Law Committee’s gay ruling stepped outside Halacha

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards last week validated three responsa, or teshuvot, on the general subject of homosexuality.

In fact, the primary technical issue was the Jewish legal status of sex between members of the same gender. From the answers offered to that question followed the views of the authors as to the permissibility of commitment ceremonies — implying, of course, a need also for “uncommitment ceremonies” — and the ordination of gays and lesbians as clergy, who serve as exemplars of commitment to halachah.

Two of the papers reaffirmed the classical position of Jewish law forbidding such sexual activity and, therefore, forbade commitment ceremonies and the ordination of gays and lesbians.

The third paper permitted most sexual activity between men — forbidding only intercourse — and sexual activity between women. As a result, the authors of this paper permit commitment ceremonies and ordination.

I was the author of one of the papers that reaffirmed the classic Jewish legal position, a position I had affirmed in 1992 when this subject was last on the law committee’s agenda.

Despite the popular view of what we were arguing about, I believe that the subject of gays was not what we were really divided over. It happened to be the specific subject that revealed the real fault lines in the committee, and in the Conservative movement in general.

I believe we were divided over the following irreconcilable issues:

  • How entitled are we to overturn longstanding and uncontested precedents of Jewish law? None of the authors of any of the papers denied what the uncontested precedents of Jewish law are, and that the preponderant majority of decisors of Jewish law from time immemorial considered all types of sexual behavior between members of the same sex to be a prohibition of biblical status, d’oraita, based on rabbinic interpretation of scriptural verses, midrash halachah.
  • What divided us was the question of our right to adopt a legal stance attributed to one sage that the prohibitions against sexual behavior other than male intercourse are rabbinic in status, d’rabbanan, and not biblical, which
  • Even if the prohibition against sexual behavior other than male intercourse is rabbinic in authority and not biblical, what justifies our abrogating that prohibition?

The authors of the permissive paper argued that the Talmudic category of “human honor,” which they translated as “human dignity,” allowed for its abrogation. I argued that the category is entirely inapplicable to the case under discussion, even if we assumed that the prohibition is rabbinic and not biblical.

In almost all of the cases in which the category is invoked, the claim is that X may violate the law out of deference to the honor of Y. In the case under discussion, X is to be entitled to violate the law out of deference to his own honor, for which claim there is no real precedent.

What’s more, such a claim is theologically weak, since no law-abiding Jew would ever entertain the possibility that his honor would supersede that of God. And in the few cases of application of the category, which can possibly be understood to imply that X may violate the law out of deference to his own honor, X is always literally in a social context and in the presence of others.

For example, X may wear a hearing aid on Shabbat in the synagogue lest he be embarrassed by his inability to hear the Kaddish being recited and not answer the communal lines when the community does. In our case there is no social context, since sexual relations are, by definition, private. Therefore, the category is inapplicable.

How halachically defensible does an argument have to be before it can be considered within the halachic ballpark? We all understand and agree that decisors of Jewish law often approach the subject before them with a predisposition to give a specific answer. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

What, then, distinguishes a good decisor from a poor one?

The good decisor is able to judge his decision with enough dispassion to see whether his predisposition has blinded him to the indefensibility of his answer, and the poor one is not.

It is my opinion that my colleagues have here been blinded to the indefensibility of their conclusion. It is based on three pillars — I have not discussed one of them here — each of which is either quite clearly false or, at a minimum, is debatable.

For their conclusion to follow, however, all three must be considered as true and valid. This leads me to conclude that their decision was arrived at entirely independent of halachic reasoning, and that the defensibility of their after-the-fact reasoning was not relevant to them. The decision simply had to be as it was.

The combination of the above leads me to believe that the permissive position validated by the law committee was really outside the halachic framework, and I resigned from the committee.

Rabbi Joel Roth is a professor of Talmud and Jewish law at The Jewish Theological Seminary.

UTLA quashes Israel divestment push

Under a tidal wave of pressure from the local Jewish community, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) decided to deny use of its headquarters to the UTLA Human Rights Committee. The committee planned to discuss economic sanctions against Israel, including a boycott and divestment.
The move by the roughly 25-member group, a small fraction of the 48,000 UTLA members, caught the attention of the Jewish community, which quickly united in opposition.
UTLA President A.J. Duffy said he advocated canceling the planned Oct. 14 pro-Palestinian gathering because it would have served only to “polarize our union members and members of our community.” Instead, he said he supports convening a gathering for a dialogue between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces.
However, pressure from Duffy and some Jewish organizations has galvanized some UTLA Human Rights Committee members, who now want to proceed with the pro-Palestinian meeting at “an undisclosed location at an undisclosed time,” according to Emma Rosenthal, a committee member and director of Cafe Intifada, which, along with the Los Angeles Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee, officially endorsed the Oct. 14 gathering.
“Some of the Jewish establishment is absolutely intolerant of any discussion of any sort that has to do with Palestinian human rights; anything that’s critical of Israel,” said Rosenthal, a poet and political activist, who is Jewish. She added that the organizations planning the meeting probably would have canceled the Oct. 14 gathering anyway because of security concerns.
Rosenthal called pro-Israel Jewish organizations hypocritical in calling for “balance” when, she believes, they so rarely offer it at their own meetings and conferences.
The UTLA Human Rights Committee and the Cafe Intifada blog have recently received hate mail and e-mails calling members “terrorists, Nazis and murderers,” Human Rights Committee member Andy Griggs said. He added that the committee originally had expected no more than 30 people to attend the meeting.
Founded in the 1980s, the Human Rights Committee has sponsored and hosted a variety of meetings and conferences over the years that have addressed the environment, support for striking Oaxacan teachers in Mexico and immigration rights, among other issues. In April, the group’s two-day “Conference on Human Rights and the Environment” featured workshops on topics ranging from the environmental impact of Israel “occupation” on Palestinian communities, to the Gulf War to climate change. A lunchtime plenary session included a discussion of “definitions of genocide and human rights in the U.S., world history and in the Middle East, specifically in Palestine,” according to the group’s Web site.
UTLA members can join the Human Rights Committee by attending its first meeting of the year, or two consecutive gatherings.
Teacher Elana Dombrower, who is Jewish, said the committee’s latest stance has angered her.
“I am infuriated,” said Dombrower, who teaches fifth-grade at Roscomare Road Elementary School in Bel Air. “How dare this committee try to do something like this that doesn’t reflect the UTLA’s view or the views of its members.”
The committee’s planned gathering was to have been sponsored by the Los Angeles chapter of a group called Movement for a Democratic Society Inc., a new organization based in Connecticut that, according to its Web site, includes among its board members author Noam Chomsky, who has been sharply critical of Israel, as well as revisionist historian Howard Zinn. The group has tight links with Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS, a student-activist movement that peaked in the 1960s.
Some Jewish leaders appreciated UTLA Duffy’s efforts to put distance between the union and the Human Rights Committee.
“I’m proud of what the UTLA has done,” said Allyson Rowen Taylor, associate director of the western region of the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).
Earlier, Rowen Taylor had said that allowing such a meeting to take place on union property would have given the appearance that that UTLA endorsed divestment and a boycott, which it does not.
An Oct. 6 letter to Duffy from several Jewish groups, including The Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Committee, AJCongress, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Progressive Jewish Alliance, among others, thanked him for sending “a clear message that UTLA does not endorse the [Human Rights] Committee’s action.”
To try to prevent future attacks on Israel by UTLA committees, the AJC has encouraged its members who belong to the union “to make their feelings known about the indoctrination programming done by the Human Rights Committee and the hijacking of this committee,” said Sherry Weinman, president of the Los Angeles AJC chapter.
Leaders from several major local Jewish organizations met for two hours at the L.A. Federation on Oct. 4 to discuss how to respond to the planned event. Several participants said Duffy, who attended the meeting, told the group that he is Jewish, supports Israel and sympathizes with their concerns. He told participants that UTLA’s 30-plus committees enjoy much autonomy, and that their positions don’t necessarily reflect the union as a whole.
Duffy said that he had removed UTLA’s Web link to the Human Rights Committee and that UTLA would review its procedures for granting use of its facilities to union committees. Duffy said that he found the brouhaha a distraction.
“Let me put it this way, I’d rather be focusing 100 percent of my time to the contract negotiations going on, rather than this,” he said in an interview.
A former special education teacher and dean of students at Palms Middle School, Duffy described himself as a cultural Jew. When he grew up in Brooklyn, “we used to say there were more of us here than in Israel, and it was true,” he quipped.
The UTLA Human Rights Committee agreed to host the pro-Palestinian meeting at the request of the Movement for a Democratic Society and after canvassing opinions of Human Rights Committee members. Although only six committee members responded to the list-serve e-mail, all said they supported the gathering, the Human Rights Committee’s Griggs said.
Marla Eby, UTLA director of communications, said Duffy will meet on Oct. 13 with the members of the Human Rights Committee to strongly urge the committee not to proceed. Duffy said he will “share the sheer preponderance of communications I’ve received that translate into our organization having taken a hit from our members. I’m not talking about The Jewish Federation or other Jewish organizations or Jewish teachers. I’m talking about teachers who are absolutely appalled that they think UTLA would sponsoring such an [anti-Israel] meeting.”

Social Action Groups Fight for Cleaning Ladies’ Rights

I am sitting in a Brooklyn diner, having breakfast with Marlene Champion, 61, a tall, striking woman from Barbados. Champion makes her living as a domestic worker, and right now she works as a nanny caring for a 4-year-old girl in Brooklyn Heights.

Champion is also an active member of Domestic Workers United (DWU), a Bronx-based organization fighting for domestic workers’ rights. In the 16 years since she immigrated to the United States, Champion has worked in four households, all Jewish. With the exception of one family that treated her badly, she says she’s had good relations with all of them.

Champion felt especially close to a Dr. Steiner, whom she took care of for six years, until he died at 92 with Champion at his side. She was in charge of all his care, prepared his meals, did the laundry and kept his apartment clean. She accompanied him to all the family weddings.

He had specialized in the study of tuberculosis, and he used to tell her stories about his work. Sometimes, he showed her his old slides. You’d make such a great doctor, or nurse, he used to tell her. Champion still keeps a picture of Steiner on her wall, and stays in close contact with his children.

After she finishes telling me her story, I say that my family had a housekeeper when I was growing up. I also say something that she probably already knows: that hiring domestic help is fairly common in Jewish households. And then I ask her what is special, if anything, about working for Jewish families. She smiles.
“We’re of different races,” she says. “But I think we have a lot in common.”

When Jews hire people to do household jobs — anybody who cleans, cooks, does the laundry, cares for children or elderly parents — we are the ones who represent the privileged class, with the funds to hire help. Jews today are generally wealthier and better educated than the majority of Americans. But the widespread practice of having “help” goes all the way back to our grandmother’s day, when even Jewish families in modest circumstances very often had cleaning ladies, perhaps because the wages for domestic work were so low that even working-class families could often afford this small luxury.

“It wasn’t as if you were putting on airs,” a Jewish lady in her 70s told me. “Having a cleaning lady was socially acceptable.”

Yet even the term “cleaning lady” indicates the awkwardness employers feel in the presence of a rather un-American class system. We don’t need to call the electrician the “electrical fix-it gentleman,” after all.

Today, two-career households need housekeepers and nannies and cleaning ladies even more than the stereotypical clean-floor-obsessed housewives of a previous generation might have. Indeed, some of the backlash against the women’s movement focuses on this issue: The gains of middle-class women during the last three decades, critics charge, were achieved through the exploitation of other, less fortunate women. And despite the energy that fueled the 1970s efforts to elevate the status of housecleaners — stating that being paid fairly for a job responsibly done was no different if you were a housekeeper than if you were any other kind of laborer — those early efforts to make the relationship between employer and employee more businesslike never took hold.

Our relationship with the women who work in our homes is still inherently an unequal one. This fact makes many of us so uncomfortable that some Jewish women refuse to have household help even if they can afford it. Breena Kaplan, 65, is an artist on Long Island who has always done her own cleaning,
“It’s my schmutz, so I should take care of it,” said Kaplan, a “red-diaper baby” who grew up in “the Co-ops,” two Bronx apartment buildings populated in the 1940s and onward largely by left-wing Jews.

Her father, who came from Russia, a card-carrying Communist, made “a good living” in the textile business, and he insisted that Luba, his wife, have help in the house. Kaplan remembers Elizabeth, a tall black woman who smelled of starch and soap, standing over the sink, scrubbing the family’s wash. But Elizabeth didn’t last long, because Luba couldn’t stand the humiliation she felt at a black woman coming into her home and slaving away for her in, of all places, the Co-ops.

Some Jewish women attempt to deal with the discomfort they feel at the imbalance of power between them and their domestic workers by reframing the relationship as a collaboration. Carla Singer, a film producer in New York City, employs Grace Smith — not her real name — as a twice-weekly housekeeper. Singer says she really only needs Smith one day a week, but, “this is tikkun. I know where my extra money is going — to support Grace and her son. If I send it to a charity, I don’t know where my money is going.”

Singer feels that the tikkun, or repair of the world, is mutual — Smith helped her out at a very difficult time, after Singer had just made a hugely dislocating transition, she said, moving to New York from Los Angeles with her teenage daughter. One day, as Smith was helping them settle into a new apartment, Singer, stressed-out, snapped at her.

Smith shot back: “You know, Carla, we’re partners in this.”

“She was right,” Singer said. “In a sense, she doesn’t work for me.”

Except that Smith does work for Singer. And it’s time, especially in the context both of the global discussion of immigration laws and the more local desperation of working mothers juggling many needs, to talk openly about the relationship between Jewish women and the help — almost always female — we employ in the intimate settings of our own homes and families.

According to DWU, virtually all domestic workers today are immigrants, the vast majority of them undocumented, which makes it all too easy for employers to exploit them, wittingly or not. The good news is that there’s movement to encourage Jews to treat those who work for us with fairness, as we’re enjoined to do as a basic Jewish value.

A series of interviews with both Jewish employers and their domestic workers revealed that, happily, the mutual respect between Champion and the Steiner family is not unique. But I also heard awful stories about Jewish families who treat their domestic workers badly, ranging from subtle to not-so-subtle insults — recalling Philip Roth’s cringe-inducting scene of Portnoy’s mother and her treatment of the so-called “schvartze” in “Portnoy’s Complaint” — and a real blindness to the basic needs of the employee to allegations of physical abuse.

Some bosses, in flagrant disregard of Jewish teachings and basic consideration, don’t pay their domestic workers on time. “Do not withhold the pay of your workers overnight,” it says in Leviticus 19:13. Or, in a striking lack of empathy, some employers don’t recognize the dire financial consequences to a day worker who may be counting on the next day’s wages to pay the rent, or feed her kids, who gets a call the night before, announcing “I don’t need you tomorrow.”

Some women mistreat their domestic workers in more subtle ways. Gayle Kirshenbaum, 39, who is active in Jews for Economic and Racial Justice, a New York City-based grass-roots group with the stated goal of injecting a “progressive Jewish voice” into New York City politics, once remarked to a friend, also Jewish, how awful it must be for Caribbean domestic workers to have to leave their children back home with relatives. Her friend disagreed.

“No, it doesn’t bother them,” the friend said. “They’re not like us.”

Another woman spoke of her friend, a Holocaust survivor’s daughter in her 50s, living in a New York suburb, who confessed to feeling gratified when she ordered around a non-Jewish Polish immigrant cleaning lady.

The one family that Champion said did not treat her well consisted of two ill and elderly parents, whom Champion looked after for eight months, and their adult daughter who lived nearby. The problem, Champion said, was the daughter.

She would buy only enough groceries for her parents; Champion was expected to get her own food. When Champion lifted the father from his bed to his wheelchair — something she had been trained to do — the daughter, likening Champion to a man, would call her “Harry.”

And one day, when the daughter was visiting, Champion overheard a conversation between daughter and father. The father was telling his daughter how much he liked Champion, so much that he’d like to give her something. Maybe even some stock that he owned.

The daughter was furious. “Oh, no! They’re just the help!” she screamed loudly. Champion, although in another room, could not help but hear. “Give it to your grandchildren!”

Money, of course, is a real issue. Many domestic workers are badly paid. According to DWU, some day workers receive as little as $2 an hour; some live-ins are paid $250 a month. DWU recommends a living wage of $14 an hour.

Even though labor laws technically protect all workers, documented or not, in reality the laws fail domestic workers. Domestics do not have the right to unionize, and most are undocumented immigrants, which makes them doubly vulnerable. These facts make it nearly impossible for them to demand such rights as health care, severance pay, paid vacation, sick days, notice of termination — all things that we would likely assume were due us if we were the employees ourselves. But how domestic workers fare depends entirely on the will, good or ill, of their employers.

Jeannie Prager of Englewood, N.J., spoke about how these issues play out in her tightly knit modern Orthodox community in a New York suburb: “We are the people who seem to hire the most housekeepers. And we’re doing a terrible job.”

Prager knows this, because over the years she’d gotten quite an earful, both from Victoria Smith (not her real name), her former housekeeper, and from Smith’s schmoozing friends, who often hung out at the house.

Prager recently fired Smith, who had been with her for 13 years, providing care to Prager’s ailing nonagenarian mother for the last nine of them.

“It was time for a change,” Prager said. “She was always on the phone. Her friends who worked in the neighborhood often stopped by for a bite and a chat on their way home. It was all just too much, too much noise and commotion.”
Letting Smith go was a tough decision, though. “She was a godsend in many ways. And a 13-year relationship, with two women sharing one kitchen, becomes a very close friendship.”

When Prager finally got the words out, she gave Smith two weeks’ notice and $5,000, six weeks’ severance pay. Smith, also eligible for unemployment compensation, was furious.

“I always held you up on a pedestal,” Smith told her employer. “But my friends always warned me. And now I see that they were right, that you’re just like all the rest.”

“The rest,” of course, meant “the rest of the Jews.” Prager felt horrible. But despite Smith’s anger, she and her family paid a shiva call when Prager’s mother died shortly after the firing.

Smith declined several requests to speak with this writer directly, though she and Prager stay in touch.

It took Smith seven months to find a comparable job. Prager said she was the one to find it for her. In the Prager household, Smith had two weeks off annually to start, increased to three weeks at her 10-year anniversary, five sick days, three personal days and “of course,” said Prager, paid holidays.

Prospective employers, responding to the ad Prager posted for Smith on the shul’s Web site, kept telling her they’d never heard of a housekeeper getting paid vacation.

“These things upset me so much,” Prager told me. “They give us such a bad name.”
Worried, Prager approached her rabbi with the idea of starting a discussion in the congregation about practices around hiring household help.

“I feel that if some of these women could speak in a safe environment and say what bothers them, and likewise for their housekeepers, we would all benefit,” she said. The rabbi said her idea was interesting, and that was the end of it.

Prager had nailed it, though her rabbi wasn’t listening. But at least one rabbi is: Rabbi Ellen Lippmann of the Brooklyn congregation Kolot Chayeinu devoted last year’s Rosh Hashanah sermon to employing domestic workers, not a usual High Holidays theme.

“Since we are Jews sitting here together on a night designated for thinking about doing right, it seems crucial that we Jews be thoughtful about and to the people who work in our homes,” she said. And often, she added, we are not. “Not out of malice, but out of busyness and lack of thought.”

Lippmann cited the story of Sarah and Hagar, whom the infertile Sarah mistreats when Hagar conceives. The Ramban, Lippman said, “says Sarah sinned when she did this and so did Abraham by letting it happen.”

She added: “When we hire someone to work in our homes, we must see that person as fully human, seen by God.”

Lippmann, like Kirshenbaum, is active in Jews for Racial and Economic Justice (JFREJ). Two years ago, the group embarked on a “Shalom Bayit” campaign in partnership with DWU. JFREJ also hosts small group discussions in people’s homes, the “living room project.”

As part of the campaign, the group’s members conduct discussions in synagogues about the just treatment of domestic workers. Last year, for example, Kirshenbaum and DWU members Champion and Allison Julien were invited to visit Temple Beth-El in Great Neck, an upscale New York suburb, for the congregation’s social action Shabbat. The women spoke about domestic workers’ rights.

JFREJ’s membership is decidedly left-leaning. In their shalom bayit, or peace in the house, campaign, the group is consciously trying, says Kirshenbaum, “to broach the line between progressive and more traditional Jews.” Because it is clear, she says, “how deeply this issue resonates in the Jewish community” in both directions. Jews are employers, she said, and they also want to do right by their employees.

“Doing right” means putting your money where your mouth is. At the living room meetings, JFREJ organizers talk about the specifics of treating domestic workers in a professional manner. Which means, for example, offering full-time employees a contract. The standard contract, based on a DWU model, specifies, for example, what responsibilities the job does — and does not — entail, how many paid sick days and vacation days the employee is entitled to, what the rate of payment will be for overtime work, the medical care the employer agrees to pay for, and what the food arrangement will be.

The document explaining the contract goes out of its way to assure employers that using a contract is good for them, too, leading to more loyalty from the employee, and an end to abrupt departures, as there’s a “must give notice” clause.

But it may take a while to shift employers from the more casual — and less fair, though less costly — model of doing business. The JFREJ-DWU presentation last year at Temple Beth-El of Great Neck, said social action committee chairwoman Alice Fornari, did not get much of a response.

“The evening ends and then it’s over,” Fornari said. “Nobody talked to me about it afterward.”

Other social-action subjects — stopping the genocide in Darfur, for example — get a significant response from the whole community, said Rabbi Darcie Krystal, who with Fornari organized the social action Shabbat and was supportive of the domestic workers issue. With domestic help it’s a different matter.

“It’s a very risky topic for a social action Shabbat,” Fornari told me. “People don’t want it in their face.” People, she said, would rather hear about, say, Israel. In other words, things and places that are far away.

“I don’t think most people care about the rights of domestic workers,” Fornari said. “They don’t feel it’s a topic that’s relevant to their lives, even though the women they hire are taking care of their homes and their children. People don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want to do anything about it.”

It is a topic dear to her, Fornari said, because of her involvement with each of the housekeepers she has employed over the years in her own home. She helped one, who came from Bolivia not knowing any English, to get into college; the woman is now a teacher. Extensive interviews reveal that many Jewish employers have tried similarly to improve the individual lives of their housekeepers, to whom they’ve grown close; Fornari’s behavior, like Prager’s, is not an isolated phenomenon. Fornari is determined to continue the conversation that she started at Temple Beth-El. She would love to see a living room session in Great Neck.

Kirshenbaum described hosting such a meeting at a friend’s home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where a majority of the women pushing strollers on the streets look to be other than the babies’ mothers.

“There were perhaps 11 people there. We raised issues like the fact that if you go on vacation, you need to pay your domestic worker. And people said, ‘But no, if I’m going away, I shouldn’t have to pay.’ ”

“But then,” Kirshenbaum continued, “I could see people shifting categories, for the first time. It was like lightbulbs going on. These women had thought of their domestic workers as casual baby sitters, not as women who were counting on this salary to pay their own household bills. And now, they were suddenly realizing, ‘We are employers and they are our employees, and of course I get sick leave, so why shouldn’t they?'”

“There is no shame in hiring someone to work for us,” Kirshenbaum said. “The only shame is in not treating them well.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Lilith Magazine: Independent, Jewish & Frankly Feminist.

Students Draw on Movie for Tolerance Mural Inspiration

Oscar de la Hoyer Animo Charter High School

In a hallway of Oscar de la Hoya Animo Charter High School in downtown Los Angeles, a three-part canvas mural covers a wall, portraying the transformation of society from one plagued by hate to one free of it.

The mural’s creators are at-risk Latino high school students who spent their Saturdays envisioning a better world, and then painting it.

The students participated in a mural workshop based on a simple principle: Art can change the world.

The engineer of the workshop is Kids for Peace, a children’s art program initially begun to help combat terrorism in Israel by providing artistic and creative guidance to youngsters.

Gayle Gale started Kids for Peace after she returned to Los Angeles from a series of trips to Israel as a visiting artist at Ben-Gurion University, Beersheba in 1994 and 1995. With assistance from the local Israeli consulate and a grant obtained with help from the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity from the Jewish Community Foundation, she set out to teach youth about Israel through artistic means. In the years since, Gale has found herself doing much more.

Gale has traveled around the world conducting Kids for Peace workshops, working with groups to create artworks for all variety of venues, including the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland, where kids made a mural to commemorate the celebration of the 50th anniversary of human rights in 1998. In 2001, Gale received the Fete d’Excellence gold medallion for Youth from the coalition of nongovernmental organizations that are a part of the United Nations.

After Sept. 11, 2001, Gale expanded the Kids for Peace focus beyond terrorism and Israel to include issues of hunger, gang violence and AIDS, depending on the location of the workshop and the most relevant issue in the part of the world she was attempting to reach. In the process, Gale sought to avoid making Kids for Peace a politically charged initiative.

“I don’t consider this a political project,” she said. “I consider it a way of bringing people together using the creative process for harmony and to make social statements that educate people because I believe that we’ll have peace when there’s education.”

Run in conjunction with Barnsdall Arts, which has worked with Kids for Peace since 2003, the Oscar de la Hoya workshop allowed 20 students to create a series of murals to adorn their campus in the Los Angeles World Trade Center.

After viewing a documentary called “The Devil’s Miner,” about a young Bolivian boy forced to work in a mine to support his family, the students agreed upon the images they sought to portray after performing yoga and participating in a discussion of social justice led by Gale, who routinely uses such methods to get students thinking and feeling. Then they get painting.

The particular focus of the workshop was the importance of education to the achievement of peace.

When Gale discovered the “The Devil’s Miner” at a special screening at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood in April, she realized it was a tool she could use to further emphasize the relationship between education and peace in her workshops. Its protagonist dreams above all of saving enough money to one day attend school.

“I thought that if kids in America could see this film, they would appreciate what they have, and they would take their educations more seriously,” Gale said. The students at Oscar de la Hoya Animo devoted three Saturdays in May and June to working on the murals.

Gale and her patrons are hoping that it will be the first of many “Devil’s Miner” workshops she will conduct.

“My goal is just to travel around the world and keep doing workshops,” Gale said.

NGOs Feel Sting of Hamas Ban

Nearly three months since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority, Western governments aren’t the only ones trying to figure out how to deliver aid to the increasingly needy Palestinian population without inadvertently supporting its extremist government.

Nongovernmental organizations — which Western governments opposed to ties with Hamas view as the most viable medium for delivering aid to the Palestinians — are themselves running into problems trying to maintain their operations in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

With the Palestinian Authority in disarray and Western governments still in the process of defining what is permissible vis-?-vis links to the Hamas-run government, many nonprofit groups operating in Palestinian areas are facing serious funding problems, confusion about whom they are allowed to talk to and work with, and the challenge of having to establish ties with a completely new — and far less institutionalized — Palestinian bureaucracy.

The situation is nothing short of a crisis, many officials with these groups, sometimes known as NGOs, here say.

“I have never seen as much policy confusion in government as I have seen when Hamas was elected in the Palestinian Authority,” said John Bell, director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground in the Middle East.

“Who can we have contact with? Can we be in the same room as a Hamas person? There are many legal issues for us to consider,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, we’re a bit in the realm of the absurd.”

A variety of officials from nonprofits operating in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip discussed the challenges of operating in Hamas-run territory at a conference last week on nonprofits, human rights and the Arab-Israeli conflict. The forum, hosted by NGO Monitor, was held June 14 at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.

Many officials from nonprofit groups complained that American, European and Israeli restrictions on contacts with the Hamas government are too far-reaching, threatening nonpolitical and even pro-peace activities, such as the teaching of coexistence curricula in Palestinian schools. Because those schools are now under the aegis of Hamas, coordination with officials from the Palestinian Education Ministry is now banned by Western governments.

“It’s virtually impossible to fund Palestinian society today in the West Bank without encountering Hamas,” said Daniel Seideman, legal adviser to Ir Amim, an Israeli group that advocates for a binational Jerusalem and promotes services to Palestinian residents of the city.

But many Western observers argue that the funding crisis in the Palestinian Authority — precipitated by Western sanctions — is a necessary part of getting the Hamas-run government to abandon terrorism.

“This crisis is necessary and overdue,” said Saul Singer, an Israeli newspaper columnist who spoke at the conference. The idea, Singer explained, is to use the crisis to force Hamas to accept the principle of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We’re talking about a game of chicken here,” Singer said, between the principles of Hamas, a terrorist group that mandates Israel’s destruction, on the one hand, and the principles of the international community — abandonment of terrorism, recognition of Israel and acceptance of existing Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements — on the other.

“I think Hamas should give in,” Singer said.

While this game is played, however, groups funded by Western governments must figure out how to adjust to the new reality of maintaining their activities in a territory where cooperation with the local government is restricted.

There are pitfalls and obstacles everywhere, officials with these groups say.

Other organizations report that donors’ targeted gifts are harder to use because of the new bans. Some say they have been forced to return funds to donors.

Gershon Baskin, co-CEO of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information, says his group does not accept funding from the Palestinian or Israeli governments in order to steer clear of restrictions and conflicts of interest. But his reliance on other governments, such as that of the United States, has come at a cost.

According to Bell, the United States is more stringent than Israel when it comes to restrictions on nonprofits’ activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The United States “is putting out extremely stringent demands and conditions,” Bell said. “The Israelis are a lot more practical about it. They know things have to be done, and they’re trying to get them done while at the same time the U.S. government is prohibiting very common-sense activities.”

Many officials with nonprofit groups say Western bans on contacts with Hamas should be more nuanced — both to facilitate easier aid to the Palestinians and to help bring Hamas around to a more moderate point of view.

“I understand the logic behind a government boycotting Hamas,” Baskin said. “I don’t think that has to limit nongovernmental actors in trying to effect change.”

“I would like to see the international community looking for ways that can help us to move the Hamas from where it is to a different place, to a better place, to a reformed political platform, which I believe is inevitable,” Baskin said. “We have to be very careful about both boycotts against Israel and boycotts against Palestine that prevent peaceful NGOs from doing their work.”


Schools Give Prum-Hess High Marks

Last year, two Los Angeles schools applied for and won MATCH grants, which are awarded each year by a consortium of Jewish education foundations that reward day schools for cultivating new donors. The grants brought in more than $100,000.

This spring, 13 day schools were awarded the same grant, bringing in $1.5 million.

What changed?

Miriam Prum-Hess, director of day school operations for the Bureau of Jewish Education, entered the Los Angeles Jewish day school picture, and she alerted schools to the opportunity and guided them through the process.

Prum-Hess, an experienced and admired Federation executive, took on a new role working on behalf of day schools last year, an effort to increase the level of professionalism and efficiency in all nonacademic areas. She has become the central address for day schools looking for expertise on operational issues — fundraising strategies, legal advice, business decisions, purchasing, and human resources. During the past 18 months she has examined the big picture of what the city’s 37 days schools — of all denominations — need, and has run seminars, consulted with the school administrators and lay leaders and opened up new resources to meet those needs.

Since Los Angeles’ Federation is the first to fund such a position, national Jewish leaders have trained their eyes here to see how things turn out.

“The whole model that undergirds Miriam’s position, which is that a central agency should have a professional dedicated to helping day schools build their capacities, is from our perspective just 100 percent sound,” said Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE), which works off a similar model on a national scale. “It is a very important strategy in enabling day schools to grow themselves from the inside by focusing on all the things they need to be strong.”

Local educators have welcomed Prum-Hess, who visited all of Los Angeles’ Jewish schools in her first few months on the job, which she started in December 2004.

“I have been involved with the Bureau [of Jewish Education] as a head of school here for 20 years, and for me adding Miriam was the most significant change in the entire time I’ve been here,” says Lana Marcus, head of school at Adat Ari El, a Conservative kindergarten through eighth grade day school in Valley Village. Marcus credits Prum-Hess for enabling her to win a MATCH grant worth $275,000.

One of Prum-Hess’s primary goals is to bring more money into the schools to bring relief both to parents struggling to pay tuition and administrators struggling to make the budget. She is working with The Federation, the Jewish Community Foundation and BJE Executive Director Gil Graff to set up a $20 million community endowment fund.

But while that is in the works, she is helping schools tap into government and foundation money they can access immediately.

To qualify for the MATCH grants, funded by a consortium of foundations under the leadership of PEJE, the Jewish Funders Network and the Avi Chai Foundation, schools had to generate gifts of at least $25,000 from donors who had not previously given a major gift to a day school.

A BJE-sponsored seminar in November 2005 helped schools gain enough confidence and expertise to approach new donors. Twenty-three schools attended, and more than half of those received one-on-one coaching as a follow-up.

Thirteen schools — of all denominations and sizes — were able to raise a combined $1 million, and the foundations matched 50 cents to the dollar.

In addition, 12 schools this year brought in more than $1 million in grants from the Department of Homeland Security.

Schools credit the BJE-sponsored seminars for giving them the information and know-how to pursue these opportunities.

“It forced a lot of the schools to go outside of their comfort zones and look for new donors or push people they were working with before to go above and beyond what they were doing,” said Alain R’bibo, a lay leader at Or Hachaim Academy, a 3-year-old Sephardic elementary school in North Hollywood. The school, affiliated with Adat Yeshurun Congregation, qualified for the MATCH grants. “Miriam reaches out to make sure we get information and find out about what programs are available.”

In December 2004, the Federation transferred Prum-Hess, then vice president of planning and allocations, into the BJE, where she took on the newly created portfolio of Day School Capacity Building to deal with operational issues for 37 schools, which have a combined budget of $138 million. The Federation funded her salary for two years and BJE funded her expenses such as office support and travel. A Jewish Community Foundation grant of $50,000 provided much of the programming fund.

Federation President John Fishel said that senior Federation leadership has asked the planning and allocation committee to continue funding Prum-Hess’s position past the initial two-year commitment.

“Her work is extremely important and she’s making a difference in the day schools,” Fishel said. “She has accomplished more in a year and a half then I would have anticipated. It’s very impressive.”

Prum-Hess says that every one of the day schools in the L.A. area has participated in at least one of her programs over the past year, most of them in more than one.

“The really exciting thing for me is how open and hungry for this the schools are,” said Prum-Hess, who herself has two kids in day school.

The BJE has hosted seminars on board development, fundraising, legal and tax issues, management training and grant-getting. All of these came with follow-up one-on-one consulting, providing the schools enough expert guidance to implement what they learned at the seminars.

Prum-Hess has also negotiated joint purchasing for items such as copier contracts — a huge budget item for schools — and is looking into jointly purchasing employee benefits. A consortium of lawyers specializing in school issues is now available at a minimal cost.

She has launched a marketing campaign, starting with research aimed at decoding why so many parents who send their little ones to Jewish preschool pull them out for grade school.

These are questions that all Jewish schools share, and Prum-Hess is happy to be there to answer. For the first time, principals and directors say, they feel like they know whom to call with questions unrelated to pedagogy or curriculum. They know they have someone who can take a step-back and evaluate objectively.

“What she has done in 15 months for a system with 37 schools is remarkable,” PEJE’s Elkin said. “At PEJE we see this as one of the really outstanding models for helping to grow and sustain strong and excellent Jewish day schools in North America.”


Federation Support of Civic Group Wanes

When former Democratic Congressman Mel Levine agreed to chair the Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC), he hoped to infuse it with the passion and purpose of its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In those days, the JCRC — which is one of the major voices and faces of The Federation to the non-Jewish world — was a high-profile entity. It took up the cause of Soviet Jewry and Ethiopia’s Jews. It was assertive locally, too, whether in denouncing the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 or reaching out to non-Jewish communities in need.

But something has happened during the John Fishel era at The Federation.

Critics say that starting in the mid-1990s, the JCRC slowly began losing its voice and shirked a core mission: to be as visible and forthrightly active as possible.

As Levine saw it, the community relations committee could once again become a powerful voice by taking principled stands on controversial public policy issues, thereby strengthening coalitions with African American, Latino and other ethnic groups.

Levine’s appointment came at a time when JCRC staff morale was low. The committee had largely abandoned public policy advocacy in favor of its more traditional roles of ardently supporting Israel, reaching out to other religious and ethnic communities and lobbying for government dollars for social programs. Under Fishel, the JCRC has seen its influence, as well as staff and budget, shrink.

“John Fishel doesn’t get it, doesn’t understand it,” said Howard Welinsky, a former JCRC chair. He said that Fishel constantly pushed to downsize the JCRC during Welinsky’s two-year term in the late ’90s.

But Fishel’s view is that the political climate simply evolved. The JCRC has “a unique function,” he said, but the community itself no longer always coalesces, through the committee, as one voice. There are no longer such issues of broad agreement, such as support for Soviet Jewry.

“I think it’s become much more difficult for the JCRC to define what becomes an issue of Jewish concern,” Fishel said.

To be sure, JCRCs across the country have seen budgets shrink as federations’ resources dipped. After the successful immigration to Israel of nearly 1 million Soviet Jews — a Herculean undertaking that community relations councils around the nation helped orchestrate — several JCRCs experienced periods of “searching for meaning,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the New York-based parent organization for 125 community relations councils nationwide.

Which is why the appointment of former Rep. Levine was so welcomed. Given his political connections in Sacramento and Washington and his energy and dedication, JCRC supporters believed Levine would restore the committee’s lost luster.

When the Israeli embassy contacted Levine, seeking JCRC public support for Israel’s planned withdrawal of settlers and troops from Gaza, he set about building consensus. Although Levine eventually succeeded in putting the JCRC on record as favoring the withdrawal — a position shared by the majority of American Jews — he said he felt frustrated that it took so long for The Federation to sign off on the public pronouncement. And by this time, The Federation was following the train of opinion shapers, rather than leading it.

Time was, the local JCRC, with The Federation’s blessing, took controversial stands on issues of the day, said Steven Windmueller, the committee’s director from 1985 to 1995. In those heady times, the JCRC opposed the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court and spoke out in support of abortion rights, he said.

Although those positions angered some Jews in the community, Windmueller said the committee’s views reflected those held by the majority of the Southland’s liberal-leaning Jews. The JCRC’s willingness to take those and other positions, Windmueller said, attracted scores of young people to the committee, which served as a gateway to the Jewish community for many. Some later went on to became Federation donors, he added.

About a decade ago, however, the L.A, Federation, like some others around the country, began discouraging the local JCRC from venturing into controversial public policy matters, Windmueller said. With competition for charitable dollars heating up, many federations concluded that the risk of alienating conservative donors outweighed the benefit of taking liberal stands. Increasingly, most JCRCs left political advocacy, whether liberal or conservative, to other groups.

In Southern California, that void was filled by the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, StandWithUs, the Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), among others. Ironically, the PJA’s willingness to fight against sweatshops and the exploitation of hotel workers along with its boldness in embracing the sort of left-of-center causes once championed by the local JCRC has helped swell its ranks to 3,500. With half its members under 30, the alliance, which just opened a second office in the Bay Area, has succeeded in reaching a demographic coveted by Fishel’s Federation.

“What we find is that pursuing a positive, progressive Jewish response to the issues of the day is profoundly inspiring , especially to young people who one day will be our community leaders and donors,” PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch said.

Two of the nation’s most robust JCRCs are among the most politically liberal. The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston has a staff of 24 and a $3 million budget, while the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council employs 20, with a budget of $2.1 million. By contrast, the local JCRC has five full-time and two part-time staffers and an annual budget of $1.2 million. Unlike Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco have taken bold policy stands recently, with San Francisco, for instance, coming out in favor of same-sex civil marriages.

A left-leaning JCRC wouldn’t fly everywhere, but the formula has consonance with liberal Los Angeles.

Levine had expected the L.A. JCRC to take positions on ballot initiatives, legislation and other political issues, provided he could build consensus. But The Federation’s new chairman of the board, Michael Koss, worried about alienating donors. Koss said he also thought the JCRC would benefit if led by someone who was not strongly identified with either liberal or conservative politics. Koss, who had the authority as Federation chair, did not reappoint Levine. The former congressman, for his part, said he had no interest in a second term given the lack of support.

“Losing Mel Levine for the JCRC or anyplace Mel puts his hat is a loss,” said Harriet Hochman, a former Federation chair.

Fishel said he respects Levine but added that Federation chairs make their own appointments. Fishel’s critics counter that it’s his job to show leadership.

Koss tapped corporate attorney Ron Leibow as Levine’s successor. Leibow, former chair of The Federation’s Planning and Allocation Committee, said he plans to revitalize the JCRC and has made reaching out to ethnic groups, especially Latinos, a priority.

Those involved with JCRC are determined to make a positive difference. Under new JCRC Executive Director Tzivia Schwartz-Getzug, the committee has added paid staff and seen its budget increase. Several JCRC programs have grown in importance. The Holy Land Democracy Project, for instance, has helped teach thousands of area Catholic high school students about Israel, while, simultaneously, tightening links between Jews and Catholics. The JCRC continues to take elected leaders on trips to Israel — to expose them to the Jewish state and to Jewish issues.

But a recent, tentative step back into the political fray was telling, when the JCRC encountered some Federation resistance and withdrew, for now, a pro-immigrant statement. The scenario unfolded in mid-May, when the JCRC board approved a statement saying that it supported better border security but opposed legislation that would criminalize illegal immigrants. The statement also favored normalizing immigrants’ status, insiders said. JCRC members had hoped the resolution would demonstrate solidarity with the Latino community, she said.

The Federation board, however, barely approved the JCRC resolution, so the JCRC has pulled back, while it develops new wording that could attract more support, Schwartz-Getzug said.

That the JCRC still hasn’t come out with a statement weeks after one of the largest pro-immigration demonstrations in U.S. history reflects the committee’s — and, by extension, the Federation’s — cautious approach. Critics might go farther, arguing that this reluctance to take a public stand on immigration illustrate that those institutions no longer speak for the local Jewish community.

“If the Federation isn’t going to take a position on something as important to the Latino community as immigration, even after the huge marches all over the nation, then what in the world do they have to say to the Latino community?” commented Michael Hirschfeld, formerly the top JCRC staff member. Hirschfeld was himself the focus of an earlier JCRC furor: His unexpected 2003 dismissal, after 24 years with the JCRC, generated a firestorm of criticism, and a few calls for Fishel’s resignation.

Levine believes that until Fishel’s Federation either allows the JCRC to become independent or have more autonomy, the committee will serve as little more than an administrator of such programs as KOREH L.A, a well-regarded tutoring program.

“The CRC and Federation are no longer a meaningful political force in the structure of Los Angeles,” said Levine, now a partner in international law at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “That’s unfortunate.”


The View From L.A.: Hoping for the Best

Los Angeles supporters of Israel’s political parties praised or mourned the results of the Knesset election, but even the winners weren’t entirely in a mood to celebrate.

Shimon Erem, a former high-ranking officer in the Israeli army, said he had planned to fly to Israel to cast his ballot for Kadima (Israel has no absentee voting). However, with pre-election predictions that the centrist party would gain around 40 seats, Erem felt his vote wouldn’t be needed.

Instead, Kadima got only 29 seats out of a total of 120, a showing he attributed to “faulty strategy due to overconfidence, to taking its support for granted.”

Dr. Yehuda Handelsman, a veteran leader of the local Israeli community, also backed Kadima, but had been more realistic.

“I think we did pretty well,” he said. “If Ariel Sharon had remained healthy and had led the party, I think we would have gotten 35-40 seats.”

As a new party, Kadima has not yet organized an American support group, but Handelsman predicted the establishment of such an organization in the next two years.

The Labor Party came in second with 19 seats and Bea Chenkin, regional executive director of Ameinu (formerly Labor Zionist Alliance), said she was satisfied.

“Considering that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres jumped ship to join Kadima, we did as well as could be expected,” she said. “A lot of Israelis feel that the social problems of the country have been neglected, but now these issues are coming to the fore again.”

Rabbi Meyer May, president of the (Orthodox) Rabbinical Council of California, said that the three religious parties had done a good job in mobilizing their base among the generally apathetic electorate.

“Shas, National Union-Religious Party and United Torah Judaism understood that there was a lot at stake for the observant community and managed to retain their strength, May said.

Even among the Orthodox parties, there are strong ethnic and ideological differences, noted Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, a Loyola Law School faculty member and an Orthodox leader.

At least one of the religious parties, most likely the less ideological United Torah Judaism, will join a Kadima-led coalition, Adlerstein predicted.

Robert Rechnitz, national vice chairman and Western regional president of American Friends of Likud, said he was “obviously disappointed” by the election results.

Likud, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, had been the largest party in the sitting Knesset, but will have only 12 seats in the next one.

Rechnitz blamed the decline on Sharon’s absence at the top of the ticket and defections by many retired and Orthodox voters, who had been hurt by Netanyahu’s past economic policies, as well as by what he called a “vicious” campaign against Netanyahu in the Israeli media.

The leftist Meretz Party managed only five seats, to the dismay of Dr. Isaac Berman, a national board member of Meretz USA.

“Similar to the Democratic Party here, Meretz didn’t seem to have clear message and didn’t make the right kind of noise,” Berman said.

Views on the road ahead in the peace process varied from wait-and-see resignation to cautious optimism among several community leaders interviewed by The Journal.

Roz Rothstein, executive director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israeli advocacy group, said the situation in Israel is so fluid that it is difficult to make predictions about how events will unfold. Given the internal and external challenges Israel faces, though, she said that now is a time for unity.

“This is a time when Israelis need to pull together and work together,” Rothstein said. “You have the potential polarization of the Israeli society on the left and right on the inside and the Hamas threat from the outside.

A more upbeat assessment came from Mark LeVine, associate professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine. He said that despite Olmert’s vow to draw Israel’s final borders unilaterally, a negotiated settlement could eventually emerge. Hamas, he said, despite its refusal to recognize Israel, is not opposed to cutting a deal. And because of its standing in the Arab street, the group has the credentials to do so.

“Assuming Hamas doesn’t engage in too much violence either against military targets or terrorism against civilians, I would assume that in the next couple years there’s going to be a repeat of the negotiations you had at Camp David in 2000 and in Taba,” said LeVine, who wrote the 2005 book, “Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil” (Oneworld). “They’re probably going to be using pretty much the same maps.”

A local Muslim leader weighed in with similarly cautious optimism.

“There’s a recognition by the bulk of the Israeli population that the Greater Israel Project is over,” said Nayyer Ali, past chair of the Muslim Pubic Affairs Council. “Unlike the mood in Israel in 2000 and before, we now have a consensus among Israelis that the end solution is a Palestinian state.”

Ali added that the rise of the terorrist Hamas group on the Palestinian side also should not be viewed as a fatal impediment to peace. Just as the Israeli left cannot make peace without the support of more conservative Israeli parties, Ali said, Palestinian leaders, absent Hamas, also could not make a binding agreement. Despite its vow never to recognize Israel, “like other ideological parties, I think Hamas will have to deal with reality now that it’s in power,” Ali said.

But Sabiah Khan, spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Southern California chapter, said she sees nothing but a stalemate ahead in at least the short term: Israel, on the one side, refuses to negotiate until Hamas renounces terrorism and recognizes its right to exist. The new Palestinian government, on the other hand, won’t engage Israel until the Jewish state ends its “occupation,” recognizes the national rights of the Palestinian people and renounces terror.

“Basically, we have two groups saying the same thing, that they’re not going to talk to each other [until the other side does something that it isn’t willing to do], Khan said. “Outside intervention from the U.S., Europe, the United Nations or Arab governments is needed.”

Some or all of those parties, she said, could break the impasse by encouraging a negotiated settlement based on international law and existing U.N. resolutions.

Regardless of last week’s voting results, the local Israeli consulate was in campaign party mode on Election Day. Consul General Ehud Danoch and his staff festooned the consulate’s Jerusalem Hall with small Israeli flags, and had spread out a generous supply of pita, hummus, techinah and cookies for more than 100 guests who jammed together to watch the results of the first exit polls.

Danoch drew on his own political background for a running commentary on the merging trends and shared the general astonishment at the success of the Pensioners Party, which came out of nowhere to gain seven seats.


An Ugly Day in the Neighborhood

Dr. Warren Lent is sure he knows why he was treated with such contempt and hostility that day last June. It was the kippah he wore on his head.

He had come to vote in neighborhood council elections at a jam-packed fire station in Hancock Park. Amid the tension and confusion, an angry poll worker repeatedly accused Lent, a soft-spoken surgeon, of trying to vote twice.

Things escalated to the point where the poll worker asked Lent if he was “man enough to step outside” to settle it, Lent said.

The poll worker eventually backed down, but Lent reported the incident to Michael Rosenberg, a candidate for the council who, along with a group of allies, was recording slights against Orthodox Jewish voters. From his spot the requisite 100 feet away from the polling place, and from his office desk, Rosenberg gathered reports on shouting matches, fraudulent ballots and tense stand-offs between Orthodox Jews and other voters, many of them non-Orthodox Jews.

More proof, to Rosenberg’s mind, that the upscale neighborhood of Hancock Park was out to get Orthodox Jews.

On the other side, non-Orthodox residents were just as disgusted by what they say they saw on Election Day — fake membership cards, line jumping and all manner of deception by Orthodox Jews trying to secure as many votes as they could. Yet more evidence that this group of Orthodox Jews is willing to bend — no, break — the rules to get what they want.

What both sides wanted was control of the local neighborhood council, a relatively new city institution meant to bring grass-roots voices into city policymaking, an ideal that hardly seems worth fighting over in other parts of town. But in Hancock Park, it came to symbolize a battle between those who believed the Orthodox were trying to plant a shul and school on every corner, and the Orthodox who felt that established residents were trying to choke off their community.

Throughout that day and for months following, both sides wondered how the strife ever got this bad. How could it be, they asked themselves, that Jews in Los Angeles were at loggerheads, mosly with other Jews, in an embarrassing conflict that divided along religious lines?

To Rosenberg and his associates, the answer is simple: The neighborhood had been heading in that direction for years, and the election was the climax of years of intolerance.

Other residents challenge that interpretation. They tell a more complex tale, one that holds Rosenberg, an Orthodox Jew and real estate developer, personally responsible for ratcheting up the enmity and pulling the neighborhood into something like a civil war.

On that day in June, the vast majority of Orthodox Jews, as well as unsuspecting local residents who came out to vote, were caught in the middle, stunned. Yes, everyone knew there had been conflicts between the Orthodox and the rest of the neighborhood, mostly centered on land-use disputes. And even while tensions had escalated over several years, setting the whole neighborhood on edge, no one felt as if Hancock Park was roiling with ethnic prejudice, which is how things looked and felt to many on Election Day.

“I can’t say it was anti-Semitism, he didn’t call me ‘dirty Jew,’ or say, ‘you Jews,’ and I don’t want to falsely accuse anyone,” said Lent of the poll worker. “I don’t know what his true motivation was, but one thing was clear to me. He was ready to punch me, and he wasn’t going to give me a chance to explain.”

To moderate — and even extreme — voices on both sides, these elections were a wake-up call, setting in motion halting efforts at peacemaking.

Today, contentious issues and tough questions persist. Aside from continuing enmity over the election, residents are battling in court over the construction of a synagogue on a busy residential street. And an Orthodox school and its neighbors are testing just how far they can push each other.

But on both sides, there are people willing to face tough questions so they can begin to bridge the divide.

Do some Hancock Park residents harbor mistrust toward anyone who looks Orthodox? Is this a case of intolerance, or one of some Orthodox Jews behaving badly and now everyone paying the price? How much is just miscommunication? And is the community suffering because it let a few people, notably Michael Rosenberg, become the voice of the Orthodox community?

Conflicting Claims

In the first two years, starting in 1999, that civic activist John Gresham had been organizing the area’s first Neighborhood Council in the Midwilshire area, he hadn’t heard much from Orthodox Jews, even though he knew that Hancock Park, one of 15 neighborhoods in proposed council borders, was heavily Orthodox.

Michael Rosenberg

Michael Rosenberg: “I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews.” Photo courtesy Sheryl Rosenberg

So he recalls being stunned when, in December 2001, Rosenberg, a businessman he knew only peripherally, filed a rival claim on the territory Gresham and a group of about 150 involved residents and business people had staked out as the future Midwilshire Neighborhood Council.

Claiming to represent homeowners, Orthodox interests and other underdog groups he had allied himself with, Rosenberg applied to the city for certification as the official neighborhood council in Midwilshire’s borders, throwing two years of grassroots mobilization into tumult.

“It was essentially our map, but [Rosenberg] had changed the name at the top and said, ‘We represent everyone there,'” Gresham said.

“So my initial reaction was: Why? And my second reaction was: What do we have to do to prevent this? And then my third reaction was: Wait a second, who is in his group? Who does he represent?” Gresham said.

To Rosenberg, the question of why is an easy one to answer. He felt that the existing organization was not doing enough to truly represent the will of the people

“They were certainly not considering us as part of them,” he said. By us, Rosenberg meant Orthodox Jews, but not exclusively that group. He’d also recruited residents and business owners, including Asians, blacks and Latinos, outside Hancock Park proper.

Such a divisive confrontation was not what city planners had in mind when officials developed — and voters approved — the formation of neighborhood councils as part of the 1999 City Charter. The idea was to develop grassroots civic involvement, giving residents, businesses and neighborhood groups actual influence — but not outright voting power — on city matters that affect them. Today, there are 88 neighborhood councils, with influence over issues such as zoning, traffic patterns, utility rates, taxes and general decisions about the character of a neighborhood.

“The bottom line on a national and global level is that everything starts in someone’s neighborhood,” said Gresham, who lives within the neighborhood council’s borders, just south of Hancock Park, and who started mobilizing neighborhoods in the 1970s.

Gresham’s job as a vice president at M.L. Stern Investment Securities leaves him only late-night hours to dedicate to grassroots politics, but his earnest involvement has won him widespread admiration.

In fact, in 1999, when the city was first setting up the neighborhood council system, city representatives asked Gresham, who is also active at the Reform Temple Israel of Hollywood, to organize the Midwilshire area. This effort had been proceeding for two years when Rosenberg suddenly stepped in.

Gresham said he is dumbfounded by Rosenberg’s claim that important segments of the community were willfully excluded. Gresham had spent two years forming the Interim Midwilshire Neighborhood Council, made up of homeowners associations, business associations, and representatives for renters, students and nonprofits. The council area includes 50,000 people in 15 distinct neighborhoods within the area roughly from just west of Western Avenue to La Brea Avenue, from Olympic Boulevard to Melrose Avenue.

“We kept trying to get more people to the table so we would have a true cross-section — including Michael — and we are accused by him of not doing that? I just have no comprehension of what he is talking about. It’s foreign to me,” Gresham said at a late night meeting in his office, glasses perched atop gray hair and eyes squinty with fatigue.

Gresham had first met Rosenberg when he came to a meeting of the Midwilshire interim board, a few months before he filed his rival claim.

Rosenberg appears in the minutes of that November 2001 meeting as having volunteered to help iron out the group’s by-laws and participate in outreach. Gresham invited him to be on the board. But, after the meeting, Rosenberg had a run-in with a board member who recognized Rosenberg as an advocate for a synagogue involved in a vicious land-use dispute.

Rosenberg says he was told that the neighborhood council process had already begun, and that he wasn’t needed — or wanted.

“After the way they treated me I told everybody else that we have a little problem — they don’t like us Jews,” Rosenberg said. “We are outsiders.”

So Rosenberg gathered a few signatures from friends and business associates, including Orthodox activist and developer Stanley Treitel, and in December 2001 filed his own application with the city to become the Greater Hancock Park Neighborhood Council.

The city department that oversees neighborhood councils, which is committed to making these bodies truly representative, did not want to favor existing homeowners groups over ad hoc entities. In the spring of 2002 the city ordered Gresham and Rosenberg to negotiate a merger.

“We ended up giving in to them on every single point they wanted because they would not budge,” said Gresham, saying the negotiations over minutia occasionally became uncivil, to the point of table-pounding and screaming.

Rosenberg says the meetings were a ruse, since Gresham’s group continued meeting behind his back.

Gresham said of course his group continued to meet, openly, to continue the work of getting certified — just as he expected Rosenberg’s group to keep meeting.

But whether Rosenberg had a group at all was a question Gresham never felt was adequately answered. Gresham said Rosenberg seemed to make decisions on his own, without consulting a board, and got angry with Gresham for always wanting to check back with the Midwilshire interim board.

Rosenberg says he had a group of about a dozen active volunteers and many more supporters, Jewish and non-Jewish, who empowered him to make decisions.

While he initially started with some close Orthodox friends, Rosenberg later pulled in some non-Jewish businessmen and disgruntled residents who felt they were not being represented by this nouveau establishment.

Among those was Morris Shaoulian, the lessee of the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Wilshire Boulevard and Lucerne Avenue in Hancock Park-adjacent Windsor Square, who is currently in litigation with the city over the use of the building.

After several months of negotiations, the newly named Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council was formed, with Rosenberg and Gresham as co-presidents, and an unwieldy 56 board members — 28 from each side.

At a hearing in December 2003, the city certified the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. But before doing so, the city lopped off a section that jutted out of the Council’s linear borders south of Olympic Boulevard, saying the small area, which Rosenberg had added, was not organically part of a territory that was already too big.

That severed appendage had included a large portion of Rosenberg’s allies, including 14 of his 28 board members.

“In that area we had representation of people who were black, Hispanic, Koreans, some gays and lesbians — and they were so upset to be cut off from the neighborhood council,” Rosenberg said. “And after that they said you guys stabbed us and they didn’t want to meet anymore.”

While the council was certified, it still needed to set up procedures to elect its board members, an election initially slated for March 2004.

But disgusted with what he saw as a biased and farcical process, Rosenberg dragged his feet and didn’t bring his representative to any planning meetings. March came and went without elections.

Gresham and the city tried to schedule meetings with Rosenberg, but were continually put off.

Without Rosenberg and his people, the board had no quorum, and could not set up the election procedures, which meant voting could not commence.

Suddenly, in the early summer of 2004, a process that had been in the works for years, involving hundreds of people and thousands of hours of work, was at a dead halt.

Gresham was at his wits end. And he was beginning to wonder what was driving Michael Rosenberg.

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin

Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh: “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

‘Red Flags All Over the Place’

Baby faced and jowly with a soothing Latin lilt to his speech, Rosenberg doesn’t hide the fact that he is motivated by a large chip on his shoulder, despite his obvious success — he runs a thriving international real estate business, he and his family own thoroughbreds and he is the president of World Derby, Inc., which promotes horse racing events. He and his wife Sheryl have raised their four sons in a luxurious home at the eastern edge of Hancock Park, where they have lived for 21 years.

But Rosenberg’s parents lost everything and everyone in the Holocaust, including three sons — Michael’s brothers. The family found refuge after the war in Peru, where Michael was born and where he lived until the late 1970s.

As for his involvement in Hancock Park politics, Rosenberg is adamant that it’s all a matter of principal. He scoffs at the speculation, put forth with no evidence by some who are critical of him, that his involvement in neighborhood politics has been motivated by potential financial gain for his real estate business, which he says is mostly out of state or out of the country.

Instead, Rosenberg said, he was initially motivated by ill-advised land-use policies that neighborhood establishments supported. But the matter became a personal cause after he encountered intolerance at neighborhood meetings, which he ascribed to his wearing a kippah and representing the Orthodox community.

During the rise of the Nazis, leading up to the Holocaust, “in Hungary, my parents had to endure rules of you can’t go there and you can’t shop here, and this was the beginning of the same things — red flags were going up all over the place,” he says of restrictions being placed on land-use in Hancock Park and the accompanying intolerance he perceived. “That is the ultimate goal, to restrict use of the land and to rein in a group — and that is what they were trying to do with us at the end of the day.”

Rosenberg is referring to the ongoing attempt by local preservationists to designate Hancock Park a Historical Preservation Overlay Zone (HPOZ), which, at its most stringent, would mean changes by homeowners to their residences would have to go through rigorous scrutiny by city boards.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association, a 57-year-old body, supports the historic zone, as does the office of Councilman Tom LaBonge, who represents the area. In 2001 Rosenberg had attended a meeting of the association and told the members that a majority of Hancock Park residents did not support the historic designation. No one on either side of the issue, in fact, has done authoritative polling.

The challenge was not well received, and Rosenberg said he was treated rudely, as though he were an outsider with no business there.

Soon after, Rosenberg and Treitel, along with a handful of other Jewish and non-Jewish members, founded the rival Hancock Park Resident’s Association. They sent out a mailing asking people to join them in opposing the historic zone. Rosenberg claims he received 1,100 letters in his support, which he filed with the city’s planning department. A department representative confirmed that his office has received hundreds of letters both in support and against the historic designation.

Within the next month, the city’s planning department will hold the first of many public hearings about the HPOZ, leading up to a likely decision this summer by the City Council.

While the Orthodox community — including everyone from Modern Orthodox to Chasidic — is hardly unified in supporting or opposing a historic zone, Rosenberg was certain he recognized yet another effort to choke off the growing Orthodox presence — many Orthodox families have remodeled old area homes to accommodate large families, adding bedrooms and modern kosher kitchens.

Rosenberg became increasingly convinced that longer established neighbors — many of them non-Orthodox Jews — were uncomfortable with the visibly distinct and insular Orthodox community, people who dressed in black hats and coats in the heat of the summer, who ate at different restaurants and sent their kids to different schools. The Orthodox, he believed, were a grudgingly tolerated “them,” not regarded as part of the community fabric.

Rosenberg is not alone in reaching that conclusion.

“The other side will tell you it’s nothing personal, it’s only about zoning, and I wish I could believe that,” said Alan Stern, an Orthodox businessman and philanthropist, whose wife Lisa won a seat as an alternate in the neighborhood council elections. “But it’s just not true. When you dig deep enough and start talking, there is a lot more that I find worrying. Many of them don’t like those black hats and coats walking in Hancock Park. It’s not a kind of look they feel comfortable with.”

Jane Ellison Usher

Jane Ellison Usher, president of the Los Angeles City Planning Commission: “I think there need to be other Jewish voices.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

An Urban Oasis, Divided

Hancock Park is one of Los Angeles’s most picture-perfect neighborhoods, where sloping lawns on winding streets are crowned with elegant Tudor, Spanish and Mediterranean mansions built mostly in the 1920s. It covers roughly a linear mile between Highland and Rossmore Avenues, from Melrose Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard.

Jews began to move into this urban oasis 40 years ago, when clauses in home deeds prohibiting sales to Jews or blacks were removed. As Jews shifted eastward from Fairfax, Orthodox institutions became centered on and around La Brea Avenue, a few blocks west of Hancock Park. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of schools, shuls and kosher establishments in the area.

There are about 20 shuls on La Brea, Beverly and surrounding streets, and about a dozen kosher establishments. At least four new schools have been established in the last 10 years, and enrollment at existing schools has surged. Yeshiva Rav Isacsohn Torath Emeth, for example, had about 700 kids in preschool through eighth grade 10 years ago, and today has more than 1,100.

With that growth has come increased tensions with established neighbors, including some residents who have been there for decades, and many more recent arrivals — a good number of them non-Orthodox Jews — who treasure the area’s serenity and architectural beauty.

Some residents fear the character of the neighborhood, which is zoned for single-family homes only, is being threatened by haphazard remodeling projects and by institutions — notably a shul and a private religious school — moving into Hancock Park itself.

“Hancock Park is a beautiful suburb in the middle of a busy city, and if people keep chipping away at it, soon it won’t be a beautiful, serene neighborhood anymore. It will be changed forever,” said Jolene Snett, an activist who is involved in crafting a preservation plan, which would limit what homeowners could do with the parts of architecturally historic homes visible from the street.

Snett, a member of Temple Israel of Hollywood, was elected last June to the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council.

It was the arcane subject of zoning that led to the Neighborhood Council confrontations and became the focus of lawsuits and angry rhetoric over the last 10 years. In 1999, Yeshivat Yavneh, a 400-student Orthodox day school, moved from Beverly Boulevard west of La Brea Avenue into the Tudor estate that had housed Whittier law school on Third Street and Las Palmas Avenue. Neighbors saw to it that Yavneh’s conditional-use permit was highly restrictive (see sidebar).

While the school and neighbors agree that Yavneh has worked hard to be a good neighbor — carefully controlling noise and carpool chaos — tension has continued to build over when and what Yavneh can do with its building. Yavneh is now planning to bring to the zoning board a proposal for an 8-foot security fence, which neighbors oppose, and a plan to change the terms of who can pray in the school on Shabbat, an issue that neighbors say Yavneh has not been honest about.

“We have made every effort to be as conciliatory as possible with the neighborhood and have done our best to make sure we are in compliance with whatever conditional-use permits were granted to us by the city,” said Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, head of Kehillat Yavneh, which holds Shabbat prayers at the school for the Yavneh parent body. “We have never tried to steamroll over the neighbors. We have never tried to hide what we’re doing, and for some reason there are certain extremists in the neighborhood who are opposed to having any greater presence for Orthodox Jews convening for religious activity or prayer, regardless of the impact on the neighborhood.”

At the same time, Korobkin is working with his own community to be more open, because he acknowledges that insularity may have contributed to the hostile environment and closed communication lines.

“Our guilt is that we have not sufficiently been good neighbors in the sense of reaching out and letting them know that we are part of the community, and we are here to work together with the rest of the community,” he said. “If an Orthodox Jew is having a Kiddush [party] at his home because his wife gave birth, and he invites 100 people from all around and his neighbors are not invited to the Kiddush — that type of thing creates ill-will,” he said.

Korobkin, and many others, believe that Yavneh is suffering the fallout of an earlier land-use dispute involving Congregation Etz Chaim, the synagogue to which Rosenberg and many of his neighborhood allies belong.

Etz Chaim is a small congregation that for 30 years met in the June Street home of Rabbi Chaim Rubin. In 1995 it purchased a 3,600-square-foot house on the corner of Highland Avenue and Third Street, enraging neighbors protective of the area’s single-family-home zoning status. The legal battle had already begun when in 2002 Etz Chaim razed the home and rebuilt an 8,200-square-foot structure with a main sanctuary and a mikvah (see sidebar).

Neighbors contend the shul violated local zoning laws and trampled due process, and the shul contends neighbors are attempting to infringe upon its religious freedom. The dispute is currently before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, but regardless of the outcome, residents are likely to remain angry about the bulldozer approach the congregation took.

“Third and Highland was this giant smack in the face to all of Hancock Park that said, ‘We are going to do whatever we want and no on is going to stop us,'” said Gary Gilbert, a writer and producer, who lives in Windsor Square.

While Orthodox residents who don’t belong to Etz Chaim were not vocal about the matter, many of them also were troubled by both the manner and the outcome of the construction.

“None of us like that shul either. I didn’t think what they did was right, and I certainly wouldn’t want that happening next door to me,” said Marty Gurfinkel, a Yavneh parent who is now participating in reconciliation meetings.

But the idea of Orthodox Jews speaking out against other shul-goers was anathema, and so, Gurfinkel says, the Etz Chaim dispute fermented a false sense, both among the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox, of us and them.

“It created a lot of negativity and came at a severe cost,” agreed Larry Eisenberg, a pediatrician who rues the fact that none of his Orthodox peers felt it appropriate to challenge Etz Chaim.

Eisenberg, a Hancock Park resident and past president of the West Coast board of the Orthodox Union, was elected to the neighborhood council on a platform of opposing traffic mitigation measures and the historic zone designation. He was not allied with Rosenberg, and had nothing to do with Rosenberg’s quest. But, he says, at the first few meetings of the neighborhood council over the past few months, he has felt that he is the object of suspicion and bias from other council members, just by virtue of being Orthodox.

Indeed, anti-Orthodoxy seemed at its height after last summer’s elections. Deeply troubled by the hostility and intolerance he saw, Gary Gilbert, an active member of Temple Israel, informally canvassed his neighbors in advance of launching reconciliation efforts.

“I went to my neighbors and I said, ‘Tell me about the Orthodox.’ And they said, ‘They think they are above the law, they will do whatever they want if it is good for them, and they don’t care about anyone else’s needs but their own,'” Gilbert recounted.

And while Rosenberg might offer that up as more proof that he was right — that the locals do hate the Orthodox — some argue that Rosenberg himself opened that door, back in 2004, when he and his cohorts brought the neighborhood council process, which activists had been working on for five years, to a screeching halt.

Stanley Treitel

Stanley Treitel, neighborhood activist: “We have to move on to some degree.” Photo by Kevin Scanlon

The City Takes Over

With elections nowhere on the horizon, Gresham was relieved when, in July 2004, the city decided to take over setting up the elections. The city began the process by holding focus groups with area stakeholders to come up with election procedures.

Rosenberg came to some of those meetings with his supporters, and advocated for eliminating both the age limit and the need for proof of identity for voters, pushing for self-affirmation — actions eyed with suspicion by many.

The city, for its part, determined that people could vote in as many categories for which they qualified as stakeholders. That is, you got one vote if you owned property, another if you also rented property, still another if you worked in neighborhood — not to mention a vote for attending a local school or belonging to a local organization. Each category is represented by a board member. In the end, some people would vote as many as 19 times.

In March 2005, after the city decided that age limits and identification would be required, Rosenberg sued the city for violating the council’s bylaws, a case that was quickly dismissed.

Increasingly alarmed at the free-for-all the city seemed to be setting up, Gresham worried that anyone, including non-residents, could become a stakeholder by setting up a bogus organization, and that underhanded scheming would be rampant.

In February 2005, Gresham summoned some active neighbors who decided to form Neighbors United for Fair Elections, a group whose initial mission was to see to it that election procedures were fair and logical.

“The real villain in this enterprise is the [city’s] Department of Neighborhood Empowerment,” said Jane Ellison Usher, a Jewish attorney who answered Gresham’s call to action. “The way the department established procedures was to say to whatever group of people happened to show up at a meeting, ‘How do you feel on these three or four points?’ And whoever was sitting in the chairs would cast votes, and those were turned into formal recommendations for the board and the department.”

Usher, a former president of the Windsor Square Homeowners Association, was recently appointed president of Los Angeles planning commission. She had been involved early on in the neighborhood council process and stepped out in dismay when the city forced Gresham into negotiations with Rosenberg.

Usher is known among friends and detractors for being resolute and blunt — as someone who, by her own admission, doesn’t mince words. As elections neared, Usher began circulating aggressively worded e-mails to bring the masses to the polls.

“Don’t let the bad guys outnumber us again,” begins a Feb. 21, 2005 email, co-signed by Usher, Jolene Snett and Cindy Chvatal, who is now vice president of the Greater Wilshire Neighborhood Council. “Do you want a neighborhood controlled by the man who has leased the Scottish Rite or by the activists who have defied all zoning rules and built a temple at Third and Highland?”

Another e-mail, sent after the city delayed elections that had been set for May 2005, decries the city’s “twisted thought process.”

“Disabled by the notion that Michael Rosenberg might again sue, his forte, they [city organizations] have become the reliable enablers of the hijacking of this neighborhood by a handful of bogeymen,” wrote Usher and Chvatal.

The same e-mail ended with the imperative to “Grab your white hat and enough votes to win.”

Orthodox community members saw in that an allusion to their own black hats. But Usher, who grew up in a small town in Ohio, says the white hat reference is nothing more than a regional expression about good guys in white and bad guys in black.

And, she says, her references to “minions” was in no way meant to evoke minyans (a quorum of worshippers), and “bad guys” referred to the city organizations messing with the elections, not to the Orthodox community.

As Usher’s e-mails circulated, rumors spread within the Orthodox community of nefarious, well-organized plots to stifle Jewish interests. For its part, the Orthodox community fielded nine candidates, many brought in by Rosenberg.

Some e-mails originating in the Orthodox camp compared what was happening in Hancock Park to Nazi-era restrictions, and rumors spread about plots to bus in Muslims on Election Day to defeat the Orthodox.

While some rabbis decried the more egregious rhetoric, the idea took hold that getting out the Orthodox vote was a matter of saving the community.

“On the slate are individuals who have proven hostile to the interests of our community. If they win, any new shul or school, any expansion of existing shuls or schools, any remodeling of any home, will require their approval,” read a letter sent out by the Yavneh school. The letter urged all community members — even domestic help — to vote, and to enroll in newly formed organizations to qualify as stakeholders in more categories.

When Neighbors United got wind of the mobilization in the Orthodox community, fear began to spread that the Orthodox were trying to take over local politics so they could plant a shul and school on every corner in Hancock Park.

To both sides, elections had become a matter of saving the neighborhood.

An Election Debacle

The hype and propaganda worked, bringing out a record 1,200 voters on Wednesday, June 15, 2005, who cast a combined 29,000 ballots, higher than any other council elections since the city founded the Neighborhood Council system, which generally does allow for multiple ballots per person.

But rather than being a triumph of grass-roots activism, the turnout signaled the extent to which fear and suspicion had taken over.

By all accounts, the fire station on Wilshire Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue — the single polling place for the day — was a madhouse, with poll workers overwhelmed by the turnout, and voters and volunteers equally befuddled by the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment’s impenetrable election procedures.

According to the city’s exorbitantly inclusive rules, voters were allowed to define themselves as stakeholders in up to 19 categories.

That meant that on Election Day, voters — many of whom did not live or work in the area — stood on line with fistfuls of ballots, a startling site in this one man, one vote culture. (One of the first actions of the newly elected council would be to revise election rules, allowing a maximum of two votes per person.)

And things got very, very ugly.

Neighbors United, the non-Orthodox group, created an Election Day staging area at the nearby Wilshire Ebell Theater, offering a free shuttle service to the polling place, where parking was difficult.

At the Ebell, Neighbors United registered voters and enrolled them in organizations to qualify for more ballots. Slates of candidates were endorsed. In some categories where the two or three highest vote-getters would win seats, Neighbors United provided an alphabetical breakdown for voters to follow to optimize the number of its winning candidates (i.e., if your last name begins with A-F, vote for this candidate; G-M for that candidate).

Orthodox community members say they saw Neighbors United people — including volunteer poll workers — at the polling place trying to intimidate Orthodox voters and handing out membership cards, some of them for organizations founded for just for the purpose of boosting vote totals.

The Orthodox community was not nearly as well organized, but its members were busy, too. Neighbors United members allege that they saw candidates campaigning outside the polling place, in violation of election rules, and people handing out “your name here” membership cards for organizations. Some of these had changed addresses to be within council boundaries; others hadn’t existed the week before.

One member of Neighbors United said that while she was looking for parking, two Orthodox men sitting in a car in front of the fire station indicated they weren’t leaving. Seconds later, she saw them relinquish the space to another Orthodox Jew.

Orthodox voters speak of harassment: If you looked Orthodox you were treated with greater scrutiny and greater contempt by poll volunteers, who came mostly from the ranks of Neighbors United (they were, after all, better organized).

And throughout the day, e-mails and phone calls continued to circulate, urging more people to come out and vote.

In the end, five Orthodox men, including Rosenberg, were elected to the Neighborhood Council, out of 31 seats. Gresham, ironically, only won as an alternate (when a board member can’t make the meeting, he takes her place). Gilbert and Treitel are alternates; Usher, Snett and Chvatal all won seats.

Nine people, including Rosenberg and Alan Stern, filed challenges against the election results, but the city dismissed all of them.

“There was considerable fraud on both sides, and a number of rabbis were not comfortable with that,” said Irving Lebovics, West Coast president of the Orthodox umbrella organization Agudath Israel. “But the bigger issue to me was that in this election there was a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism. We had people who showed up to vote like any good citizen, and they were harassed and screamed at from vans on the street. It was unacceptable.”

Charges of anti-Semitism became a sore point after the election. After all, a significant number of the Neighbors United activists are Jewish.

“To evoke the Holocaust for political gain in a neighborhood zoning dispute, and for one group of people to allege anti-Semitism against another group that they don’t see eye-to-eye with politically, especially when many in the group are Jewish, is a problem,” Jolene Snett said. “These are serious claims, and to use them in a political manner, so readily and so quickly, and often to fellow Jews, I find very troubling.”

For her part, Usher says she feels compelled, as a Jew, to offer an alternative voice when she sees Jews behaving badly, as she believes some leaders at Etz Chaim and Yavneh did.

“I think there need to be other Jewish voices,” she said. “Frankly, it is repulsive to me that I am connected or associated in any way with the people perpetrating these deceptions, so I intend to speak out.”

“I am a Jew, I am a practicing Jew, and I feel that deception is shameful,” Usher said in an interview at a Beverly Boulevard pastry shop not long after the election. “Did I ever think I would see the day I would feel the need to stand up and say I am Jewish and I have a bone to pick with other Jews? Did I even anticipate that day? No.”

Peace Talks

Today, with the elections well in the past, Usher’s stridency has mellowed.

At the neighborhood council meetings — there have been four since the elections — Usher sits just one seat away from Stanley Treitel, a colleague of Rosenberg’s whose passion and vociferousness were off-putting to some during the thick of the strife.

At the January meeting, Treitel handed Usher his card and asked her to call. Usher and Treitel met for breakfast at La Brea Bagel a few weeks ago, where the two, who had formerly demonized each other, talked about issues in the neighborhood, and vowed to keep an open dialogue.

“I’m very optimistic. I don’t see or feel any hardliners drawing lines in the sand,” Usher said.

“We have to move on to some degree,” agreed Treitel, noting that Usher is now the head of the city’s planning commission, an organization that holds the key to approval of community projects.

While Usher’s and Treitel’s new connection is off to a good start, things are not going as well for a larger-scale reconciliation effort.

In November, a group of Orthodox, liberal Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors met to plan a blood drive and neighborhood safety fair for January. But three weeks after the initial planning meeting the event was off.

Yavneh had offered to host the event, but since Yavneh is in the middle of troublesome negotiations over its city operating permit, residents who live nearby wondered if Yavneh’s hospitality was motivated mainly by a desire to build support for dealings with the city.

And, ironically, holding a large event like the blood drive would have violated Yavneh’s permit.

It wasn’t the outcome Gary Gilbert and his wife Judy hoped for when they convened about 20 people in their Windsor Square living room last summer, following the election, to save the neighborhood from itself.

“One of the reasons I got involved is because I heard the phrase ‘the Orthodox’ 50 times, and then I heard the term ‘Jew’ in a way I never heard before in Hancock Park,” said Gilbert, a producer and writer of comedies, including the “Seinfeld” pilot.

The Gilberts joined forces with Rabbi Korobkin of Yavneh, who independently had set out to begin the healing process, contacting local clergy and L.A. Voice, an organization that works with faith-based organizations to build community.

At the first, smaller meeting about a month after the election, about 20 people from varying backgrounds sat in the Gilberts home and introduced themselves, putting names and faces to the impersonal “other side.”

“I’m not a professional mediator or conflict resolution person. I’m just a Jewish guy from the neighborhood who is really upset,” Gilbert recalled telling those at the first gathering in August. “I’m here to say let’s figure out what to do. I have no plan, no agenda — my agenda is why can’t we all get along. So let’s give it a try.”

A second meeting took place in November at the home of Marty and Candice Gurfinkel — a new home that blends impeccably into its surroundings and stands in regal rebuttal to the charge that the Orthodox have no aesthetic sense. It was there that the plan for the blood drive was devised, and after the meeting, a dozen neighbors stood around the dessert table schmoozing.

But despite the thaw, some were uncomfortable, feeling like they were skirting the real issues, moving ahead with joint activities to foster relationships when old wounds had yet to be healed, or even acknowledged.

“We perceive that the other neighbors look at us with such a sense of suspicion and distrust, that they feel anything we are trying to do is completely self-serving and disingenuous and we are not concerned with being good neighbors,” Korobkin said recently. “If you start with that premise, it is hard to win people’s support to work toward common goals. It’s hard to move things forward.”

But Korobkin persists in his efforts toward reconciliation, understanding that not only Yavneh’s future, but the entire neighborhood’s rests on everyone’s ability to work together.

As for Rosenberg, he has spent much of the last six months in Peru tending to family matters. He’s missed most of the Neighborhood Council meetings, but the one he did attend, he voted against all of the proposed measures, which passed anyway.

One of those measures reduced the number of future board members on the Neighborhood Council from 31 to 21 for the next elections in March 2007. Members who supported the motion said the board was too unwieldy with 31 members.

Treitel, who voted against the change, noted in an interview that Orthodox Jews had a good chance of filling the seats that were cut, in categories such as education, religion and nonprofits. He worries that the interests of the Orthodox community are now further jeopardized.

Rosenberg plans to do whatever it takes to accomplish what he says was his initial goal: to ensure that everyone in the neighborhood is represented, and that no one, especially not the Orthodox community, gets left out of the process.

“I feel bad that people have a perception of me as being a bad person,” Rosenberg said. “I’m not a bad person. I have given a lot of my time and money to make people aware of what I believe to be very important things.”


Orthodox But Not Monolithic

The last place most people probably wanted to be on the morning of Dec. 25 was at a convention in a Beverly Hills hotel.

But for Orthodox Jews the time and the place, the Crowne Plaza, worked fine for wrapping up the Orthodox Union’s 15th Annual West Coast Torah Convention, called “The Polarization of Orthodox Judaism: Finding Harmony Within Diversity.”

The four-day conference highlighted the diversity — and at times the tension — in what might appear to be, from the outside, a monolithic community.

The most observant of the four main denominations of Judaism, Orthodoxy in the last decade and a half has shifted further to the right. The basis of Orthodoxy is an adherence to halacha — Jewish law as interpreted by Orthodox authorities — but Orthodoxy still encompasses a wide swath of opinions.

While Orthodox tensions might seem like insider baseball to non-Orthodox Jews, there is often a trickle-down effect on all Jewish denominations, especially on issues such as teaching creationism in schools and forbidding exposure to certain books. Another ongoing issue is how much dialogue should there be withnon-Orthodox Jews and how much engagement is the right amount with the world outside Judaism.

An ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox representative faced off in the first night’s “Fireside Chat” featuring two perceived “factions” of Orthodoxy. Representing the more “modern” faction was Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, the national executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU); representing the more haredi, or “Ultra-Orthodox,” faction was Rabbi Avrohom Teichman Mora D’asra (head rabbi) of Agudas Yisroel of Los Angeles. The two erudite, bearded men expressed opposing positions on issue after issue.

For one thing, while Modern Orthodox Jews support Israel as the Jewish State and hold as a goal aliyah, or moving to Israel, ultra-Orthodox Jews do not put as much focus on aliyah as a mitzvah; nor are they necessarily proponents of Zionism. Also, Modern Orthodox Jews support secular education, and unequivocally send their children to university while the ultra-Orthodox often view a secular education as presenting a danger to the religiosity of their children.

The discussion between Weinreb and Teichman remained calm and civil, but the discourse grew more impassioned at a panel the following night, after Friday night Shabbat dinner at B’nai David Judea.

“How Flexible is Orthodoxy?” featured four rabbis, but it was the two local ones who ended up most at odds, when moderator Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, of Kehillat Yavneh and the OU, asked, “How is Orthodoxy meeting the needs of the modern Jewish woman?

A woman’s role in the synagogue should not change, said Rabbi Elazar Muskin, of the Young Israel of Century City. Period.

But Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David reiterated his position that there are troubling issues regarding women that must be reconsidered. Kanefsky has drawn fire here for a number of his liberal practices, such as holding a woman’s-only prayer group. The interchange between the rabbis prompted a barrage of questions from the audience, blowing the lid off a volatile issue. The views of Kanefsky, who is currently serving as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis, represent the far left of West Coast Orthodox rabbis, and even cause controversy within the modern faction of Orthodoxy.

Another perspective on women’s issues was offered in a Sunday lecture by David Luchins, OU national vice president and chairman of the Political Science Department at Touro College for Women. He placed the matter in the context of Orthodox Jews’ broader view of engagement in the secular world, citing the example of secular education. Some Orthodox regard a college and professional education as an ideal; others accept this outside education as “necessary” for a professional life; and some reject it entirely. Rejection has long been popular among many Orthodox in Israel, and has become so among some American students who study at Yeshivas there.

On the matter of secular education, he said, the battle is now being fought. Not so, in his view, when it comes to support for Israel and women’s issues.

On the matter of Israel’s centrality, Luchins said, the Modern Orthodox have won. The ultra-Orthodox – who decades ago viewed Israel dismissively as a “Zionist entity” — now are as supportive as the Modern Orthodox.

But on the matter of women, he said, the ultra-Orthodox have prevailed. In 1976, he said, there were three women on the OU board. There are none today. The OU conference featured no women panelists, save for one all-women panel (“The Orthodox Women’s Influence on Her Community”) that was closed to men at the request of the women on the panel.

“Why have we relegated our women to third-class citizens?” Luchins asked. “We’ve done it for the tradeoff,” he posited.

The ultra-Orthodox accepted Israel as a central ideal, and in return, the Israeli community’s conservative attitude toward women has prevailed overall in most of the Orthodox world, he said.

“We’re so busy fighting over the form of where women sit in shul that I think we’ve lost the substance. There was a time that women were the pillars of the Orthodox community,” Luchins said. “We’ve lost on that issue, big.”

Off the record, one rabbi expressed concern about schisms within Orthodoxy. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think the movement is going to have to break into two.”

But OU President Steven Savitsky talked about such divides as challenges to be managed, rather than as a looming crisis.

“How do we find cohesiveness and harmony?” Savitsky asked, when he addressed the opening night dinner of 150 at Beth Jacob synagogue in Beverly Hills.

The short answer, Savitsky later told The Journal, is tolerance.

“We need to see the bigger picture: There are very few of us in this world, and we better find ways of working together,” he said.


Activists Strategize on Hotel Contracts

The gala dinner was like many others at the Century Plaza Hotel, featuring festive centerpieces atop crisp tablecloths, well-dressed guests exchanging greetings and servers bustling about offering trays of beverages.

However, this event wasn’t actually inside the hotel. Set in front of the hotel on the Avenue of the Stars, which was blocked off, this banquet-in-the-street supported some 4,000 striking workers at seven Los Angeles hotels. The traffic-stopping April gathering was among a series of actions organized by a coalition of community groups, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), in support of an 11-month strike that ended in June.

The outcome was an important step forward for the union: It achieved a wage hike, continued health benefits and a short contract that will expire at nearly the same time as the contracts of other hotel workers in other parts of the country.

Last week saw the next round of activism — a transnational effort in support of hotel workers in eight cities fighting for a new contract in 2006.

On Wednesday, inspired by the success in Los Angeles, Jewish social justice organizations from the United States and Canada gathered at the hotel workers’ union headquarters just west of downtown. The strategy session was convened by New York-based Jewish Funds for Justice and Los Angeles’ Progressive Jewish Alliance. Representatives also attended from other Jewish organizations in Los Angeles, as well as from groups in New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Paul, Washington, D.C. and Toronto. In mostly closed-door meetings, organizers discussed the tactics and the coalition building that worked in this year’s L.A. campaign and how the lessons would apply in other cities.

Organizers say that Jewish involvement has been a central fixture within the effort.

Jewish participation, particularly at the Century Plaza Hotel, was essential, said Maria Elena Durazo, president of the hotel workers local, UNITE HERE. The Century Plaza is sufficiently serious about Jewish clientele to maintain a sealed-off kosher kitchen, she said.

“There’s no doubt that if it had not been for the influence and the participation and the constant, constant communication of the Jewish organizations, the Century Plaza would not have settled,” Durazo said.

“The most important aspect of what we did there,” said Jaime Rapaport, the architect of PJA’s hotel worker support campaign, “was this national Jewish response to a campaign that’s addressing poverty.”

The national average median wage for housekeepers is $7.85 an hour, according to the union. Wages are higher where more hotels are organized: In New York, where hotels are 95 percent unionized, a housekeeper’s wages start at $19 an hour; in Los Angeles, with a 35 percent union density, housekeepers average $11.31.

“It’s not just about a contract fight,” UNITE HERE organizer Vivian Rothstein said. “It’s a national approach to address conditions for nonunion and union workers.”

But a hotel industry representative said the union activists are over-reaching with unrealistic demands and that they misrepresent how hotels treat their workers.

“The bulk of hotel workers are housekeepers. They make, under this contract, approximately $13.50 an hour,” said Fred Muir of the Hotel Employers Council, which represents seven unionized Los Angeles-area hotels. He points out that the contract also provides for a pension fund, paid health care and free meals at work.

The strategy on the hotel side has been to prevent union contracts across the country from expiring at the same time. Hotels gave ground on that issue in the last year. Beyond that, individual hotel chains have opposed union organizing and simply worked to hold down labor costs in a business environment that includes rising health-care costs.

The economics of the hotel industry are simple, Muir said. “How many rooms can you fill and how much can you charge for them? The money to pay everyone has to come from somewhere.”

Room rates in New York are twice what they are in Los Angeles, so workers in New York can be paid more than those in Los Angeles, he said.

The activists who gathered last week emphasized that they are trying to make their labor campaign about Jewish values. The meeting’s purpose was to link local Jewish groups to the union organizing in their cities, and, just as important, bring them together to develop “a common language, a common strategy, common goals that would enable us to speak in a louder and more aggregated voice,” said Daniel Sokatch of the Progressive Jewish Alliance. He wants to expand the notion of what constitutes “Jewish issues.”

“We want to put out there on the radar the notion that social justice is central to our identity as Jews,” he said.

The idea resonates with Simon Greer, who just six months ago took over as executive director of Jewish Funds for Justice. The foundation, which handles some $15 million annually, underwrote transportation and lodging costs for participants from the Jewish social justice organizations.

Greer said that the campaign seeks to boost hotel workers into the middle class. “As Jews in this country, the beneficiaries of America as an open society, we are obligated to do something for others in this society,” he said. “A piece of this is about how we reclaim justice as a centerpiece of Jewish identity in America.”

When Jews make choices that support social justice, he added, they are, in effect, expanding the notion of keeping kosher.

Teacher Class on Mideast Stirs Doubt

An upcoming course on the Middle East for public school teachers has gotten the attention of Jewish organizations for its allegedly unfair tilt toward a pro-Palestinian viewpoint.

Titled “Teaching About the Middle East,” the professional development course, which earns participants points toward salary increases, will be given Oct. 14, 15 and 17 at the Wilshire District headquarters of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union.

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) will send an observer to monitor the sessions. Spokeswomen for both the ADL and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles said their organizations are looking into the matter, but withholding judgment.

The heightened scrutiny arises from the complaints of Paul Kujawsky, a teacher at Germain Street Elementary School in Chatsworth and past president of Democrats for Israel. A routine listing of the workshop caught his eye, and on Sept. 1, Kujawsky sent a formal, three-page letter, headed “Propaganda, Not Education” to Superintendent Roy Romer of the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) and UTLA President A.J. Duffy.

The letter listed two primary observations and allegations:

The course is funded by the Middle East Teacher Resource Project, an arm of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The Quaker organization has a long, honorable history of pacifism and aiding refugees (including this reporter’s parents), but is considered by many in the Jewish community as leaning consistently toward a pro-Palestinian perspective.

“Overall, the AFSC’s position is that the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict is the result of European imperialism, not Arab or Muslim refusal to admit that the Jews have any historic or legal right to sovereignty,” wrote Kujawsky, who is undeniably and unapologetically pro-Israel.

The initiators and administrators of the workshop have denied any bias, and have rejected Kujawsky’s request that the course be reorganized or dropped. However, the course leader said that she was sufficiently concerned to seek a pro-Israel speaker for a session on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The course has been officially vetted and accredited by LAUSD, with input by the teachers union. In 16 class hours, it strives to deal with the Middle East’s people, art, food, music, literature and cultural stereotypes, as well as Arab Americans, Muslim women and the veil, wars and conflicts, oil strategy, nonviolence, human rights and peace movements.

For better or worse, what the teachers learn will influence what they pass on to their students. At least 40 teachers have enrolled.

In the opinion of Kujawsky, “The Quakers’ goal is to end the Israeli occupation, not to end the Arab war against Israel,” he said in an interview.

Shan Cretin, the Friends Committee regional director in Pasadena, objected to attempts to “politicize” either the teachers’ course or the Quakers’ position on the Middle East, which, she said, is to work toward a nonviolent resolution.

“This workshop grows out of our larger concerns for peace in the Middle East,” she said. “In the wake of 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, we believe that students need to know more about Arab and Muslim culture, history and politics to become informed citizens. This is not a workshop focusing mainly on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Cretin, who worked with Israelis and Palestinians on health care programs in the mid-90s, acknowledged that “many of our speakers have ties to Arab organizations, but given the topics that are to be the focus of the workshop, this does not seem so surprising.”

The course was deemed appropriate by Ronni Ephraim, LAUSD’s chief instructional officer for elementary schools. She readily provided documents on the course, and explained how it was approved by a three-person committee that included a Jewish member.

The course was proposed and put together by Linda Tubach, an LAUSD staffer in instructional support service who is active in UTLA.

Tubach’s involvement is one concern cited in Kujawsky’s letter. He submitted that Tubach serves on the advisory board of Cafe Intifada, whose Web site states that it raises funds for “cultural programs in Palestine, highlighting the current plight of the Palestinian people.”

Tubach said she was part of the now-inactive advisory board two years ago, when she was involved in a Cafe Intifada pen pal writing project involving American teachers and Palestinian students, but that she no longer had any connections with the organization.

She said that she proposed the course as “a basic survey of Middle Eastern culture, religion and government … and it is our intention to have dialogues and discussions representing all points of view.”

Nevertheless, she became concerned enough about any real or perceived imbalance to ask Deanna Armbruster, who is leading the session on “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” to team up with an advocate of the Israeli viewpoint.

Armbruster is the executive director of American Friends of Neve Shalom/Wahab Al-Salam, a community in central Israel, whose 350 Arab and Jewish adults and children live together, study in the same school and share civic responsibilities.

“I’m very passionate about understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of human experiences,” said Armbruster, and her book, “Tears in the Holy Land,” is based on this passion.

Armbruster, a volunteer with the Friends Committee’s Middle East Peace Education Program, said that the Quaker organization “strives for a better understanding of both the Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints, but it tends to delve more deeply into Palestinian issues and the problems they face” — especially in light of a widespread presumption that the Israeli side gets more favorable exposure, thanks to strong Jewish advocacy.

For his part, Kujawsky perceives a bias in the affiliation of some of the instructors, some of whom have ties to Palestinian organizations.

Among the workshop’s instructors is attorney Ban al-Wardi, who is president of the Los Angeles-Orange County Chapter of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee. He will lead the session on “The U.S. and the Middle East: Before and After 9/11.”

The session on “Middle Eastern Cooking, Music and Literature” will be taught by Sami Asmar, who is a NASA physicist and an expert on Middle East music and literature.

None of the assurances of balance and fairness have satisfied Kujawsky.

“This is not a question of Jew vs. Arab, it’s about truthfulness in teaching,” he said.


Jews Forced to Flee Arabs Want Redress

Jews who fled Arab countries following the creation of the State of Israel are preparing to launch a new campaign for restitution.

Meeting in London at a forum organized by the World Organization for Jews From Arab Countries and Justice for Jews From Arab Countries, Jewish representatives from 14 nations met for two days last week to create the steering committee for the International Campaign for Rights and Redress.

The group plans to conduct an international advocacy and public education campaign on the heritage and rights of former Jewish refugees, documenting human rights violations against those who fled Arab countries, as well as their lost assets.

The director of the justice group, Stanley Urman, said the summit was a landmark occasion.

“It is a commitment by Jewish communities in 14 countries on five continents to once and for all document the historical injustice perpetrated against Jews in Arab countries,” he said. “It is not just a theoretical and educational exercise; it is concrete.”

Supported by the Israeli government, the plan also has the backing of Jewish communities in North and South America, Europe and Australia, with organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International and the World Sephardi Congress involved.

“We are delighted to play a key role in this crucial project,” said Henry Grunwald, president of British Jewry’s umbrella group, the Board of Deputies. “The plight of Jews from Arab countries is all too often a cause that we in the wider Jewish community forget, and we must act to educate and raise awareness of this important issue.”

Organizers long have been unhappy that the issue of Palestinian refugees largely has eclipsed the question of the nearly 900,000 Jews displaced from Arab countries around the 1948 creation of the State of Israel. They want the Jewish refugees’ fate addressed as well in any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Approximately 600,000 of these refugees settled in Israel; by 2001, fewer than 8,000 Jews remained in Arab countries. The displaced Jews were recognized as refugees by the United Nations, but there was virtually no international response to their plight.

The only way that the rights of former Jewish refugees can be asserted, organizers believe, is through an international advocacy campaign. They will launch the campaign in March with a special month of commemoration to highlight the torture, detention, loss of citizenship and seizure of property suffered by many Jewish refugees.

“This is a milestone in the effort to address the historic injustice to the Jewish communities in Arab countries,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We hope that this renewed, unified campaign will not only succeed in creating a comprehensive data bank, but will also put this issue on the agenda of the international community, which has neglected it for so long.” Data on the communal and individual assets lost in the mass displacements — incorporating public education, the collection of testimonies and programs to lobby media and governments — will be collected and preserved in a special unit established in Israel’s Ministry of Justice.

Urman declined to speculate on the value of the Jewish refugees’ assets, insisting that the fundamental issue was justice rather than compensation. Redress might come in many forms, he said, from a commitment to protect and preserve historical Jewish sites in Arab lands to the endowment of chairs at universities to preserve Middle Eastern Jewish culture.

In Iraq, the Jewish community numbered around 140,000 before being mostly dispersed in the 1950s. Like many others in his community, Maurice Shohet, president of Bene Naharayim, the Iraqi Jewish community in New York, abandoned his possessions when he fled Iraq with his family in 1970 at age 21.

The combined assets Iraqi Jewry left behind now could be worth billions of dollars. When the U.S.-led Iraq War began in 2003, the prospect of an elected, post-Saddam government offered some hope of restitution for the community.

But “so far, all we are hearing is the voice of the insurgents,” said Shohet, who visited his hometown of Baghdad last year, but cut short his trip because of violence.

With divisions rampant within Iraq society and the government still going through a transition period, compensation still seems far away. Yet that makes the issue more urgent, Urman said.

After Israel’s recent withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, there might also be a new impetus toward fresh talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

“If Gaza results in renewed commitment by the Palestinian Authority to advance serious peace negotiations, it will have moved us forward to a resolution of both the Arab and Jewish refugee issues,” Urman said. “But it’s a big if.”



PETA Apologizes for Shoah Comparison

The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has apologized for its eyebrow-raising, 2-year-old “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign, with PETA’s leader stating, “it was never our goal to humiliate the victims” of the Shoah.

“We know that we have caused pain,” wrote Ingrid Newkirk in a statement sent out to Jewish news media on May 5, Holocaust Remembrance Day. “This was never our intention, and we are deeply sorry.”

PETA’s contrition did not impress Simon Wiesenthal associate dean Rabbi Abraham Cooper. “Did they know the impact this campaign would have when they started it two years ago? Absolutely,” Cooper said. “They leveraged the victims of the Shoah to promote their issue. The victims of the Shoah should not be leveraged to gain copy in a newspaper or airtime on TV.”

The “Plate” campaign began in February 2003. When asked why it has taken more than two years to re-evaluate the campaign, PETA spokesman Matt Prescott said, “We’ve apologized because we’ve had two years to reflect on it. We’ve been everywhere in the world on it [the ‘Plate’ campaign]. I actually did it myself in Warsaw, and the people in Warsaw loved it.”

The “Holocaust on Your Plate” campaign included a Sept. 16, 2003, protest in Los Angeles at the Museum of Tolerance, complete with posters comparing genocide to food manufacturing. Prescott was among 10 demonstrators, and he said Newkirk’s broad “Plate” apology includes regret over that event.

“It encompasses everything that we did with that campaign, the Web site and that protest included,” Prescott said.

Copper said it was unnecessary to use Holocaust imagery to provoke discussion about the treatment of animals.

“The whole question of meat or non-meat — these are historical, societal issues worthy of serious debate,” he said. We don’t need to be convinced that this is a legitimate issue.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Neil Diamond Instead of Avinu Malkenu

When Cantor Sam Radwine lifts his arms to conduct his 32-member choir on June 5, it won’t be for “Avinu Malkenu,” but for “Cabaret” and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” the music of Jewish American songwriters and composers such as Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kander and Ebb, Neil Diamond and others.

Culminating the celebration of 350 years of Jews in America, Congregation Ner Tamid and Radwine have produced “Coming to America: Jewish Composers and the American Scene.”

Radwine’s community choir boasts singers from three different South Bay Synagogues: Congregation Ner Tamid, Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach and Temple Beth El in San Pedro. In addition to the choir, the concert will feature soloists and a five-piece live band conducted by Ner Tamid musical director Brent Reynolds. This salute to Jewish American composers of “popular” music will include Broadway hits, movie themes, pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and more.

“We’re very excited,” Radwine said. “Our choir will have an opportunity to perform some very different music that we don’t ordinarily hear in the synagogue. Their talent with the popular songs we’ve selected is phenomenal, and our soloists are extraordinary.”

The program contains brief biographies of more than 100 Jewish composers and songwriters from the 18th century through today. A dessert reception follows the 90 minute concert. The Ner Tamid Museum 350 exhibit, which highlights the remarkable history of Jews in America, will be open for viewing throughout the evening.

Sunday, June 5, 7:30 pm. $18 (adults), $12 (children under 12); $25 (at the door). Congregation Ner Tamid, 5721 Crestridge Road, Rancho Palos Verdes. For tickets, call (310) 377-6986. — Julie M. Brown, Contributing Writer

Rabbis Call for Day of Fasting for Darfur

Because the quintessential Jewish celebration — of life, of survival, of victory — always involves food, it only makes sense that a Jewish response to tragedy involves fasting.

Rabbis from all denominations are calling upon Jews in Los Angeles to participate in a day of fasting, prayer and political activism to raise alarm about the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Roving militias, backed by the Muslim Sudanese government, have killed an estimated 300,000 black Africans and displaced, raped or maimed another 2 million in the last year and a half.

“We are appealing to people’s conscience to invoke traditional responses to calamity, and to think beyond the immediate bodily welfare of the Jewish people as entering our perception of what constitutes a calamity,” said Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation. The Board of Rabbis responded to a call to action issued by Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, who founded Jewish World Watch (JWW) in September 2004. The coalition of 14 synagogues works to combat genocide and human rights violations around the world through education and by building political will to confront genocide.

In the last eight months, JWW speakers have addressed students at 40 schools and dozens of clubs and synagogue groups. It advocated for the Darfur Accountability Act currently in Congress, has sent thousands of letters to politicians and raised $150,000 to build wells and medical clinics in Darfur.

The May 26 fast, sponsored by JWW and the Board of Rabbis, brings the Darfur atrocities to a wider swath of the Jewish community.

An almost unprecedented coalition of 17 Orthodox, Reform and Conservative schools and shuls on the Westside joined to sponsor a mincha (afternoon prayer) service and break fast at B’nai David-Judea on Pico Boulevard, one of three venues that evening.

While the Orthodox community has traditionally been more concerned with issues that directly impact Jews, rabbis’ readiness to sponsor this event indicates an acknowledgment that genocide anywhere is a Jewish issue, said Kanefsky, who is Orthodox.

“Our claim that the world stood by while the Holocaust unfolded is now pointed at us, and we have this opportunity to demonstrate that we understand the accusation we have leveled at others over the last 50 years,” Kanefsky said.

All three May 26 events will highlight action items such as fundraising or pressuring politicians.

“It is critical that this not be some sort of guilt-assuaging event, but a touchstone for a pattern of activity,” Kanefsky said.

Stephen S. Wise Temple: Service and break the fast, followed by lecture from John Prendergast, former director of African affairs for the National Security Council and currently director of the International Crisis Group. 6:45 p.m. (service/break the fast), 7:30 p.m. (speech). 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, off of Mulholland Drive near Sepulveda Boulevard; (310) 889-2274; e-mail

Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center: Interfaith service with the All-Saints Church and musician Craig Taubman with break the fast and a short film on Darfur. 7 p.m. 1434 N. Altadena Drive, Pasadena. (626) 798-1161.

B’nai David-Judea: Mincha service, Torah study, short film on Darfur and break fast, 6:45 p.m., 8906 Pico Blvd. west of Robertson Boulevard; (310) 276-9269; e-mail

For information on Jewish World Watch, visit; e-mail; or call (818) 530-4088.



Attack Unfounded

As one of the people who helped start Joshua Venture I have gotten to know many of the program’s participants (“Failed Joshua Venture’s Serious Failings,” April 15). They are incredibly dedicated individuals who have chosen to give up opportunities in the private sector to work long hours for little money, solely out of a desire to make a difference in Jewish life. If these individuals are “spoiled,” then I don’t know what that means about the rest of us.
Gary Wexler bemoans the showering of “free trips, free conferences, free hotel rooms, scholarships, fellowships … along with the awarding of cash, prizes and other untold privileges,” onto this generation. However, unlike Wexler and myself, who were fortunate enough to be sent to Israel for free and to stay at various resorts as recipients of the Wexner Heritage Fellowship, Joshua Venture Fellows attended retreats at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute (while nice, hardly a five-star hotel). In addition, their $35,000 grant for each of two years was awarded not as a prize, but to fund the operations of their nonprofits.

Finally, he incorrectly suggests that the idea behind Joshua Venture was to create a new elitist class. In fact, the program was founded on an egalitarian notion rooted firmly in Jewish history — that it is often young people and those on the margins who create new ideas to benefit a changing world (think Theodor Herzl who at 35 wrote “The Jewish State” ). Joshua Venture Fellows proved that this notion still holds true. In less than four years, the 16 fellows created programs, which so far have impacted more than 700,000 people, many of whom are often overlooked by the traditional community.

While Joshua Venture’s board decided it was time to close its doors (due to issues dealing with infrastructure, not a lack of program success), the need for something like Joshua Venture still very much exists. I, for one, hope that rather than launch unjust personal attacks against those who are willing to dedicate themselves to improving Jewish life, we respond to their ideas and commitment with the respect and humility that Wexler so readily demands, yet himself seems to have forgotten.

Rachel Levin
Joshua Venture

Joshua Venture, the name and organizational infrastructure, may have been “put to death and buried,” but the collective of people who participated in the organization remain alive and well.
Gary wants to talk about entitlement? Living on $30,000 a year or less in some of the most expensive cities in America, sleeping on friends’ floors because we couldn’t afford hotel rooms where we had meetings or conferences, sacrificing jobs that came with medical benefits and vacation days, living and working on shoestring budgets because we believed we could add positive value to the Jewish world. We don’t believe any of these things are signs of entitlement. Working for and receiving a grant or a fellowship is now “the world on a silver platter”? Does that not undermine the entire field of nonprofit work?

Did Gary intend for this opinion piece to model appropriate, professional communication to the wayward Joshua Venture and general Jewish communities? Instead of speaking with those who offended him, Mr. Wexler waited a year and a half. He used this incident to make a disconnected point about creating elite groups in Jewish life, and then challenged that “there is a critical issue of respect missing” from Joshua Venture. We found a critical sense of respect missing from his diatribe.

In addition to presenting a factually inaccurate account of what happened that afternoon, Gary’s comments reaffirm the very need for something like the Joshua Venture. Our cohort sought to reflect and to cultivate a Jewish community committed to diversity, equality, creativity, openness and innovation. Gary resorts to name-calling to describe the day he spent with the Joshua Venture community. He makes it sound like a stifling, hyper-politically correct and thus closed environment, which it was not. For four years, Joshua Venture fostered an open environment where ideas could be freely discussed by young people who represent a wide spectrum of Jewish activism and thought. Gary was simply unprepared for a quintessentially Jewish conversation about what it means to be a Jewish leader.
Many of us found the day which Mr. Wexler described to be frustrating, but we didn’t feel compelled to publicly denounce his values or undermine his professional life and the positive impact he has had on many organizations. As many of our organizations continue or begin to do work in the Los Angeles Jewish community, we regret that he did not show the same restraint or professionalism.

Meredith Englander Polsky, Amy Tobin,
Sam Ball, Ronit Avni, Tobin Belzer

Gary Wexler responds:

I intended my piece to be an examination of the ways in which empowerment can sometimes lead to a sense of entitlement. I should have been more careful to point out that certainly not all, or even most, Joshua Venture participants fall into this trap. I sought to raise an overall communal concern, not detract from the good work of any group. I apologize for any pain I have caused.

Life and Death

Contrary to last week’s letters to the editor, which were marked by vitriol and inaccuracies, I found Judy Gruen’s essay (“Spiritual Help Can Benefit Hopelessly Ill,” April 1) thoughtful and poignant. Nowhere does she talk about the “beauty of suffering.” She does mention Peter Singer, who may be an “intellectual crackpot,” but apparently Princeton doesn’t think so. She does talk about the pain of watching a loved one die, about the value of caregiving, about the traditional Jewish view of the process of death.

Death is a process and has its own timetable. I have lost both of my parents, and so I speak from experience when I say that it’s difficult to react without emotion when we observe the imminent demise or prolonged suffering of someone we love. Emotions, and science, also complicate our decisions. That is why many people write “living wills.” For Gruen and for those of us who are Orthodox, the “living will” is the Torah. The Torah may not answer all our questions or spare us pain, but it does make those life-and-death decisions for us.

Certainly Terri Schiavo’s death has raised many emotions for many people, and many questions. My questions: Why, if Schiavo’s parents were willing to care for her, didn’t her husband allow them to do so? She wasn’t in pain. She was breathing on her own. Her husband claims that she told him she would never want to “live like that.” But can a healthy woman in her 20s anticipate what her wishes would be if she were suddenly robbed of that good health? Her brother-in-law tells us that she died with dignity and in peace. Her family says she starved to death. Where are the dignity and peace? Where is the compassion?

Rochelle Krich
via E-mail

Cynthia Lawrence thinks Judy Gruen is out of her depth when discussing matters of life and death (Letters, April 8). Certainly there are reasonable arguments for supporting Michael Schiavo’s decision to end his wife’s life. But if depth means that, as Lawrence claims, existing human life must be sacrificed in order to preserve abortion rights and stem cell research, then I am happy to wade with Gruen in the shallow end of the pool.

David Waghalter
Los Angeles

Funding Fix

What Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said about Social Security is what many have said, what I’ve felt, and I’m sure others have also (“The Social Security Fix: Pay Back Funds,” April 15). One has to wonder why the Democratic National Committee hasn’t pointed out this dichotomy.

Patrick R. Mascaro
Trinity, Texas

What a disingenuous article Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) wrote. There has never been any dollars in the so-called Social Security Trust Fund since Congress and presidents, Democratic as well as Republican, have been raiding it for decades. It’s shady truths like this, with Democrats “accusing” Republicans of doing things the Democrats have been doing for years, that just perpetuates the bad name associated with politicians.

Warren Scheinin
Redondo Beach

Limit Liquor

I was concerned to see the cover story on wine (“Let My People Merlot,” April 15). Although Jews have less alcoholism than some other ethnic groups, there are still many Jewish alcoholics. A Jewish physician friend of mine died of his alcoholism because he lied to his doctor due to his shame. I’ve helped two other physicians get sober. Wine and other sources of alcohol are not innocuous drinks, and I was concerned to see it promoted.

Dr. Marsha Epstein
via e-mail


Kudos to James Besser (“Presbyterians Won’t Budge on Divesting,” April 15). He describes with consummate accuracy the experiences of us working in interfaith relations in our efforts to work with the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA) on divestment. Indeed, we are quite disillusioned by the PCUSA’s systematic refusal to hear the views of any representative of the moderate Jewish community with any seriousness.

Whatever the motives of the leadership of PCUSA, the dialogue has proven to be dishonest.
However, this experience contrasts with our experiences of talking to local Presbyterian clergy and laity. Across America we consistently find understanding of Israel, Jewish feelings and willingness to maintain balanced and just attitudes toward the tragic Middle East conflict.

Official polling data confirm our anecdotal experience: A plurality of Presbyterian elders and laypersons oppose divestment. The problem is with the Presbyterian ideologues in Louisville who have lost their moral compass and fair concern for Jews, not with the vast majority of the Presbyterian faithful throughout America.

Rabbi Eugene Korn
Director of Jewish Affairs
American Jewish Congress

Reaching Out

What if, Soriya Daniel’s aunt reached out her hand to her deceased husband’s brother and said, “Join us in our loss, we are all family, let us begin to heal (“In Death Still Not Parting,” April 8)? I do not believe her dead husband would rise from the grave to chastise her, quite the opposite, if possible she would have hastened his soul — uplifted his soul — to wherever souls might go.

Judith Ornstein Kollman
Sherman Oaks

High Tech High

Once upon a time, as Roberta Weintraub was exiting the Los Angeles Unified School District School Board (LAUSD), she also had a brainstorm to integrate technology with the L.A. Library, and so the Electronic Information Magnet High School was born for LAUSD (“A Brave New High School,” April 15).
In the early stages, an arrangement with the downtown library was established and some classes were held there. But an overall vision and continuing support for a new way to deliver education in the 21st century was never fulfilled. Weintraub had little to do with the school. Nobody seemed to understand its purpose. Few people had an interest in its mission. Perhaps not attracting the funding of a charter school operation, it has languished. Even with today’s new emphasis on “small learning communities,” very little is electronic or informative at the school. In fact, the relationship with the library is almost nonexistent today.

The creation of this magnet has been a very telling example of why schools within LAUSD fail. And who is to blame? Not the original teachers, who are long-since gone. Not the students, some of whom think they are there to learn to be electricians. Not the parents, some of whom only want a safe environment for their children. It is people like Weintraub and the magnet office at LAUSD who might have a good idea, but actually have no idea. They don’t wait to see if their idea is appropriately funded, housed or led by visionary educators. I hope High Tech High does not get the same treatment. Something tells me it will not.

Cheryl Sloane
Los Angeles

Funding Fix

The “Social Security Fix,” Rep. Henry Waxman’s hyperbole belies any semblance of truth and strengthens his credentials as a class warrior. His arguments are vacuous on several levels (“The Social Security Fix: Pay Back Funds,” April 15).

First, his portrayal of tax cuts as an expense is an example of both the tortured logic and the misleading rhetoric that cost Democrats their majority. Waxman would have us believe that tax reductions that primarily benefit those that pay the bulk of the taxes (the upper 1 percent of income pays 34 percent of total income taxes) are an expense rather than what they really are — a reduction of revenue. By mislabeling tax cuts as expenses, Waxman can then take the rhetorical leap and argue that Republicans increase spending and worsen the deficit. Thus, no tax cut is ever justified.
Second, Waxman somehow contends that there is a zero-sum game between tax cuts and the solvency of the Social Security “trust fund.” He must know that Social Security is funded by payroll taxes and not by general income tax revenues. The size of any income tax cut has no bearing whatsoever on the viability of Social Security. To suggest otherwise is to intentionally mislead.

Third, Waxman argues that Democrats honor the lockbox concept. This is a crock. The lockbox, as originally conceived and promoted by Democrats during the 2000 election, was described as a place to park Social Security revenues. The funds were to be used to pay current Social Security obligations, and the surplus funds were to be diverted to pay down the debt. IOUs of the U.S. Treasury would have replaced these surplus funds. In as much as surplus funds were to be diverted to finance the debt, the lockbox was an intentional misnomer. Fourth, his suggestion that only Republicans use the Social Security surplus to fund government spending is dishonest. Historically, Democrats as much as Republicans have diverted the Social Security surplus to finance the national debt. This is nothing unique to the last four years.

Waxman’s rhetoric is such a distortion of the truth as to amount to nothing more than an ad hominem attack against Republicans. His cause would be better served by honoring three simple words: “Tell the truth.”

Dr. Stephen Levinson


New Study Breaks Down 2004 Election


Newly compiled information suggests that a few more Jews voted for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry last November than originally reported, and highlights several areas where Republicans are gaining momentum within the Jewish community.

The analysis by the Solomon Project, a think tank associated with the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), shows that the Massachusetts senator received 77 percent of the Jewish vote, to President Bush’s 22 percent. That’s a slight change from the 75 percent Kerry was said to have received in polls released soon after the vote.

The new information, released Tuesday, is based on a broader sample of exit polls that incorporates both the national poll released in November and a state-by-state poll that was not widely released.

The wider survey finds that Bush fared particularly well with Jewish men, garnering 28 percent of their votes, compared to 16 percent of Jewish women. In particular, he captured 35 percent of Jewish men younger than 30.

The new report could put to rest lingering questions about the extent of gains Bush made within the Jewish community. Many Republicans expected Bush would do well among Jews — especially in such targeted key states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — because of support for his Middle East policy.

In the end, Bush won more than the 19 percent of the vote he received in the 2000 election against then-Vice President Al Gore and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the first Jew on a major party national ticket.

“There’s been some small movement in the Jewish community toward the Republicans, but nothing really dramatic,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an independent political analyst.

Rothenberg said he found the report’s methodology “kosher,” but Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he is wary of exit poll analysis because the results on Election Day seemed to inflate Democratic strength.

“I think any credible person would look at this as somewhat revisionist history,” Brooks said. “I don’t think this passes the credibility threshold in terms of statistical accuracy.”

The report does confirm the potential for greater movement of Jewish votes to the GOP in the future.

Republicans have been targeting young Jewish voters and the Orthodox, who have become more politically active in recent years, and are considered more likely to vote for the GOP because of their more conservative positions on social issues.

The analysis uses a wide set of polling data on Jews taken in the weeks and months before the election to understand voting trends within subgroups of Jews.

While no analysis of Jewish votes has had enough Orthodox participants to garner a reliable result, Tuesday’s report suggests that Bush may have received half or more of their votes.

Three independent polls had Bush winning at least half of the Orthodox vote, but each had a sample size of only between 49 and 70 people.

A report by the American Jewish Committee last summer, taken of Russian Jews, suggested Bush may have received more than half of their support as well.

A poll by the Mellman Group, which did surveys for the Kerry campaign, found that 47 percent of Jews who attend synagogue every week supported Bush, compared to 48 percent for Kerry. The Democrat did substantially better among Jews who attended synagogue once a month or less.

“We know a lot more about different types of Jewish voters than we did a few days ago,” said Ira Forman, research director of the Solomon Project and the NJDC’s executive director.

Forman said the information highlighted for him that Democratic efforts to court Orthodox and Russian voters were inadequate.

The core of Democratic support within the Jewish community remains women, the analysis found. Kerry received 82 percent of the vote among Jewish women. That Democratic trend ran across the generations, as 90 percent of women older than 60 voted for Kerry and 88 percent of Jewish women younger than 30 backed him.

Despite the support Bush got for his Israel policies, Rothenberg said it’s hard to move ethnic groups from one party to another.

“It’s hard to change people’s inclinations and pre-existing voter preference,” he said. “If they’ve chosen one way for 20 or 30 years, they tend to do it again.”

But, he said, the Jewish vote will remain important if the election hinges on certain states where disproportionately large numbers of Jews live.

“It’s all about what states people are in and how many people you need to move,” Rothenberg said.


Rabbi Expelled Over Sex Abuse Claims


The decision of a leading association of centrist Orthodox rabbis to expel one of its members has highlighted for some in the community the difficulties of addressing sexual abuse in the Orthodox world.

Following an investigation into allegations from several women of sexual harassment, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) announced last week that it had expelled Rabbi Mordecai Tendler.

Tendler had “engaged in conduct inappropriate for an Orthodox rabbi” and refused to cooperate with the committee investigating the claims, the RCA said in a statement.

Tendler referred JTA to his spokesman for comment on the case, though he did say that members of his synagogue, Kehillat New Hempstead, located near Monsey, N.Y., have been “very supportive.”

Asked if he plans to remain in his pulpit, he replied, “Of course.”

Hank Sheinkopf, Tendler’s spokesman, said the RCA procedure leading to Tendler’s expulsion was “reminiscent of the Salem witch trials,” referring to fraudulent trials in colonial America.

“A decent man has been smeared, his family damaged irreparably and a community injured after a prolonged witch hunt,” Sheinkopf told JTA.

He complained that Tendler was not permitted to confront his accusers and that information on the case was leaked to the media.

The charges against Tendler include claims that over the last few years, he engaged in sexual affairs with several women, among them women who had come to him for rabbinic counseling.

Brian Leggiere, a clinical psychologist in Manhattan whose clientele is comprised largely of Orthodox abuse victims and offenders, said the case highlights the fact that the Orthodox community is beginning to “wake up” to issues of abuse among its leaders, but still has “a ways to go.”

“We imbue our leaders with a great sense of kavod, respect, and usually it’s deserved,” he said. “It’s a wonderful value, but when you have a community that over-idealizes [its leaders at times,] that’s a recipe that allows abuse to occur.”

In the Orthodox world, where marital matches, or shidduchs, are highly valued commodities, even the victims of abuse often remain silent for fear they will damage their chances to find a husband or wife.

Tendler’s expulsion reportedly went into effect immediately, though expulsion from the RCA does not necessarily entail removal from the pulpit. Some 1,000 ordained rabbis in 128 countries have membership in the RCA.

“Synagogues and institutions are entirely independent entities,” Rabbi Basil Herring, the RCA’s executive vice president, told JTA. “Therefore, it’s up to every synagogue to decide how it will wish to deal with its rabbi or its clergy or employees.”

Herring declined to comment directly on the case, as did several other RCA members complying with official RCA policy.

One Orthodox rabbi who requested anonymity said it was the first time the RCA had expelled a member following sexual abuse allegations.

The expulsion was based on protocols, instituted in April 2004 for addressing accusations of sexual impropriety against RCA members. The new protocols followed the highly publicized conviction of Rabbi Baruch Lanner, an Orthodox Union official who is serving seven years in prison for sexually abusing a student when he was principal of Hillel Yeshiva High School in New Jersey.

The Lanner case, in which allegations emerged that victims’ complaints had gone unheeded, has been seen as a watershed in the way the Orthodox community addresses sexual abuse.

Tendler’s expulsion is a particularly sensitive issue for the RCA, Orthodox insiders said, because he comes from an important family of respected rabbis. His father is the well-known bioethicist and Yeshiva University teacher Rabbi Moses Tendler. His grandfather, the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was among the Orthodox world’s leading experts in Jewish religious law.

Orthodox movement insiders said Tendler gained respect for his work on women’s issues within Judaism, particularly his approach to helping agunot, women unable to secure divorces from their husbands.

“As painful as it has been” for the community to start coming to terms with abuse issues, “I think it’s helpful when it comes to the fore because it helps people respond,” Leggiere said. “Generally, people aren’t going to respond to a situation until you get past a level of denial.”


New Allegations of Forged Hahn Support


Several times over the course of this mayoral election season, acquaintances approached Yitzchok Bader, a Jewish studies teacher and volunteer for Hatzolah Los Angeles, and said they heard he endorsed Mayor James Hahn.

The problem was, he hadn’t.

Bader’s name was on an advertisement called “Our Community Leaders Agree! Re-elect Mayor Jim Hahn,” which appeared in The Jewish Journal just prior to the March 8 primary election. But Bader said he never gave permission to the Hahn campaign or its supporters to use his name.

“I have no understanding why in the world he put my name there,” he said. “I was not asked and I did not endorse [Hahn].”

A growing number of Jewish community members are saying that Hahn’s re-election campaign falsely claimed them as endorsers in that ad. Among these, four individuals insisted that their signatures had been forged after reviewing signed endorsement forms that the Hahn campaign provided to The Journal to justify the names on their advertisement.

Two types of accusations have surfaced, one that the Hahn campaign used names without permission and, separately, that individual’s names were forged on endorsement documents. Hahn’s campaign actually provided signed endorsement forms to The Journal for seven individuals in response to initial allegations that no permission had been given. The Journal reached four of the seven, and all of them called the endorsement forms forgeries. The forgery allegations were made by Rabbi Steven Weil of Temple Beth Jacob; Irving Lebovics, chairman of the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of California; Michael Rosenberg, president of the Hancock Park Residents Association; and developer Ira Smedra. Bader, the Jewish studies teacher, hasn’t seen his alleged permission form, but insists he gave no permission.

These prominent, respected members of the local Jewish community are just the sort of supporters the Hahn campaign would seek, especially during a tough reelection bid in which one of Hahn’s challengers was Jewish.

That challenger, Bob Hertzberg, just barely finished behind Hahn last week, meaning Hahn will face L.A. City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa in the May runoff. Hertzberg claimed strong Jewish support last week, but it was far from unanimous, and Hahn’s Jewish endorsements could have meant a lot to his campaign.

After the initial endorsement ad appeared in The Journal, six of the people mentioned in the ad wrote a letter of complaint to Hahn. The mayor’s campaign denied any ill intent and told The Journal that the controversy over Hahn’s endorser list was limited to the six people who complained, and that the campaign was holding signed permission forms for all the people on the ad. It was when the campaign provided some of those permission forms that the forgeries were uncovered.

But the problem goes deeper than these six people who signed the letter of protest.

More questionable endorsements are turning up, such as that of Jewish studies teacher Bader.

One of the confirmed forgeries is from one of the city’s leading developers, Smedra, someone who did not sign the letter of complaint.

“Not my signature,” Smedra told The Journal when he saw the form on which his purported signature appeared. “I have no idea who signed this. This isn’t even close.”

Hahn consultant Kam Kuwata denied any wrongdoing on the part of the campaign: “No one in the Hahn campaign would ever in this case or any other case forge documents.”

The Hahn campaign accounts for the forms by linking them to yet another mainstay of the civic and Jewish elite, businessman Joseph Klein, who died in June 2004. Kuwata said all the dubious forms were supplied by Klein, either by fax or in person. At the same time, Kuwata is quick to defend Klein’s honor.

“This campaign has unlimited respect and admiration and trust in Joe Klein,” Kuwata said. “If Joe Klein said something, that’s gospel truth.”

Until recent times, Klein was one of most powerful appointed officials in city government. He headed the Planning Commission as a Hahn appointee. He also was a leader within the Orthodox Jewish community, and an unabashedly enthusiastic Hahn supporter.

Klein, of course, isn’t around to defend his honor, but his friends are, including the ones who are angry about the endorsements. They are quick to praise Klein for honesty, compassion and impeccable ethics.

“Joe Klein [was] my good friend,” Weil said. “He never gave me anything to sign. He was a good man, a man of integrity. He didn’t do stuff like this.”

Bader, who also knew Klein, agreed. Asked whether Klein mentioned any endorsement forms during 2003 or 2004, the time period when the forms most likely originated, Bader said without hesitation: “No. Not once.”

“He was a very upstanding person,” said Stanley Treitel, Klein’s brother-in-law. “He would never [forge documents]. That I can tell you for sure.”

The reaction of Weil was typical of those who reviewed the endorsement forms.

“I am telling you that is a forgery,” he said. “That’s not the way I sign.” To back up his assertion, Weil brought in three colleagues at the synagogue who “have seen me sign my name 1,000 times.”

Mysterious Origin

The letterhead on all the forms is “Jim Hahn for Mayor 2005,” but they are all undated, meaning they could have been supplied at any point after Hahn’s first election in 2001.

One clue, however, suggests a much more recent vintage. That clue is a fax number that appears on the forms. Kuwata said this number first was used in connection with the Hahn re-election campaign in mid-2003. Assuming these forms were not altered after their initial creation, this fax number would mean the forms were created in mid-2003 at the earliest.

Klein’s connection to the Hahn campaign was strictly as a volunteer, friend and donor.

From 2000 to 2003, Klein contributed $10,000 to various Hahn-related causes including Hahn’s 2001 mayoral bid, Hahn’s legal defense fund and his 2005 re-election bid. Klein’s business interests included real estate and elder care, but friends also note that he was obsessed with local government, its relevance and its importance.

Close friend Michael Rosenberg said Klein was admitted to a hospital in March 2004 and died three months later. That means Klein would have supplied the forms between mid-2003 and his hospitalization in March 2004.

Smedra and Weil say they are certain that Klein, whom they also termed a close friend, never mentioned anything to them during this period about collecting or delivering signatures for Hahn’s 2005 mayoral bid.

“The only time he ever asked me for anything for Jim Hahn was when he first ran four years ago,” said Smedra. Smedra added that he saw Klein “all the time” in 2003 and early 2004 and can’t remember him ever discussing endorsement forms.

Klein was especially sensitive about behavior that could be judged unethical, said another friend, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt. Rosenblatt noted that Klein, a Holocaust survivor and immigrant from Czechoslovakia, often tried to help people or synagogues deal with city government.

“And none of it was in any way underhanded. He was hyperconscious that if something unsavory was done by someone Jewish, that it would be blamed on the entire Jewish people,” Rosenblatt said.

Like other friends, Rosenblatt only remembers Klein’s involvement with Hahn’s 2001 campaign.

Some members of Klein’s circle suggest that the Hahn campaign is trying to pass off responsibility for the forgeries on a good man who isn’t around to say otherwise. They note that Klein would be a convenient scapegoat if one or more Hahn staffers actually created the false forms to cover their missteps after questions arose about suspect endorsements.

Names in Two Places

The furor began when a Hertzberg supporter happened to see the pro-Hahn ad and called Hertzberg outreach staffer Adeena Bleich. Why wasn’t Hertzberg also proclaiming his Jewish support in the press, the caller wanted to know.

When Bleich looked at the ad, she saw a list peppered with people she believed to be Hertzberg supporters.

“So I just started calling them and said, ‘Do you know that your name is listed [for Hahn]?'” Bleich told The Journal. “‘Should I take you off our Web site?'”

It was after Bleich pointed out their names that six of those listed decided to send a letter of complaint to Hahn. The six were Weil, Rosenberg, Lebovics, Rabbi Avraham Weiner, Aaron Litenansky and Walter Feinblum.

Shortly thereafter, the Hahn campaign provided The Journal with the endorsement permission documents, including the forms for all six letter writers. The forms specifically gave the Hahn campaign permission to “Use my name on a list of Jewish community leaders for Hahn.”

Could the entire imbroglio somehow be a tactic of Hahn’s opponents? If so, their timing was poor. The issue was not called to the attention of Journal editors until it was too late to publish a pre-election story. Moreover, Kuwata said he knows Klein provided the forms, and numerous people have vouched for Klein’s status as a true-blue friend of the mayor.

For what it’s worth, Bleich also knew Klein personally and joined the chorus of commendations. “He was a wonderful, wonderful human being,” Bleich said.

Endorsement-Gate, to coin a term, didn’t come to light in time to hurt Hahn or help Hertzberg, but it’s just one more ethics-related issue that the Hahn campaign has to explain to voters — in this case Jewish voters. His administration is under investigation for pay-to-play allegations linking political contributions to city contracts. And there’s the over-billing by public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard for city-related events that could be viewed as promoting Hahn’s political interests on the city’s dime. And just last week came new allegations related to Kuwata, Hahn’s veteran political adviser. Critics accuse him of improperly failing to register as a lobbyist and also question whether Kuwata’s city contract was handled properly. Kuwata and the Hahn administration deny any wrongdoing.

But a series of ethics-related issues could add up to an ethics problem in the minds of voters, and ethics matter to the city’s high-propensity Jewish voters.


Charities Seek Ties to MTV Generation


Jewish charities, already having a hard time because of intermarriage, assimilation and growing competition from non-Jewish nonprofits, face what could be their biggest challenge yet: finding a way to appeal to legions of young Jews who stand to inherit billions over the next 20 years, but whose Jewish identities are generally weaker than that of their parents.

If Jewish federations and agencies fail to forge a close relationship with this highly independent generation of Jews, Jewish charities, experts say, might struggle greatly in years to come. That could mean less money to combat Jewish poverty, bury indigent Jews or provide food and shelter for the elderly and infirm at Jewish nursing homes.

To prevent that nightmare scenario from materializing, federations and Jewish institutions around the country have taken aggressive steps to reach the elusive under-45 set. Whether those efforts can succeed remains to be seen.

Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) earlier this year inaugurated a program that brought together Los Angeles teenagers and schooled them in principles of Jewish philanthropy.

Over two months, eight girls and six boys — all nominated by affluent JCF donors, including family members — learned about the Jewish concepts of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and g’milut chasadim (acts of lovingkindness). They gained exposure to several local Jewish and non-Jewish charities, including the Anti-Defamation League, the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Puente Learning Center in East Los Angeles, which offers computer and literacy programs for the Latino community.

The young students, after making on-site visits and presenting their findings to one another, then voted on how to divvy up the $10,000 the foundation had given them to donate to their favorite causes. So how did the young Jewish philanthropists-in-training decide to spend the money?

Two non-Jewish organizations, the Los Angeles Free Clinic and PATH (People Assisting the Homeless), topped their list. At the behest of JCF executives, group members later added Vista Del Mar Child and Family Care Services, a Jewish organization.

“I thought it was a little ironic that we were doing this for the Jewish Community Foundation and we picked two non-Jewish organizations,” said Scott Cutrow, a 15-year-old 10th-grader at Crossroads who participated in and said he benefited from the JCF youth program. “I don’t think that was the ultimate goal of the people who set it up.”

Ironic? Yes. Surprising? No.

Unlike past generations, young Jews consider themselves “much more American than Jewish,” said Gerald Bubis, a former board member at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and founding director of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Jewish Communal Service. Whereas Jews 50 years ago gave largely to Jewish organizations, especially federations, younger Jews are now just as likely to give to such universal causes as the environment, universities or the arts, he said.

Jewish affairs expert Gary Tobin said he found that development unsurprising. The president of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research in San Francisco said that only about one-quarter of American Jews belong to synagogues, with lower participation rates among the young.

The MTV Generation largely stays away from temples and other Jewish institutions, Tobin said, because many of those organizations lack warmth, a sense of community and a welcoming spirit. As a result, young Jews are failing to build the communal bonds that could one day lead them to contribute their inherited or earned wealth to Jewish causes.

“A lot of Jewish institutional life is not very interesting,” Tobin said. “If it’s a turnoff for a 70-year-old and for a 50-year-old, it sure as hell isn’t going to turn on a 25-year-old.”

Another turnoff is the heavy-handed approach Jewish institutions sometimes take toward young and other donors, said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network in New York. Some federations and other Jewish organizations, he said, have an arrogant, expectant attitude and treat donors like money machines who deserve little gratitude or explanation about how their gifts will be spent.

That approach might have worked in the past but not with young donors, who demand a more personalized approach to giving, Charendoff said. Simply put: They want direct control over how their dollars are spent and are willing to bypass federations altogether to ensure that happens.

To that end, an enormous network of family foundations have sprung up over the past seven years, from about 2,500 to 8,000 today, he said. Those foundations fund a variety of causes, ranging from AIDS research to the environment, and have siphoned money away from federations and other traditional Jewish charities, Charendoff said.

The United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization for the nation’s federations, has seen donations stagnate in recent years. In 2003, volunteers raised $827.5 million, about $500,000 less than in 2000.

Partly to reverse that trend, federations around the country have made building bridges to young Jews a major priority.

“We have an absolute obligation to reach down to that younger generation to make sure they’re not only involved but engaged and excited in ways that will encourage them to lead the community,” said Gail Hyman, UJC senior vice president of communications.

In that vein, about 40 federations have created “Blue Knot” affinity groups over the past couple years that cater to mostly young, high-tech workers, she said. The Las Vegas Federation recently held a Vodka Latka Chanukah celebration that attracted 200 hip revelers.

(Interestingly, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, the sponsor of the original Vodka Latka, has stopped holding the party, even though the most recent one in 2002 attracted about 1,000 young Jews. Craig Prizant, the Los Angeles Federation’s executive vice president of resource development, said Vodka Latka demanded too much staff time and was too big to expose revelers to The Federation’s important work.)

The Los Angeles Federation, which eliminated its money-losing young leadership initiative a couple years ago, has replaced it with a Young Leadership Division that combines Jewish education and fun. At monthly meetings, young Jews attend movie screenings, meet for java at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf or gather for Shabbat dinners, where, in addition to socializing, they learn about The Federation and Jewish values, Prizant said. He estimated that the revamped leadership program has added an extra $750,000 to The Federation’s coffers.

In recent years, the organization also helped create the Los Angeles Venture Philanthropy Fund (LA-JVPF), a self-funded group of youngish entrepreneurs and professionals that has raised and awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars to nonprofits that benefit Jews. Several LA-JVPF participants have become first-time Federation donors.

Other local Jewish agencies have begun emphasizing the need to recruit young Jews.

In October, the Jewish Free Loan Association (JFLA) created a 14-member young professionals advisory group to raise awareness about the organization’s mission and to develop the next generation of leaders and donors, said Danielle Walsmith, JFLA’s director of communications. At present, most JFLA donors are 55 or older, she added.

The Zimmer Children’s Museum has recently reconfigured its board to include more young members, executive director Esther Netter said, adding that she thought Jewish institutions should make an effort to educate very young Jews about the importance of giving to Jewish causes.

That appears to be happening, said Ann Cohen, a business consultant who has worked with UJC and other Jewish organizations. The rise in attendance at Jewish day schools over the past decade should inculcate those youngsters with Jewish values and an understanding of tzedakah (charitable giving), she said. That could translate into more money flowing to Jewish institutions in the future.

JCF’s Marvin Schotland said he remains optimistic about his and other Jewish organizations abilities to eventually win over younger Jews (see page 13). Even though the group of students participating in the Foundation’s pilot program favored non-Jewish charities over Jewish ones, Schotland said time is on JCF’s side.

“We’re building a relationship with them,” he said. “Fifteen or 20 years from now, some of them are going to be back here, and we’ll have credibility with them. We’ll also have some idea what [causes] they’re interested in and be able to bring them something in the Jewish community consistent with their interests.”

“We have a very long view,” Schotland added.

Q & A With Marvin Schotland

by Marc Ballon, Senior Writer

The Jewish Community Foundation turns 50 this year. Under the direction of Marvin Schotland, president and chief executive officer, the charitable gift-planning and grant-making organization has grown into the 10th-largest Los Angeles foundation, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. During Schotland’s 15-year tenure, the foundation’s assets under management have mushroomed to nearly $500 million from $90 million.

Since 1989, the foundation and its donors have allocated more than $420 million to a host of local Jewish organizations, including the Jewish Community Centers, Zimmer Children’s Museum and the Koreh L.A. literacy program.

Jewish Journal: How did you boost the foundation’s assets by so much?

Marvin Schotland: I think growth is a result of greater awareness of the role the foundation plays in the community. Uniformly, the foundation is seen as outstanding professionally, and that has given our donors an increased confidence level in us.

Second, there’s been a diversification of membership on the board of trustees. Its more representative of the Jewish community, both in terms of its male/female makeup and the religious, political and age groups. Our board members help disparate parts of the community better understand our charitable gift-planning role and our grant-making process.

JJ: With so many Jewish family foundations sprouting up, why should a philanthropist give to the foundation instead of creating his or her own?

MS: If you have $500 million, is it in your best interest to establish a fund with us? Probably not. You can hire your own staff to help you make decisions. But if you have $100,000 to $50 million, I think we can help you out. We know the community intimately and have the broad and deep professional expertise to strategically and effectively guide philanthropists in planning their charitable giving.

JJ: What percentage of your assets do you distribute annually? Some in the community have complained that the foundation could be more generous.

MS: The foundation has adopted a 5 percent spending rate for its permanent endowment funds that support the community. That allows us to continue growing our permanent funds without risking the capital that’s been entrusted to us by the community. If we had a much higher payout rate, we’d have to invest our money in much riskier securities, which we don’t want to do. That’s a conservative philosophy, but we’re an organization that takes a long view, which I think is prudent.

JJ: Why hasn’t the foundation given more to the Jewish Community Centers (JCC)? Given your assets, the foundation could easily afford to save the foundering centers.

MS: We have given to JCCs over the years in many different ways. When they were viable and healthy, we funded all sorts of programs [including] an early childhood education and family center in the early ’90s in the [now shuttered] Conejo Valley. We’ve always been a funder of programmatic initiatives of the JCC and, in certain cases, capital initiatives, like the $2 million we gave to the [Bernard] Milken Jewish Community Campus, which houses the New JCC at Milken.

But when the centers began imploding, we didn’t have enough resources to bail them out. The reality of it was that, as we understood the situation from all the information we had, the issues were not only economic issues but issues of management and broad-based community support. We very quietly talked to donors who had funds with us, and they weren’t interested, because they didn’t think the JCC problems were purely economic. Our dollars will be better served being spent on new programmatic initiatives and on those centers that survive, once the dust settles.

JJ: What are you most proud of during your tenure?

MS: I think we’ve been a wonderful agent for seeding new and emerging projects in the community.

For instance, our early support of Beit T’Shuvah, an agency that helps Jewish individuals with addictions, helped it get off the ground in 1987. Today, it has grown into a successful, independent agency that serves more than 2,500 people a year

The Zimmer Children’s Museum was established in 1992, thanks to seed funding from the foundation. We were also a seeding agent for Koreh L.A., which got its start in 1999 from a modest grant from us and has gone on to be a very, successful literacy program.

We provided substantial seed money to create the College Campus Initiative, a multiyear initiative begun in 2000 to engage local college students more actively in Jewish life. I’m also proud about the establishment of our Family Foundation Center in 2001, which helps donors and funders engage in their philanthropy in a more effective way.

JJ: How much longer do you plan to remain on the job?

MS: I’m hoping to be here until I retire. I’m 58 and not interested in retiring any time soon. I love what I do.

For more information about the Jewish Community Foundation, call (323) 761-8700 or visit

Support Still Lags for Special Needs

What happens to a Jewish child who can’t sit still for religious classes because of severe attention-deficit disorder? Or one who doesn’t understand the meaning of the holidays because she has Down syndrome? What happens when your autistic son is nearing the age of 12 and hasn’t received the kind of Jewish education that will allow him to celebrate his bar mitzvah along with his peers?

While a handful of new initiatives are carving out a place for special-needs children in L.A. Jewish educational settings, families of these children have long felt excluded when it comes to participating in such basic functions as Shabbat services and Hebrew school.

Although there are no formal studies conducted as yet, it is clear that the number of Jewish families with special-needs children is growing, just as the number of cases grow nationwide (for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in every 167 children will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, up from one in 500 in 1998). That means the problem of special education for Jewish children is becoming more complex every year.

The Bureau of Jewish Education of Greater Los Angeles (BJE) has had a special-education unit since the 1970s, yet no formal network of support for special education exists in Los Angeles-area Jewish religious schools. Most non-Orthodox day schools in Los Angeles that have been approached about beginning a special-education track have declined, says one educator who has petitioned them for such a venue.

Even the associate director of the BJE expressed his dissatisfaction with the pace of progress in this area, saying it is time for the bureau to be more systematic in helping the special-needs community.

“We are the first ones to admit that special-needs programs coming through the bureau are very limited,” Phil Liff-Grieff said. “There is always a tug of war between needs and resources.”

The BJE recently created a new task force to examine what role it should have in fostering special education among religious schools. Liff-Grieff said the task force will perform a “careful survey of the client population,” look at existing programs outside the L.A. area, and then decide from there how it should proceed.

“Special education is very costly work; to do it right and to do it well requires a lot of resources,” he said.

Liff-Grieff added that in the Orthodox community, education programs are generally perceived as more inclusive of special-needs children, noting that “day school education in the Orthodox community is not a luxury, it’s a necessity,” he said.

A few Los Angeles-area synagogues are working to support inclusion, or to provide alternative programming. One of the newest programs is Koleinu at Pressman Academy, overseen by Temple Beth Am of Los Angeles and made possible by a BJE grant. The Koleinu program began in October with a minyan for special-needs children and meets several times a month (see sidebar).

Koleinu uses a “buddy program” whereby each disabled child is partnered with a more typical child who sings with them, helps them keep track of the service and makes the service more fun, according to Susan Leider, religious school principal and director of Shabbat programming for Beth Am. “The idea is typical kids entering into their environment, versus the special-needs kids having to come into a typical environment,” Leider said.

Pressman is also ready to launch a religious school program for second grade through fourth grade if they can enroll enough pupils. The religious school program will mirror the curriculum of the regular school program for that age group, with units on the synagogue, Jewish holidays and the book of Genesis.

Elana Naftalin-Kelman is one of the Pressman Academy religious school instructors leading the Koleinu program.

“I love to see these children start to enjoy being Jewish, to have a positive prayer experience and a positive Shabbat experience,” she said. “I don’t think they are beyond understanding the concept of God with the right conversation and the right questions.”

She said her ultimate goal is to persuade non-Orthodox day schools — which she says have largely ignored children with special needs — to begin a special education track.

“I’ve spoken to almost all the non-Orthodox principals in the Los Angeles area, and most of them think creating programs for children with special needs in their schools would [negatively] affect the school’s reputation,” she said. “Most schools have resources to provide extra help for typical kids who need it, but nothing more; others say they do not have the space.”

Some parents, tired of waiting for the general community to respond, have started their own programs and support networks. Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer teaches at the University of Judaism and is the mother of three children. Her middle son was diagnosed with autism in 2000, when he was 4.

“Shortly after we received Ezra’s diagnosis, I was talking to a friend who also had a child with issues,” she recalled. “We were discussing the multitude of therapies and interventions we had for our children, and we realized something was missing. My friend suggested that that something was Torah and said to me, ‘What are you going to do about that, rabbi?’ So I pulled together a circle of friends, all of whom had children with special needs.”

Ozreinu, a cross-denominational and multidiagnosis support group that meets in people’s homes, has since evolved into three support groups — one in the city and two in the San Fernando Valley. The groups meet once a month to study Torah and discuss what they learn from the text and how it can help them meet the spiritual challenges of raising a child with disabilities.

Fields-Meyer said that, like Naftalin-Kelman, she would like to see more schools embrace children with special needs. Her two other children attend Pressman, but Ezra goes to public school.

Community leaders agree that changing the scope of Jewish education to include children with special needs means putting various support structures in place, such as training programs to help teachers and principals learn to work with special-needs children and a fund to provide financial support.

“We are, as a Jewish education system, far from where we would like to be,” Liff-Grieff said. “But the leadership of this agency is ready to roll up their sleeves and say to the community, ‘Let’s tackle this problem.'”

The following is a sample of the programs available in the Los Angeles area for families of school-age children with special needs. Most are open to the public (i.e., synagogue membership is not required):

Synagogue Programs


• Temple Aliyah’s Otzar program is a self-contained class for children in second through fourth grade who need a small-group setting. Students are included in all religious school activities including music, art, prayer and special events. 6025 Valley Circle Blvd., Woodland Hills. For information, call Pam Rooks at (818) 346-3545.


• Temple Beth Am’s Koleinu program includes a twice-monthly minyan for special-needs children in third through sixth grade and up, plus a religious school program for second- through fourth-graders. 1039 S. La Cienaga Blvd., Los Angeles. For information, call Susan Leider at (310) 652-7354, ext. 268.


• Valley Beth Shalom has long been at the forefront of special education for Jewish children. The synagogue has several programs to serve the special-needs community from school-age children to adults. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For more information, call Neal Schnall at (818) 788-3584.

Support Programs


• Ozreinu is a parent support and learning network that holds monthly meetings in three locations (one in Los Angeles and two in the San Fernando Valley). For information on upcoming meeting times and locations, contact Rabbi Shawn Fields-Meyer at


• The Support Program for Families with Special-Needs Children is a collaborative program of Jewish Family Service and Sinai Temple in Westwood. The group meets on the first and third Wednesdays of the month, from 7:30-9 p.m., at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P.s are mandatory, in order to place your name on the parking list. For information and reservations, call (323) 761-8800.


• The Friendship Circle, operating under the auspices of Chabad of the Conejo, pairs special-needs children with West Valley and Conejo Valley teenagers to help foster social skills. The Friendship Circle also provides support opportunities for mothers and siblings of children with various developmental and learning differences. For information, call Devorah Rodal or Chanie Malamud at (818) 991-0991.


• In addition to its many other programs for special-needs children, the Etta Israel Center also runs a support group for Iranian Jewish families. For information, call (323) 965-8711 or visit

Would you like to be included in future resource listings? Please send information to Julie Fax, education editor, at

Letters to the Editor

Election 2004

Jewish supporters of President Bush urged that he was more realistically and personally committed to Israel’s security than Sen. Kerry (“Four More Years,” Nov. 5; “Judgment Day,” Oct. 29). This message was set forth in The Jewish Journal by the likes of Ed Koch, Sen. Norm Coleman and Howard Winkler, among others. I suggest that the opportunity presented by Arafat’s demise will be the true test of this thesis.

If the Bush administration pursues a role in supporting the development of a responsible Palestinian leadership, and providing security and other incentives for Israel to relinquish the West Bank in preparation for Palestinian statehood, then Bush supporters will be vindicated. If, on the other hand, the administration continues its four-year-old policy of idle disengagement and squanders this opportunity, then Bush supporters will have been proven wrong.

So far, the silence is deafening.

Mark D. Licker

As you have heard by now, the exit polls on Tuesday proved to be wrong.

This is why I am convinced that many Jewish voters who traditionally vote Democrat voted Republican last week but did not want to admit it at the exit polls.

I know that around me, many people who are Democrats voted for Bush because they thought he was the best man to fight terrorism and not Kerry, who did not even vote for the first Gulf War. With Kerry, they thought we might have another Munich, which cost us 6 million Jewish people – including all of my father’s family. We survived because we were lucky enough to be smuggled into Switzerland in 1943 – because of the weakness of the “leaders.”

Jacques Kukurudz
Los Angeles

Gay marriage doesn’t matter if you are dead. Islamists kill gays. Bush doesn’t.

Bush wins and Arafat is all but dead. What a great week!

Nathan D. Wirtschafter

Many Jews who voted for Bush knew – or were in denial – that this is a failed presidency in every aspect of governance (“Four More Years,” Nov. 5).

They cannot cite one concrete step toward peace in the Middle East by this administration. Nevertheless, with their votes they placed Israel above the interests of America; four more years that will be worse than the first four for Americans and American interests.

One might call these deniers hypocrites. I call them traitors.

Bert Eifer
Woodland Hills

Three points in response to Rob Eshman’s editorial (“Continental Divide,” Oct. 29) about the Jewish vote forums, several of which I attended.

First, Eshman is correct that the community is politically divided. Exit polls will vary, but it’s clearly a new day for American Jewry.

Not just Russian, Iranian, and Israeli immigrants are migrating to the Republicans; many pro-Israel activists, moderate business people, “security” moms and traditionally centrist foreign policy Democrats now see the GOP as their home.

Second, the debates served a good purpose. At their best, they provided much more than talking points. The speakers gave expression to our instincts by informed and detailed evidence. The spirited discussions were far more entertaining and enlightening than another evening watching sitcoms, or even reading/watching self-admittedly biased news media.

Third, I must compliment the Republican Jewish Coalitions Larry Greenfield, in particular. I attended several of the debates in which he thoroughly outclassed his opponents. He calmly presented facts and thoughtful conversation that educated far more than some seasoned liberal politicians, who were not his match in debating about Israel, foreign policy or domestic affairs.

I appreciate that the Jewish community will remain politically involved – in both parties. Greenfield gave me hope that there is another generation of top-notch American Jews who can lead us with care and sophistication.

Dulce Hoffman
Los Angeles

I read the article “Why Kerry Lost” (Nov. 5) and had an immediate response. Kerry lost because the Democratic Party is lost. They lost their focus, their values, their ideals, their principles and they lost me, a lifelong Democrat. They lost me while bashing every Republican as a moron at dinner parties, they lost me at fundraisers for my kids’ school and having a principal get up and make rude remarks about Bush. They lost me when they ripped my Bush/Cheney sign off my lawn, and when they tore the sticker off my car. They lost me when they used Michael Moore, Ben Affleck and Susan Sarandon to promote their agenda. They lost me when Bruce Springsteen, Cher and Eminem told my children how to vote, without really telling the truth. They lost me with campaigns like, and Vote or Die and pushed an agenda – not the beauty of a true democratic election. They lost me when I saw they lost all the values, decency, manners and simple things like being civil to the opposition and open to other ideas.

When they find their way back to the type of Democrats I voted for, campaigned for and respected, only then, will they gain my vote back. Until then, I am a Republican.

Allyson Rowen Taylor
Valley Glen

In response to Bill Boyarsky, I am gay and Jewish (“Patriot Paranoia,” Nov. 5). I voted for President Bush. Gay marriage doesn’t matter if you are dead. Islamists kill gays. Bush doesn’t. In fact, Bush has not been anywhere near the homophobe he is accused of being. After the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrence vs. Texas, eloquently ruling that the outlawing by any state of gay sex between consenting adults unconstitutional, the press chased Bush through the Rose Garden for a “suitable” inflammatory quote – trying to bait him with comments such as the ruling upsetting the president’s right-wing religious base. To the disappointment of the left, the president replied with a paraphrase of Jesus from the Christian Bible that “one shouldn’t complain about the splinter in the other person’s eye when you have a log in your own….” He doesn’t get credit for that, does he?

They do not want a solution. They want “revenge.”

As for Muslims supposedly having any reason to worry in this country, I think the fact that half of those in Great Britain, when polled, said they would fight for bin Laden against Great Britain, is cause for concern here, including the fact that they have been raising money hand over fist for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, etc. Islam is a global threat. Period. Your whining on behalf of Muslims is nonsense. I have met too many of them in this country that wish Israel’s destruction and whose motives otherwise are too inscrutable for comfort.

If you should be “concerned” about anything, it is the growing anti-Jewish/anti-Israel violence on the campuses; that this violence is not being condemned or countered by the campus administrations; or the growing anti-Israelism within the Democratic Party (and why I am no longer a Democrat); and the galloping “pacifism” (except for Arabs killing Jews), socialism and lawyerism of the Democrats.

Mr. Boyarsky, I do not know what America you perceive and I feel no threat from the Patriot Act but I do from the left and its alliance with “radical” Islam. If you follow true-to-form, I will be accused of “racism,” I suppose. Before you do, I would inform you that during my first visit to Israel in 1992, my driver and I were attacked and nearly killed as they tried to put our car over a cliff. Racism or experience?

Jarrow L. Rogovin
Los Angeles

The series of articles appearing in the latest issues of The Jewish Journal left the uneasy impression that our community has become permanently divided, and perhaps even filled with outright hostility, over the issue of the elections.

A few months ago, for the first time in my 25 years as a community activist, I stepped down from my nonpartisan positions in the Iranian American Jewish Federation to take up a partisan position by joining the Bush campaign. I did that out of the conviction that the single most important challenge facing us as free people, in the next few decades, is the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, and the deep belief that the policies followed by the president are the right ones.

Many of my community colleagues on the Democratic side undertook to do the same in the Kerry campaign, a fact for which they will always have my personal respect. Standing up for what you believe in is not just the essence of democracy it is indeed a requisite of community activism.

I believe that come now most of us will hang our partisan hats and go back to wearing the hat most dear to us, namely the one of community activist. We’ll go back to our Jewish community and work shoulder to shoulder, with the utmost in respect and sincerity, regardless of whom we’ve been supporting in the election, or what the outcome was, and do our best to build an even better community.

Once the campaigns are over they are over. What will remain is our Jewish community with its many challenges. This is a fact that I believe is well understood by all community activists. This is why they do what they do to begin with, and this is what will bring the whole community back around the same table like the shevet achim that we truly are.

Sam Kermanian
Former Secretary General
Iranian American Jewish Federation
Co-Vice Chair
Bush-Cheney ’04 California.

Dear Editor,

This is in response to recent coverage of the lawsuit concerning a portion of a quotation from a speech by Theodore Roosevelt to the Young Mens’ Christian Association that is inscribed on the wall of a courtroom of the Riverside County Courthouse. (“Lawyer Battling ADL on Christian Quote at Courthouse,” Jewish Journal, October 15) The lawsuit was brought against the Presiding Judge of the Riverside County Court, theCounty of Riverside and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to prevent the removal of the courtroom inscription. The quote is: “The true Christian is the true citizen.” It is carved into the lintel on the courtroom wall facing the judge, witness stand and jury box.

Although there was no basis for including ADL as a defendant in the lawsuit, we felt that while it was pending it was inappropriate to respond to questions on this issue. The lawsuit has now been dismissed and we believe the community should be aware of ADL’s involvement on this matter.

In July, we received a complaint from a member of the community about the quote. We wrote to Riverside County Superior Court officials requesting a meeting to discuss the issue. On September 1, ADL representatives met with Court officials. We discussed a number of ways to protect our nation’s tradition of separation of church and state without marring the beauty of the historic courthouse, including creating a removable cover or having an educational placard in or near the courtroom.

In our letter and at the meeting, we made it clear that ADL has a deep and lasting respect for the Christian faith – as we do for all faiths – and that we value the longstanding friendship between the Jewish and Christian communities. We do not view the separation of church and state as hostile to any one religion. To the contrary, it is a necessary pre-condition to freedom of religion. To that end, we were and remain troubled by the quotation and its location in a public courthouse. The quote, taken out of the context of the speech in which it was given, could be seen as an express endorsement of Christianity by the government. Non-Christian members of the community coming to the court might feel diminished in the eyes of the law. Indeed, the complaint we received expressed those very concerns.

At no time did ADL threaten litigation or file a lawsuit. Our approach toRiverside County officials was to find a mutually agreeable solution to protect our nation’s tradition of separation of church and state while maintaining the integrity of the historic building.

We remain resolute in our belief that only by maintaining the wall separating church and state can we guarantee the continued vitality of religion in American life and remain committed to pursuing the work necessary to accomplish our goals.

Amanda Susskind
Regional Director
Pacific Southwest Region
Anti-Defamation League

THE JEWISH JOURNAL welcomes letters from all readers. Letters should be no more than 200 words and must include a valid name, address and phone number. Letters sent via e-mail must not contain attachments. Pseudonyms and initials will not be used, but names will be withheld on request. We reserve the right to edit all letters. Mail: The Jewish Journal, Letters, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010; e-mail:; or fax: (213) 368-1684

Millions More for Shoah Museum

The fundraiser in Bel Air featured yellow rose centerpieces on every table. The DJ played big-band tunes, including Bing Crosby’s “San Fernando Valley.” A gay couple cooed over their infant and Ginna Carter, the 30ish daughter of “Designing Women” star Dixie Carter, traipsed through the party barefoot, wearing a white chapeau that gave the Sunday affair a touch of “The Great Gatsby.”

With well-polished Westsiders, relaxed politicians and dressed-down studio executives, anyone catching a glimpse of the event while driving on Beverly Glen would have been surprised to discover that it was a Holocaust museum fundraiser.

“I’m not part of this sort of chicken-dinner-at-a-hotel fundraising mentality,” said Rachel Jagoda, the 31-year-old director of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. “I am young and I do have new ideas.”

The event symbolized a small sea change in local Jewish philanthropy; older donors who built Holocaust museums are learning to work with a younger, less Jewishly oriented generation of donors — people in their 30s and early 40s who are respectful of history yet hip to modern issues.

Central to this generational change will be the Holocaust museum’s planned $5 million new building in the Fairfax District’s Pan Pacific Park. With groundbreaking planned for early 2005, the $5 million capital campaign started nine months ago, with most of that money now raised.

“We’re way over halfway there,” Jagoda said while giving a tour of the 43-year-old museum, which is currently set up on the ground floor of ORT Technical Institute’s building on Wilshire Boulevard. “This is rented space; it’s not a permanent building. It wasn’t meant to be.”

The plan for the glass-rich, semi-submerged museum was designed by architect Hagy Belzberg, who envisions it being built on a grassy hill west of the current Los Angeles Holocaust Memorial Monument. Visitors would enter the building from a downward-angled walkway into a 15,000-square-foot space dedicated to the entire 12 million victims of the Shoah. However, its walls will have 6 million stones to commemorate the Jewish victims.

Holocaust survivor and philanthropist Jona Goldrich, who championed the Holocaust Memorial in Pan Pacific Park, supports Jagoda’s vision. “In another 10 and 15 years, there won’t be any more Holocaust survivors left in the world,” he said.

One of her museum’s board members had a heart attack in October and another, also a survivor, was diagnosed with cancer. “They’re dying so quickly, I’m afraid to answer the telephone,” Jagoda said. “How do you teach the Holocaust in a world that doesn’t have survivors in it?”

The survivors’ ranks are thinning. But the extensive testimonials collected by Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation have taken the edge off the Jewish communal urgency to record every survivor’s account in the 1990s.

Nationwide, Holocaust museums are traditionally driven by survivors and their adult children, who feel obligated to keep the museums intensely Shoah-focused and emphasizing their parents’ unbelievable stories.

“It’s a big idea that they have down at Pan Pacific Park,” said John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which funds the museum. Fishel and Jagoda are in ongoing talks about the museum’s planned independence from The Federation.

Fishel said that for decades the survivors and their children wanted “to be fairly narrow cast” in defining what a Holocaust museum should be.

Museum of Tolerance dean Rabbi Marvin Hier said the Tolerance Museum always has focused on telling the Shoah story to non-Jewish audiences. “I’m happy to see that they [Pan Pacific museum promoters] want to follow in our footsteps,” he said. “We have 350,000 visitors a year; more than 80 percent of the visitors are non-Jews.”

Jagoda’s supporters believe the Pan Pacific building will be an L.A. architectural touchstone and evidence of a younger donor generation voicing support for future museum culture.

“As a gay couple, we embrace a museum that is promoting tolerance,” said Sony Executive Vice President Peter Iacono, whose life partner Manfred Kuhnert spent his undergraduate days at Harvard with Jagoda’s husband Ian. (Another Crimson alumnus backing the museum is actor John Lithgow, Jagoda’s father-in-law.)

Kuhnert and Iacono opened their home for the Bel Air fundraiser, co-hosted by Sony Pictures Chair Amy Pascal. “I’m Jewish,” Pascal told The Journal. “Given the mood of the world, I think the Holocaust is something we better not forget about.”

Key Congress Races Hold Great Import

Perhaps it makes sense that Allyson Schwartz’s campaign headquarters sits above a Russian Jewish market on a small strip mall — after all, Schwartz is considered to have the best chance of any candidate to join the Jewish caucus in Congress.

The Democratic Pennsylvania state senator is running to replace Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel who is trying to win a Senate seat. Schwartz has received support from Jewish Democratic donors but is in one of the most competitive open seats in the country, running against Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown in the state’s 13th District. The two have been attacking each other with negative advertising.

Brown accuses Schwartz of having “radical views,” such as opposing the death penalty in all cases and supporting tax increases. Schwartz countercharges that Brown committed insurance fraud with her husband, when they founded a doctor-owned HMO. The race also has focused on health care and the Iraq War.

A Keystone poll taken late last month had Schwartz leading Brown 45 percent to 32 percent.

Schwartz’s race is one of the few congressional contests the U.S. Jewish community is watching intently this year. While 2002 elections saw Jews support challengers to incumbents seen as anti-Israel, this year, the community is focused more on aiding vulnerable incumbents and picking sides in a number of open Senate races.

By and large, however, attention is focused more on the tight presidential race than on the battles for the House and Senate. Yet analysts say this year’s congressional races are vitally important.

Democrats have a chance to take control of the Senate, which could help funnel through a lot of social policy programs backed by Jewish groups that have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. The House is likely to stay Republican, but Democratic gains there also could help the Jewish social agenda, analysts say.

The majority party has the ability to introduce legislation and chair the committees that process and mark up bills.

There always is interest in increasing the number of Jews in the Capitol. Currently, there are 26 Jewish representatives, most of whom do not face serious challenges for re-election, and 11 Jewish senators, five of whom are up for re-election this year.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) do not face strong challenges this year. However, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are in tough races.

The most closely watched race in the Jewish community involves Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), the second-longest serving Jewish Democrat in the House, who is up against GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in a redrawn district that heavily favors Sessions.

Jewish Democrats from across the country have been aiding Frost. Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner, hosted a fundraiser for Frost in the Washington area that attracted more than 30 people at 7:30 on a weekday morning.

“He’s been a leader of a lot of good things, certainly everything the Jewish community could want,” Cohen said of Frost who declined to state how much money was raised.

The race has been tense, with both candidates accusing the other of stealing yard signs. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Frost trailing Sessions by 6 percentage points.

Jewish Democrats say the former minority whip holds influence in the chamber from his role on the House Democratic Steering Committee and as the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee. He also has been a vocal advocate for Israel.

The only Jewish House member not seeking re-election this year is Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also is Jewish, is seen as Deutsch’s likely successor in a heavily Democratic district.

David Ashe’s chances in Virginia have risen since GOP Rep. Ed Schrock got out of the race amid an Internet-based rumor campaign. Ashe, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq War who is Jewish, is up against Thelma Drake, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Democrats also are looking at two other challengers. Jan Schneider faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Harris beat Schneider in 2002. The other challenger, attorney Paul Hodes, is seeking to oust Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).

In the Senate, eyes are focused on Specter who seems likely to defeat Hoeffel to win his fifth term. Specter is leading in the polls by almost 20 points. He has focused his campaign on support for the Iraq War, as well as steel tariffs, an important issue in Pennsylvania. Hoeffel has countered by discussing the Republican-backed tax cuts and his record on the environment and abortion.

Specter was able to fend off a primary challenge from the right by GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, thanks largely to support from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But while he needed to project his conservative credentials during the primary, he now is moving back to the center to pick up undecided voters.

Many Jews in the state have crossed party lines to back Specter in the past, though Hoeffel is expected to get some Jewish support. But some female Jewish voters say they’re still angry at Specter, because of his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

The Jewish community also is watching the South Carolina race in which Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of education, is taking on GOP Rep. Jim DeMint for a seat now being held by a Democrat.

Tenenbaum’s husband is a pro-Israel activist on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In her campaign advertisements, however, she has stressed that her parents were church elders, and she has touted conservative issues, such as the constitutional amendment against gay marriages. Tenenbaum’s election would be considered a boon for the pro-Israel community, though some polls show her 10 points behind DeMint.

Not all races of interest to the Jewish community involve Jewish candidates: One of the most closely watched Senate contests this year involves a candidate who beat out a Jewish challenger in the primary. Betty Castor, a former Florida state education commissioner, won her Democratic primary despite being attacked by Deutsch, who suggested that Castor allowed an Islamic jihad ally to operate a front for the terrorist group at the University of South Florida when Castor was the school’s president.

Jewish Democrats now are trying to restore Castor’s image in the community as polls show a dead-even race. Castor has reached out to the AIPAC and other Jewish groups. Supporters say she expects to win a large portion of Florida’s Jewish vote.

A Democratic Senate staffer who follows Florida politics said many of the Jews backing Castor’s opponent, Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, also are supporting Bush.

The staffer went on to say that Castor would have been vulnerable on the Islamic jihad issue even if she hadn’t faced Deutsch’s accusations in the primary.

Jews also are watching Senate races in Oklahoma and Colorado. Democrats believe those states may be the best places to pick up Senate seats currently in Republican hands, and Israel activists from both sides of the aisle are looking for candidates that will support Israel.

In Oklahoma, pro-Israel activists have been supporting Democratic Rep. Brad Carson against physician Tom Coburn, a former congressman. The race is considered close, with recent polls divided as to who is ahead.

“We’ve helped him,” Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, said of Carson. “He has a good record.”

Some Jewish leaders are concerned about Coburn’s pro-life platform. Coburn also has been plagued by charges that he sterilized a woman without her consent and for recent comments suggesting lesbianism is rampant in state schools.

In Colorado, concerns about conservative positions from beer magnate and Republican candidate Pete Coors have led Jews to support Democratic candidate Ken Salazar, the state attorney general. The race has focused on national issues, such as the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. Polls show Salazar with a small lead.

Republican Jews have been focusing their attention on unseating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have been giving money to his challenger, former Rep. John Thune, in a tight race. Recent polls are divided as to who is ahead.

Daschle has been a strong proponent of Israel and Jewish domestic policy concerns. Thune also is considered strong on Israel. The race has focused primarily on Social Security and health care, as well as Daschle’s record opposing Republican initiatives in the Senate.

Republicans also are backing North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr who is running against former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for an open Senate seat. Polls show the race has tightened in recent weeks, with Bowles’ lead down to only one to two percentage points.

The race has focused on national security issues, with Burr accusing Bowles of being weak on terrorism, when he served in the Clinton administration. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has defended Bowles.

Republicans and pro-Israel activists have aided Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was appointed to the Senate two years ago by her father, when he became governor. Murkowski has developed a solid pro-Israel record, Amitay said, but she faces a strong challenge from Tony Knowles, a former governor, who is up 3 percentage points in the polls. The hot issue in the state is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some are also watching Wisconsin, where Feingold holds a solid lead over Republican challenger Tim Michels. But as a liberal lawmaker in a state that is growing more conservative — and which is considered a tossup in the presidential race — Feingold will have to work hard right up until election day, Jewish advocates say. The latest poll shows Feingold, the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, more than 20 points ahead of Michels.

There also is disappointment in the Jewish community that Rep. Cynthia McKinney almost certainly will return to Congress. McKinney was unseated by Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) in 2002, with the American Jewish community heavily backing Majette, because of McKinney’s strong anti-Israel positions.

Majette shocked many earlier this year, giving up her House position to run for an open Senate seat that many assume will go Republican next month.

McKinney won a primary for her old seat and does not face a strong challenge in the predominantly Democratic district. Yet, Jewish leaders suggest McKinney may curtail her anti-Israel rhetoric if she returns to the Capitol in January, a hope shared by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“Frankly I have not had any discussions with Cynthia for some period of time, so I don’t know whether she has modified her views,” Hoyer said last month. “But they are not shared by anybody I know of that is in the Democratic Caucus today.”

Final Phase

There are three phases to every election, Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa recently told me: there’s the primary, there’s the runoff and then there’s the home stretch. Those last few weeks, he said, is when things really get tough. Villaraigosa lost the 2000 mayor’s race in a bruising down-to-the-wire battle against Mayor James Hahn. This year he’s not only a candidate for mayor once again, he is a local chair of the Kerry for President campaign.

“The end,” he said, no doubt dredging up some nasty memories, “that’s a whole other race.”

Now the presidential race is in that last phase, and if you thought Campaign 2004 has been contentious and divisive up until now, just wait. The candidates will have their line up of sedate, Dr. Jekyll-like debates while their campaigns engage in Mr. Hyde-like accusations and distortions. This close to the finish line, passions are running as high as the stakes. The same holds true among the Jews. Various synagogues and organizations are sponsoring their own pre-election debates beginning this week. I’m moderating a few of these, and I’m not expecting to encounter a lot of moderation.

Because the issues on the table in this election cleave so close to longstanding concerns in the Jewish community — Middle East policy, terror, medical research, church-state issues — supporters of both candidates have ratcheted up their activism and their rhetoric.

Jewish supporters of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry understand that while Jews make up just 2 percent of the American population, they can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election.

One reason is that we vote. As our columnist Raphael Sonenshein has pointed out, with 6 percent of the Los Angeles city population, Jews cast 18 percent of the vote in mayoral elections. With 3 percent of California’s population, Jews represent an estimated 5 percent of the state’s registered voters.

In a close race, the Jewish population of swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania might provide some crucial ballots to the contenders.

We also give. According to J.J. Goldberg, author of “Jewish Power” and editor of The Forward (and a speaker at one of the upcoming debates here), “Jews are one of the largest sources of Democratic financing, donating or raising as much as half of the party’s presidential campaign funds.”

As Republicans have made significant gains in Jewish support, they have also garnered increased contributions.

Both parties recognize the value of Jewish voters, and their Jewish partisans are working hard within the community to advance their candidate.

I had a taste of both sides’ crusading spirit this past week. Monday evening, I met with about 30 young professionals, members of a Valley Beth Shalom havurah, at a home in the Encino hills. We discussed the election. The conversation stayed entirely civil until I took a vote. It was 25 hands for Kerry, 5 hands for Bush. The partisan claims and accusations began to fly. Although the argument hardly reached the level of Dick Cheney-John Edwards, I got the sense the right verbal match could have lit quite a fire. And this was a havurah — a word that shares the Hebrew root for friend. We are, ostensibly, all friends, but one looming, consistent issue we face is not whom we argue about, but how we argue.

Argument is built in to our culture.

“It’s not just the Bible that makes the Jews special,” David Suissa said at a fundraising banquet for Israeli democracy Sunday night, “it’s the 600 years of argument that followed our receiving it.”

That argument strengthened our understanding and our faith, and political argument, done properly, can have the same effect.

In an essay for CLAL, philosopher Michael Gottsegen articulated a way we can vent our sharp disagreements without losing sight of the values that guide our convictions.

“What are the central principles that rightly inform a Jewish political sensibility,” he wrote, “and how do we translate them into the idiom of the American public space to constitute a politics that is at once authentically Jewish and American?”

Gottsegen identified four, and I’ll oversimplify them here: respect that is due the human being, derived from the notion that each human is created b’tzelem elochim, in the divine image; respect for the entire realm of creation because it is the work of God, or ma’aseh bereshit; the principle of brit, or covenant, which elevates the idea that human society is based on reciprocity and mutuality; and the principle of rachamim, or mercy, “which lays upon individual and society the obligation to care for the weak and vulnerable.” Click here to read “A Jewish Contribution to American Politics” by Michael Gottsege

How these translate into policy and political conviction depends on how you balance these values against one another. Jews of good faith and sincere convictions can come to different conclusions. If we lose sight of that fact, we lose sight of one another, and then we, as a people, will truly be lost.

You can join the debate at the following venues: Temple Ner Maarav in Encino, Oct 9, 8 p.m.; Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Oct. 15, 8:15 p.m.; Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, Oct. 17, 4 p.m.; University of Judaism in Bel Air, Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.; Sinai Temple in Westwood, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m.; Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Oct. 21, 7 p.m.; Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Oct. 25, 6:45 p.m.; and Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, Oct. 31, 9:15 a.m. Complete listings at

Should Jews Oppose Evangelical Help?

In Israel this week, televangelist Pat Robertson inveighed against giving territory to the Palestinians, claiming that the goal of Islam is to “destroy Israel and take the land from the Jews and give East Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat. I see that as Satan’s plan to prevent the return of Jesus Christ the Lord.”

It would be hard to find a more revealing expression of why most Jews continue to feel uneasy about the evangelicals who have become Israel’s new, best friends.

However, Robertson’s comments also came in a week that saw mainline Protestant groups, for years skewed in their view of the Middle East, move toward a policy of divestment against Israel. That harsh economic penalty is intended to brand Israel as one of the worst human rights abusers in the world.

The Jewish community is caught between Christians who love Israel, but maybe for the wrong reasons, and who vehemently oppose almost every domestic position of the Jewish majority, and Christians who continue to be important partners on the domestic front, while embracing a particularly virulent anti-Zionism.

Balancing those conflicting relationships will be one of the most daunting challenges facing Jewish leaders in the years to come.

Robertson was in Israel for a gathering of Christian pilgrims to express solidarity with the Jewish state — and, in some cases, to register their opposition to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Gaza disengagement. According to wire service reports, Robertson said that “only God” can decide whether Israel should cede land to the Palestinians.

Still, it was a veritable love fest as more than 4,000 Christians celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles and heard Robertson and others preach on the biblical imperative to support Israel. They were greeted enthusiastically by Israeli officials.

However, poll after poll suggests U.S. Jews aren’t much impressed. Instead, a Jewish majority continues to see the pro-Israel evangelicals as adversaries on the domestic front and as a source of anti-Semitism.

Their support for Israel has been welcomed by single-issue pro-Israel groups, but its prophetic basis remains a source of deep concern for many Jews. Some are justifiably scared that these Christians might wield their considerable political influence to help advance apocalyptic beliefs that insist war is inevitable and peace efforts are a trick of the devil. That’s what Robertson seemed to suggest when he said that taking land from the Jews and giving it the Palestinians was “Satan’s plan.”

It’s a reason many of the evangelicals bitterly opposed the Oslo peace process, and why some will oppose any peace process that could throw a monkey wrench in their end-of-days prophecies of an Israel consumed by warfare until the Second Coming.

On the domestic front, these groups and the mainstream Jewish community are on opposite sides on almost every big issue: abortion rights, civil rights, homosexual rights, public funding for religious schools and institutions, social justice, stem cell research and gun control, to name but a few. More to the point, many Jews, probably a majority, see some of the key domestic positions of the religious right as direct threats to Jewish security in this country.

On the other side of the Christian divide are the mainline Protestants who are vital coalition partners for the Jewish community on all of those domestic issues, but who are increasingly harsh critics of Israel and seem utterly deaf to the pleas of their Jewish friends, blind to the reality of Palestinian terror.

They are full of compassion for the Palestinians but refuse to acknowledge how leaders like Arafat have compounded their misery and pushed the goal of Palestinian statehood out of reach. They commit the sin of distorted perspective; they seem to consider Israel’s security fence a far greater human rights abuse than mass killings in parts of Africa, deliberate starvation in North Korea or the wholesale deprivation of civil rights in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. How else to explain why Israel alone is singled out for harsh economic sanctions?

When the Presbyterians called for divestment early in the summer, some Jewish groups were quick to demand an end to Jewish-Presbyterian dialogue. The same call is likely to go out if the Episcopalians move down that path.

But we need some balance of our own.

Some of the Jewish leaders who blithely overlook the prophetic foundation of evangelical love for Israel now demand an end to dialogue with the mainline Protestant groups that still want peace, not Armageddon, in the Middle East, however unbalanced their political attacks on Israel.

More and more Jewish groups are welcoming the help of groups with which our community has absolutely nothing in common on the home front, while jeopardizing vital coalitions with groups like the Episcopalians and Presbyterians that affect our futures in this country. Those coalitions, Jewish leaders report, have been unraveling in the last few years, because of justifiable Jewish indignation about their bigoted Mideast positions.

That represents a double loss for the Jewish community. It means we won’t have the opportunity to change their distorted Mideast views through hard-hitting dialogue, and it means we are losing vital partners on a host of domestic issues that the Jewish community continues to regard as critical.

For a Jewish majority, the mainline Christians may be outrageously unfair on Israel — but they remain critical partners on the domestic front. The answer isn’t to pull out of coalitions but to redouble efforts to strengthen them, while more aggressively confronting the Christians on the destructive impact they are having in a part of the world they claim they are trying to help.

A Retreat to Comfort Converts

Rabbi Harold Schulweis tells a joke about a Jewish man who complains to his father after marrying a convert.

“What am I going to do with her? She wants to go the synagogue every week; she wants the house to be kosher. I didn’t sign up for this,” the man says.

His father replies, “I told you not to marry out of the faith.”

The joke underscores a number of concerns that face Jews-by-choice once they take the leap into Judaism. And while Jews-by-choice can be more inspired about Judaism than Jews-by-birth, they may be stigmatized by some members of the Jewish community who look upon their decision to convert as being a less-legitimate entry into the faith.

Issues like these make up the core of the Embracing Judaism Shabbaton, a learning and fellowship retreat for Jews-by-choice that will be held later this month at the University of Judaism. The Shabbaton, the first of its kind, represents a milestone in the outreach efforts toward converts — a way of showing that the Jewish community is both cognizant of their needs and ready to accommodate them. For Jews-by-choice, the Shabbaton is designed to help them embrace Judaism and to allow them to network with others who share the life-altering experience of choosing Judaism over another religion.

“There was a feeling that Jews do not proselytize, but that is historically false,” said Schulweis, senior rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom. “In the daily Amidah prayer we praise God for gerei tzedek [righteous converts], and throughout the Bible it is repeated 36 times that ‘you should love the stranger,’ and the same word, ger, is used for stranger that we now use for converts.”

Unlike Christianity, which has actively tried to encourage conversions, traditional Judaism has been wary of foisting its faith on others. According to halacha, or Jewish law, potential converts are meant to be discouraged three times before being accepted as worthy candidates for conversion. But once someone converts, he or she is not meant to be stigmatized by the community for not having been born Jewish.

Schulweis, who will be participating in the Shabbaton, thinks that the Jewish community needs to do more to make itself open to those who come from other religions to seek the faith, and that converts should be encouraged, not discouraged.

“I think we have not taken advantage of the unusual curiosity and interest in Judaism showed by engaged, mature people who have a theological and spiritual thirst for Judaism, but who never got the impression that they were cordially invited [into the faith],” he said. “I think that the term ‘Jews-by-choice’ came about as counter to the notion of ‘Chosen People,’ as a mark of choice over fate.”

But while traditional Judaism teaches that those who convert should be accepted into the community just like any other Jew, Rabbi Neal Weinberg, who runs the Introduction to Judaism course at the University of Judaism and organized the Shabbaton, thinks that integration might not be so easy for Jews-by-choice

“After people convert to Judaism we leave them dripping at the mikvah,” said Weinberg, referring to the final stage of the conversion process, when the convert immerses in a ritual bath.

“We expect them now to all of a sudden become part of the Jewish community, but it is all new and people don’t feel that comfortable,” he said. “The purpose of the Shabbaton is that it be a next step for people to be able to network together and talk to people who have chosen Judaism. We don’t want to remind them about their prior status [as non-Jews], but Jews-by-choice have needs that are not being met.”

Weinberg said he decided to organize the Shabbaton because he often receives phone calls around the High Holidays from people who have been through his program, asking him to recommend synagogues they can attend.

“I say, ‘What about your sponsoring synagogue?'” he said, referring to the fact that Jews-by-choice need a sponsoring synagogue when they convert. “People feel really excited when they convert, but because the Jewish partner wasn’t enthusiastic enough, sometimes they fall back.”

“I also just got a phone call from a guy whose wife took our program 10 years ago, and they moved out of town and got divorced,” Weinberg said. “She took the kids with her and enrolled them in a Christian school, and they will be raised as Christians. Had she developed a [stronger] Jewish identity [that wouldn’t have happened]. When you feel Jewish, there is nothing more that you want to be.”

Weinberg structured the Shabbaton to bolster the sense of faith and community for Jews-by-choice. It includes services that are run by Jews-by-choice success stories, such as Rabbi John Crites-Borak of Temple Ner Maarav; actress Lorna Lembeck, who is now studying to be a cantor; and actress Mare Winningham.

The Shabbaton will also have a number of workshops on issues pertaining to Jews-by-choice, such as: “Developing a Jewish Identity,” “Negotiating Observance With Your Jewish Partner” and “Being Single, Being Jewish — Finding Your Way in the Jewish Community.” In addition, there will be a panel discussion on diversity in the Jewish community.

All the workshops are meant to encourage integration into the Jewish community and to bridge the gap between the experience of growing up Jewish and taking it on later in life.

“One of the issues early on with me, was that I grew up thinking of myself as Italian,” said Gary Gentile, a business writer who converted to Judaism six years ago. “I had a problem thinking of myself as Jewish.”

“The first Yom Kippur service that I went to in New York. [My hosts] were all sitting around and talking at the meal before the fast, saying things like, ‘My parents said don’t eat so much salt,’ or ‘Drink a lot,’ so you can fast easier, and I had never celebrated these things before,” Gentile said. “I felt I didn’t belong.”

Gentile, 47, now considers himself a Jew, not a Jew-by-choice, but he still wants to attend the Shabbaton for the being single workshop and because it will be like a “high school reunion” for people who went through the Introduction to Judaism course with him.

Other converts have the challenge of getting their Jewish families as enthused as they are about their new faith. Lembeck, who converted to Judaism years after she married her Jewish husband, director Michael Lembeck, said that getting the family to start practicing Judaism is a slow, ongoing process.

“We start with lighting candles [on Friday night], then we might add the Motzi [the blessing over the bread] and then maybe Birkat ha’Mazon [grace after meals] — but that is over a period of years,” Lembeck said. “The big mistake of the convert is to come running into the house and expect everything to be changed presto.”

“My husband was raised in a wonderful Jewish family, but his family was very secular,” she said. “They had a strong Jewish identity, but they were not particularly religious.”

Lembeck said she had been drawn to Judaism her whole life, but she only seriously considered converting after her daughter asked her, “Am I Christmas or am I Chanukah? I need to know what I am.”

“That lead to a lot of conversations in our household,” Lembeck said. “I was drawn to having a Jewish household, but I didn’t know how to do it. When I started the [Introduction to Judaism] program, I didn’t know the AlefBet or how to do a candle blessing. Now I lead services in congregations.”

But some rabbis believe that a Shabbaton for converts might be interesting but redundant.

“My real feeling is if the proper job has been in the conversion process, then [Jews-by-choice] are inherently going to be the most active members of the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Rue, the head rabbi of the Bet Din of Los Angeles, an Orthodox religious court. “Most members of the Jewish community are not particularly active. But people who go through the conversion process — the men end up going to shul every day, the women go every Shabbos, and they are more active than then vast majority of the people in their communities. If the person doesn’t have a Jewish identity, then why are you converting them?”

Rue said that his court receives 1,500 conversion applications every year. Of those, he said, one-third of the applications come from Christians trying to infiltrate the Jewish community to convert other Jews, and another third come from people “that are crazy.” Of the remaining third, half drop out after an initial interview, where Rue explains the kind of commitment required to lead an Orthodox life.

“That cuts it down to 200 people, and then you get all sorts of reasons why things don’t work out,” Rue said. “So we [ended up with] 64 conversions out of 1,500 applicants [a year]. But I can say that after five years, at least 95 percent [of the people his court converted] are still observant.”

Rue also said that issues of household religious observance need to be negotiated before a couple marries.

“If you don’t deal with things before people convert, it only gets worse later,” he said. “When people aren’t on the same page religiously, or close to it, when they get married, the chances of them staying married are very low.”

However, other rabbis believe that the Shabbaton will fill a real need in the community.

“I wish that the Conservative movement would make this into a national policy and would encourage all synagogues to have a proactive, proselytizing outreach program,” Schulweis said.

Embracing Judaism, the Angel and Alan Schneider Family Shabbaton for Jews-by-choice, will take place Oct. 29-30 at the University of Judaism, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 440-1273.

The Shabbaton is open to Jews-by-choice from all denominations.

Love-Bombing of Jews Hitting Mark

U.S. Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania could hardly contain his delight as he addressed a packed ballroom at the Plaza Hotel while he was in New York for the Republican National Convention.

"Just know I love you!" the GOP senator, a Catholic, shouted to the largely Jewish crowd at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s (RJC) Salute to the Republican Congress.

After kvelling about how thrilled he was to have been introduced before Republican Sen. Arlen Specter — his Jewish colleague from the Keystone state — Santorum commanded the crowd to go back home and sing the gospel of President Bush. After all, it could help in swing states like his.

"I will not be satisfied with 20 percent of the Jewish vote, I will not be satisfied with 30 percent, I will not be satisfied with 40 percent," he said as the crowd cheered. "George Bush deserves a majority!"

At that, the crowd began to chant, "Four more years! Four more years!"

Santorum was part of a round-robin of Republican lawmakers who are love-bombing Jewish audiences with testimonials about the courage of freedom-loving Jewish people. It’s a far cry from the "some-of-my-best-friends-are-Jews" tone struck by some Republicans of yesteryear and even from the tepid meet-and-greets with Jewish groups at the 2000 GOP convention in Philadelphia.

This year, Republicans went all out to welcome their Jewish brethren into the GOP fold in a city with a large Jewish population. It’s not just about votes. American Jews find themselves at the center of a new culture war, the one between secular and religious America, between the blue states and the red ones and the hawks and the doves. And the Republicans want them on their side.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) stated it most clearly.

"There is no Palestinian-Israeli conflict, there is only the global war on terrorism," DeLay said at the Plaza Hotel recently. "On one side stands the United States, Israel and dozens of [other] countries. On the other side stand Yasser Arafat, Al Qaeda and an Axis of Evil bent on the destruction of Israel. All the rest is a question of commentary."

DeLay had thrown down the gauntlet, and the crowd of 1,500 began to cheer. John Kerry, DeLay continued, thinks the war on terror "depends on France and Germany. George W. Bush thinks the war on terror depends on fearless American leadership. That’s the difference that defines them."

A day earlier, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman struck a similar note at an event sponsored by three Jewish groups. Their message was that a vote for Bush is a vote for moral clarity; multilateralism is just a fancy word for appeasement.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), like Giuliani a possible presidential candidate in 2008, also spoke at the event.

At every step, the Republicans message was clear: New York and Jerusalem are closer than you think. When Al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center, America became even more inextricably linked with Israel. The Bush campaign has given the Jews a leading role in the central narrative of the 2004 campaign.

It’s a unique position for a traditionally Democratic constituency. But there’s some logic to it. Since Sept. 11, beleaguered Israel has become a symbol for the U.S. war on terrorism, with the Israelis standing in proxy for the Americans and the Palestinians wearing the face of the whole Arab world.

As such, Israel has become a kind of GOP mascot, one that also plays into Bush’s own religiosity. Israel resonates both in the Bible Belt and the Big Apple.

The Republican efforts may be working. Susan Canter, a registered Democrat who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, explained why she was backing Bush after having voted for Al Gore in 2000.

"He’s just so pro-Israel," said Canter, a lawyer. "There’s been no American president who’s ever come with such strong support for Israel…. I can’t think of not voting for him."

And of course there’s former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who has emerged as one of the most vocal pro-Bush Democrats.

"He knows that Israel faces international terrorism every day, and so do we, and that they are not willing to submit as other countries are, and he’s not going to run out on them," Koch said. "And it happens that international terrorism is threatening to both the United States and Israel. I mean, what they want to do is kill us!"

Koch seems to speak for those who are voting for a commander in chief as much as a president. Indeed, the Bush campaign seems to be taking pains to draw a direct line from Ronald Reagan, the man who toppled the Soviet Union, to Bush, leader in the war on terror.

The narrative conveniently skips Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, who was seen as no friend of Israel during his term from 1988 to 1992. In his failed re-election bid, the elder Bush received only 11 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992.

"Twenty years ago, Ronald Reagan spoke with moral clarity of the nature of the Soviet Union, and it had big-time political consequences," Mehlman said at the Jewish community event on Aug. 29. In a five-minute speech, Mehlman used the term "moral clarity" at least four times.

But even if they’re backing Bush on foreign policy, some Jews are concerned about the evangelical Christian right’s sway with the Bush administration. They did not take kindly to the display at Madison Square Garden during the convention’s first night, when the light and dark wood paneling on the speakers’ lectern took on the unmistakable form of a cross.

The National Jewish Democratic Coalition issued a press release the following day, calling it "the very height of insensitivity" for the Republicans to feature a cross at the center of the podium.

"This wooden cross must be at least 3 feet tall, and it sends a signal of exclusivity loudly and clearly," said Ira Forman, the organization’s executive director.

Others see no threat. "They still think I’m going to hell, because I have not accepted Jeeesus Chrast as mah per-son-al sa-vior," Jonathan Paull from Houston said, adopting a Texas drawl not otherwise evident in his speech as he mingled at the Jewish community event. "I don’t care."

The young attorney said he was voting for Bush because of "a political reality."

Still in New York, where progressive passions have long run high in the Jewish community, there is a core of Jewish voters that remains steadfastly anti-Bush. These Jews don’t cheer when Republicans invoke the mantra of Jewish persecution, and they don’t clap when Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said at the Plaza that "there is nothing they [the terrorists] want but your death and entire elimination from the planet."

Instead, they’ve been protesting. Standing outside the Plaza, a group called Jews for Racial and Economic Justice waved signs reading "elephants are not kosher" and chanted angry slogans peppered with Yiddishisms. "No war in our name, it’s a shanda, it’s a shame," they recited over and over.

As the election nears, Democratic Jewish leaders know they’re in a bind about foreign policy and have been trying to shift the debate away from Israel to trigger issues like abortion, education and the separation of church and state.

"I think it is a mistake to go after George Bush on Israel, because the Jewish community thinks he has been very good on Israel," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.). "So here’s what I tell Jewish voters: George Bush is good on Israel, but why vote for someone who you disagree with on everything else? Why let your loyalties to Israel be split from your loyalties on other issues?"

Schumer’s message could help stem some Jewish drift toward the GOP, but it’s hard not to see it as a concession of sorts, an admission by the Democrats that the Republicans have defined the terms of the debate so effectively that it’s not even worth competing on the same rhetorical battlefield.

This shift would have seemed improbable, almost farcical, four years ago, when Al Gore tapped Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as his Democratic running mate. Lieberman became the first Jew to run on a major party’s national ticket.

For some Jewish Democrats, Lieberman’s nomination was the culmination of its long relationship with the party — particularly since the Republicans had chosen as their candidate the son of a president who was unpopular with the Jews, and who also happened to be a cowboy and an evangelical Christian, who they feared would blur the boundaries between church and state.

It may just be a kind of provincial ignorance, but in the Jewish heartland of New York City, let’s face it, neither of these images played terribly well.

But in the intervening years, some of these same Jews have changed their minds. While few Jewish voters feel much passion for Kerry — even if they are planning on voting for him — Jews for Bush speak about their candidate with an almost religious fervor. It’s the kind of passion that gets them chanting, "Four more years, four more years!" at rallies, and makes this strange new marriage between New York sophisticates and a Texas cowboy seem almost beshert (ordained).

All this may seem like an awful lot of work to win just 4 percent of the voting public. But in today’s frozen political landscape, in which the electorate has hardened into blocks of stubborn Republicans and stubborn Democrats, the support of a well-placed fraction of the Jewish community can ripple and multiply into influence. In states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, where the election will be close, every vote counts.

"If you look at the states that are close, the change in the Jewish vote could actually throw the election into Republican hands," said Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and a prominent Texas fundraiser who has been working with the Bush campaign on Jewish outreach. "So obviously, we are focusing on the Jewish vote in states that could change the election."

Since 2000, the RJC has opened branches in Florida, Southern California, Philadelphia and New York and is looking to start a Midwest regional office. Its membership has swelled to 12,000 from 2,500.

It’s also focusing on younger Jewish voters who may be less tied to party affiliations than their New Deal Democrat grandparents and civil rights era parents, said Greg Menken, 31, who directs the year-old New York RJC chapter.

Yet even as Republican Jewish events celebrated Jewish strength in the face of adversity, a strange kind of energy also coursed through the crowd. Whenever a speaker says words to the effect that "the very existence of the State of Israel is now under siege," the audience applauds. Of course, they’re applauding, because they agree with the speaker, not because they’re happy about the current state of affairs.

Yet at the same time, these Jews seem to show a certain pride, a sense of vindication that the Republicans are beginning to see how ugly things can get. Who knows how it’ll play. What’s bad for the Jews might turn out to be good for Bush.


A Perestroika for Russian Women

It’s not every day the words “brit milah” work their way into conversation, let alone in discussing a 12-year-old boy. But here in the Russian air they hang for a moment.

“Yes,” Olga Finogenova says through a translator; her son, after returning from a summer spent at a religious school for boys, wanted to undergo a brit milah, also known as a bris, or Jewish ritual circumcision.

It’s a sunny day on the Volga River when Finogenova imparts this story. We’re partaking in a conference to bring together Jewish women from the United States, Israel and the former Soviet Union (FSU). Our trip, Women Turning the Tide, A Voyage on the Volga, is being sponsored by Project Kesher, a Chicago-based organization that’s been working with Jewish FSU women for the past 10 years in the areas of Jewish renewal and women’s empowerment.

It’s a few days into our trip already (they sponsored me), but I still manage to be continually awed by the stories these women have to tell. To visit Russia is to see a country where history is just a few years old, where Moscow street signs are newly replaced to indicate a return to pre-communist street names. To speak to these women is to hear the stories of those who have lived it — have lived communist anti-Semitism and perestroika. How can I convey to them that their passion is so inspiring to someone who comes from a place where we take our Judaism — and even our food on the table — for granted? It’s embarrassing to admit, and so I don’t. I just listen.

Despite having known all her life that she was a Jew, when Finogenova first got involved with the group in 1999, it was her first real introduction to Judaism.

“Since childhood, Judaism had always been a thing that was upsetting to us. There have been many problems with being a Jew and studying Judaism,” she told me, noting that her first positive Jewish experience was with Project Kesher. Now Finogenova is the Project Kesher women’s group leader in Smolensk.

Today, Judaism is clearly an important part of her and her family’s life. Her son’s choice to have a bris at age 12 is just the most startling example. She and her son celebrate all the Jewish holidays, and also welcome Shabbat every week by lighting candles and saying Kiddush. Finogenova leads the Torah study for her Project Kesher women’s group. Her son will have his bar mitzvah next year.

Finogenova’s group in Smolensk is one of 165 Project Kesher women’s groups operating throughout Russia, Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus. While it is only one of numerous organizations working for Jewish renewal in the FSU since the fall of the Iron Curtain, it is the only organization that focuses on women.

It didn’t start out that way, according to founder Sallie Gratch. In the beginning, Gratch was interested in trying to help FSU Jews, as a whole, to organize. But in visiting small-town community leaders, she found herself surrounded entirely by men. Women were not included in official meetings, and in Briansk, for example, “the head of the community didn’t understand why we’d even want to meet with the Jewish women,” Gratch said.

Thus, it didn’t take long for Gratch to realize that the kind of organization she was trying to build — self-led, pluralistic and egalitarian — would only be possible if she started with the women. In 1994, with the help of her Russian friend and translator Svetlana Yakimenko (now Project Kesher’s FSU director), she convened the International Conference of Jewish Women, clearly defining Project Kesher as a women’s organization for the first time. Ten years later, what has emerged is an organization that focuses on the spiritual and practical concerns of Jewish women in the FSU: Jewish learning; computer vocational and leadership training; and activism in the issues the women’s groups feel most impact their lives, namely women’s health education, trafficking in women and domestic violence.

On the second day of our trip, there’s a low but energetic hum as we take our seats in the dimly lit auditorium of Moscow’s Hermitage Theater. Off to one side of the stage, six Torahs lay covered on a large podium. They have been carried the long distance from communities in the United States to be donated to six budding FSU Jewish communities and officially handed over today in what is sure to be a highlight of the week: the Torah Return ceremony.

As we settle in, folksinger Debbie Friedman and Project Kesher’s musical coordinator Azariya Medvedova play an opening song in English, Hebrew and Russian on their guitars. Various women speak, including Jewish feminist educator and spiritual leader Tamara Cohen, who offers a blessing on the women handing over the Torahs, and then on the women receiving them for their communities.

Friedman is one of a number of prominent American women leaders who have made the trip. The long list also includes Orthodox feminist movement leader Blu Greenberg and Angeleno Marcia Cohn Spiegel, Creative Jewish Women’s Alliance organizer who, like a number of women, has brought her daughters with her.

It’s a tearful ceremony, with women trying to express the emotional weight of the moment — and failing.

“All of these overwhelming feelings cannot be put into words,” says Olga Shevchuk of Vinnitsa, Ukraine, whose Torah originates from a dwindling classical Reform Jewish synagogue in Helena, Ark.

“Gratitude,” she says, is the closest she can get to putting a name to what she is feeling.

We move so organically from a state of tears to song, dance and cheers that I can’t say how it happens. Only suddenly, Friedman and Medvedova are playing again, and women have linked hands and started impromptu horas, circling around the bolted-down chairs and making their way into the area behind the seats to dance more freely. Other women embrace, caught up in the moment.

At breakfast the next morning, I sit with Carol Avins and her daughter, Claire Solomon, at a table finely set with black bread, smoked fish, blini and other Russian breakfast delicacies. They, along with Avins’ sister-in-law Nancy Solomon, carried the Torah from the Helena synagogue where the Solomon family once belonged. At its peak in the 1950s, Temple Beth-El’s membership included some 125 families, but today, only about 10 elderly members remain. I ask Avins how she felt standing up on that stage.

“I found myself unexpectedly emotional about it, especially because the community that’s giving the Torah is becoming a thing of the past,” she says. “But then I got amused…. Women were dancing around with the Torah and I thought it was the kind of celebration with the Torah that [Temple Beth-El] would never do. Their tradition is dignified and simple. This Torah kind of goes on to a new phase of its existence.”

In the weeks to come, Avins will be proven right. We will all get updates about the great celebrations taking place in the cities that receive these Torahs, their women’s groups now continuing their Jewish learning armed with real Torahs, and using the lessons of repairing the world and charity as the inspiration for their activism.

With the current state of economics in the region, many FSU women dream of marrying foreigners or of finding lucrative jobs abroad. They are promised these things, but the dream quickly turns to a nightmare as they find themselves the victims of unscrupulous businesspeople trafficking in human beings. They are sold into sexual slavery in countries where they have come illegally, and with no support system and little knowledge of their new country, they often have no way out.

“Until recently, the problem of trafficking wasn’t spoken of. It only recently became a subject of the mass media,” Elena Zyablikova tells us in one of our lectures. As the leader of Belarus’ Borisov women’s group, she has helped coordinate their campaigns to combat trafficking in women and domestic violence.

There are no laws against trafficking in women in Russia or Moldova, and while Ukraine and Belarus do have laws against it, they are rarely enforced, she says.

No statistics exist in the region on the numbers of women being trafficked (nothing showing the general state of apathy more clearly). But in Israel, for example, it is estimated that about 80 percent of people involved in trafficking are Russian-speaking, and the 432 reports of trafficking to police stations in Belarus in 2003 are considered to be just the tip of the iceberg in a region where there is a great sense of shame in coming forward.

Educating women and working for legislative gains are primarily where Project Kesher has put its efforts, including being a signatory to the advocacy group working to get the International Marriage Brokers Act passed in the United States. In addition to other measures, it would force men seeking marriage brokers to submit to criminal background checks.

More than 90 Kesher groups are also involved in programs to fight domestic violence. A recent poll indicated that 60 percent of female university students believe that it is women who make men violent. By educating the public through pamphlet distribution and lectures in schools, Kesher groups work to put an end to this tragic misconception.

They also participate in the annual 16 Days Against Domestic Violence campaign and have united with 18 governmental and nongovernmental institutions to provide free legal, medical and psychological assistance to victims of domestic violence.

With about one-fifth of all calls to police relating to domestic violence, Project Kesher’s next step will be creating coalitions with local police departments, said Evelina Shoubinskaya, a social worker at the forefront of Kesher’s anti-domestic violence programming.

Recognizing that these problems have everything to do with economic concerns, Project Kesher works to empower women through its various programs, as well. Its new micro-enterprise loan program has granted more than 90 small low-interest loans to women to build their businesses; its vocational computer training centers, co-sponsored by World ORT, assist women in finding better jobs in a region where unemployment and underemployment are significant problems; and its leadership training program teaches women to lead in their Kesher groups and the world.

The sun continues to shine for us in Rybinsk, and actually well into the night. As we travel farther and farther north, experiencing Russia’s famous white nights until almost midnight, I remember that I’d thought this place would be gray and dreary, cold and sad. Instead, I’ve witnessed rebuilding, and the warmth and joy and optimism of a people who see much work ahead, but a bright future at least, perhaps for the first time. The near-eternal sunshine suddenly feels symbolic and very fitting.

“I connected with yesterday’s prayer where Miriam stood at the edge of the river and everything was new,” Elena Knyazhitskaya says at Saturday’s Shabbat service, which included a Hebrew naming ceremony for some 22 of the women. Elena picked the name Ruth, because she, like Ruth, is not halachically Jewish. There was also a Leora (“for her there is divine light”), Chana, Leah and Eliana (“it was she who got answers”).

“I feel in my life that a lot of changes are about to happen,” Knyazhitskaya says to me.

Big changes seem imminent for Project Kesher, too. While its slow growth has been intentional — it was important to Kesher leaders that group members and potential members feel “ignited, not pushed,” according to Yakimenko — with more than 3,000 members, they’ve now built solid foundations and are ready for people to know who they are, Executive Director Karyn Gershon said.

The two largest impediments against future goals of expansion into Moscow, Germany and Israel seem to be lack of recognition and consequent lack of funding. Next year’s budget weighs in at just $650,000, as opposed to Chabad’s FSU arm, whose annual operating budget is $15 million, with $80 million set aside for new projects.

“If you can get a person to underwrite the concert, I will come to your city!” singer Friedman announces at our end-of-the-trip brainstorming meeting. Other women have also caught the fever, raising their hands to speak, promising to tell their synagogues back home about Project Kesher and to organize various fundraising events to get the word out about the work we’ve now witnessed firsthand.

“My daughter told me that you have to go to Israel to practice Judaism,” Finogenova said, “but through Project Kesher, we understood that we may lead Jewish lives here.”

For more information on Project Kesher visit,

Building Dignity

Near railroad tracks and industrial buildings, Santa Ana’s East Adams Street is a modest neighborhood of stucco homes and spare yards distressed by late summer’s heat. From within a fenced lot, the discordant timpani of hammering disturb the quiet a block away.

Armed with hammers, tape measures and tool aprons, a swarm of inexperienced laborers energetically build framing for the interior walls of a new home. Overlooking bruised thumbs, sore muscles and sunburns, by week’s end the construction crew will bubble excitedly over their measurable progress that began with a bare foundation, said Thayne Smith, construction director for Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity.

“They’re way ahead of our expectations,” said Smith, even before the crew had completed its first day.

Using social action to create affordable housing, the construction crew consists of about 20 Jews drawn from Reform congregations around North America. They signed up months ago for an Orange County house-raising that began Aug. 15. The aim of the weeklong project on Adams Street, like last year’s in Vermont, is to build both a home for a needy family and a community among a group of common faith.

But with the High Holidays only weeks away, for some the project is also proving an unlikely source of spiritual preparation for the coming New Year and Day of Atonement.

“This gives me more personal insight into the working poor,” said Deborah Bock, of Los Angeles, who put aside her hammer for lunch and a seat in the partial shade of a construction trailer. “I work with my brain,” she said, a job difficult to compare to a typical day laborer.

The 26-year-old rabbinical student volunteered in order to pump volume into the abstraction of repairing the world, or more routine good works such as advocacy for Israel or raising money for the homeless.

“They’re not permanent. This is so much more concrete to work on the concrete slab,” she said.

Bock believes she will come away changed by the experience.

“We talk about a God that provides food and shelter, but it takes human intervention to take an active role to make it happen,” she said.

Throughout their stay, local synagogues provided lunch and dinner for the volunteers, whose home base was an airport hotel. Their number also included local congregants from Santa Ana’s Temple Beth Sholom and Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedek.

Issues of housing and poverty, extracted from the High Holiday liturgy, were also the group’s study and worship subjects. That message was further underscored toward the week’s end with daily roars from the shofar, heard throughout the month of Elul to rouse Jews to repent.

“The prophet Isaiah, in the Yom Kippur reading, asks us to fast to sensitize us to the ways of the poor,” said Rabbi Alan Henkin, the Reform movement’s western regional director, who revised his planned teaching to lean more heavily on High Holiday themes.

The High Holidays were also on the mind of Jane Paterson, 50, of Calgary, Canada. Drinking in her own mid-century mark as a liberating elixir, Paterson is pursuing the postponed.

“Can you think of a better vacation?” Paterson asked, poised on a dirt mound.

“I’ll have fewer bread crumbs to throw in the river,” she predicted, referring to Tashlich, the widely celebrated custom of “throwing away” one’s sins into water before Rosh Hashanah

“It’s nice to use your muscles spiritually and physically for someone else,” added Toni Kennedy, 52, also of Calgary.

“Even if I never meet the people who live here, I know they’ll have a certain dignity I helped give them,” said another volunteer, Ginger Jacobs, 62, of Sherman Oaks.

Louis and Joyce Mogabgab, Santa Ana building contractors professionally, also signed on as volunteer supervisors.

“What amazes me is people without construction experience are accomplishing so much,” Joyce Mogabgab said, noting her own expertise is limited to phone and paperwork. “It gives me more appreciation for what my husband does.”

Habitat estimates that 90,000 people in Orange County live in substandard housing or are homeless. The group’s labor pool is more typically drawn from Christian groups working on weekends.

Few have experience, Smith said, “but everything is built well beyond the acceptable level of building.”

Smith said the four-bedroom Adams home is one of five currently under construction locally. The $136,000 lot was acquired with a federal government subsidy as well as reduced city fees. While Habitat requires 500 hours of sweat equity by each prospective owner, a family had not yet been selected for the Adams house, he said. A neighboring Habitat-built, five-bedroom home belongs to Maria and Rigo Gomez and their nine children. They previously rented a two-bedroom La Habra house.

“We try to be mission driven, to end poverty housing in Orange County,” said Joe Perring, a real estate developer and chairman of the local Habitat chapter, which builds 10 homes a year. “Urban affiliates have the dual challenge of fundraising and the scarcity of available land.”

“If we can find land, we can get the other resources,” he said. l