$1.3 million reward offered for information in Leviev jewelry heist

An insurance company is offering a $1.3 million reward for clues leading to the recovery of stolen diamonds and jewels owned by Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev.

The $136 million in jewelry was stolen July 28 from a resort in Cannes, France, where it was part of an exhibition on the Leviev diamond house.

“A reward of up to 1,000,000 euros pro rata is offered to the first person who provides information which leads to recovery of the goods,” SW Associates, a Paris-based loss adjuster and risk manager working for Lloyd’s of London, said in a statement issued Tuesday.

The statement, with photographs of some of the stolen goods — two diamond rings, a brooch and a necklace — will be published in the French newspapers Le Parisien and Nice-Matin, and the International Herald Tribune, Reuters reported.

A masked gunman stole the diamonds and jewels from an exhibition at the Carlton Hotel. The thief threatened the exhibition staff and visitors, filled a briefcase with the jewels and fled in an operation that lasted about a minute, police told the AP.

Private security guards had protected the exhibit.

The French hotel’s display about the Leviev diamond house had been scheduled to run through August.

Diagnosis: Informed Citizen Disorder

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that one of the great pleasures of my life – reading the New York Times – is also bad for my health. 

After all, lamb chops are luscious, but it turns out that red meat, not to mention a perfect side of salty fries, can kill you.  Just because you enjoy something doesn’t mean that it’s good for you.

But being informed about what’s going on in the world is supposed to be a virtue, the civic equivalent of exercise.  You have to find the time for it, and it’s not exactly fun to work your muscles to failure and your heart to 80 percent of 220 minus your age.  Still, you’re glad you did it, and it actually makes you feel better. 

Keeping up with the news should be like that.  An informed citizen ought to get a nice buzz from following what’s happening.  It’s part of patriotism.  Loving your country requires knowing your country, and knowing about the world it’s part of.

But boy can it be depressing.  Infuriating, too.  Here are some of my Times spit-takes from just the last couple of weeks:

· Nearly 6 million Americans below the poverty line in 25 states “>wrote the bill the committee passed exempting Wall Street from what’s left of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul.

·  “>troops committed suicide over the past 12 years than were killed in Afghanistan.

In Sunday’s Times, ” target=”_blank”>Anxiety,” which the Times has been running since the start of last year.  I don’t know why they confine that label there; they might as well put the whole paper under that masthead.

I got hooked on the Times habit when Mr. Drew, my English and social studies teacher at Burnet Junior High School, told us we could subscribe for something like a nickel a day, and yes, its content would be on our current events quizzes.  We were required to know stuff like what cabinet positions Anthony Celebrezze and Willard Wirtz held, and the Times was a good way to keep track of that.

Today, of course, the best journalism in the world, from plenty of sources, is available online, often for no cents a day, and we can access it in video and audio as well, and from anywhere at any time.  I realize how much dangerous propaganda and addictive infojunk is also out there; I recognize the risks of confirmation bias, living in the bubble, inhabiting an echo chamber; I know that prestige outlets can sometimes be inaccurate, elitist, partisan, obtuse and hamstrung by archaic professional practices.  But informed citizens aren’t puppets; they’re critical thinkers.  Civic literacy is not inherently impossible.

But it can cause such outrage, panic, helplessness, bewilderment – there really should be a consumer warning on the news. 

What a downer for democracy.  You do your best to keep up, and what you get in return for your effort is something that the American Psychiatric Association ought to have put in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.  Informed Citizen Disorder: the damage you do to your mood and your blood pressure by watching Bill Moyers or Jon Stewart, listening to Kevin Phillips or Bruce Bartlett, reading the Guardian or the New York Times.

Every so often, I detox from the news.  I find that a week of media-free hiking in the high desert provides a pretty decent cleanse.  But that doesn’t help with the rest of the year.  Even if my work didn’t require me to drink from the information firehose, I can’t quit. Ever since Mr. Drew, it’s been drilled into my conscience that it’s my responsibility as an American – as a voter – to know what’s going on. 

Of course no one has to pass a current events quiz in order to qualify for a ballot.  If I suffered from Dumb Voter Disability instead of Informed Citizen Disorder, I’d still get to pick the president.  Which, come to think of it, is just one more reason to panic.

Marty Kaplan is the “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him at

The gift of life insurance

Todd Gindy, a certified financial planner, likes to tell a story about Johnny Carson to illustrate how nonprofits miss a big opportunity when they don’t suggest donors use life insurance policies as a vehicle for charitable giving. 

For years, the longtime host of “The Tonight Show” gave $1 million every year to Children of the Night, an organization founded by Dr. Lois Lee to rescue child victims of sex trafficking. 

But, remembers Gindy, who works for the Encino office of Northwestern Mutual, when Carson died in 2005, the donation stopped. 

“Carson certainly had the wherewithal to be able to endow that gift, and it wouldn’t have taken any meaningful amount away from his heirs,” Gindy said. 

Endowing a perpetual gift of $1 million isn’t something most people can do. Indeed, even making a onetime donation of that size is well out of reach for all but the wealthiest philanthropists. But most people don’t realize that they can name a nonprofit as the beneficiary of a life-insurance policy, and, depending on a potential donor’s age, health and how much they can pay in, their payment to the policy amounts to a tax-deductible annual donation that might cost the donor a few thousand dollars each year for 10 or 20 years, yet add up to approximately the million-dollar level when the policy matures. 

Gifting an insurance policy to a nonprofit can help donors get a bigger financial bang for their charitable bucks, although professionals involved in charitable organizations, as well as those who advise both donors and nonprofits, say that people aren’t taking advantage of the tactic very often. 

“Over the last few years, there has not been a lot of gifting of insurance policies,” said Robert Evans, founder and managing director of The EHL Consulting Group, a global nonprofit consulting firm with a mostly Jewish nonprofit client base. “It has just generally not been something that nonprofits — Jewish or not — have been talking very much about.” 

In 2011, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles promoted life-insurance gifting as a way for donors to give to the Centennial Endowment fund, but, according to Marla Abraham, senior vice president for endowment planning and premier philanthropy at Federation, only “one or two donors out of 37” actually gave life insurance as a gift, and Federation has received fewer than 10 such gifts in the last five years. 

For younger donors, Abraham said, “The payments are ridiculously low to do something. The hard part is making that commitment at a young age.”

Other nonprofits have been more effective in promoting life insurance as a gifting vehicle, including the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) of Los Angeles, which has been encouraging some of its donors — particularly younger women who already donate $5,000 or more every year — to endow their gifts by purchasing low-cost designated life insurance policies while continuing their annual donations.

For donors who give at this level — JCF calls it “Lion of Judah” — creating an endowment that would perpetuate a gift of $5,000 would require a $100,000 lump-sum donation. But, depending on the donor’s age, a life-insurance policy that at maturity yields $100,000 could be purchased for far less than that sum. 

“I met with somebody last year in her young 30s who took out a substantial life insurance policy,” said Elliot Kristal, vice president of charitable gift planning at JCF. The policy this young woman took out would ultimately pay out about $1 million upon her death. 

“It was very cheap for her to do that,” Kristal continued. “And while it’s going to be some time before the foundation realizes that donation, it’s a way of spending fewer dollars currently to be more impactful down the line.”

Because the immediate payout to an organization is nil and nonprofits must expect to wait years, even decades, to receive money from gifts of insurance, the tactic is primarily encouraged by larger, well-established organizations — although JCF can help donors to direct the proceeds of an insurance policy gifted to the foundation toward a smaller organization. 

JCF can afford to wait patiently for the larger payout — Kristal estimates that “several millions of dollars’ worth of insurance policies” have been gifted to JCF whose funds have not yet been disbursed because donors are still living — while many nonprofits need the cash more immediately. 

Gindy, who has served on the board of Federation for about eight years and is also a member of the board of BJE — Builders of Jewish Education — has seen this challenge firsthand. 

“Often, organizations need money today; they’re not willing to wait until a person dies,” Gindy said. “There’s this push and pull that goes on within all of our charitable organizations, that they both want an endowment for the future, but they’re also unwilling to forgo the dollars today.”

Another hesitation, Gindy said, stems from the involvement of insurance salesmen in the process. 

“Insurance is sold,” he said. “So even when somebody’s intentions are good, if the idea is brought to them by anybody who happens to be deemed a salesman, it’s always met with initial hesitation.” Gindy said he has been selling insurance for 22 years, and he believes that “if it weren’t called insurance, everybody in the world would be doing it, because what it does tends to make a lot of sense.”

The final Obama/Romney showdown: A note to Jewish grandparents

I believe there is a unique bond between grandparents and grandchildren. We look out for each other. We have each other’s backs.

This year, the Romney-Ryan ticket and much of the Republican Party have been attempting to divide our generations, pitting one against the other.

We saw it in the first presidential debate. Mitt Romney looked into the camera and told voters, “Neither the president nor I are proposing any changes for any current retirees or near retirees, either to Social Security or Medicare. So if you’re 60 or around 60 or older, you don’t need to listen any further.”

Put aside for a second the veracity of the first part of this statement. The overall implication is disturbing: Older Americans don’t care about policies that affect their children and grandchildren. The Greatest Generation, Romney believes, is actually just out for itself.

[Related: A note to a stiff-necked people: Why you should vote Romney]

The truth is, many of Romney’s proposals would hurt seniors.

Romney has vowed to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). That would mean anyone enrolled in Medicare will pay an average of $4,200 more in health-care expenses over the next 10 years. Annual wellness visits would no longer be free. Those who fall into Medicare’s coverage gap for prescription drugs, sometimes called the “doughnut hole,” would lose their 50 percent discount on brand-name drugs and would no longer see the gap disappear completely by the end of this decade.

Obamacare ensured that Medicare is fully solvent at least until 2024 by getting rid of $716 billion in waste, fraud and needless spending — including $156 billion in unnecessary subsidies to insurance companies.

Romney, by repealing health-care reform and cutting more than $1 trillion from Medicaid, would deny coverage to approximately 50 million Americans who currently have it, including nursing-home patients, people with disabilities, low-income children and pregnant women.

Those are facts Romney doesn’t want you to know. But here are a few facts he thinks you don’t care about, because they may not affect you directly.

President Obama has nearly doubled funding for Pell Grants. He provided students and families with college tax credits worth up to $10,000 over four years. He invested $2 billion in community colleges. And he capped federal student loan repayment at 10 percent of monthly discretionary income.

Romney, by contrast, has vowed to roll back all of these vital programs intended to give the younger generation a shot at the American dream. Why? Because his priority is more special tax breaks for billionaires and hedge-fund managers.

President Obama has the vision to leave my generation with a better world by starting to address climate change and investing in cleaner, more sustainable forms of energy. Romney’s energy plan is to provide wealthy oil companies even more tax giveaways at our expense.

Obamacare will help many young people get health insurance. Without it we are less likely to seek preventive care or heed early warning signs, which can lead to more severe illness and higher medical bills. If we are younger than 26, we can now remain on our parents’ plan, giving them peace of mind and saving all of us money.

Our community has long been in the forefront of efforts to expand civil rights, passing laws and creating a culture that welcomes people who are unwelcome in other parts of the world. President Obama has fought for equal pay and women’s reproductive rights. He appointed two highly qualified women to the U.S. Supreme Court, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. He ended laws that discriminate against gays and lesbians.

But you don’t care about any of that, do you? Romney and Paul Ryan seem to believe that you are ready to sell out your kids and grandkids as long as your needs are taken care of.

I think Romney and Ryan are wrong. They and their fellow Republicans are underestimating the bond that exists across the generations, inside our families. Jewish tradition speaks to this obligation, to teach and care for future generations: l’dor v’dor. I experience it in my own family. 

And when we vote, let’s remember what’s at stake for everyone in our families.

Mik Moore is president of the Jewish Council for Education and Research (JCER), which launched “Obama on Israel,” a project aimed at presenting information about the president’s record on Israel.

Brown signs law targeting insurance industry ties with Iran

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill aimed at dissuading California-based insurance companies from making indirect investments in Iran. 

The state’s insurance companies already are prohibited from making large direct investments in Iran; the new law aims to put further economic pressure on Iran by stopping California’s insurance companies from listing any indirect investments in Iran on the financial statements that the state’s insurance commissioner uses to determine their fiscal health. 

Jointly authored by Assembly members Bob Blumenfield (D-San Fernando Valley) and Mike Feuer (D-Los Angeles), the new law, known as AB 2160, had support from Rep. Howard Berman, who wrote a letter to Brown in August urging the governor to sign the bill. In May, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California lobbied lawmakers on behalf of the bill. 

In 2009, insurers licensed to do business in California held $2 billion worth of indirect investments in companies tied to Iran, according to a study conducted in 2009 by then-Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner. 

The new law, which is expected to impact approximately 160 California-based insurance companies, is only the latest piece of legislation written by Feuer and Blumenfield targeting Iran in the hopes that increased economic pressure might persuade that regime to abandon its nuclear enrichment efforts. In 2010, the two assembly members authored AB 1650 to prohibit the state and local governments from pursuing contracts with companies that do business in Iran’s energy sector. That law served as a model for similar legislation enacted in Florida in 2011.

Jewish organizations, others must stop interfering with Holocaust survivors’ rights

[This column is a response to a piece by Menachem Rosensaft:
Crafting a Holocaust insurance solution that works

The JTA recently published an op-ed by Menachem Rosensaft which gratuitously offers an “alternative” to the legislation that Holocaust survivors and children and grandchildren of survivors are seeking in Congress.  The bills Rosensaft patronizingly calls “well-intentioned” are necessary to restore our rights to go to U.S. courts to recover insurance policies sold by Allianz, Generali, AXA, and other global insurers to our parents and grandparents which the companies dishonored after the Holocaust.  We don’t know who Mr. Rosensaft claims to represent in making this suggestion, but it most certainly is not speaking for Holocaust survivors or the families of Holocaust victims.  We can speak and act for ourselves, and we demand the right to do so.  This is something that over 100 members of Congress, on a bi-partisan basis, who are co-sponsoring HR 890 and S. 466, understand. 

Let’s remember what this problem is all about.  Insurance policies—private contracts that our parents and grandparents paid for with the sweat of their brows.  Contracts that the companies charged and accepted money in exchange for the promise to pay our parents and grandparents if something happened, and needless to say our families did lose everything.  “The companies profited from our families’ misery, and no one, certainly not the World Jewish Congress or the Claims Conference, or any other of the groups now fighting us, lifted a finger to demand that the insurers make good on these legal contracts, until states like Florida, California, and New York took action in 1997-1998.” In the current legislation, survivors are demanding the same rights as every other American citizen to recover our family legacies.  Who is Rosensaft to say we should be second class citizens with regard to our ability to collect on these private insurance policies?

Other than the companies’ disgraceful conduct after the war, Rosensaft’s history is almost entirely inaccurate.  It was not until the California, Florida, and New York Legislatures passed laws to hold the companies accountable, that the insurance companies came up with the idea to create a “voluntary” commission to publish names and pay claims.  Everyone understood that this “international commission,” called ICHEIC, was indeed voluntary unless a claimant accepted an offer for a policy.  The insurers understood this, and so did the “Jewish groups” who participated.  And, contrary to what Rosensaft’s his op-ed states, there was no authorized representatives of Holocaust survivors on ICHEIC. 

When Rosensaft states that insurers “were given assurances backed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations that their participation in ICHEIC would insulate them from civil suits in U.S. courts,” he simply wrong.  It is well-established in the public record that the U.S. government never promised the companies immunity from litigation for participating in ICHEIC. 

Every agreement the government entered is explicit on this point, i.e. that the agreements and underlying U.S. policy do not mandate dismissals of lawsuits against insurers.  And, the court papers filed by the Clinton Administration after the U.S.-German executive agreement reiterated that the Agreement “does not preclude individuals from filing suit on their insurance policies in court” and does not “mandate that individual policyholders or beneficiaries bring their claims in ICHEIC;” and that the U.S. “has not undertaken a duty to achieve legal peace for German companies against state litigation.” When several members of Congress asked the Clinton DOJ about the effect of the agreements, the Department stated: “the [position of] the United States . . . does not suggest that private claimants who wish to pursue suits against German companies are foreclosed from doing so.” 

Even Stuart Eizenstat, who is supporting the insurers today—now that he is an officer of the Claims Conference—admitted in his 2003 book, that:  “The Germans and their lawyers knew full well from months of explanations that we would not take a formal legal position barring U.S. citizens from their own courts.” 

In July 2010, the Justice Department produced documents to me under the Freedom of Information Act which admitted that the U.S. government never promised any insurer that their participation in ICHEIC insulate them from litigation.  When Cong. Adam Schiff and the attorney for the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA (Sam Dubbin) cited these papers in a Congressional hearing, DOJ wrote me another letter and demanded the documents be returned!  Needless to say, I refused.  We are outraged that the government would try to cover up the truth this way – and that people like Rosensaft continue to perpetrate the lie.

On the subject of “relaxed standards,” Rosensaft is also wrong.  There is no evidence that ICHEIC companies made offers of payment in the absence of documentary proof of a policy.  For example, Generali was allowed – without proof – to deny claims on policies it admittedly sold by saying the policies were paid or lapsed before 1936.  Outrageously, ICHEIC placed the burden on survivors to disprove Generali’s argument – an impossible task for survivors when the companies have the records.  New York Legal Assistance Group President Yisroel Schulman and others condemned this grossly unfair practice. 

After ICHEIC closed in 2007, former New York State Insurance Superintendent Albert Lewis, who served as an ICHEIC appellate arbitrator, disclosed that he and other arbitrators were pressured by the ICHEIC hierarchy to rule against survivors even when they had credible claims, if the survivors could not produce documentary proof the policy was in force.  This was reported in the New York Jewish Week.  ICHEIC placed the burden on survivors to rebut Generali’s argument. This is a heavier burden than a survivor would face in court.

Rosensaft wants to give the companies credit for accepting claims made by people who didn’t know a policy number or the name of the issuing company. But he neglects to mention that insurers were already obligated by several state laws to publish the names and enable survivors and heirs to obtain this information to ascertain whether they might have a claim before ICHEIC was created.  In reality, ICHEIC allowed the companies to produce less information than the California, New York, and Florida state laws, sharply reducing the number of claims and recoveries. 

When ICHEIC closed, economist Sidney Zabludoff, who conducted the market study for ICHEIC, reported that the body only paid 3% of the amount owed by the insurance companies to Jewish families from before the Holocaust.  It paid $250 million on 14,000 policies.  Although ICHEIC also paid out $34 million in $1000 checks to 34,000 applicants, these “humanitarian” payments were considered patronizing rejections by survivors.  It is just wrong for Rosensaft to say that 48,000 survivors or family members were paid on their policies through ICHEIC.

What is most outrageous is that Rosensaft continues to justify a system that would deny Holocaust survivors our fundamental legal rights to go to U.S. courts to recover our contracts, a system that has allowed thousands of Holocaust survivors to die waiting for justice.  In 2008, after the House Foreign Affairs Committee unanimously passed Tom Lantos’s insurance legislation and Mr. Lantos fell ill and passed away.  The insurers then convinced Barney Frank to gut the bill by promising that the New York State Holocaust Claims Processing Office (HCPO) would “continue to” pay claims under ICHEIC’s “liberal” rules.  The results:  in the subsequent 4-plus years, the New York office succeeded in helping recover a grand total of 6 policies, worth only $70,000.  Rosensaft’s statement that the office has handled all claims “appropriately” is contradicted by the award-winning investigative report by Steward Ain in the New York Jewish Week. 

We can also do without Rosensaft’s patronizing reference to lawyers. I was one of the named plaintiffs in the Hungarian Gold Train case.  When the U.S. government published the story about the way the U.S. Army took much of the Hungarians’ property from the Gold Train and used it for themselves, I said:  “That is my family’s gold on that train.”  Other Hungarian survivors, including here in South Florida, agreed.  But nothing happened. The government didn’t follow up, and neither did the Claims Conference, the World Jewish Congress, Anti Defamation League, or anyone else.  That is why we contacted our lawyer to see what could be done, and it was the three law firms that invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money, and 5 years of their work, working closely with us survivors throughout the case, that brought about that settlement. When the Judge approved the agreement, she thanked the survivors and the lawyers, and also praised the law firms for accepting less than half their normal rates to bring about a “miraculous” result. 

The Hungarian Gold Train settlement provided over $22 million for thousands of Hungarian survivors all over the world who are in need.  It produced desperately needed assistance that the government and the Jewish community were not providing.  The Claims Conference didn’t care at all about the Gold Train or our property until the lawyers were successful in court and announced progress in settlement talks.  Then, it wanted to take all the credit, but the Judge wouldn’t stand for that. Every dollar in the settlement was earmarked according to what the survivors wanted, and has to be accounted for.

When Rosensaft cites abuses by other lawyers in class action cases, that is fine but irrelevant.  Anyone who has read the legislation, or followed the testimony, would know that the legislation is not designed for class actions.  It is set up to allow individual survivors and heirs to go to court to bring an individual claim based on the information about their family policies that the companies would have to produce, under the new law and under court-ordered discovery. This is the American way.  It is the same remedy that is available for insurance consumers throughout the U.S. – unless that consumer happens to be a Holocaust survivor. 

Why shouldn’t Holocaust survivors have the same rights as every other American?  If it is to protect us from “false hope,” Rosensaft can spare us his paternalistic nonsense and mind his own business.  We survived Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buchenwald, death marches and killing fields.  We can make up our own minds.  HR 890 and S. 466 are supported by the overwhelming majority of survivors and members of the second generation.  The only survivors who oppose it are from the Claims Conference, which was part of ICHEIC and collected many millions of dollars from ICHEIC.  And the Claims Conference, like its organizational twin the World Jewish Congress, has consistently opposed all legislation allowing survivors to control our individual rights.  Why didn’t the JTA disclose that Rosensaft is a member of the WJC and the AG and the CC, who were participants on ICHEIC, and have been opposing legislation to allow survivors to sue the insurers from day one? 

Prominent New York attorney Ed Labaton wrote the following to the American Jewish Committee in condemning their opposition to the legislation:  “The insurance policies at issue were sold to individuals, paid for by men and women who tried to protect their families.  Our legal system provides remedies to those injured by predatory practices of insurance companies and others who exploit their financial power to cheat consumers.  Holocaust survivors, and the legal heirs of other victims, should have the sole right to decide for themselves how to reclaim their family legacies.  Does AJC really believe the trauma of the Holocaust gives self-appointed NGOs the right to step in and deny the actual victims their full rights as American citizens to control these legacies? 

To that, I would add:  Does Menachem Rosensaft believe he has such a right? We survivors don’t think so.

David Mermelstein is an Auschwitz survivor, who was born in Kivjazd Czechoslovakia, later annexed by Hungary. He lives in Miami, Florida, and is the Vice President of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA.

U.S. Supreme Court upholds Obama healthcare law centerpiece

A sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare overhaul law that requires that most Americans get insurance by 2014 or pay a financial penalty.

“The Affordable Care Act’s requirement that certain individuals pay a financial penalty for not obtaining health insurance may reasonably be characterized as a tax,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court’s majority in the opinion.

“Because the Constitution permits such a tax, it is not our role to forbid it, or to pass upon its wisdom or fairness,” he concluded. The vote was 5-4.

In another part of the decision and in a blow to the White House, a different majority on the court struck down the provision of the law that requires the states to dramatically expand the Medicaid health insurance program for the poor.

The upholding of the insurance purchase requirement, known as the “individual mandate,” was a major election-year victory for Obama, a historic ruling on the law that aimed to extend coverage to more than 30 million uninsured Americans.

The 2010 law constituted the $2.6 trillion U.S. healthcare system’s biggest overhaul in nearly 50 years.

Critics of the law had said it meddles too much in the lives of individuals and in the business of the states.

Twenty-six of the 50 U.S. states and a small business trade group challenged the law in court. The Supreme Court in March heard three days of historic arguments over the law’s fate.

The court’s ruling on the law could figure prominently in the run-up to the Nov. 6 election in which Obama seeks a second four-year term against Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who opposed the law.

Opinion: Crafting a Holocaust insurance solution that works

[Read a response to this column: Jewish organizations, others
must stop interfering with Holocaust survivors’ rights

There is a solution to get us beyond the seemingly endless stalemates and complications that continue to characterize the ongoing debate over Holocaust-era insurance claims. And I do not believe it can be found in the well-intentioned bill before the U.S. Congress.

This different approach will put money more quickly into the community of the survivors and their families, minimize huge financial rewards for certain lawyers, and help bring closure to this extremely painful process.

I propose that the relevant insurance companies agree to the appointment—at their expense—of an independent monitor who could determine whether all potentially valid but as yet unresolved Holocaust-era claims are being honestly processed under the relaxed standards of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC.

Some history of how we arrived at this point is in order.

For more than 50 years after the end of World War II, many German and other European insurance companies refused to honor life insurance policies that they or their predecessors had sold to Jews who eventually perished in the Holocaust. In 1998, the National Association of Insurance Commissioners joined with a number of such insurance companies and representatives of Jewish and survivors organizations to create ICHEIC. Its mandate was “to identify, settle, and pay individual Holocaust era insurance claims at no cost to claimants.”

ICHEIC applied relaxed standards that allowed individuals to file claims without documentation such as a policy number or even the name of the company they believed to have issued a policy. The insurance companies were given assurances backed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations that their participation in ICHEIC would insulate them from civil suits in U.S. courts.

According to its website, ICHEIC distributed $306 million “to more than 48,000 Holocaust survivors, their heirs, and the families of those who did not survive.”

The process was not without problems. There are survivors who argue, with some justification, that their claims were not properly considered, although the number of such remaining open claims is in sharp dispute. As a result, Congress is now considering a bill that would enable these survivors to resolve their grievances in U.S. federal court.

But the proposed legislation is unlikely to accomplish its intended laudable purpose. The aggrieved survivors generally do not know which insurance company may have issued a policy to a family member and/or do not have other specific information regarding such a policy. If lawyers are telling them they can prevail without any proof of their claims in a litigation that must satisfy the exacting standards of the Federal Rules of Evidence, such advice, to put it mildly, is unduly optimistic.

Also, the principal beneficiaries of past Holocaust-era litigations have indisputably been the plaintiffs’ lawyers. For example, in 2001 lawyers pocketed more than $59 million in legal fees from the multibillion-dollar slave and forced labor settlement with German corporations. The surviving slave laborers themselves – mostly Jews and Sinti-Roma – received about $7,500 each; forced laborers – primarily Eastern Europeans forced to work in Nazi war factories – received approximately $2,500 apiece. One especially egregious lawyer profiteered from the slave labor and Swiss banks settlements to the tune of more than $7.4 million.

In 2005, a federal judge in Florida awarded three law firms an aggregate $3.85 million in fees and expenses out of the $25.5 million “Gold Train” settlement of a litigation for the looting by U.S. Army personnel of property belonging to Hungarian Jews. Thirty-four named plaintiffs received “incentive” payments of $2,000 or $5,000 apiece, with the bulk of the settlement going for social services for needy Hungarian Holocaust survivors.

You see the pattern. While survivors receive, at most, a few thousand dollars each, their lawyers walk away with millions.

Lawyers promoting the new Holocaust insurance bill in Congress most probably have already collected names of potential plaintiffs and plan to bring suit on their collective behalf in the hope of being awarded hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars, in yet another settlement.

The proposed bill also risks raising unrealistic expectations. After ICHEIC was formally dissolved in March 2007, the German insurance companies agreed to continue processing Holocaust-era claims under ICHEIC’s relaxed standards. Yet the German Insurance Association reports only 219 inquiries regarding such claims in the past five years. That’s led to the identification of only 102 policies, 60 of which had previously been disposed of.

It seems doubtful that thousands or even hundreds of additional policies will now be suddenly discovered. Hence my suggestion that the relevant insurance companies be asked to agree to an independent monitor, a person who would determine whether all potentially valid but as yet unresolved Holocaust-era claims are being honestly processed under the relaxed ICHEIC standards.

The monitor, who should have the confidence of Congress and the survivor community, should be authorized to examine claims that ICHEIC supposedly disposed of in violation of its own rules. The monitor should report to Congress periodically on the status of all open or disputed claims. If the insurance companies reject such a compromise, or if the monitor were to find one or more of these companies to be recalcitrant, congressional action could then loom as a final remedy.

There is precedent for such oversight. Ambassador J.D. Bindenagel, the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Holocaust issues in the Clinton and Bush administrations, recently pointed out to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the New York Holocaust Claims Processing Office is mandated to report on the insurance companies’ processing of survivor claims and has done so. To date, it appears that all such claims have been handled appropriately.

We need a new path. Our collective challenge must be to at least try to provide, in the words of Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), an actual and viable “approximation of justice” for Holocaust survivors and their families. This proposal may be able to accomplish just that.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, teaches about the law of genocide and World War II war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.

Holocaust insurance claims divide the Jewish community

Hardly a day goes by where Renee Firestone isn’t asked by some school, museum, reporter or filmmaker to talk about the Holocaust.

“Somebody has to tell the story,” she said. “I am fortunate enough, at my age, to still be able to walk and talk. So I have to do it.”

Firestone is 88, with pale blue eyes and a warm, Cheshire cat smile. She manages a 24-unit apartment building in Beverly Hills, where she lives with her daughter, Klaire.

Renee was born in Czechoslovakia and was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau at the age of 20, during the last years of the war. Her mother was sent to the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. Her brother was a partisan. Her father actually survived internment, only to die of tuberculosis four months after being liberated.

In the 1990s, the Firestones began seeing stories in the news about litigation aimed at recovering assets from the Holocaust—compensation for slave labor, return of looted art, recovered funds from Swiss bank accounts and, finally, money for insurance claims. In the late 1990s, Renee’s cousin, Fred Jackson, was among the first people in the United States to sue the Italian insurance giant Assicurazioni Generali for payment on an old policy taken out before the war by his mother, whose brother was Renee’s father.

Renee’s father, who owned a textile and tailoring business, was the patriarch of the family, and although no policy documents exist today, Firestone is certain that if her father’s sister had insurance, then he must have it as well.

“Because my father was the adviser of the family,” she said. “For sure the home was insured, and for sure the business was insured.”

In Eastern Europe before the war, insurance and annuities were common investment techniques, especially for Jews, many of whom worked in the industry, and who, in turn, sold policies to Jewish customers. After the war, it was standard practice for insurance companies to pay claims only when relatives could produce the original policy documents and a death certificate. Needless to say, not many Holocaust survivors or their families had either.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when it came to foreign insurance companies, state law was preempted by federal policy. That was interpreted by lower courts to mean that survivors, like Renee Firestone, cannot sue insurance companies like Generali, because the federal government participated in negotiations with other countries and formed a commission to evaluate claims—a process that many Holocaust survivors were dissatisfied with.

A bill now making its way through Congress would change that, giving survivors the right to settle with insurance companies on their own and, if no settlement can be reached, take them to court. H.R. 890, also known as the Tom Lantos Justice for Holocaust Survivors Act, is written specifically to allow survivors with unpaid insurance claims to sue insurance companies—and perhaps more importantly, would force those same companies to release a full list of unclaimed policies from that era.

The bill is named for Congressman Tom Lantos, a Hungarian Jew who escaped from a Nazi work camp and fought in an underground resistance group. He became friends with Renee Firestone when they both participated in the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Last Days” in 1998. Lantos sponsored an earlier version of the bill, which Klaire Firestone had been lobbying for, in 2007, a year before Lantos died.

This week, a number of Holocaust survivors were planning a Washington, D.C., rally—scheduled for June 7 as of press time—to support the legislation, which was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March and is scheduled to move to the Judiciary Committee later this month.

“I’ve personally heard from dozens of survivors and children of survivors,” said Sam Dubbin, the Firestones’ lawyer and one of the rally’s organizers. “And in many cases, they’re reaching out not only out of a sense of injustice, but because they’re living in financial desperation.”

But the bill has encountered heavy resistance from the most unlikely of sources: a host of Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

“There are negotiations that have resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars toward the needs of survivors worldwide,” said Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of International Jewish Affairs for the AJC. “It’s not at all clear that these negotiations would be able to continue if this bill passed.”

It is a strange divide within the Jewish community, one that is both material and ideological—that is, should victims of the Holocaust be treated as individuals or as a collective? Both sides of the argument have merit, but the substance of those arguments has been masked by ad hominem attacks. Each side is accusing the other of being driven by greed.

“We don’t think their heart is in the right place,” Baker said, speaking of a group of survivors that are in favor of the legislation. “It’s more pocket book than heart.”

Renee Firestone, meanwhile, becomes enraged when talking about organizations like the AJC: “After what we went through—how lucky we were to even survive, and how we struggled to again become human beings. And then our own people are stopping us from getting what belongs to us, what’s ours?”

“There are multiple interests at stake, and there is a tension,” said Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum, a professor of Jewish studies at American Jewish University. “It does not bring about the finest discourse.”

N.Y. arson attack investigated as insurance scam

An arson attack last year on cars in a predominately Jewish neighborhood of New York reportedly is being investigated as an insurance scam instead of a hate crime.

The attack on Nov. 11, the day after Kristallnacht commemorations, included the spray-painting with anti-Semitic graffiti of the nearby sidewalk and park benches. Elected officials and Jewish leaders roundly condemned the attack.

Police sources told local media, including the New York Daily News and the New York Post, that the cars were likely set alight in order to collect insurance money, and the graffiti was spray-painted in the area to make the attack look more like a realistic hate crime.

The owners of the cars did not live in the neighborhood where they were torched, and beer bottles found at the scene were wiped clean of fingerprints, which police said pointed away from an act of hate.

A police spokesman told the Daily News that police had not ruled out a bias crime. The New York Police Department’s Hate Crimes Task Force investigated the incident.

New momentum for bill to allow lawsuits against Holocaust-era insurance companies

It’s becoming a D.C. perennial: Every two years, a new Congress is ushered in and lawmakers from Florida herald a bill that once and for all will bring insurance companies to account for swindling Holocaust survivors.

And every two years, congressional staffers and Jewish community professionals who negotiate Holocaust restitution say the bill’s chances of passage are nil.

But this year, proponents of the bill say, the stars are aligned differently: A passionate congressional advocate is now in a position of considerable power. And for the first time, the bill has bipartisan Senate backing.

“The survivors are determined to speak for themselves,” said Sam Dubbin, the lawyer who for years has shepherded versions of the bill into Congress only to see them disappear into a twilight zone of parliamentary procedure. “They have an irrefutable legal and moral claim to have their rights restored.”

At issue is whether Holocaust survivors and their families should be allowed to sue European insurance companies for failing to pay on the policies of Jewish policy-holders killed at the hands of the Nazis. Except in extraordinary cases, such as lawsuits against state sponsors of terrorism, Americans cannot use U.S. courts to sue foreign entities.

In the late 1990s, Jewish groups including the Claims Conference reached settlements with European insurance companies that resulted in some $306 million being disbursed for survivors and survivor institutions through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, known by the acronym ICHEIC (pronounced EYE-check). These groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization see protecting the insurance companies from individual lawsuits as key to the strategy of getting European nations and institutions to agree to negotiated restitution settlements that result in money for needy survivors.

But Dubbin and some survivor groups, like the National Association of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors, say the ICHEIC agreements never legally precluded individual lawsuits, and that legislation allowing such lawsuits against the insurance companies would correct a historic injustice. They say the ICHEIC process, which officially ended in 2007, was irredeemably weighted toward the insurers.

Opponents say that if Congress passed a bill that would allow individual U.S. lawsuits against the insurance companies, it would upend the executive branch’s exclusive control over foreign policy. Essentially, they say, it’s a jurisdiction issue.

“It would be a cruel and unrealistic increase in expectations to have people go to court to try to sue companies against whom they would have great difficulty getting jurisdiction,” said Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s special representative for Holocaust issues at the time the ICHEIC settlements were being negotiated. Today, Eizenstat is a top negotiator for the Claims Conference.

The battle between the two sides abounds with allegations of bad faith and greed, and even the threat of elderly survivors picketing a fundraiser for a politician once seen as sympathetic to their cause.

The new bill, sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) in the U.S. House of Representatives and Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the U.S. Senate, would allow courts to proceed over executive branch objections in litigating claims aimed at insurers. Ros-Lehtinen, who has championed similar bills for years, is now able as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee to expedite the bill.

Leo Rechter, president of the National Association of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, a group that is associated with Dubbin, told JTA that he wants courts to compel insurers to produce documentation that litigants believe to be secreted away.

“Survivors were children during the Holocaust years, and we do not have information” about parents’ claims, he said.

Advocates of the legislation say billions are potentially at stake. Some survivors say ICHEIC denied claims even when they had evidence.

“Even though I have papers showing this policy existed, the ICHEIC commission allowed Generali to deny my claim without giving any proof,” Suzanne Marshak wrote to JTA, referring to a policy she says her uncle had with the Italian insurer.

Eizenstat says ICHEIC’s standards were “relaxed,” in that applicants were not required to provide legal standards of proof that they were beneficiaries.

The latest dustup between the two sides followed a June 1 story in The New York Times that alluded to allegations by Dubbin, who is based in Florida, that Jewish groups backing the ICHEIC process have profited from opposing the legislation.

The Jewish groups fired back with a June 13 letter to Nelson and Ros-Lehtinen outlining their arguments against the bill: It would raise unrealistic expectations among survivors; reopen a negotiating process that a number of Western European nations had presumed was closed and “call into question the U.S. ability to abide by its commitments.” Such uncertainties, they said, would inhibit Eastern European nations now negotiating to settle Holocaust-era claims.

Roman Kent, a survivor and treasurer of the Claims Conference, says the legislation gets in the way of helping needy survivors now, noting Germany’s recent commitment to increase its funding of home care for elderly survivors to $180 million in 2012. This year, the figure is $156 million.

“Litigation is costly and prolonged, and there are negotiations going on that will actually produce benefits for survivors now,” he said.

On June 17, the Holocaust Survivors Foundation, which supports the legislation, said in response that separate negotiations should not impinge on the right of individuals to litigate claims and that Western European nations are unlikely to renege on separate agreements.

The largest and more established survivors group, the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, also has weighed in supporting the bill, with a caveat: Cap lawyers’ fees. Max Liebmann, the group’s senior vice president, said an overriding consideration was a recent spate of scandals that exposed lawyers ostensibly representing survivors as making unseemly profits.

“Dubbin is trying to cut in on this and make money,” he said.

Dubbin’s clients vouch for his integrity.

“He helps us with everything for so many years, not just insurance, with getting information, with filling out papers, and he never got paid,” said David Mermelstein. “If I go to court and win, shouldn’t he get paid?”

Holocaust survivors struggle to receive insurance payouts

Holocaust survivors continue to face roadblocks, including the United States government, in collecting on insurance policies taken out before the war.

Aging survivors trying to reclaim insurance policies face opposition from the State Department over concerns that pressing claims could undermine an agreement reached in 2000 between the United States and Germany, which resulted in $300 million paid to survivors and their heirs, the New York Times reported.

“The State Department is concerned that lawsuits by the survivors could not only disrupt prior agreements with European governments but might also have a negative impact on other reparation agreements growing out of the Holocaust as well,” the department said in a statement to the Times.

Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have voiced their opposition to survivors bringing their claims to court so as not to disrupt previous agreements. In September, Congress heard testimony on proposed legislation that would make it easier to pursue such action. No such legislation has ever been successful.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who sponsored similar legislation in March, told the New York Times she hopes this year will be different.

“This will not usurp anybody’s authority,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “This is about giving the survivors their day in court. We’ve already waited too long.”

Why We Must Support Universal Health Care

Related: Jews Should Oppose Universal Health Care

Whether or not we are believers in the Obama plan, or any of the particular plans for universal health care currently winding their way through Congress, support for universal health care is an imperative in Jewish law. Although what is available in medicine and its cost have changed radically, particularly over the past century, the fundamental right to receive good care — and to be compensated for giving it — goes very far back in our heritage, though perhaps, ironically, not all the way to the Torah or even the Mishnah.

When physicians could not do much to heal a sick patient, their services were easily attainable, relatively cheap, and, frankly, not much sought after. “The best of physicians should go to hell,” the Mishnah says, reflecting people’s frustration in the second century C.E. with doctors’ inability to cure. 

With the advent of antibiotics in 1938, as well as other new drug therapies, and, especially, new diagnostic and surgical techniques, however, there has been an immense increase in the demand for medical care, precisely as it has become much more expensive. This raises not only the “micro” questions of how physicians should treat a given person’s disease, but also the “macro” questions of how we, as a society, should arrange for medical care to be distributed. It is precisely this argument that is taking place in town halls and in the halls of Congress these days, sometimes in rational arguments but all too often in shouting matches that are clouding the real issues.

Jewish tradition imposes a clear duty to try to heal, and this duty devolves upon both the physician and the society. Jewish sources on distributing and paying for health care are understandably sparse, however, because before the 20th century, medical care was largely ineffective and inexpensive. The classical sources that describe distribution of scarce resources and apportioning the financial burden for communal services deal instead with questions like providing for the needy or rescuing someone from captivity, from highway robbers or from drowning. Still, those discussions raise moral problems and suggest solutions that are often similar to those associated with scarcity and cost in modern medical care. 

One set of issues is this: Who should get what when medical interventions are scarce and/or expensive? The other set of questions is this: Who should pay for health care? I discuss at some length the answers that emerge from the Jewish tradition to both of these questions in Chapter 12 of my book, “Matters of Life and Death: A Jewish Approach to Modern Medical Ethics” (Jewish Publication Society, 1998). I will share here a general sense of how the Jewish tradition responds to these questions, which are at once so ancient and so contemporary. (For specific source references, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.)

The Distribution of Health Care: Five Criteria for Triage

If particular forms of medical treatment are scarce or expensive, who should get them? Although this question of triage is most dramatic when the decision is one of life or death, it affects the quality of people’s lives in less threatening situations as well. Who, for example, should get a hip replacement when society cannot afford to provide one for everyone who needs one? Who should have the benefit of a heart bypass operation or transplant, and who shall be denied that? Which AIDS patients should get the regimen of drugs now available to lengthen their lives, and for whom is that just too expensive? In the High Holy Days liturgy, “who shall live and who shall die” is God’s decision; but with the benefit and responsibility of today’s technology, we find ourselves all too often in the uncomfortable position of having the responsibility to decide that ourselves.

The rabbinic passages that might give us some guidance about triage go in five different directions:

Social hierarchy. One passage in the Mishnah determines priorities on the basis of the victim’s position in the hierarchy of society — with knowledge of Torah trumping all other social stations.

Close relationship. Jewish laws on charity provide a second reservoir of precedents that may guide the provision of health care. In concentric circles, you are most responsible for yourself first, then for those closest in relationship to you, then for the rest of your local Jewish community, then for all other Jews, and then for all other people. 

A hierarchy of social needs. A third set of sources we might use as the basis for a Jewish ethic of the distribution of health care concerns the prioritizing of the community’s duties to fund specific needs. The Shulchan Arukh specifies the order of preferences as follows: “There are those who say that the commandment to [build and support] a synagogue takes precedence over the commandment to give charity [tzedakah, to the poor], but the commandment to give money to the youth to learn Torah or to the sick among the poor takes precedence over the commandment to build and support a synagogue.

One must feed the hungry before one clothes the naked [since starvation is taken to be a more direct threat to the person’s life than exposure]. If a man and a woman came to ask for food, we [Jews acting in accordance with Jewish law] put the woman before the man [because the man can beg with less danger to himself]; similarly, if a man and a woman came to ask for clothing, and similarly, if a male orphan and a female orphan came to ask for funds to be married, we put the woman before the man.

Redeeming captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them [since the captive’s life is always in direct and immediate danger], and there is no commandment more important than redeeming captives…. Every moment that one delays redeeming captives where it is possible to do so quickly, one is like a person who sheds blood.”

The Shulchan Arukh recognizes the varying needs of the community — physical, educational, religious and social. Each can be easily justified in terms of broader Jewish commitments to life, human dignity, worship and other religious expression, education, economic solvency and close social ties. Consequently, if one were to create a contemporary list based on these Jewish values for funding communal projects in the United States, it would probably closely resemble the Shulchan Arukh’s list. Saving people who are threatened by human attackers would clearly come first, followed by providing food and clothing to prevent disease, followed by some order of curative health care, defense, education, culture and economic infrastructure.

The high cost of dying

A traditional Jewish funeral is simple and not ostentatious good news for people concerned about the high cost of dying. But while Jewish law doesn’t require embalming, elaborate floral displays or 16-gauge metal caskets with tufted crepe interiors, it does require Jews to be buried in the ground. And that costs money.

“You have to be realistic. We happen to live in an area where even a small piece of real estate is expensive,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, who also serves as chair of the Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

But many Jews don’t want to be realistic when it comes to paying for funerals.

Perhaps it’s denial, a sign of reluctance to accept death, let alone finance it. Never mind that other lifecycle observances b’nai mitzvah and weddings, for instance come with concomitant costs.

Or perhaps it’s a fear of the potential ruses and abuses we’ve heard about in the funeral industry, many of them exposed in Jessica Mitford’s 1964 groundbreaking book titled, “The American Way of Death.”

Today, however, the funeral industry is highly regulated by both the federal and state governments many say as a result of Mitford’s book.

The “Funeral Rule,” stipulating how funeral professionals deal with consumers, was enacted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and put into effect in 1984. This has brought transparency to practices previously shrouded in secrecy; “Funerals: A Consumer’s Guide” is available online.

The Funeral Rule also requires funeral homes to give consumers who appear in person a detailed, printed list of merchandise and services, known as the “general price list.” If requested, a funeral home director must also quote prices over the phone. This allows consumers to more easily and accurately compare prices among funeral homes so they can select only those goods and services they want. Caskets and other items also must be allowed to be purchased from outside sources without incurring a handling fee.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs’ Cemetery and Funeral Bureau’s “Consumer Guide to Funeral & Cemetery Purchase,” spells out state law. Although those laws are applicable to all mortuaries, they do not pertain to cemeteries operated by religious organizations. That booklet, too, is available online.

In Southern California, the Board of Rabbis’ Funeral Practices Committee works with clergy, funeral industry representatives and the Jewish community to set standards, address issues and, as best as possible, nurture “a sacred and positive spirit of cooperation,” according the committee’s mission statement.

To that end, the committee has set a standard honorarium of $500 for unaffiliated families to pay ordained rabbis for officiating at Jewish funerals. Hyman said it is meant to represent the “time, energy and commitment that a rabbi should be giving to a family.”

The committee is also looking into the status and condition of various distressed or closed local Jewish cemeteries, among other priorities.

It’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what funerals generally cost. The national average cost of a Jewish funeral is not available, as the Jewish Funeral Directors of America keeps no records, according to executive director Florence Pressman.

And the national median cost of a funeral in America which according to the National Funeral Directors Association totaled $7,323 in 2006, without including the cost of a plot is not relevant, as it encompasses nontraditional Jewish items, such as embalming, viewing and metal caskets.

In Los Angeles, estimated costs for a traditional Jewish funeral range roughly from $3,500 to $4,500, including the casket but not the plot or the rabbi’s services. The price can be less, with package deals available through some mortuaries. But higher costs can also be easily incurred.

For example, a plain pine casket costs $700 to $900, while some all-wood caskets still considered traditional can exceed $12,000. And a customized nonkosher casket can top $30,000.

As for land, the price for a single plot can range from around $2,000 in some cemeteries to as high as $35,000. And the price of a large estate, depending on the number of spaces allotted, can go as high as a family wishes to spend, commanding as much as half a million dollars.

“It’s location, location, location,” Mount Sinai’s general manager Len Lawrence said.

Despite the familiar real estate refrain, however, it’s worth noting that what you’re buying is the right to inter not actual property. Plot prices do not fluctuate with downturns in the real estate market.

The cost of a plot, by law, also includes a certain percentage mandated for endowment care to ensure cemetery upkeep in perpetuity. That amount for ground plots a minimum of $2.25 a square foot, according to California’s Cemetery & Funeral Bureau, though cemeteries can collect more is monitored by the state, and only its earned interest can be spent on maintenance.

Some cemeteries, such as those owned by Chevra Kadisha Mortuary, are nonendowment care entities.

“Our cemeteries are older and more Orthodox,” said Yossi Manela, a Chevra Kadisha funeral director. “They’re more affordable, but they’re not for everyone.”

A burial vault is another expense that is often questioned. The container, which is usually made of cement and encloses a coffin, is not mandated by California law, but is required by many cemeteries to prevent the ground from settling and forming sinkholes and to facilitate maintenance. “Most cemeteries are referred to as memorial parks and have beautiful grounds. The vault allows for the park-like atmosphere,” said Ira Polisky, Eden’s family service manager.

To save money, some people buy plots from third-party sources. Plots offered for sale can be found in the newspaper classified ads including this newspaper as well as online, on sites like Craigslist and eBay. People sell plots because they decide to move, for example, or divorce and no longer want to share eternity. Or sometimes financial concerns force them to cash out.

Caskets also are sold through online distributors or retail stores. ABC Caskets Factory, for example, located in downtown Los Angeles, is a casket manufacturer and not merely an online store. The company offers same-day delivery to mortuaries within a 30-mile radius, accommodating families who are arranging next-day funerals in accordance with Jewish tradition.

“Our Jewish caskets are all ready. It’s no big deal,” said Isabelle Conzevoy, wife of owner Joey Conzevoy.

Online and retail sellers, however, are not regulated by the same federal and state laws that govern funeral establishments, though they are subject to state and local business laws.

However, a concern was voiced about third-party purchases. “But what do you do if the casket arrives dented or damaged?” asked Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park.

For the indigent, the Jewish Community Burial Program, offered through Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles, provides a traditional Jewish burial at no cost, with participating Jewish mortuaries and cemeteries donating many of their services. (The toll-free contact number is (887) 275-4537.)

“No one should have to make an un-Jewish and undignified choice because of cost,” Funeral Practices Committee chair Hyman said.

Additionally, some cemeteries, including Hillside and Mount Sinai, do not charge for the burial of a child. “The family has enough tzuris (trouble). They don’t need any more,” Mount Sinai’s Lawrence said.

Still, the fact is, sooner or later, all of us are going to deal with the reality and the expense of death.

“It’s part of our life experience. Death is really another chapter in our life and is to be treated with the utmost sanctity,” Hyman said.

Caves of Abraham, Mount Sinai Memorial Park, Simi Valley

Planning Ahead

Rabbis and Jewish community professionals have long trumpeted the advantages of preplanning for end-of-life exigencies.
It’s not always an easy sell.

“We live in psychological denial that we are going to die someday, although we mentally understand,” said Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector and philosophy professor at American Jewish University, who also serves as halachic consultant at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries.

“That’s perfectly healthy, but not OK if it prevents us from making preparations for death,” he added.

The Funeral Practices Committee of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California, which acts as a liaison among clergy, families in need and the Jewish funeral industry, takes a strong stance on this issue.

“For parents, [planning ahead] is a gift of love for your family, not just financially, but also spiritually and emotionally,” said Mark Hyman, senior rabbi at Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach and Funeral Practices Committee chair.

Ron Sobol, 54, took action after his mother’s death, soon after which he also received a flyer from Adat Ari El announcing a sale of cemetery plots the synagogue had purchased at Eden Memorial Park.

“When a parent dies, you feel a little bit more mortal,” Sobol said.

Sobol met an Adat Ari El representative at the cemetery, viewed plots in three locations and purchased companion side-by-side plots for himself and his wife, Leah.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” Sobol said.

For people who want a traditional burial, selecting a cemetery is usually the first step. Choosing a particular plot or crypt, which is a space in a mausoleum or other building, follows.

Those set on Hillside Memorial Park or Mount Sinai Memorial Park’s Hollywood Hills location might not want to drag their feet. In 25 years or more, both expect to be out of room.

“Sold out, not filled,” Mount Sinai general manager Len Lawrence specified.

But the situation isn’t dire.

Mount Sinai opened its 160-acre Simi Valley location in 2002, giving it space for the next two centuries, according to Lawrence. Hillside is actively looking for new property, CEO Mark Friedman reported. And Eden Memorial Park, which was purchased by Service Corporation International in 1985, is “good for 100 years-plus,” said general manager Anthony Lempe.

No national statistics are available concerning the number of Jews who make advance burial preparations, but according to representatives at Mount Sinai, Hillside and Eden, the three largest cemeteries that serve the multidenominational Los Angeles community, it’s a clear majority.

“This is going to happen to all of us, and if you do your thinking and decision making at a time when you can all be open and rational and truly together, you make much better decisions,” Hillside’s Friedman said.

In addition to the plot, preplanning can include selecting the casket and, if desired, a shroud. Plus, certain services, such as taharah (the ritual cleansing) and shmira (guarding the body) can be prearranged. Even flowers can be ordered in advance.

Mortuaries generally take care of the casket and additional services. Certain cemeteries, including Hillside, Mount Sinai and Sholom, have their own mortuaries. Others are independent but work cooperatively with all cemeteries.

Fewer people, however, prepay the mortuary expenses.

“It’s really a personal decision based on a family’s current financial position,” said Helaine Cohen, a certified public accountant.

She explained that families struggling with mortgages, college tuitions and other day-to-day expenses may be better off waiting until the children leave home. Other families, with one or both spouses working, may be better positioned to pay for these expenses when their income is more substantial, before they retire.

Cohen herself admits that she and her husband have not discussed buying plots. “We just turned 50,” she said. “That’s the age to address long-term health insurance.”

But people can make many end-of-life decisions without actually prepaying for them. Most mortuaries, in fact, will

keep these preferences on record. Additionally, writing wills and creating other financial and health care directives are really part of the preplanning process, with some of these documents not subject to delay.

“I frankly think and people look at me cross-eyed when I say this that as soon as a person gets a driver’s license that person should fill out a durable power of attorney of health care,” Dorff said. He believes it’s important that parents know their teenager’s wishes in the rare case of a debilitating accident.

Dorff also recommends that parents, as they get older, write an ethical will, essentially a letter to their children specifying their life values. Additionally, he advises compiling a family history.

But people can’t preplan in a vacuum.

“It’s interesting. We encourage people to preplan, but first you have to do education,” said David Zinner, executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, the national nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring Jewish death and bereavement practices.

Generally, end-of-life education takes place in the synagogue, encompassing a session or two in a Jewish life-cycle curriculum. It’s also a popular sermon topic during the Yom Kippur Yizkor (memorial) service.

Kavod v’Nichum itself sponsors an annual conference on chevra kadisha (a holy society that prepares the body of the deceased for burial) and related topics such as chaplaincy. The organization’s next conference, in June 2009, is targeted for the West Coast, possibly Los Angeles, according to Zinner.

Moe Goldsman, funeral director and mortuary manager at Sholom Chapels Mortuaries and Sholom Memorial Park, holds a seminar annually after the High Holy Days to educate people about preneed. This year it’s scheduled for Oct. 26 at Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

And Sinai Temple is hosting a one-day seminar on death and dying on Feb. 22, 2009, open to the community. “We hope to help people begin a discussion,” said Terry Wohlberg, co-founder of the synagogue’s chevra kadisha.

A conversation about these issues, whether people actually make advance arrangements or not, can do more than ease future burdens on the survivors. It can have real-time and unexpected benefits for the people themselves.

Producer Cathee Weiss works with individuals who want to create film biographies, sitting down with them to discuss the life lessons they wish to impart to their progeny.

“There’s always reflection on the big values,” Weiss said. “The notion of what we’re going to leave behind makes all of us a little more conscious of living a life of worth, of value, of integrity.”


Kollek a British Spy?
The late Teddy Kollek reportedly spied for Britain against the hard-line Jewish underground in British Mandate Palestine. Citing declassified documents, the Israeli newspaper, Yediot Achronot, reported last week that Kollek, who is best remembered as Jerusalem’s longest-serving mayor, had spent much of the 1940s passing information to the British authorities that helped them crack down on Etzel and Lehi fighters.

At the time, Kollek was a senior figure with the Jewish Agency, which was largely aligned with the more moderate Haganah and Palmach Zionist movements.

One of Etzel’s leaders, Menachem Begin, topped Britain’s wanted list, eluded capture and went on to become Israeli prime minister. According to Yediot, Israeli diplomats asked Britain’s government archives to keep the files on Kollek sealed while he was alive.

Asked about the report, Kollek’s son, Amos, told the newspaper, “Dad never spoke of his activities during that period.”

U.S. Lawmakers Want Insurance Firms to Release Names of Shoah Policyholders
Congress wants to force Holocaust-era insurance companies to disclose lists of their insured survivors. The Holocaust Insurance Accountability Act of 2007, introduced by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), seeks to supersede international agreements brokered by the State Department to settle insurance claims through the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The proposed legislation asserts that commission, which officially ended its nine-year efforts last week, “did not make sufficient effort to investigate” or compile the names of Holocaust-era insureds or the claims due to survivors. The measure would require insurers to disclose comprehensive lists of those they insured during the Hitler era.

The legislation also authorizes federal lawsuits to recover monies from insurers, thus overruling the commission’s authority and a variety of adverse Supreme Court rulings that have denied survivors the right to sue.

The bill was spurred by survivors groups, following revelations in the Jewish media that the secret International Tracing Service archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany, contains thousands of uninvestigated documents relating to insurance and corporate complicity.

Briton Wins Largest Jewish Literary Prize
The largest-ever Jewish literary prize, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature that was inaugurated this year, has been awarded to British writer Tamar Yellin, author of “The Genizah at the House of Shepher.”

The award carries a grant of $100,000. Individuals cannot apply but instead are recommended by an anonymous team of nominators. Many Jewish literary awards have modest, if any, honorariums attached.

The prize was established by Sami Rohr’s children and grandchildren to celebrate his 80th birthday and is presented to an emerging writer, whose work of exceptional literary merit stimulates an interest in themes of Jewish concern.

Yellin has won a triple crown of major Jewish literary awards this year. In addition to the Rohr Prize, she received Hadassah’s Ribalow Prize and the Reform Judaism Prize, both awarded for Jewish fiction.

When asked about how the latest award might change her life, she replied, “I’m carrying on with my writing. I’m working on a new novel.”

She explained that because of her supportive husband, she was able to give up teaching several years ago and become a full-time writer. She continues to visit schools in northern England as a Jewish Faith Visitor, teaching about Judaism in schools where there’s a large Pakistani Muslim community and many of the children have never encountered a Jewish person.

“It’s very important to connect with them, for them to meet someone Jewish and to learn about our traditions to break down the barrier of ignorance,” she said.

The daughter of a third-generation Jerusalemite father and a Polish immigrant mother, she studied Hebrew and Arabic at Oxford. In her novel and stories, she writes of identity, community, belonging and exile, which, as she explained, are themes that grow out of her experience of being Jewish in England.

Rohr was a real estate developer in Bogota, Columbia, for more than 30 years and now lives in Miami. His lifelong love of Jewish writing includes the work of Lion Feuchtwanger and, in Yiddish, Israel Joshua Singer.

The two runners-up, who will each receive $7,500, are Amir Guttfreund of Israel, author of “Our Holocaust,” and Michael Lavigne of San Francisco, author of “Not Me.” Other finalists are Yael Hedaya from Israel, author of “Accidents,” and Naomi Alderman from England, author of “Disobedience.”

Administered by the Jewish Book Council, the prize will be given annually, with awards to fiction and nonfiction writers in alternate years.

The Rohr family will also establish the Rohr Family Jewish Literary Institute, a forum devoted to the continuity of Jewish literature. The institute will convene a biannual retreat, meeting for the first time after the next round of award recipients are announced in 2008. All of the finalists will be invited to participate.

Judges for this year’s award were professor Jeremy Dauber, Columbia University; novelist (and MacArthur Fellow) Rebecca Goldstein; Daisy Maryles, Publishers Weekly; novelist Jonathan Rosen; and professor Ruth Wisse, Harvard University. — Sandee Brawarsky, The Jewish Week

Briefs courtesy of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Interest Increases as Deadline Nears

Susie Tiffany of Beverly Hills suffers from a rare blood disorder and needs monthly infusions of blood components, which her insurance company ultimately declined to cover. She hoped the government’s new prescription drug benefit would help her out because, despite her ZIP code, she’s a low-income senior.

But the possibilities, were baffling: an array of private insurance plans that covered different things, explanations on the Internet that included terms she never had to know before, additional complexities depending on a person’s income and a confusing interplay of state and federal agencies.

However, Tiffany was able to find assistance in her case from Jewish Family Service. A social worker helped get Tiffany’s treatment covered by new state funds intended to help seniors with the transition to the new federal system.

“It’s a good thing that I had a good social worker,” said Tiffany, 65, who lives in a Beverly Hills city subsidized apartment building for low-income seniors.

“There are quite a number of options, and it’s overwhelming,” said Susan Alexman, director of senior services at Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles.

In Los Angeles County, insurance companies have offered 47 different plans for seniors seeking to enroll in the new federally funded benefit. The plan’s May 15 deadline means seniors must sign up without delay or face increased fees for late enrollment.

For some seniors, the financial stakes are high. But while interest is picking up, for most of the past year, social service groups have had few takers when they’ve tried to help.

“It’s strange, but our office has not had any calls on that,” said Deborah Baldwin, public benefits supervisor at Bet Tzedek Legal Services, when asked in March.

At the Fairfax District office of the National Council of Jewish Women, a Democratic congressman’s field staffer set aside four hours over two days in late January to discuss the new Medicare Part D drug plan with seniors. Hardly anyone showed up.

“Just three,” the staffer told The Jewish Journal. “People are putting it off.”

Health care activists, community workers and groups, including Jewish Family Service, have been holding numerous Part D awareness meetings, especially this spring.

“This has been going on for a year and a half,” said Anita Chun, community education coordinator at the Center for Healthcare Rights in Los Angeles. “Now people are paying attention.”

A Part D meeting in March in West Hollywood, put on by Jewish Family Service, attracted about 120 seniors. Attendance also picked up for a March meeting at Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park — after a sparsely attended February session with social workers and experts.

Some seniors said they expect to come out OK under the new system.

“The health program that I belong to enrolled everybody in it beforehand,” said Encino retiree Janet Siskind. Her Blue Shield 65 Plus coverage gets her quarterly refills of the three to four pills she needs. Siskind’s combined prescription fees will increase, but only by about $10 annually.

“I’m in good hands with this,” she said. “It’s something I can afford.”

Siskind’s San Fernando Valley chapter of the Na’amat women’s group held a recent Part D meeting for 25 people.

“We figured, ‘Well, it hasn’t started yet, perhaps it’ll get easier as time goes along,'” she said. “It hasn’t really been explained too thoroughly.”

With so much Part D information online, many seniors are at a disadvantage, because of their discomfort or unfamiliarity with the Internet.

California’s Medi-Cal program, which had covered poor and low-income seniors’ prescription costs, stopped providing service on Jan. 1, when Part D took over. Yet there were startup problems, which included state and federal computers being unable to interact. Many poor seniors were suddenly being asked to pay full price for medications. The reports of hardship prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Legislature in mid-January to push through emergency prescription drug funding for low-income seniors until May 15.

“It makes the state the payer of last resort for the prescriptions that they need,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Julie Soderlund.

But only until May 15, which could force Tiffany, suffering from the blood disorder, to navigate the system again.

“Good old Part D, the insurance policy that was gonna change it all,” she said. “It’s gonna take some time for me to get happy about it.”

David Merritt, project director at the Center for Health Transformation think tank in Washington, D.C., said that despite such glitches, Medicare Part D transition problems nationwide have been relatively low, with Americans not upset over Part D the way they are over high gas prices.

“Anytime you have a massive policy shift from one system to another system, you’re going to run into problems,” he told The Journal. “The vast majority [of seniors] had zero problems enrolling or getting medication.”

But to Jews dependent on Medicare for affordable drugs, “it’s unfair for seniors to be expected to maneuver through this incredibly messy web,” said Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah. “Health trumps every other problem in your life.”

“They’re basically saying they’re confused, and they want someone to walk them through it,” Klein said.


Community Briefs

Jewish Candidate Drops Out of Insurance Chief Race

One of two Jewish candidates seeking the Republican nomination for California insurance commissioner has pulled out of the race.

Dr. Phil Kurzner, a Westside urologist, told supporters at a Feb. 21 fundraiser that he is withdrawing from the commissioner’s race, according to Dr. Joel Strom, a Santa Monica dentist who served as Kurzner’s campaign chair. The event took place at the Regency Club in Westwood and was attended by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who had come to help raise funds for Kurzner.

The likely front-runner for the Republican spot in the June 6 primary is Steve Poizner, who is also Jewish. Poizner is a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has made millions creating global positioning technology. Los Angeles businessman Gary Mendoza is the only other Republican in the race.

“The Republican establishment was lining up behind our opponent, Steve Poizner, and we felt that for the party and for party unity, we would withdraw from the race,” said Strom, former president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles.

In a campaign statement after Kurzner’s withdrawal, Poizner praised him, saying, “I am grateful that we will not have to face him in this primary.”

Strom said Kurzner’s campaign had raised more than $400,000 and Kurzner had made 200 campaign appearances over the past two years. At a Jan. 25 fundraiser at the Pacific Palisades home of former gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon, Kurzner told guests, “I’m not afraid to lose, and I’m not afraid to win.”

Poizner’s campaign funds are estimated to be at least $4.6 million, making him more financially potent than Kurzner might have been against Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, the Democratic front-runner for insurance commissioner. John Garamendi, the current commissioner, is running for lieutenant governor this year.

“The larger purpose is to defeat Bustamante,” Strom said. — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Two Officials Back Halted Jerusalem Museum Project

The Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has the full support of Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski to continue construction on its new Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance in the heart of Jerusalem, despite Muslim concerns that the museum would be built atop a former Islamic cemetery, Gidi Schmerling, Jerusalem municipality spokesman, told The Jewish Journal Feb. 24.

Construction of the $200 million project was halted Feb. 15, when lawyers for two Muslim organizations sent a petition to the Israeli High Court of Justice. The petition asserted that thousands of Muslims who died during the Crusades of the 12th and 13th centuries are buried at the site where the center is being built. They also argued that in the seventh century, associates of the Islamic prophet Mohammad were interred at the site.

Last week, the High Court appointed former Chief Justice Meir Shamgar as a mediator. Shamgar has a month to find a resolution.

Lupolianski, the spokesman said, recently sent a letter to the Wiesenthal Center applauding the building of the museum.

“For the past three decades, this land has been utilized as a public car park, and it is commendable that it will now serve as the site for this important museum,” the mayor wrote.

The office of acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also confirmed that Olmert has given his support for continued construction of the Wiesenthal museum at the current site. Olmert called the museum “an essential project for Jerusalem, a landmark that will change the face of Jerusalem forever.” — Yaakov Katz, Contributing Writer


Bills Seek to End Israel Travel Penalty

It happens over and over again: A planned trip to Israel induces gasps of worry from friends who have never visited the country. Every suicide bombing or mortar attack on television reinforces the vision of Israel as a vast raging war zone.

Some travelers appreciate the concern; others simply ignore it. But this perception of danger has had serious repercussions for people in California and in other states. For several years at least, life insurance companies doing business in California and elsewhere have been denying coverage or charging increased premiums to individuals who have either recently visited Israel or plan to visit soon. The assumption is that the country is just too dangerous, and that someone foolish enough to risk going to Israel once is likely to do so again.

A bill making its way through the California Legislature would make it illegal to impose such a penalty on travelers to Israel or any other country. Two similar bills are before House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.

“Traveling to Israel is so broad,” said Nancy Appel, Anti-Defamation League regional deputy director, who testified in support of the state legislation, Senate Bill 1105, at a July committee hearing. Compare “traveling to Eilat vs. going to a war-zone area.” For insurance companies to discriminate on the basis of travel anywhere in the country is “like swatting a fly with a sledgehammer,” Appel told The Journal.

Momentum appears to favor her view. The states of Washington, New York and Illinois have recently passed similar legislation, although the latter two only ban discrimination based on past travel, rather than future plans. A House bill by Rep. Rahm Emmanuel (D-Ill.), the Life Insurance Anti-Discrimination in Travel Act, deals specifically with past travel, while a bill by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the Life Insurance Fairness for Travelers Act, bans insurance discrimination based on future plans.

In the Legislature, the bill was quickly introduced in midterm by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Francisco), with the support of Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who is running for state treasurer in 2006.

“This bill appeared right in the middle of the session, and we only saw it a week before it was heard in the Assembly Insurance Committee,” said Brad Wenger, president of the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies, which represents the insurance industry’s legislative interests in Sacramento.

The association opposed the bill at first, but then Speier’s staff struck a hallway compromise that could prove to be a model in other states or even nationally.

To secure industry support, Speier agreed that a company could deny coverage or charge higher rates if it could justify that decision by citing “sound actuarial principles” or “reasonably expected experience.” After adding that language, the association immediately changed its official position on the bill to “neutral,” making its passage a near certainty.

In plain English, the bill now allows insurers to penalize travelers to Israel only if they have actual evidence that higher risk exists. A similar resolution was reached in the 1980s, after the industry came under pressure for allegedly discriminating against the disabled.

“SB 1105 gives the California Department of Insurance the ability to ask an insurer what they’re basing a [discriminatory] decision on, and they would require a pretty good case to be made,” Wenger said.

Wenger quickly added that the department already can investigate alleged discriminatory practices.

“This just makes it a little more specific,” he said.

“Everybody was comfortable [that] this language would not create a loophole,” Appel added. “If they have hard data backing up their opinion to deny coverage or charge more, they can do that. The problem now is that they deny coverage with no data backing up their reasons.”

Still, the definition of “data” can be vague. Some past coverage denials were ostensibly based on State Department travel warnings, which, though anecdotal, derive from a credible source. Such a warning is currently in effect. The State Department cites recent bombings and notes, “The U.S. government has received information indicating that American interests within Israel could be the focus of terrorist attacks.”

Wenger did not provide specific examples of what would constitute sound actuarial principles in the context of the California legislation.

“It’s a very, very competitive market out there,” he said. “I think you have to have some sympathy for [the insurance company] when there is a place in the world that is either at war or in a very dangerous situation.”

With the insurance industry’s official neutrality, the state legislation without opposition in the California Assembly on Aug. 18. The bill is now headed to the state Senate. If it passes there, as expected, the measure would reach the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has not yet taken an official position on the bill.

“It’s just amazing,” Appel said. “Some bills take forever to get written [but] this one happened very fast.”

Whether the bill has the intended effect will take longer to work out.



Workers’ Comp Woes

I am appalled by Jill Stewart’s self serving and misleading missives about the so-called reform (in reality, deform) of workers’ compensation (“It’s Time to Heal Worker’s Comp,” May 6).

During the past approximately 25 years I have been representing injured workers. I am proud to say I am an Orthodox Jew and a registered Republican. As you can imagine, I am not a starry-eyed liberal and I certainly do not support the very rare and sometimes understandable (but not excusable) desire to take advantage of the system. But, the new regulations and legislation violate the very spirit and substance of the workers’ compensation system, which is to adequately compensate those who put their life and limb at risk working for others. As an Orthodox Jew, I have felt comfortable seeking compensation for my laboring clients, especially as such compensation does not differ radically from the damages available to an injured worker under traditional Jewish law. As a good American, follower of halacha and an employer myself, I recognize we all have a duty to go as far as possible to aid and make whole those who are truly injured through no fault of their own, but this is exactly what the new laws do not do.

Any fair-minded insurance defense attorney will admit that the new laws are shamefully and extremely draconian. Every attorney who represents injured workers already has several horrible-but-true tales of what has happened to their clients over the past few months. I hope the many Democrat legislators who signed on to this plan did not realize the actual impact of what they were creating in this monstrous Senate bill by giving the benefit of doubt to the governor. No one can honestly tell you that there has never been fraud and abuse in the system, but it has not been endemic or systemic either. Let politicians and insurers chase the treatment mills and other scavengers away by enforcing the law as it stood, but the solution is not starvation wages and denial of bare minimum medical treatment for injured workers.

Jeffrey Nurik

Cover Girl

Is The Jewish Journal so starstruck that the best you could do for a cover story the week of Yom HaAtzmaut was an article including a profile of a “beautiful young” Israeli expat actress who has fulfilled her life’s ambition by standing on a soundstage with Scarlett Johansson (“Shalom Hollywood,” May 13)? I wish her all the best in her endeavors — but I may be old fashioned. I would have preferred a cover story for Israeli Independence Day following up on some ex-Angelenos pursuing the Zionist dream by making aliyah.

Aaron Davidson
Los Angeles

Reform’s Rep

My first visit to a Reform congregation was truly exciting (“Reform’s Reforms,” May 20). Although some of the ritual and prayers were foreign to me, the majority of the readings were in English and relevant to the issues that I face in the modern world. The sermon called upon us as individuals to make a difference in the world. This was a call to action, not a request for belief!

I am 62-years-old and preparing for my bar mitzvah 13 years after my conversion. I struggle with Hebrew. I am more comfortable worshipping in English. I am a Reform Jew. I do not consider Reform Judaism to be less religious than traditional Judaism. In fact, I assert the opposite. Traditional ritual and following a faith-based list of rules has the very real danger of seeming religious without challenging the worshipers to truly search their hearts and their minds for ways to repair our world. Judaism is an action religion. We are challenged to do. We are challenged to repair the world. We are challenged to be better than we are. We are not challenged to accept kashrut, tefillin, tzeniut or tzitzit.

Robert Ingrum

As a freelance book editor who has worked with the Reform movement and continues to do so, I read with great interest Micha Odenheimer’s cover story. To the many noteworthy facets of change that the article reported, let me add one more: the publication three months ago of a revised edition of its bestselling Torah with commentary. Of the new edition’s many features, three in particular manifest that Reform Jews study Torah more seriously than before:

1. It provides a Hebrew text that is among the most historically accurate and visually precise ever published.

2. It places the translation right next to the Hebrew original, paragraph by paragraph, so that the translation better serves as a stepping-stone to the real text.

3. It is backed by more than 350 pages of online documentation that list and explain changes made to the Hebrew text and to the translation (relative to the first edition), because the publisher believes that its readers care about those details.

Such changes are achieved only with a considerable investment of time and expense.

This and other recent publications of the URJ Press (www.urjpress.com) speak volumes about the direction of the Reform movement.

David E. S. Stein
Redondo Beach

Honorary Jew

There is a factual error in Tom Tugend’s piece “Stamp of Approval.” Yip Harburg, the prolific lyricist of such Ammerican pop standards as “Over the Rainbow,” was not, in fact, Jewish (“Stamp of Approval,” May 20). His co-writer, composer Harold Arlen, who created the gorgeous melody for “Over the Rainbow,” was very Jewish (his father was the venerated cantor Samuel Arlen). The talented Harburg joked about feeling like an honorary Jew in that he worked with various Jewish composers of the golden era of American song, and because his name sounded Jewish — but he was Christian.

Jacqueline Bassan
“From Shul To Cool: The Romantic Jewish Roots of American Popular Music”

Healing Workers’ Comp

Jill Stewart is well-known for her anti-worker and anti-workers’ comp sentiments. She has repeatedly misstated the facts and attacked the wrong parties (“It’s Time to Heal Worker’s Comp,” May 6). She continues to have a distorted view of what is going on in workers’ comp. We did not get reform of the workers’ compensation systems — we got an outright assault, a mutilation of injured workers’ rights. How dare she attack the one group of people who have fought long and hard to protect the injured workers’ of this state, the lawyers who represent them?

Stewart claims that the money spent on workers’ comp went to the middlemen, like lawyers who were milking the system. Wrong again, Ms. Stewart. Nothing could be further from the truth. No. 1, the insurance company does not pay the attorney fees. Attorneys only get 15 percent attorney fees, paid by the injured workers from their award or settlement. Compare that to all other areas of law where fees are much more substantial. The insurance companies, who padded Gov. Schwarzegger’s with exorbitant amount of money, got the reforms they wanted. How’s that for taking special interest money and the governor doing favors for those who did? Now the insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank at the expense of the injured worker. Employer rates have not dropped as promised and, as her article states, permanent disability benefits are now the bottom in the nation. That is not something this state should be proud of.

Injured workers’ rights to medical control have been taken away. Do we take that away from any other segment of society? No. Injured workers’ rights to obtain treatment that is necessary has been taken away. We have limited their benefits while they cannot work and reduced their compensation for permanent disabilities. We have taken away their right to be retrained if they cannot return to their usual and customary work as a result of their permanent injuries. This is a travesty, Ms. Stewart. You should be ashamed of yourself for distorting the truth. Try living in the shoes of an injured worker.

I am outraged by what the governor has done to hurt the working men and women of this state and I am outraged by the special interest money he has taken from the insurance companies. The injured workers of this state deserve better.

Susan Fields

In response to Jill Stewart’s scathing attack on attorneys representing workers, it revealed more about her ignorance of the subject matter than anything else. Senate Bill 899 is the most vicious attack on the basic rights of the injured worker in California history. Instead of focusing on the rights of injured workers, she goes off on a tirade against their attorneys who instead of “milking the system” earn a mere 15 percent fee. The recent Rand Study confirms that benefits paid to injured workers are woefully inadequate. The new legislation even cuts that amount by at least 50 percent. As an attorney who has represented injured workers for more than 25 years, I can tell you unequivocally that the California applicant attorneys are the most dedicated group of lawyers on behalf of their clients that I have ever had the pleasure to associate with. Of all the reasons for the workers compensation crisis, Stewart is misinformed in blaming the attorneys. She should do more research before she spouts off about a subject of which she certainly has little knowledge.

Ronald M. Canter
Los Angeles

I read with dismay another of Jill Stewart’s articles about workers’ compensation. I can only say, “Jill, you’ve got it wrong.” She falsely hints that the truly injured will be helped by the Schwarzenegger sellout of injured workers. Nothing is further from the truth. Under the new AMA guides, the near dead, such as Terri Schiavo in her final days, would only be considered 90 percent disabled according to one of the editors of the AMA Guides.

Stewart has declined an invitation to meet with injured workers or an attorney representing them to hear directly from them how the changes have hurt truly injured people.

She needs to expand her sources beyond the Chamber of Commerce.

Robert Blum
El Dorado Hills

Battle of Faith

James D. Besser’s article shows a moral blindness to seven glaring realities (“The Faith Wars Heat Up, ” May 20):

1) For the past 37 years, the forces of political correctness have poisoned, corrupted and degraded every institution of American life.

2) Those who are “faith revolutionaries” are average, decent people who were not very political. They were focused on raising their families, making a living and supporting their houses of worship. Pushed too far, they are angry and radicalized.

3) There are serious changes in American Jewry. A decade ago, you could not find enough Jewish Republicans for a living room meeting. Today, they are packing large auditoriums to capacity.

4) During the days of Harry Truman, Democrats represented “average Joes” who played softball at the public park while the Republicans represented those who played golf and tennis at posh country clubs. Today, the opposite is true.

5) Too many Jews, including numerous rabbis, are lukewarm Zionists. The Christian right loves Israel unconditionally.

6) Bigotry against Jews and Christians is socially acceptable. Islam is sacrosanct!

7) The real dangerous hate mongers, whom we need to fear, are on the left — not the right!

Rabbi Louis J. Feldman
Van Nuys


Israel Has Rx for U.S. Health Care

Israel and the United States each have successes and failures in their respective health care systems, but the younger of the modern nations, rooted in its tradition of helping the needy, has much to teach its American ally. When it comes to some of the most important issues facing the American health care system today — universal health care, administrative costs and establishing a national health basket of services — America can look to Israel.

Until 1995, health insurance in Israel was voluntary, although 99 percent of the Jewish population and 97 percent of the Arab population were covered by four HMOs, the first of which was established at the end of 1911. This was a system wherein the insured members paid the HMO, and the employer made a compulsory payment to the National Insurance Institute.

Today in Israel, everyone is covered by health insurance. In 1994, the Israeli parliament passed a groundbreaking health insurance bill that made every Israeli resident automatically insured, no matter their age, financial status or religion. In the United States today, more than 43 million people, including 12 million children, are uninsured.

Israel’s universal health care is characterized by its "national health care basket," which defines the range of services to which every resident is equally entitled. Residents can petition a labor court if they believe an HMO has ignored their rights to a medical service.

Universal access to Israel’s national health care basket means that there is no underinsurance in Israel, which happens when there are gaps in coverage. In the United States, more than 100 million citizens are underinsured — including 40 million with Medicare, 50 million with Medicaid and at least 10 million who are employed in large companies that have self-insurance.

The main health care delivery system for all Israelis is through primary and secondary clinics. These clinics, which are present throughout the country, provide easy and efficient access to care.

The clinics that belong to the HMOs enable quick access to primary medical care and also easy referral to specialists without waiting lists. There is continuity of care, while there is now a tremendous effort to computerize all the medical data.

Ninety-five percent of general care hospitals in Israel are public. There is no wait for diagnostic examinations such as MRI and CT or for procedures such as open-heart surgery. Payment for hospitalization is the responsibility of the HMO, and there is no deductible or co-insurance payment required of the patient.

There is a $3 co-payment for each prescription on the approved drug list covering acute and chronic diseases.

High unemployment and the Israeli economic recession make it difficult for about 10 percent of the population to pay even this, even though there is a $50 biannual co-payment cap.

Caring for the elderly is a core social policy and an integral part of health care in Israel. While in the United States geriatric care is handled by Medicare, in Israel it is part of the health basket and is the responsibility of the HMOs.

Only hospitalization in nursing homes is the responsibility of the Ministry of Health for those who cannot afford to pay for private insurance or from their own means. Geriatric care, being an integral part of health care in Israel, is of high quality.

I do hope that one of the Israeli government’s priorities in an improved economic situation will be to reflect the nation’s social values by exempting the poorest 5-10 percent of the population from drug co-payments.

Israel’s health indicators for longevity and infant mortality are better than those of the United States. This aspect is not unique to Israel, but many Western countries are better in the various indicators of health than the United States. Yet while Israel spends 8.8 percent of its Gross National Product on caring for the elderly, the United States spends 15 percent of its GNP.

In international comparisons of health care systems, Israel ranks among the top 20 in the world. But, even with its favorable standing, Israel faces many challenges, such as the financial limitations of introducing new technologies and prescription drugs to the health basket and the high taxes Israelis pay. Also of concern are high out-of-pocket expenses for cost sharing and for health care services that are covered only by complementary insurance.

Israel’s health care system, while based on the core value of access for all, is still evolving. The establishment of a "health parliament," a private initiative endorsed by the government, enabled input from ordinary Israelis to help set priorities for the future, including the challenges of limited resources and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Obviously, Israel and the United States differ vastly in size, making full comparisons limited. But with the exception of four large states, Israel is similar in size to most U.S. states. The American health system can be improved only if states take responsibility for health care, or, in the case of the four largest states, if there is regional responsibility within the state.

In 2003, the United States spent at least 30 percent of its national health expenditures on administration, while Israel spent less than 10 percent. The United States could have saved at least $280 billion of the $400 billion spent in administrative expenditures in 2003 to cover the uninsured and to close the gap of the underinsured, strengthening the democratic principles it holds dear.

Professor Mordechai Shani is the director general of Sheba Medical Center at Tel Hashomer, Israel’s largest hospital. He served twice as director general of the Ministry of Health, including 1994, when the Insurance Bill and the Patients Bill of Rights were passed by the Knesset.

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Bayside Mortgage

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Surf City Synagogue

Surf City Synagogue welcomes families seeking a spiritual and educational celebration of Judaism. Serving Huntington Beach and surrounding communities, the Synagogue offers a monthly Family Havurah, commonly held the 2nd Friday of each month, observing Shabbat. The Synagogue is in its final stages of Religious School preparation and is offering programs this fall. The Synagogue will hold High Holy Day Services at the Huntington Beach Central Library. Additional information and tickets are available by calling (714) 596-2220.

Temple Beth El

Temple Beth El of South Orange County is a reform congregation open to individuals, couples and families of all ages. We have a superb staff who are committed to our warm and friendly congregation. Our nationally recognized Jewish Education Program starts with Pre-school and runs through Grade 12. We offer an exceptional Adult Education Program, and teenage Youth Groups. We invite you to join us. We�(tm)re Closer than you THINK.

2A Liberty, Aliso Viejo 949-362-3999.

Community Briefs

Allstate to Insure Travelers VisitingIsrael

Plaintiff Allen Estrin won a major victory in his lawsuit against 14 life insurance companies over their refusal to cover people who travel to Israel. The number of defendant insurers in the suit fell to 13 when The Allstate Corp. changed its policy on June 28.

“We decided that the benefits to our customers outweigh the risks,” Allstate declared in a statement, agreeing that it “shall not consider past or future travel to the State of Israel, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip,” when issuing its policies.

Allstate also agreed not to charge travelers to Israel higher premiums than any other policyholder, all else being equal.

“To me it’s obvious that to automatically reject somebody for life insurance simply because they either went to Israel in the past or they’re traveling there in the future is simply an unfair business practice,” said William Shernoff of Shernoff Bidart & Darras, who is representing Estrin along with attorney Lisa Stern.

The US State Department issued a travel warning regarding Israel on April 28, 2004, which may provide clues about why insurers have traditionally been so hesitant to offer coverage to travelers there. According to the warning, Americans visiting Israel “should avoid … public places such as restaurants and cafes, shopping and market areas and malls, pedestrian zones, public buses and bus stops, and other crowded venues and the areas around them,” due to possible terrorist attacks.

Shernoff noted, however, that many insurance companies already have exclusions for terrorism in their policies anyway, obviating the need to refuse coverage further.

“I absolutely did not feel in danger while I was in Israel,” said Estrin, who visited the country several years ago while producing a show for Dennis Prager. “I feel very good about this [case]. If there’s anything I can do to help Israel, I’m going to do it.”

“We think this lawsuit is going to do the trick. There are some bills in Congress and in some of the state legislatures to accomplish the same things, but it takes years for those things to happen,” Shernoff said. “When you file a lawsuit you get their attention, and that’s the way to change things.”

“I don’t deny the insurance companies the right to deny people coverage, but by the same token I can exercise my right to put pressure on them through this lawsuit,” Estrin said. “That is really the purpose of the lawsuit, to bring to light what they were doing.”

The suit continues against the 13 remaining insurers. — Idan Ivri, Contributing Writer

Woznica to Take Post at Stephen S.Wise

Rabbi David Woznica, whose hiring by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles three years ago as executive vice president of Jewish affairs sparked some controversy, said he would leave the organization soon to become a rabbi at Stephen S. Wise Temple. The Federation has no immediate plans to fill his position.

At Stephen S. Wise, the rabbi said he hopes to contribute to making the temple a place where congregants come for classes, lectures and dialogues, “almost a Reform yeshiva of sorts.” He called the appointment a “dream-like opportunity.”

The Federation ruffled some feathers because it lured Woznica with a six-figure salary on the eve of organizational layoffs. Critics also groused that the organization already employed a rabbi as head of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and had no need for another. Federation executives countered that the rabbis had different functions.

Woznica, former director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the prestigious 92nd Street Y in New York, said he enjoyed his time at The Federation. He said he helped “elevate” the role of Judaism there by holding Torah classes, giving speeches throughout the community and overseeing public dialogues with such important Jewish figures as Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel and Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”

“I think he did a very good job lighting up the community,” said Todd Morgan, former Federation chairman who helped recruit Woznica.

Federation President John Fishel said in a statement that Woznica’s private tutorials with senior leaders influenced their decision-making. “He helped bring a Jewish perspective to our decisions at the senior management level,” Fishel said.

That was part of the problem, critics said. Whereas The Federation originally brought the rabbi on to minister to Jews across a wide economic and geographic swath of the Southland, the organization failed to introduce him to a larger audience outside The Federation as promised. The Federation even had to form a special committee early on to figure out how to best tap Woznica’s talents months after hiring him.

“I don’t think he was ever used up to the maximum,” former Federation Vice President Gerald Bubis said. “He didn’t make the impression here that he did at the 92nd Street Y.”

At the Y from 1991 to 2001, Woznica oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures a year. Executives there said the rabbi’s work helped burnish its image and attract new donors. More than 1,200 Jews regularly attended his High Holiday services at the Y, which he continues to preside over to this day.

Daniel R. Kaplan, former president and chairman of the 92nd Street Y and a current board member, said he thought Woznica performed well at The Federation and would thrive at Stephen S. Wise, because of its “hands-on opportunities.” — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

JCC Problems Continue as Agency WindsDown

As the Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) winds down its affairs, one of the biggest JCCs under its control is in serious trouble, while uncertainty clouds the futures of some of the others.

An anonymous donor who had promised to buy Valley Cities Jewish Community Center from JCCGLA for $2.2 million and then lease it back to the community has pulled his offer. Insiders said he wanted to renegotiate the asking price.

JCCGLA officials said they have given Valley Cities supporters until October — rent-free — to buy the property. If they fail to close the deal by then, the JCC will go on the market, although any buyer would have to allow Valley Cities programs to operate there until next summer, said Nina Lieberman Giladi, outgoing JCCGLA executive vice president.

Valley Cities supporters said a deal could still be worked out with the anonymous buyer. Meanwhile, supporters think the property could attract other interested potential buyers, said Michael Brezner, president of Friends of Valley Cities JCC, a new nonprofit corporation that is to assume control of the community center from JCCGLA.

If Valley Cities is saved, supporters expect to generate operating revenue by renting out its newly refurbished auditorium for weddings and bar mitzvahs, its kitchen to caterers and JCCGLA’s offices to local businesses, once JCCGLA sheds its final employees as expected later this summer, said Les Paley, a Valley Cities board member and a JCCGLA director for 30 years. Valley Cities costs hundreds of thousands to operate annually.

Executives at the profitable Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, which, like Valley Cities, nearly closed down recently because of JCCGLA’s budget problems, said negotiations to buy the center are on track. In early July, a much-anticipated three-way meeting among Silverlake supporters, JCCGLA and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is scheduled.

JCCGLA’s Lieberman Giladi said her organization is still helping some of the centers prepare to go independent and would form a new legal entity with a board to manage the Westside JCC and the Shalom Institute properties. The organization would also manage Silverlake and Valley Cities until they are sold, she added.

Lieberman Giladi said she would leave JCCGLA to assume her new duties as dean of the University of Judaism’s MBA program in nonprofit management. Looking back, she said she thought her hard work on behalf of area community centers had paid off.

“It has been difficult and trying, but if one measures my performance by the outcome, I think this has been a successful endeavor,” said Lieberman Giladi, who said she might serve on JCCGLA’s reconfigured board. “JCCs that were slated for closure are continuing to operate.”

But JCCGLA has experienced its share of setbacks lately, which critics blame on mismanagement and an ongoing feud with The Federation that might have cost the Jewish centers badly needed funding.

At the end of June, the Conejo Valley JCC closed because of ongoing budget deficits. JCCGLA executives said they shuttered the facility to pay off its debt, including $2.2 million it owes The Federation, $450,000 to banks and $1 million to a special agency fund it tapped during its first systemwide crisis nearly three years ago.

Former Valley Cities board member Art Verity said he thought few in the community would miss JCCGLA. “I think they’ve done a terrible job,” he said. “Instead of rescuing and rebuilding centers, they destroyed them. At best, it’s incompetence.”

Rafe Perry, JCCGLA’s chief operating officer, said his organization deserved credit for trying to leave the remaining JCCs in the best shape possible. “We’re all working to make sure all these organizations start off debt-free and with a blank slate,” he said. — MB

Sol Bojarsky

Sol Bojarsky passed away peacefully at home on June 27. A native of Los Angeles, born in Boyle Heights, Oct. 1, 1919, bar mitzvah at the Breed Street Shul, Bojarsky was a graduate of Hollywood High School and UCLA. From a pioneer L.A. Zionist family, Sol was a prominent insurance agent in the L.A. Jewish community for over 50 years, having taken over the business started by his mother Rose. He was an early and dedicated Jewish community leader, honored by the Jewish Centers Association and Jewish National Fund, as well as The Jewish Federation Insurance Division.

He served on the board of Brandeis-Bardin Institute for over four decades, as well as a leader of Temple of Israel of Hollywood for an equal amount of time. He was a proud community leader, a gentleman known for his big smile, love of life and warm heart. He will be profoundly missed.

He is survived by his wife, Celina; daughter, Donna (Jonathan); grandson, Joshua; and brother, Eli Boyer.

Insurance Claim Debate Heats Up

Two antagonists in a long-simmering dispute about the handling of life insurance claims stemming from the Holocaust era took off their gloves last week in a bitter exchange of letters.

On one side stands Lawrence S. Eagleburger, chairman of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC). ICHEIC was established in 1998 in Switzerland with a mission to speed up and settle claims against European insurance companies, at no cost to survivors and families of Holocaust victims.

The commission’s board includes representatives of European insurance carriers, the National (U.S.) Association of Insurance Commissioners, major Jewish organizations and the State of Israel.

On the other side is John Garamendi, insurance commissioner of the State of California, as well as an ICHEIC commissioner, who has been a long-standing critic of Eagleburger and last year called for his resignation.

Garamendi opened the volley in a two-page letter to Eagleburger, accusing ICHEIC of sloppy management, dragging its feet in processing claims and favoring European insurers.

At the present pace, and as elderly survivors keep dying, "claims will not be completed until 2011," he wrote and charged that only 5 percent of claims had actually been paid out.

Since ICHEIC’s operations are budgeted only until the end of this year, Garamendi said that he feared that "claimants will be deserted."

He also accused ICHEIC of ignoring its own commissioners "who dare to suggest improvement, make constructive criticism, ask incisive questions or call for better management."

Eagleburger, a former U.S. Secretary of State, struck back with a seven-page rebuttal, in which he characterized Garamendi’s letter as "an ongoing embodiment of your grandstanding tactics."

In response to a recommendation by Garamendi, which Eagleburger said would mean going back on his word, he noted acidly, "That may be the way you do business in California, but it would be my definition of truly amateurish."

Among the mass of data cited in the Eagleburger letter, clarified in a phone interview with ICHEIC Chief Operating Officer Mara Rudman, are:

Since its inception, ICHEIC has received 80,373 insurance claims, of which only 17,200 named a specific European insurer, who had issued the original policy to a Holocaust victim or survivor. In addition, ICHEIC linked 2,000 further claims to the names of companies. The remaining 76 percent of claims did not list a specific company.

ICHEIC has made concrete settlement offers to 3,700 claimants. Of these, 2,500 have been accepted by the claimants (which means that about 13 percent of the 19,200 claimants linked to specific insurance carriers have accepted settlement).

So far, $58 million has been paid out to claimants, with an additional $16 million in "humanitarian" aid going to elderly individuals, who received $1,000 each.

While ICHEIC is budgeted only until the end of this year, it expects to receive operating funds for another year. The commission hopes to process all valid claims by early next year and wind up its operations by the end of 2005.

German, French, Swiss and Italian insurance companies have funded ICHEIC for a total of $500 million for its operations and to settle all claims.

The main sticking point is the Italian insurer Assicurazoni Generali, one of Europe’s largest, which did a thriving business selling policies to East European Jews before World War II. A number of survivors are suing Generali for allegedly stonewalling their claims for decades. Rudman acknowledged that Generali’s current pace was unacceptable and that ICHEIC is seeking to speed up the company’s claim processing.

In California, survivors have lawsuits pending against Generali, as well as against ICHEIC for its bias in favor of Generali. The lead attorney in most cases has been William M. Shernoff of Claremont and Garamendi has publicly supported the plaintiffs’ suits.

According to financial reports filed with the California Secretary of State, Shernoff’s law firm contributed $55,000 to Garamendi’s election campaign in 2002.

Asked about the frequent complaints aimed at ICHEIC’s operations by survivors and in congressional hearings, Rudman acknowledged that all sides greatly underestimated the complexity and timeline of settling claims and that the commission suffered from "some poor communications. Everybody expected too much."

"We at ICHEIC have had a lot ground to make up," she added.

Out of Context

About a year before Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a major reform of California’s disastrous workers’ comp system, the same basic reforms were fought and eventually killed by elected Democrats trying to protect lawyers who gamed our broken system but gave heavily to Democratic campaign coffers.

You never read that story, I will bet, because most California media have tacitly agreed on a shallow storyline that does not include detailing how the forces against reform have proved so effective.

The media have failed in a core duty: to explain the roots of bad public policy, thus promoting intelligent civic discourse and enabling the corrective tendencies of democracy. Now, most media continue to engage in context-free coverage of a 75-page thicket of compromises that may or may not bring billions of dollars in savings.

Before, few journalists did the legwork to regularly compare foolish California practices to several forward-thinking states, where costs are far lower and the truly injured get better coverage. With reform, the media laziness continues. For example, news reports offer so little context you wouldn’t know that some reforms are unlikely to survive legal challenges mounted by workers’ comp attorneys who enjoy sympathetic California courts that have regularly watered down reform.

Such details distract from the storyline: The governor won; we’ll save billions.

Lack of context can be seen in how the media went gaga over the new "health network" rule. The rule requires an allegedly injured worker to use a doctor from a network selected by the company. California workers currently engage in the worst "doctor shopping" in the nation, often seeking physicians who over-treat injuries and let them stay off the job for months. Had excitable journalists picked up a phone, they might have learned that studies of states using such networks show fairly modest savings.

California may indeed save billions from the entire reform package, but only if Schwarzenegger puts his formidable chess skills to work by thinking three steps ahead of the anti-reformers already preparing to file lawsuits against reform, and only if the governor cleans up huge new loopholes and complexities that threaten serious savings.

The media has largely ignored the fact that smaller businesses — the economic engine in the Golden State — under reform must become experts wise to loopholes. Unless Schwarzenegger corrects this bias, smaller firms could suffer tremendously.

With California losing companies to Texas and other inexpensive states, that’s news.

Take the new $10,000 medical care "limit" for workers, who under reform are now free to immediately seek care before their claim is approved by the employer.

"Whenever you put a dollar limit, it’s a message that this is how much the bill can be run up to," says North Carolina’s James Moore, a nationwide workers’ comp consultant. "That’s why most states limit it to $2,000 or $2,500."

But California’s Legislature, in a compromise with union and Democrats’ demands, chose $10,000. Says Moore: "You can even get a surgery before you get a ruling on whether you qualify."

For years, too many California workers gamed the system. Unions, which saw phony paid disabilities as akin to free vacation, vociferously fought to protect such perks.

Now, workers can burn through $10,000. Trial lawyers are drooling. A lucrative new courtroom front opens for them once companies get a peek at huge medical bills and refuse to pay.

"This $10,000 provision needs to be re-legislated, it’s that bad," Moore says. "The smaller companies are going to be lost. They won’t know what hit them."

To get blindsided by these new complexities, a company needn’t be tiny — just too small to employ a fancy risk management division that tracks all this confusion.

Howard Barmazel is president of Northridge Mills, a garment factory in San Fernando. He’s respected in the Jewish community from which he hails, as well as in the Latino community from which he draws many workers, because he offers good compensation and makes it his mission to promote home ownership among his workers.

His philosophy produces high-quality products from a highly motivated workforce. Barmazel survived when other garment manufacturers proved unable to compete against foreign competitors.

Yet despite having few injuries, Barmazel more than $25,000 per week in premiums for his 400 workers. This year he slashed overtime because the fewer hours his workers put in, the cheaper the premiums. He prays for major workers’ comp reform. He doesn’t want to close. It’s a perverse and maddening situation. Barmazel could easily keep his crews working overtime to meet orders, and the crews would love the work.

"My insurance agent is a really savvy guy and we can’t figure out the reforms — and boy we’ve tried," Barmazel says. "I still think Schwarzenegger is a knight on a white horse, but he’s going to have to fight every angle to make this work. All businesses in California are struggling with this thing, and I have no idea what the future holds. That’s just really bad for me and my employees."

And Barmazel is a pro-active employer with brains. Thousands aren’t.

Schwarzenegger needs to fix the loopholes and vagueness that could turn reform into a courtroom bonanza. Much can be repaired via tight regulations that simplify unnecessary complexities and precisely spell out rules.

The governor just fired the bureaucrat who wrote ineffective regulations under Gray Davis and Pete Wilson. Little surprise when few California media failed to report the firing. The story was too subtle for many media, even though it spoke volumes. By replacing a deadwood bureaucrat with a leading attorney in civil and governmental law, Schwarzenegger is acknowledging he ended up with a compromise he must fight to clean up via regulation.

If the governor can do that, California may yet see the billions of dollars in savings that many journalists, addicted to shallow reporting, imply is a sure thing.

Jill Stewart is a syndicated political columnist and can be reached at

Plan Seeks to Cure High Cost of Drugs

In this presidential campaign year, the figure is ubiquitous: One out of four Americans, about 70 million people, do not have health insurance. At the same time, Americans are spending about $100 billion on prescription drugs annually, more than double what was spent in 1990.

For the uninsured, that money comes from either government assistance programs or their own pockets. Los Angeles residents, however, may soon be the beneficiaries of a plan to help close the gap.

Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa has unveiled a proposal called, LA-Rx, that would enable the city to make medications cheaper for residents. The plan calls for a city contractor to purchase drugs at bulk rates from pharmaceutical companies and, in turn, sell them to residents at below retail cost.

Although estimates vary about the exact rate of rise in drug costs, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is a serious problem.

"There is no question that prescription drug costs which consumers are paying are escalating and continue to escalate," said Rabbi Hershy Ten, president of Bikur Cholim, a nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding access to health care for the residents of greater Los Angeles.

Concerned with the implications of prescription drug costs for both the Jewish community and the city at large, Ten met with Villaraigosa and his staff to discuss LA-Rx.

The root causes of the issue are economic. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, who have fought court battles with several state governments over health-care costs, claim that they are simply seeking equitable compensation for their risks: Only a very small percentage of drug research ever culminates in a product reaching the market.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), an organization that represents more than 100 major U.S. drug companies, also claims that the vast majority of the increase in public spending on prescription drugs is due to the increasing popularity and effectiveness of those drugs, rather than rising costs.

"Some look at the increasing use of medicines and the shift to newer medicines as problems to be solved, not solutions for patients and contributions to affordable health care," said Alan F. Holmer, PhRMA president, in a speech to his colleagues last year.

However, many local governments, health-care providers and ordinary citizens are contesting PhRMA’s position, especially since drug manufacturers expend large sums to advertise their medications.

"In health-care literature, there’s speculation about the dollars spent on marketing vs. true research and development," said Rita Shane, director of pharmacy services at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. "I monitor [in-patient expenses] on an ongoing basis and deal with the exceedingly high cost of new breakthrough therapies for treatment of patients with severe chronic diseases."

It’s also widely recognized that the pharmaceutical industry enjoys large profit margins, recorded as five and a half times the median of all the industries represented in the Fortune 500 in 2002.

Villaraigosa’s proposal could possibly be the next step in the ongoing battle to reduce drug costs. Several states, including California, Maine and Oregon have already taken advantage of their existing buying power in a variety of ways to coax lower prices from drug makers.

"Many states are responsible for actual delivery of health care to their employees, retirees and Medicaid recipients, [and] they have been pooling their buying power together to negotiate better prices," said Joe Ramallo, Villaraigosa’s communications director.

"No one has yet taken it to the next level, which is what Councilmember Villaraigosa is proposing to do, and use that ability to bulk purchase on behalf of residents as a whole," Ramallo said. "This has been a growing issue of concern to seniors and those who are uninsured."

LA-Rx emerged from a series of town hall meetings on health-care policy sponsored by the Foundation for Consumer and Taxpayer Rights.

The system would work by first enrolling interested Los Angeles residents and establishing the size of the medication buyers pool. Next, the city would contract with an organization called a pharmacy benefit manager (PBM), which would do the negotiating with drug manufacturers.

An open enrollment period would give residents an opportunity to join LA-Rx annually. LA-Rx members would pay an annual fee for administration of the program.

Drug companies, however, would not be forced or coerced to negotiate with the city’s PBM.

"It’s just using market forces, and our understanding is that there are no legal barriers to doing this," Ramallo said. "Drug manufacturers would be foolish not to negotiate if [there is] a pool of 100,000 purchasers, 200,000 purchasers or more. Those are business decisions, and if you don’t do it, your competitor will."

The Jewish community, especially the often-ignored segment of poor, near-poor and elderly Jews in Los Angeles, would stand to benefit from a proposal to cut their drug costs.

The Freda Mohr Center, part of Jewish Family Service, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding a mostly elderly population with health-care issues.

"We see people who [are taking] upwards of 15 to 20 medications," said Nikki Cavalier, center director. "We get a lot of requests for various types of financial assistance … and some of it we can help them with and some of it we can’t."

Cavalier estimated that approximately 80 percent of the center’s clients are Jewish.

Speaking of the prevalence of individuals who cannot afford their medications, Elaine Kau, a center case manager, reported, "I see it on a day-to-day basis. Especially with certain HMOs raising their co-payments and not covering brand-name medications and only covering generics."

"When someone does not take medication that is prescribed by the physician, they are compromising their health," said Ten of Bikur Cholim. "Part of the fiber of the Jewish community is that every life is worth living. That is paramount."

Raising the issue of possible LA-Rx problems, Shane of Cedars-Sinai said, "My concern [is whether] the people administering this benefit [would] end up profiting. Yes, maybe there would be some savings, but it would be hard to know how much of the savings will actually be passed on to the patients."

She added that a local organization might find its work exceedingly difficult "because on a national basis, it is challenging to get [wholesale] pricing on brand-name drugs."

Without accurate nonretail pricing, it would be impossible to know how much money a PBM is saving consumers.

"So my question is," Shane said, "how much additional dollars would be left to the third-party administrator? The purchasing structure of LA-Rx would have to be transparent."

Villaraigosa’s office, however, focused on LA-Rx’s propriety.

"There have been suggestions to regulate PBMs to ensure that they are negotiating on behalf of the pool that they are representing, rather than keeping an unacceptably high level of profit" Ramallo said. "We would go to great lengths to ensure that [PBMs are held accountable]."

One way to do that, according to Ramallo, is to form a nonprofit PBM. "That way there’s no advantage whatsoever for the PBM not to negotiate the best rates for its clients," he said. Under Villaraigosa’s plan, a PBM would be selected through a competitive process that would weigh the benefits of for-profit vs. nonprofit administration.

And although it could conceivably help Los Angeles residents, LA-Rx would inevitably face comparison with the Medicare prescription drug benefit approved by Congress for elderly Americans. Beginning in June, Medicare beneficiaries will have access to Medicare-endorsed drug discount cards and in 2006 full benefits become available.

On the surface, LA-Rx appears simpler and more straightforward than the Medicare drug benefit plan.

"There is a doughnut hole in terms of what people are going to get…. People who are on multiple medications are going to exhaust the benefit very easily, and there is a deductible and monthly premium," Shane said of the Medicare drug plan.

She also pointed out the difficulty seniors will have in understanding their complicated, tiered system of benefits under Medicare.

Cavalier echoed Shane’s concerns about both the Medicare plan and LA-Rx when it comes to the elderly.

"I’d be concerned about the complexity, how people are going to find out about it, how people are going to apply for it … [consumers] already seem to be somewhat confused and uncertain, and they come to us and ask us to help," Cavalier said. "We spend a lot time interpreting and helping them apply for the programs that are out there."

To increase awareness and understanding of the LA-Rx plan, it is currently being circulated within various communities. It may soon be put before the City Council.

"[Consumers of medication] right now have no one to speak for them," Ramallo said. "In this program, they will by pooling together and having a single entity negotiate on their behalf."

"This [proposal] will directly impact the Jewish community, as well as every resident in the city of Los Angeles, [and it] is a process that we want to participate in," Ten said. "This is an issue that crosses all boundaries and borders. If there’s any single unifying factor, it’s the health care of our families."

Community Briefs

Rose ParadeProselytizing

Two rival teams will square off in Pasadena on New Year’sDay. No, not USC vs. Michigan. Get ready for the ultimate grudge match: Jewsfor Judaism vs. Jews for Jesus.

A year after Jews for Jesus’ international witnessing campaign,Behold Your God, hit Southern California, the L.A. chapter is gearing up onceagain for more “literature distribution,” said Director Tuvya Zaretsky. “Weencourage people to think about spiritual issues, new beginnings. So we go outand hand out literature as the parade is beginning and afterward.”

Jews for Jesus’ volunteers are also expected to visit theRose Bowl after the game ends and Victory Park, where the floats are put ondisplay after the parade. Zaretsky said that the group has had a presence in Pasadenaevery New Year’s Day since 1974.

In keeping with the parade’s theme this year, “Music, Music,Music,” Jews for Jesus has named their new pamphlet “Happy New Music!”

In response, Jews for Judaism will have a team of its ownstanding by distributing their own pamphlet, “Truth in Advertising.”

“We’re nonconfrontational, we keep 10-feet distance. We givethem no chance to say they’re being stalked,” said Jews for Judaism’s educationdirector, Rabbi Aaron Parry, who will lead volunteers in counter-leafleting.”We’re just looking to have an equal voice.” — Adam Wills, Associate Editor

Deadline Looms for InsuranceClaims

Insurance claims for Holocaust-era policies must be filed byDec. 31 with the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, orclaimants risk being unable to collect money owed.

Prior to World War II, Jewish families throughout Europepurchased life insurance. However, many of those records were destroyed. Also,families of murdered Holocaust victims were often unable to meet insurersrequirements that they provide a death certificate on behalf of their kin. TheNazis never issued death certificates for those slaughtered in concentrationcamps.

Claim forms and more information can be obtained by callingthe California Department of Insurance’s hotline at 1-800-927-4357, or visitingwww.icheic.org. — Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

Hate Crimes Lessen; Jews StillTargets

Hate crimes in Los Angeles County, as in the state andnation, are down from the peaks reported in the wake of Sept. 11, 2001, the L.A. County Commission on Human Relations reported last week.

The downward curve in 2002, compared to 2001, also held forcrimes motivated by religious hatred, which dropped from 129 to 119, or 8percent.

However, as in past years, the great majority of religioushate crimes were aimed at Jewish targets, which were victimized in 66 percentof all cases, followed by Protestants (11 percent), and Muslims (9 percent).

Commenting on the anti-Jewish incidents, the commissionreport noted that “some of these incidents were clearly cases of mistakenidentity, but the actual numbers of Jewish victims is unknown because mostpolice reports do not specify the religion of the victims.”

More than half (54 percent) of all religion-based crimesconsisted of vandalism of homes, businesses and religious institutions, while20 percent involved violence. Included in the latter category was an attackagainst an El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport on July 4, 2002, during which an Egyptian immigrant killed two Israeli Americans.

All together, religion-motivated incidents represented only6 percent of the county’s total hate crimes, while nearly 70 percent were basedon racial hostility, targeting mostly African Americans.

Countering the overall drop in hate crimes were attacksagainst gays and lesbians, most of them of a violent nature, which rose 7percent.

An earlier and separate Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reporton anti-Semitic incidents in 2002, which also counted noncriminal acts, foundno appreciable rise in Southern California, compared to the previous year.However, on a national basis, similar comparisons showed an 8 percent jump.

Looking at the county figures, regional ADL director Amanda Susskindsaid that “Any number of hate crimes is too many and we are particularlyconcerned that African Americans continue to be the most frequent targets ofracial hate crime and that sexual orientation-based hate crime is on theincrease.” — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Federation Gives JCCGLA Dec. 29Deadline on Loan

The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, one of thebiggest supporters of the area’s JCCs, has formally requested the JewishCommunity Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) come up with a plan to repaythe more than $1.6 million it owes — or else.

After two years of talks, The Federation has given JCCGLAuntil Dec. 29 to come up with a viable plan to pay off the unsecured loan,Federation President John Fishel said.

Nina Lieberman Giladi, executive vice president of JCCGLA,said her group has put forth three different proposals, each of which TheFederation has rejected. One offer would have given The Federation the BayCities JCC property; another would have deeded the Silverlake Independent JCCto the philanthropy group. — M.B.

L.A. Survivors Sue Claims Commission

Three Holocaust survivors in their 70s lead comfortable lives in Los Angeles suburbia, but their anger burns as fiercely as when they were teenagers deported to Nazi forced labor and concentration camps.

Their indignation and frustration are now directed mainly at an international commission, which they believe is fronting for an insurance company that has given them the runaround for nearly 60 years.

During a recent news conference, the three survivors denounced the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC) and its chairman, former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Two of the men, Manny Steinberg of West Hills, and Dr. Jack Brauns of Covina, have filed suit against the commission, charging that it is in league with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of Europe’s largest insurance companies, to lower or deny claims by survivors or their heirs.

"I was in Auschwitz and ICHEIC has the same kind of selection process, deciding who will get paid and who won’t," Steinberg, 78, charged. "Eagleburger and Generali act like little gods."

Brauns, 79, complained that "Eagleburger portrayed himself as a man on a white horse, who would help the survivors, but he doesn’t respond to calls and his commission meetings are open to Generali but closed to survivors and the public."

Si Frumkin, 72, is not part of the lawsuit, but has had his own unhappy experiences with ICHEIC.

"This is a totally inefficient operation, in which the insurance company calls the tune," he said.

The demand for Eagleburger’s ouster was joined by California insurance commissioner John Garamendi, a member of the ICHEIC board, who in a separate statement said, "It’s time for him to go…. It seems ICHEIC is more often interested in protecting [insurance] companies than in providing quick and appropriate payment for the survivors."

ICHEIC was formed in 1998 as a private body, incorporated in Switzerland, by representatives of European insurance companies, major American Jewish organizations and the State of Israel, as well as insurance commissioners from California and several other states. Its declared purpose was to speed up the process of insurance claim payments and save survivors the time and expense of lengthy private legal proceedings.

But in congressional testimony in September, Eagleburger acknowledged that in five years ICHEIC had settled only 5 percent of the 54,000 claims submitted. He also conceded that his commission has spent more on its own operations and salaries than in payments to survivors.

However, several Jewish leaders have defended ICHEIC and its chairman, saying that the job was much more complicated than anticipated and that Eagleburger was doing his best under difficult circumstances.

The frustration expressed by Steinberg and Brauns was fueled by decades of fruitless dealings with Generali, and transferred to ICHEIC, which they believe is manipulated by the Italian insurance company.

According to attorney William Shernoff, who filed the suit in Los Angeles Superior Court under California’s Unfair Business Practices statute, ICHEIC’s operations are underwritten through a $100 million grant from Generali, which apparently includes Eagleburger’s annual salary of $360,000.

"It’s as if I appeared before a judge, knowing that he is paid by the company I’m suing," Frumkin said.

Steinberg, born Hirsch Mendel Sztajnberg in Radom, Poland, was 14 when he was assigned to a munitions factory for forced labor, and later survived a death march, Auschwitz and a Dachau satellite camp. His mother and a brother perished in the Holocaust, while his father and another brother survived.

"I still remember, when I was a young child, the Generali agent coming to my father’s ladies custom tailoring store every two weeks to collect $2 to $3 in insurance premiums," Steinberg said. "And while we were in camp, my father kept reminding me, ‘If we get out, there is a small insurance policy waiting."

Somewhat ironically, Generali was founded by Jewish merchants in Trieste, Poland, in 1831, had thousands of Jewish agents and, according to the lawsuit, wrote some 80 percent of policies held by Jews in prewar Europe.

After decades of stonewalling by Generali, Steinberg said, the insurance company began to refer all claims to ICHEIC. But after five years of correspondence with the commission, Steinberg’s claim is no closer to resolution, said the retired importer and Korean War veteran.

Brauns, a retired surgeon, was born in Lithuania and spent four years in concentration camps, starting at age 16. He was liberated in Dachau in the spring of 1945.

In 1930, his father had taken out a $2,000 policy with Generali for his son’s future education, to be paid out in dollars at the September 1945 maturity date.

Although the Brauns family was one of the very few who had hidden and then recovered their original policy, repeated visits to Generali headquarters in Rome over a 55-year period bore no results.

Finally, three years ago, Brauns received a letter from ICHEIC, to whom Generali had referred all claims, offering to pay $5,000 for the 1930 policy. Counting accrued interest and inflation rates in the intervening years, Shernoff believes that actual worth of the policy is now $100,000.

Frumkin was 10 years old when he and his family were herded into the Kovno Ghetto in Lithuania, and 13 when he was transferred to a forced labor construction project.

"I am one of a hundreds of thousands of cases whose claims have been stonewalled," he said.

He is currently sitting on a committee to distribute $4.2 million paid by Dutch insurance companies among some 3,000 California claimants.

"We are working very hard and making good progress, without asking for a penny in pay," Frumkin said. "I wonder why Eagleburger cannot do the same."

He added that whatever insurance money he may get will go to charity.

Despite the accumulating pressure, Eagleburger has no intention of resigning, his executive assistant, Anais Haase, told The Journal.

Haase defended ICHEIC as the only venue giving survivors the opportunity of pursuing their claims without cost. She warned that if Eagleburger and the commission had to defend themselves against lawsuits, it would divert time and money from processing claims.

Kenneth Bialkin, the New York-based lead attorney for Generali, said recently that the insurance company "couldn’t be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old claims and pointed to its $100 million contribution to ICHEIC as proof of Generali’s fairness and good faith.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), a veteran congressional champion of survivor claims, said that, "I’m not sure that getting rid of Eagleburger would be a magic bullet. He could have been doing a better job, but the problems of ICHEIC are not his fault alone. It is the insurance companies that should be facing consequences for their unfair treatment of claimants."

Other prominent Jewish spokesmen also defended Eagleburger, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Los Angeles Times reported.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, said that ICHEIC’s problems were not due to bad faith but to facing "a mammoth task, which is bigger than we ever thought it was going to be."

Stuart Eizenstat, the Clinton administration’s pointman in Holocaust restitution negotiations, said that "Larry [Eagleburger] has earned every nickel and then some.

He’s had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."

Roman Kent, chairman of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and a member of ICHEIC, said that Eagleburger had done his best under difficult circumstances.

Frumkin expressed his "total puzzlement" and Brauns his skepticism regarding the supportive statements by the Jewish spokesmen.

Survivors Sue Claims Commission

Survivors are suing the commission on Nazi-era insurance claims, a commissioner has called for the resignation of its chief and Jewish officials handling the claims acknowledge serious problems.

But they also say there probably isn’t a better way to dole out the claims.

The anger and frustration some lawmakers and survivors feel toward the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims peaked last week when several survivors filed suit, claiming the organization was delaying payments.

California’s insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, a member of the commission, later joined the suit and called for the resignation of the commission’s chairman, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger.

Survivors Jack Brauns, Manny Steinberg and Si Frumkin, all Los Angeles-area residents, charged that the ICHEIC improperly delayed or denied payments totaling more than $1 billion on policies held by the survivors or heirs of those who perished under Nazi rule.

"This is a commission that is supposed to help survivors," said William Shernoff, the plaintiffs’ lawyer. "But from what we see, they are helping the insurance companies more than survivors."

They also are seeking Eagleburger’s resignation, saying his salary — which they estimate at over $300,000 — is paid for by the insurance companies. The plaintiffs believe Eagleburger is working in the insurance companies’ interests.

"This is blood money stolen from survivors," said Frumkin, chair of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jewry.

For his part, Eagleburger says he has no intention of resigning. His aide, Anais Haase, said that time and resources planned for investigating claims would be diverted to defending against the lawsuit if the survivors persist in fighting them.

"We don’t believe we are mistreating survivors or their heirs," Haase said. "We offer the only option available at no cost to survivors and their heirs."

The plaintiffs are asking the ICHEIC to place more pressure on Italian insurance company Assicurazioni Generali to divulge more unpaid life insurance policies. The ICHEIC has published 9,000 names of Generali policyholders, but the claimants suggest the list could exceed 100,000 policies.

Shernoff said Holocaust survivors and their heirs should also maintain the right to use litigation to gain money owed them, rather than working through the ICHEIC.

The suit was filed under California’s Unfair Business Practices statute, but it’s unclear whether the ICHEIC can legally be defined as a business.

A Generali official in New York called the lawsuit baseless and misleading, saying that thousands of claimants "have and will continue to be paid and offered generous amounts through ICHEIC, which is supported by leading Jewish Holocaust restitution organizations and the State of Israel."

Stuart Eizenstat, a special representative for Holocaust issues in the Clinton administration, said the lawsuits could wreck the ICHEIC system if the suit nullifies the agreements the commission has reached with the insurance agencies.

"It continues to cast a cloud of debate over the exercise," he said. "It diverts energy and attention from filling claims."

Eizenstat said he appreciates that the suit is an expression of frustration over the slow process of paying claims. But he and others contend that the insurance companies, not the ICHEIC, have made the process more difficult by withholding names.

Israel Singer, chairman of the World Jewish Congress, agreed.

"There is no bad faith here," he said of the ICHEIC. "There is bad information after 50 years."

Singer acknowledged that the organization has had trouble completing its mission.

"ICHEIC has a mammoth task, and it’s bigger than we ever thought it was going to be," Singer said. "We couldn’t have known it at the time."

He suggested an ombudsman might be able to bridge the gap between the ICHEIC and the Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC, founded in 1998 by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, has had some problems in the past two years. Eagleburger threatened to resign last year after difficulty securing cooperation from German insurance companies.

Congressional representatives and others also have chastised Eagleburger and the commission for its slow progress, especially considering the dwindling number of Holocaust survivors.

The ICHEIC also has been criticized for spending $56 million in five years, and Eizenstat agreed that the organization cannot be considered a model of efficiency.

But both Eizenstat and Singer defended Eagleburger.

"Larry has earned every nickel and then some," Eizenstat said. "He’s had to undergo hell to bring the parties together."

California Gov. Gray Davis issued a statement Saturday accusing the ICHEIC of "not meeting its mission.

"The system does not work, claims are not being investigated and survivors are not being paid,” Davis said in the statement.

Edwin Black and Tom Tugend contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

‘California Eight’ Sue Italy’s Generali

When Suzanne Weiner-Zada was growing up in Hungary, her father, a wealthy lumber merchant, took out eight insurance policies with Assicurazioni Generali of Italy, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, which operated extensively in the pre-World War II Jewish communities of Central and Eastern Europe.

One policy was on the life of her 10-year-old brother, Laszlo, who was killed in Auschwitz, as were their grandparents.

Weiner-Zada survived Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz and eventually settled in Los Angeles, working as an artists’ representative. Until two years ago, she didn’t try to redeem the policies, because "I didn’t want blood money," she said.

When she finally did apply, she received a settlement offer of $10,533, later raised to $16,012. The figures were ridiculously low, she said, but what really set off the feisty 73-year-old was Generali’s demand that she sign a statement to the effect that the money was being paid out as an act of charity and not as a legal obligation.

"They want to make us look like beggars," Weiner-Zada exploded. "I said to hell with it. Even if the sums were much larger, I would never sign such a thing. There’s still a lot of spunk in me."

Weiner-Zada is among eight parties of Holocaust survivors and their descendants from the Los Angeles area, who in early April filed a suit against Generali in Los Angeles Superior Court. They claim that for more than 50 years the company had stonewalled their requests for payment on policies or fobbed them off with meager settlement offers.

The actual and potential stakes in this and a half-dozen other lawsuits filed against Generali are huge. Attorney William M. Shernoff, who represents the "California Eight" and has been confronting Generali for five years, estimates that the policies in the current suit might now be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and might reach millions if a jury ultimately adds bad faith and punitive damages to its verdict.

But that may be only the tip of the iceberg. If the eight win their case, they might be followed by tens of thousands of other plaintiffs seeking billions of dollars from Generali and other European insurance companies.

Generali has used various lines of defense, according to Shernoff and his co-counsel, Lisa Stern. First, the company said it could not find records of the disputed policies, or demanded, according to numerous survivors, death certificates for Jews killed in Auschwitz or other extermination camps, a charge denied by Generali.

When these arguments failed, Generali said that the insurance payments had been paid to Hitler’s regime after it confiscated the policies held by Jews.

Generali also argued that its branch offices in Eastern Europe had been expropriated and nationalized by communist governments after World War II. But the latest and strongest barrier was Generali’s position that all claims be routed through a body known as The International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims.

The commission was established in 1998 by major European insurance companies, insurance commissioners from various U.S. states, with the participation of major Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress, and the State of Israel. It was hoped that through the commission setup, claimants would get their money faster and easier than going through lengthy court proceedings.

In practice, critics say, only a trickle of claims has been approved by the commission, which is funded entirely by the insurance companies, with Generali contributing the biggest stake, $100 million.

In a landmark decision, Manhattan Federal District Judge Michael B. Mukasey ruled in early April that the commission could not dispense fair treatment and functioned, in his words, as a "company store."

The decision unblocked the path for the filing of the "California Eight" suit, and other suits which had been backing up.

The other Los Angeles plaintiffs in the case are Stephen Lantos, Edith More, Iga Pioro, George Kunstadt, Helga and Tom Sorter, Susan Ungar, and Jack Weiss and his daughter, Judy Friedman.

The allegations against Generali were vigorously contested by Kenneth Bialkin, the company’s lead attorney, who said that Generali "couldn’t be more forthcoming" in trying to settle 60-year-old policy claims.

There is a certain irony in Generali being cast as the heavy in the ongoing legal battles with Holocaust survivors. The company was founded in 1831 by Jewish merchants in Trieste, had thousands of Jewish agents throughout Europe and, even now, its current chairman of the board is Jewish.

Bialkin said he was particularly disturbed by the claim that Generali had demanded official death certificates from Jews killed in extermination camps, a charge that "immediately raises a horrid image."

Despite testimonies from survivors, Bialkin insisted that the death certificate demands were false and had been officially denied by Generali.

He pointed to a voluntary trust fund established by Generali in 1998 and its $100 million contribution to the international commission as proof of the Italian company’s fairness and good faith.

A former national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League, Bialkin charged that "the plaintiffs want to give Generali a bad name, and that bothers me as a Jew and a lawyer."