor in Iran and who now lives in Los Angeles. In a sworn affidavit given to the Tehrani family, Peyman said that in 1996 he visited Tehran’s infamous Evin prison while attempting to sell land nearby to prison officials. While there, he stated, he saw Babak.
“As I was walking, a jail cell with a window caught my eye, I went forward and I saw several youths who were sitting on the floor,” Peyman stated in his affidavit. “The poor kids, including one whom I knew particularly since he was my daughter’s classmate and whose name was Babak.”
Evin prison is a maximum-security prison allegedly used by the Iranian government to house and torture political dissidents, student protesters, journalists and anyone else believed to pose a threat to the Iranian regime, Nikbakht said.
Experts familiar with Iran’s fundamentalist Islamic laws say such a long imprisonment of Babak Tehrani and the other 11 Jews is highly unusual for an attempted escape from the country and could be politically motivated. According to Chapter 11, Article 34 of Iran’s official Criminal Laws and Regulations, punishment for illegal exit from the country is either a fine or a prison term ranging from two months to a maximum of two years.
Babak’s father, Joseph Tehrani, said he was particularly disappointed with the lack of support and assistance from the Israeli government for the plight of his son and the other imprisoned Iranian Jews.
Having trouble finding the perfect gift for the one who has everything?
Want to give back to the community this holiday season and into 2007?
Here are eight great ways to contribute.
Another mentoring option is with Koreh LA. Koreh (Hebrew for “read”) sets a volunteer up with a preschool or elementary school student in the Los Angeles Unified School District to read for one hour each week. For more information, visit www.korehla.org.
To find out more information about the circle or how to get a holiday tribute card in someone’s name, visit www.mazon.org.
All About Atidim
“As Henry VIII told each of his six wives, ‘I won’t keep you long’,” promised Dan Gillerman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, as he addressed some 300 guests at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The Nov. 16 occasion was a benefit for Atidim, an innovative Israeli project to assure an education for promising youngsters from the country’s poorer development towns and thus help close the social and economic gap between Israel’s haves and have-nots.
Gillerman assured his audience that the recent battles against Hezbollah in Lebanon had been a success and had changed the rules in the Mideast diplomatic game.
Joining the ambassador on the speaker’s rostrum were Rabbi Eli Hirscher, Skirball founder Uri Hirscher, Israeli Consul General Ehud Danoch, and Israeli industrialist Eitan Wertheimer.
The only disappointment was the no-show of megabillionaire Warren Buffet, who called in sick.
Metuka Benjamin, co-organizer of the event with Anette and A. Stuart Rubin, received a standing ovation, as did two Atidim-aided graduates, one from Ethiopia, the other from Russia.
Conversation at the Circuit’s table was enlivened by Rochelle Ginsburg, principal of the Stephen S. Wise Temple elementary school, and her physician husband Eli.
As master of ceremonies, actor Michael Burstyn kept the action moving and concluded the evening on a high note by leading guests in singing “Jerusalem of Gold.”
— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
King of Hearts
Larry King and his friends showed the world their determination to provide health care to all no matter what their economic circumstances when the Larry King Cardiac Foundation hosted “An Evening with Larry King and Friends” at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was a feast for the eyes and the palate and the heart and there was something for everyone as King and wife Shawn Southwick-King hosted the gala, entertaining the group with playful banter and true stories and incidents in their life.
“Entertainment Tonight”‘s adorable Mary Hart acted as emcee, bringing a whole lotta smiles and sunshine to the proceedings that honored Los Angeles’ own “movie star” mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, Eva (the men couldn’t get their eyes off her) Longoria, beloved and uber-generous philanthropists Alfred and Claude Mann, and renowned cardiologist Dr. Enrique Ostrzega. Athlete extraordinaire Lance Armstrong was on-hand to present the Corazones Unidos (United Hearts) award to Longoria, who thanked Armstrong for being there for her and acknowledged her deep admiration for him as someone who has triumphed in the face of personal adversity.
Three fortunate families bid $15,000 a piece for a personal portrait done by legendary American artist Peter Max.
The event featured entertainment by Il Divo, and raised more than $700,000 in funds to support the partnership forged earlier this year between the LAC+USC Healthcare Network, COPE Health Solutions, the Los Angeles County division of the American Heart Association and the Larry King Cardiac Foundation.
A Woman of Valor
It was a nonstop kvellfest when civic leader Rita Brucker received the Coastal Cities “Volunteer of the Year” award by the American Cancer Society. Brucker was recognized for her 35 years of outstanding service as one of the founding architects for the “Reach to Recovery” program helping breast cancer survivors. Proud son Barry Brucker, Beverly Hills City Council member, who attended the event with his wife, Sue and father, Charlie, stated, “I was amazed at the number of breast cancer survivors who credited my mother for being an integral part in their survival … it was very emotional and we are very proud.”
The evening was as diversified as its cause Nov. 19 at the star-studded black tie Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s (MMPA)14th Annual Diversity Awards — “Celebrating Diversity – Creativity and Talent That Shine.” The event, honoring artists for their exceptional achievements in film and television, benefited The Multicultural Motion Picture Association’s Educational and Development Scholarship Fund, that helps talented and dedicated students, and upcoming filmmakers, seeking entry into the film and television professions.
Jarvee E. Hutcherson, executive producer of the 14th Annual Diversity Awards and president of MMPA, said, “We are very pleased to honor a very select talented group of artists every year at The Diversity Awards, each of whom our organization feels have broadened the creative landscape in the film and television industry through their visionary work. With this year’s theme … we are recognizing the foundation laid by both artistic leaders and the emerging depth of dedicated young artists, behind and in front of the camera, who are bringing to this industry, a vision and talent indicative of only greater things to come in the future.”
MMPA’s Educational Scholarship Fund provides financial assistance and technical support to young filmmakers bringing diverse stories to the screen.
Three women were honored at The Wellness Community of West Los Angeles’ annual Friends of Wellness luncheon at the Skirball Cultural Center.
The women, Judy Bernstein, Shirley Blitz and Lynda Levy have given of their time, their hearts and their spirit to helping fulfill the mission of The Wellness Community.
“Their efforts have helped bring hope and support to countless people with cancer,” said Ellen Silver, executive director of The Wellness Community -West Los Angeles,
More than 265 people attended the event that featured a heartwarming presentation from cancer survivor and Wellness Center participant Karen Sabatini and a presentation with authors Carolyn and Lisa See.
For more information about The Wellness Community-West Los Angeles, visit www.twc-wla.org.
Growing up in Morocco, the word “miracle” was a familiar one. I remember how my parents, especially my mother, would bring up the great Moroccan mystics at alltimes of the day — either to pray for a miracle, or to thank them for one.
No miracle was too small. If a plate would break and a child was not hurt, or if a plate would break and a child did get hurt, whatever it was, mothers would immediately call out to one of the sages. Their names were our security blankets. For centuries, they provided a protective, spiritual cocoon for the Jews of Morocco.
These sages were different from the sages of the Bible or the Talmud; they were the sages of the hood. They were gone, but they were not long gone. You knew someone who had kissed their hand. Your father would tell you about a miracle that his own father had experienced with a certain sage. Somewhere in the neighborhood lived the grandson or grandnephew of another great mystic. We would sleep in tents at their burial sites during their yahrzeit. Their pictures were on our walls.
You could almost touch them.
Today, one of the great Moroccan sages, Rabbi Chaim Pinto of the city of Mogador, has a living presence right here in our own hood, on Pico Boulevard, just east of Robertson. It’s at a little shul called the Pinto Center.
It’s not uncommon for a Moroccan synagogue to be named after a well-known sage (a mile north on Fairfax Avenue is another Moroccan shul named after the great Baba Sale). What’s unusual here is that the heart and soul of the Pinto Center is a Pinto himself. He is Rabbi Yaacov Pinto, a direct descendant of the Pinto dynasty.
But I haven’t told you about the miracle yet.
Rabbi Yaacov opened the synagogue in the mid-1980s and built a thriving little community center of prayer and learning, attracting a high-intensity blend of Israeli, French and Persian Jews. Then, seemingly out of the blue, Rabbi Yaacov developed an irresistible urge to return to Israel, where he had been born and raised.
For a shul that revolved around the charisma and leadership of one man, this was a spiritual earthquake. Nevertheless, after much agonizing, Rabbi Yaacov and his family moved in the summer of 2003 to Ashdod, a coastal city north of Tel Aviv with a large Moroccan community, including the rabbi’s mother and several of his siblings.
(I knew Rabbi Yaacov well at the time, and from what I gather, the pressures of fundraising were starting to burn him out; he wanted a better education for his kids, and, like he said to me once, he simply missed the Holy Land).
It didn’t take long for the Pinto shul to unravel. Despite Rabbi Yaacov ‘s best efforts — he came back every six weeks or so and was here for all the holidays and stayed in constant contact with his people in Los Angeles — the Pinto Center was losing its soul. When the Shabbat minyan dwindled from more than 100 to fewer than 20, the end was near.
Rabbi Yaacov prayed to his ancestors, as he often does. That’s when an idea came to him: He would create an intimate “candle room” in the synagogue, where people could come meditate and light candles in the presence of the great Pinto tzadikim, and pray for anything they wished. Well, the word got out and they came from all over to light candles, and I guess somebody must have prayed for the revival of the Pinto shul, because that is precisely what happened next.
The “miracle” took about a year, but slowly the Pinto shul came back to life. It’s not a coincidence that Rabbi Yaacov chose as the ba’al habayit, or master of the house, someone whose family has been connected to the Pinto family for three generations. When this highly enthusiastic man, Maurice Perez, talks about the Pinto family, he sort of transfers the goose bumps over to the listener. His defining family story is when his mother and grandmother got an impromptu blessing on a street in Casablanca from one of the Pinto sages. This story happened 70 years ago, but when you hear him tell it, you’d think it happened yesterday.
Maurice, who joined the shul in 1997 and who currently does the chazanut, decided with Rabbi Yaacov to bring in a teacher (“Rabbi Raffi”) to give Torah classes during the week, and to speak on Friday nights and during the third meal of Shabbat. Maurice formed a small, core group of supporters to cover all expenses, which helped reduce the stress level and bring a general harmony to the shul. They upgraded the interior, with new seating built in Israel, and a new women’s section that features an ethereal, see-through crimson curtain for a mechitzah.
Rabbi Yaacov himself increased his visits to Los Angeles, but he did more than that, too. He made the shul think “bigger than itself,” and got it involved with two projects in the Holy Land.The first was a “supermarket” for the needy, which Rabbi Yaacov started in Ashdod and which has garnered attention for its unique approach: a system based on points, where the poor can keep their dignity while “shopping” for donated food. This project, called C.H.A.I., is a big source of pride for the Pinto shul, as you can see from the pictures on the wall.
The second is a recent decision to have a sister shul in Hebron, where the Patriarchs of the Bible are buried. A few months ago, the Pinto shul donated a Torah scroll, and they are planning regular activities and visits between the shuls.
And then, of course, there’s the dafina.
Gila Garaway says that the vision for her organization, Moriah Africa, came to her as she was lying in a hospital bed in Nigeria in 2001.
“I was there consulting on a water project, and I broke my back in a truck accident,” the American-born Israeli from the community of Poriah near Tiberias recalled. “While lying there facing the reality that I might possibly never walk again, I saw the moment of truth of what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to go back to the Congo and build ties between those countries and Israel.”
Garaway recovered from her injury and, as soon as she could, founded Moriah Africa to do just that. In the ensuing years, she has responded to the challenges and diverse, profound needs of Africa in general, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular. Among the achievements of the one-woman organization have been organizing visits of young Israeli volunteers to Burundi to hold summer camps for children, linking an Israeli orthopedic surgeon with a Congolese medical training facility, and networking a variety of African business- men and women with economic partners in Israel, Europe and the United States.
In 1994, the nation of Rwanda suffered what has become known as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century — a genocide that cost the lives of more than 1 million of its citizens. The majority population of Hutu tribesmen attempted to destroy all trace of the minority Tutsis. A Tutsi-led army ultimately managed to take control of the country, but not before the vast majority of Tutsi had been slaughtered. More than 1 million Hutus fled to refugee camps and when they returned in 1996, a difficult truce was put in place as the two peoples attempted to rebuild their lives.
For the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa in general, it was a time of crisis, destabilization and change: for Rwanda it was a time of resettlement and massive movements of peoples. For Burundi it was a time of ongoing rebel conflict and instability. For Zaire it was upheaval and a time of release from the many years of oppressive nondevelopment rule of Mobutu Sese Seko: the birth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a time unfortunately followed by intertribal conflict and extended war. This is where Garaway and her husband, Noah, came into the picture.
“My husband and I began working in Rwanda back in 1996 at the end of the genocide. I was working as an evaluation consultant and he as the head of a relief organization. It had nothing to do with being Israeli or part of the Israeli government, we just had the right skill sets, and the willingness to travel,” she said.
The couple returned to Israel later in the year, but in 1997, they were invited to a conference to celebrate the newly established Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“We were both going to go, but in the end I didn’t for various personal reasons. The plane crashed in the Haut Plateau of South Kivu, DRC and my husband was killed along with a number of African leaders,” Garaway explained.
“I probably wouldn’t have continued working there — there are so many problems, African issues that are complex and need to be worked out on their own — but I stayed in touch with a number of the African widows from the crash, and on a loose basis began to go back and forth doing consultant work.”
But it was the 2001 truck accident in Nigeria that got Garaway focused on the mission of helping the people of the Congo in a more personal manner.
“I call it people building people. It’s all about reaching out and helping people with initiatives that will help them realize their visions. So ultimately, it’s their vision, and not me saying what they need,” she said.
Garaway’s fledgling organization received funding by whom she calls “a few blessed individuals” and in the last five years has worked in various projects, mostly in Rwanda and Burundi. The summer camp trip this year was one of the biggest endeavors, and according to its coordinator, social worker Hadas Smith, one of the most satisfying.
“Through Gila, I learned about Burundi, and I recruited the Israeli students while she dealt with the African side of things,” Smith said. “We had a group of 10 volunteers — Jewish, Arab and three Europeans who have been living in Israel a long time. Many of them come from special ed or social work backgrounds.”
She first traveled to the place she calls “one of the saddest countries in the world” three years ago as a newly graduated student. She spent six months there volunteering in an orphanage, an experience she found indescribable.
“When we came back this summer with the group, the people there already knew me, they trusted me. We could accomplish more in a week than we did in six months before.
“After spending a week at the orphanage, we went to the capital and worked with children at camps. At first it was around 600, but by the time the word got out, it grew to 2,000 by the end. We had five local students working with us — and it didn’t matter if we were Jew, Arab, black or white; we were one team,” she said.
According to Garaway, the cumulative effect of the summer camp and the various other projects Moriah Africa has undertaken is having a small, positive effect on life in the area.
“We’ve done everything from working with absolutely illiterate, profoundly rural women, helping them to pull their lives together, to working with trainers of organizations in order to train them to be able to work with the population.
“We’ve also been involved with specific projects: We brought over an orthopedic surgeon who did three weeks of surgery in the Congo last summer. He invited a Congolese surgeon to come back to Israel to undergo two months of training at Poriah Hospital,” she said. “We also brought two Congolese babies with heart defects over to Israel for surgery through the Save a Child’s Heart organization.”
When I was in eighth grade, I went on a school field trip to the Museum of Tolerance. My grandmother being a holocaust survivor, I had learned much about the Holocaust and took an interest in it. At the Museum of Tolerance, however, I learned about other things as well.
At an exhibit called the Millennium Machine, the last stop, I was in shock at all the horrible things that are still happening to children today. I couldn’t believe that in the world I lived in, kids were being enslaved and starved. I had always been involved with community service, but at the sight of this exhibit I knew I had to do something to help these children.
It was only a couple of weeks later that I was shopping at a jewelry and clothing boutique, when the owner noticed my necklace — which I had made. She offered to sell it at the store. That very day I brought in a tray of my work, and my guitar-pick jewelry was an instant success at the store.
This was right before summer started, and before I knew it I would be spending my summer days making jewelry. When I realized how much money I could make, I remembered that exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance and how much those children needed the money — much more than I did.
So I decided to give all of my proceeds to these unfortunate kids, and I began looking up charities that benefit kids. The first charity I donated to was UNICEF, because I knew that the money I gave would directly help youths in other countries that I had seen in the video at the museum. Ever since, I have given all of my proceeds to various charities, amounting to about $10,000.
In addition to my business, I always take on the opportunity to help in my own community. I believe that it is important to help out whenever you can, whether it’s picking up trash at the beach or working at a charity benefit, as well as taking on new challenges.
I love art and jewelry making, but giving to charity is the heart of my business. I might not be making jewelry forever, but I know I will always be charitable, because I have a love for helping those less fortunate than I am. Since I am a creative person, I’m glad to know I can use my talents to help others.
I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a nice house and to have food to eat, something that is easily taken for granted. I have also learned that we fortunate kids hold the responsibility to help children who are in desperate need for simple things that we have an abundance of. I believe that one person can make a difference, and with my charitable business I would like other young people to see that they, too, can use their talents for a good cause.
Amanda Martin is a junior at Viewpoint School in Calabasas. Her jewelry can be purchased at www.pickmejewelry.com.
The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (firstname.lastname@example.org.
It was a beautiful morning in May on the world’s highest mountain, and Dan Mazur was feeling good. He had been hiking throughout the night in below-freezing temperatures, and now he and his team — a sherpa and two other climbers — had only two hours to go until reaching the summit of Mount Everest.
Mazur had reached the top before, 15 years earlier. But this time, the mountain climber and guide was leading two clients who were paying more than $20,000 each for the chance to accomplish the goal of a lifetime. Their objective was so close they could almost reach out and touch it.
Suddenly, Mazur saw something unexpected — some yellow fabric in the distance. At first it looked like a tent, but then it became clear that it was a person, a man sitting cross-legged on a narrow ridge with an 8,000-foot drop to one side and a 6,000-foot drop to the other.
At 28,000 feet — a part of the mountain dubbed the “death zone,” because the weather is so cold and oxygen is so scarce — the man wore no gloves, no hat and had unzipped his down suit to his waist.
“I imagine you’re surprised to see me here,” the man said.
What happened next would cost Mazur his summit and save the man’s life. Now, more than six months later, Mazur, a 46-year-old who lives in Olympia, Wash., will talk about the adventure and dramatic rescue at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue on Wednesday evening, Dec. 6.
As it turned out, the man on the ledge was Lincoln Hall, one of Australia’s best-known climbers. Hall had attempted to summit Everest 22 years earlier but never made it. This time, at age 50, Hall had made it to the top.
But on the way down the day before, Hall had started having trouble.
Experiencing the classic symptoms of altitude sickness — fatigue and hallucinations — Hall had refused to continue down the mountain and ended up passing out. The two sherpas with him concluded, after poking Hall in the eye and getting no response, that Hall was dead. Suffering from lack of oxygen themselves, they hurried down the mountain.
A friend had already broken the news to Hall’s wife and teenage sons: Hall was dead — or so they thought. In fact, he was struggling but alive. He ended up lasting through the night alone.
Atop the mountain, at around 7:30 a.m., Mazur and his team persuaded a resistant Hall to put on his gloves and hat. They gave him oxygen, tea and a Snickers bar and tethered him to their rope. They radioed down to Hall’s expedition group, which dispatched a rescue team.
It would take more than three hours for the rescuers to arrive. But Mazur and his climbers waited with Hall, while their chances of summiting slipped away.
In the end, Hall suffered frostbite; he lost some fingertips. But he made it down the mountain.
Mazur’s rescue caught the attention of national media, which had reported only days earlier the demise of another Everest climber, David Sharp, who died after an estimated 40 climbers passed him without offering any help.
“I was always taught that when you see someone who needs help, you’ve got to help him right away,” Mazur said, speaking on the phone from Washington State.
If he had the day to do over, he said, “I would do it again exactly the same.”
Mazur, who grew up with a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother, said he is more spiritual than religious. But that day, high on the mountain, Mazur prayed. He prayed that God would help Hall.
“I believe that Lincoln Hall survived because he was very lucky; the weather was not too bad; he was in good shape,” Mazur said. “And I believe there was a higher power that was looking after him.”
Dan Mazur will speak on Wednesday, Dec. 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, 24855 Pacific Coast Highway. Admission is free.
For more information, call (310) 456-2178
People have been generous.
During the past two decades I have assisted in creating caring communities that extend themselves to people in their midst at
profound turning points.
These times of need include both times of tragedy and times of great joy. Baby namings, weddings, illnesses, communal catastrophes, and shiva minyanim, call forth different emotions. All of them have their share of anxieties. All of them take a village.
During these months of cancer treatment, I have been blessed with a village, giving me rides, food and comfort when I am in need, and respecting my privacy when I crave solitude.
“How can I help?” people ask. Aside from the practical help that is often needed, there is the less tangible assistance that often creates anxiety on the part of the ones who seek to help. People often stay away for fear that they will say the wrong thing.
That unease is unnecessary, to paraphrase the Torah, for the right thing is as near to you as breathing. If you help appropriately, you, and those you help, will benefit greatly.
The wisdom to help others is not privileged information. It is taught to all of us through our life experiences.
Hearts that are both caring and helpful, marry self-knowledge and the ability to attend to others. Therefore, when we seek to provide comfort, we look into our own lives for guidance.
I’d like to explore some of these deeper aspects of bringing comfort.
Bikur cholim is the sacred obligation of visiting the sick. Its principles apply to any outreach to people at vulnerable times.
Performing this mitzvah is not about helping the less fortunate.
It is not about doing a good deed.
It is a way of cultivating a relationship with the deep and rich nature of what it means to be human.
If you do this effectively and with compassion, it will help others. It will also make your life more meaningful. It will open your heart. You will live more fully. Ironically, the more you receive from your visits, the more skilled you become in the art of helping others.
A good visitor is more than a well-meaning person who comes with urgent good intentions, whose need to find just the right words can communicate anxiety more than care.
We all want to make things better. We want to do the right thing or find the phrase to transform the difficulties.
But guess what? We can’t fix it. We can’t take away the pain of loss. We can’t heal a chronic illness, bring back the dead or force family members to behave appropriately.
We can, however, make a difference.
A first step in learning to comfort suffering is to come to terms with our own powerlessness. Ironically, this relieves suffering. Struggling with this understanding gives us access to the paradoxically profound and simple skill of visiting. Understanding that we can’t do the impossible takes away some of the urgency. We can focus not on changing what can’t be changed, but on being present.
Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help. Knowing that caregiving has limits makes it less threatening for those who want to help but stay away in fear of not knowing what to say. We’re off the hook with regard to performing magic tricks of healing. All we can really do is to create a place where those to whom we offer comfort feel heard and protected.
The most important thing we offer as comfort is our own comfort. When we are fluent with some of life’s profound issues and communicate this either in words or in silence, we are helpful. We communicate that we are present and unafraid. The irony is that we become capable of serving in this way, by taking care of ourselves. We do this by cultivating our own soul and exploring our own relationship to life’s challenging questions.
Think back on your own difficult challenges. What helped you get through them? What did not help? Was there anything said that made it easier for you to get on with your life?
Over and over, I hear from people that what helped was not a cogent bon mot or profound piece of advice. It was the gift of compassionate attention with which someone validated the experience and provided presence and lack of judgment. This was offered without intruding into the person’s private world or forcing them to move beyond their comfort zone. It can happen in silence.
It can come with a light touch or the subtle expression of care. Above all, the feeling is communicated that the person being visited had permission to be exactly as he or she needs to be, be it tearful, angry, cheerful, silent, or confused. Rarely are these reassurances expressed verbally.
This kind of presence says more about whom the visitor is than about what he or she says, does or knows.
It reflects the visitor’s own work on the deep issues of his or her own life, which makes it possible to comfortably reach out to others.
That comfort gives comfort.
Knowing that we don’t have to rescue makes it easier to help.
Anne Brener is an L.A.-based psychotherapist. She is the author of “Mourning & Mitzvah: Walking the Mourner’s Path” (Jewish Lights, 1993 and 2001), a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and a faculty member of the Academy for Jewish Religion.
In October 2004, journalist Amy Berg cold-called a defrocked priest she has nicknamed the “Hannibal Lecter of pedophiles.” While serving Central California parishes in the 1970s and ’80s, the Rev. Oliver O’Grady allegedly molested dozens of children — boys and girls, infants and adolescents — according to Berg’s new documentary film, “Deliver Us From Evil.”
He did so with the knowledge of church officials — including Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony — who moved him from parish to parish when parents complained, O’Grady alleges.
After months of phone conversations, Berg persuaded the priest to appear in a documentary that “has heightened interest among law enforcement officials … in considering a criminal case against [Mahony],” The New York Times reported on Oct. 8.
In a Journal interview on Oct. 9, Tod M. Tamberg, a spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, called the movie “very heavily biased.”
“This film was heavily edited and weighed in favor of Amy Berg making the cardinal the culprit and completely ignoring … that O’Grady is a skilled liar and a master manipulator,” Tamberg added.
“Evil” — which won the nonfiction prize at the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival in July — presents for perhaps the first time a convicted pedophile speaking graphically about his actions on camera. O’Grady’s words provide “the backbone of a deeply disturbing documentary about the Roman Catholic clergy abuse crisis,” the Associated Press said.
When O’Grady first answered Berg’s call with a cheerful “Hello and good evening,” to her surprise he didn’t curtly dismiss her as had other pedophiles she had telephoned to be in her film. Berg believes he ultimately agreed to talk, in part, because he was angry with church officials.
“I should have been removed and attended to,” he says in the film.
O’Grady, who arrived in California in the early 1970s, remained a parish priest until he was convicted on four molestation counts in 1993. After seven years in prison, he was deported to his native Ireland.
In the movie, O’Grady describes having been molested by an older brother as a boy, and how he, in turn, abused a younger sister. As a priest, he says he sometimes started fondling children while sleeping over at their homes: He would often begin by hugging a child, then let his hand stray if they did not protest.
He recollects his crimes in a detached or avuncular tone that contrasts with anguished testimony from his victims. In the film, one father cries and screams as he blames himself for allowing O’Grady to abuse his daughter: “At 5 years old — for God’s sake, how could that happen?” the father says.
The film also includes never-before-seen taped depositions in which Mahony says he was unaware of the abuse and did not know O’Grady well when he served as bishop of Stockton from 1980 to 1985. But in the movie, excerpts from court documents, superimposed over Mahony’s testimony, suggest otherwise.
In response, Tamberg said Mahony’s testimony was heavily edited and facts omitted to make Berg’s points. Tamberg said Mahony did not know O’Grady had committed abuse until the former priest was arrested in 1993 and that “Evil” largely presents the opinions of plaintiffs’ attorneys, who stand to gain financially by suing the church.
Tamberg said he believes the documentary poignantly depicts the victims’ anguish, which is “its greatest strength but also its greatest failing. Because then we are asked to put all of O’Grady’s lying and manipulation aside and believe him…. [But] he lied to his bishop, he lied to the families, he lied to victims and I believe he even manipulated the filmmakers.”
Berg indignantly denied that she was ever manipulated, and that her documentary takes undue potshots at the church.
“If this is the best they can come up with, then let them respond to the allegations in the film, for once,” she said.
She wants church officials to answer questions such as “‘Why didn’t you take O’Grady Out?’ ‘What are you hiding?’ ‘[And] how many are still out there?'”Despite her bravado, Berg admitted she previously declined to tell reporters she is a Jewish, divorced single mother (she lives with her young son, Spencer, in an apartment in Santa Monica). She worried that the information might make her appear biased against the church and that the diocese might somehow interfere with the release of her film, since it successfully delayed the airing of some of her CNN pieces.
Tamberg said Berg’s news pieces were delayed because “we asked for fairness, and CNN management agreed.”
The 36-year-old filmmaker was raised Reform in Valley Glen; she attended Jewish Camp Swig in Saratoga and became a bat mitzvah at Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village. But when public high school proved too large and overwhelming for young Amy, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic school because it was affordable and many other Jewish students were enrolled there, as well. All students were required to attend religion class, but Berg said she used to ditch because she did not believe some of the teachings after having been raised Jewish. “Children were saying ‘Hail Marys’ to be forgiven for chewing gum or not brushing their hair,” she recalled of her school.
Years later, while producing for CBS and CNN, Berg was drawn to covering the church’s pedophilia crisis because victims exuded “this unbelievably raw, lonely, ‘Where do I turn?’ mentality.”
She convinced O’Grady to allow her to film him only after speaking to him every Sunday for five months. In December 2004, she flew to Dublin to meet with him in the city center (he would not tell her where he lived.) The eight-day shoot in April, 2005, was “brutal,” both physically and emotionally, she says. For example, O’Grady nonchalantly spoke of his attraction for children as kids were playing in a nearby park; in the film he even peers over the fence to look at them.
To keep herself calm during the process, Berg turned at the end of each day to meditation, including exercises from Melinda Ribner’s “Everyday Kabbalah: A Practical Guide to Jewish Meditation, Healing and Personal Growth.” After a week of listening to O’Grady describe his molestations of children, she said, “I was completely overwhelmed and exhausted.”
For a Jew who doesn’t belong to a synagogue, the West San Fernando and Conejo valleys are good places to shop around. A new report from the Jewish Outreach Institute (JOI) gives a snapshot of the community as a whole and an assessment of its ability to react to newcomers, including interfaith couples, racial minorities and sexual minorities.
The JOI presented results from “The Jewish Outreach Scan of the West Valley/Conejo Valley” during a well-attended Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance board meeting at The New JCC at Milken in West Hills on Oct. 4. The survey was funded by the United Jewish Communities’ Emerging Communities Project.
Last summer, the JOI anonymously e-mailed and called 11 synagogues and four community agencies in the Conejo and West Valley, assessed the effectiveness of local Web sites and interviewed 30 Jewish communal professionals. The organization has conducted similar surveys in communities such as San Francisco, Phoenix, Atlanta, Louisville, Ottawa and Washington, D.C.
The West Valley/Conejo Valley drew a 77 percent favorable response rate, placing it second overall behind Ottawa’s 86 percent.
“The biggest surprise was … how well we did,” said Carol Koransky, Valley Alliance executive director. “But it’s true, as was pointed out to us, that doing 77 percent means there are 23 percent that aren’t being reached.”
According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey, 44 percent of Jewish adults are unaffiliated, while 28 percent are moderately affiliated. With the intermarriage rate currently hovering at about 50 percent, and with only about 30 percent of interfaith families raising their children Jewish, Rabbi Kerry M. Olitzky, JOI’s executive director and former vice president of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, said it’s important for synagogues to review their outreach strategies.
“Eighty-five percent of interfaith families are not affiliating with the Jewish community,” Olitzky said. “Unless they engage the Jewish community, it’s unlikely they’ll raise Jewish children.”
The scan did not compare response rates of area synagogues or agencies to one another. However, Olitzky recounted one anonymous phone call placed to a synagogue. When a receptionist told a caller to check back after the New Year regarding an “Introduction to Judaism” class for his non-Jewish spouse, the caller asked if the receptionist meant Jan. 1.
“The person on the phone said, ‘Honey, when I say the New Year, I’m talking about the Jewish New Year,'” Olitzky said.
In addition, the receptionist never asked for the caller’s contact information.
According to Olitzky, one of the biggest obstacles the Jewish community must overcome is its kiruv mentality, a Hebrew term that means “to bring near.” He said many synagogues wait for unaffiliated Jews to come knocking. Instead, Olitzky suggested that congregations think outside the shul and engage in what JOI calls “public space Judaism.”
“We spend most of our time in a secular environment,” Olitzky said. “We need to create programs where people will stumble over the Jewish community.”
Founded in 1988 as a vest-pocket organization for City University sociology professor Egon Mayer to conduct studies, New York-based JOI has expanded its mission over the last 10 years and now features a variety of outreach programming, including interfaith inclusion efforts and surveys of North American Jewish communities.
Prior to last Passover, a Conservative congregation in Northern California took part in a pre-holiday JOI program called Passover in the Aisles. Congregants spent time near a matzah display in a Palo Alto Albertson’s, talking with unaffiliated Jews shopping for their family seders.
Olitzky suggests this kind of activity can draw in those who might not come to a synagogue on their own; other suggestions are holding readings in bookstores, setting up tables with kid-friendly activities in front of a Target or Staples during back-to-school shopping or holding menorah lightings in malls the way Chabad does. “Why not take what Chabad does well and copy it?” he suggested.
Temple Beth Haverim has been doing just that for the last 10 years, holding menorah lightings at The Promenade at Westlake.
“We’ve just been providing it as a service for the community,” said Rabbi Gershon Johnson, who added that the Agoura Hills Conservative synagogue hadn’t looked on the activity as an outreach opportunity. He said the congregation would be more proactive this year about collecting names and phone numbers from unaffiliated Jews attending the event.
Olitzky said that adopting a retail mentality can help get people in the door, especially advertising membership discounts and free specials.
Debbie Green, vice president of membership at Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, said her synagogue drew in 40 unaffiliated Jews with an outreach program that advertised special no-cost High Holiday tickets. But she said follow-up has been a problem for Aliyah.
“One month later, we need to be telephoning them and offering free tickets to something else,” she said. “We’re one-time-event oriented, and we need to get beyond that.”
For more information about the Jewish Outreach Institute, visit www.joi.org.
Interfaith dialogue continues locally despite Hathout brouhaha
After the brouhaha surrounding Maher Hathout, the Muslim spokesman who received a human relations prize last month amid protests by some Jewish groups, the state of interfaith relations in Los Angeles may appear to be at a low point.
But in fact, that is not the case, as evidenced last week, when Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, Bahá’ís and more gathered at Sinai Temple for a dinner honoring Rabbi Paul Dubin, one of the founders of the Interreligious Council of Southern California.Interfaith dialogue is “at a high point,” said Dubin, 81, seated at a small, round table during the evening’s cocktail hour. “Fifty years ago, interfaith relations really consisted of (conversations between) Christians and Jews. Today, we have more than 10 faith groups in this Interreligious Council,” said Dubin, who helped create the council nearly 40 years ago.
Nearby, two Hindu monks wrapped in orange cloth, representing “the fire of the spirit,” huddled together. A Catholic priest, dressed in black with the traditional white collar, greeted a Buddhist in a brown robe and jade prayer beads.
A Sikh wearing a white gown and turban surveyed the room with satisfaction. “People need to see us like this more — doing things together,” she said.
During dinner, Jihad Turk, vice president of the Interreligious Council, sat beside a Holocaust survivor, discussing ways to deal with extremist elements within religious communities. “My father is Palestinian, and my name is Jihad,” Turk said. Nevertheless, he has come to realize that “Islam and Judiasm share so much in common. We truly are close kin.”
At another table, in between bites of salmon, sweet potato and asparagus, an Episcopal priest was talking about a trip he had taken to Israel with Jews, Christians and Muslims. Across from him, the Rev. Albert Cohen, a delegate to the council who represents Protestant churches, explained why the board decided to honor Dubin.
“We wanted to have a dinner, and we wanted to build it around the person we loved the most,” Cohen said. “Rabbi Dubin relates to everybody.”
“In our religion,” chimed in Dr. Jerome Lipin, a Jewish pediatrician, “we’d call him a mensch.”
As dessert arrived, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the University of Judaism, gave the keynote address.
“If we believe each of our religions is true, then how is it that all the other religions aren’t false?” he asked.
Dorff suggested a few ways we might believe in our own religion without negating others.
Humans are not omniscient, so we can recognize that our own knowledge is limited, he said. Also, if we all were intended to have the same views, then we would have been created the same. The fact that each of us is unique suggests that every one of us has an element of the sacred within.
Next, Dubin took the spotlight.
“I want to tell you why I have felt so strongly about participating in interfaith meetings and dialogues,” Dubin said. “It can be summed up in one word: pluralism. By pluralism, I mean not the toleration of another faith — I hate that word, ‘toleration’ — I mean respect and acceptance.”
After a standing ovation, the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, president of the Interreligious Council, announced, “Our time has ended. Go in peace.”
The guests dispersed into the halls of the temple. Some visitors peeked into rooms, hoping to get a glimpse of the main sanctuary.
“This is quite the place,” one said on his way out into the chilly night.
— Sarah Price Brown, Contributing Writer
Sukkot huts inspires home building for homeless
While many Los Angeles Jews commemorated the second day of Sukkot by eating outside in their temporary dwelling created just for the holiday, Wilshire Boulevard Temple members took the edict of the holiday even further.
On Oct. 8, some 300 members — adults and children — at the temple’s two locations partnered with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles to help build real dwellings for low-income families.
Adults helped build housing frames, which will be used in the homes of “partner” or low-income families. The children sewed 400 pillows and made 400 welcome home signs. The congregants put together 800 outreach kits for PATH (People Assisting the Homeless) and they fed 140 families at the temple’s food pantry.
“The Festival of Sukkot commemorates the temporary shelter Jewish ancestors lived in during their years of wandering in the desert and represents the building of shelter,” said Rabbi Stephen Julius Stein of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in a press release. This first-time partnership between Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Habitat “helps to raise awareness and support of the need for affordable housing for local families.”
Habitat strives to eliminate poverty housing through advocacy, education and partnership with families in need to build simple, decent, affordable housing. Since 1990, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Los Angeles has built more than 180 homes, transforming the lives of hundreds of individuals. In the fall of 2007, the organization will host the Jimmy Carter Work Project, Habitat for Humanity International’s preeminent event. The project will bring Carter, his wife, Rosalynn, and thousands of volunteers from around the world to Los Angeles to help build or renovate 100 homes.
“It was a very productive day as regards to Tikkun Olam at Wilshire Boulevard Temple,” Stein said.
For more information, visit www.habitatla.org.
— Amy Klein, Religion Editor
Shop for a breast cancer cure
With Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full swing, M”&”Ms, KitchenAid appliances and Coach key chains have consumers seeing pink. Mattel has launched a new Pink Ribbon Barbie as a way for adults to talk with kids about the disease. Dyson is featuring a limited-edition pink vacuum cleaner and Seagate has jumped on the Susan G. Komen Foundation bandwagon with a pink external 6 gigabyte hard drive.
Locally, the newly opened Nordstrom at Westfield Topanga will feature Fit for the Cure, a special bra-fitting event on Oct. 21. Wacoal will donate $2 every time someone gets fit for a bra, as well as an additional $2 for each Wacoal, DKNY Underwear or Donna Karan Intimates bra purchased during the event. Also, Vons and Pavilions stores are hoping to help generate $6 million as part of Safeway’s fifth annual Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign, with proceeds from sales of pink ribbon pins and pink wristbands at checkstands going to services for patients and research. The grocers will also donate funds from purchases of specially marked products, and are making a free download of Melissa Etheridge’s song, “I Run for Life,” available to its customers.
Other retailers running special sales promotions include Aveda, Lady Foot Locker, Payless ShoeSource, Target and Bed Bath & Beyond.
— Adam Wills, Associate Editor
Who shall live and who shall die.
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not.
Ralph Goodman recited those words in a hillside tent in southeastern Belgium. Warren Zundell’s “shul” was a patch of no-man’s-land somewhere in North Korea. For Robert Cirkus, it was a jungle clearing in the bug-infested Central Highlands of Viet Nam. And for Lee Mish, it was Saddam Hussein’s former palace.
The four men have never met, but they share an uncommon bond. They represent four generations of Jewish servicemen for whom the High Holidays — and their signature Unetanah Tokef prayer — took on new meaning.
For all Jews, the words of the emotionally charged Unetanah Tokef are a powerful reminder of mortality. All the more so for Jews serving their country in wartime — such as Goodman, Zundell, Cirkus and Mish — where every day is Judgment Day and where prayer, righteousness and repentance can’t always avert a decree of death.
Here are the stories of these American servicemen who observed the High Holidays not in conventional synagogues, but on far-flung battlefields. The worship services they participated in were often improvised and incomplete. But the jarring juxtaposition of war and prayer, faith and fear, continues to resonate with these men.
A Tent on the Side of a Hill
“Colonel, the Jewish community wants to observe Yom Kippur. What can you do to help us?”
Ralph Goodman, attached to the 1st U.S. Army’s Headquarters Commandant in Belgium, was unable to celebrate Rosh Hashanah because his unit was traveling.
But Yom Kippur was fast approaching, and the 24-year-old enlistee from Pittsfield, Mass., was determined that the Jewish servicemen, now encamped at a temporary base near Verviers, Belgium, be given a place to pray.
He had already approached the 1st Army’s chief chaplain, who offered nothing except a few prayer books. But Goodman’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Harry F. Goslee, was more accommodating. He ordered a large blackout hospital tent set up on a hillside, with chairs and a portable electric generator.
On Yom Kippur, Sept. 27, 1944, about 25 soldiers and airmen congregated in that tent. Two Orthodox laymen acted as cantor and rabbi.
Goodman sat by the tent flap opening, his gun on his lap. He was juggling several different prayer books, trying to find the correct pages for Unetanah Tokef. He finally located the prayer and recited the words. But what he really was saying that day was, “Please, God, bring my buddies and me home.”
Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. He looked up to see a chaplain he didn’t recognize, a fresh-faced, sandy-haired man about 30, who asked permission to address the troops.
“How lovely are your tents, Oh Jacob,” he began, intoning the words to a prayer Jews say each morning.
He talked about five minutes, thanking the men for allowing him to speak and commending them for assembling a service.
Goodman, who still lives in Pittsfield, thinks about that service often, proud that he and his buddies were able to make it happen. He wishes he could share another Yom Kippur with them.
But 62 years later, he still regrets that he never asked the name of that fresh-faced Christian chaplain who reached out to a group of Jews on the holiest day of their year.
“God bless that man,” he said.
An All-Jewish Convoy
Above the 38th Parallel, North Korea
Warren Zundell, an orthopedic surgeon with the 11th Evacuation Hospital in Wonju, South Korea, wasn’t eager to attend Rosh Hashanah services. It meant traveling 40 miles on an unpaved, mountainous road to 10th Army Corps headquarters, over the border into North Korea. Zundell, 27, had a baby daughter back in Fall River, Mass., whom he had never seen, and he didn’t want to risk encountering snipers or land mines.
But Zundell was the unit’s only Jewish officer, and the Catholic chaplain on his base was insistent that Zundell escort the convoy.
“There are about 30 Jewish boys around here who want to go,” said the priest, who planned to remain in Wonju at the hospital.
On Erev Rosh Hashanah, Sept. 30, 1951, in the priest’s jeep with a white cross painted on the hood, Zundell led the way. A few truckloads of Jewish soldiers, all heavily armed, followed. Perhaps the only all-Jewish convoy ever to travel into North Korea, they arrived safely several hours later at the camp, a war-scarred patch of ground that sported some tents and housed perhaps a few hundred soldiers.
The next morning, a rabbi conducted services in a large tent, with about 300 soldiers, many who had traveled there from other units, sitting on the ground or on boxes. There was no ark, no Torah and no prayer books, except for the rabbi’s.
“I just sat there and listened,” Zundell recalled. “I didn’t think about where I was.”
After services, he traveled back to Wonju with the same soldiers.
Even less enthusiastic about observing Yom Kippur, Zundell was again induced to return to the prayer site. On Yom Kippur day, the convoy again traveled above the 38th Parallel, the dividing line between North and South Korea. The scene was identical to what Zundell remembered from Rosh Hashanah, except, instead of 300 soldiers in the tent, there were now 150.
“Where are the other boys?” Zundell asked the servicemen sitting near him.
“Heavy casualties during the week,” one of them replied.
Zundell doesn’t remember his exact reaction; he imagines the service was pretty sad. Afterward they loaded up the trucks and headed home.
Since then, every Rosh Hashanah, the Coral Gables, Fla., resident sits in temple and remembers Korea.
“It never leaves my mind,” he said. “I think about those boys who didn’t make it back for Yom Kippur.”
A Jungle Clearing
Central Highlands, Vietnam
While stationed in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry, Army Spc. 4 Robert Cirkus often didn’t know what day it was. But somehow the 21-year-old draftee from Passaic, N.J., knew the High Holidays were coming. And he knew he wanted to attend services.
A rabbi was dispatched to the forward base camp in the Central Highlands where Cirkus was working as a weapons repairman. Around noon on Rosh Hashanah day, Sept. 15, 1966, Cirkus, three infantrymen and a medic, all strangers to one another, gathered together in a cleared-out jungle area.
The rabbi set up a small ark on a bench in the back of his open Jeep. Inside was a traveling Torah. Cirkus and the others sat on the ground in the hot sun, the air muggy and bug-infested. He wore a tallit over his uniform, holding his submachine gun and his prayer book on his lap.
Cirkus, who now lives in Clifton, N.J., remembers that the service was truncated and that he and the others were not really at ease. They were praying, but they were also alert to every sound, especially gunshots off in the jungle. He knows he wasn’t thinking about life and death. Or about Judgment Day. He didn’t want to think about what was really going on.
Afterward, the rabbi handed out cans of tuna fish, bread, wine and kosher C rations.
“We sat, we chitchatted and we went our separate ways,” he said. “But we knew we were all Jews.”
Until 10 years ago, Cirkus was too traumatized to discuss his Vietnam experience at all. Even now, he can’t talk about all of it. But he’s able to look back on that Rosh Hashanah in the Central Highlands, where, for a short time, five Jews who didn’t know each other sat around together with a rabbi praying.
“I don’t want to say it like it’s jerky, but you felt like you were being watched by God,” he said.
September 2004 was a tense time in Tikrit, Iraq, where Special Agent Lee Mish was stationed. Roads were impassable, bridges were blown up and food and water were rationed. Plus, with flights grounded, the rabbi assigned to Tikrit couldn’t leave Baghdad.
Despite these obstacles, erev Rosh Hashanah services were held on Sept. 15. And Mish, 27, a Conservative Jew from Sharon, Mass., who enlisted in the Army nine years ago, walked to Saddam Hussein’s former palace, now under control of the U.S. military.
There, in a large room with marble floors and ceilings and a gold chandelier, a room once used by Saddam’s servants, Mish encountered three other Jews. They included a captain who served as the Jewish lay leader, a sergeant and a civilian contractor.
Wearing kippot, the uniformed men sat around a card table on folding chairs, their guns by their sides. For about 20 minutes, they read from prayer books sent by Hebrew school students in Wisconsin. Mish doesn’t remember the specifics, but he recalls saying prayers for all the soldiers and being aware of Rosh Hashanah’s message of mortality.
“When you’re in a situation where your friends are dying, where people all around you are dying, any time you pray, it hits home more,” he said.
Afterward they shared a bottle of wine and ate some “normal food,” including bagels with jelly. They also read Rosh Hashanah cards that the students had decorated with honey pots and apples and inscribed with messages such as “Be safe” and “Hope you come back soon.” Inside the holiday cards, the students had placed prepaid phone cards.
Despite its informality, that service resonated with Mish, now stationed in Wurzburg, Germany. Rosh Hashanah had always been important to him, a way of confirming his Jewishness. But being in Iraq had given him more time to reflect on death and destruction, and he was feeling more religious while stationed there. Also, he had recently learned from his Iraqi translator, who was born and raised in Mosul, Iraq, that during Saddam’s reign, the Jews in that area were barred from observing holidays in public and were forced to celebrate secretly in their homes. That day, however, Jewish soldiers were praying openly in Saddam’s palace.
“I felt honored,” Mish said.
Freelance writer Jane Ulman lives in Encino.
To learn more about today’s Jews in uniform, visit Jews In Green, the”ultimate resource for Jewish service members.”
Saddam Hussein’s palaces have also been the site of Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Pesach and other Jewish celebrations, as this Jewish Journal story from 2004 relates.
I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.
Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.
Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.
He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.
After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”
When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.
“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”
Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.
Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.
Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.
Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.
Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”
Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.
Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”
“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”
Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.
According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.
A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.
Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”
Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.
“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”
Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.
The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.
She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”
And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.
The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”
Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.
Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.
Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”
Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.
Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.
“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”
When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.
“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”
“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.
Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.
It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.
Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.
“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.
“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.
Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.
“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”
Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”
She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”
Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”
As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.
JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.
“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.
The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.
But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.
“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”
Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.
“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.
“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”
It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.
Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.
“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”
“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”
“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”