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.

PA to provide housing for released prisoners


The Palestinian Authority will provide housing for the Palestinian prisoners released in the Shalit swap.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas made the announcement Saturday during a meeting with some of the ex-prisoners at his headquarters in Ramallah, according to reports.

Some 477 prisoners were released as part of the swap. Most of the prisoners returned to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Abbas and Hamas in the Gaza Strip had announced previously that they will give each prisoner a cash reward totaling several thousand dollars each.

Hamas also announced that 300 of the freed prisoners will be taken to participate in the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, paid for by Saudi Arabia, according to The Associated Press.

Eventually more than 1,000 Palestinians will be freed by Israel in exchange for Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who had spent more than five years in captivity before he was released 2 1/2 weeks ago.

Libya will allow Jews to visit homes


Libya will allow two Italian Jewish women to visit their ancestral homes.

Al Hayat, a Saudi-owned daily based in London, reported that Libya granted permission for the visits during an official visit this week by its leader, Muammer Gaddafi, to Italy.

Gaddafi, long a pariah in the West, has in recent years traded concessions and humanitarian gestures for signs of acceptance from major industrial nations.

Most of Libya’s ancient Jewish community fled in 1967, when persecution of Jews in Arab nations intensified following Israel’s Six Day War victory.

Building Homes, Building Hope


The prophet Isaiah asks: “What is the house which you would build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). In the days following the Easter and Passover holidays, 41 Angelenos traveled to the Gulf Coast to translate their faith into action. We were rabbis and pastors, African Americans and Jewish Americans, high school seniors and senior adults, synagogue and church members from 12 Los Angeles congregations who rebuilt homes in Gulfport, Miss.

We spent our days building and rebuilding roofs — separated into teams of eager “rookie roofers” under the patient supervision of AmeriCorps volunteers. In short order we were on the rooftop tearing off old shingles and tar paper, and replacing them with new materials. The work was hard, the heat and humidity intense. Few of us had prior construction experience, and many of us had never even been on the roofs of our own homes. But we were determined to finish “our roofs” before we left Gulfport. By week’s end, our volunteers had built six new roofs valued at $30,000 for uninsured or underinsured homeowners in the region.

The individuals and families we helped shared their moving stories of struggle and survival during and after Katrina. “Bob” described his 12-hour ordeal as the hurricane battered his house, and vowed never again to ignore evacuation orders. He lost his job at a federal facility that was destroyed in the hurricane and has no other job prospects. Bob lives day by day as he contemplates an uncertain future.

“Cheryl” is a single mom who has a job but lacks the funds to fix her leaky roof. The night before our site visit, a powerful thunderstorm blew through Gulfport and water crashed through the ceiling of Cheryl’s modest home. Our crew rebuilt her roof in one day, preventing further damage to the interior of the house. However, it will take years to heal the psychological and emotional scars borne by Cheryl and her family.

Everywhere we traveled along the coast, we witnessed heartbreaking scenes of devastation. We passed gutted churches that are now mere shells of formerly majestic houses of worship; twisted and dangling signs identifying businesses that are heaps of rubble; ruins of mansions and homes that are reminiscent of a war zone; front yards adorned with trailers whose occupants worry about how they will survive the next storm.

Through Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, the people of the Gulf Coast have met with tragic circumstances. The storm robbed them of homes and livelihoods, battered their dignity and in many cases left them for dead. The people we met have lost faith in FEMA, their insurance companies, their government, and so many others who have let them down over and over again. But the Jewish and African Methodist Episcopal Church communities of Los Angeles — two diverse groups working together — had compassion on the people of Gulfport and worked together to make a difference.

By repairing roofs, we helped to bandage their stricken community. Beyond the financial contributions our groups have previously made to the relief effort, by shouldering our neighbors’ burdens, we offered something equally as important: hope. That hope was seen in the eyes of the homeowners that we served and felt through the prayers and tears they offered as thanks for our assistance.

This journey was a lesson in faith and partnership. Our partners in Mississippi included the amazing young men and women of AmeriCorps, who devote one to two years of their lives in volunteer service for their fellow Americans. Our hosts were the staff and congregants of Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has transformed itself into a 24/7 center for volunteer relief groups. One of the church elders told us that he is especially pleased to welcome Jewish groups to the church, since he is a leader in ongoing efforts to overturn the divestment resolutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

This mission was a lesson in spirit and fellowship. The region’s sole Jewish congregation and B’nai B’rith chapter warmly welcomed us to their annual Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) commemoration, held in a Methodist church while the synagogue awaits repair. As the multifaith, multiracial congregation read the names of Holocaust victims, we prayed that we honor their memories by building bonds of faith and friendship between Los Angeles and the Gulf Coast.

We also built strong and sure bonds within our L.A. delegation — between African Americans and Jewish Americans; between Jews and Christians and their congregations; among Conservative, Orthodox and Reform Jews and their synagogues. Too often it takes a crisis or disaster for people of diverse races, religions and cultures to draw closer to God and to one another. Sometimes it takes a trip away from home to remind neighbors to celebrate their differences and their shared destiny as God’s children.

We returned home with a pledge to work together to meet the needs of our community in Los Angeles, even as we remember the needs of the Gulf Coast. The lives and struggles of the people we met are daily reminders of the sacred mandate to rebuild our broken world. We will not rest until the community has healed.

On June 4, the first Sunday of the 2006 hurricane season, churches and synagogues throughout Louisiana and in all cities with major concentrations of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita evacuees will join together in remembrance of those who were lost and to raise awareness of those still missing from the storms. For more information, e-mail findfamilypio@dhh.la.gov.

The Rev. Kevin Taylor is associate minister of Grant AME Church in Los Angeles. Rabbi Mark S. Diamond is executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. The Mississippi trip was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee and the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Ministerial Association.

 

‘Monster’ Maven Tames Wild Homes


Set decorator Jarri Schwartz roars up to an interview in a black Ford Expedition emblazoned with Discovery Channel’s “Monster House” logo and magenta flames shooting over the hood. At 2 p.m., she’s already blazed her own trail across Los Angeles, where she drives 100 miles per day searching for items such as sarcophagi and surfboards to adorn the show’s latest theme homes.

On this hot Wednesday, the Jewish Schwartz is shopping for Airplane House in Simi Valley, where builders have already dropped an alarmingly large piece of a 727 in an aviation enthusiast’s yard.

“I want it to look like a cargo plane crashed and people are living in it,” the vivacious 33-year-old says. “Of course, the police called because they thought a plane was down in the city, and they fined us for parking our crane in the street.”

It was just another day in Schwartz’s life on “Monster House,” perhaps the most extreme in a fashionable new TV trend. More than 20 home-improvement shows now wallpaper the airwaves, including hits such as The Learning Channel’s “Trading Spaces” and ABC’s “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” A decade ago, PBS’s “This Old House” was among a few such programs on the small screen. But Americans love dramatic stories about people re-inventing themselves, and when the emotionally driven “Trading Spaces” premiered in 2000, copycats proliferated like tchotchkes in a curio cabinet.

“Monster House,” which dubs itself “a home show on steroids,” also capitalizes on viewers’ hunger for prickly reality TV shows. On each episode, Schwartz and five builders — all strangers to each other — have five days to transform a house into a family’s dream theme — with absolutely no peeking by homeowners. Tempers flare as the team crashes spaceships through ceilings, turns fireplaces into fire-breathing Tiki gods and bursts the Three Stooges through living room walls.

If “Monster House” is the quirkiest of the genre, Schwartz fits right in. Wearing four-inch heels, the five-foot decorator doesn’t hesitate to check out a builder’s behind on camera, or to eat a canine biscuit on the Dog House episode.

“I will flirt with a builder if I choose to,” she says with a brilliant smile. “I will tell somebody to shut up or that something they built is ugly, but without a trace of malice.”

When a Tennessee builder revealed he had never hugged a Jew, Schwartz tartly pointed to her cheek and said, “I’ll bet you’ve never kissed one, either.”

Perhaps the only time she was speechless was when a plump contractor, wearing Curly tattoos and a thong, did Stooge schtick in front of the homeowner’s Orthodox rabbi.

“I was sooo mortified,” she says. “I wanted to cover the rabbi’s eyes.”

But Schwartz generally thrives on the show’s oddball, macho milieu.

“The guys like it when she’s on set because she’s the opposite of all that amped-up testosterone,” senior producer Brian Knappmiller told The Journal. “Her style and substance bring the builds to life and she’s fun and over the top.”

Schwartz’s family background is also eccentric. She was raised by her father, a salesman, who moved his two girls into a modest Beverly Hills apartment so they could attend the superior school district. While he knew little about Judaism, he instilled cultural connections in Jarri by packing her off to Jewish day camp, albeit with a salami and mayonnaise sandwich in tow. Schwartz attended High Holiday services with her friends, where she was turned off by what she perceived as “dry, boring, modernistic” synagogue decor. (Her favorite shul is Wilshire Boulevard Temple, an opulent, 1920s structure in which “you can feel the breadth of Jewish history,” she says.)

Back home, she clashed with her hippied-out sister about their shared bedroom, which Sis wanted to plaster with “pictures of dirty people,” Schwartz says. Jarri struck back by working odd jobs to finance bedroom makeovers, including sleek laminate furniture in the 1980s.

“My dad was like, ‘You can’t keep moving stuff around,'” she recalls.

Schwartz loved to shop and decorate, yet she spent a decade running a Beverly Hills gift store until the financial havoc following Sept. 11 destroyed her business.

“When I was in that lost, bad space, I reconnected to Judaism,” she says.

She attended Shabbat dinners at the home of her ba’alei teshuva friend, Melanie; learned about the religion from Melanie’s Yavneh-educated children; wore a Star of David and lit the brass menorah Melanie’s late mother had given her, in lieu of a yarzeit candle. She discovered that her Hebrew middle name, Samara, means “guided by God,” and felt so when a set decorator asked her to assist on “Monster House” in 2003.

Schwartz’s first impression on set, however, was “Who in the hell would want this done to their home?” But before long, she fell in love with the job and was hired as the series’ full-time decorator, which requires interviewing homeowners and researching styles and periods.

“The crew builds the walls and I fill them in, so you actually feel like you’re in a voodoo jungle or Sherwood Forest,” she says of her role. “I also make things so that the homeowners can actually live in the space. They’ll have a sofa to sit on, though it might be shaped like a crocodile.”

For Mad Scientist House, the sofa was a 1920s black vinyl gurney Schwartz scored while climbing over decaying equipment in a Glendale medical supply. In a “cranium room” — where a purple ceiling was textured to look like a cerebellum — she fused real brain scans into drapes, illuminated by a light bar.

When an Encino tract home was transformed into a Prohibition-era speakeasy, Schwartz covered the peephole to the hidden bar with an Italian still-life painting. For the Stooges House, she selected vintage tools and 1930s-style damask wallpaper in which Moe appears to have entangled himself while working. (She also placed the Jewish family’s brass menorah in a Stooge memorabilia cabinet.)

A favorite project was decorating the Ultimate Clubhouse for a 9-year-old Louisiana boy with leukemia, one of the show’s few serious builds.

“I wanted to give Patrick a place to get away from his daily life and chemotherapy treatments,” Schwartz says. “On our last day, which was also my birthday, Patrick asked me to go to chemotherapy with him, and I held his hand and felt humbled.”

But for the most part, “Monster House” goes for the downright bizarre.

“We’re not doing something that’s necessarily good for people,” she says, of why the show isn’t as popular as “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” “I think homeowners do it for the attention, to be on TV and because they really feel passionate about a particular theme.”

So would Schwartz let “Monster House” redo her Spanish-style duplex, which is decorated in what she calls a “rustic-romantic” style?

“No way,” she says, without hesitation. “I love doing the show because I get to play with someone else’s house, and then walk away,” she adds, before rushing off to shop until she drops.

But no one has expressed dissatisfaction with any of the 45 homes Schwartz has decorated.

“At the end of the week, somebody is actually happy,” she says of her work.

“Monster House” airs Fridays at 8 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. New episodes begin Aug. 12.

 

Teens Build a Bridge Beyond the Past


“I was afraid there could be aggression toward us, because we are German. I’m really surprised about how friendly and open all the people are.” — Hannah Ketterer, teenage exchange student from Germany

“We didn’t see each other as the grandchildren of Nazis or as grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. We saw each other as regular kids who wanted to learn more about each other’s religious lifestyles and cultures.” — Lindsey Michel, Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills

On April 19, 12 German teenagers left Heidelberg, flew west for about 6,000 miles, disembarked at LAX, and entered the lives and homes of 12 Jewish American teenagers. None of the 24 teens knew quite what to expect.

During their two-week stay in homes of Kol Tikvah congregants, the German students visited local high schools, attended Shabbat services, took part in a Yom HaShoah program, tried a range of new foods and looked everywhere for Tom Cruise.

The German-Jewish exchange program at the Reform congregation is apparently the first of its kind on the West Coast. Originally created by Stefan Schluter, Germany’s deputy consul general in New York City, the idea for the exchange was born after 45 members of the American Board of Rabbis visited Berlin in 2001.

“They asked me to organize their annual meeting,” Schluter said, “which I did. One thing they were interested in was the growth and experiences of the Jewish community in Germany.”

While the rabbis were in Berlin, Schluter divided them into 10 groups of four to five rabbis each and they went to local schools to talk to German students.

“When we had their final meeting before flying back to the States,” Schluter recalled, “nearly all said that meeting the German students was the most impressive part of the program.”

Schluter then asked the rabbis if they would like to have such students visit their congregations, as part of a student exchange. The rabbis immediately agreed.

The exchange program was tried successfully in New York City in 2002 and 2003, and then Schluter asked Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs if he would like to have the exchange program at Kol Tikvah this year. Jacobs was thrilled.

Kol Tikvah’s religious school director, Karen Waldman, had the task of coordinating the program, which included selecting students and families and inviting them to host a German student. Waldman was shocked and saddened when one parent refused, saying she didn’t “want a Nazi in our home.”

The rest of the families accepted with great enthusiasm.

When Schluter came to Kol Tikvah in April to meet with Waldman and the 12 families, he offered insights into German life.

“Germany today has 80 million people,” Schluter said. “Of those, approximately 130,000 are Jewish, mostly Russian Jews who have come to Germany for a better life.”

According to Schluter, most of these Jews don’t speak German, and they lead a rather isolated existence.

In other words, most German children have never met a Jew.

Many young Germans, Schluter said, are troubled by their history, and how others in the world view them.

“Our history is so burdened, that the impressions they gain from the exchange program are life changing,” he said. “These kids know their history and they think other people think they are guilty. They need to experience that they aren’t being held responsible. We are responsible that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.”

On one of their first days in Los Angeles, Waldman took the students to a Yom HaShoah program. She was extremely uncomfortable.

“When the first rabbi spoke and was saying very negative things about the Germans and the Nazis, it was like a knife twisting in my heart,” she said. “I was feeling protective of the kids. I kept asking if they wanted to leave and they said no. They were engrossed in the whole thing and they wanted to hear it all.”

On April 23, the 24 students attended Shabbat dinner and services at Kol Tikvah. There was an excitement in the air, and much teenage gabbing. It was clear that they had formed strong bonds with each other in the four days they’d been together.

“The minute we met, we felt like friends!” said Katharina Pogoda, one of the German teens. “The Jewish people we’ve met are all so warm and friendly, like a big family. And I was surprised that they have school in their temple where the children are taught so nice.”

I asked the German students what they had learned at home about the Holocaust. “When we learned in school about the Holocaust, it was just facts,” said Hannah Ketterer. “We did not have discussions about what would have been on the Jews’ minds. We’re learning that here, and we’re learning about Judaism and getting to know Jewish people.”

Ludgera Graw, the German students’ chaperone, got to attend a gathering at Kol Tikvah one evening where Jacobs and the Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, talked together about the movie, “The Passion of The Christ.” Graw said she found it very interesting and was impressed at the interfaith efforts being made.

Rabbi Jacobs said there was one rather tense moment.

“There were older survivors here that evening,” he said. “And one person was very bitter about the Germans. He talked about anti-Semitism in Germany and how he grew up there with people beating him up and he said he has no hope for the world. I then introduced Ludgera to the audience, and I said, ‘The hope is right here with these young German people who are visiting our Jewish families.”

Graw said she felt very sad hearing the survivor’s anger and pain.

“I wondered if I should go to him and speak to him,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure how he would react, since he wasn’t prepared to meet Germans.”

At the Shabbat dinner, Jacobs spoke to the exchange students.

“You have touched us in many, many ways by your humanity and by your openness,” he said. “This is a world that is often cruel. But you are the answer, in terms of the possibilities of what we can do in this world by knowing each other. This is more important than any headline in any newspaper or CNN. What will happen in these weeks and in Germany when our kids visit you will affect your whole lives. We are so, so honored that you are here. You make our lives more complete.”

On May 3, the 24 German and Jewish high school students struggled to say their goodbyes to each other.

“I am a changed person,” said Kol Tikvah’s Bradley Lennox. “I never imagined in a million years that two completely different cultures could come together and become family in a matter of two weeks.”

The Calabasas High senior looks forward to the Jewish students’ two-week visit with their new friends this summer in Heidelberg.

After the German teens went home, several of them e-mailed me.

“This exchange definitely changed my way of thinking,” Johannes Ziegelmuller wrote. “I am now confirmed in my point of view that young people are able to communicate and to be friends, although there have been terrible things in the past. Although there are borders, although there are different cultures and countries, there can be a borderless communication and dialogue. I think this exchange is a great and valuable project that helps to open peoples’ eyes, to create a world without hate, prejudices, discrimination and persecution.”

Amen.


Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian in Van
Nuys. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net
.

Congregations Rally to Aid Fire Victims


By phone, e-mail and word-of-mouth, the bad news kept piling up at Congregation Emanu El in San Bernardino.

The homes of six families had been burned to the ground in the devastating wildfires sweeping across Southern California.

Another 30-40 families had been forced to evacuate their homes, and no one knew the present whereabouts of eight other families.

Rabbi Douglas Kohn, the Reform congregation’s spiritual leader, was at the point of utter exhaustion.

“I haven’t slept more than 10 hours since Shabbat,” he said Monday evening.

“I can see the tall flames from my study,” he added. “Embers, soot and ashes are falling on the synagogue and we can’t use the air conditioning. We have evacuated our Torah scrolls and original Marc Chagall paintings; one of our members, an officer in the fire department, is on the fire-line; and our Jewish police chief is also in action.”

“Every one of our 420 families is out helping others, everyone is concerned about everyone else,” Kohn said.

Emanu El is the only synagogue in San Bernardino, some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, and it is also the oldest in California, having been in continuous operation since 1851.

San Bernardino — with some 185,000 residents — and its surroundings were hardest hit, accounting for one-third of the 1,500 homes destroyed in the region’s 10 major wildfires by Tuesday morning, but there were losses and suffering elsewhere.

Many congregants of Congregation Etz Chaim in Ramona were evacuated and the fate of their homes were unknown at press time.

To the south, in San Diego County, the 20 classroom trailers of the Chabad Hebrew Academy of San Diego in Scripps Ranch were totally destroyed by the fire, while an adjacent brand-new $25 million building, almost completed and surrounded by flames, was spared, said Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein.

Also in San Diego, Temple Emanu El closed its preschool and transferred its Torah scrolls, said Rabbi Martin Lawson. Tifereth Israel Synagogue also took its Torah scrolls to safety after nearby residents were ordered to evacuate their homes.

The United Jewish Federation building was ordered evacuated, and all San Diego residents were asked to remain home Monday.

In another hot-spot, Simi Valley, Mount Sinai Memorial Park reported minor damage to buildings and more extensive burning of trees and park areas. The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, also in Simi Valley, was untouched by the fire.

Temple Judea in Tarzana and Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge expressed concern about the well-being of the many congregants from the Simi Valley.

In the San Gabriel Valley, four employees of the local Jewish Federation reported that their homes had been entirely or partially destroyed.

The Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregants reported that temples in Big Bear, Victorville and Thousand Oaks appeared to have survived unscathed.

Jewish communities rallied to aid the homeless and other victims.

Some 11 Chabad centers in Southern California turned themselves into relief and counseling centers, providing clothing, furniture and food.

The Board of Rabbis of Southern California called on all member congregations to provide assistance, said executive vice president Rabbi Mark S. Diamond.

Staff Writer Rachel Brand contributed to this report.


Donation Information

The Jewish Federation has established the Southern California Fire Emergency Relief Fund and coordinated with community agencies to provide the following assistance opportunities, as well as relief services.

Monetary Donations

Donations can be made online at www.jewishla.org. Send checks to The Jewish Federation, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles 90048, payable to The Federation with “Fire Relief Fund” on memo line. (323) 761-8200.

Food Donations

Jewish Family Services’ (JFS) SOVA Food Pantries will be accepting donations. (818) 789-7633.

Valley Site:

6027 Reseda Blvd., Tazana. (Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fri. 10 a.m.-noon and Sun., 10:30 a.m.-noon. Sun. Nov. 2, 9:30 a.m-3 p.m.)

West L.A. Sites:

11310 Santa Monica Blvd. (Mon. and Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.; Fri., 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.)

Beverly-Fairfax Site:

7563 Beverly Blvd. (Mon. and Wed., 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and Sun. (except first 10 a.m.-noon.).

Donations can also be dropped off at the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, 22622 Vanowen Street, West Hills; and The Jewish Federation Goldsmith Center, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

Clothing Donations

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) will be accepting donations at their thrift shops. (323) 655-3111.

Los Angeles:

11571 Santa Monica Blvd., (310) 477-9613

455 N. Fairfax Ave., (323) 651-2080

1052 S. Fairfax Ave., (323) 938-8122

12120 Venice Blvd., (310) 572-9158

West Hollywood:

7818 Santa Monica Blvd., (323) 654-8516

Van Nuys:

14526 Victory Blvd., (818) 997-8980

Canoga Park:

21716 Sherman Way, (818) 710-7206

Crisis Counseling Services

JFS offers crisis counseling services.

Valley: (818) 464-3333

West Los Angeles: (310) 820-4111

Monetary Assistance

Contact the Jewish Free Loan Association at (323) 761-8830.

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door


“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” by Risa Miller (St. Martin’s
Press, $23.95).

Many writers have imagined the Jewish immigrant experience,
setting their novels and short stories on the Lower East Side and places like
that, where newcomers can forge their way to become Americans. Risa Miller’s
debut novel, “Welcome to Heavenly Heights,” is a different version of that
story, with American Jews making new homes in Israel, reversing the exile. This
transition can be more pressure cooker than melting pot, mixing idealism,
religion, bureaucracy, family complexities, shifting expectations, love and,
never far away, violence.

In this graceful and engaging work, Miller, winner of the
PEN Discovery award, succeeds in creating a world inhabited by religious Jews
of different backgrounds, mostly transplanted Americans, living out the words
of their long-repeated prayers to be close to Zion. She explores the many
meanings of home, rootedness and community.

Just as the characters in those earlier novels, set in tenements,
had little privacy, so, too, the families of the newly constructed Building
Four in Heavenly Heights — with its dishwashers, built-in teak cabinets and
balconies overlooking the mountains — know much about each other’s lives. The
stacked apartments are like a vertical bungalow colony, with shared ingredients
and stories, and the gang of kids playing outside. Every Friday night, when
their husbands go off to synagogue, the women of Building 4 gather on the
largest porch “to shake off the weekday world,” speaking the way women do when
the men aren’t around.

Heavenly Heights is “close enough to Jordan that a combat
tank starting out in Amman when you boiled your water for coffee would have you
serving to its corpsmen before you finished your own first cup.”

The name has the ring of other suburbs where many Jews live,
like Shaker Heights in Cleveland. A commuting neighborhood north of Jerusalem —
a “settlement if you needed to be technical” — it is home to many new
immigrants whose mortgages are underwritten by “an unidentified do-gooder
well-wisher Godfather who wanted Judea settled — and settled now.”

Miller said that the name Heavenly Heights came to her when
she flipped open a bencher (a small book with the blessings after the meal) to
the page with the phrase sometimes translated as “in the heavenly heights may
they seek our good.” The name stuck as the name of the neighborhood and then of
the book.

“Welcome to Heavenly Heights” is a literary novel of
characters and place rather than a story driven by plot. It is unusual in its
knowing depiction of an Orthodox community, from the inside, with empathy and
without satire or ambivalence.

“I don’t know of any frum literary fiction that likes
itself,” she said.

When Miller began the novel, she set it in the ’80s, and it
seemed timely then, but as the world was changing, she shifted the time and
updated it, shading in some of the violence and tension. It goes up to the edge
of the latest intifada, focusing mainly on Tova, who moves to Heavenly Heights
from Baltimore with her husband, Mike, and children. Readers see this new world
from Tova’s eyes, following her bumpy adjustment to a place where arrogant
appliance “installators,” head lice and guns left in the synagogue foyer
weren’t part of her dream. She wonders whether she was “supposed to absorb into
something or was it supposed to absorb into her.”

Tova shifts from the marriage wig she wore in Baltimore to a
head scarf, from teaching English to Russian immigrants to studying Hebrew in a
similar class. With sensitivity and some humor, Miller captures the cycles of
the week and the holidays, with meal preparations, mikvah visits, small acts of
devotion, weddings and special days like Lag B’Omer, when Tova’s family travels
to Mount Meron for their child’s first haircut. En route, they encounter a
tzitzit-wearing cowboy nudging his horse, “mammela, bubbela.” God is rarely
mentioned but the divine presence is felt, in the kitchen and across the
landscape.

The novel also portrays the neighbors, including the soulful
Appalachian-born Debra and the back stories of how she and the others arrived
in Israel and their interconnected lives. Tova and Mike end up on an extended
stay back in America when his father gets ill while they are visiting. From
there, they experience a communal tragedy.

Miller too lived in Israel. With her husband and five
children, she made aliyah in 1988, settling in Jerusalem. But in 1990, while
back in Boston on what was meant to be a short vacation, her husband’s back
went out and he had to be in bed for a year. “It was like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’
she said, “when a ‘three-hour tour’ turned into an extended stay.” And, they
are still here.

“We lost our aliyah,” she says, recalling their resettling
in the United States as a time of trauma. They still think about returning, but
now they have grandchildren and aging parents in this country. And she speaks
of her Brookline, Mass., house — the place she’s lived longest since her
childhood in Baltimore — as her temporary home.

Although she had always been a serious reader and knew that
she took in the world a bit differently than others — recording her
observations of things on scraps of paper she’d pile up in a drawer — she began
to take writing seriously when, living back in Boston, the youngest of her children
started school. She took some writing courses and then enrolled in an Master of
Fine Arts program at Emerson College. There, she was studying with students
(and many teachers) who were younger than she was, and few had any context for
her Jewish references; that forced her to explain things with clarity for a
general audience. The heart of this novel was her master’s thesis, and with the
help of supportive teachers and other writers, she found an agent and
publisher.

“I wrote this out of love and pain,” the author said. She
wants to achieve a feeling like what she went through, “like being punched in
the stomach.”

Miller, 49, grew up in a somewhat traditional home and
became Orthodox along with her husband in their early 20s; they’re now part of
the Bostoner rebbe’s community in Brookline. In writing, she is careful about
facts, although she also gives herself freedom to make up certain things as
long as they’re in the range of the possible. Heavenly Heights is a blending of
prototypes of different settlement communities.

“When writing about Israel, I have to be ethically truthful,
to represent things as they are.”

She’s pleased that several early reviewers refer to the
novel as undemonizing the settlers, showing their very human sides. But she’s
not writing a book with a message.

“I message my children plenty,” she said. “But it’s not my
style as a writer.”

Writing comes naturally, and some paragraphs even come to
her in blocks. She tells of driving along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut
when the opening of the book seemed to “float down” to her, word for word. She
pulled off to the side of the road and jotted them down. For Miller, writing
can feel like setting jewels, taking words and fitting them in place. She’s
particularly interested in the sound of her sentences, and that’s evident in
their rhythmic qualities.

She has a talent for seeing the small, telling details. Soon
after Tova arrives in Israel, she realizes that she’s forgotten to pack rags,
“those repositories of family history,” her daughter’s first Florida T-shirt,
her husband’s worn terry robe. Instead she washes her granite counter tops with
a store-bought rag. “‘This is home,’ she rhythmed, trying to convince herself.
‘This is home.'”  

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

The Circuit


A Family Affair

More than 600 people attended the Second Annual L.A. Family Housing Awards at Universal Studios’ Globe Theatre. The event, hosted by comedian Paul Rodriguez, raised nearly $450,000 for L.A. Family Housing (LAFH), a nonprofit that helps 12,000 homeless individuals rebuild their lives each year.

Sixth District Councilmember Ruth Galanter presented the Family Housing Legacy Award to Venice-based housing developer Jeff Lee, whose firm, the Lee Group, has been involved in the construction of more than 1,000 homes for low- and moderate-income families and seniors. Actor-activist Martin Sheen, President Jed Bartlet on the NBC series “The West Wing,” received the organization’s Sydney M. Irmas Outstanding Humanitarian Award.

Universal Studios Hollywood President/COO Larry Kurzweil, who developed the Universal CityWalk entertainment complex, was also honored.

LAFH CEO David Grunwald expressed the gratitude of the organization’s board members and supporters.

Also in attendance: Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles’ 13th District councilmember; and Jonathan Kevles, director of Mayor James Hahn’s L.A. Business Team.



Going for the Golds

A cross section of the community convened to honor Ilene and Stanley Gold at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s 125th Anniversary Gala.

Delivered From Mount Sinai

Jake Farber, incoming chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, receives a check with a $60,000 donation to the United Jewish Fund from Arnold Saltzman, general manager of Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.



Rabbis With Attitude

Dec. 4 saw the debut of a new weekly radio program featuring the rabbis of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Project Next Step. Rabbis Yitzchak Etshalom and Yitzchok Adlerstein have brought their exploration of Jewish issues to the airwaves with their show, “Rabbis With Attitude.” Etshalom and Adlerstein will explore issues through an enlightened Jewish lens every Tuesday, 6:30 p.m.-7 p.m. on KCSN 88.5 FM. The debut edition’s topic: “Harry Potter.”