Homeless woman in Los Angeles

Rabbis: Support Measure H; Reject Measure S


The following Op-Ed was signed by several Los Angeles area rabbis, whose names appear below:

With the urgency of issues facing us on the national front, it is easy to overlook local politics and forget the strides made on Nov. 8, when a sizable majority of Los Angeles voters passed two measures to combat homelessness and the lack of affordable housing. They were Measure HHH, which will create permanent supportive housing, and Measure JJJ, which ensures the provision of affordable housing in many new developments.

On March 7, Angelenos will have another opportunity to assert that we celebrate diversity, commit ourselves to one another and reject tribalism and the fear of those who are different from us. As rabbis in the Jewish community, we are compelled to support Measure H and to reject Measure S.

Measure H will generate approximately $350 million annually through an additional quarter-cent sales tax. Measure H is more expansive than HHH, which was passed in November and was limited to housing construction. Measure H takes a more holistic approach, by spreading funding across a wide array of strategies that a county task force identified as essential to eradicating homelessness — strategies that range from case management services to targeted outreach and public-benefits advocacy. Measure H is likely to have a profound impact on homelessness by providing homeless people with the services and housing they need to get back on their feet. Opponents of Measure H argue that a sales tax is a regressive tax and, therefore, more harmful to lower-income people. However, it is important to remember that essential items such as groceries and prescriptions are not subject to the tax. 

Approximately 47,000 people in L.A. County are without a home on any given night, including unaccompanied minors, veterans and people with disabilities. The Torah commands us to help the strangers, the orphans and the widows among us. This country was founded on the promise of shelter for the tired, poor, huddled masses who have nowhere else to turn. Measure H lends a hand to the politically powerless, bringing them out of the wilderness and exclusion of the streets and back into the fold of our communities. Those who are homeless deserve the same opportunity to become productive members of our society that we all enjoy, with basic rights such as safety and a roof over their heads.

Likewise, we are compelled to oppose Measure S, which, according to an economic analysis by Beacon Economics prepared for the Coalition to Protect L.A. Neighborhoods and Jobs, will undermine efforts to build affordable housing, exacerbate homelessness, threaten diversity and eliminate thousands of jobs along the way.  Measure S would cost L.A. residents $70 million in fiscal revenue, $10.6 million in increased rent, $640 million in lost wages and 12,000 lost jobs per year, totaling $1.9 billion in lost economic output for every year that it is in effect. In short, Measure S would devastate our economy.   

Proponents of Measure S, a land-use reform initiative that would restrain dense development, argue that the measure reduces corruption in the city-planning process. It does not do so. They allege it preserves “neighborhood integrity” by limiting development. But what is “neighborhood integrity”? Measure S preserves economic and racial segregation, prevents construction of affordable housing and ensures low-income constituents remain stuck in overcrowded, substandard housing they cannot afford. Access to neighborhoods with green parks, good schools and decent housing should not be limited to the affluent. L.A.’s economy would collapse were it not for the tireless labor of low-wage workers. For all they give to our city, this population deserves better.

Additionally, population has soared over the past two decades, and much of L.A.’s housing is old and crumbling. The city’s zoning code has, in large part, not been updated since its adoption in the 1940s, making many new buildings unfeasible. While many of the city’s new developments are indeed too expensive, 65 percent of Los Angeles voters approved Measure JJJ last November, which ensures that affordable units for low-income people are included and maintained in new developments. Measure S would thwart the will of L.A. voters by effectively killing Measure JJJ.

We believe that diversity makes our city stronger. If we truly care about the widow, the orphan and the poor, and if we truly care as much about racial and economic justice as we have been broadcasting to the world since November, then we must vote “yes” on H and “no” on S.

Rabbi Sarah Bassin

Rabbi Haim Beliak

Rabbi Sharon Brous

Rabbi Ken Chasen

Rabbi Aryeh Cohen

Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels

Rabbi Anthony Elman 

Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas

Rabbi Miriyam Glazer

Rabbi Susan Goldberg

Rabbi Jonathan Klein

Rabbi Robin Podolsky

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin

Rabbi Ahud Sela

Rabbi David Wolpe

Film producer shelters Los Angeles homeless with mobile units


A successful Hollywood producer walks out of a Beverly Hills deli. It’s Nate ’n Al, of course. He is noticeably bothered, as he passes several worn-down homeless people holding tattered blankets and pushing overloaded shopping carts. 

In a typical situation, this is where the story ends as the producer continues on without hesitation, gazing anywhere but at the homeless. Nothing changes.

However, Peter Samuelson’s version of the narrative, which took place in 2006, would not be marked by disgust or neglect.

“I was bothered that they invaded my space. But I was bothered far more by the fact that their presence bothered me,” he said. “And I became determined to conquer that.”

In an effort to overcome his “irrational fear” of homeless people, Samuelson, 64, a British-born Jew and Los Angeles film producer (“Revenge of the Nerds”), decided to connect. In order to understand a population in need of assistance and attention, he conducted more than 60 interviews with Los Angeles homeless individuals, learning about who they were, how they lived and what they needed.

“It was a revelation. I thought virtually all homeless people were men, but in fact almost 40 percent are women; I thought they were mostly middle-aged, yet almost 15 percent are under the age of 18,” he said, basing these numbers on his experience. “And the more I came to grips with it, I realized that these people were Americans with no lobby and no plan for action … so I wanted to help.”

During one of his interviews on the streets of Los Angeles, an elderly woman on Santa Monica Boulevard showed Samuelson where she slept: a large cardboard box with “Sub-Zero” written on the side of the box. 

“I owned the [brand of] refrigerator that made up this woman’s bed. I felt that I could do more than that. And that’s when I had the EDAR epiphany,” Samuelson said.

EDAR, or Everyone Deserves A Roof (Peter Samuelson. 

“For the homeless population, the benefit isn’t just shelter. It provides privacy, safety, mobility, a bit of self-esteem, a sense of ownership and a step closer to permanency,” Samuelson said. “And if someone feels that their space is being invaded by the presence of an EDAR, the user is able to immediately go somewhere else to settle.”

Street-legal in the city of Los Angeles, there are more than 300 prototype EDAR units currently in use. They cost about $500 each and are distributed for free to those in need. Samuelson is redesigning the unit to reduce the manufacturing price and to improve its capabilities. 

“It all depends on how much money we can raise,” Samuelson said. “I want to order a whole lot of them and continue to give them to homeless people. We can put them on the market, too, for urban camping or for organizations like FEMA, to further fund our mission of providing roofs for people living on the streets.”

Samuelson’s crusade comes as the area faces a homelessness crisis: The Los Angeles Homeless Count earlier this year determined that there are nearly 50,000 homeless in Los Angeles County on any given night. Mayor Eric Garcetti has pledged to spend at least $100 million annually to fight the problem.

Samuelson said his organization faces some pushback, stemming mainly from the stigmatization of those forced to live on the streets. He has been told that the mission of EDAR “encourages homelessness,” though he disagrees.

“Many people believe that there are no homeless people except those who want to be homeless, which is flat-out untrue,” he said. “I’ve slept on Skid Row on a Saturday night in an EDAR, and I can attest that the 150 people who shared that block on San Julian Street, of which about 20 percent were minors, did not want to be sleeping there.” 

He added that some “more gentrified cities” have been hesitant to welcome EDAR units to the area. 

“It’s all very NIMBY [Not In My Backyard],” he said. “What I believe is morally indefensible for anyone with a soul, whether it be homeowners or government heads, is to block other human beings from improving their status.”

However, Samuelson, a father of four and grandfather of three, is optimistic that EDAR will be given the opportunity to break through and make a greater difference, as well as provide the chance for others to be charitable — something he’s been doing for decades. He has founded and worked for various nonprofit organizations over the past 35 years, mainly working with ill children and foster kids. In 1982, he co-created the Starlight Children’s Foundation, which services more than 60 million critically and chronically ill children around the world.

Samuelson, who attends Temple Isaiah, said he was inspired to alter his life path after encountering the writings of the 12th-century rabbi Maimonides and his description of that level of the soul known as neshamah.

“Neshamah, to me, is a membership society of all of the people who exert themselves unto the world to make it a better place,” Samuelson said. “Maimonides said that when two people with neshamah meet, they feel as if they have known each other for a thousand years, and they say, ‘Hineni,’ which is Hebrew for, ‘Here I am, how can I help?’ ”

As EDAR works to raise funding to develop its product through donations, Samuelson hopes others will join the mission to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness by connecting to their inner neshamah.  

“With Maimonides, with building that community of people who feel neshamah, we abide to the universal golden rule to balance inequity when we see it in our lives and others,” Samuelson said. “So working to spread EDAR is instinctual for me. It’s not the solution to homelessness, but it is infinitely better than my damp refrigerator box on a cold night.”

Rabbi leads fight to end homelessness


There are so many numbers that count in the fight against homelessness. For the 7,500 volunteers who hit the streets during the last week of January, the focus was on getting an accurate count on the number living without homes in Los Angeles County. 

But before that, Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Rabbi Noah Farkas had another number on his mind, a much bigger one. 

It came to fruition on Oct. 27 when the five members of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on a measure to allocate $20 million for affordable housing in the county for 2016-2017. After that, it was decided contributions to the fund will grow by an additional $20 million annually until $100 million is added to it in 2020-2021. 

The decision was supported by a coalition of faith-based organizations led by Farkas. He called it a “major historic allocation for funding for affordable housing, and it’s something we helped design from the very beginning.”

Addressing homelessness is part of the purview of the board of supervisors, which oversees veterans’ affairs, mental health agencies and public social services. 

Farkas attended the October L.A. County Supervisors’ meeting along with approximately 300 members of his coalition, which is interested in ending homelessness, according to L.A. County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who drafted the legislation with Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Farkas told the Journal his coalition has been advocating for the county to address homelessness since 2014, during the race for the 3rd Los Angeles County Supervisorial District between Kuehl and then-candidate Bobby Shriver. VBS hosted a candidates’ forum, during which the congregation asked the candidates to express a commitment to tackling the homelessness issue. 

“[Kuehl] committed that, if elected, she would meet with us within 90 days of being elected to talk about the issue,” Farkas said. “Within 90 days [of taking office], we met with her in her office. … Basically, she met with us and said she wants to work with us and doesn’t believe she has enough support yet … and said, ‘You need to go back [and] bring other supervisors along.’ ” 

“I said I would do everything I could to support permanent supportive housing for people who are homeless,” Kuehl,  told the Journal.

Working with Molly Rysman, Kuehl’s housing and homelessness deputy, as well as with members of the coalition, Farkas garnered the support of Ridley-Thomas and fellow supervisor Hilda Solis. 

“Rabbi Farkas is an extraordinary community organizer,” Kuehl said. “He is a great partner to us, and to my office and my staff and many of my constituents, for his push for social justice reform in the county. Affordable housing was just one of a number social justice issues that VBS is pushing for.”

Farkas said the activity of his Conservative congregation in Encino reflects a growing trend of synagogues becoming involved in not just Jewish issues but also in those that affect the lives of people all across Los Angeles, pointing to congregations such as IKAR, which has addressed issues such as gun violence.

“The Jewish community helped get the ball rolling [on homelessness], and it shows how synagogues can be part of the larger narrative of the city,” he said. 

Ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2008, the 36-year-old rabbi said he became passionate about reducing homelessness in 2013 after a personal encounter with a homeless military veteran, Jack, who he met with during his Saturday morning walks to synagogue. Farkas wrote about his experiences with Jack in an op-ed that was published that year in the Journal. That same year, he delivered a High Holy Days sermon titled “Home,” during which he explained how his work serving as a chaplain to members of the United States Navy while in rabbinical school informed his compassion for veterans, who make up a sizable chunk of the homeless. 

He continues to be involved in the fight. Under his leadership, VBS has formed the Homelessness Task Force Advocacy Team to develop lay leaders as advocates. VBS also was one of 150 venues that hosted volunteers in a countywide effort to count the number of homeless people as part of an initiative spearheaded by the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority, to which Farkas was appointed a commissioner by Kuehl. 

Farkas is also involved with training other rabbis and rabbinical students to become social justice leaders and community organizers, and to excite their respective congregations about taking on homelessness and other challenges. He does this through the Boston-based organization JOIN for Justice, which stands for Jewish Organizing Institute and Network, where he is a board member. Among those participating in the JOIN Rabbinic Fellowship, a yearlong fellowship training clergy in community-organizing principles, is Pico Shul Orthodox Rabbi Yonah Bookstein.

“The person who first told me about this is Farkas,” Bookstein said. “He’s been involved with this for a couple of years. … [He is] learning community-organizing techniques, philosophies [and] implementing stuff I’ve learned [such as] how to get Pico Shul more involved in creating communities.”

Farkas’ fight is far from over. He said the recent legislation represents a high point — not an end point — of his mission to eradicate homelessness.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a culmination. It’s a highlight. It’s an ongoing process,” he said, “and it is part of who I am.” 

Channeling the spirit of Heschel to combat homelessness


If you go to synagogue around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, you will hear about Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

It was Heschel who walked with King across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to demonstrate his solidarity with the civil rights movement. It was Heschel who said, “When I marched in Selma, my feet were praying.”

If there were awards given for the most overused phrases at Jewish banquets, the top three would have to be 1. “tikkun olam”; 2. “If you’ve saved one, life you’ve saved the world”; and 3. Heschel’s “praying feet.” I suspect fundraisers have gotten more mileage out of those feet than Heschel ever did.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. A culture could turn worse things into cliches than the imperative to repair the world, or save a life, or stand for justice. But I wonder whether we’re running the grave risk of turning Heschel into an American-Jewish idol, someone who we put so high up on a pedestal we don’t even bother to try to emulate him. Instead, we become self-satisfied, as if the miles Heschel walked with King count on our own Fitbits. They don’t. In congratulating ourselves on our past, we neglect the work that must be done in the present. 

I am thinking not in terms of civil rights, but of the cause that engaged King in the last two years of his life: inequality.

This country has made great strides in civil rights since Selma, and while such progress isn’t inevitable, it has been steady. Meanwhile, America has grown more unequal. In his final speeches and last days before he was murdered in 1968, King pointed precisely to income inequality as an issue even more intractable than race. 

“The emergency we now face is economic, and it is a desperate and worsening situation,” King wrote in “The Trumpet of Conscience,” a collection of his speeches published in 1968.

“For the 35 million poor people in America … there is a kind of strangulation in the air. In our society it is murder, psychologically, to deprive a man of a job or an income. … Now, millions of people are being strangled in that way. … And it is getting worse, as the gap between the poor and the ‘affluent society’ increases.”

Thirty-five million, Rev. King? Today it is 50 million.

I know there are Jewish organizations, including local groups such as Jewish Family Service of L.A. and Jewish Vocational Services, to national groups such as Bend the Arc and Mazon, that work daily to alleviate the symptoms of inequality or address the issue at a policy level, such as fighting to increase the minimum wage or preserve funding for food stamps.

I am not saying we aren’t doing anything. Synagogues such as Valley Beth Shalom, B’nai David-Judea and Leo Baeck Temple work hard on this issue. I’m saying we can do much, much more.

Think about it: We American Jews have a degree of wealth and freedom unprecedented in Jewish history. We have the means to make big social changes and the power to implement them. Our actions don’t even come close to our potential.

Take Los Angeles. The most obvious symptom of inequality here is homelessness. It has increased 12 percent in just the last two years. The number of “homeless homes” — tents, makeshift encampments and vehicles — has gone up 85 percent, to 9,535, according to biennial figures from the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. L.A. leads the nation in homelessness.

This week, one of those homeless, Barbara Brown, died rain-soaked and wrapped in a wet blanket on a piece of plastic on Skid Row. She was 60. The cause of death was exposure. Brown was so far gone that she refused to care. But most homeless people, like the one my colleague David Suissa visited (see page 8), just need solid help through a hard time.

The Jewish community bears no special blame in creating the homeless problem, but it does have a special responsibility to address it. Why? Because that’s why we exist. We aren’t Jews just to maintain Jewish life. We aren’t Jews just to celebrate Passover. We aren’t Jews just to defend Israel, or to throw cool parties so we can meet other Jews. We are Jews in order to stop a 60-year-old woman from dying because it rains.

So it’s time to think big. This week, a report from the city administrative officer said it will cost $1.85 billion over the next 10 years to end homelessness in Los Angeles. We can help marshal and unlock those resources. As Jared Sichel points out in our cover story, 23 people on the L.A. Business Journal’s list of the 50 wealthiest  Angelenos are Jewish, with a combined worth of $65 billion. Never let anyone tell you our problem is a lack of resources. I’m talking about focusing our considerable resources, influence and energies on one big thing — homelessness — and fixing it. 

You want to inspire the next generation of Jews? You want to combat anti-Semitism? You want to attract the unaffiliated? Demonstrate what the power of ethics, faith and community can do.

What Heschel did with King was inspirational. What we can do, here and now, could be transformational.

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

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 www.homeforgoodla.org.

The seminar of a lifetime


As we stepped off the bus into McPherson Park in the middle of Washington, D.C., many emotions flooded through our minds. We were scared, we were nervous, but mostly, we were excited. McPherson Park was only a couple of blocks away from the White House. There was much irony in this situation. The park is often filled with many homeless people, and the fact that the White House is down the street shows the class gap that unfortunately exists in our nation.

Our mission that day was to bring the homeless some toiletries and food. Since we had leftovers from lunch, this was a perfect way to put that food to good use. Our only instructions were to approach the homeless in groups of no less than three, and no more than five, and, most importantly, we weren’t there just to give them the items, but to strike up a conversation.

In March, along with 18 other Milken Community High School 10th grade students and three faculty members, as well as teens from schools across the country, we participated in the Panim-el-Panim (Face-to-Face) program. Panim-el-Panim is a program of Panim: The Jewish Institute for Leadership and Values, a Washington, D.C., organization that helps teens experience political activism and civic engagement in the context of Jewish values and principles.

From the moment we stepped off the plane at Dulles Airport, we knew that this trip would not be another eighth grade sightseeing tour. We were there to make a difference, and we were ready for an adventure. Neither of us had ever been involved in any sort of political advocacy program, yet we were both very passionate about different issues presently happening in the world that needed attention.

The Panim-el-Panim program introduced us to a number of different ways to voice our opinions and raise important issues. We became more educated about the political system, seeing firsthand how laws are enacted and how issues are presented to our elected officials. Who knew that 20 teenagers from Los Angeles could help make a difference in the world?

When we first arrived at the program, our director emphasized that we are not the leaders of tomorrow but the leaders of today. Even though we were only high-school students, these simple words gave us the motivation we needed to start brainstorming our ideas into concrete proposals that we would soon be able to deliver to our area Rep. Henry Waxman [D-Los Angeles].

The whole program was geared toward the congressional meetings that we were to participate in on the last day of our four-day trip. The overall topic for the program was civil liberty. We first spent hours gaining knowledge through seminars about this subject so that we could incorporate our learning into arguments that we would present to Rep. Waxman.

Milken was joined by about seven other Jewish groups from around the country, making our trip a social event, as well as a political and educational one. We were able to interact with other Jewish teenagers, some of who shared many common ideas, but some of who had very different opinions, which only enhanced our learning experience.

Every day, multiple speakers taught us the importance of civil liberties and discussed with us the many injustices occurring around the globe. The reality of injustice was brought home to us in the “street Torah” program. That afternoon in McPherson Park, we connected by sharing stories and our sandwiches. The life stories that the homeless told us were extremely moving, and the joy that they received from one turkey sandwich and a toothbrush was immeasurable.

The night before our “street Torah,” we met with two members of an organization that helps get homeless people back on their feet again. This experience with the homeless, as well as other social justice issues, culminated with our lobbying activities with Waxman and Michael Hermann, his staff assistant. They both were very pleased to hear the opinions of our group and were impressed that at our young ages we were well aware of the global issues. They both mentioned that they would certainly take into account the issues we addressed.

The group chose issues such as the rocket attacks in Sderot, Israel, homelessness and bringing peacekeeping troops to Darfur. The terrible suffering and, indeed, the genocide in Darfur is an issue we were very familiar with, having studied it in school and raised money long before we traveled to Washington. On our program, we lobbied for United Nations peacekeeping troops that would hopefully be able to contain the violence and bring about peace in Darfur and the surrounding areas.

Before this trip to Washington, we were never very interested in politics, primarily because we thought that we would not be able to voice our opinions. The Panim-el-Panim program taught us that it is important to keep our elected representatives aware of what issues are important to teenagers, the next generation of voters. We now know that we can make a difference.

Chelsea and Hayley Golub are in the 10th grade at Milken Community High School.

Speak Up!
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the June issue is May 15; deadline for the July issue is June 15. Send submissions to julief@jewishjournal.com.

The downside of upscale growth


I’ve been following the Los Angeles housing story for a few months because of its special relevance to the Jewish community.

It has been a story of skirmishes, of threatened apartment houses, of new high rises and old buildings converted into expensive lofts and even of profound ethical questions that confronted two of our most prominent synagogues, Wilshire Boulevard Temple and Temple Israel of Hollywood.

Both bought apartment houses — perfect examples of middle class rental housing — to be torn down to make way for expansion plans provoking long and anguished discussions at the temples.

The skirmishes are part of a much bigger question: What kind of Los Angeles do we want? Is there still room for apartments and homes for garment workers, gardeners, waiters, cooks, bus drivers, teachers, health care providers and social workers, for the millions of people who are not rich? Can they find places to live in a Hollywood suddenly restored as a playground and living space for the affluent? Will there be room for them in the new downtown aimed at fulfilling the builders’ dreams of a high-rise city extending to USC?

And what about the middle- and working-class Jews living in apartments in the West Valley, Pico Robertson, Venice, Fairfax, Silver Lake and other places? Will they be forced to move when their homes are wiped out along with their unique communities? Will the classic L.A. two-story duplexes and quadplexes south of Wilshire Boulevard give way to expensive condos, some of them ugly?

As I pursued the story, Larry Gross, an advocate for affordable housing in his job as head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, told me of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple situation. It seemed like a natural clear-cut story with a rich villain, the temple, tearing down an apartment house, and the downtrodden tenants as victims. But, as is often the case, when I dug into the matter I found it was much more complicated. The temple board discussions are an example of debates going on throughout L.A., with the added angle that colors all our fights:

What is our ethical obligation as Jews?

I called Howard Kaplan, the temple’s executive director, a native Angeleno from East Los Angeles. He had been dealing with the controversy for months, talking to the renters, even sending over his maintenance crew to help one of the tenants, an older woman, pack and move boxes.

“We bought it about a year ago,” he said. “Our intention was to build a nursery school there.”

He said the temple was concerned about the tenants from the start.

“The temple did everything possible in a difficult situation, including financial assistance. It was not something that was done lightly. It was thought through and done as best as we could,” Kaplan said.

He said the nursery school, with room for about 180 children, would be a key part of a restoration and redevelopment of the site on Wilshire Boulevard and Hobart Avenue. I had long wondered about the fate of that magnificent old sanctuary in Mid-Wilshire. The area had been in decline for years. But I learned that it is coming back, and young Jewish families are among those moving into residential areas around the temple, including Hollywood, Silver Lake, Glendale and elsewhere.

“We did demographic studies,” Kaplan said. “We found that Jews are moving to east of La Cienega, into Hollywood, Los Feliz, that whole area. People can’t afford the Westside.”

Providing these Jews with a vibrant place to participate in Jewish life, including convenient, up-to-date Jewish schools and worship facilities, is crucial in keeping our migrating population engaged in the Jewish community. People, particularly the young, are reluctant to drive long distances for religious participation, and congregations have found that they are most successful in keeping families involved if they engage them when the kids are starting school.

Understandably, the purchase of the apartment house and the evictions that followed — to make way for tearing it down — upset some of the tenants.

I have a copy of a letter sent to Kaplan by three of the renters. It said, in part, “While the temple promulgates its commitment to helping the most disadvantaged in our society and sets a fine example on the surface with innumerable and most generous contributions to the community, in the shadows, un-divulged to even its members at large, the temple forces those in the lowest of the economic classes out of their homes and into a housing market increasingly diminished of affordable low income housing to compete with only what the law demands they receive plus a mere pittance to soften what will most indubitably be a devastating economic blow.”

I was told that one of the tenants was paying $716 a month in the building bought by the temple for an apartment with a small, separate kitchen. The tenant moved to a smaller apartment with a counter, a sink and a small built-in refrigerator at a rent of $725 a month, found after two months of looking.

Kaplan said the temple “let them [the tenants] know by letter that we were going to do this, we followed the city process. We met with city officials … we provided way more in financial assistance than required. Neither side would say how much financial assistance the temple gave because of a confidentiality agreement.

The city requires owners of apartments who tear them down to pay relocation fees. Tenants who have lived in a rental unit for less than three years are entitled to $6,180 from the new building owner. Those who have been residents for more than three years receive $9,040.

In addition, the city law created a class of tenants called “qualified.” These are those who are seniors, disabled, families with minor children under 18 and residents who may have lived in a building for less than three years but whose family income is 80 percent of or below the Los Angeles area median income of $56,000. Qualified tenants have a year to move after they have received their eviction notice.

A qualified tenant who has lived in a unit for less than three years receives $14,850. Such a tenant who has been a resident for more than three years gets $17,080.

Shelter shock uncovers strong personal foundation


Brian had just finished lunch when he popped the question: “Do we get dinner too?” He was almost holding his breath. I smiled, nodded and watched his eyes widen in elated disbelief. Lunch and dinner! I felt both shocked and sheltered by his question.

I had never met anyone who couldn’t afford food before.

It was my first lunch at Camp Harmony, a free, five-day camp that has opened its doors every year for the past 19 summers to approximately 250 poor and homeless kids who are referred by case workers and employees from homeless shelters. Sponsored by the independent nonprofit United in Harmony (julief@jewishjournal.com.

Be careful what you ask for


“The Secret” is on everybody’s lips. Oprah, Ellen, Larry. Who am I, then, to say it’s drivel? *

So I put the Law of Attraction to a test. Actually, I did this unknowingly, years ago, well before The Secret was a ka-ching in Rhonda Byrne’s metaphysical cash register.

I volunteered for Big Sunday, an annual citywide day in May of community service, a chance to put tikkun olam into practice. Big Sunday makes you feel good, earns you a colorful T-shirt, and is an excellent way to meet men.

Sure, working at battered women’s shelters or knitting booties for preemies might sound appealing, but … well … as long as I was volunteering … why not do something more male-friendly?

My proclamation to the Universe: I will meet single, hetero men. I found a downright macho project, helping to clean a stretch of the L.A. River. Surely the universe was listening.

And the Law of Attraction worked! The Universe did provide. Men, that is. Dozens and dozens of men. Little men. Cub Scouts. Adorable, hard-working, young. Not one of these Cub Scouts (nor their very married troop-leader fathers, wedding rings glinting in the sun) was my beshert.

My Stated Desire was simply not specific enough. When you send a thought into the universe, be precise. I’d give the universe another chance.

“I will meet an age-appropriate single hetero man of wit and intelligence,” I declared.

And this year the universe provided! Rick appeared. Good looking. My age exactly. Lean, muscular, a terrific smile. Articulate. Definitely hetero. And covered with prison tattoos, homeless, a junkie on parole for murder.

Is “living by your wits” the same thing as “witty”?

My Big Sunday assignment: interview a homeless person and write a biography; what did I expect? Organizer Katherine Butts Warwick offered a chance to “put a human face on homelessness.” She told us that, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly one-third of homeless adults have served in the Armed Forces. On any given day, as many as 200,000 veterans (male and female) live on the streets or in shelters, and perhaps twice as many experience homelessness at some point during the course of a year. There are now more homeless Vietnam veterans than Vietnam dead. I was shocked.

Rick wasn’t a vet — in fact, though he had desperately wanted to serve in the Armed Forces, his record of violence, gangs and prison prevented him from ever being accepted as a soldier. Rick spent 19 of his 50 years in prison. He now dreams of getting his GED, entering detox, having a permanent roof over his head and landing an office job (he learned to type in prison).

But Rick is upset at the lack of support he’s gotten after so many years behind bars.

“When you get out on parole, they don’t help you at all. They throw you out on Skid Row. What society fails to understand,” he says, “is that the system gives us a two- or three-year sentence, maybe 10, but, sooner or later, we’re going to come back. They think, OK, he’s put away, we’re safe,’ but they’re forgetting that the same person is going to come out again — without receiving any kind of social help, any kind of psychiatric help. It’s dangerous.”

Dangerous for Rick. Dangerous for society. Eye-opening for me.

I was looking for a date, a relationship. Instead, Rick made me grateful for the roof over my head and the support system of friends and family that I have in my life. Next year, I’ll be more specific still with the universe. In the meantime, I’ve learned that spending time volunteering fills up a spare evening and makes me feel better about myself than playing the dating game, L.A.-style. And tikkun olam trumps “The Secret” any day of the week.


Diane Saltzberg lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at dlsaltzberg@gmail.com


* Editor's note: If "The Secret" isn't drivel, we sure got it wrong in this cover story by Amy Klein!

Should charity for the homeless begin at home?


Among Jews and Christians, there is much confusion about the Bible’s preferred course for addressing the needs of poor Americans, the dominant assumption being that support for the impoverished is a public responsibility.

Recently, the issue came up in the Seattle suburb where I live. Our local weekly newspaper reported that a tent city for the homeless was to be set up in a church parking lot. In the article, a representative of the city government explained preemptively that the church had every right to do this and so, like it or not, the rest of us had no grounds for complaint.

Apart from the legal question, an implicit moral challenge was being issued: Anyone who did grumble couldn’t be a very good Christian, or Jew.

In a subsequent issue of the paper, a letter to the editor appeared making a wonderfully biblical point. I was proud that this lone voice of protest belonged to a Jewish woman. Given the modern Jewish weakness for socialism, I was also surprised.

Would it not be better, she asked, if instead of setting up the tent city, members of the church invited individual homeless people to live with them? That would be so much more personal and loving. It would also provide these needy individuals with role models: functional, successful families, a setting they may never have experienced, perhaps accounting for the dysfunction in their own lives that resulted in their being homeless. Graciously, the writer did not mention that this would not impose an unwanted cost on the rest of us who do not belong to the church and who may feel very ill at ease having an encampment of transients as neighbors.

This personal approach is exactly what the Bible commends to us. I can find nowhere in Scripture where the nation or the city is directed to compel generosity to the impoverished. Nor is a city like ours commanded to assume the responsibility (and dangers) created by someone else’s generosity.

While society in general is indeed obliged, it is understood that the society is composed of individuals, bearing individual moral responsibility.

The book of Leviticus turns this ethos of charity into legislation: “If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him — proselyte or resident — so that he can live with you” (25:35). Live with you, it says — not in a tent city, nor in shelters funded by money taken by the government from other people.

The prophet Isaiah was echoing the Pentateuch when he told the Jews living in his time, “Surely you should break your bread for the hungry, and bring the moaning poor [to your] home; when you see a naked person, clothe him and do not hide from your kin” (58:7). The emphasis on a personal relationship with the poor is unmistakable, not a pole’s-length interaction as in the model of charity through taxation — or of inviting the poor to camp out in a parking lot adjacent to other people’s homes.

I anticipate a couple of objections. The first might reasonably be raised from Jewish tradition, based on a different verse in Isaiah (32:17). A conventional translation reads, “The product of righteousness shall be peace; and the effect of righteousness, quiet and security forever.” That sounds like a nice, if somewhat vague, sentiment.

At first glance, the meaning of the verse in Hebrew is quite ambiguous. Having considered a grammatical fine point, however, the Talmud (Baba Batra 9a) interprets Isaiah as offering a comparison between an individual who causes others to give charity and another individual who gives charity on his own without being compelled.

The verse is understood to mean, “The reward of he who causes [others to do] righteousness is peace, and the reward of he who does righteousness is quiet and security, forever.” Since the Talmud assumes that peace is the greater reward, the Bible is seen as indicating the superior merit of causing charity to be given over simply giving it yourself.

With this in mind, Jewish communities from ancient times would appoint a communal officer in every locality where Jews lived to collect charity from community members, compelling them to give, if necessary, according to their means. Rabbinic law deemed the merit of this individual to exceed that of the Jews from whom he collected.

Isn’t that a pretty good indication that the Bible favors using the power of the government to coerce the citizenry to be charitable over relying on private generosity? Actually, not at all.

For the model of the communal charity collector is a communal, not a city, state, or national one. Specifically, it applies to a religious community, from which at any time you can disassociate yourself. Membership in such an association is voluntary, a free-will act.

All Isaiah is saying is that the person who undertakes the difficult role of pressuring his fellow community members to give money to support the poor deserves an even bigger pat on the back than the householder who writes out his check and voluntarily hands it over.

This Hebrew prophetic approach to poverty is, you might say, the diametric opposite of socialism. In the latter, the burden of your generosity is imposed on other people, with government acting as the enforcer.

The members of my neighborhood church, while being a voluntary community themselves, force the burden of their generosity on me. The city guarantees their right to do so. Church members may live a half hour away, but we who live right here have to deal with having a homeless encampment next door.

A second objection would cast doubt on the sincerity of the Jewish letter-writer who advocated, as a solution to homelessness, not parking-lot camping but home hospitality. Is the solution a remotely serious one?

For some homeless, no. For others, yes. Who are the homeless, exactly? It depends on what part of the country you’re talking about.

Mayor implores people of faith to fight homelessness


“Local communities have to provide services and supportive housing. We can’t be a city that grows in one part and leaves people destitute in another,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa told a crowd of more than 300 at Leo Baeck Temple on Sunday.

Teachings from the Torah, as well as triumphs on the football field, set the tone for a conference on homelessness, which also included County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky; Ed Edelman, retired county supervisor and special representative for homeless initiatives for the City of Santa Monica; L.A. City Council Member Bill Rosendahl; and a panel of agency leaders, ready to enlist the conference participants in a wide range of activities.

“Homelessness is curable and we must cure it,” Leo Baeck Senior Rabbi Kenneth Chasen said in his welcoming remarks. “Jews know too well the experience of being strangers and outsiders. We have lived in countless places where there were no homes for us.”

More than 90,000 homeless people live in Los Angeles County, about 15,000 of them in downtown’s skid row.

“Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being America’s homeless capital,” the mayor said, adding that the city is also home to 262,500 millionaires.

The mayor emphasized that homelessness is pervasive throughout the county.

“We have 15 council districts and 87 neighborhood councils, and at the end of the day we have to articulate a common vision…. Every neighborhood has the responsibility to bear the challenge of homelessness,” Villaraigosa said, citing studies showing that contrary to residents’ fears, property values do not fall, nor does crime increase when supportive housing is provided for the previously homeless.

Rosendahl cited a recent survey that had found scores of homeless people in West Los Angeles as well as Venice. Yaroslavky, emphasized that religious communities, which share a vision and passion for social justice can play a key role.

“The county has allocated $100 million for homelessness,” he said. “At one point that was as unlikely as UCLA beating USC in football. For the first time in my career, the political landscape is right for tackling this issue.”

A panel of directors of programs that provide services for the homeless provided the audience with specific programs that could use their services.

Adlai Wertman, the CEO of Chrysalis, which finds jobs for as many as 2,000 homeless people each year, left a career on Wall Street to work with the homeless.

“Why?” he asks. “First and foremost because I’m a Jew. I’m a wannabe rabbi. I spend four or five hours a week studying Torah; it was hard for me to read about the duty of taking care of the poor and the hungry without taking action.”

The New Direction Choir, composed of previously homeless veterans who’ve worked with the New Directions orgainzaton, had earlier provided concrete evidence through song and testimonies to the successes of their programs.

“I am a member of this congregation,” said Toni Reinis, executive director of the New Directions. “So I have to cite something. Our tradition teaches us that the recognition of injustice is not sufficient. Awareness must be followed by action. Real tzedakah is only committed through our acts of righteousness.”

Reinis urged members of the audience to stop by the Veteran’s Village Diner on the grounds of the Veteran’s Administration in West Los Angeles, which serves breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday.

Joel Roberts, the CEO of PATH, People Assisting the Homeless, introduced Mary Erickson of Imagine LA, a group whose goal is to help every faith-based community in Los Angeles to “adopt” one of the city’s 8,000 homeless families for a two year period.

The conference was spearheaded by Ralph Fertig, a professor at the USC School of Social Work. Fertig, who has long been active in the struggle for human and civil rights, joined Leo Baeck two years ago because of its tradition of social justice programming. The ex-Freedom Rider and civil rights lawyer approached the temple’s rabbis in the hope of engaging the congregation in issues of homelessness.

“We decided a conference would be the perfect opportunity to get our members’ sleeves rolled up,” said Rabbi Leah Lewis, who was also a key organizer.

“We though this could be a launching pad for more involvement.”

After the presentations, Edelman and Fertig urged everyone to sign up as volunteers. Their exhortations were echoed by Lewis in her concluding remarks.

“The Chanukah season is our time to re-dedicate ourselves to stand up for what is right,” she said. “The Macabees were not deterred by the enormity of their task. Like the Macabees, we move forward one step at a time. For us at Leo Baeck, partnering with all these agencies is our congregational first step.”

“There is no community or city or region in the country that has dealt successfully with homelessness without the full participation from religious communities of all faiths standing up for community responsibility,” said Torie Osborn, Villaraigosa’s senior adviser on homelessness.

“I’m especially delighted about the religious community coming together with the city and county,” Chasen said as the congregants moved to an adjoining room where tables were covered with snacks, literature and sign-up sheets.

“The remarkable thing is that both Mayor Villaraigosa and Supervisor Yaroslavsky came,” he said. “The city and the county have not always worked together on homelessness. It’s a great sign of successes to come.”

Yes on Measure H: a measure of humanity


Has anyone else noticed that the only difference between your local Starbucks and your local homeless shelter is the shelter has a faster turnover?

Every Starbucks I visit these days, from Koreatown to Santa Monica, has its own homeless population. Calling these men and women transients is actually wishful thinking. They come for the coffee and stay for the restroom and heating.

I don’t blame them, or Starbucks; I blame us. In a city of enormous wealth, we’ve allowed enormous numbers of poor and disabled men, women and children to fend for themselves. With 40,000 people asleep on the streets or in cars each night, Los Angeles has the largest homeless population of any city in the country.

At the same time, the homeless have become about as hip a cause as Sacheen Littlefeather. Sure your bar or bat mitzvah kid may throw a few dollars their way for a social action project, but obviously that’s a few billion short.

According to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) survey, there are 88,000 homeless residents in L.A. County on any given day, and only 17,000 available beds.

Our government officials, prompted in no small part by a series of excellent stories by Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, have sought to crack down on downtown’s Skid Row. But I was there last week, and it’s hard to see that the actual denizens got the message. The LAHSA survey found that there are 5,700 shelter beds for the row’s 20,000 “residents.” You can take people off the sidewalks, but where are you going to put them?

So now comes Measure H on the Nov. 7 ballot, which seeks to alleviate the symptoms of homelessness and address some of the root causes.

What’s interesting about Measure H is that it offers no single simple solution. About half the people on skid row are the chronic homeless — people who have mental or other disabilities, or addictions. But the others, according to LAHSA Commissioner Douglas Mirrell, are people who have fallen on hard times and simply can’t find their way into affordable housing in Los Angeles’ tight and pricey market. Mirrell said he still can’t forget visiting one shelter downtown and seeing people lining up for beds “wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They were working minimum-wage jobs as clerks and secretaries.” Any humane approach seeks to add more beds and services on Skid Row while enabling the working poor to get a foothold in Los Angeles’ skyrocketing housing market.

Measure H would enable the city to issue $1 billion in bonds to provide about 10,000 new homes and rental units over 10 years. These funds would be placed in the Affordable Housing Trust Fund and divvied so that $250 million would help working families buy their first home, $350 million would help build rental housing affordable to low-income working families, $250 million would build housing for homeless people, and $150 million would to be allocated for rental or homeless housing based on future needs.

The city administrative analyst reported that Measure H would cost the owner of a home with an assessed value of $500,000 another $73 a year for 30 years. The measure’s supporters include Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief Bill Bratton, the Rev. Gregory Boyle and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, as well as for-profit and nonprofit builders and developers who would, of course, get some of those home- and apartment-building funds. (Developers provided most of the money for the measure’s recent television ad campaign.)

The organized opposition is a smaller group that includes Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association. They’ve raised concerns that another bureaucracy may not act efficiently to get the monies where they’re needed. Opponents also claim that there are existing programs to help homebuyers and that Measure H is a payday for developers and builders.

Well, sure, but Jimmy Carter can’t do everything. Yes, somebody will make some profit in the course of providing more places for people to live. But in a city where even a postwar fixer-upper near Balboa Park will set you back $1 million, government has to play a role. Nearly 90 percent of those who live in Los Angeles can’t afford to buy a home here.

“We built affordable housing downtown, near the Harbor Freeway and Wilshire,” said Thomas Safran, a large manager and developer of affordable housing. “We had 2,700 applications for 73 places. The market never has solved this problem, never will.”

Safran, a Measure H supporter, has worked all sides of the housing market — starting his career in the Johnson administration at HUD, founding his own successful company, and volunteering for Menorah Housing, which builds low-income units around the city. He points out that people who decry taxpayer subsidies receive one every time they write off their mortgage interest. Measure H asks people to give back a little of the money they save on mortgage interest.

“Look,” he said, “I’m no great fan of super liberal Democratic policies, but the government and private sectors need to work together on this. It may not solve the problem completely, but the first step is the first step.”Or, I suppose, we can always hope they build more Starbucks.

And don’t forget to vote Nov. 7.

Home Repair


In a narrow Jerusalem alley a few blocks away from the souvenir shops of Ben Yehuda Street, a former drug addict who wants tobe called Shimon is telling me the story of his horrific childhood.

Born into a large Chasidic family in Eilat, Shimon and his 11 siblings were repeatedly raped by their father. The father was eventually arrested and sent to prison, where he is serving a 10-year term.

At 12, Shimon turned to the streets — and drugs. He sniffed glue, drank, smoked. He tried to commit suicide twice. After two years, a friend pushed him toward a program called Susan’s House.

Now 17, Shimon sleeps at a psychiatric institution at night. But during the day he reports for work at Susan’s House, an on-the-job training center for Jerusalem’s most troubled teens. Shimon works under the guidance of caring adults, including some of Israel’s most acclaimed artists who create beautiful crafts for sale worldwide.

“The place really helps me,” he says of Susan’s House. “It gives me self-confidence.”

I thought of my visit to Susan’s House this week because so much of the news from Israel was of a particularly nasty sort. Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Zvi Mazel, vandalized an art installation by Israeli-born Dror Feiler, setting a sorry example for the rest of the world; Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, is set to wed in a prison ceremony (“I want a grandchild already,” his mother told Israel’s daily Ma’ariv); and outside Israel’s soccer stadiums, Jewish fans have been regularly shouting slogans such as “Death to Arabs” at Israeli Arab players and flinging rocks at them, apparently without fear of repercussion from Israeli authorities.

There is no doubt that the combined effects of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, and the collapse of the Israeli economy have contributed to a social coarsening. Homelessness, hunger, drug abuse, alcoholism and school violence are growing problems; academic scores are plummeting to what one analyst called “pathetic” levels; and the ruling Likud Party is in the midst of a scandal that parades tales of bribes, underworld thugs and payoffs across the front pages. The Israeli press is full of eulogies for a kinder, gentler nation. Two weeks ago, Education Minister Limor Livnat warned of “marginal groups with economic interests, including criminal interests, who are trying to take over the ruling party.”

And she’s a member of the ruling party.

The American Jewish dream of Israel has always been rosier than the reality. But these problems, along with the ongoing political crisis in the Middle East, threaten to enlarge a cultural gulf between Diaspora Jews and Israelis.

That’s why visiting Susan’s House, as I did last November, felt so reassuring. Eyal Kaplansky is a successful diamond merchant whose counterculture beard and clothes hide a savvy business mind. He dreamed with his wife, Susan, of memorializing a young friend by starting a home to help troubled teens. A year after planning began, Susan died of cancer, and Kaplansky continued the project in her memory. Now in business two years, the home provides a last chance for the increasing number of wayward Israeli youth in Jerusalem.

“I thought that the Jewish people don’t rape, abuse or kick their kids,” Kaplansky told me, “and I found out the Jewish people do all these things. We’re getting the toughest kids off the street.”

Susan’s House rents a series of small rooms in an old stone building. About 20 teens sit at work stations creating extraordinarily beautiful crafts of glass beads and homemade paper. Renowned papermaker Zvi Tolkovsky and glassmaker Louis Sakolovsky of the Bezalel Academy helped Susan’s House establish the training program. Kaplansky combines the artistic endeavors with lessons in business.

“These kids are scared of the grown-up world,” he says. “But we teach them if you know the game and play by the rules you can make it.”

Kaplansky knows because he was one of the kids. Rebellious and heavily involved with drugs, he turned his own life around. “I knew that if these kids could survive the streets they could accomplish a lot,” he says.

The organization has a $250,000 annual budget. There are five paid staff, 22 kids and a huge waiting list. Susan’s House doesn’t look to the government for help, because, Kaplansky says, the government is cutting budgets anyway and the red tape would suffocate the endeavor. Instead, Kaplansky tries to expand his project through individual donors and the sale of items in bulk to businesses and institutions around the world (the next time your organization needs items for charity banquets, think of buying them through Susan’s House, www.kys.org.il/susanhome.html).

It is a model Israeli-created charity, and it is not alone. Amid adversity, Israelis are taking it upon themselves to soften their society’s edges. The number of nonprofit associations has swelled to 35,000, according to a Ben-Gurion University of the Negev study, and 77 percent of all Israelis contribute to charity (compare that to 50 percent of Europeans).

“After the streets,” Shimon told me of Susan’s House, “it is a place I can come and feel like family.”

Treating one another like family — wasn’t that the ideal of the Jewish State from the start?

Big Screen, Bigger Picture


Rabbi Ari Hier doesn’t like to just watch nonfiction films, he likes to ask questions about them — usually Jewish questions.

"My motivation has always been, ‘What questions would I ask the filmmaker at my own dinner table, no holds barred?’" said Hier, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Jewish Studies Institute (JSI).

Presuming that others share in his curiosity, Hier has launched "Take Two," a free discussion series sponsored by the JSI, featuring films produced by "Point of View," which, according to the PBS Web site is "public television’s premiere showcase for independent, nonfiction films."

From films on the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge regime of Cambodia and civil war in Sudan to mental illness and homelessness in America, the series will allow viewers to take a second look from a Jewish perspective.

"We felt that we wanted to be very diverse," Hier said. "We will show a Jewish film now and then, but I believe that the world interfaces with Judaism all the time. We live in a world, not just a Jewish community."

"Take Two" began on July 20 with Joscelyn Glatzer’s "The Flute Player," a new documentary about Arn Chorn-Pond, a Cambodian musician who survived during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime by playing propaganda songs on the flute for his captors. Hier and two Cambodian guests led an audience discussion examining issues such as what Judaism says about life-and-death decisions, and whether Judaism has a monopoly on the term "Holocaust."

The discussion was heated. "Some [Cambodians] said that God went out the window," Hier said, noting that it bothered a number of the religious audience members.

But he hopes the series in general will cause people to think about things in a new light.

"My goal isn’t necessarily to move people to be involved in that particular cause," Hier said, "but to articulate and sharpen their own thinking."

The series continues on Aug. 17 with "West 47th Street," a portrait of four people struggling to recover from serious mental illness; and on Sept. 14 with "The Lost Boys of Sudan," which follows two young refugees of the Dinka tribe, who were forced to flee and resettle in the United States. To R.S.V.P., call (310) 552-4595 ext .21.