Hope Is on the Menu at Cafe Ezra

It’s Thursday night at Camp Ramah in Ojai, and after most of the campers have gone to bed, more than 100 staffers squeeze into the staff lounge. Their hosts for the evening — all clad in red T-shirts — are the nine participants in the camp’s Ezra program, a unique vocational education program that serves young adults with special needs.

Cafe Ezra, as it is known, is the highlight of the week for Ezra’s members, who do everything from baking cookies and serving drinks to greeting visitors at the door. On this particular Thursday, July 15, one Ezra participant is particularly excited: Daniel Kamin, 22, is welcoming his older brother, Aaron, 26, as the night’s featured entertainment.

The brothers, who grew up in Studio City, have always had a close, supportive relationship, but success has always come easier for Aaron. With longtime friend Alex Band, he formed the rock band, The Calling, which has enjoyed considerable success since the release of its first album, "Camino Palermo," in 2001. The album reached multiplatinum status with the hit song, "Wherever You Will Go," which topped Billboard’s charts for 23 straight weeks.

The pair released their second album, "Two," in June and recently returned from a sold-out tour in Europe. However, for Aaron, nothing could be more important than a night spent at Camp Ramah — one of the first places where his brother has found a comfortable, happy place in the Jewish community.

Growing up, Daniel had frequent seizures, which caused some speech delay and significant learning disabilities.

Aaron did most of his schooling at Steven S. Wise Temple, but "there was really no program in the Jewish community for kids like Daniel," said their mother, Marlene Kamin, a teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

She found the best options for Daniel in public schools. Last year, at age 21, Daniel graduated from Grant High School in Van Nuys, where he took special life-skills classes in a program for students with learning disabilities.

Daniel did well, but his social situation in a mainstream high school was less than ideal, Kamin said. He spent the past year in a state-funded work-training program in the San Fernando Valley, which helped him learn work and social skills.

All the while, Kamin, who with husband David has been active in survivor organizations such as the 1939 Club, searched without success for a way to help Daniel make a connection in the Jewish community. It was an administrator at his grandfather’s convalescent home who pointed Daniel toward Camp Ramah, which started the Ezra program four years ago to accommodate young adults like him.

"The whole thing was beshert," Kamin said, using Hebrew for "meant to be."

Ezra operates as a sequel to Ramah’s Amitzim program, which serves children and teens with special needs. Both programs run under the umbrella program Ramah calls Tikva (Hebrew for "hope"). Kamin said hope is an understatement for what Ezra has done for her son this summer.

Ezra helps young adults with disabilities such as Down’s syndrome, autism or slower mental capacity to learn to function as independent adults. Through a type of work-study structure, each participant is given a job at the camp. (Daniel has received rave reviews for his work in the infirmary.) The program also teaches basic life skills, such as maneuvering at a supermarket or depositing a check in the bank.

The participants put many of these skills to work each week in planning the Cafe Ezra event.

"They get a feeling of responsibility," said Tara Reisbaum, Tikvah program director. "The experience of being at camp adds to their personal growth and allows them to see how much potential they have."

Daniel’s mother, who is also a special guest at this evening’s Cafe Ezra, said she "can’t even describe in words" how proud she is of Daniel, who has written many letters home reporting how much he loves camp and how independent he has become.

A way to celebrate that success is to have Aaron, honor him with a performance. To the enjoyment of an eager audience, Aaron opens his performance with his most popular song, "Wherever You Will Go."

But this night, he lets his younger brother have the spotlight and the microphone. Daniel sings, dances and plays the harmonica, while Aaron plays the guitar and sits back to admire his brother.

"Daniel is able to maintain his beautiful spirit," Aaron said later. "Everyone should be jealous of him for that."

Daniel makes no secret of his admiration for his brother, saying with a big smile: "I like being a genius when it comes to music. I like being smart like my brother."

The love that fills the room is felt by more than just the brothers. Rabbi Daniel Greyber, Ramah’s executive director, sums up the event’s sentiment: "Evenings like this give us a sense of what is true in the world, what is faithful, what is possible."

On this Thursday night in a crowded room tucked into the quiet hills of Ojai, that hope resonates for all.

Scholarship Takes No Vacation

Two local synagogues are offering an opportunity for Jewish scholarship this summer, and a third is offering weekly Hebrew classes at all levels.

Through the Community Scholar Program, Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel will help host a six-day visit by a professor of Jewish history and archaeology from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.

Professor Lee Levine, a 30-year resident of Israel, is the author of 11 books about ancient Judaism, synagogues and geography. He will hold six talks over six days, July 1-6. Most will be held at either B’nai Israel or an upper school classroom at Tarbut V’ Torah Community Day School in Irvine.

His topics will range from Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" to whether the Passover seder is a pagan invention.

Anaheim’s Temple Beth Emet promises an eight-week class that can turn Hebrew illiterates into Hebrew readers able to follow in a prayer book. Four levels of Hebrew are offered at Beth Emet in weekly classes that will meet beginning July 19 at 7:30 p.m. and run through the first week of September.

"The instruction is highly individualized and offers the freedom to move between classes to meet your personal needs," promised Margalit Moskowitz, Beth Emet’s education director.

Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation will host a parenting seminar July 29-Aug. 1 by Rabbi Lawrence Kelemen, a teaching professor from Jerusalem who challenges popular child-raising theories.

A former Harvard and UCLA student, Kelemen began his career as a ski instructor and worked as a news director and anchorman for a California radio station. He then traveled to Jerusalem to pursue the rabbinate, simultaneously conducting a dozen years of intensive postgraduate field research and publishing several books.

Kelemen teaches at Neve Yerushalaim College of Jewish Studies for Women and is the author of "To Kindle a Soul" (Leviathan, 2001) an authoritative parenting handbook.

The Beth Jacob seminar is $36 per person; $48 per couple.

Further details on the programs are available by calling the shuls: Beth Jacob, (949) 786-5230; B’nai Israel, (714) 730-9693; Beth Emet, (714) 772-4720.

Transition to New Center Under Way

The transition by Orange County’s Jewish Community Center (JCC) to an expansive $20 million facility in Irvine this summer is already underway with the hiring, effective March 1, of an expanded management team.

On the job only a few months, Dan M. Bernstein, the JCC’s executive director, is also moving swiftly to tidy up a homegrown, informal culture and instill more professionalism in the organization. Besides reassigning staff and making new hires, Bernstein is pushing to establish more rigorous policies about membership and community use at the new facility.

At least Bernstein can avoid wrestling with the threat of court-imposed restrictions on hours of operation, as neighboring homeowners in January dropped a lawsuit seeking such limits. To allay noise concerns by residents, both sides agreed to restrict usage in the gymnasium to 10 p.m., said James W. Kauker, a board member of the Sierra Bonita Homeowners Association and president of Irvine Residents for Responsible Growth, which helped pay for the litigation. The gym is closest to the Turtle Rock neighborhood.

Still unresolved is paying for landscaping to obscure the multistory building, uphill from homes on Sierra Lago Road. The forest of mature trees on the homeowners’ wish list would cost $700,000, Kauker said, while the JCC has agreed to an additional $100,000 worth of plantings. Residents intend to ask city government to fund the difference.

"We’re hoping the city will do the right thing," Kauker said, because city officials failed to adhere to development notification rules when issuing permits for the campus.

The facility still under construction in Irvine is expansive and includes an infant-care facility, preschool, fitness center and gymnasium large enough to accommodate two basketball games. There are areas designated for workout classes, adult education and massage. When completed, there will be lockers for swimmers, space for an art exhibit, playground and Holocaust memorial.

In addition, the JCC will have a cafe, poolside snack bar and kosher kitchen to prepare hot food, which is partially for the use of high school students on the neighboring campus of Tarbut V’Torah Community Day School. The center’s multipurpose theater will seat 500.

Typically, the fitness center and athletic facilities are what 70 percent of JCC members seek, Bernstein said, noting that the current 30,000-square-foot JCC in Costa Mesa was inadequate to offer more typical amenities.

"A normal JCC has teen activities, a parenting center, athletic activities," he said. "Outside of preschool and camp, we didn’t have 90 percent of what a normal JCC does." The director predicted that the new 120,000-square-foot JCC will support a program guide an inch thick.

"We have to change the way we do business," Bernstein said. "I know what it takes to open this building. It’s going to be very expensive to run this building."

A new emphasis will be placed on boosting JCC membership, which had not previously been mandatory, even for board members. Contracts are under review, too, with independent contractors, such as those who for years have offered Krav Maga self-defense classes and Israeli folk dancing on JCC premises.

"They will be our programs, on our terms," Bernstein said.

His goal is to increase a current membership of 900 units to 1,000 in a year and to double that in three years. In addition, he hopes to standardize fees, which now vary by category.

Among the new staff starting this month are some familiar faces in unfamiliar roles. The current 12-member staff is expected to more than double — up to 30 — when the new facility opens, now expected in September.

Sean Eviston, hired as director of health, recreation and physical education, worked as fitness coordinator at the Westside JCC in Los Angeles.

Sheila Witzling, who volunteered her marketing skills to JCC projects, such as the "Three Tenors" concert, accepted a staff position as director of marketing and membership. Witzling most recently worked for the Identity Group, an Irvine marketing firm. She is also president of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel.

Wendy Miller of Aliso Viejo will return to the JCC as special events and fundraising coordinator. Jason Meyers, who developed the JCC’s after-school sports program and Sunday leagues, was named director of a new JCC sports camp.

Bernstein also mined his former employer in Sarasota, Fla., hiring two former employees to serve as the JCC’s camp director and teen coordinator. Wendy Fogel will succeed outgoing camp director Sari Poremba. Audra Martin will take on the new position of teen and tween program supervisor, charged with developing after-school, weekend and summer youth programs.

Bernstein believes JCCs play a vital role in maintaining Jewish identity and solidifying the Jewish community. His 84-year-old father is still a dues-paying JCC member. When Bernstein asked why, his father told him, "Because my picture is on the wall," referring to a dated team photograph.

"I want everyone who comes through the door to see their face [on the wall]," Bernstein said.

Sunday ‘Nights’ Alright for Outreach

Craig Taubman has a knack for inventing Jewish pop culture.

In 1998, he co-created “Friday Night Live” (FNL), the ebullient, musically driven young adult Shabbat service that’s been snatched up by synagogues around the country. Since then, “FNL” has become part of the vernacular and was written up in Richard Flory’s book, “Gen X Religion” (Routledge, 2000).

But Taubman, an intensely upbeat singer-songwriter-producer, wasn’t content to stop there. This Sunday, he’s unveiling his new program to draw the young and unaffiliated: “Mulholland Nights,” a summer concert series at the University of Judaism (UJ), featuring hip, young Jewish artists. The June 22 lineup includes Lisa Loeb, guitarist-chanteuse; Gabriel Mann, a singer-songwriter-pianist reminiscent of Peter Gabriel; and Billy Jonas, an iconoclastic folk artist who performs on found objects.

The goal is to draw 22- to 39-year-olds who are so removed from the community they may not even have heard of “FNL.”

“‘Mulholland Nights’ is intrinsically Jewish on the inside, but not overtly Jewish on the outside, because otherwise this demographic won’t come,” Taubman, 45, said. “It’s not because they’re anti-Jewish; it’s because Judaism isn’t even on their radar. And since it’s not part of their vocabulary, we’re using a language and personalities they can relate to.”

In three concerts this summer, each “personality” will banter about his or her religious background between songs.

During a recent phone interview, Loeb — whose perky, retro-’60s look contrasts with her wistful folk-pop — said she’d recount how the culturally Jewish emphasis her parents placed on the arts encouraged her to become a performer. Loeb, 35, will also explain that Judaism continues to affect her songwriting in her tendency “to be very analytical, to ask questions and overquestion.”

Mann, 30, descended from three generations of Orthodox cantors, said he’d discuss how chazzanut influences his moody, intense work.

“When my father sings, it’s filled with passion, like he means every word, and the same thing happens when I’m on stage with my ‘congregation,’ the audience,” said Mann, a San Antonio native. The same fervor infuses his edgy lyrics: “I have a strong, internal ‘cheese’ monitor,” he said.

If “Mulholland Nights” proves successful, it’s because Taubman has something of a track record. Five years after he and Rabbi David Wolpe launched “FNL” to connect Generation X Jews to their faith (and to Jewish mates), the monthly Sinai service has become the largest Jewish singles event on the West Coast. In October, Taubman produced Hallelu, a Jewish concert at Universal Amphitheatre that sold nearly 5,000 tickets.

When observers noted that far more 40-somethings than 20-somethings had attended, Taubman decided to create a concert series especially for the elusive young adult set. The result is “Mulholland Nights,” designed to draw people who feel more comfortable in a nightclub than a synagogue.

His efforts reflect a national trend: “Years ago, people began doing ‘Jewish things’ earlier because they married and had kids younger which was the primary attraction for joining a synagogue,” Taubman said. “Because organizations no longer have that to fall back on, everyone is trying to find new and creative ways to reach out to this group.”

One such person is Gady Levy, dean of the department of continuing education at the UJ, who’s been working to increase the young adult turnout at UJ programs. Thus he was receptive when Taubman asked him to host “Mulholland Nights” and to put up a portion of its estimated $80,000 budget, along with other sponsors.

“Our goal is not to make money, but to bring new young people into the UJ and hopefully to see what else we are doing,” Levy said.

To draw a wide cross-section of Jewish Angelenos, Taubman hired a club-savvy 26-year-old to blanket L.A. hotspots with flyers. He’s also booked Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi artists — including legendary Israeli folk-rocker David Broza and the Middle Eastern quartet Divahn, voted 2001 best new band by the Austin Chronicle

Reggae artist Elan, an observant Jew who once fronted Bob Marley’s former band, The Wailers, will perform at the July 20 concert.

“I don’t blatantly talk about Hashem in my lyrics; it’s more cryptic,” Elan, 27, said. “Sometimes you think I’m talking about my wife, but it’s really about Hashem.”

Taubman will also take the subtle approach to introduce “Nights” patrons to the Jewish community. Rather than making speeches, he’ll prominently place pamphlets advertising “FNL”: “I want Mulholland Nights to be another Jewish point of entry for young people,” he said. “If we hit them once, twice, three times, there’s a better chance they’ll view this as not just another pickup event they do on the side, but that they do Jewish things.”

For more information about the concert series, call(310) 440-1246 or visit www.dce.uj.org .

My Yiddische Papa

Educator Yakob Basner will tell you that if you want to learn about a people, study their language.

“You cannot learn or know the history of the Jewish people without learning Yiddish,” Basner said. “There are words you can not translate into English.”

“Yiddish is our language; it’s our culture,” he continued. “Before the war, 12 million Jews spoke it. And the last words spoken by the Jews in the Holocaust before they were killed was in Yiddish.”

Basner, a survivor of four concentration camps, has made it his lifelong mission to connect new generations of Jews to their past by teaching Yiddish language and literature. The Long Beach resident, who for 15 years has taught Yiddish at the Workmen’s Circle in Los Angeles, which preserves and promotes Yiddish culture, will receive the organization’s Yidishkayt Award during the Nov. 10 luncheon at the Fairmont-Miramar in Santa Monica that will celebrate the Southern California chapter’s 95th anniversary.

Basner has been vital to the continuance of the Yiddish tradition in the local Yiddish-speaking community, from Los Angeles’ Workmen’s Circle to Beverly Hills High School Adult School, where he has taught Yiddish for the past decade.

Basner, who turns 75 in December, has been speaking the language — an amalgam of German, Hebrew and European dialects — “from the beginning. I soaked it in from my mother’s milk.”

The Yiddish expert has lived most of his life before and after WWII in his birthplace, Riga, Latvia. He lost his father, mother, brother and sister in the Shoah. His brother was executed on a death march just a day before liberation.

At 17, Basner was liberated in 1945 from Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic. He returned to Riga, where he worked in the leather-cutting trade while studying linguistics. By 20, he had reconnected with and married Doba, a girl he had known since he was 7. They have been married for 54 years.

“She was hiding in Riga throughout the war,” Basner said, “and I met her on the street.

After a decade of struggle to leave Latvia, which the Soviet Union occupied during World War II, the Basners and their two daughters finally reached California in 1980. The Basners have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, with another great-grandchild on the way. Since 1987, Basner has taught Yiddish to thousands of students, including Eric Gordon, director of Workmen’s Circle.

In the fall of 1995, Gordon took Basner’s advanced Yiddish class. Two months later, Gordon became Basner’s boss at the Workmen’s Circle.

Gordon, a Yiddishkayt aficionado since his Yale days in the ’60s, has spearheaded a variety of chapter projects. His contributions include a mural on the headquarters’ Horner Street wall in the Pico-Robertson area, an art gallery, a monthly newsletter and programs co-sponsored with various organizations, including the Progressive Jewish Alliance and Democrats for Israel.

Gordon wants to continue to draw young people. A Jewish poetry slam is scheduled for late November, as is the formation of a Jewish artists group and a gay and lesbian group.

“Younger people are finding here what our older members have found in the past: a Jewish community and home,” Gordon said.

Social action and justice are still top priorities at Workmen’s Circle, which recently drafted anti-war resolutions.

“We stand for a national health-care system, labor rights, women’s rights, gay and lesbian rights, a land for peace solution to the Middle East conflict,” continued Gordon, explaining the platform of the Workmen’s Circle’s 50-plus North American affiliates. “It’s tied to the social action that in the past was conducted by unions, the Bundt and other organizations. It’s part of that whole tradition.”

Tradition is the key word.

“The Circle,” Basner said, “is an organization that has understood since the beginning of the 20th century to preserve the Yiddish culture, to help keep Jews connected.”

Basner has mastered English, Russian, Latvian, Hebrew and German. But it is Yiddish that remains closest to his heart.

“It’s a very rich, fun language,” Basner said. “A lot of idioms, proverbs, expressions. You not only get to teach the language, you have the opportunity to teach all the sayings and expressions.”

Although Yiddish is 1,000 years old, it still thrives with new works of literature released every year. Basner, whose Holocaust odyssey was chronicled in the English-language book, “The Unfinished Road: Jewish Survivors of Latvia Look Back” (Brager, 1991), still obtains much hanoe (joy) from teaching Yiddish.

“I feel that Yiddish will stay alive,” Basner said, “because it’s very stubborn, like the Jewish people. It will survive.”

The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring’s annual awards banquet, emceed by “Freaks and Geeks” stars Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, will be held Nov. 10 at the Fairmont-Miramar Hotel in Santa Monica. Tom Hayden and members Judy Silver and Frances Friedman will receive awards. Mit Gezang Yiddish Choir will perform. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.circle.org.

Jewish Studies Flourish on Campus

While the headlines speak of confrontations between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students at California’s public universities, the number and variety of Jewish studies programs on the campuses have never been more bountiful.

Students can earn their doctorate degrees in Jewish studies at the University of California (UC) campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego and Santa Barbara. Master’s degrees are offered at Irvine, Santa Cruz and Davis. Stanford University, a private institution, also offers a doctorate in the field.

Within the last few weeks, a number of developments have added strength and further scope to these programs.

At UC Berkeley, the Jewish studies program received a $5 million donation from the Helen Diller family, which will enable the university to annually invite an Israeli professor to the campus for a full year’s stay.

The California State University system (CSU), whose nearly 400,000 students on 23 campuses make it one of the largest public university systems in the world, has announced the creation of a bachelor of arts major in modern Jewish studies, through a consortium of the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses. A fourth campus, at Long Beach, is scheduled to join this group next year, and the campuses at Sacramento, San Jose and Sonoma are expected to participate further down the road.

In addition, the state is establishing a teacher training program at the newly created Center for Excellence in the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights and Tolerance at Cal State Chico; Chico’s reputation as a Jewish studies center has drawn such speakers as Elie Wiesel and Shimon Peres. Holocaust education has been mandatory in California public schools for some time, but the quality of instruction in these courses has fluctuated widely.

Overall director of the three-campus program is professor Sam Edelman, who, teamed with his wife, Associate Dean Carol Edelman, has made the rural residential Chico campus, about 170 miles northeast of San Francisco, a vital outpost of Jewish studies over the past two decades.

"We believe students should have the option of learning about one of the oldest religions and cultures in the world," Edelman said in introducing the new degree program. "The history, culture, literature and politics of Judaism have had, and continue to have, significant impact on the world."

In an interview, the 54-year-old Edelman, whose roundish face is framed by a white beard, ascribed some significance to the fact that he was born in Altoona, Pa., one day before the official proclamation of the State of Israel. Though he said his parents were "very secular," Edelman absorbed "a wealth of Jewish heart" from his grandmother, and additional Yiddishkayt from an itinerant rabbi.

After receiving his doctorate at the University of Arizona, Edelman went to the Chico campus 23 years ago, hoping to introduce some Jewish studies but planning to leave after two years. However, he soon felt at home in "this natural place, distant from the tumult of the outside world," and was also impressed by the support of the non-Jewish faculty for his Jewish studies efforts.

While the new CSU Jewish studies major, which was seven years in the making, will start officially with the 2003 fall semester, a handful of students on each of the three campuses have jumped the gun by enrolling in the program during the current semester.

The bachelor’s program will consist of three basic areas: the Holocaust, Israel and Jewish studies. Majors on the Chico, San Diego and San Francisco campuses will supplement classroom courses on their respective home campuses with online instruction from the other two campuses.

In the planning stage is a master’s of education degree program, focusing on Jewish education or Holocaust-genocide education, through a partnership among Cal State Northridge, Chico, Long Beach, San Diego and San Francisco.

At San Diego State, professor Lawrence Baron, director of the Lipinsky Institute for Jewish Studies, said that currently approximately 560 students are enrolled in courses that include Women in the Bible, kabbalah and modern history of the Middle East.

At San Francisco State, site of some of the most intense clashes between Jewish and anti-Israel students, the new major consists of 42-43 required units through courses in modern Hebrew, Jewish culture and society, history and religion. The current Jewish studies program, headed by professor Laurie Zoloth, offers 11 courses with an enrollment of about 175 students each semester.

John Gemello, San Francisco State’s interim vice president for academic affairs, welcomed the new major for giving "students from all backgrounds more opportunities to learn about the rich culture, literature, history and politics of the Jewish people."