Chasen Forging New Path at Leo Baeck

When Rabbi Kenneth Chasen came to the Leo Baeck Temple for a final interview with the search committee in the spring of 2002, he put together a sample Shabbat service for about 40 people. During the service, congregation president Robin Bernstein closed her eyes and smiled. A feeling of peace came over her and she said that she knew that this was “our rabbi.”

Last summer Chasen joined the West Los Angeles synagogue, and at the Jan. 9-10 installation was officially made Leo Baeck’s new senior rabbi.

To grow, this congregation of 650 families must nurture its ties to broad, left-of-center political causes, while also attracting young, often apolitical families seeking innovative synagogue life for personal reasons, such as raising children.

“A good Reform synagogue should offer a road for all those types of expressions,” said Chasen, 38. He said he’ll continue the Leo Baeck tradition of innovative worship and social commitment.

“I think people are welcoming this moment and not seeing it as threatening.”

Chasen inherits a legacy created by founding Rabbi Leonard Beerman, Senior Rabbi Emeritus Sanford Ragins and Cantor Emeritus William Sharlin. A former TV music supervisor and soundtrack composer who became a rabbi in 1998, Chasen must carry the congregation’s traditions into the next generation.

“This community has a certain type of vision. The ways of this temple will bind him,” said Rabbi David Ellenson, president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) at Chasen’s formal Jan. 9 installation. “Rabbi Kenneth Chasen is one of the most gifted rabbis you’ll ever find.”

Sharlin’s daughter, Cantor Lisa Sharlin, is director of education at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’alot in Irvine. The synagogue of her childhood, she said, has a fine steward in Chasen: “He has brought with him a spark of love for our faith that is as fresh as it is contagious.”

Beerman founded Leo Baeck in 1948 and led it until he retired in 1986. He passed the torch to Ragins, who continued the Beerman tradition, while adding his imprint to the congregation’s direction before retiring last June.

In the early 1970s, Leo Baeck created its own prayer book instead of relying on Reform Judaism’s standard prayer text. This gave the leafy Sepulveda Boulevard shul a reputation for innovation. It became known for inspiring an overall aesthetic approach to Reform worship, notably in how language is used in prayer, how people enter prayer and how sermons are written. Leo Baeck also had a strong impact in liberal Los Angeles politics and leftist activism.

“None of that is going away,” said Chasen, who came from Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., spending five years there as an associate rabbi before joining Leo Baeck last July. “There’s a similar culture of civility,” he said in comparing the two.

Leo Baeck board member Lisa Mandel said Chasen “just stepped into the right place. For me at my point in my life, the political piece is very important to me, and he brings both. I have yet to meet a congregant who isn’t happy.”

Mandel said the anxiety about hiring a successor rabbi was, “pretty high…. You have this wealth and this history that’s so rich.”

Before entering HUC-JIR in 1993, the Kansas City, Mo.,-raised Chasen spent six years editing and composing musical scores for TV shows, such as ’80s prime-time dramas as “Dallas” and “Knots Landing.” Married for nine years to nonprofit development executive Allison Lee, they have two sons, Micah, 6, and Benjamin, 3.

Congregation President Bernstein said the search committee contacted 20 candidates before settling on Chasen and another finalist.

“We wanted a senior rabbi to give us new things to think about,” she said. “We really wanted to work with somebody with whom we could figure out together where we’re going.”

One Chasen theme is making Jewish life go beyond the synagogue and flourish at home. With writing partners Steve Brodsky and Rabbi Josh Zweiback, Chasen is one-third of the Mah Tovu trio. Their 2001, 18-page family prayer booklet, “Days of Wonder/Nights of Peace” includes a CD with four of their songs. The Behrman House booklet was made for parents seeking to build a Jewish home and also find relevant children’s bedtime stories.

“Why not make them Jewish bedtime stories?” Chasen said. “Jews are coming to Leo Baeck and seeking a Jewish experience that transcends the hours that they’re here.”

Q & A With Larry King

Larry King is as known for sitting hunched over a microphone, schmoozing with everyone who is anyone, as he is for wearing big black glasses and suspenders over shirt sleeves. But as the TV icon approaches the big 7-0 (his birthday is Nov. 19), he’s increasingly wearing something else on his sleeve: his Judaism.

Viewers are as likely to spy him at a benefit for the State of Israel Bonds or the Jewish Braille Institute as they are to see him interviewing the Duchess of York or Barbara Bush on CNN’s "Larry King Live." Last month, he appeared in a half-hour special, "Yom Kippur: Prayers of Atonement," for Los Angeles’ Temple Shalom for the Arts. And during a Sept. 29 interview with Neil Diamond, he made sure to say the show featured "two little Jewish boys from Brooklyn." King spoke this week at the Bnai Zion Foundation’s Women of Accomplishment Awards Dinner.

In a recent chat with The Journal, King spoke effusively about growing up Jewish in Brooklyn. He also discussed the highs and lows of his career — which includes the publication of his first novel, a 2003 comic mystery titled "Moon Over Manhattan" (New Millennium, $24.95) — and true love with spouse number seven, Shawn Southwick King.

The Jewish Journal: In your book, "Larry King Live," you describe the Brooklyn you grew up in the ’30s and ’40s in as a place of two religions — Jewish and Italian. How Jewish was your life in Brooklyn?

Larry King: We kept the Shabbos, we kept a kosher home, we went to the synagogue, my mother lit the candles for Shabbos, we never had milk and meat together — we observed all the laws. I did my bar mitzvah completely in Hebrew, and all my friends did the same way. I went to cheder. It was a very cultural Jewish life.

JJ: What else did you get from growing up in Brooklyn?

LK: A high degree of loyalty, the desire to succeed. Friendships count to me. [Brooklyn taught me n]ever to screw a friend. I like ethnic groups because of growing up in Brooklyn — and I developed a very liberal social consciousness. All my life I have resisted the inhumanity of prejudice.

JJ: What about street smarts?

LK: Definitely street smarts! I always say that if you were a D student in Brooklyn, you could be mayor of Des Moines. Brooklyn is still a magical place for me.

JJ: At some point in your life you became an agnostic. Why?

LK: I lost my religious aspects somewhere along the line after my father died [when King was 10]. I remember always questioning the [Bible]. I thought the God of the [Bible] was vindictive and petty — that "smite my enemies" and "pray only to me" stuff. I couldn’t accept faith blindly, which you were required to do as an Orthodox Jew. The older I got, the less religious I got.

JJ: Do you think that would have been different had your father not died?

LK: I don’t know how to measure that. I said "Kaddish" morning and night for a year when my father died. I did that out of respect. I still go to synagogue on Yom Kippur, and I spoke at the temple two years in a row. I just don’t believe anymore. I am not an atheist, I’m an agnostic.

JJ: In 1998 you wrote a book called "Powerful Prayers," in which you discussed the power of prayer and your own reluctance to pray, yet you end the book with a prayer to God of your own. Do you ever pray today?

LK: I still will occasionally pray, but that is conditioning. Since I am agnostic I don’t know that I’m not being heard. My wife is a devout Mormon, and so I will ask her to pray for someone.

JJ: I saw you speak at an event for the Los Angeles Sephardic Home for the Aging, where you made a joke that people look at you, and then look at your wife, and look back at you and then you say what they’re thinking — "If she dies, she dies…."

LK: Yes, people do look at her, and they tell me I have a beautiful daughter and beautiful grandchildren. But I have a great marriage.

JJ: How is turning 70 going to change your life? Can you imagine yourself slowing down any time soon?

LK: Well, I watch what I eat, I keep my weight down and I take a lot of vitamins. I think that having young kids keep me young, and having a young wife keeps me young. But I am by nature a workaholic. I love it [work] as much now as I did when I was making $80 a week.

JJ: What was the low point of your career as a broadcaster?

LK: In the early ’70s I was out of work. I didn’t handle a dollar very well. I wasn’t good with money — it was unimportant to me. Now I have people who take care of all my bills — I have never seen a CNN paycheck. It goes straight to them. I don’t know what it looks like.

JJ: What about the high points?

LK: There were a few — winning two Peabody awards, one for radio and one for television, winning an Emmy when cable became eligible for Emmys…. Also, I have the Larry King Cardiac Foundation [which pays for heart surgery for those who can’t afford it] and every time I get to call someone and tell them they can get their heart surgery, it’s a high.

JJ: What does Larry Zeiger [King’s name before he changed it] think of all this success?

LK: Larry Zeiger is still in there — he is Larry King on the outside. But every day I feel amazed.

Golan Takes Films to New Heights

“Return from India” is one of the 18 new films, documentaries and TV dramas showing at the 19th Israel Film Festival, from May 28-June 8. Based on A.B. Yehoshua’s best-selling book “Open Heart,” “India,” directed and co-produced by veteran filmmaker Menachem Golan, portrays a somewhat preposterous love story between the young Dr. Ben Rubin (Aki Avni) and the older Dori Lazar (Riki Gal) as they accompany her husband (Asi Dayan) to India to save their sick daughter. Golan was nominated for five Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film including “Entebbe: Operation Thunderbolt” (1977) and “Sallah Shabati” (1964); his film “The Assault” (1986) won the Oscar.

Golan lived in Los Angeles for 11 years in the 1980s, running the Cannon Group with his cousin, Yoram Globus, producing and/or directing some 200 features including “Over the Top” (1987) starring Sylvester Stallone and “The Delta Force” (1986), which he co-wrote.

The Jewish Journal caught up with Golan in his North Tel Aviv office, to discuss his life in Los Angeles, the Israeli film industry, and his advice to young Israeli filmmakers.

Jewish Journal: How was your experience living in Los Angeles?

Menachem Golan: I lived in Beverly Hills. I didn’t like it that much — it was one car talking to another car…. In order to succeed there, you have to be very stubborn and fight, and one day you’re up among the stars and one day you’re down. Here [in Israel] the minute I got status, I was in.

L.A. is a city of movies … but it’s not a pure city; you have to live the life, follow the path, do the drugs and parties and all that s–. In Israel [the film industry] is more pioneering, it’s not all about the money. It’s about the will, the talent, the knowledge, the love of making movies. In America you need lots of money.

JJ: What do you think an Israeli film needs in order to find an international — or an American — audience?

MG: It needs to have an international story, a human story that can be understood in the U.S. If you made a film with an intimate human story — most Israeli films are welcomed by Jewish audiences, but they don’t break in commercially.

We are limited by language, by Americans who are too lazy to read subtitles. They don’t like dubbing, they look at us as a European film, but Europe has completely different films.

JJ: What about movies portraying the conflict in Israel? Military films were once very popular.

MG: You see it in the news on a daily basis…. Unfortunately, there’s a young generation of filmmakers here trying to bring films to the world with an attitude — connected to the political situation. It’s a mistake: the big, successful Hollywood film “Pretty Woman,” can be made from Israel. Many of the stories, which are human stories, are character-driven stories, and would be more accepted by American audiences. In the last few years, many films deal with the war and the conflict, such as love stories between Arabs and Jews, which don’t really happen.

JJ: How is the situation affecting the film industry in Israel?

MG: Our industry compared to other small nations is quite advanced, we have more nominations [of] Oscars than Greece, Denmark — I think we have an open-door policy with Hollywood because it’s pro-Jewish.

There is an economic crisis now in Israel. You cannot raise money here privately. You must go to a government-run fund and you are in the hands of a group of frustrated artists who cannot make movies. They usually pick more controversial films — they don’t look at films as popular art.

JJ: Do you think the anti-Zionist sentiments around the world will affect the acceptance of Israeli movies?

MG: Not at all. I think the love for Israel goes way beyond the critical elements of the country.

JJ: What’s up next for you?

MG: I’m working on “Badenheim” based on Aharon Appelfeld’s novel, “Badenheim 1939,” about a group of Jews going to an Austrian resort that summer year, trying to convince themselves that everything is perfectly normal as Hitler is preparing the death camps. It’s a satire and has a lot of humor. We’re filming in Austria and Germany with a German government grant.

The subject matter [of the Holocaust] has hit a chord with the American audience — like “Schindler’s List,” “Life Is Beautiful” and “The Pianist.”

JJ: Do you think Israel filmmakers have a responsibility to portray Israel in a positive light?

MG: In a way, without pretense, at least the films shouldn’t put Israel to shame. I don’t think it serves anybody, especially the Jewish public in America. I don’t want to insult the American Jewish public — they are much more sensitive than Israelis are. I love Israel, I love this country — it’s important to give it a positive image.

Opening night of the festival, honoring Laura Ziskin,
Larry King and documentary director Erez Laufer, will take place on May 28, at
the Directors Guild of America. For more information or to purchase tickets,
contact  or call (877) 966-5566.