Sara Zaghi: Helping the homeless through jean therapy

Sara Zaghi, a 19-year-old sophomore at UCLA, is committed to bettering the lives of homeless youth by providing them with something she believes everyone should have: a pair of jeans.

“Homeless teens don’t have the same clothes as everyone; they don’t fit in with everyone else. It’s not just about giving them jeans — which is important to help clothe them — but about battling these stereotypes about homelessness,” Zaghi said. “I think it’s important, a great way to give back, and I think it’s super easy, something everyone has and something everyone can do.”

January will mark six years since Zaghi started the citywide jeans collection drive as a partnership with Teens for Jeans, an initiative of the youth-oriented nonprofit, which says jeans are one of the most requested items among homeless youth. 

Working with 20 local businesses, 10 schools and major businesses, including Buffalo Exchange, a used clothing store chain, Zaghi has collected approximately 16,000 pairs of jeans in the past five years. She developed the idea as a freshman at Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, where she served on student government, edited the school newspaper and organized a fashion show.

“I was literally in, like, every club,” she said of her years at Taft.

Her focus on social change is not limited to helping the homeless. In 2014, again working with, she created the national campaign Shower Songs, a water conservation effort that involves compiling a five-minute playlist of songs and sharing the playlist with friends. The idea is to listen to music in the shower and reduce one’s showering time to the length of the playlist. 

“I’m, like, at 15 minutes, which is saying a lot,” she said. “I used to take really long showers.”

A resident of Tarzana and the youngest of three siblings (her brother Justin also made the Mensch List this year), Zaghi is a member of Valley Beth Shalom, where she’s become a leader in the temple’s United Synagogue Youth tikkun olam committee.

“Being involved in the Jewish community is really important to me, especially fulfilling tikkun olam,” said Zaghi, who currently is on the board of the Persian Community at Hillel at UCLA. “Our duty is to do mitzvot.”

Zaghi, who is studying communications at UCLA and hopes to work in entertainment pubic relations, interned last summer for Kris Jenner, matriarch of the Kardashian clan.

“I really look up to her,” Zaghi said of Jenner. “A lot of people think of the Kardashians in a bad light, but I truly think Kris is very smart in the way she has handled the family and their businesses in the past few years, and they really turned this one opportunity” — the reality show, “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” —  “into a lifetime of success for the whole family.”

Zaghi’s family’s business, meanwhile, is Subway restaurants. Her father owns three, and Zaghi has helped out often in the stores.

“I’ve grown up with Subway,” she said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Zaghi relaxes by watching “Shark Tank,” a reality show featuring entrepreneurs who pitch their ideas to successful business people.

How would she pitch her jeans drive to the panel of “sharks”?

“I would just pitch it as a very easy way to give back, and also there are a lot of opportunities for them to partner with any big businesses they have as a promotional social action campaign,” she said. “That’s the angle I would go with, especially since all the sharks have connections with clothing stores or teen brands, which could help us with the drive.”

Faces of homelessness in Los Angeles

Cal State Northridge journalism professor David Blumenkrantz traveled to four locations in the San Fernando Valley in August to photograph and speak with homeless individuals in an attempt to spotlight — and humanize — the issue that has risen to crisis proportions in Los Angeles. Here are some excerpts from those encounters.

Kim and Isaac Sofer

Keith Collins

Brook Carillo


Joseph Sanberg: A one-man army against poverty

On a recent Thursday morning at Casa Teresa, an emergency women’s shelter in Orange County, five spirited, young pregnant women and a new mother gathered around a conference table, waiting for for their class on budgeting to begin.

The teacher was late, so the women joked and laughed about how broke they were.  At the center of the table, a newborn cooed in his carrier.  

Before long, Joseph N. Sanberg, a Harvard graduate, Internet entrepreneur and investor, entered the room a little breathless from rushing. “Did you all do your homework?” he asked, getting straight to business. 

Sanberg was dressed casually, in jeans and a lavender button-down, his strawberry blond hair windswept and wild. Twice a month, he teaches this financial class to Casa Teresa residents, who tend to have little experience with money management. 

“Remember we talked about the key part of budgeting being the difference between spending that’s an expense and spending that’s an investment?” Sanberg said. “What would be an example of spending you did in the last couple of weeks that’s an expense, not an investment?”

“I bought red lipstick,” a woman in a flannel top said. The group laughed, nervous with recognition.

“Why did you do it?” Sanberg asked.

“Because it was a pretty color,” she said.

Sanberg paused, then looked directly at her: “Did you do it because you were trying to make yourself feel better?” he asked.

“In a way, yeah,” she admitted.

“How do you think you would have felt if you hadn’t bought it, and you’d had the confidence to resist that temptation?”

“I’d have more money than I have now,” she said, a little embarrassed. “And it would have been way better for me.”

Sanberg looked pleased. But his cool quickly faded when another woman confessed an addiction — to Starbucks.

“Starbucks?!” Sanberg said, flashing an incredulous smile. “Bad!”

He grabbed a marker and headed for the board. 

“This is a really, really bad expense!” he continued, almost comically exasperated. He popped the top off a dry-erase marker. 

“How many Starbucks do you get in a day, every day?” Sanberg asked.

“One,” she said. “Venti.”

“Five bucks?” he asked.

“Five twenty five.” 

Sanberg did the math. “Roughly speaking, $5 times 365 days, that’s like 1,800 bucks,” he said. “That’s a lot of f—— money. You could literally buy a used car with that.”

He asked the woman if she had a job and how much she made per hour, in order to demonstrate that she had to work 45 minutes for every Venti coffee she ordered. He suggested she buy a thermos instead and fill up at Casa Teresa.

I don’t even drink Starbucks,” Sanberg said. “Rip-off!”

This isn’t what you expect to hear from a guy who spent seven years working on Wall Street, and who, at 36, admits he has already made an amount of money that is “ridiculous,” and that he will “never be able to spend.” But Sanberg isn’t your typical tycoon — he doesn’t wear tailor-made suits or drive a fancy car or sport a fine watch. He doesn’t even own the Laguna Beach house he lives in. “I don’t value material things,” he told me. Instead, the thing that animates Sanberg most is his mission to “change the world,” a formidable goal he talks about with the kind of casual confidence someone else might have, say, for doing a load of laundry: “Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam,” he said, using the Jewish expression for healing the world. 

Sanberg could easily be the guy standing at the front of a boardroom talking about the derivatives market. Instead, he has spent the last five months traveling around California speaking to low-income working families about how to get their share of a $400 million tax credit. This year is the first in California history that a state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) has become available, over and above the federal one. Sanberg thinks this anti-poverty program is so important, he has invested $1.5 million of his own money to create an education and outreach campaign, CalEITC4Me, whose aim is to get every eligible Californian to file a tax return by April 15 and obtain their credit. It is estimated that the EITC could impact 600,000 California households and improve the lives of 2.2 million people. 

But reaching everyone eligible won’t be easy: California already has the third-lowest utilization rate of the federal EITC, meaning nearly $2 billion dollars in available tax credits go unclaimed in the state each year. If Sanberg and other like-minded advocates can’t prove in this first year that the new program is indispensable, there is no guarantee it will be part of future state budgets. 

“That’s why our work this tax season is so damn critical,” Sanberg told the community organizers and state leaders at a November United Way conference. “If people use California’s EITC and love it, it’s going to be very hard to take it away. The measure of [our] success is entirely about implementation.”

Joe Sanberg shakes hands with a man while mingling among community members during the listening tour in South Gate last September. Photo by Hector Gomez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

The idea behind the federal EITC first appeared in a welfare reform proposal put forth by the Nixon administration in 1971; it underwent various iterations before becoming permanent under Jimmy Carter. Designed to reward work, the amount of the credit is calculated based on a percentage of earned income and the size of the household — the more you earn and the more people you support, the higher your credit. Initially modest, the program ballooned in the 1990s in a national effort to reduce poverty, and today is considered the largest anti-poverty cash entitlement program in the United States. At a cost of $56 billion per year, the EITC is the third-largest welfare program in the country behind Medicaid and food stamps.

Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown made California the 26th state to offer a state version of the federal credit. “This was a big deal,” Chris Hoene, executive director of the nonprofit California Budget & Policy Center (CBPC) told a confab of community organizations at the United Way event. According to Hoene, in the 2012 tax year alone, the federal EITC helped lift 1.3 million Californians above the poverty line — 630,000 of them children. “It single-handedly reduced the child poverty rate in California by 6 percentage points,” he said, even with California’s low utilization rate. 

A state supplement could do even more: Using the example of a single mother who works part time at minimum wage, earning about $5,600 per year, Hoene said the combined state and federal EITC could boost her total income by $4,000 — a life-changing 80 percent.

Sanberg’s task is basically to blow the shofar on this and wake up low-income households to the possibility of a better future. He points out that the main reason eligible people don’t claim the credit is they don’t know it exists. And low-income earners tend not to file tax returns, because they either don’t owe money or they’re wary of tax agencies. CalEITC4Me has therefore partnered with VITA, the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program that provides IRS-certified volunteers to help qualified individuals file returns.

What this all adds up to for Sanberg is accomplishing his most ambitious goal: solving the problem of income inequality in America. When he talks about the lack of opportunity hindering the middle class and the marginalized, he does so with intense idealism and earnestness. As an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist working in the public and private sectors, Sanberg’s mission is clear and unequivocal: “I always had this sense that I wanted to be a champion for people who are victims of unfairness or injustice,” he told me. “Whenever I observed that, it always really fired me up.”


“Everything I do, and the way I think and believe, is bound together by the notion of tikkun olam.” — Joseph N. Sanberg


I first met Sanberg last November at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan Beach, where he confessed his only self-indulgent luxury: “I could give up every other thing that comes with being rich,” he said, “but the one thing I really enjoy is sushi.”

Sanberg is tight-lipped about his actual net worth; the website lists his investments since 2012 at nearly $77 million. “What matters is what people do with their money, not how much money they have,” he said. Still, rather than spend his millions on the good life, the former managing director of Wall Street’s Tiger Global Management is spending his fortune, and his time, trying to improve  the lives of others. Aspiration, the 2-year-old Internet bank he co-founded with Andrei Cherny, targets middle-income and young people with low-cost, high-quality investment opportunities that are normally available only to wealthy investors. And instead of charging a fixed percentage of profits, as most investment banks do, Aspiration takes the unique step of allowing customers to determine their own fees. So far, 15,000 people have signed up — with upward of 40,000 on a waitlist (Sanberg said that taking time for customer education is part of the “on-boarding process”). Sanberg also claims that Aspiration is doubling its customer base every five weeks. Aspiration’s business model, he says, is “based on trust,” a word not often associated these days with America’s financial institutions. “We are a business that makes the money our customers choose to pay us,” he said, adding that Aspiration also promises to donate 10 percent of its profits to charity. “Investing with a conscience” is the company’s tagline. 

Sanberg applies this same principle to his personal philanthropy as well. Last fall, when UC Riverside launched its inaugural Master of Public Policy program, Sanberg donated enough money for half of the program’s students to attend tuition-free for two years, with additional funds left over to support more students with “significant” scholarships. In 2014, after an electrical fire caused $300,000 in damages at his childhood synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom in Santa Ana, Sanberg contributed $200,000 to the rebuilding effort. He is also a major donor to the Jewish Graduate Student Initiative (JGSI), an organization that fosters relationships between Jewish graduate students and Jewish business leaders, including at an annual conference. Rabbi Dave Sorani, 33, JGSI’s founder and CEO, described how Sanberg frequently speaks to the students, most recently at a Shabbat dinner at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. 

“He blew people away,” Sorani said. When you hear him speak about how he gives philanthropy from his company, the students are like, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ People are usually nervous to give to charity when they’re so young, but Joe’s different. He’s not saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and then give to philanthropy.’ He’s saying ‘I’m gonna become wealthy and give philanthropy.’ Joe is teaching students to think: ‘How can I make the most money, and how can I give the most money?’ We have so many speakers, and no one says that. No one talks about it. ”

Last year, Sanberg caught word that Sorani wanted to host a Passover seder for graduate students with nowhere else to go. Sanberg offered to help fund it, but only if the seder would also include low-income families. “As a nonprofit CEO trying to raise money, you almost … actually … never get anyone approaching you,” Sorani said. “After [that phone call], I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? Of course I’ll do that, that’s awesome.’ ” The seder was held at the Peninsula Hotel and more than 100 people — including Sanberg — turned out to celebrate the holiday. 

Friends and colleagues describe Sanberg as “passionate,” “driven,” “full of big ideas” and value-oriented, someone who sees public service not as a weekend mitzvah project, but as a way of life. In 2012, he became chairman of the Jefferson Awards Foundation, a national organization co-founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis that’s devoted to honoring and facilitating public service. Widely considered the most prestigious prize in its field, past recipients include Michael Bloomberg, Walter Cronkite, Steve Jobs, Sonia Sotomayor and Elie Wiesel. 

Before Sandberg took on the chairmanship, the foundation was struggling to reinvent itself to become an organization that not only recognizes public service, but powers it. Sam Beard, one of the foundation’s founders, personally asked Sanberg to take on the chair position and help rehabilitate their long legacy through better internal business practices.

“We knew we were on the cusp of becoming one of most impactful nonprofits in the country,” said Beard’s daughter, Hillary Schafer, the foundation’s executive director. “But we needed some work to get there; we needed to be structured like a world-class business, something that could have impact and create real scale.” Sanberg helped monetize contributed services, which increased the foundation’s revenue from $2.6 million to $13.5 million and helped Schafer turn around the place.

“Joe fundamentally believes in possibility — in everything he does,” Schafer said. “That really drives him, the concept that possibility should apply to everybody. He believes in big, wholesale change, and I think he feels quite blessed that he is in a position to take big ideas and do something about them.” 

When Sanberg first decided to tackle income inequality full time, he assembled a team of policy experts to research effective programs, and it wasn’t long before they happened upon the EITC. The movement to create one in California had already been building, but it took Brown, and a balanced budget, to finally make it feasible. When Sanberg heard the governor was considering pushing through the EITC, he hired a team of lobbyists to reinforce its passage. And then, when it was clear that the state’s allotment for outreach wasn’t sufficient to reach the hundreds of thousands of eligible low-income households, Sanberg created CalEITC4Me. At the program’s launch in Sacramento last November, Nancy McFadden, Brown’s top aide, credited Sanberg as “the spark” for the entire effort. 

“Now I want you to say it louder and together,” Sanberg commanded a room packed with journalists, state leaders and community organizers at the San Diego launch of CalEITC4Me in January, one of many stops on a statewide tour. In a video posted on Twitter, Sanberg stands at a podium at the front of the room conducting the crowd in a collective chant: “END. POVERTY…

“That’s why we’re here,” Sanberg says. “We shouldn’t have poverty. The problem isn’t a question of resources, it’s [that] the people who need the resources aren’t getting them.”


“We reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”


Sanberg and his younger brother, Rick, grew up in the middle-class suburb of Villa Park in Orange County. They were raised primarily by their mother, Soni, who worked as a book editor and substitute teacher. Their father struggled to support the family. “Before I was born, he was allegedly a successful real estate developer,” Sanberg said, “but then he hit a wall. He kept reinvesting in projects, and the savings he had for our family kept declining and declining.”

Sanberg doesn’t remember his father being around all that much when he was a child. “I don’t remember a single meaningful conversation with my father,” he said. But he does remember dealing with the impact of his father’s choices: Just before Joe’s high school graduation, the family home went into foreclosure. His parents divorced. Sanberg’s mother and brother were forced to move in with his grandparents, while Sanberg went off to an internship in Washington, D.C., with the Democratic National Committee.

He can’t really recall what happened to his father; they haven’t spoken in the 18 years since. When I ask him about this, he answers impassively: “[My father] experienced a number of personal and financial problems, and it was around that time that I last spoke with him. I’m not sure of his circumstances then or thereafter.” 

For Sanberg, the trauma of losing his childhood home was irreparable. “That really conditioned how I saw the world, and how random bad luck and chance could impact how we lived,” he said.

Sanberg’s family story is also something of a selling point on the EITC trail. He talks to people in crowds as if he is one of them. At the United Way event, he said, “You may be asking, ‘Who the heck is Joe Sanberg?’ So let me tell you: By the time I was in high school, I was an EITC family, so the EITC is personal for me.” 

Despite the family turmoil, Sanberg did well enough in high school to get into Harvard. He wrote his admissions essay about the Led Zeppelin song “Ramble On,” which he said got him through his grandfather’s death when he was in 10th grade. “I learned that Led Zeppelin songs were inspired by ‘The Odyssey’ and Tolstoy, so I wrote about how ‘Ramble On’ continued the journey tradition in literature.” 

I ask Sanberg if he was that kid who was tagged “most likely to become president” someday, which made him blush. “Maybe,” he answered. 

His track record of success, which he prefers to attribute to “luck and chance” rather than any innate aptitude, has sometimes come at a cost: In 2014, Sanberg learned that several websites bearing his name had racist and misogynistic posted messages on them, and that an anonymous extortionist was attempting to get him to hand over $750,000. He sued, and the court ordered the domain registrar to disclose the websites’ owner — the name revealed was Sanberg’s brother. 

When I asked him about the fallout, he declined to talk about it, except to say that it tore apart his family. When it comes to personal matters, Sanberg is well guarded, sounding more cerebral than emotional, and he acts completely disinterested in the enigma of his own psyche. Describing when his family lost its home, Sanberg recalled feeling “stressed, anxious, uncertain and alone,” but stopped short of dwelling on his own pain. “I think it’s self-indulgent to reflect on those kinds of feelings,” he said, launching instead into a more universal assessment. “What I experienced was not a special experience; it’s common to probably a majority of Americans now. That’s why the shrinkage of the middle class isn’t some abstract mathematical phenomenon. It’s a moral crisis. Because when you don’t have the confidence of your basic needs being met, you don’t have the luxury of being fully human.”


“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money. I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs.”


For Sanberg, public assistance was not a crutch, but a crucial leg up.

“I wouldn’t have been able to go to Harvard without student loans,” Sanberg said, citing the importance of federal assistance. That support enabled, and perhaps also inspired, Sanberg to plunge into campus politics. In 2000, he even took a year off to work for Al Gore’s presidential campaign, later returning to Harvard to study government. 

Ricki Seidman, former executive director of Rock the Vote, who also worked for both the Clinton and Obama administrations, was a fellow at the Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government when Sanberg was an undergraduate. She decided to mentor him, making Sanberg her intern.

“What stood out to me about Joe was that, some kids were interested in the process of politics,” Seidman recalled. “They wanted to work on campaigns, they liked the machinations of politics. … Joe was always interested in how you could use the political process to bring about change. He was very idealistic. And he had really strong values. He really stood out among the students that I encountered. I really liked him and got to know him.”

Today, Seidman is executive director of Sanberg’s Golden State Opportunity Foundation, which he created in 2015 with the mission to solve income inequality and create more equality of opportunity in America. CalEITC4Me is its first major initiative. “It’s not that often that you’re able to do something that is just so unquestionably good,” Seidman said. “Coming from Washington, where nothing gets done and the atmosphere is so negative, the opportunity to work on something so positive, so non-polarizing that brings people together, is really exciting. There aren’t very many things you can work on in politics where you’re able to make an immediate difference in someone’s life.”

According to several studies, recipients of the EITC tend to spend their refund on housing or household expenses, transportation, food and clothing. “We don’t screw around with indirect transmission,” Sanberg said. “Instead, we reach poor people; we give them money; they spend it on their kids; their kids have better outcomes in life. It’s a very linear relationship.”

While Sanberg spent most of his undergraduate career nurturing his affinity for political activism, the reality of needing to support his mother began to weigh on him as graduation approached. Wall Street and its allure of economic promise beckoned him. 

He started as an analyst at Blackstone’s Private Equity Group in New York, where he paved the way for a younger friend from Harvard, Matt Salzberg, to join the firm. It would become an important relationship: A few years later, in 2012, when Salzberg decided to start his own business, Sanberg invested in the company that would become Blue Apron, a food delivery service providing fresh, healthy ingredients and original recipes to home cooks. Sanberg saved the company from a major headache when he bought out a disgruntled early investor unhappy with the company’s direction. “It was the kind of thing that only a really close friend and supportive, thoughtful investor would do,” Salzberg told me. “And it ended up working out really, really well for him, because Blue Apron did really well, too.” 

In fact, Sanberg says his investment in Blue Apron has been more financially rewarding than his time on Wall Street. According to, Blue Apron now delivers 5 million meals per month and is valued at $2 billion. 

After leaving Blackstone in 2004, Sanberg jumped to Tiger Global Management, where he served as managing director until 2009. He describes his time there as “a very prosperous period” but also a frustrating one, that reinforced his wariness of Wall Street.

“I don’t think a free market is at its best when so many financial rewards accrue to so many people who create so little economic value and solve so few problems,” he said. “I still struggle with the period of time I spent on Wall Street, when I wasn’t living my business life true to my tikkun olam values. I made my money in a way that really created no value for anybody, except for a small number of people at the investment firm where I worked. I struggle with that.” 

Being in the center of the country’s economic engine during the 2008 financial crisis especially tested his conscience. “It was one of the most unfair things that has occurred in modern economic history,” Sanberg said of the Great Recession. “The American taxpayer got screwed by Wall Street, bailed Wall Street out, and then Wall Street complained about regulatory burdens imposed on it by the government to ensure a crisis wouldn’t recur. That whole dynamic astonishes me.”

So Sanberg did some soul searching. “Coming out of the financial crisis, I realized I had become unanchored from my core values,” he said.

Joseph Sanberg with members of the Home Start nonprofit at a press conference for the launching of CalEITC4Me at the Jacob Center in San Diego last month. Photo by Holly Martinez, CalEITC4Me Campaign

When I asked him to talk about the source of those values, I expected Sanberg to cite a book, a treatise, an icon of history. But his answer was much simpler. 

“The No. 1 influence on how I think and live is my belief in God,” he said.  “It informs how I live my life entirely. I’ve always [felt] this way; since I was a kid.” 

Sanberg’s spiritual philosophy is really an argument for a wholly integrated ethics. He doesn’t believe in compartmentalizing. “These distinctions we construct between how we make money and how we give money away are bulls— distinctions,” he said. “There are too many of us who say, ‘I can make my money however I want, as long as it’s legal. And then I’ll heal the world with my philanthropy.’ Those distinctions shouldn’t occur.” 

Driven by these values, Sanberg thought about how to address inequality through the private sector. “There are two ways you can change the financial industry,” Sanberg said. “One is through regulation, the other is through competition.”

He teamed with political wunderkind Cherny, also a Harvard graduate, to create Aspiration, a web-based financial firm targeting people disenchanted with big investment banks; Cherny, a son of Czechoslovakian Jewish immigrants, had already made a name for himself as the youngest White House speechwriter in history, in the Clinton administration. Aspiration quickly attracted high-profile investors, including billionaire Jeff Skoll, former president of eBay and now CEO of Participant Media, which produces social-impact films (among them, this year’s multiple-Oscar-nominated “Spotlight” and Al Gore’s Oscar-winning climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”). 

Publicly launched in November 2014, Aspiration now offers two investment funds — including a “sustainable” fund that invests in companies with progressive employee practices and environmental policies — as well as a fee-free checking account with a $10 minimum, free ATM access worldwide and a 1-percent yearly interest rate for balances more than $2,500 (“That is 100 times higher than most banks are offering,” Cherny, Aspiration’s CEO, said). Money magazine recently named it in a tie for best checking account in America. 

Some remain skeptical as to whether the company’s premise can turn a profit, but Sanberg insists the foundational hypothesis that “people are fair-minded and will pay for a service they value” is bearing out. He and Cherny said 90 percent of customers are electing to pay a fee for Aspiration’s products. Though there are some like-minded competitors in the field, such as Ally and BofI (Bank of Internet) who also offer attractive banking options, Sanberg believes Aspiration will prevail by being “very, very pro-consumer” and acting as what Cherny described as a “countervailing force” within America’s financial establishment. 

Sanberg thinks of Aspiration as a disruptor. “We’re changing the financial industry by stealing customers from existing firms that don’t treat people well. The failure of the financial industry to well serve middle-income people is one of the many factors that is driving the stagnation of the middle class. So, in my life as a business person, I am trying to solve that.” 

When Sanberg declaims about inequality, his passion is persuasive. In the same sentence, you might feel inclined to vote for him — or give him a hug. “He is in fierce pursuit of justice when it comes to economic opportunity,” Cherny told me. “It makes his blood boil when things are wrong, and he really wears his heart on his sleeve. It’s easy to get his goat by [talking about] some of the terrible things people are doing — he’ll start bouncing off the walls in indignation.”

“I don’t have a problem with people having a lot of money,” Sanberg said. “I have a problem with people not having enough money to meet their basic needs. 

“There’s an isolation that comes with that, and a loneliness, and I think that’s what’s overlooked by the dryness of economics or the aloofness of our politics — it reduces people into numbers.”

That last thought makes me wonder whether that was the worst part for him when he was young — to have his own identity tied to his income level — homeless, poor, on welfare or financial aid. Perhaps that’s why he’s not comfortable being rich, or at least, with playing the part. “I don’t do anything fun that has to do with being rich,” he told me.

For Sanberg, his wealth says no more about who he is, or what he does, than getting cast out of his childhood home defined the student he was in high school.

“My No. 1 belief is that the opportunities kids enjoy in their lives shouldn’t be based on luck and chance. We want to be a society where people can go as far as their skills and hard work can take them.”

Jews have unique obligation to help the homeless

As the number of homeless people in Los Angeles has grown to a level that is a civic disgrace, I’ve been wondering whether we Jews have a special obligation to help them.

Statistics show the calamitous nature of the situation. The total of homeless people locally has increased by 12 percent in the last two years, the Los Angeles Times reports, to 44,000 in Los Angeles County — 26,000 of them within L.A. city limits. Many live in vehicles, the 9,535 tents downtown and throughout the city, or under tarpaulin shelters in makeshift encampments, which have grown by 85 percent since 2013. Those figures are expected to increase after this week’s Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority annual count of the homeless is tallied.

I began thinking about our obligation to help the helpless while reading an excellent history, “1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History” by Jay Winik. What distinguishes this book from the many other Franklin D. Roosevelt-era histories is Winik’s deep exploration of the years just before and during World War II, when President Roosevelt and his administration refused to try to save European Jewry from the Holocaust.

Winik writes of the frantic efforts of American Jews, extending from the grass roots up to leaders such as Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau and Rabbi Stephen Wise, to save the European Jews. Some 40,000 New Yorkers crowded into Madison Square Garden, with thousands more outside, to watch a pageant called “We Will Never Die.” Jews around the country protested. The president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, joined the effort in her newspaper column, “My Day.” Escapees from the concentration camps and many others tried to alert an indifferent world, to no avail. Roosevelt, guided by a State Department riddled with anti-Semitism, did nothing.

I am not, of course, comparing the Holocaust to the plight of the homeless. I imagine some readers will be offended that I even pair the homeless and the Holocaust in the same column. I know the situations are not comparable. But I can’t help wondering whether our experiences of being persecuted don’t give us a heightened obligation to be leaders in the effort to save the homeless. 

I’m not alone in that, as I learned when I began to ask what the Jewish community is doing in this area. I contacted Jewish Family Service. I had written about JFS efforts to help the newly unemployed during the recession and thought it would be involved in this latest crisis. I had called the right place.

“Sure, Jewish people become homeless,” said Nancy Volpert, director of public policy for Jewish Family Service. “The Jewish community is not exempt from homelessness, poverty, drug abuse. We come together to provide services to people in a way that is respectful but fills their needs.”

JFS’ efforts, which are not restricted to Jewish people, have long focused on two segments of the homeless population not often mentioned in media accounts — victims of domestic abuse and the elderly. JFS is putting its experience assisting such people to work with the homeless.

The common view of the homeless is that they are mentally ill, addicts, or both, and are beyond help. But as JFS has found, that’s a simplistic view — and a cruel one.

“About a third of the homeless come out of a violent home, particularly but not limited to women,” Volpert said. “The current plans put forth by the city and county do not designate any program for [victims of] domestic violence for the homeless. They recognize drugs, alcohol, mental illness, but not domestic violence.”

Yet, spousal abuse can be a fast track toward homelessness. A wife without resources of her own bundles up the kids and flees an abusive spouse, maybe to stay with a relative. If that doesn’t work out, the family will often live in a car, moving from parking lot to parking lot at night, and then to an encampment.

Jewish Family Services is part of a network of organizations that serve such people, offering two emergency shelters in the San Fernando Valley and one in the more urban side of the city, south of the Santa Monica Mountains.

“That’s one of the two major things I would like you to know about,” Volpert  said. “The other is the homeless who are aged.”

The elderly factor shatters another preconceived idea about the homeless — that they are young, tough and scary.

“People who live on the streets age much more quickly,” Volpert said.  “They show signs of age-related debility. How do we provide services to those who are older homeless?”

That’s a question that hasn’t been answered by anyone yet. The number of afflictions that come with old age, both physical and mental, add a puzzling new dimension to the homeless problem. But at least Jewish Family Services is shining a light on it and offering food and other forms of assistance.

As homeless encampments have expanded out from the more traditional sites on Skid Row and in Venice into the Westside, Hancock Park, Silver Lake and the San Fernando Valley — all areas with significant Jewish populations and institutions — the plight of these encampments’ occupants has become a matter of community concern. The Jewish community, with its history and long experience in charitable work, can and should provide invaluable help to the effort to reduce, or even end, homelessness. 

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and LA Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).

Homeless in Koreatown

You can’t knock on a tent, so I had to yell. I wanted to meet the people inside the blue tent and hear their story. I had seen several sidewalk tents on my way to the Jewish Journal offices in Koreatown, and the rain storm had made me especially curious about how the homeless were faring.

I told the man who answered that I worked at a newspaper and wanted to hear his story. The man, Gary Ellison, age 42, from Chicago, was lean and balding with brownish skin and strong features. His eyes were warm and friendly. He was definitely happy to see me.

Gary tried as best he could to untangle the entrance flaps to the tent. As I crouched awkwardly to enter, he put an old grey jacket on a sitting area so I’d be more comfortable. Behind another flap was a dark-haired woman sitting cross-legged on the ground, hugging a blanket. Her name was Cierra Bartholomew, age 23, also from Chicago. Cierra had large brown eyes, olive skin and a gentle demeanor. She had laid out Christmas lights on a little rug in front of her, which created an amber glow inside the tent. Behind her was her boyfriend, Rick Rock, who was sleeping.

The sound of rain falling became like background music to our conversation.

Gary was eager to talk. He was raised by his mother in Lemont, a suburb of Chicago. He didn’t know his Dad, meeting him for the first time when he was 12. “He never respected me as his son,” Gary said. The same was true for his younger brother, who only met the Dad when he was on his deathbed.

But Gary’s mother loved him dearly. He still speaks with her whenever he can. He pulled out a few old pictures of her and proudly showed them to me.

Gary is good with his hands. In his 20s, he made a decent living working on barges at Illinois Marine Towing, before a bar fight put his life on hold. A knife stabbing had severed his main artery and he underwent open heart surgery that incapacitated him for over a year.

He moved to Las Vegas in his 30s and worked as a mechanic. One night, at a 7-11, he met Karlina, a single mother of two. They fell in love and got married.

He made enough money to get an apartment and support his new wife and her kids. But he says “she ran around” on him. “I would wake up in the middle of the night and she was gone,” he said. “She broke my heart.”

With his heart broken, he left Vegas for Los Angeles about three years ago. Unable to find work, he entered a homeless shelter in Costa Mesa but had to leave because he says people would steal his things. “There’s bad stuff going on in shelters,” he told me. “I prefer the streets.”

But not all streets are created equal. Before moving to Koreatown about three months ago, he had pitched his tent at MacArthur Park, which he says wasn’t very safe. Thankfully, though, MacCarthur Park is where he met his future best friend, Cierra.

“We’re both from Chicago,” he said. “We understand each other.”

They consider their new location on New Hampshire Ave in Koreatown a blessing. “The Korean Consulate is right there,” Cierra said. “That keeps us safe.”

As far as the police goes, “If we respect them, they respect us,” she said. In fact, officers have come by occasionally to give them information about shelters and other places that might help them find more permanent housing.

For now, they’re banking on their old tent to protect them from the rain and the elements. It does a decent enough job. I got a little wet, but that’s because I was close to the entrance. Cierra, who was inside and bundled up, seemed reasonably cozy.

I asked them if they had any plans for the future. Cierra said she’d love to open a “dispensary” where she can lawfully sell medical marijuana. Gary would love to do carpentry or any other handy work. He dreams of building a house. He told me he has a Facebook page that he hopes will help him make connections so he can get back on his feet.

Cierra is reluctant to get into a shelter because she doesn’t want to be separated from Rick and Gary. Apparently, the three have built a strong friendship.

Before I left, Gary sang me a song he wrote, called “Homeless Man.” It’s about a homeless man looking for work, who's always dressed in a suit and tie.

Our moral obligation to be a voice for the homeless

Apathy —  noun; absence or suppression of passion, emotion or excitement.

I write this with a broken heart. I serve many roles in the community, including that of a county-appointed commissioner to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. Today I write not as a commissioner — I do not speak for the commission — but for myself, a rabbi who sees the yawning chasm between the golden dreams of what our city could be and the iron-hard realities of what our city is. 

The other night I sat in the commission hearing during which we released the homelessness count for Los Angeles County. The numbers are shameful. Homelessness is up 12 percent across the county in just two years. Veteran homelessness has remained relatively flat, despite the millions of dollars poured into the region by the federal government. The number of individuals taking refuge in tents, vehicles and other makeshift shelters climbed 85 percent. Skid Row used to be the center of homelessness in America; now it, too, has replicated the ubiquitous model of urban sprawl with new subdivisions cropping up across the county. There are now as many homeless men, women and children in our area as the total capacities of Staples Center, The Forum and Pauley Pavilion combined

Homelessness is terminal in Los Angeles. You can be robbed, raped, assaulted or even murdered. You live in constant fear of others on the street and of the authorities. Leundeu Keunang and Brendon Glenn, two homeless men, were fatally shot by officers during the last two months. Our county is in a state of crisis.

Whatever you feel about adults who are homeless, you can never say that a child would choose to be born to a mother who is homeless. Eric Rice, an associate professor at USC, has found that 42 percent of youths who experience homelessness were in the foster care system, and 27 percent were gay, lesbian or bisexual, as illustrated by the story of the 16-year-old girl who was booted to the street because her parents found the love note she wrote to her girlfriend. He writes, “More upsetting is that 50 percent reported being abused by their families, and 44 percent reported being kicked out of their home, forcing them into homelessness at some point.” Statewide, there are more than half a million children who are homeless. Youth homelessness leads to dropping out of high school, underachievement and incarceration. We are 48th in the nation in the extent of child homelessness, and we are 49th in state planning. We are not only near the bottom, we are planning to go even lower. 

I know, however, that there is a monumental effort by activists who are trying to house those without shelter. The good news in this very dark time is that Los Angeles has invested more resources than ever in ending homelessness. There is a coordinated entry system that seeks to align priorities between governmental and nonprofit agencies. There are huge efforts to provide vouchers for people who are homeless in order to rehouse them rapidly. There is intense focus on the Housing First model, in which those who have been on the street the longest and have debilitating conditions are given apartments with wrap-around social supports. But as these numbers show, the problem is getting worse, not better.

Have we failed? 

Yes, but not because we aren’t building shelters. Our shameful failure is to see homelessness as a unique problem, something that can be fixed through building a larger system of shelters. What this moment calls for, however, is a radical shift in our thinking. Homelessness is a symptom of a greater disease, not the disease itself. Homelessness is an indicator of our nation’s lack of moral strength to deal with poverty.

We live in a world that blames the poor for their poverty, the homeless for their sluggishness and their lack of will. We are trained into apathy by the stoic notion that sympathy for the poor is an unwise passion that must be purged from our consciousness. We have internalized the dark counsel of Nietzsche, who excoriates the weak by framing them as tricksters who try to unseat the powerful through their sheer meekness. We live in a land that has contempt for the poor. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to sickness. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to old age. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to the despair of our leaders. They speak as if poverty is unrelated to new immigrants. They speak as if poverty is the fault of the poor, who are taking advantage of the rest of society. We listen to the dark voice that says to us, “Rid yourself of your liberal guilt and your bleeding heart. This is not your problem. Mish zich nisht arein — ‘do not get involved.’ ”

Do we not remember as Jews that we once knew what it was to lay out our necks under the heels of power? Are we so quick to embrace cultural amnesia that we have forgotten that we were once a homeless nation? How has the foreign ethic of apathy seeped so deeply into our collective souls? Our Jewish understanding of the world does not come from secular liberalism. It comes from the prophets. When we hear the voice of apathy emerge, we must remember the other voice that cries out through millennia: 

“Listen to this, you who devour the needy, annihilating the poor of the land, saying, ‘If only the new moon were over, so that we could sell grain; the Sabbath, so that we could offer wheat for sale,’ using an ephah that is too small and shekel that is too big, tilting a dishonest scale, and selling grain refuse as grain! We will buy the poor for silver, the need for a pair for sandals. The Lord swears by the pride of Jacob, ‘I will never forget any of their doings.’ Shall not the Earth shake for this …?” (Amos 8:4-8)

We must be proud as Jews that our greats, our statesmen and our prophets saw life through the eyes of the oppressed and spoke with anger and thundered against those who had become so hard of heart that they begrudged the poor. We are the people of the prophets and the children of the prophets. Shall we not take up their call to embody the Divine concern for justice? Shall we not shake the Earth? 

What makes for a great city? Is it its sunny beaches and rolling hills? Is it the heights of its skyscrapers or the extent of its art collection? No. It is our ability to let all who are hungry, eat; all who need a bed, a place to rest; all who need refuge, a place to call home. We must go to sleep tonight dreaming of a better tomorrow, and we must wake up in the morning to pursue those dreams. The only way to solve the problem of homelessness is to put the blaring light of justice on our collective shame and draw together in harmony the voices of our city to say enough is enough! We must sing out from the chambers of City Hall. Sing out from the pews and from the shelters. We must sing out from office buildings, the hospitals and the nonprofit agencies. No longer can we be fettered by the chains of our apathy. No longer can we say that what happens in Venice or on Skid Row is not my problem. No longer can we despair. We must put our shoulder to the wheel and focus our energy.  

Remember the words of Rabbi Hayim of Brisk, who said to be a rabbi is to “redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone … protect the poor and to save the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor.” Speak to your congregations, move the Earth. The time for your leadership is now. We need more funding from the city to be allocated to homelessness services. Speak to your councilmember. We need to pass legislation that restores funding from the state to build more affordable housing. Speak to your state representative. We need more communities in this fight. Speak to them and they will listen. 

To end homelessness, we need to heed the prophetic call to stem the flow of families falling into poverty and slipping through the bottom of the safety net. We need the strength of all of our hands to lift this very heavy burden. My teacher Rabbi Harold Schulweis taught me a poignant story: There was a certain Jew in Sodom and Gomorrah who preached against the injustices found there. For his troubles, he was mocked by all who knew him. “Why do you break your heart speaking to these people who are resolved not to change?” He answered, “I do not do this for their sake alone. I do it for my own sanity.” 

We must all be a sane voice in an insane world, if not for the sake of the needy, then for our own.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino and founder of Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in synagogues, schools and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

My year of street tzedakah

When I lived in Berkeley in the late ’60s and early ’70s, walking along Telegraph Avenue could be expensive if you gave to every panhandler who asked for spare change. Not that much has changed in all these years. The number of people asking for handouts is at least as great as it was, and perhaps more so. Given unemployment (mercifully down to 5.8 percent) and the underemployed, the historically low minimum wage, the federal cuts to food stamps for the working poor, and the incoming Republican Congress that is unlikely to act on behalf of the chronically poor and food-insecure people, it is no surprise that people asking for help on the street are ever-present.

What to do? Democrats in Congress who believe that the federal government should extend a helping hand, especially in difficult times, are slogging it out with a recalcitrant, hard-hearted, extremist Republican Party that cares little for “the least among these” (Matthew 25:40) despite their own Christian faith claims.

What about us? Do we give to the people on the street? Something to everyone, nothing to anyone, or sporadically when we feel like it?

I confess that, over the years, I have been alternately generous and tightfisted. Sometimes I open my wallet, but more often I walk by without responding, feeling guilty.

Last year, my friend Letty Cottin Pogrebin sent me a link to an op-ed she had just written for Moment Magazine called “The Politics and Ethics of Street Tzedakah.” After reading it, I felt especially ashamed of myself.

I decided, both for the sake of the person asking for help and for myself, that henceforth I would give to everyone asking me for assistance. Since then, I have given to virtually everyone I encountered who asked me for assistance. I keep dollar bills in my wallet for these people and give everyone $1, not very much in the grand scheme of things (I estimate that I have given out about $250-$300 this past year). The payoff, however, is great in human terms. The opportunity to connect heart to heart and soul to soul with a stranger in need is a benefit for both of us.

In each of the several hundred cases, the recipient usually responded gratefully: “Thank you, brother!” “God bless you!” “Have a great day!” They felt seen and respected. I felt I did the right thing. It was, in a limited way, a win-win, though my dollar gift did little to solve the great socioeconomic problems in our country.

None of those who panhandle wish to be doing so. I remember one young man walking through traffic held a sign that read, “This is humiliating to me, but I am hungry. Please help!”

To those who say skeptically that these people are scamming us, that they can do better standing at a busy intersection than by actually getting a job, I ask only that you put yourselves in their place and reflect on what it would have taken for someone to do what they are doing.

Regarding giving when we legitimately suspect fraud, Rabbi Chayim of Sanz (1793-1876) said:

“The merit of tzedakah is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” (Darkai Chaim, 1962, p. 137)

Maimonides reminds us, “One must never turn a poor person away empty-handed, even if you give him a dry fig.” (Mishneh Torah, “Gifts to the Poor” 7:7)

The obligation to give tzedakah includes everyone, without exception, even the poor who receive community funds and individual handouts (Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 248:1). When the poor give, they realize that there are others worse off than themselves. 

According to surveys, the American-Jewish community is among the most generous communities in the country per capita. I am proud that our people give to all kinds of worthy causes, to alleviate suffering here and around the world, to the people and State of Israel, to local, national and international Jewish causes, to synagogues and food pantries, homeless programs, refugee organizations, universities, hospitals, art museums and symphony orchestras. We write checks because we know that Judaism requires it, because we know the heart of the stranger, the poor and oppressed, and in the interest of tikkun olam.

But how often do we give when we meet strangers on the street?

I decided a year ago that I am no longer walking by without giving. I pledged to myself to carry $1 bills at all times, and to give them whenever asked, not just for the sake of the other, but for my own sake as well.

Rabbi John Rosove is the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood since 1988. He blogs at

Hope and help for the homeless at LAFH

Los Angeles Family Housing (LAFH) is the largest provider of homeless services in the San Fernando Valley. The organization got its start in the early 1980s with the conversion of an old North Hollywood motel to house homeless families. Today, LAFH encompasses 23 properties, from Lancaster to Boyle Heights. 

The organization proudly sees 92 percent of its clients go on to secure permanent housing. Last year, it served nearly 3,500 people. 

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer, 46, has been president and CEO of LAFH since 2007. Jewish Journal sat down with the Northridge native and longtime Adat Ari El member in her office at the Sydney M. Irmas Transitional Living Center in North Hollywood, which is home to 65 families, to discuss everything from the myth of people “choosing” to live on the streets to ways that even child volunteers can make a difference.

Jewish Journal: How do individuals or families connect with you? Or how do you connect with them?

Stephanie Klasky-Gamer: We are one of the most sought-after shelters in the county, for families, primarily because of our unique model that allows families to stay together. In contrast, at most shelters … they have a women’s floor and a men’s floor. They separate by gender from 14 on. So a little girl could not stay with her dad.

[At LAFH] whether you are a single dad with his little girl or you are a grandpa, mother, father and four teenage boys, we can accommodate any configuration of a family. It might be crowded if you’re a family of 10, but you have your own bathroom, and the door locks. So, we’re well-known and always full.

How do singles come to us? Word of mouth. We are the only shelter for individuals that is non-recovery-based in the Valley. 

In the last two years we have made a much more concerted effort to do street-based outreach: We go into Tujunga Wash, meet individuals who have been living burrowed in brush for 15 years; we go out into Lake View Terrace. A gentleman we met there, his name is The Wizard. He’s been living at the side of a freeway off-ramp literally for 22 years. So we’re going out into the streets more and identifying the most vulnerable.

JJ: But not everyone necessarily wants help, right?

SKG: We see it as they are not ready for it yet. Nobody wants to live on the street. They may be incapacitated because of mental health. They may be scared.

We just opened up a new part of a building last year. The Wizard, he moved into his own apartment there. It’s not a shelter. He signed a lease. He’s cooking meals in his own kitchen. That took about a year and a half: getting him first to come indoors, then, once indoors, to stay indoors.

JJ: What sort of opportunities are there for volunteers?

SKG: We have a number of volunteer opportunities that we really try to make meaningful for the volunteer and supportive of what our residents need. It could range from hosting a monthly birthday party for all the kids on that property to working in our kitchens and helping to prepare a meal. Another option that is not on-site but that is truly beneficial is doing a collection. We have corporations that do, for example, Toothpaste Tuesdays or diapers on Friday and then donating that to us. 

We just had a teenager do a fabulous reading-cooking club. She would read children’s books to little kids that all had some food association, like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie,” and they would make cookies. 

We have a tremendous amount of community volunteers through high schools. A lot of them provide assistance through Homework Club. We even have little kids coming on-site. They might be sorting welcome baskets. 

JJ: Beyond providing for their basic needs, what can LAFH do to foster a sense of pride and drive in the clients, especially the kids? 

SKG: They have to earn it here. We have Scrub Day Fridays. Residents have to give back and help clean. There is a lot of focus in our family programs on educating, and educational enrichment. We have a lot of incentives to help our kids succeed academically. 

One of the things we do really well: We celebrate milestones all along our residents’ journeys. We don’t just celebrate when they move into permanent housing. We recognize that a kid gets a great attendance record. If he got a C on a spelling test and he hadn’t been engaged before, we celebrate that. If someone gets a certificate in a job training program, we celebrate. We don’t just celebrate the getting the job. I think that fosters a great sense of pride in the accomplishments that each resident is achieving. 

We [also] have a mandatory savings program.

JJ: There’s a bank at LAFH?

SKG: Yes there is, without any fees. Many of our residents don’t have any form of credit. We do a lot of work on creating budgets and savings. There is tremendous pride when a resident leaves and realizes they saved $2,000. 

They are supposed to save 80 percent of their income no matter what their income is. Remember, they don’t have any expenses when they are living here. They are going to have a lot of expenses when they move out. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting $200 a month in general relief or earning $1,200 a month — we want you to save 80 percent so you leave with some cushion and you get in the good habit of saving.

JJ: Can you share a success story?

SKG: Fara’s story is a wonderful success story. She [and her four children] moved out of the shelter about four years ago. They have remained stable and successful. The mom is Fara, and the oldest daughter is Fara also. They lived here for three years. Fara [the daughter] is only 15 now. She was, like, 11 when she lived here. These were really children who grew up homeless.

That they succeeded in their transition out of homelessness — a single mom with a lot of barriers — this is the proudest, happiest family unit you could meet. Fara [the daughter] is a successful cheerleader in high school, getting straight A’s. … What Fara’s daughter always says is, “My mom always taught us not to let our situation define us. It’s because of her we succeeded.” 

Homelessness in California: Homes in the city, not on the streets

The other day, I was taking my kindergarten daughter to school at our synagogue, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS). We passed a homeless man sleeping at the bus stop. She asked me if that man had a home, and I said no.  

California, which accounts for 12 percent of the United States population, is home to nearly 22 percent of the country’s homeless. More than half of all homeless Californians — 64 percent — are unsheltered, meaning they literally sleep on the streets, in parks, at bus stops and elsewhere. Fourteen percent of the homeless are veterans, and 20 percent are families. 

Here in Los Angeles, nearly 60,000 men, women and children live on the streets, many driven there by the high cost of housing. The average two-bedroom, one-bath apartment in this city rents for $1,523 per month, according to To afford that apartment, a family would need to earn $60,920 a year, if they are to spend one-third of their income on housing. That means a full-time wage earner would have to make $29.29 per hour, to afford rent — far more than many Angelenos earn. 

We at VBS have a proud tradition of helping the needy through our food bank and through relationships with shelters and service organizations. But we have come to believe we can’t solve this problem with aid alone, which is why our community now supports the California Homes and Jobs Act (SB 391), which has passed through the state Senate and is now under consideration in the assembly. 

Average incomes for truck drivers, social workers, childcare workers, most restaurant workers and construction workers can’t support that two-bedroom apartment, based on income data from the California Employment Development Department. To make ends meet, adults work multiple jobs, families double up with relatives, or scrimp and struggle to pay for living arrangements that they simply can’t afford. 

Lawmakers at the state, federal and local levels have proposed hikes to the minimum wage, in part to help working Americans make up for their reduced purchasing power. But even if the minimum wage were hiked to $15 an hour, as one Los Angeles city councilman has suggested, it would only bring a family halfway to affording that apartment.  And all it takes is one job loss, one medical problem, one car breakdown or needy relative to unravel a whole household budget, possibly landing that family on the street.
Meanwhile, the state’s commitment to building affordable housing has waned. Money from two housing bond measures has ended; local redevelopment agencies, which were required to allocate 20 percent of funds to affordable housing, were closed in the state’s budget crisis of 2012.

SB 391, which would institute a $75 recordation fee on real estate transactions other than the sale of property, is a good first step toward addressing the housing affordability crisis in California. It is expected to raise an average of $500 million annually that will be used to build or refurbish affordable housing statewide. By passing this bill, the state will also be able to leverage federal and private funds through matching, which will otherwise be lost. 

A wide array of business, labor and nonprofit organizations have recognized the urgency of this situation; the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, the County Labor Federation, AARP and the United Way all support SB 391, as do veterans’ and children’s advocates.

We recognize it is not enough for our community to service the outcomes of injustice. We can never feed all those who are hungry; nor can we clothe all those who are naked. We must also move upstream, to the headwaters in which these injustices find their power. 

This bill — the only one being considered this year that could create new affordable housing options for thousands of Californians — specifically works with the population who rely most heavily on social services such as emergency rooms and emergency shelters. The funds raised will be used to help both working- and middle-class families, and will spur development of rapid rehousing initiatives, transitional and permanent rental units, and other housing options aimed at the homeless population. This is the latest and best effort of our legislators to create affordable housing that helps all Californians, including the homeless.  If this bill dies, then the hope for affordable housing dies in California. 

We urge you to learn more about SB 391. We’ve met with representatives from our congregation’s catchment area, and we encourage you to contact or schedule a meeting with your representatives to let them know that you are paying attention to this vote. A handful of Democrats in the assembly have not yet committed to voting for the bill, which needs a two-thirds majority to get to the governor’s desk.  

After passing that man asleep at the bus stop, my daughter asked me if we have to help him because once we were like him, poor and homeless, slaves in Egypt. “That is exactly why,” I said. 

We cannot let the parks and sidewalks of Los Angeles become the fleshpots of Egypt. It is not enough for us to provide meals at shelters or a word of comfort. We have an obligation to change the conditions of the market, with our mighty hands and our outstretched arms, in order to make it possible for hard-working people to live in our city.

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom and founded Netiya, a faith-based network that advances urban agriculture in our synagogues, schools, and nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles.

The Mensch List: The way home

Wendy Colman Levin spoke with quiet intensity about the people who have touched her during her four-and-a-half years as an advocate on behalf of the homeless, among them the young woman who was thrown out of her childhood home when she told her stepfather that her stepbrothers were raping her, and the middle-aged man who spiraled into street life after his wife died of cancer.

Since 2009, Levin has served as a member of the Home For Good Business Leaders Task Force on Homelessness that aims to find permanent supportive housing for the chronic and veteran homeless, among other endeavors.  

Her personal mission is to help these often invisible individuals tell their stories through the arts: For the task force, she curated an exhibition, “Faces of Homelessness,” which has been on display in more than 10 venues around Los Angeles since 2011 and is now at Encino’s Valley Beth Shalom. She’s also the co-editor of Stuart Perlman’s documentary “Struggle in Paradise,” which spotlights the homeless of Venice Beach, as well as a coach to help previously homeless people craft personal narratives about their life on the streets and beyond, through the Skid Row Housing Trust and the Corporation for Supportive Housing.

Levin is currently coaching an educated man who had lived with and cared for his mother until she died, but then, unable to continue to pay the rent, found himself sleeping in his truck. “He talks about drifting, and being lost and shocked to be in a situation he could never have imagined,” she said.

Levin — who grew up attending Stephen S. Wise Temple — first worked with the homeless during an internship while earning her doctorate in behavioral sciences and health education at UCLA in the mid-1980s. Her doctoral dissertation focused on how entertainment media can influence health-relevant beliefs and behaviors among the viewing public; it was an idea she drew upon when she joined the task force several years ago.

“I wanted to find ways to bring the issue of homelessness to the public consciousness in a way that wasn’t just informational, but was also through storytelling, because that can deliver more of an emotional impact,” she said. “And I wanted to show that these people are individuals.”

Levin came up with the idea of the exhibition while talking to Perlman, a Los Angeles psychoanalyst and artist who had begun painting vibrant portraits of the homeless denizens of Venice Beach; the inaugural exhibition in 2012 featured Perlman’s portraits as well as the work of photographer Gaelle Morand. A larger exhibition on display at the Venice Art Walk last year also included the work of sculptors, an installation artist and a documentary filmmaker.

“When we were on display in the lobby of the City National Bank in City National Plaza, a banker in a beautiful suit said to us, ‘I wonder if one of these portraits is my daughter,’ ” Levin recalled.  “And we were just weeping with her. The truth is that this isn’t the problem of ‘the other’; it involves all of us.”

In between helping to edit more than 60 hours of footage for Perlman’s documentary, Levin has also coached five previously homeless individuals as they developed monologues to help raise awareness about the issue. 

“I urge the people I work with to be as honest as they feel comfortable with in their narratives, and to go as deep as they can,” she said. “The truth is, they are tremendous success stories because of the things they have survived, and often through no fault of their own.”

A homeless heart for Sukkot

I want to tell you about a man I’ll call Jack. Jack was a man who slept under the 405 underpass that I cross on my walk to synagogue every Shabbat. For a long time, I didn’t really see him. He was tucked away in the bushes next to the on-ramp. But that’s not what kept me from seeing him. Angelenos like Jack who sleep among the concrete and refuse are, to most in our city, nothing more than landscape. Our own hustle and bustle has caused a moral blindness that prevents us from taking notice of them. The voice of our ethical exhaustion tells us that these folks are simply the price we pay for living in a city. And so we don’t see them. 

I didn’t see Jack until he waved at me one Shabbat morning and I waved back. This became a weekly ritual. Then, one Shabbat, while walking to synagogue, I stopped and talked with Jack. Sitting there next to the 405, I found out that Jack is a veteran. He served our country overseas and experienced the carnage of war. When Jack came home, he couldn’t put the shards of his life together. To cope with his trauma, Jack fell into the vicious cycle of pain, addiction and self-abuse that landed him there next to the freeway. There we were together, face to face, me in my suit and he in ragged old clothes. And for the first time, I really saw this man. I saw inside him, his pain, his shame and, most importantly, his humanity. 

After shul, I gathered together some food, a bottle of water and some materials with information on getting help from a social service agency. But when I arrived at the underpass, he was gone. At first I thought he had moved on. But later I learned from a police officer that Jack had been arrested for sleeping beneath the underpass. 

This bothered me a great deal and it still bothers me. As a family man it bothers me. As an American it bothers me. As a veteran it bothers me. But most importantly, as a Jew it bothers me. 

The author Alice Hoffman said, “Once you know some things, you can’t unknow them. It’s a burden that can never be given away.” That’s especially true of people who, having fallen on hard times, can’t seem to pick up those shattered pieces of their lives. 

There are nearly 60,000 people in Los Angeles who sleep on the streets every night. Twenty percent of all homeless are veterans like Jack. And the outlook for their future is not bright. Now that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are ending, experts are anticipating a “reverse surge” of veterans. They predict that 31,000 veterans will become homeless in Los Angeles in the next two years. The statistics are staggering and shameful. 

This great country has brought prosperity to so many. If we can build a society that lets a man take a small step on the moon, place Old Glory on the Sea of Tranquility and call that a victory for humanity, why can’t we build a country that lets every family take a small step across the threshold of a home? 

As Jews, there can be no argument that since our people left the dark ghettos of Europe and the sun-baked streets of Tehran we’ve made it. We can attend any university, belong to any club and do business with any person we like. The mayors of the three largest cities in America are Jewish. Three of the most powerful elected officials in Los Angeles are Jewish. We’ve made it.

But in the eyes of our tradition, we haven’t made it. Not yet. 

When Moses dreamed of a future for our people, he envisioned us settled in a land flowing with milk and honey. Yet, at the pinnacle of our flourishing, the Torah teaches that we stand before the priest and the congregation in Jerusalem, holding the bounty of our harvests, affirming our identity as Jews. At that moment, when we can say, “We’ve made it,” the Torah instructs us to say, “My father was a homeless Aramean who went down to Egypt with meager numbers and resided there … when we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the Lord heard our cry and freed us from Egypt.”

Moses’ vision for our personal prosperity is to truly enjoy the fruits of our labor, but not to make material gains our identity. We are not only our wealth. Our lives began in a much earlier time, an ancient time, thousands of years ago, back to Jacob, back to Abraham, who left their homes, as wandering homeless men. Our Torah teaches us that in all our settledness, in all our wealth, in all our power, in all our privilege, there is still, deep inside each one of our chests, beating with the steady thumping of time, a homeless heart. 

We are Adam and Eve, who were exiled from their home. We are Noah and his family, who had to make a home aboard a ship among turbulent seas. We are Abraham, who left his home and wandered in search of the Promised Land. We are Jacob, who left his home to find himself and to build a nation. We are Joseph, thrown into the pit, far away from home. We are Moses, who left his home and found God in the desert. We are the people of Israel, who crossed the sea, wandered the wasteland and were exiled, homeless for thousands of years. 

In the soul of every Jew, no matter how much we believe we’ve made it, we have not yet fulfilled the dreams of the prophets unless we remember that homeless hearts beat in our chests. 

And in this season, when we are commanded to build the sukkah, a symbol of God’s sheltering presence, can we be deaf to the beating of our hearts? The frailty of our sukkot should remind all of us of those whose homes are as fragile as the sukkah all year long. For once you see these fellow human beings as reflections of the Divine, you cannot stand idly by; your homeless heart must beat in time with theirs. 

The time to act is now. Valley Beth Shalom is taking a stand to work with those who want to end homelessness; to teach about this issue through our innovative art gallery and lectures; to work with others like Milken Community High School, New Jewish Community High School; and the Jewish Journal to collect signs from the homeless to build a Homeless Sukkah; and to work with coalitions of other organizations to advocate for a solution to this wrong. Let this New Year be a year when we can find a home for all.

To get involved in the Homeless Sukkah Project, visit the Facebook page at facebook/homelesssukkah or e-mail

Noah Farkas is associate rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom Synagogue in Encino.

Is beauty a Jewish value?

When we talk about Jewish values, we usually refer to things like justice, compassion, generosity, humility, honesty, faith, wisdom and so on. We rarely talk about beauty.

Beauty is vain and superficial, we’re so often told.

And yet, the word “beautiful” is prominent on this week’s cover of the Jewish Journal, which features an unusually beautiful sukkah, created by designer Jonathan Fong.

Normally, our instinct would be to focus on a deeper meaning of the holiday — the sukkah as a metaphor for humility; as a wake-up call to help the homeless; as a physical, palpable link to our ancestors; as a paradox of frailty and strength; or as an eternal symbol of Jewish endurance.

Those angles are all more profound and meaningful than the notion of beauty. So, why would we feature aesthetics on our cover this year?

One answer is that maybe we simply need a break from all the heaviness. Yes, we can overdose even on things like depth and meaning. Let’s face it, especially at this time of year, we’ve all been marinating in one deep sermon after another. Serious, heavy issues are weighing on us — whether about Israel, society’s ills or the need to transform our lives.

So, it’s quite possible that a light, beautiful sukkah might be just the right antidote to holiday heaviness — an ideal opportunity to lighten up and let all this depth sink in.

Or not.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, but in Judaism, meaning lurks everywhere — even in something as superficial as beauty.

“Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses,” according to “Gates of the Seasons: A Guide to the Jewish Year” (Central Conference of American Rabbis). “Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension.”

In other words, by adding beauty to what we see, hear, taste and feel, we enhance our spiritual experience of the mitzvah, which brings us closer to the mitzvah itself.

Beauty is also defined, in the Jewish tradition, by the virtues of endurance and permanence.

As Rabbi Joshua Shmidman explains in the magazine Jewish Action: “The Torah requires: ‘And you shall take unto yourselves on the first day (of Sukkot) a fruit of a beautiful tree — pri etz hadar.’ The Talmud (Sukkot 35a) wishes to define what constitutes a beautiful tree by analyzing the Hebrew word for beautiful, hadar.

“The sages conclude that it is the etrog tree, because the word ‘hadar’ is interpreted to be a fruit which ‘dwells continuously all year on the tree’ (ha-dar, literally, ‘that which dwells’). Thus, they understand the word ‘dar’ to mean the opposite of temporary or intermittent residence; rather, it implies permanence, a continuous process through time (similar to the French ‘duree’ or the English ‘endure’).

“The etrog tree fulfills this requirement of constant dwelling, for most other fruits are seasonal, but the etrog grows, blossoms and produces fruit throughout all the seasons: in the heat and the cold, in the wind and in storm — it stubbornly persists! It endures! And in the Jewish view, that is why it is beautiful.”

In addition to its permanence, beauty is also an expression of love. 

As my friend Rabbi Benjamin Blech said to me over lunch last week, adding beauty to a mitzvah — such as making a sukkah beautiful — is an expression of love because it’s a sign that “we are doing the mitzvah not just because we have to, but because we want to.” We glorify God’s presence by going beyond the minimum requirements, by pouring out our love for Him just as we would for those we deeply love.

As the rabbi spoke so beautifully about love, I reflected on another aspect to beauty that is often overlooked — and that is, the beauty of the words we speak.

I don’t care how beautiful we make our sukkahs or holiday tables, if some well-intentioned guest decides to ambush the conversation with a rant against Obama, or Israeli settlers, or the tragic mess in Syria, or any number of incendiary topics best left for another time — all that aesthetic beauty we’ve spent so much time creating will be immediately colored ugly.

If beautiful sounds contribute to the human enjoyment of religious acts, I can’t think of a more beautiful sound than that of pleasant conversation that stimulates the mind and warms our hearts.

In short, by making our sukkahs beautiful and adding meaningful and beautiful conversation, we can honor the enduring value of Jewish beauty, enhance our spiritual experience and deepen our love for the Almighty.

How’s that for superficial?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Buy a sign, build a sukkah

Four Jewish institutions have teamed up to build a sukkah composed entirely of homeless signs. They are asking the public to purchase and donate the signs in time for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

New Community Jewish High School, Milken Community High School, Valley Beth Shalom synagogue and Tribe Media Corp., publisher of the Jewish Journal, will together build the sukkah for the Jewish holiday, which this year begins at sundown on Sept. 18.

The schools and synagogue will use the sukkah throughout the year to teach about homelessness and to encourage political leaders to end homelessness in Los Angeles. Homeless sukkahs have been created in other cities, including Berkeley and New York. Los Angeles’ newly elected Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to “eradicate” homelessness, and the organizers of the Homeless Sukkah hope this effort will encourage him to keep his promise. The organizers also hope to expand the effort to more institutions and community members.

Most immediately, organizers say, the sukkah needs signs. Anyone interested in contributing to the project are encouraged to purchase signs from area homeless people and then can drop the signs off at any of the participating institutions. 

To get involved and for more information, visit the Homless Sukkah page on Facebook.

I am buying homeless signs for Sukkot this year

I started building my sukkah in December. To those of you who are sukkah DIYers, you know how ridiculous this sounds.

A sukkah is the ritual hut that Jews build each year on the holiday of Sukkot, which begins this year on the evening of Sept. 18. You set it up after Yom Kippur, you take it down after the eight days of Sukkot are over. Most sukkahs come as easy-to-make pre-fab kits — setting one up takes all of 30 minutes, even for a tool-challenged people.

So why did I start making mine eight months ago?

Because this year, I’m making a sukkah from homeless signs.

I collected my first one on a whim. At the off-ramp of the 10 Freeway at Lincoln Boulevard in Santa Monica, a man was standing with a crude cardboard sign that said, “50 But Not Dead.” I couldn’t have said it better myself, I thought. When he approached me and asked for some change, I heard myself blurting out, “Five dollars for the sign.”

From there, my lark became a mission. To the next person, a woman at the median strip at Venice and Overland, I gave $3 — it was all I had on me.  Her sign said, “Hungry.”  

I kept going. As a kid, I was obsessed by the famous LIFE magazine photo of a well-dressed man selling apples for a nickel on a Manhattan street corner. I harbored inchoate fears of living in such a world.   

And here we are.

I stopped each time I saw someone with a sign and offered to buy every one I could without causing a traffic accident. On Venice and Sepulveda, Venice and Overland, various off-ramps, in Venice Beach — Los Angeles may be losing its movie productions and manufacturing base, but I bet our great city produces more panhandling signs than any other city in the world.

And what, friends and family asked me, would I do with all of them?

At some point it dawned on me: Build a sukkah.

The booths we are commanded to build on Sukkot are a reminder of the dwellings in which the Children of Israel lived following the Exodus. While the shelter’s walls can be made of any material, the roof must be covered only with organic matter — palm fronds, bamboo — spaced wide enough to let some raindrops through.

[The Homeless Sukkah Project: How you can help]

Why not, I thought, build a sukkah whose walls are made entirely from homeless signs affixed to a bamboo frame?

During Sukkot, we eat our meals and sometimes sleep in the shelter we have created. Its fragility and impermanence is a reminder of our own. The shelter it provides is welcome, but unstable. A sukkah is not a home. 

Neither, my sukkah will remind us, are the streets of Los Angeles. The human suffering that can be found in the shadow of our comfortable homes is shameful. That such homelessness occurs in the midst of enormous wealth is beyond the pale.

Presently, some 58,000 homeless men, women and children live in Los Angeles County, a 16 percent jump over the last two years. The economic downturn is chiefly to blame. But the end of federal stimulus funds for emergency housing, combined with Gov. Jerry Brown’s diversion of some 15,000 low-level felons to L.A. jails and probation services, have added to the numbers. The bright news for many of us — a steady upturn in the housing market — also means more misery for people for whom rents are already a stretch.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged not to just manage homelessness, but to end it. He understands that the word “homeless” is a nearly useless catch-all phrase that hides a variety of causes and conditions, all of which require varying approaches. He has embraced innovative solutions like permanent supportive housing, which combines low-cost shelters with a full array of social services like childcare, job training, substance abuse and mental health counseling.  

Will Garcetti succeed? Other urgent needs may intervene. Political will often lags; money doesn’t materialize; the homeless don’t vote.

At a Jewish community event in his honor in Brentwood recently, Garcetti — the city’s first elected Jewish mayor — said he will use his close ties to the community not just to heed its needs, but to enlist the city’s influential, active Jewish community in helping him forward his own agenda.

One way we can help is to remind the mayor of his promise. A sukkah built entirely of homeless signs will stand as a constant reminder to the mayor, and to all of us, of the work that needs to be done. The entire structure will be not just a symbol of our fragility, but of the fragile existence so many people in this county lead on the streets each day. The sukkah will stand until the mayor meets his promise — simple.

Now, here’s where you come in: As of now, I have enough signs to form just one wall. A sukkah has at least three walls and a roof. This sukkah needs more signs. It needs more builders. It needs a visible, public place to stand. It needs you.

Go to our Web site,, to find out how you can help collect signs, and where you can come help build the Homeless Sukkah next month. If your synagogue or school would like to take on the project, even better.

There are, unfortunately, a lot more signs to buy.

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

Report: One-quarter of Israelis—and 37 percent of kids—live in poverty

The numbers tell a consistent storyline: Nearly one in four Israelis lives in poverty.

A report last week by Israel’s National Insurance Institute showed that 1.8 million of Israel’s 8 million people live below the poverty line.

In 2011, the year for which the report was issued, more than 36 percent of Israeli children were poor, a jump of 1 percentage point from the previous year. Poverty afflicts more than 400,000 Israeli families – including almost 7 percent of families with two working people.

Among developed countries, these numbers are unusually high. Israel has the second-highest poverty rate in the developed world, behind only Mexico, according to statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

“There’s a very large segment of the Israeli population that isn’t receiving tools they can use in the modern economy,” said Dan Ben-David, executive director of Israel’s Taub Center, a think tank that released its “State of the Nation” report last month — which analyzed Israeli socioeconomic policy. “It’s not only bad for them, it’s also become a huge problem for the country over time. They’re dragging down our productivity and growth.”

Israel’s relatively high poverty rate stems in large part from two sectors of the population that are especially poor: Israeli Arabs and haredi Orthodox Jews, who have poverty rates of 53 and 54 percent, respectively. Israeli Arabs constitute about a quarter of all Israelis, while approximately 10 percent of the country is haredi.

The Israeli government defines the poverty line as individuals who have expendable income of about $9,500 annuall after taxes – which is approximately 50 percent of the median Israeli expendable income. Exactly 24.8 percent of Israelis, or 19.9 percent of families, live in poverty.

By comparison, the United States is fourth-highest on the OECD’s list, with a family poverty rate of about 17 percent, according to the OECD's standard. Twenty-three percent of U.S. children live in poverty.

In Israel, poverty usually does not mean starvation. Unemployment in Israel is at 6 percent, and one of the country’s socialist legacies is a strong safety net for the poor, sick and elderly. Israeli economic policy has, however, turned more conservative in recent years.

Food line

People waiting in line for food packages at a distribution center for the needy in Lod, near Tel Aviv, September 2012. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

Shlomo Yitzhaki, Israel’s government statistician, says higher-than-average birthrates among haredi and Arab Israelis is the principal reason for their high poverty rates.

“If you look at income by family size, as the families get bigger, from five members and up, total family income gets lower,” he said.

Arabs and haredim are also exempt from Israel’s compulsory military service, which makes it harder for them to find work in a culture where army service often serves as a career starting point, allowing people to network and in some cases gain specialized skillsets.

Ben-David says Israel’s problems aren’t limited to minorities and that the state needs to invest in education and transportation infrastructure.

In the summer of 2011, hundreds of thousands of Israelis took to the streets to protest the high cost of living and growing wealth inequality in the country, which were seen as hurting the middle class. Though the issue has gotten a lot of attention in Israel’s current election campaign, it does not dominate headlines the way it did during the 2011 protests.

Last month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a new commission of government ministers to streamline socioeconomic reforms. He did not specify what those reforms would be.

Ben-David said Israel’s security needs often make it hard to find enough money to address the country’s other challenges. Defense spending makes up about one-fifth of the total budget, and social service spending adds up to about two-fifths.

“That we have such a high defense budget means we have to be judicious with the rest,” he told JTA.

Nonprofit groups here have stepped in to alleviate poverty in Isael, including many managed by haredim. But Yoram Sagi Zaks, founder of the Movement for the War on Poverty in Israel, says the government still needs to take primary responsibility for helping the poor.

“The nonprofits help people, but they need to supplement the state, not replace the state,” Zaks said. “Poverty is not a fate. This is not something we need to get used to.”

Homes for homeless

Back in 2004, attorney Jerry Neuman was driving in Hollywood with his then-4-year-old son, Jake, when the boy noticed a disheveled homeless man on a bus bench beside a shopping cart of belongings. Jake asked his father where the man lived. 

“I explained that he didn’t have a home, that he slept right there and that there were many people who had to live on the streets,” Neuman, 50, a real estate and land use attorney, said during an interview in his downtown office. “Jake was perplexed by that; I could see his confusion and pain. It was just unfathomable to him that someone had to live in those conditions.”

On Jake’s fifth birthday, the boy walked into the Los Angeles Mission to deliver some of his birthday gifts to homeless children. “He said, ‘Dad, can you do something about this?’ And I promised ‘Yes, if I can do something, I will,’ ” Neuman said.

These days, the attorney is keeping his promise by co-chairing an ambitious program, Home for Good, which brings together myriad business, government and charitable organizations to end chronic homelessness (people homeless for more than a year) and to get all military veterans off the street in Los Angeles by 2016. By 2021, the goal is to house the rest of the transient population. “Los Angeles, for far too long, has been considered the homeless capital of the country, with 51,000 people on the streets every night,” Neuman said. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Neuman has dedicated hundreds of volunteer hours – as well as pledged $60,000 of his own money over the next few years – to Home for Good, which last year placed permanent roofs over the heads of 3,300 of some of the most hard-core homeless. He said the program also will meet its goal of housing more than 4,000 people this year.

Home for Good uses a model known as “housing first,” which proposes that long-time transients, once stabilized in their own homes, will be more likely to seek treatment for substance abuse and other problems. Previously, the thinking was that treatment should come first, but that was far more expensive and ineffective, Neuman said. “On the street, the priority for these people is ‘How am I going to survive the night, and will my belongings still be here when I wake up in the morning,’” he said. “Getting a roof over their heads first means we can get them feeling safe and secure so they will be more likely to use the supportive services we have to offer. Otherwise, they will keep on cycling through emergency rooms and jails, which costs far more money.”

Neuman’s work with the homeless — and the $80,000 per year total he donates to homeless and other groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc) — stems in part from his experience growing up the son of concentration camp survivors in Tucson, Ariz. “I used to count the people around our Shabbat dinner table, and it always seemed that people were missing,” said Neuman, whose father had three previous children who died in the war.

“But my parents instilled in me a very strong sense of both being an American and being part of the community,” he added. “They felt very strongly that this country offered them wonderful opportunities, and giving back to charity was, through their experience, just a part of who we were.”

Neuman was about to become SCI-Arc’s board chair and was serving on the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee in 2009 when the United Way called a meeting with Chamber leaders to create what would become Home for Good. Neuman attended as a way of keeping his promise to his son, but the project sounded daunting. “We’d been hearing for so long that the problem is so insurmountable that people had become tone deaf to the issue,” he said. So much so that when an official asked for someone to chair the new task force, only Neuman raised his hand. 

But he had conditions: “I said I wasn’t interested in previous concepts or another plan from some government agency that was going to go nowhere,” he recalled. “The system was broken and didn’t need to be fixed — we needed a new system. I wanted to look at the problem not from a pure social-advocacy standpoint, but from a business model: an efficient dollars-and-cents perspective.”

One of the first steps was figuring out the economics of the issue: With Home for Good co-chair Renee Fraser and other volunteers, Neuman learned that $650 million of the $875 million in tax dollars spent annually on Los Angeles’ homeless went to services for long-time denizens of the street. “It was insanity; a system set up to manage homelessness rather than end it,” he said. “It’s far more costly to keep people on the street than it is to house them. We needed to take the most vulnerable people, who are likely to die on the street tomorrow, and make them the priority.”

With this “housing-first” strategy in mind, Neuman helped establish a fund of $105 million from private donors and government agencies to guarantee housing and services for 1,000 individuals annually for 15 years. When he met with Housing and Urban Development officials in Washington, D.C., who referred to Los Angeles’ homeless policies as “dysfunctional,” he pledged to get city and county agencies to work together on the problem. “And we did,” he said. 

Neuman’s colleagues have applauded his efforts: “Jerry’s leadership, and the commitment of his peers on [Home for Good’s] business leaders taskforce, are bringing us closer than ever to truly ending chronic and veteran homelessness in L.A.,” said Molly Rysman, the Los Angeles director of the Corporation for Supportive Housing. “Jerry has been a tireless and strategic leader, combining the insights and influence of the business community into the work of nonprofits and the public sector. As a result, today we have new paradigms, benchmarks and energy in our effort to end homelessness in L.A.”

Neuman becomes emotional when describing some of the people he has interviewed as part of the process. “I’ve met individuals who’ve been living in encampments in the Hollywood Hills, or under a bridge downtown or in bushes in Westwood,” he said. “All of them are victims in one way or another. Some have lost their jobs, some have been alcoholics, while others turned to prostitution as a way of supporting themselves.”

“Sometimes I see these conditions, and I reflect on what my parents went through during World War II — the living outdoors in areas filled with human filth and the carrying of all your belongings on your back. “When my father was liberated from the camps, he was hiding in a latrine,” Neuman said.

A member of both Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Congregation Shaarei Tefila, Neuman says his work comes from a profoundly Jewish place. “I have a firm belief that God created a world that was unfinished and imperfect, and it’s our job to find a way to perfect both ourselves and the world around us.” 


For more information, visit

Victim of police beating on video at N.Y. Chabad center has charges dropped

All charges have been dropped against a homeless man shown on a video being beaten by New York police officers at a Chabad youth center in Brooklyn.

The Brooklyn District Attorney's Office said Monday afternoon that it would drop the charges against Ehud Halevy, 21, who was arrested Oct. 8 after the police beating for assault, resisting arrest and trespassing. The charges will be dropped formally at a Wednesday court hearing.

The New York Police Department’s Internal Affairs Unit and the district attorney’s office are investigating the officers who beat Halevy.

A video of the arrest posted Oct. 14 on the Internet shows Halevy  exchanging words with a male police officer and pushing away his hands after the officer had taken out handcuffs. Shortly after, the cop assumes a fighting stance and punches Halevy several times as he and a female officer wrestle Halevy to the couch where he was found sleeping. 

A volunteer security guard at the ALIYA Institute believed that Halevy was drunk, according to reports.

During the two-minute incident, the female officer appears to use a truncheon and pepper spray on Halevy. Eight police officers arrive later to handcuff him.

Halevy reportedly had been sleeping on the institute's couch with permission for about a month.

Without shelter on Pico Boulevard

It’s a Wednesday in September. Brad Baker stands in front of Elat Market on Pico Boulevard, holding out his baseball cap. People exit the supermarket, pushing shopping carts and carrying bags with groceries. Some look at Baker. Some don’t. For Baker, this is just another day. 

One of the many homeless in the heavily Jewish neighborhood of Pico-Robertson, Baker has been living in the area for four years. I met him while trying to find out how many homeless people can be found in the neighborhood on a typical weekday. Through a series of interviews with rabbis, I’d learned there are many destitute people who come to the community to ask for help. I wanted to see for myself. 

Perhaps no holiday highlights the plight of the Pico-Robertson homeless like Sukkot, which begins at sundown on Sept. 30. Sukkot recalls a time when the Jewish nation wandered in the desert — a homeless people. The fragility of our temporary shelters on this holiday reminds us of those who find little or no shelter all year long.

I’d heard about Frank, homeless, in his 50s and well-known in Pico-Robertson, from Rav Yosef Kanefsky, leader of Congregation B’nai David-Judea. Frank is Catholic, Italian and originally from Boston. He is, Kanefsky said, “a very religious person.” 

Rabbi Chaim Tureff, Judaic Studies teacher and Rav Beit Sefer at Pressman Academy, also knows Frank well. Tureff and Frank often run into one another at B’nai David, where Tureff davens in the mornings. “He’ll ask me to drive him on my way to work” — to the Kabbalah center or Beth Jacob [Congregation], where he hopes to collect money, Tureff said.

Frank shares “quite generously … and he loves Jews — absolutely loves Jews. … He says it all the time, [how] he loves the Jewish people, [how] Jewish people help him, are nice to him, support him. Just loves the Jewish people. Thinks we’re very generous,” Kanefsky said.

But Frank is “the product of a broken home and a violent father,” Kanefsky said, and the rabbi has urged Frank to obtain government assistance — to no avail. 

Joel — whose Hebrew name is “Yoel” — has been in the community for more than nine years.  

“Joel will sleep anywhere, [spending] many, many nights in a little entryway — a side entryway to the shul,” Kanefsky said. 

But he has not been around lately, Tureff said. “The police moved him, and he’s been out of the neighborhood for a number of months.” 

Kanefsky tries to help Joel. “When [Joel] was around, I tried as best I could to make sure he had money for food … [but he’s] severely, severely schizophrenic … tragically, deeply paranoid … [so there are] very few foods he eats because of the paranoia.”

Despite their best efforts, Kanefsky and Tureff failed to convince Joel to enter the government’s mental health system, which people have to enter voluntarily unless they are deemed an immediate danger to themselves. “Which he has never been deemed,” Kanefsky said. 

Like Frank, Joel is likable, Kanefsky said. He is “very smart” and has a “tremendously good grasp on events and history.” 

There are also stories of people whose names I was asked not to use. One woman, middle-aged and with a history of more than 20 years in Pico-Robertson, can be seen walking up and down Pico Boulevard every day, and she has found there a community that cares for her, according to a rabbi of an Orthodox shul in Pico-Robertson who also asked that he and his shul be kept anonymous.

In fact, a fund made up of contributions from “Orthodox synagogues in this neighborhood” pays for her rent for her apartment, the rabbi said. A restaurant owner in Pico-Robertson — who also asked to remain anonymous — said she keeps an open account for her at the restaurant.

She didn’t always rely on this type of assistance. She was a single woman, a “functioning member of society” and “active member in the community,” the rabbi said. About 15 years ago, she disappeared. When she returned several years later, she did not “function like she used to.”

Yehuda is another person who comes up during discussions about the homeless in Pico-Robertson. He’s a younger man, in his 30s, who tries to help others, Tureff said, adding, “He would always ask for money to try to get hotel rooms to help out people in the community.”

Like Baker, all of these people are both part of the tight-knit Pico-Robertson community and apart from the community; they are both visible and invisible. 

Baker was happy to share his story. He has been in the community for 35 years, he said. Before he was homeless, he lived in apartments on Saturn Street, and then later on Wooster Street. He’s had several jobs, including as first-call driver for a mortuary and as a plumber. He also has suffered multiple injuries while working, once injuring his hand and later shattering his spine. He became addicted to pain medication.

When his mother got sick with cancer, about four years ago, Baker suffered what he called a “breakdown.” He began drinking, sometimes mixing alcohol with pain pills. After police caught him with Vicodin, he served three years in prison. 

Kanefsky gives Baker $15 each month for medication. Baker also receives $5 weekly from B’nai David, Kanefsky’s shul.

Baker sleeps in Pico-Robertson, often in the parking lot behind Kollel Rashbi Ari on Pico. Mikhail Maimon, chairman of the kollel, said Baker often drops by for meals on Shabbat — when the kollel offers free meals — and he uses the shower in the center’s bathroom and washes his clothes in the building’s washer and dryer. 

Less known but equally visible in the community are two elderly Persian men who walk up and down Pico every day selling costume jewelry, prayer books, children’s toys, socks and Judaica trinkets. They speak Farsi  and minimal English, and through translators I attempted to interview one of them, twice, but he declined and would not allow his picture to be taken. They push shopping carts filled with merchandise, which they try to sell to pedestrians and people eating on patios at restaurants. They sometimes bother the customers, knocking on the windows of the restaurants to get customers’ attention. This is an everyday occurrence at Pat’s Restaurant on Pico, said Errol Fine, owner of Pat’s. Fine said he has mixed feelings about it. “It’s our patrons that sometimes get a little annoyed about it … [but] I think everybody is understanding.”

When I finished speaking with Baker, it was approximately 7 p.m. and getting dark outside. I walked some more, beginning at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Beverly Drive and continuing to the intersection of Pico and Robertson boulevards — a distance of more than 15 blocks — and along the way I saw six more people who appeared homeless.

These people walk around the neighborhood during the day, but neither community rabbis nor area homelessness agencies know how many actually sleep in the district. 

A census conducted in 2011 by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority — an independent agency that coordinates and manages federal, state, county and city funds for programs providing shelter, housing and services to the homeless — revealed that 51,340 people in Los Angles County either live in a place not meant for human habitation — such as cars, parks and sidewalks — or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing. In Los Angeles County supervisorial District 3 — a large geographical area that includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 8,048 homeless people. In the Los Angeles City Council District 5 — which also includes the Pico-Robertson area — the census found 689 homeless people.

“There’s certainly a homeless population” in Pico-Robertson, said Jeremy Sidell, a spokesperson for the social services agency People Assisting the Homeless (PATH). Run by Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles’ (JFS-LA) SOVA Community Food and Resource Program, the Pico-Robertson-area food pantry served 102 individual homeless clients this year, according to Nancy Volpert, director of public policy at JFS-LA. But SOVA does not keep track of where these clients sleep.

On Sept. 5, at one of B’nai David-Judea’s programs that takes place approximately every six weeks, more than 100 elderly and middle-aged men and women came to the synagogue for a free lunch and to receive $15 Ralphs gift cards. On this day, Kanefsky handed out approximately 120 Ralphs cards. Afterward, the synagogue served cholent, pasta, salad, challah, vegetables and desserts. 

Other shuls in Pico-Robertson see as many as a dozen people each day who come to their doors to ask for charity.  

Pico-Robertson’s Lubavitch Bais Bezalel has an “open-door policy” for people in need, said the shul’s leader, Rabbi Binyomin Lisbon. “A whole, full array of people, an eclectic group — locals, people from out of town and everybody in between” — visit the synagogue between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., coming in and asking for tzedakah during services and between services, Lisbon said.

“They make the rounds,” often making “eye contact” with congregants to gauge whether it is a good time to ask for tzedakah. Many congregants “have money sitting on the table, either coins or bills,” Lisbon said. Doing this means, “Don’t disturb my prayer, [but] take one and have a happy day,” Lisbon said.

Lisbon is happy to help. “If the good Lord is sending us people that are indeed needy and we’re in a position to [help] … [we try] to help as much as we can,” he said. 

Anshe Emes, another Orthodox shul in the neighborhood, has a similar situation: “There are people who come in and ask for tzedakah, every week in my synagogue — quote-unquote regulars,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Summers. He collects tzedakah money from his congregants and distributes that money to the visitors, before or after morning prayers, or before or after evening prayers.

Summers downplays the help he provides. “I don’t think I’m any different than any other rabbi — just the opposite — my synagogue is smaller, so maybe I do less. I’m sure these other rabbis do a lot, and the community does a lot, and it would be nice if we could do more,” he said.

At B’nai David, each person may come to request money only once a week — but the system is informal, with volunteers handing out the funds collected from congregants. 

It is not only through the synagogues that the needy can find help; neighborhood restaurants also step up. Jeff Rohatiner, owner of Jeff’s Gourmet Sausage Factory, allows visitors to come into his restaurant to eat one free meal per week and to use the rest rooms. The goal is to help somebody who is homeless feel like a “normal person,” Rohatiner said.

Pico-Robertson-based social service agencies offer assistance, as well. SOVA’s
Pico-Robertson storefront provides groceries; the organization Tomchei Shabbos on Pico provides packages of Shabbat food to the homes of needy families (they require an address, and the food needs to be cooked). The family-run Global Kindness also distributes clothes, food, money for rent and other forms of help.

Young Israel of Century City, on Pico, maintains a different policy than some of the other congregations in dealings with tzedakah collectors. The synagogue’s leader, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, said that a few years ago, the synagogue became overwhelmed by people “who go from shul to shul [and] who’ve made this into a racket. They were disrupting the davening. It was becoming impossible,” Muskin said.

Up to 20 people were coming “daily, weekly,” in groups, to the synagogue. Congregants were being “hounded by these guys. They weren’t being left alone. … You couldn’t just walk into the shul and daven. They were there in the hallway and wouldn’t let you go,” Muskin said.

“That’s when it got out of hand. We just told them that they can’t come into the building,” Muskin said.

The synagogue now makes donations to people who have letters saying they’ve been certified by the West Coast Va Ad Hachesed, an agency that interviews a person seeking tzedakah and determines if that person truly needs assistance. Additionally, if a rabbi in the community, or a colleague, vouches for someone, Young Israel will help that person — even if he or she is uncertified, Muskin said. 

“We take care of those who are honestly in need with tremendous generosity,” Muskin said.

The challenge for rabbis and community members is how to seek a balance between giving and declining to give. Kanefsky said imposing rules — such as not allowing people to sleep inside the synagogue and requiring people to pre-register in order to become eligible for a Ralphs gift card — helps achieve that balance. 

“Things aren’t perfect, but things are far more predictable and organized both for us and the recipients,” Kanefsky said.

The rabbi said he also gets to know who he is helping, and said he doesn’t give to someone he doesn’t know anything about. “I don’t help anyone without knowing their name, knowing a little bit of their story. … It humanizes and dignifies the process,” he said.

PATH recommends this type of “one-to-one interaction.” It is, Sidell said, “very unusual, very rare for someone who is experiencing homelessness.” 

There was complete agreement among all the rabbis that Judaism obligates Jews to give tzedakah to the less fortunate. Lisbon highlighted the notion, taught by the ancient sages, that the world stands on three legs: Torah, service and acts of kindness. The notion that God makes everyone in His image also motivates Kanefsky, he said.

“I know that sounds trite, to see the image of God in everybody, [but] that is the key to everything,” he said, “to talk with people, to interact with people, to have patience with people for the image of God that they are.”

More stories for Sukkot: 

From Rosh Hashanah in a tent to standing on my own two feet

A growing number of once proud, working-class Israeli families are being transformed into the “working poor,” as they’ve failed to keep up with increased taxes as well as rising food and gas prices. Without the assistance of outreach social service organizations such as Meir Panim, the Mirilashvili family might have endured more than one Rosh Hashanah on the streets of Israel. Instead, they are not only regaining their independence but are giving back to the community too.

Sometimes, a chance encounter with someone special can change the course of a lifetime. Such was the meeting between Ilanit Hafuta, director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim in Northern Israel, and Ilan Mirilashvili, a resident of the city, who four years ago found himself in a dire financial and housing crisis. What began as a charitable gesture to help a family of six who had set up a makeshift ‘home’ in a tent outside the City Hall, has developed into a lifelong relationship, leading Ilan to join the cycle of giving in aiding Israel’s most needy people.

“I help my dad deliver bread to families on Fridays and it makes me feel really good” says Sandy Mirilashvili. From left: Lishai, Hodayah and Sandy Mirilashvili.

“Four years ago, we spent Rosh Hashanah in a tent on the grass outside the City Hall,” recounts 35 year-old Ilan. “We’d been made homeless after a long and drawn out financial and bureaucratic nightmare. I had four little children to feed, two of whom were sick, and my wife was eight months pregnant. I felt as though I’d been pushed up against a wall and had no choice but to ‘cry out’ for help. We sat in that tent for three weeks. I was working every night and would come back to the tent, exhausted, during the day. I was a broken man.”

“Toward the end of the three weeks, I was told there was a woman from an organization called Meir Panim who would be able to help us,” continues Ilan. “Ilanit came to our tent and sat with us patiently while I explained our situation. She then looked me in the eye and said ‘We have a long battle ahead. We’re going to do this together and I’m going to need your help.’ Using her strong connections with the local administrative system, she literally walked us through the entire bureaucratic process and one month later, we had a new home. And this apartment didn’t look the way it looks now,” he adds. “Ilanit organized a whole group of volunteers from Meir Panim to come and renovate it for us. Some volunteers brought furniture and others came to paint. It was all literally a miracle.”

The relationship between Ilan and Ilanit did not end with the acquisition of the apartment. “Ilanit has been like an older sister to me, guiding me and my family every step of the way. After we moved and as soon as things got back to routine, I started volunteering for Meir Panim. I’m a truck driver by profession and am therefore able to use my van to pick up food from companies, shops and bakeries and then deliver it to families in need. I have no other way of thanking Meir Panim besides giving back,” Ilan says with emotion. “The organization helps so many families with such a big and full heart and it made me want to do the same. I didn’t want to leave this loving family once things were okay for me—I only wanted to stay and help.”

In fact, two years ago, Ilan won the organization’s ‘Volunteer of the Year’ award for the energy and amount of hours he was putting in to his volunteering.  “I learned from Ilanit and from Meir Panim just how important it is to help those who need it. One of the people I take food to, for example, is a widowed father who is bringing up his four daughters alone. Being able to provide a family like that with hot meals is a feeling that fills you up inside and gives you the strength to deal with your own troubles. My children have also become part of the cycle of giving, and it is the best education they could ever receive.”

]The Mirilashvili family together with Ilanit Hafuta, Director of Meir Panim in Or Akiva.

Ilanit has been director of the Or Akiva branch of Meir Panim for the last eight years. The charity, which operates a network of food and social service centers throughout Israel, is particularly active in Or Akiva. Activities include running after-school clubs and summer camps for kids, organizing weddings and other celebrations for needy families, providing food shopping cards to enable people to purchase their own groceries, distributing food packages for the Jewish holidays and a plethora of other formal and informal assistance. “Our goal is not only to meet the vital needs of the disadvantaged population, but to do so while preserving people’s dignity and enabling them to become self-sufficient,” shares Dudi Roth, President of American Friends of Meir Panim. “And it’s amazing to see how a cycle of social responsibility has developed. Almost all of the people we have helped give back in some way. Or Akiva is one big warm family and everyone has something to give. Everyone has a talent that someone else can benefit from. For example, Ilan’s wife Sam is a fantastic baker and she regularly bakes delicious cakes for the children who attend Meir Panim’s after-school clubs.”

Although it would be unrealistic to expect these families to suddenly be living picture-perfect lives, it is evident just what a strong and positive impact Meir Panim is having on so many of Israel’s neediest people. “I leave for work every morning at 6am and often don’t return until midnight and I’m still only earning very minimally,” admits Ilan. “The kids hardly see me, I work very hard, and it’s sometimes difficult to remain optimistic. But I thank G-d a million times over that Meir Panim has helped me regain my independence.” Ilanit adds, “There is a lot of pain with this work but there is also a lot of happiness. To help a family to be able to stand on their own two feet is the most rewarding thing.”

For more information about Meir Panim, please visit

From homelessness to the table tennis summit, Paralympian Tahl Leibovitz is London-bound

Tahl Leibovitz spent much of his adolescence riding New York City’s subways – not for transportation or because of the trains’ allure.

The subways were where Leibovitz lived.

A troubled home and problems at school got Leibovitz kicked out of both places. Daytime, he wandered. At night, he rode the trains.

Now, at 37, Leibovitz is flying to London to compete in the Paralympics, the international event for athletes with physical handicaps that runs Aug. 29-Sept. 6. A world-class table tennis player, Leibovitz has osteochondroma, a sometimes-painful condition characterized by noncancerous bone tumors.

Leibovitz is in class 9, among the least severe physical limitations that categorize Paralympians. (Classes 1 through 5 are for those who are wheelchair users, with class 1 the most severe.) Leibovitz also has competed in standard tournaments, including the 2004 Olympic regionals, where the United States lost to Canada. He earned two bronze medals at the 1997 Maccabiah Games in Israel and plans to compete there in 2013.

The 227-member United States team includes at least one other Jewish athlete, Ian Silverman, a 16-year-old swimmer from Baltimore whose cerebral palsy affects both legs. “This is my first international meet,” Silverman said Monday from Germany, where his Paralympic team is training. “I’m really privileged and honored to represent the U.S. Hopefully, I’ll do well and make the country proud.”

Olympic great Michael Phelps, who trains at the same swim club, has given Silverman pointers on his flip turns and kicking. “That was really nice of him,” Silverman said.

Leibovitz, meanwhile, discovered table tennis as a teenager. A Haifa native who moved to New York at 3, the adolescent Leibovitz often ran away from home or was kicked out by his father, Ernest, a Romanian native who fought in Israel’s Six-Day War. The sport was his salvation.

“My dad had problems with alcohol. At about 14, before I entered high school, I ended up living on the E train. I didn’t have anywhere to live,” Leibovitz related Sunday night from the Ozone Park, Queens, condominium he shares with his wife, Dawn. “I’d play table tennis in the day, and at night I would take the trains everywhere.”

One summer, Leibovitz slept on the street nearly every night – other times, at the beach in Rockaway and at two Manhattan branches of Covenant House, a national organization that assists at-risk youth.

Leibovitz had discovered table tennis at Lost Battalion Hall, a Queens parks department facility. He struggled to score any points in his games and waited hours for the chance to play again. At age 16, Leibovitz started winning. He did well at a tournament in Indianapolis and had found his passion.

For sustenance, Leibovitz visited a neighborhood soup kitchen and shoplifted from supermarkets. Over several years, he frequently stole into a steakhouse by the back door and loaded items from the salad bar into his paper bag – “basically, stealing it,” he admitted. “I was caught a few times.”

It was a long fall from Leibovitz’s days attending Hebrew school at the Ozone Park Jewish Center, close to where he grew up in Howard Beach. He missed nearly all of junior high school and high school, but passed his General Educational Development exam and attended a community college. Leibovitz dropped out because his educational gaps placed him far behind in math. Eventually, he enrolled at Queens College, earning bachelor’s degrees in sociology and philosophy and a master’s degree in urban affairs. When he returns from London, Leibovitz will continue working toward a master’s of business administration.

Leo Compton, who retired last January as executive director of the South Queens Boys and Girls Club, remembers Leibovitz being troubled by incessant bullying about his height – he now stands 5’4” – and his right arm’s being shorter than his left. Leibovitz said that the teasing led to fights and to his being kicked out of school. His home life deteriorated simultaneously, with Compton often asked to mediate between the boy and his mother, Felicia Weisskohl. She died of cancer in 2007.

“I’d say, ‘You can’t ride the trains. It’s dangerous. You don’t have to love [your mother], but you have to respect her,’ ” said Compton. “My rule at the club is: You have to go to school. But with Tahl, it was different. He would’ve been lost if he didn’t have something to grow with and build his confidence. He had that with table tennis.”

At the club, Leibovitz befriended other boys passionate about the game. Leibovitz favored table tennis and billiards – never playing other sports or attending personal development sessions, Compton said.

Leibovitz played for hours. When Leibovitz had no one to compete against, Compton pushed the table against a wall so he could hit solo. Leibovitz would play from afternoon until the club closed after 10 at night.

“The ball and paddle would just click, and he could spend an hour straight without missing the ball at all,” Compton said. “Then I bought a machine for him that could hit the ball to him at angles.”

Leibovitz left at 18 to train at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s center in Colorado, returning to New York a serious player. He qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team, and taught table tennis at the South Queens club when not away at competitions.

The sport is now Leibovitz’s livelihood. He’s worked for SPiN New York, a table tennis center in Manhattan co-owned by actress Susan Sarandon, since it opened a few years ago. A substitute teacher in city schools, he also coaches promising players in the Queens neighborhood of Flushing, home to a large immigrant community from South Korea, where the sport is wildly popular.

Sponsorship deals with the Stiga table tennis equipment company and United Airlines help, and Leibovitz receives USOC stipends and health insurance.

Zeev Glikman, a coach on Israel’s Paralympic table tennis team, said he looks forward to seeing Leibovitz in London. The two have faced each other in the Paralympics. During free time at competitions, Leibovitz asks about Israeli political and diplomatic news. “He’s very nice,” said Glikman. “He’s one of the best players in the world in his category.”

Assessing his medal chances in London is a dicey proposition for Leibovitz, who earned a gold medal in singles and a bronze medal in team competition at the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, and a bronze in singles in Athens in 2004. He also competed at the Paralympics in Beijing in 2008.

“You can’t control the outcome of a match. You want to control what you can: your training and your energy level,” he said. “You can’t go into any match and say, ‘I’m going to win it.’ But you have to have the belief that you can win it.’ ”

UCLA homeless aid group headed to White House

A UCLA student group that supports the homeless is headed to the White House, one of five initiatives to win the White House’s Campus Champions of Change Challenge. The White House selected 15 finalists from hundreds of applicants, and online voters chose the top five.

“It’s really cool that the president is giving recognition to such a strong movement of student leaders on campus who are trying to make a difference,” said Rachel Sumekh, president of Swipes for the Homeless and vice president for social justice for UCLA Hillel. “All the programs that were nominated were so innovative.”

Swipes for the Homeless, founded at UCLA in 2009, garnered more than 25,000 votes, earning the group’s leaders an invitation (but not airfare) to a March 15 event at the White House as part of President Barack Obama’s Winning the Future initiative. The student groups will have the opportunity to work with mtvU, an MTV channel for U.S. college campuses, to produce a short film that will air on MTV and mtvU.

UCLA Swipes for the Homeless, the only West Coast group to place in the top five, was founded by Jewish student Bryan Pezeshki, now a senior. At the end of a quarter in 2009, he and a bunch of friends redeemed unused vouchers on their prepaid meal plan to purchase sandwiches, which they delivered to people living on the streets of Westwood, near campus.

They cashed in about 300 swipes that quarter, then decided to organize and urge other students to donate swipes off their meal cards. Unused meal vouchers don’t roll over at the end of the quarter, so in the past students would either purchase nonperishables, such as drinks and chips, or lose the money.

Last quarter, UCLA students donated 7,400 swipes at redeeming stations set up at the dorms at the end of the quarter. Now, in addition to some prepared food, UCLA Dining Services provides pallets of packaged food, which the students deliver to homeless shelters, to food banks and to people on the streets.

Some of the food also stays on campus, stocking a discreet, unstaffed food closet where any student can pick up free food. Around 50 students a day make use of the closet, said Sumekh, who is also active in keeping the food closet running.

Pezeshki, a senior in neuroscience who is applying to medical school, is now working on taking the concept national. He established Swipes for the Homeless as an independent non-profit, and 10 other universities are running the program.

Publicity from the Campus Champions of Change Challenge has also brought in more phone calls from other universities interested in the program, and from donors, Sumekh said.

Sumekh says a large number of the Swipes volunteers are also active in UCLA Hillel. Under the leadership of its director of Jewish life, Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz, UCLA Hillel has incorporated more social justice work into its activities through its Repair the World Street Team, which helps students take on leadership roles in the area of social justice.

Sumekh, a Street Team intern, participated in a spring break program that took her to on-the-ground efforts to aid the needy, and she visits schools in disadvantaged areas to talk to students about college.

Sumekh is graduating this year with a degree in history and minor in complex human systems, and plans to do a year of service next year.

The other winners in Campus Champions for Change Challenge were UMass Amherst Permaculture Initiative, which turns campus lawns into sustainable, edible gardens; The Full Circle Food Pantry at University of Arkansas, established to help students in financial crisis; The Local Loans Project at Grinnell College, a microfinance initiative to serve rural Iowa; and Moneythink at University of Chicago, where students mentor at risk-teens about financial literacy.

‘We’re here to make other people’s lives easier’

Many people avert their eyes when they walk by the homeless.

Hanne Mintz opens her hand, her heart and her home.

Four years ago, Mintz, 68, found Ryan, 20, living on a park bench near her house, and after they bonded over her bullmastiff, she took Ryan out to breakfast and offered him a bed in her home. 

“Maybe I’m an ax murderer,” Ryan said.

“Maybe I’m a child molester,” Mintz shot back.

“You have to trust yourself and take those chances,” Mintz said. “The worst thing that can happen is it doesn’t work out.”

Ryan, who had no family to fall back on, had come from New Hampshire to pursue acting. Mintz gave him a job operating audio software in the translation services company she founded 20 years ago and still runs.

Today, Ryan is doing stand-up comedy in Boston, and he’s in touch with Mintz regularly.

The fact that she took Ryan in didn’t surprise Mintz’s daughter, Marina, who says her own friends routinely still come over to hang out with Mintz, as they have since they were kids. Mintz also loves to go salmon fishing and camping and is president of a bullmastiff club. 

Her warmth emerges the moment you meet her — she is a hugger, and her eyes sparkle with interest in others.

Story continues after the jump