Fran Rosenfield: All About the Children


Fran Rosenfield

Barri Evins

Alex Baum

Betty Neymark

Eve Marcus

Fran Rosenfield

Marilyn Harran

Noah Bleich

Rebecca Levinson

Yehoram Uziel

Yoram Hassid

Fran Rosenfield answers the door of her Northridge home a few moments after the musical doorbell has cycled through its tune. This 79-year-old grandmother was slowed by a recent spinal injury that has rendered her dependent on a cane or walker to get around. But her passion for a cause she championed 15 years ago is going strong.

Inside, her dining room has been transformed into a makeshift shipping department. On the table are wrapped gifts stacked three- and four-boxes deep that are waiting to go to children who are autistic, chronically ill, poor, abused or neglected. Hundreds of gifts were picked up the previous week, and now this batch has to be cleared out to make room for more that will soon arrive.

Welcome to Fran’s Project.

“I do what I do because it’s what I have to do,” said Rosenfield, who is known as Bubbe Fran at Northridge’s Temple Ahavat Shalom. “I can’t stand the thought that anywhere there is a child who is hungry or doing without.”

Her inspiration for the project came from the Adopt a Child Abuse Caseworker Program, which she helped a fellow congregant pitch to the Valley Interfaith Council in 1991.

“These caseworkers are overloaded, and they can’t keep track of everything,” she said.

Rosenfield started out collecting donations for one caseworker from the Department of Children and Family Service, and found she was so successful at motivating people to give that she adopted another caseworker a year later.

Before long the former personnel manager had adopted the entire North Hollywood office.

“You hear stories, like a mother and two kids who are living in a garage on $325 a month or a family whose gas was turned off,” she said. “How can you not want to help these people?”

For Rosenfield, the only December dilemma has been how to collect more gifts than the previous year. This former sisterhood president collected more than 1,000 gifts in 2005, which she donated to four different agencies, including Family Friends, a project of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles. For 2006, she added Jay Nolan Autistic Services to her roster of groups that receive her gifts.

Every morning in the run-up to Christmas, Rosenfield gets on the computer and phone with her list of names and uses her “Jewish mother guilt like crazy, honey.”

The gifts donated to her program from synagogue members and others range in price from $20 to $100, and include toys, clothing, grocery scrip and gas cards. Rosenfield was hoping to break her 2005 record by collecting between 1,500 to 2,000 gifts to put under children’s trees.

Born in Minnesota, Rosenfield moved with her husband, Lenn, to Panorama City in 1950.

“We didn’t even have a phone for the first three years,” said her husband, a former advertising art director who designs the annual posters for Fran’s Project.

Rosenfield’s efforts reflect a family tradition of responding to a crisis. After Hitler came to power, her father rented a home in Minneapolis, declared it a synagogue and brought one or two family members over at a time to serve as its rabbi or cantor. Her father would then find work for the newly arrived relative and put in another request to fill the empty leadership position.

Building on her success with Fran’s Project, Rosenfield recently started a birthday twinning program at Temple Ahavat Shalom. A Hebrew school student is paired up with a child in need whose birthday is on or near the same day, and she provides them with a gift suggestion list.

“I tell them that there are kids who are not as lucky as they are whose parents can’t afford to give them birthday parties and gifts,” said Rosenfield, who serves as the synagogue’s social action chair.

While Rosenfield says she doesn’t know what drives her to do what she does, she counts herself as one of the luckiest people in the world.

“How many people can feel that they’ve made a difference in a child’s life, and then do that by thousands?” she said.

Angelenos Help Abraham’s Vision Come True


Like many young Angelenos, Aaron Hahn Tapper and Gibran Bouayad are traveling to Europe this summer, and they’re taking along a few companions — 24 university students of both genders from seven American campuses. Twelve are Jewish and 12 are Muslims, mainly of Palestinian descent, and their destination is not some fun Mediterranean beach resort, but Balkan countries recently torn apart by civil wars and slaughter.

Tapper, 33 and standing 6-foot-5, and Bouayad, 29 and 6-foot-3, are the co-founders and executive directors of Abraham’s Vision, dedicated to creating a new generation of young, mutually respectful, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

Both staff and students of Abraham’s Vision are precisely balanced by ethnic backgrounds, starting with their founders.

Tapper is Jewish, an alumnus of four Orthodox yeshivot and 10 sessions at the Conservative movement’s Camp Ramah. He lives at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in the Simi Valley, where his wife, Rabbi Laurie Hahn Tapper, is director of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute.

Bouayad, a native and resident of Monterey Park, is a Muslim whose Arab father came from Morocco and whose mother is half-Jewish, through her father, and half-Christian.

By family background and conviction, both men early on developed an idealistic streak and a belief that, with hard work and education, conflicts can be resolved peacefully.

Both are multilingual and well educated, Tapper studied at Johns Hopkins University, Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Bir Zeit University on the West Bank and UC Santa Barbara. Bouayad graduated from UCLA, studied and taught at the American Language Institute in Fes, Morocco, and served in the Peace Corps.

These two tall, peripatetic Americans were thrown together as assigned roommates in the summer of 2003, when both were in Holland to attend the Institute for International Mediation and Conflict Resolution in The Hague.

After many bull sessions, the two student activists founded Abraham’s Vision, named in honor of their mutual biblical ancestor, and all that remained was to develop a philosophical concept, create curricula and textbooks, raise funds and convince young Muslims and Jews to come aboard.

One conceptual challenge facing the two founders was to identify an approach and mission that went beyond the efforts of existing organizations striving for Israeli-Palestinian and Jewish-Muslim understanding, such as Building Bridges for Peace, Face to Face/Faith to Faith, Givat Haviva, Neve Shalom/Waht Al-Salam, Nir School and Seeds for Peace.

They finally arrived at a two-pronged approach, one called the Unity program (“unity, not uniformity,” Tapper emphasized), the other the Vision program.

Unity is a collaboration between Jewish and Muslim high schools and focuses on interfaith studies, taught by educators of both religions. Classes and exchange visits deal with the sacred texts and rituals of both religions, analyzing their similarities and differences, as well as the history of Muslim-Jewish relations, stressing past eras of harmony.

The first Unity program began last fall as a cooperative venture between the Abraham Joshua Heschel High School in Manhattan and the Al-Iman School in Queens.

This September, the organizers expect to launch Unity programs between Jewish and Muslim schools in Los Angeles, Detroit, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and a second partnership in New York City.

The Vision program for college and university students focuses on conflict analysis and resolution, examining and comparing the Israel-Palestinian confrontation and other ethnic and religious conflicts.

Since early 2005, Vision workshops have been conducted at 16 university campuses across the country, in addition to adult education programs.

In the latest initiative, Bouayad, Tapper and their multiethnic staff left June 25 with two-dozen Jewish American and Palestinian American university students for a one-month study trip to Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

These entities emerged from the bloody breakup of the former Yugoslavia and may be the ideal laboratory for conflict analysis.

“On the one hand, Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived side by side in these Balkan states for centuries,” Tapper said. “On the other hand, the conflicts there involve religion, ethnicity, national identity, refugees, and the role of outside countries. By studying these factors, we can better understand the intricacies of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.”

The program includes workshops, dialogues and meetings with local politicians, scholars, activists, journalists and students, and is cost free to the participants.

During the current year, Abraham’s Vision has raised $450,000.

“Although the conflict is chiefly in the Middle East, these two American communities can play a major role in the conflict,” Tapper said. “By changing their relationships in the United States through the younger generation, they can actually influence relationships in the Middle East.”

The greatest obstacle facing Abraham’s Vision is “widespread fatigue, born of a sense of hopelessness that anything can be done to resolve the situation in the Middle East,” Bouayad said. “It’s that sense we must overcome by showing that Palestinians and Israelis can work together.”

For more information, go to www.abrahamsvision.org.

 

Hillel Students Help Rebuild Gulf Coast


Southern Mississippi’s Jewish population suddenly mushroomed — as 135 members of the campus organization Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life fan out through the area, repairing roofs of houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The Hillel students, who wore distinctive orange T-shirts that read “Rebuild and Repair: Tzedek Means Justice,” arrived New Year’s Day and stayed until Jan. 15. They constituted the largest-single group of Jewish volunteers to visit the storm-ravaged U.S. Gulf Coast since Katrina struck the area last August.

“We all hear about this and we feel sorry for the victims and send money, but so few people actually get up and do something about it,” said Jacob Leven, a UCLA sophomore who studies engineering.

In addition to Hillel, other Jewish groups were active in Mississippi relief work. Shortly after Katrina struck, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement dispatched a group of emissaries to Biloxi to assist with emergency search-and-rescue efforts.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center sent its director of interfaith affairs, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, to Biloxi to assess the progress of one of its affiliate organizations, the Mississippi Coast Interfaith Disaster Task Force.

“We are a human-rights organization and disaster relief is not the focus of the work of our center,” Adlerstein told the Biloxi Sun Herald. “But it is the interfaith part that got us involved through a back-door channel, and who knows where it will lead us.”

The Hillel volunteers, each of whom paid $125 plus transportation, were split into various teams to replace the roofs on 16 houses, all of them belonging to non-Jews. At night, they slept on the floor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport.

The program was coordinated by Weinberg Tzedek Hillel, a Washington-based international social-service initiative sponsored by Hillel, which received $108,000 in funding from United Jewish Communities.

“During the past few days, the destruction we have seen has been devastating,” University of Georgia sophomore Joseph Beker said. “Before coming down, I had no idea how bad the situation was, and after seeing it firsthand I realized how important it is that we are down here. The work we’re doing is a very small part of what needs to be done.”

One building Hillel couldn’t fix up was Beth Israel Synagogue, which was severely battered by the hurricane. That’s because the congregation’s board of directors hasn’t decided whether to rebuild the shul at the current site or move to a new site entirely.

“If we make no improvement on it at all, it’ll cost $350,000, and that’s low-balling it,” said Stephen Richer, the congregation’s president. “But that’s probably not the best thing to do. We’ll probably redesign it so we don’t have a flat roof. For what we want to do, the cost ranges from $500,000 to $1.5 million.”

Founded in 1958, Beth Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Mississippi, had 60 member families before Katrina, representing about half the coastal region’s Jewish population.

“A few people have left, and some like me are waiting for their homes to be fixed,” said Richer, interviewed in the crowded 36-foot Coachman trailer that’s parked in his front yard.

Richer, who’s also executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention & Visitors Bureau, bought the trailer used for $50,000 and drove it up from Florida; he’s been living in it ever since because his own house is full of mold and uninhabitable.

So is Beth Israel, which sits on the corner of Southern Boulevard and Camelia Street, only a few blocks from U.S. 90, which parallels the Gulf of Mexico. Evidence of Katrina’s destruction is everywhere along the coast, from the twisted remains of a local Waffle House to the floating Treasure Bay Casino barge that ended up on the beach, half a mile away from its moorings.

The synagogue’s administrator, Bonnie Kidd, said she was able to save the office computer, fax machine and important books. Mark Tabor, who lived in an apartment on top of the synagogue and was its caretaker, rescued the Torah scrolls just before Katrina hit.

“It looks as bad inside as it does outside,” said Tabor, a retired military officer who is temporarily living with his son in Mobile, Ala. “Eventually I will come back to Biloxi, as soon as they decide what we’re going to do.”

As bad as Beth Israel is — with its damaged roof, cracked wooden pews and mold — it’s nothing compared to the destruction elsewhere in the Biloxi-Gulfport area.

“We know about 15 Jewish families who lost everything. They have nothing except the clothes on their back,” Kidd said. “Some of them left, some of them are staying with family or friends, and some of them have been able to go through the ruins and see what they could salvage.”

Since the storm, the Conservative congregation has been holding Shabbat services regularly at Beauvoir Methodist Church in Biloxi.

“Our particular congregation is very ecumenical. We’ve participated in Friday evening services” at Beth Israel “for over 20 years, but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to bring in a non-Christian group,” said the Rev. Marilyn Perrine of Beauvoir, which also hosted Hands On USA, a volunteer group that includes Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers. “My folks are very open and excited about having Beth Israel in our building.”

Local churches also offered to host Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but the visiting rabbi and cantor that had been sent by the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism keep Shabbat, and with most Biloxi-area hotels destroyed by Katrina, there was nowhere within walking distance for them to stay.

In the end, nearby Keesler Air Force Base invited the congregation to use its chapel, Richer said.

Wayne Lord, the commanding general at Keesler, “came to Kol Nidre services before we started and made the most gracious remarks about the role of the U.S. military in preserving religious freedom,” Richer said. “We had probably over 100 people there — not only our members but also FEMA workers and Red Cross volunteers. We had a national audience.”

In the meantime, members of Biloxi’s dwindling, older Jewish community wonder what the future holds in store for them.

Real estate broker Milt Grishman, a lifelong member of the congregation, said he celebrated his bar mitzvah at Beth Israel in 1963. When Katrina hit, Grishman was already at his brother’s house up in Jackson, Miss.

“This is the first storm I ever evacuated for, and I’m glad I left,” he said, estimating that between 10 percent to 15 percent of Beth Israel’s members won’t be coming back.

“We’re such a small congregation that just a few can be significant,” Grishman said. “We had a fair number of military retirees living on a pension, and I’m not as optimistic as some others on our board.”

That’s because local unemployment is now running close to 25 percent, and of the 17,500 hotel rooms along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast before Katrina, only 5,000 are now open, according to Richer. Of the 13 casinos that were either operating or about to open, only three have reopened — which could put a severe dent into Biloxi’s tourism-driven economy.

“Some companies are deciding this is not a good place to be and are leaving,” Grishman said. “There’s a lot of talk about rebuilding and a condo boom, and all that’s encouraging, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

 

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