Educated women and children

On the Jewish Web site The Tablet, Michelle Goldberg, a senior contributing editor to The Nation, recently wrote: “In the United States, women tend to have fewer children the more education they have — those with advanced degrees have only 1.67 children each. Jewish women are better educated than the population at large, which is why their birthrates are even lower …”

This statistic provides yet another illustration of the low moral state of our universities. Just think: The more formal education a woman has, the fewer children she will desire. 

For those who care about Jewish or American survival, this should be, to put it mildly, disconcerting. If Jewish and other American women don’t reproduce, the populations of Jews and Americans will decline. And in the case of Jews, this is particularly problematic.

The question that needs to be addressed is, why? Why do the best-educated women have the fewest children?

Here are three explanations:

The first — and, I believe, most important — reason that women who attend graduate school have fewer children than other women is that the longer women (and men) stay in academic life, the longer they are exposed to values that denigrate the family in favor of career.

One can argue until the proverbial cows come home that feminism never pushed career over marriage and family, that it only wanted women to have a choice. But that argument is dishonest. Feminism greatly valued career above marriage and family. The result is that in our post-feminist (post-1970s) world, for a girl or woman of any age to say that she would like to be, or that she is, or that she was a full-time wife and mother takes courage. Among well-educated women, a woman accrues more prestige being in sales at Nordstrom than she does as a “homemaker.” The very word conjures up nightmarish images to most women with graduate degrees.

The more time a young woman spends at university, especially at a prestigious one, the more she is indoctrinated into believing that what really matters is career. Test it: Ask a young woman who attends a prestigious university — especially a Jewish woman who is not Orthodox — what she most wants in life, and it is quite likely that she will respond “a good career.”

Let’s be honest. If you asked a female in her junior year at Yale, “What do you most want in life?” and she responded, “To find a good man to marry and then make a family with him,” you would be shocked.

In fact, you would probably have to look for an explanation. And that explanation would likely be that she is a religious Christian or an Orthodox Jew.

Which brings us to a second reason for the extremely low birthrate among well-educated women — secularism.

The widely offered explanation for why fertility rates drop is affluence. As countries get wealthier, the thinking goes, the birth rate drops.

There is some truth to this, but there is a better explanation: secularism. As societies become more secular, the fertility rate drops. 

This is easy to demonstrate. Wealthy Orthodox Jews, wealthy devout Roman Catholics, wealthy Mormons and wealthy Evangelicals have a lot of kids. Meanwhile, wealthy secular people have the fewest children.

While secularism is good for government, it is a dead end for the individual and society. It is a moral dead end. Without God, good and evil are purely matters of opinion. And it is an existential dead end. If there is no God, life is objectively pointless. We live, we die, there is no reason we are here, and there is nothing when we leave.

So what do people do with that view of life? Some devote their lives to secular religions such as feminism, socialism, environmentalism or egalitarianism. And many simply decide — quite rationally — that in the incredibly brief time they are alive, they will enjoy themselves as much as possible. Hedonism is the most rational response to secularism. 

In such a world, children are often regarded as disruptive to whatever pleasures life affords. With a bunch of kids at home, it is hard to take many trips, and hard to see a movie or dine out whenever you want. 

In the age of birth control and of almost unlimited lifestyle options, one needs good reasons to have more than one — or even one — child. Religion has always provided such reasons: God wants you to be fruitful; it is vitally important to hand down one’s faith; the family is the locus of a religious life, etc.

A third and final reason is age. By the time a woman is finished with graduate school, she is likely to be close to 30 years old. And after all that work, she understandably wants to begin putting her education to good use — you can’t waste a doctorate or a master’s degree. So she further defers marriage. And even if she does marry, she defers having children. By the time she is ready to make a family, she may feel that she is too old to have more than 1.67 children.

American Jewry reveres graduate degrees. But this reverence comes at a steep price. The longer young women (and men) stay at the university (especially in the social sciences), the more secular they are likely to become, the more alienated from Israel they are likely to become (there is no mainstream institution as anti-Israel as the university), and the less likely they are to have more than one child.

Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host (AM 870 in Los Angeles) and founder of His latest book is the New York Times best seller “Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph” (HarperCollins, 2012)

Sharing the next gen: How Chabad is changing Hillel — and reshaping campus life

Shabbat dinner tells one part of the story.

When Alon Kashanian, a UCLA senior, wants a “very big social atmosphere” on erev Shabbat, he goes to Hillel’s grand, Jerusalem-stone-adorned, 25,000-square-foot Yitzhak Rabin Hillel Center for Jewish Life on Hilgard Avenue in Westwood. He socializes with friends and mingles with some of the 100 to 200 students — the number can vary widely — who come for services and Friday night dinner.

On a recent Friday, well over 100 students passed through Hillel’s doors. The night started with two prayer services: A Reform service — held in the center’s large yet cozy recreation room — included guitars and Craig Taubman melodies. A second, smaller, Orthodox service, held upstairs in Hillel’s beit midrash, drew around 20 people, this one with non-instrumental singing. Both services were student-led, with Hillel’s longtime executive director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, present at the traditional service and also speaking briefly at dinner.

During the week, the rec room could have been transplanted from a JCC. In “The Shack” on a recent weekday, games of pingpong were ongoing as students worked at their laptops or chatted with friends. Between classes, Hillel is a comfortable place for a good number of UCLA’s approximately 4,000 Jewish students (and even some non-Jewish students) to take a break and to study. 

Just before Shabbat dinner began, the students received a set of instructions from a Hillel staff member as to where to go to eat; it all felt like a casual but well-organized Shabbaton, with five to 10 round tables set for dinner in several different rooms, each table seating about 10 students.

Kiddush began with a few students standing up on chairs and singing “Shalom Aleichem to the tune of “We Will Rock You.” Nearly everyone quickly joined in, clapping and slapping their thighs to the beat. After hand washing and ha-Motzi, soup, chicken and rice, potatoes and salad were served buffet style. 

Chatting with some freshmen who were attending their first Shabbat at college, one got the sense that, at least at UCLA, Hillel was the go-to place for newcomers looking for Shabbat dinner.

Chabad Shabbat

On weeks when Kashanian wants a more spiritual, less social Friday evening, he said he opts for Chabad.

Walking across UCLA’s campus to the small and unassuming Chabad townhouse on Midvale Avenue, the atmosphere could not be more different from that of Hillel. 

The dining room was lit with the soft glow of electric candelabra lamps and adorned with pictures of the Chabad-Lubavitcher Rebbe — the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson. The smell of fresh-baked challah and soup wafted through the air. 

Run by Rabbi Dovid Gurevich and his wife, Elisa, UCLA’s Chabad house doubles as the Gureviches’ home, and as Shabbat dinner entered the second course, the well-dressed Gurevich children could be seen playing with one another and mingling with the guests. On this night, more than 50 students filled every inch of the dining room, some spilling over into the small living room. 

The food, home-cooked by the rebbetzin, included baked gefilte fish, terra chip salad, tomato tarts, barbecued chicken, roasted potatoes and more — not bad considering the cramped kitchen in which Elisa Gurevich, with the help of a few students, prepared it all. 

“It’s what you would expect at your grandma’s Shabbat dinner,” Kashanian said.

This particular Shabbat came just after the release of a Pew survey of American Jewry, which reported a decline in involvement among young Jews, so Rabbi Gurevich’s question of the night to each student was: “What aspect of Judaism do you most identify with?” 

Some said unity, some said food, a non-Jewish student at the dinner said that the weekly gathering of Jews for Shabbat stands out in her mind. 

Unlike at Hillel, Chabad’s Shabbat dinners often stretch late into the night, even until midnight. After dinner and dessert, a few dozen students hung around to help clean up, and then stayed to chat, relaxing on the couch and, of course, eating the remaining pecan brownies and peanut-butter crunch.

While most of the students there on this evening were not observant, their presence offered them a front-row view not only of Orthodox family life, but also of the inner workings of Chabad’s rapidly growing campus movement. The first Chabad campus center was established at UCLA in 1969, but it is in recent years, since 2000, that the campus movement’s expansion, both locally and nationally, has been transforming Jewish life on campuses that had been Hillel-centric for much of the 20th century. 

From free Shabbat dinners to a grass-roots, decentralized fundraising strategy, Chabad’s tactics on the 200 campuses it serves full time have impacted Jewish life on campus, including how Hillel reaches out to Jewish students. 

If Hillel used to be the primary — often the only — option for organized campus Judaism, its standing now is somewhat less dominant. Whereas on some campuses, like UCLA, Hillel has maintained its lead role, at others, including the University of Southern California (USC), it now more or less shares that leading spot with Chabad. 

New kid on the block: USC Chabad

Students participating on USC Hillel’s Birthright trip in June 2012 get ready to cool down on a hike in Har Meiron, in northern Israel. Photo by Alison Levine

Los Angeles has three local full-time Hillels — at UCLA, USC and California State University, Northridge (CSUN), each run with annual budgets of at least $250,000. By contrast, the only Chabad to have cracked the quarter-million mark is at USC, run by Rabbi Dov Wagner and his wife, Runya, where the annual budget recently hit $360,000. 

Indeed, the expansion of USC’s Chabad mirrors the national growth of Chabad’s campus movement. In 2000, when two shluchim (emissaries) approached Susan Laemmle, USC’s then-dean of religious life, about the creation of a USC Chabad house, initially she had some reservations.

“Hillel was the umbrella, the big umbrella,” Laemmle said. “And all the Jewish stuff fit under Hillel.” 

Indeed, by the time the Wagners came to USC in 2000, Chabad had established houses on only 35 campuses throughout the country, less than one per year since its campus debut in Los Angeles 31 years before. 

But that was about to change. Today, the Brooklyn-based international Chabad arm of the group’s campus movement serves nearly 400 American colleges and universities, with 200 of those campuses having permanent Chabad student centers.

“It became clear to me that just as there were multiple Christian groups, it was conceivable that there would be multiple Jewish groups,” Laemmle said. Observing the new Jewish campus landscape, she continued, “was a breakthrough, really, in terms of my thinking.”

In 2006, Rabbi Chaim Brook and his wife, Raizel, moved from Brooklyn, N.Y., to open a Chabad house at CSUN. One year later, Rabbi Eli Levitansky and his wife, Mirel, opened another at Santa Monica College (SMC).

Hillel’s dominance dates to the second half of the 20th century, when the organization became the “anchor of Jewish student life” on campus, said Jonathan Jacoby, senior vice president for Programs for Jewish Life at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

CSUN student Daniel Sigal wraps tefillin at a Sinai Scholars field trip two years ago, as Rabbi Chaim Brook of Chabad finds a prayer in the siddur. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

In L.A., from the early 1940s until the turn of the millennium, Hillel student centers had footholds at UCLA (1941),  USC  (1949) and Los Angeles Valley College (1957). 

But due to Chabad’s ascent, as well as the addition of even more alternatives, like the Jewish Awareness Movement (JAM), students now have options, said David Harris, the campus activities coordinator at Federation. “You are looking at a multitude of entry points into Jewish campus life,” Harris said. “In earlier years, there were really only one or two.”

JAM, a local campus group that has a presence at four Southern California campuses (including UCLA and USC), was founded in 1996. While not nearly as large as Hillel or Chabad, it offers students weekly learning, Shabbat dinners, challah baking, and trips to Israel and London. 

Seidler-Feller, UCLA Hillel’s director, has been a staple at Hillel since 1975, drawn initially to the Hillel movement for, as he put it, its “ideological commitment to pluralism.”  

Seidler-Feller’s case for Judaism to the assimilated Jews, who are the “overwhelming number of Jews in America today and on the campus in particular,” is that “you can be open, involved, and integrated into American and Jewish society on the whole, and retain a significant [Jewish] identity, practice [and] commitment,” he said. 

“When I started, one felt that there was a residue of Jewish commitment and knowledge that was present among certain sectors of the student community,” Seidler-Feller said during one of two interviews at his Hillel office, which is lined with a seemingly endless number of books. “There has been a very noticeable decline in the [last] 20 years, as far as that’s concerned.”

Michael Jeser, who led USC’s Hillel from 2009 to June of this year, said that today’s young Jews often don’t want to get involved. “The overwhelming majority of Jewish students don’t affiliate to anything,” said Jeser, who was recently named executive director of Jewish World Watch.

To attract those Jews, USC Hillel molds some of its programming around activities that don’t, at least on the surface, appear Jewish, such as Trojan Hoops for Justice, a basketball tournament to raise money for programs for under-privileged children.

Rabbi Heath Watenmaker — who grew up in Reseda, graduated USC in 2002 and received a master’s degree there in social work in 2006 — was a regular at Hillel and an occasional guest at Chabad, becoming close with Rabbi Wagner. 

In 2011, Watenmaker became the Reform outreach-initiative rabbi at the Hillel at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Speaking by phone, he pointed out that a key difference between Chabad and Hillel is that while Chabad focuses on offering Jewish programs, Hillel offers programs for Jews, not all of which have a religiously Jewish theme. 

Watenmaker remembers attending a USC Hillel masquerade ball for Purim where there was no reading of the Book of Esther — which every Chabad house in the world reads on Purim.

“It was a chance to go out with other Jews, even if there wasn’t something overtly Jewish about it,” Watenmaker said. 

And while Shabbat dinner, tefillin wrapping and menorah lighting are key activities at a campus Chabad house, Jeser said Hillel’s programming will “reflect the identity of the majority of the Jewish students,” usually not so tied to observance. 

Contrasting outreach strategies

Josh Faskowitz, a 21-year-old senior at USC, grew up Reform, participated in NFTY (North American Federation of Temple Youth) and became involved with Hillel after going on a Birthright trip to Israel in 2011.

“I needed some way to slow down the monotony of college,” Faskowitz said. “I worked with the rabbinic intern at Hillel, and we talked about how to instill Judaism in my routine.” Faskowitz decided to learn how to cook a Shabbat meal every week.

“That was kind of my religious opening,” Faskowitz said, pointing to the way Hillel engages today’s Jewish students through a process it calls “relationship-based engagement.” A Hillel intern helped Faskowitz find a meaningful Jewish routine through making Shabbat dinners, and Faskowitz, on his own, shared the dinners he prepared with his friends.

Shoshanna Pro, a senior at CSUN and a volunteer for Hillel 818 (a collaborative Hillel that covers programming at CSUN, as well as at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and L.A. Valley College in Valley Glen), said that, in her experience, Hillel’s focus on developing leadership qualities is so emphasized that many times “the staff will not step in” if a student-led program is falling short of expectations. 

At Chabad, by contrast, it is the rabbi and rebbetzin who run most programs. And in the event of a faltering student-run program, the Chabad husband-wife team will usually step in to help, as their goal is always to run successful programs. 

A program at Chabad can be something as seemingly minor as setting up a table on campus with brownies and informational fliers (student volunteers lead much of the campus “tabling”), to wrapping tefillin with Jewish men chancing to walk by. 

During an on-campus interview with Rabbi Brook of Chabad at CSUN, the rabbi frequently stopped the conversation to chat with Jewish students walking by. To the male students, he added, “Would you like to wrap tefillin?” 

Almost every student accepted Brook’s request and put on the arm and head tefillin right in the middle of the busy campus thoroughfare, saying prayers, then unwrapping and continuing on with their day.

According to Chabad tradition, any mitzvah is an experience “that remains forever in the person’s life,” said Chabad of Santa Monica College’s Rabbi Levitansky. “Chabad feels that when you do a mitzvah, it’s not just a mitzvah that you did and then it’s gone.” 

During Sukkot at USC, Rebbetzin Wagner involved students in baking brownies and making chicken soup, while the rabbi, his seven children and some student volunteers manned the sukkah during the day, attracting dozens of students in to shake the lulav and etrog — as well as to snack and chat. 

“If somebody has a positive Jewish experience, which can literally be just one single mitzvah done in a sukkah,” Wagner said, “that already, in itself, is a positive accomplishment. And we see that as fulfilling our mission here.”

While Chabad’s mitzvah-based version of Jewish kiruv (outreach) is based on its own unique brand of Chasidism, Hillel’s form of outreach does not “represent any dogmas,” according to Seidler-Feller, and will often mold its flavor of Judaism to the student body of a particular campus

For example, because UCLA has significantly more Orthodox Jewish students than either USC or CSUN, the Hillel in Westwood offers a traditional Friday night service in addition to its Reform one. Not so at USC, where there simply is not the demand for a separate Orthodox service at Hillel.

Chabad, meanwhile, is fiercely consistent in its messaging on any campus or other site. Shabbat services are traditional Orthodox and follow the customs of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the father of contemporary kabbalah.  

And while Chabad defines a Jew according to Jewish law (someone born to a Jewish mother), the movement will still welcome students who identify as Jewish even if not Jewish by law. Hillel, meanwhile, as part of its outreach, will purposely engage those brought up in interfaith families. While Jeser said that USC Hillel’s “strategies have to reflect” the high number of Jews of interfaith families at USC, that reality would not liberalize or otherwise change how Chabad reaches out. It would likely further motivate shluchim to increase their efforts.

Student demographics at Chabad

Even though Chabad’s philosophy is traditional, the affiliations of many, if not most, of the students who attend Chabad closely resemble the range of observance of modern-day Jewish students on college campuses across America — from observant to, more often, not at all. Despite the reality of these demographics, Chabad on Campus spokesman Motti Seligson said by phone from Brooklyn the perception remains that Chabad is primarily for Orthodox students.

“Some people may perceive Chabad as being only for Orthodox Jews,” Seligson said. “If you walk into any Chabad house on campus, that perception quickly evaporates when you see who’s actually there.”

Wagner estimated that just 5 to 10 percent of regular attendees at the Chabad of USC identify as Orthodox. Brook said that among Jewish students at CSUN, he interacts the least with Orthodox ones, perhaps because most of them live at home and would not be on campus for Shabbat.

For a handful of non-observant or unaffiliated students, Chabad serves as the steppingstone to an observant lifestyle. Ellen Watkins, a UCLA senior from San Francisco, was raised, aside from Jewish summer camp, as a secular Jew. As a freshman, she said she tried out UCLA’s Jewish gamut (Hillel, Chabad and JAM), eventually settling with what the Gureviches were offering and even becoming Chabad’s student board co-president in her junior year.

Marketing, outreach and cooperation

The immersion of Chabad emissaries in environments that aren’t natural hubs for religiosity or spirituality walks in line with the group’s core philosophy that it is the Jewish people’s mission to make the world a holier place. Tabling on campus, inviting a secular Jew to Shabbat dinner, working with fraternities and sororities that have significant Jewish populations — these are all a direct outgrowth of the movement’s philosophy of immersion in American society.

This, in fact, may be the deepest similarity between Chabad and Hillel: While the two organizations have very different outlooks on Judaism, both see college campuses as key to the future of American Judaism.

Sisters in the Sigma AEPi colony at CSUN learn how to bake challah last year at Chabad. Photo courtesy of Chabad of CSUN

At USC, the Wagners have engaged extensively with the two Jewish fraternities there, Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Mu (Sammy). USC has no official Jewish sororities.

From challah baking, to Greek Shabbats, to “stump the rabbi” sessions, Rabbi Wagner says engaging in Greek culture is a natural way to reach large numbers of Jews. “If you’re able to reach into a couple of students, you’ve got access not only to that student [and] maybe a couple of their friends, but to the group as a whole,” Wagner said.

One luxury at USC, a private university, is the access offered by the school’s Office of Religious Life to engage incoming freshmen. Every year, the office gives both Hillel and Chabad the list of accepted applicants who checked off “Jewish” as their religion. 

Of course, as Wagner points out, working with a college bureaucracy is not always easy: “The university is like the government. There are a million different offices, and each one is to some extent independent of [the others].” 

“You have to develop a relationship with the office of admissions, and a relationship with the office of religious life, and a relationship with the office of alumni programming, and a relationship with the financial office.”

Discussing what is perhaps the most cooperative local Hillel-Chabad relationship, Bailey London, USC Hillel’s executive director, said that Hillel and Chabad work closely every year to plan Shabbat 500 — which, as the name suggests, is a Shabbat dinner for 500 Jews, held under a massive tent outside the Chabad house.

This past August, after Fresh Fest — a two-day annual retreat for Jewish freshmen held in August at American Jewish University’s Brandeis-Bardin Campus in Simi Valley — London said that Hillel invited the students to a welcome barbecue at Chabad.

As Chabad grows, Hillel adapts

Judith Alban, acting executive director at Hillel 818, pointed to two major changes Hillel has adapted to in the past generation. One is an evolution of how Jewish students want to be engaged. Whereas in the past, students may have been willing to work the phones to raise money for Hillel, today’s students “don’t want to sit on the phone asking people for money,” Alban said during an interview in her Hillel 818 office adjacent to the CSUN campus.

“They like to see the actual fruits of their labor,” she said. “We can get a lot of students to come out and paint a school. That’s just the way this generation is.”

The second change that Hillel has adapted to is one that was actually spurred by campus Chabad houses — free Shabbat dinners, a core principle for Chabad. After all, a family inviting people over for Shabbat dinner would likely not ask them for an upfront payment. Whereas many Hillels used to charge students for Shabbat dinner (even if only $5 or $10), competition from Chabad helped change that. 

Students who don’t lean toward Hillel or Chabad were often enticed by Chabad’s free Shabbat dinners. So, Alban said, “in order to compete,” Hillel had to adapt.

“It was like [free-]market enterprise,” she said. “Hillel had to start doing what Chabad did.”

The competition also offers a challenge for both Chabad and Hillel — if students are used to getting everything for free, how will they understand that those programs rely on funds raised by others?

“My biggest fear is that students have an expectation that everything in the Jewish world will be free,” said Josh Fried, Hillel 818’s program director. “They don’t understand that they are going to have to pay it forward and donate.”

UCLA seniors at Dockweiler Beach in 2012 for a Hillel event. Photo courtesy of Hillel at UCLA

Rabbi Gurevich at Chabad of UCLA echoed a similar sentiment during an interview in his Westwood office. “People have kind of gotten used to, in a way, some handouts — Birthright, free trips,” Gurevich said. “It’s hard to stimulate someone to get excited about something unless there’s some kind of giveaway.” 

Parents, Gurevich said, tend to donate on behalf of their children only while the kids are in college. As for the alumni, “It takes a while for them to make their way in the world,” to the point where they feel they can give back.

Gurevich also pointed to a Chabad program known as Sinai Scholars — which offers a $350 stipend to students who come to study — as one drawback of what he says is, overall, a wonderful program. “I’m ambivalent about it because it might create these expectations,” Gurevich said. “It’s the question people ask about Birthright: Are you giving too many free things to people?”

But, as with offering free Shabbat dinners, Gurevich and Chabad on Campus see the stipend as a way to get otherwise unmotivated students to commit to hours of Torah study.

“The bottom line is that the benefits outweigh the particular detriment, because we see that people become a lot more involved and a lot more engaged,” Gurevich said. The Sinai Scholars program is now offered on 77 campuses nationally, according to Chabad spokesman Seligson.

In contrast, at UCLA Hillel, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and his wife, Sharona, have been working for almost a decade as part of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC). Offering one-on-one learning with students as well as group classes on Jewish topics, Kaplan said that he has never offered a cash stipend.

“Our general position is never to pay for learning,” Kaplan said. “We found that we haven’t needed to do it in order to have a crowd.” 

He added, however, that he and Sharona do offer other incentives, such as a free lunch or dinner, or having a running tab at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, allowing students who learn with JLIC to get a cup of coffee or a snack on the house. “The bottom line is an incentive is an incentive,” Kaplan said.

UCLA student Eli Mordechai wrapping tefillin on campus with Rabbi Dovid Gurevich of Chabad. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Dovid Gurevich

Hillel and The Jewish Federation

Hillel’s dominance on college campuses was long reflected in Federation’s relationship with the Los Angeles Hillel Council (LAHC), a now-defunct organization that helped finance local Hillels, in large part through Federation support.

Federation’s Harris, in an e-mail to the Journal, described the past Federation-LAHC funding stream as a “lump sum” to LAHC, which was then “divided up among its member units.” 

Until about three years ago, every dime of Federation’s campus funding went to LAHC and, by proxy, to local Hillels. Between 2008 and 2010, all of Federation’s combined $2.7 million in campus funding went to LAHC.

LAHC’s dissolution about three years ago forced the Hillels under its purview to become independent 501(c)(3)s, which also coincided with a major upcoming change in how Federation will distribute grants to all Jewish organizations for all programs under the aegis of its Ensuring the Jewish Future department, including those on campus.

Because Federation plans to shift to a program-based grant process, beginning in the 2014-15 academic year, Hillel, like Chabad, may have to rely more and more on local, grass-roots, relationship-based fundraising.

Previously, Federation’s Jacoby said, the official view was, “We have a historic relationship with this organization [Hillel]; therefore we will give it money.” Now, he said, Federation has “no predisposition whatsoever for, or against, any organization.” 

In 2010, Federation began to encourage more Jewish campus groups — including Chabad and JAM — to apply for program grants. 

Since then, Federation has given about
$2.3 million directly to local Hillels and $386,000 to other Jewish campus groups, $28,000 of which went to Chabad of USC for program grants, Harris wrote in his e-mail. Federation’s gradual shift away from a Hillel-only funding approach is a reflection, at least in part, of “the myriad of ways a Jewish student in today’s world can get engaged in Jewish life on campus,” Harris wrote.

Once Federation’s grant-based funding is in full effect, money that used to cover operating costs at local Hillels will soon only be distributed in the form of grants for specific programs, which Hillel as well as other Jewish groups will have to apply for. 

For UCLA Hillel, which has its own fundraising team, a fundraising partnership with UCLA, and relies on core Federation grants for only 7 percent of its annual budget, losing those core grants may not have a tremendously adverse impact. 

But, as Seidler-Feller said, “Every organization is reliant on a core budget, and this new approach undercuts or seemingly undercuts that core budget, or part of it.” He added, though, that a grant-based process may have an upside. “It also means there’s a push for excellence,” he said. “You have to earn the grant.”

For Hillel 818, which has relied extensively on Federation for many years, adapting to a new landscape — by tapping into relationships with parents, alumni and community members — may be a struggle. 

Rabbi Dov Wagner and students enjoy food at Chabad of USC’s falafel fiesta night in January 2012. Photo  courtesy of Chabad of USC

“It’s a very tough transition,” Alban said. “We are going to the community and telling them how we are struggling. I just think sometimes the parents don’t really think about it,” she said. “They just think, ‘Oh, the Jewish community funds you.’ ”

At Chabad, the primary fundraiser generally is just one person — the rabbi. Seed money from major donors and small annual grants from Chabad on Campus are not uncommon, but on a year-to-year basis, Brook at CSUN, for example, is almost entirely responsible for raising his $200,000 annual budget.

Chabad operates on something approaching a franchise model — each Chabad house can use the Chabad brand and can pay for the rights to a standard Chabad on campus Web site. But each Chabad house is entirely responsible for its own operations.

“It’s a yearly struggle,” said Chabad of SMC’s Levitansky. “But I think it creates an element of constant motivation. You are the king or the queen on the chessboard, which creates a much greater desire to get toward
your goal.”

A model for the future

As Jewish campus life in Los Angeles continues to adjust to having twice as many options on campus, some Chabads and Hillels are learning how to share the playground. 

At USC and CSUN, the two organizations already often work together when they can. 

“It’s healthy to have us both here,” Hillel 818’s Alban said. “It really is.” 

One benefit of having a Chabad rabbi right down the street, according to Alban, is that when it comes to questions of Jewish law, she knows whom to call.

“We had a student who wanted to get her apartment kashered, and so we called [Rabbi Brook],” she said.

At UCLA, some students don’t see competition: “They are interconnected,” said David Chernobylsky, a 19-year-old UCLA junior. “When you start meeting people through the other, you become more ingrained in the entire Jewish community.”

“It’s just good for the Jews,” Brook said with a smile, as he walked back to the CSUN Chabad house after spending a few hours on campus. “There’s enough work for both of us.”

And, as Seidler-Feller bluntly put it, there’s so much room for growth with Jewish college students that neither group can call itself king.

Seidler-Feller may be leading one of the most successful Hillel centers on any campus. But still, he emphasized, “Anyone who thinks one organization controls the campus is hallucinating.”

Berkeley Jewish student union rejects J Street affiliate

The Jewish Student Union at the University of California-Berkeley rejected J Street U for membership for the second time since 2011.

According the campus newspaper, the Daily Californian, the rejection at a meeting Wednesday focused on J Street U’s hosting of members of Breaking the Silence, a group of IDF soldiers who chronicle what they say are abuses they witnessed during their military service.

Daphna Torbati, the Jewish Student Union president, said the group disparages Israeli troops, while representatives of J Street U said Breaking the Silence and groups like it facilitate a broader conversation over how best to support Israel.

J Street U is the campus affiliate of J Street, a pro-Israel group that advocates an end to Israeli settlements and an assertive U.S. role in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace.

J Street U lost the vote two to eight, with two abstentions.

According to the Californian, J Street U had endeavored to work together with the Jewish Student Union since last being rejected in 2011. The group helped to push back last April against a Student Senate vote to recommend divestment from companies that deal with Israel’s military.

Textism: Does spelling even matter anymore?

f u cn rd ths, u cn bcm a sec & gt a gd jb w hi pa.

You can tell that’s not a text message.  When secretaries were getting good jobs for high pay, no one was texting.

Those School of Speedwriting “>Does Spelling Matter?,” who told an interviewer that “judging character or worth by how meticulous a speller a person [is] ‘is a way to say I’m better than you…. It’s a form of licensed prejudice.’”  No, my beef with spelling isn’t that it protects the ruling class.  It’s that it’s so irrelevant.

I mean, really:  Occurred has two c’s and two r’s.  Is getting that wrong really a slippery slope to barbarism?  The truth is that I always know what someone means by your welcome, and a misspelling never flummoxes me.  I may squirm inwardly when I hear “between you and I,” but I never misunderstand it.  It’s ridiculous that people now say “literally” when they mean “figuratively,” but it’s never so ridiculous that I fail to comprehend them. Dan Quayle was spit-roasted for spelling potatoe with that e at the end; it was seen as evidence that he was just a dumb blonde.  But not a single person laughing at him would ever mistake a potato for a turnip, which arguably should be what’s at stake here.             

It’s one thing for Professor Horobin, or me, to cut misspellers some slack.  In my case, the grammar that Mrs. Bustard drilled into my head served me well on standardized tests, in college and in my career, so it’s easy for me to go wobbly on rules now.  But what about today’s texting toddlers who grow up thinking that lol is a word?  Are we raising a generation of illiterates whose fuzzy spelling is the precursor of fuzzy thinking? 

It’s not as though we can stop them, no more than King Canute could stop the tide.  The coming universal penetration of smart phones, the Wild West vibe of the Internet, the bias of social media for brevity, instantaneity and comedy: these vectors are inexorably torqueing how we communicate.  But are they also dumbing us down?

A study sponsored by the “>Best Columnist award this year, holds the Norman Lear chair in “>USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.  Reach him   

The many blessings of Jewish homeschooling

Shari Rosenman decided to homeschool her children because it gave her the freedom to set her family’s schedule. Leat Silvera does it because she wants her children to pursue their passions. 

A few years ago they realized that, as Jews, they weren’t alone in making this educational choice.

“When we started homeschooling, there weren’t many Jewish families homeschooling, and then the economy changed,” said Rosenman of Carthay Square. “A lot of Jewish families could no longer afford to send their children to private Jewish schools, and they weren’t going to send them to public schools.”

The result, they found, was an increased desire for Jewish homeschooling, and about five years ago this led to the creation of LA Jewish Homeschoolers (, a network of families seeking to connect for social and educational purposes. 

“We put together a support network so people wouldn’t have to start from scratch,” said Rosenman, one of the organization’s founders, who homeschooled her daughter, Maya, 16, and son, Eytan, 14, for years.

The group ranges in size from 60 to 100 families at any one time and is open to all denominations. Members are located in the San Fernando Valley, Pico-Robertson, Long Beach and parts of Central Los Angeles. 

The network exists for support, collaboration and more. Twice a month, members meet up for social activities, and there are informal classes that they’re welcome to join, although the group is not set up as a primary educator for the kids. Past instruction has included Bible study, writing circles, history classes and a course where instructors teach how to solve robotics challenges using Legos. There have been hikes, visits to a planetarium, a nature walk with a naturalist and a park day. 

Among the members of LA Jewish Homeschoolers is actress Mayim Bialik (“The Big Bang Theory”), a Valley resident. She wrote in an e-mail to the Journal that she prefers homeschooling because it allows her two kids to learn at their own pace. 

“Our sons love learning, they are focused and attentive, [and] they are respectful of others and see the world as an opportunity to constantly be learning,” Bialik wrote. “These are the gifts we have seen in our homeschooling experience and journey.”

Bialik — who has a doctorate in neuroscience from UCLA — has taught neuroscience, high school biology, chemistry and a specialty research development course for students through LA Jewish Homeschoolers. 

An advantage of teaching her own sons, who are 4 and 7, is that she has control over the subjects they learn, she wrote.

“We love being able to teach our kids subjects the way we want them taught,” Bialik wrote. “For example: the notion of what ‘really’ happened when Columbus landed in America is quite easily taught in a homeschool environment, whereas it’s politically charged in other schools.”

One of Silvera’s motivations for homeschooling her five children is that the possibilities for learning are endless. 

“Homeschooling is not taking a classroom and putting it in your dining room,” she said. “Once you’re outside the brick and mortar of the school building, your whole world opens up. You can really create a program based individually on your child that can inspire a lifelong love of learning.”

Parents — who are not required to have teaching credentials if they homeschool their children — sometimes choose to teach everything themselves, while others hire tutors and teachers to help out. 

Beth Braunstein of Valley Village, who has homeschooled all five of her children, said that there is no typical day. 

“Some days are outdoors-based, where we do field trips. I think you have to be part of the world by seeing and experiencing it. Some are more class-oriented, and then [my children] do whatever work we decide needs to be done that week. It’s more flexible according to their needs.”

Because her children have learning disabilities, they have performed better because of homeschooling, Braunstein said. 

“Testing them in the standard way will never be beneficial. It’s part of the frustration they had in school.” 

A personal issue that Braunstein said she has with traditional schooling is that it is based on a reward system — grades — as opposed to teaching children to learn for the sake of learning. 

“My kids developed an intellectual curiosity. The schools have so many things to deal with, and the structures in place are in some ways outdated and obsolete,” she said. “It’s just not inspiring the kids to be prepared for an ever-changing world.”

Bialik, like Braunstein, likes that the schooling can be personalized and planned according to a child’s needs. She said it allows “your child to develop at their own pace rather than conforming to what the ‘norms’ are for developing speech, academic ability, etcetera.” 

Although there are many positive aspects to homeschooling, it doesn’t work well for everyone, she admitted. 

“You have to want to be with your kids a lot of the day,” Bialik said. “There is a lot of flexibility and open-mindedness you learn to have when you homeschool.”

Silvera said the perks are worth it. 

“You get to see your children very relaxed, happy, picking up books and reading on their own or doing creative projects. Through homeschooling, you give your kids the gift of time: Time to explore their passions and what they love. There’s no limit.”

Through the Jewish homeschooling network, Bialik, Silvera, Braunstein and Rosenman have found similar-minded peers to whom they can turn whether they need advice, have questions or want to feel part of a community. 

“The wonderful thing about the Jewish Homeschoolers is the resources available,” Bialik said. “I can ask questions and find people with kids like mine temperament-wise and ask what worked for them. It’s wonderful to be supported by a homeschooling community like this.”

Students as first responders

First responders have been, rightly so, the focus of national attention since the terrorist attacks at the finish line of the Boston Marathon this past April. We have marveled at men and women tearing down barricades, running in the direction of smoke and chaos, unmoved by possible personal injury, in order to care for the needs of others. 

In Boston, these first responders were medical technicians and police, firefighters and doctors, but also athletes who, just completing 26.2 miles of running and physical exertion, immediately proceeded to donate blood. There were bystanders and spectators holding down blood-soaked tourniquets, and people large and small carrying the wounded to safety and security. 

While I have read much about how the first responders represent not only the best of America but also embody the truest of Jewish values, I wondered where these people come from? What makes them who they are? And what do we need to do to “grow” more of them in the future?

Are they the product of a certain environment or home life? Did they receive some type of education along their life journey, whether in their schools or more informally, that has crafted their sense of purpose under crisis? Or, are these individuals just hard-wired this way? Do they have cognitive resources and structures that help properly guide their responses to such challenging moments? 

There has been much cognitive research over the past 20 years regarding a subset of us humans who, under extreme duress, seem to become calmer and calmer. Instead of their hearts racing, which creates the famous flee reaction in humans, these individuals find their blood pressure dropping, their breathing steadying and their decision-making skills sharpened. Their limbic systems, largely responsible for critical, instinctive, non-conscious decision making, trigger differently under duress than those of the rest of us normal panickers. 

Special exams to test for these skills have been crafted by the likes of the military, the National Football League in evaluating future quarterback draft picks and for doctors interested in emergency medicine. However, these individuals are few and represent a small percentage of the human population. They could not possibly account for the sheer number of individuals who, at the right moment, seem to make the most morally desirable decisions under the most strenuous of circumstances. 

I believe that there are ways that we can, at a very early age, begin to address these skills in our Jewish schools. Crisis management, either through man-made or natural disaster, seems to have become a consistently burning issue in newspaper headlines and our communities. Instead of waiting to see if these skills blindly suss themselves out under terrible and stressful circumstances, let’s imagine that our schools and Jewish community can make such training a critical part of how we frame a great Jewish education.

Emergency medical training for our children should begin early. I believe that even first-graders are capable of learning how to respond to circumstances and challenges in order to help those in need. Instead of treating fire and lock-down drills as a matter for adults, we should include our youngest first responders as active partners in this process. 

“What would you say on the phone to the 911 people if there was a problem?” “If your friend next to you had a big cut, what should you do?” “What words would you use to help if someone next to you was scared?” 

By letting children know that they are not only capable but can be part of the process of helping others, we instill the best notions of moral response in their minds. They will feel empowered and better able to see that there are positive ways to be of service, helping during the most trying and frightening experiences. 

For older students, emergency preparedness should be a mandatory part of their application process to our Jewish high schools. Just as they must produce transcripts, recommendations and test scores, future students should have to be able to show certification in CPR and first aid training before day one of ninth grade. 

Our high schools also should fully include students in emergency planning for their campuses as part of critical leadership and team training. Just think about how sporting events or field trips or Shabbatons would have a completely different feel if students knew that they were responsible for each other’s immediate well-being. 

It could be required that student certifications and additional training be completely up to date as one of their graduation requirements. This would be a forward thinking community standard which every school, regardless of denomination, could happily mandate. 

Beyond the lessons in leadership, civic responsibility and confidence building, it would speak volumes to our students regarding Judaism — not just as a theology or way of life, but in seeing the Jewish people as a “Nation of First Responders.”

Outstanding Graduates 2013

Every year, we shine a spotlight on a group of outstanding high school seniors, culled from many nominations submitted by local educators, clergy, community leaders and, of course, you, our readers. And each year we find that the real difficulty is not in identifying those with spectacular accomplishments, but in choosing among the enormously talented graduating teens around us.

But, choose we did. And, once again, this year’s group has shown an impeccable ability to change the world — on a scale both small and large. They have not only shown the value of excellence in academics, but they have proven the importance of making a difference in the lives of others. They have reached out to those with special needs; counseled teens struggling with life’s challenges; brought joy to others through the arts; taken the reins of an international Jewish youth organization; blazed a trail on the gridiron; planned dinners at a shelter for mentally disabled homeless women; found a voice on Huffington Post; and gone running to do good. They discovered their life’s passions — drama, music, athletics, Judaism, politics — and harnessed them to inspire others. 

Just imagine what they’ll do as adults.


Ruth Maouda
Putting the pieces together


Gabe Freeman
A leading player


Michael Sacks
Leading the way


Sepora Makabeh
Using gift of gab for good


Rose Bern
A passionate voice


Rachel Arditi
Family inspiration


Sam Lyons
Finding his voice


Raphi Heldman
Lessons on the run


Joelle Milman
Transforming herself


Daniel Schwartz
Grad’s goal: A better world


LINK to daylong learning

On any given night, upward of 75 Jewish men and women cram into a building at 1453 S. Robertson Blvd. to study Torah, discuss religious texts and educate themselves on what it means to live a Jewish life.

From sunup to sundown, they come and they learn and they pray — just a day in the life at LINK, the Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel.

Rabbi Asher Brander, who was the rabbi at Westwood Kehilla and teacher at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high school for 20 years, started LINK in 2002. It’s a kollel, a place where rabbinic scholars study among themselves and teach people in the community. 

For nine years, it was located at Kehilla before moving to Pico-Robertson in 2011. Seven days a week, classes are taught on everything from Talmud to Psalms. High Holy Days rituals are covered, as is halachah, Jewish law. 

“At LINK, there is a very vibrant, dynamic environment, and that creates a tremendous connection with the Torah, HaShem and Judaism,” Brander said. “And that’s what it’s all about.”
Along with the traditional classes on Jewish texts and law that are held from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. nearly every day, LINK offers prayer services, space for independent study, and courses on everyday situations and issues. The 10 rabbis and instructors teach, in English, about character development, marriage, parenting, dating, finding a soul mate and why bad things happen to good people.
Among the five or six classes taught per day — and more than 30 per week — some are solely for men or women, but others are open to both. The schedule is revised four times a year — during the High Holy Days, the fall, winter and spring — and four guest speakers visit each year. In February, LINK is hosting a Shabbaton with Rabbi Mordechai Becher, a senior lecturer from Gateways, an organization that helps Jews connect to their religion.

Rabbi Eli Stern, LINK outreach director and an instructor, said the kollel is for everyone from every background and affiliation.

“We are teaching Torah. We are not preaching how someone should practice. It’s not about preaching to people. It’s about learning with people,” he said.
Since moving to Pico-Robertson, attendance at classes has grown significantly, doubling from 75 to 150 people coming every week, according to Brander.

The move from Westwood meant adapting to the needs of a new neighborhood, too. Now it is in the thick of one of Los Angeles’ most vibrant Jewish communities and among a variety of Orthodox shuls. As a result, LINK has been transformed from an introductory setting to one that welcomes all levels of learning. 

“There is a wide variety of classes,” Brander said. “It changed because any institution needs to be sensitive to the needs of community. Pico-Robertson has its own set of needs, and it’s a different type of clientele [than Westwood]. Obviously Jews are Jews, but Pico-Robertson has a lot going on, and we cater to what the niches are.”
LINK is a nonprofit, and during the first year it was open on Robertson, it didn’t charge dues to members of its synagogue division. Even now, people can come in any time free of charge for services as well as for learning. 

Jews can walk into LINK not only to learn, but to connect with people in their community as well. The Torah Learning for Collegiates program (TLC), led by Shoshana Rivka Bloom, is for women only and meets every Tuesday night. It features local and out-of-town speakers each week who talk about relationships, Jewish study, history, law and hashgacha (kosher supervision). Among the two dozen or so women who show up every week, the majority are single and in their 20s.
“LINK fills a void … in the Pico-Robertson area,” Bloom said. “The rabbis are very talented in reaching out to people who have very little or close to no background in Judaism. Rabbi Brander is warm and loving and cares about every Jew. Everyone feels welcome. It’s really a wonderful thing.”
Mitch Karp, who lives in the neighborhood, has been going to LINK for the past year. He takes classes on tehillim (psalms) and the Rambam and studies there on his own. Before it came along, he hadn’t found his spiritual home. 

“At the other shuls, something was definitely missing,” he said. “It had maybe the learning, but I didn’t feel connected to people. LINK has the learning, the prayer and the connection with the rabbis.”
Karp said that in the community, there is no one-stop shop for all-day learning and prayer.

“I can stay there 24/7 if I wanted to do that. There isn’t any other place on Pico where you can go early and stay as long as you want. It’s more like a yeshiva, but it’s also very open as well.”

Another student, Elliot Cavalier, has been taking classes at LINK since 2002. He said that it’s a valuable space because “it brings Torah to the masses and makes it accessible to the masses. There are a lot of classes geared toward people who don’t have a background [in Jewish studies].”

At LINK, Brander and his colleagues are there primarily to provide the many students and members with the education they never received at a Jewish day school. In addition, there is a program called The Beis, which has a double meaning. It’s pronounced “base” in English and means “house” in Hebrew. It’s for men who attended Jewish day schools but have drifted and not yet found their way back to Torah study.
Stern said that LINK doesn’t care about the level of observance of potential students, or if they’re a beginner or an expert. 

“The main thing is that you’re interested in learning,” he said. “We have a very eclectic group of people who are learning in this neighborhood. They are coming here on a regular basis and learning the skills to empower themselves to one day pick up a text and study on their own. It should be the goal of every Jew.”
What makes LINK special, according to Brander, is that any and every kind of Jew can enter the building and begin his or her learning. 

“We have under the same roof many different people from different walks of life. We have Jews that are not observant to Jews that are very religious. We have people wearing white shirts and black pants, and some people wear jeans and T-shirts. There are Persians, French people, Ashkenazim, men and women. There is a tremendous sense of diversity. People feel very welcome. The Torah does the talking.”

The Mensch List 2012

Last month, for our seventh-annual mensch list, we again invited all of you to submit your nominations of extraordinary volunteers, and again the outpouring of suggestions of amazing people was overwhelming. We faced this enormous response only to wonder, once again, how to choose from, among others, a woman who lost vision in one eye and then created an entire institute to help others with impaired sight; a UCLA student who’s made it her mission to teach her peers about the Holocaust; and an Iranian Jew in Los Angeles tirelessly working to raise awareness about persecution of Jews in his native land. (And those are just three who made the cut.)

This list could have been much longer — what we offer here is just a sampling of the extraordinary people who give so much to make the world a better place. If your nominees were not included this time, please remember, we’d love to see those names, and more, again next year. We are inspired by all of these stories, and highlight this list of mensches each year to motivate us all to live up to their example.

The Mensch List

Paulinda Schimmel Babbini, raising ovarian cancer awareness

Georgia Freedman-Harvey, artist who creates in order to heal

Sarah Loew, co-founder of Loew Vision Rehabilitation Institute

Orna Eilonunpaid CEO of the MATI Israeli Community Center

Frank Nikbakht, unflinching voice for Jews in Iran

Asthon Rosindirector of UCLA Hillel’s Bearing Witness program

Joel LiptonBig Sunday volunteer photographer

Al Ashleyhelping day schools reform and strengthen their financial systems

Connie and Harvey Lapinparent activists in the world of autism

Dr. Matthew Lefferman and Eric Weissman, Sunday sports league advocates

The ‘H’ in Jewish education

Money has a way of dominating issues. This is true of politics and presidential elections, and it’s also true of Jewish education. Just say the words “Jewish education,” and the first word you’ll typically hear is “unaffordable.”

For many years now, this problem has been at the top of the communal agenda: How to make Jewish education more affordable.

But while the issue of affordability is certainly huge, it has taken attention away from an equally important issue, which is the quality of the education itself.

It is precisely this issue of quality that was honored at the annual Milken Family Foundation awards luncheon on Dec. 13 at the Luxe Hotel in Bel Air. 

In partnership with BJE—Builders of Jewish Education, the Foundation gave Jewish Educator Awards (JEA) of $15,000 each to four Jewish day school educators: Mary Itri from Stephen S. Wise Temple Elementary School; Lidia Turner from Saperstein Middle School of Milken Community High School; Rabbi Baruch Kupfer, head of school at Maimonides Academy, and Rabbi Usher Klein, a ninth-grade yeshiva rebbe at Mesivta Birkas Yitzchok.

I attend hundreds of Jewish events every year, and I can tell you I don’t recall too many where I see black-hatted Jews having lunch with Reform Jews while celebrating Jewish education.

But that’s the point of rewarding quality: It is independent of denomination.

BJE Executive Director Gil Graff alluded to that when he gave the award to Rabbi Klein and spoke of the value of excellence, whether in studying technology or in studying Talmud.

The fact that so many denominations were represented at the luncheon made the event itself an educational experience. How often does a member of Stephen S. Wise Temple get to hear words of Torah from an ultra-Orthodox rabbi from Pico-Robertson?

And how often do ultra-Orthodox Jews get to hear from educators like Turner, who uses music to engage students in learning Hebrew, or Itri, who weaves in the Jewish values of modesty when directing her school’s spring musical?

There was an attitude of genuine open-mindedness at the event, reflected in the words of Milken Family Foundation Executive Vice President Richard Sandler, who spoke of the importance of emulating the high standards of the diverse honorees, and preserving the heritage that gives meaning to Jewish identity.

It’s in that spirit of open-mindedness and striving for meaning that I want to throw in my two cents about something I think is too often missing in Jewish education — something that presents a great opportunity for every denomination.

This is the H word: History.

My simple question is this: Are we doing a good enough job of teaching Jewish history to our kids?

I don’t mean biblical history, where Adam succumbs to temptation and Abraham almost sacrifices his son and Moses splits the Red Sea and Joseph fights with his brothers and King David does some questionable acts. This biblical history is full of great moral lessons and is crucial to our Jewish identity.

But there’s more to the great Jewish story than biblical history — there’s the history of historians, which also holds great wisdom and meaning.

This is the history where Maimonides engages with Greek philosophy and Muslim scholars; where false Messiahs like Shabbtai Zvi rock the Jewish world; where the advent of the Chasidic movement creates a major rift with the talmudic school of the Vilna Gaon; and where different ideologies compete for the Zionist soul.

This is also the history of prominent Jews making major contributions to humanity, Jews like Sigmund Freud, Sarah Bernhardt, Albert Einstein and Isaiah Berlin.

In short, this is the secular master story of the Jews, where our flaws are exposed along with our accomplishments.

It’s a master story that doesn’t compete with the moral lessons of the Bible, but adds the critical dimensions of cultural knowledge and peoplehood. How great it would be if Jewish students today learned more about the journeys, stories and struggles of their ancestors, whether they came from Morocco, Poland or Persia.

The Milken Family Foundation and the BJE are perfectly positioned to strengthen this aspect of Jewish education.

Maybe at next year’s luncheon, we will see a fifth award: The Jewish History Award, given to the school that has done the most to teach the history of the Jews to our kids.

It’s a history that is messy, complicated and endlessly fascinating, not unlike our own community today.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Hebrew to be nixed as foreign language in U.K. schools

The British government reportedly is planning to exclude Hebrew from a list of recognized foreign languages in the national education system.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews warned last week that the exclusion of Hebrew could damage Jewish education in the country, the Jewish Chronicle reported.

Education Minister Elizabeth Truss announced plans last month to make it compulsory, from September 2014, to teach a foreign language to children aged 7 to 11. Schools would be required to offer at least one of only seven recognized languages, which excludes Hebrew, the newspaper reported.

Many Jewish primary schools, which include Jewish studies alongside the national curriculum, offer Hebrew as the only foreign language. According to the Board of Deputies, the schools would find it impossible to continue teaching Hebrew if compelled to offer another foreign language as well.

Laura Marks, the board's senior vice president, told the Jewish Chronicle that the government proposal could be “extremely detrimental to our community’s identity.” Language, including modern and classical Hebrew, is “a vital ingredient to understanding our faith and culture,” she said.

Marks urged the government “to reject the idea of stipulating just a narrow range of languages.”

Brazil’s Jewish community announces creation of Anne Frank ‘educational network’

Brazil’s Jewish community sent directors of five Brazilian schools named after Anne Frank on a Holocaust study tour in Amsterdam.

The study trip is the first step in the creation of an educational network, according to an announcement by CONIB, the central body representing the Brazilian Jewish community.

The network’s schools would teach tolerance according to methods developed by the Amsterdam-based Anne Frank House educational institute. 

In the Netherlands, the delegation met Holocaust survivor Nanette König, who studied with Anne Frank. They visited Westerbork concentration camp, where Koning and Frank awaited deportation to Auschwitz. The visitors returned to Brazil last month.

“We learned a lot and there was a lot of crying, a lot of emotion,” said Marcelo Lins, a Brazilian journalist who joined the delegation. “We learned that the Dutch Jewish community was decimated, and we saw that, today, Amsterdam is once more a tolerant city, where tolerance is worked on.”

In Brazil, the schools will apply the Anne Frank House teaching methods and materials “which spread the values which Anne Frank represented, serving tolerance and the fight against anti-Semitism and racism,” the announcement by CONIB read.

The trip was organized the educators’ delegation together with the Sao Paulo Jewish community and the Anne Frank House, an educational institute.

In parallel, CONIB has launched a national essay contest about Anne Frank – a German-born Jewish teenager who hid in the house on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht for two years. She was arrested on August 4, 1944, and sent to Westerbork. The diary she kept became an international bestseller. The house became a museum which last year drew a record 1,104,233 registered visitors.

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Jewish studies flourish in China

The last quarter century has witnessed a veritable explosion in the academic field of Jewish studies. During that time, Israel solidified its place as the global center in the field, while in the United States virtually every university and college of note has established its own program, center or chair. In these two venues, the growth of Jewish studies has been closely linked to the presence of Jews, though in the United States an increasing number of non-Jews have entered the field. In other parts of the world where the field of Jewish studies has been expanding, such as Germany, the field is populated almost exclusively by non-Jews. 

Surely one of the most interesting sites of the new Jewish studies — and one of the most promising in terms of growth — is China.  

Jewish studies in China? Yes, there is a burgeoning Jewish studies presence in the most populous country in the world. The most established program in the country is based at Nanjing University, and it is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. The founding director, professor Xu Xin, followed his banishment to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution by undertaking graduate studies in English language and American literature. While engaged in his studies in the late 1970s, he discovered the riches of American Jewish literature, particularly the work of Saul Bellow — and from there developed a wider interest in Jewish studies. Xu Xin has been at the forefront of the growth of Jewish studies in China, raising several generations of students who now direct Jewish studies programs at other Chinese universities. He is a dynamic, passionate and worldly man whose savoir-faire persuaded Los Angeles Jewish philanthropists Diane and Guilford Glazer to endow his program.

[Related: The Jews of Kaifeng]

It was the Glazer Institute of Jewish Studies ( that invited me to Nanjing to teach a concentrated seminar for its graduate students. I had very little idea of what to expect from my academic experience there before arriving. I asked Xu Xin if it would be possible to visit Kaifeng, and he answered affirmatively. When I arrived in Nanjing, he told me we would be going to Kaifeng later that day and that I’d be giving three lectures there. Little did I know that the lectures would be at a conference on Holocaust studies and Jewish history held at Kaifeng’s Henan University! And not just that, but a conference held at a relatively unknown, regional university of more than 40,000 students, housed on a new campus graced by scores of new, architecturally designed buildings. This calls to mind one of the most striking impressions during my time in China: the frenetic pace of building. There is building everywhere, suggesting not only the rapid growth of the country, but also massive investment by the government in infrastructure and higher education, in stark juxtaposition to the defunding of both in our own country.

Meanwhile, I was stunned to enter the lecture hall in Henan University to see nearly 75 master’s and doctoral candidates in Jewish studies, all of whom were Chinese. Assembling that number of graduate students in Jewish studies in the United States would be nearly impossible. How much more unlikely in China! But the students were eager, curious and attentive. About half of the lectures were given in Chinese by local professors and graduate students, and the other half were given in English by conference organizer Jerry Gotel, a London-based American and patron of Jewish studies in China; Glenn Timmermans, an Anglo-Jewish scholar of English literature and the Holocaust who teaches at the University of Macau; and me. The students whom I met all read English and had a good passive command of spoken English, though they varied considerably in their ability to speak.

Why, one might ask, do these students devote many years of their lives to studying Jewish history? As a number of them told me, they sense an affinity between their people and the Jews. Both peoples possess a noble ancient history, have large dispersions outside their homeland and are marked by an entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps most centrally, for both, education is an almost sacred pursuit. In fact, one of the most winning features of the Chinese students is their unabashed reverence for the teacher. The Confucian ideal, parallel to the Jewish precept of “kevod ha-moreh,” is alive and well today. Unlike the consumerist approach to education in the United States, where students demand attractively presented products from their teachers, students in China feel happy to receive the pearls of wisdom that issue from their teachers’ mouths. At times, this leads to a certain passivity in the classroom on the students’ part. But the overall effect, especially for a short-term visitor from America, is wondrous.

Following the Kaifeng conference, I had the privilege of teaching a group of 25 graduate students — again, a rather astonishing number — in an intensive seminar on modern Jewish thought at the Glazer Institute in Nanjing. We spent three hours a day exploring thinkers as diverse as Baruch Spinoza, Moses Mendelssohn, the Hatam Sofer, Samson Raphael Hirsch, Franz Rosenzweig and Hannah Arendt. We did close readings of primary sources together in class. This was a novel experience for most. Graduate students in Jewish studies in China write theses and dissertations on a vast range of subjects, from the Second Temple period to Maimonides’ philosophy to the Holocaust to contemporary Israeli society. But their research is based not on an analysis of archival sources in the original languages, which is the standard in the United States, but on a survey of recent secondary scholarship on a particular theme. In this sense, Chinese students are somewhat behind their American, Israeli and European counterparts. Nevertheless, they are quick learners and exceptionally hard workers. They will catch on soon.

Some already have. Lu Yanming is a postdoctoral fellow at Nanjing University who seems to know everything about Chinese history and virtually everything about modern European history as well. He understands the norms of scholarship in the West and is aiming to meet them in his current research on Jews who returned to Germany after World War II. Meng (Jeremiah) Zhenhua is a fine young professor of ancient Judaism at Nanjing, who has done extensive training in Israel and speaks Hebrew. As it happens, he is also the Communist party representative in the department of philosophy and religion, a curious reminder of the lingering presence of the old regime in new China. And Fu Cong just received her bachelor’s degree and is entering the master’s program in Jewish studies at Nanjing. She was one of the most perceptive, sophisticated and confident of all the students in the seminar, and represents the newest generation who can be expected to do outstanding work in the field, most likely in her case by continuing her graduate studies in the United States.

Encountering these students made clear how remarkable and worthy an enterprise Jewish studies in China is. It’s important for China, it’s important for the field — and, it almost goes without saying, it’s important for Jews that the Chinese develop an informed understanding of their past and present in the 21st century.

Philanthropist Zev Wolfson, supporter of traditional Jewish educational institutions, dies

Zev Wolfson, a philanthropist who supported Torah institutions worldwide, has died.

Wolfson died Monday in New York following a short illness, according to media reports, and was buried the next day in Israel. He was 84.

He helped spread Torah through kollel and outreach programs, with many catering specifically to secular Jews in an effort to bring them closer to traditional Judaism.

Wolfson was born in Vilna, Poland, in 1928 and immigrated to America at the age of 17 with his mother and young brother. He immediately went to work while sending his brother to yeshiva. In his 20s, Wolfson amassed a significant wealth through his investments in real estate.

For many decades, Wolfson focused on furthering Jewish education, helping to develop and maintain yeshivas, Bais Yaakov girls’ schools, day schools and other projects all over the world, including the United States, Israel, France, Morocco and Russia, reported

Wolfson was known for his close relationship with many prominent rabbis. His wife, Nechama, who founded the Shalom Task Force 20 years ago, is well known for her efforts to combat domestic violence within the Jewish community.

Healthy, kosher hot lunches rare in L.A. Jewish schools

On a Thursday this past March, at around 11:40 a.m., the alluring scent of chicken schnitzel – freshly breaded and pan-fried — wafted through the parking lot of New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS) in West Hills.

The source was a truck from Alex Felkai’s kosher catering company, Kosher on Location. Though the company does the majority of its business over the weekends, catering elegant weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs, to keep his core staff busy during the week, Felkai had been selling lunch at NCJHS – every day except Friday – since the school opened 10 years ago.

But when NCJHS’s approximately 370 students (including one of Felkai’s children) return to school this fall, the kosher lunch truck won’t be there.

“We tried,” Felkai said, explaining that the cost of preparing and serving sandwiches and salads, burgers and burritos to the approximately 80 students, faculty and staff who bought lunch from the truck, was prohibitive.

“It was a difficult decision, but I never really made money on it,” Felkai said. “I kind of did it hoping that things would grow.”

In Jewish day schools across Los Angeles, Felkai’s story is a common one. With the first day of classes less than a month away, NCJHS isn’t the only high school that may not offer an in-school alternative to bringing lunch from home.

The Yeshiva University of Los Angeles (YULA) Girls School’s caterer is going into his third year, but the campus of the boys school on Pico Boulevard doesn’t have a kitchen or a cafeteria, nor is the school planning to build one anytime soon. At Shalhevet, a Modern Orthodox high school located on the corner of Fairfax Avenue and San Vicente Boulevard, the caterer who had been cooking in the kitchen during the last academic year just left.

“We’re busy interviewing caterers for next year,” Robyn Lewis, the new executive director at Shalhevet High School, told the Journal on Aug. 6.

On the whole, elementary schools seem more committed to providing a hot lunch program for their students, even if only a minority of students opts into the program.

Schwartz Bakery is about to start its third year providing food at the Yavneh Hebrew Academy, an Orthodox day school in Hancock Park.

“After working with our nutritionist, and after working with the school on a number of issues, we are very happy,” Yavneh Executive Director Lev Stark said.

According to Stark, about one-third of the approximately 470 students are signed up for the school lunch program.

At Yavneh, lunches can be bought in advance on a semiannual basis or purchased for $6 per day. The hot lunch program at Valley Beth Shalom Day School (VBSDS) in Encino offers parents and students more flexibility, to the point that students can choose to eat as few as two meals each month, or eat a hot lunch every single day.

“Overall, the parents appreciate the program,” said Gabrielle Baker, a mother of two students at the school who has been coordinating the hot-lunch program with another volunteer parent.

In addition to the flexibility, Baker said that parents appreciate the convenience of not having to make lunch for their children every day and feel that the food prepared by the synagogue’s in-house caterer, Starlite Catering, is reasonably nutritious.

“The only complaint is the cost,” Baker said. While it’s cheaper to purchase meals in advance, students can pay a little over $7 for a day’s lunch. “But there’s only a very limited amount that we can do to bring cost down.”

That’s because, Baker said, the food at VBSDS has to be certified kosher, and kosher food – and kosher meat in particular — is expensive.

Yavneh’s Stark also said cost was a hurdle to overcome.

“The big problem is the combination of trying to get a fantastic meal for $5. No one wants to pay $10 a meal,” he said. “This is where we worked very hard with Schwartz to make sure that it’s a viable business for them,” and that students still get a healthy and tasty meal that’s affordable.

Or, at least somewhat affordable. While Yavneh students pay $6 for lunch if they buy it that day (less if they sign up at the beginning of each semester), elementary school students attending schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District this fall will, by comparison, pay $1.50 if they buy lunch at school.

That lower price is due in part – but only in part — to the lower cost of non-kosher ingredients. It’s also a result of the subsidy (27 cents this year) the district receives from the United States Department of Agriculture for every meal it serves. The district receives more when it serves meals to the 80 percent of its students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

But the low prices also undoubtedly stem from the district’s being able to work on a massive scale. Compared to the LAUSD, which has more than 640,000 students in about 1,100 locations, each of Los Angeles’s private Jewish day schools is a boutique-sized operation.

“It just doesn’t work when maybe 80 kids eat,” said Felkai, who said that if NCJHS had been willing to charge all the students a lump sum of money (he said about $800 per year), he would have been able to feed everybody and make a profit.

“You have to make enough money to cover all the costs,” he said, “and if you only have a small volume, you just couldn’t do it.”

When a Jewish high school approached Brenda Walt to prepare lunch for its 200 female students, Walt, who runs her catering company from a synagogue’s kitchen, turned them down.

“It’s very, very hard because they really want it [the food] for nothing,” Walt said. The modest student volume also limits her ability to hold down per-meal costs.

Stark said Yavneh doesn’t mandate all of its students participate in its hot-lunch program, and that he didn’t know of any Jewish schools in Los Angeles that did so.

“But I do know if they did, it would solve the hot-lunch problem,” Stark said.

To keep their school-based caterers in business, small private Jewish schools at least should consider ways to protect them against the challenge of competition from other food vendors.

Randy Fried owns R House Foods, the catering company that recently left Shalhevet after occupying the school’s kitchen for a bit less than one year. Fried said he decided to leave the school in part because too few of the school’s approximately 200 students and faculty bought lunch at school for him to make a profit.

“By the time we got there,” Fried said, “the culture that existed was that 20 percent ate at school.”

Most students, Fried said, ordered food to be delivered to Shalhevet, and the most popular choices appeared to be fried chicken and pizza from kosher restaurants nearby.

Nancy Schiff, the school administrator at YULA Girls High School said that they specifically don’t allow students to order food to be delivered to the cafeteria.

“That would take away from Dudu,” the in-house caterer, who serves a made-to-order breakfast and a variety of set-meal and a la carte options for lunch, including sushi, wraps and various “kid-friendly foods” like lasagna, grilled cheese and quesadillas.

Students at YULA Girls School are allowed to bring their own lunches from home, of course; a few years ago, the overwhelming majority of the students at Harkham Hillel Hebrew Academy did just that, leading the school to seek out a new caterer, who is going into her second year at the Orthodox elementary school in Beverly Hills.

Every Friday is pizza day at the Orthodox elementary school; getting the crust right took some tweaking.

“At the beginning of the [2011-12 school] year, we tried out all whole wheat [pizza crust],” the school’s principal, Jeffrey Tremblay, said last May. “Didn’t go so well there. The kids were picking off the cheese, and that’s about it.”

That Friday, a few minutes before their lunch period ended and the middle school girls entered the cafeteria, a few boys headed back to the kitchen window for another slice.

“After the seconds,” Tremblay explained, “then they can, if they’re still hungry, they can pay for a third if they want to.”

To Tremblay, that sixth-grade boys want a bit more pizza at lunchtime is a sign that the school’s caterer is doing her job well – better than the previous caterer, who served only canned fruits and vegetables. But nutritionists see second helpings as problematic.

“It’s not like in the Los Angeles Unified School District, where there are certain nutrition standards,” said Leeann Smith Weintraub, a registered dietician in Los Angeles who works with children enrolled in private Jewish day schools and in public schools. At private Jewish schools, she said, “there tend to be a lot of issues with portion sizes and not really getting a good balance between the food groups.”

The menu, Tremblay said, is still a work in progress. This fall, Hillel students who buy lunch at school will be able to serve themselves from a salad bar that has improved from last year, when the only vegetables were mixed greens, cucumbers and tomatoes.

“Now, we’ve added onions, sprouts, garbanzo beans for protein,” Tremblay said. “And low-fat and nonfat dressings only.”

Still, nearly everyone — nutritionists, parents and even school administrators — agrees that bringing a homemade lunch could be the healthiest choice for any student.

“My friends’ children take their food to school,” said Maryam Maleki, a registered dietician who works with Jewish and non-Jewish clients. “They would rather their children take their food to school because it’s healthier, and they’ll sparingly allow their children to eat the food at school.”

That perfectly describes Chavi Wintner, a mother of two young students at Hillel. “I like to know what’s in the food that I make,” Wintner said, over a late-morning breakfast of oatmeal and unsweetened decaf iced coffee.

Her children don’t participate in Hillel’s hot lunch program; instead, Wintner packs lunches that always include some fresh fruit and might feature some roasted vegetables or a sandwich of melted cheese on bread.

Still, Wintner was very vocal in the push to eliminate the vending machines selling Gatorade at Hillel. “I think that nutrition is part of the school’s responsibility to teach,” she said.

Diversity is good for Jewish college students

In case you haven’t heard, Orthodox Judaism has pretty much taken over Jewish life on U.S. college campuses. I say this not because I’m smug and happy about it, but as a wake-up call to the Conservative and Reform branches to get their acts together.

If diversity is good for the Jews, then it’s even more important for college students.

College life is the ideal time for students to experiment and search for their own truths. If they’re exposed to a diverse religious menu, they’ll be more likely to find their personal Jewish path.

Unfortunately, they’re not finding much religious diversity these days.

According to a report last week in The Jewish Week by Sam Cohen, a senior at New York University, the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism have virtually abandoned their outreach efforts on campus. As he writes, “Last month the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism drove the penultimate nail into the coffin of KOACH, its college-programming branch, by announcing it would end the program unless supporters raised $130,000 by the end of the year.”

As if that weren’t bad enough, Cohen adds that “KOACH lasted three years longer than its Reform companion Kesher, which the URJ [Union for Reform Judaism] closed down after a similar stretch of inadequate funding and underwhelming impact.”

Meanwhile, Cohen notes how Orthodox outreach efforts are thriving: “The Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus program (JLIC), which places young Orthodox rabbis and their wives to live full-time on college campuses, has grown to include 15 locations. Chabad on Campus continues to expand rapidly with a $28.8 million budget (equal to the URJ’s entire annual budget), and other Orthodox outreach programs (such as 21-campus Meor, with a budget of $5.7 million) have grown as well.”

He laments that “what’s at stake here is not merely denominational pride. It’s the future of non-Orthodox Judaism in this country.”

I think it’s worse than that: What’s at stake is the future of Judaism itself — or at least its vitality.

As Cohen reminds us, “Going to college is the single most common factor for American Jews — 85 percent of all college-age Jews in the U.S. are in college. Every year, 100,000 Jews begin their freshman year, and 100,000 graduate and begin making decisions about the Jewish life they want to live and the family they want to raise.”

So, if we don’t engage this hugely influential group in a rich and diverse way, what kind of future will Judaism have in this country? Sure, if it were up to me, every Jew on the planet would observe the Sabbath and eat kosher. But an “Orthodox-only” model is a fantasy. That’s not the world we live in. The new generation must make its own decisions on what Jewish connection they will have, if any.

The Orthodox, God bless them, are making their pitch. But what about the non-Orthodox?

In my view, they’re too consumed with labels and self-definition. And even when they’re not, they use labels like “egalitarian” or “non-denominational.”

For my money, there’s only one label worth its salt in Jewish outreach: Passionate Judaism.

I don’t care if it’s a Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Chasidic, Orthodox, post-denominational or Sephardic experience. Just make it passionate.

Passionate could mean Chabad’s “unconditional love” approach, or a Carlebach minyan’s “ecstatic joy” experience or creating your own lively “medley minyan.” It could also mean offering passionate engagement with Jewish texts, Jewish history and Jewish culture. In other words, passionate means that whatever style of Judaism you practice, make it pulsate with passion and excitement.

Labels like “Reform” or “Conservative” don’t convey passion. You don’t think of passion when you think of “reforming” or “conserving.” The Orthodox label is not as much of a problem, because people assume that the more observant you are, the more passionate you are.

That’s why the non-Orthodox “spiritual communities” and independent minyanim that have sprung up in recent years don’t label themselves as Reform or Conservative. It’s no longer about the label. It’s about the experience.

Religious diversity on campuses is a must, but it’s not enough. If Jewish organizations want to make a lasting impact with today’s Jewish college students — whose hearts and minds are more loyal to their careers and their iPhone screens than to their religious tradition — they will need to offer a lot more than Judaism Lite or Judaism Friendly.

They’ll need to offer Judaism Deep, Judaism Spiritual and Judaism Never Boring.

I’ve sat on the board of UCLA Hillel for years, and the challenge of attracting students to Jewish life is consistently at the top of our agenda. The programs that work best always seem to have a passionate and pluralistic flavor — such as our Friday Night Unity Shabbats and our Challah for Hunger baking sessions.

We need many more such efforts. I’d love to see the non-Orthodox branches of Judaism team up to launch a campus movement with the simplest of labels — as simple as “The Jewish Center” — and offer a vibrant Judaism that Jewish students will want to keep for life.

Passion doesn’t belong to the Orthodox. For Judaism to thrive in America, we need every branch to show intensity and enthusiasm for the Jewish practice of its choice.

That will make it a lot easier for young Jews to choose that label called Judaism.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at

Survey finds young Frenchman unfamiliar with WWII Jewish roundup

Most young Frenchmen never heard of the World War II roundup of Paris Jews, a survey shows.

The recent survey showed most young French adults were unaware of the deportation of Parisian Jews during the Holocaust.

Sixty percent of respondents aged 18 to 24 said they never heard of the Vel d’Hiv Roundup of July 16-17, 1942, when French police rounded up some 13,000 Jews in and around Paris. They were held near the Eiffel Tower before being shipped for extermination to Auschwitz.

The Union of French Jewish Students commissioned the leading polling company CSA to perform the survey, which includes answers from 1,056 respondents. The union published the results on the 70th anniversary of the deportation.

The survey showed young adults know less about the roundup than the average French adult. Among the general population, 42 percent of respondents had never heard of the roundup.

In 1995, then-President Jacques Chirac apologized for the French police’s role in the murder of the Jews arrested in the Vel d’Hiv Roundup. Popularly known in French as La Rafle (“The Raid”), the roundup has been the subject of books, poems and movies.

The survey revealed 32 percent of young French adults knew that French police had been responsible for arresting the Jews of Paris. That figure was 46 percent among the general population.

Eighty-five percent of all respondents said teaching about the Holocaust was “important.”

Dr. Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF umbrella group of French Jewish communities, said the poll shows “there is a lot that needs to be done, but there are also positive points.”

Meanwhile, an exhibit of police archives from the French deportation, including photos, signatures and records of personal possessions from many of the victims, is set to go on display Thursday in Paris.

‘Freedom School’ keeps reading alive through summer

Pausing in the middle of reading “Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?” at a moment when the protagonist of the children’s book, Montsho, has been called the black sheep of his family, Tanya Graham asks 10 elementary school students grouped around her: “Have you ever felt different from your family?”

“This book makes me think about my family,” one student says. “I’m the oldest and have to take care of my sister and my brother.”

Later in the story, when Montsho learns about his African heritage from his grandfather, Graham stops reading again to ask, “Does anyone know what heritage is?”

Several hands shoot up, and one girl with a long ponytail immediately answers, “It’s like a history.”

Graham approves. “Who wants to write for me?” she asks. Half the hands in the room shoot up as the students volunteer to write the word “heritage” on a piece of paper to post on the word wall.

As they continue to read and discuss the story, a girl in a pink shawl says, “This is better than school.”

“It’s Freedom School,” Graham replies.

Graham’s students are among the more than 50 students from Stanley Mosk Elementary School in Winnetka who are attending Freedom School at Stephen S. Wise Temple this summer.

The six-week literacy and enrichment program for low-income, at-risk students aims to prevent the loss in reading skills experienced by many students over the summer. Attending the Freedom School, which began on June 25, is free, and each week students get to take home and keep one book.

Senior Rabbi Eli Herscher neatly summed up the Freedom School philosophy on opening day, when he had the assembled students read the words “Freedom School” on a banner. “If you really want to be free, you need to learn,” he said.

The first Freedom Schools started in the 1960s in Mississippi to educate and empower disenfranchised minority communities. The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a nonprofit that advocates for children affected by poverty and disabilities, began its own freedom school movement in 1992. There are approximately 10 other CDF Freedom Schools currently operating in Southern California.

Providing facilities, staff and funding, Stephen S. Wise Temple is the first Jewish site on the West Coast to implement the CDF Freedom School. Its curriculum includes a full morning of reading-related activities and discussion, afternoon activities such as science experiments and gardening and a weekly field trip, along with motivational songs and chants.

The Freedom School students are taught by Servant Leader Interns (SLI), often college students like Graham who attended CDF training seminars.

“Freedom Schools are important because they give children a chance to enjoy reading. Once they love to read, everything else comes easy,” said Tiffany Davis, who worked as an SLI for two years and is now Stephen S. Wise Temple’s assistant site coordinator for Freedom School.

A 1983 study of 600 New York City schools found that about 80 percent of the achievement difference between socioeconomically advantaged and disadvantaged schools could be accounted for by summer learning loss of the disadvantaged students between grades two and six. And a 2010 study by the Center for Adolescent Literacies at the University of North Carolina Charlotte found that nearly 90 percent of Freedom School students grew or maintained in their ability to read.

Mosk principal Barbara Friedrich said 88 percent of her students qualify for free lunch, and added that without the Freedom School the students would probably be at home doing nothing over the summer. “A lot of them are homeless or living in garages,” she said.

Friedrich says Stanley Mosk Elementary is facing additional challenges from the recent funding cuts to education and related social programs. She can no longer afford a full-time intervention specialist to work with her struggling readers. The 421-student campus has 129 English-language learners.

Stephen S. Wise’s Rabbi Ron Stern, who first learned about Freedom Schools from an article in Reform Judaism magazine, knew his synagogue would be a perfect partner for the program. Although most facilities demand a year of preparation and fundraising, the synagogue opened its Freedom School five months later.

Project director Andrea Sonnenberg and Jennifer Smith, Stephen S. Wise’s social justice coordinator, trained with CDF in Tennessee.

“Before every meal, they would ask people to say grace,” Sonnenberg said. “So we said the ha-Motzi on the microphone, and the people went wild. They were so touched and impressed, and thrilled to learn about another religion, and that Jewish people were interested in helping underprivileged kids.”

Stephen S. Wise Temple has even provided some of its own high school students to assist in the Freedom School classrooms, as junior SLIs. The temple hopes to expand its Freedom School in the coming years and to inspire other synagogues in Los Angeles to start their own.

The Freedom School has even provided temple clergy an opportunity to teach the Mosk students about Judaism.

On a recent Friday, Rabbi Lydia Medwin came to morning assembly to read a book to the students and speak to them briefly as a role model.

“Does anyone know what a rabbi is?” Medwin asked.

One student guessed that it had to do with the Lorax, the book in Medwin’s hands.

Another said, “It’s a leader?”

Pointing to the rabbi’s kippah, another student said, “What is that?”

“A kippah is a symbol we wear on our heads, to remind us that we are not the end-all-be-all in this world,” Medwin told the children. “I wear it when I learn and teach, because learning is a very holy thing.”

Graduation: Shining stars – our list of outstanding graduating seniors

Each year, we profile a group of outstanding high school seniors, culled from the many nominations sent in by you, our readers. And each year, we find it almost impossible to choose among the many extraordinary leaders, givers and enormously talented graduating teens.

But, choose we did. And, once again, the members of this year’s group know no limits in their quests for excellence and impact. They have given tirelessly of their time as mentors, tutors and sports coaches; helped families transition out of homelessness and poverty; participated in building a school in Sierra Leone; worked to prevent genocide; organized interfaith picnics; and founded an advocacy project to prevent drunken driving. They found their passions — drama, music, writing, languages, politics, business — and harnessed them to inspire others.

Just imagine what they’ll do as adults.

N.Y. school sued for allegedly failing to act on anti-Semitic taunts

A suburban New York father is suing his school district over the anti-Semitic taunting of his son.

Robert Slade filed the suit last week alleging that officials at Northport High School on Long Island took no action to stop a group of 20 students from traumatizing his son with taunts such as “Jews are disgusting,” “Being Jewish must suck,” “Hitler was a good person” and “My love for you burns like a thousand Jews in an oven.”

The suit says that 20 students mercilessly teased the boy in person and on Facebook during his freshman year in 2011 until he was forced to leave, the New York Post reported Monday.

“This student was subjected to some awful things,” Slade’s lawyer, Chaim Book, told the Post. “His parents alerted administrators at the school and they were ignored. Nothing was done.”

A lawyer for the school district said officials reacted appropriately to the student’s concerns.

The suit, which seeks compensatory damages, was filed May 3 in U.S. District Court. The superintendent and high school principal also are named as defendants.

Police investigate hazing at Boston Jewish frat

Boston police launched a criminal investigation after finding five men bound together nearly naked in the basement of a Jewish fraternity house.

Police responding to a noise complaint early Monday morning discovered the Boston University students in the basement of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house.

The men were found bound together by duct tape around their wrists, clothed only in their underwear and covered in flour, honey, hot sauce and other food products, according to a police report. They also had welts on their body.

“All five were shivering and had horrified and fearful looks on their faces,” the police report said.

Police are seeking criminal complaints against 14 people in connection with the hazing incident.

Alpha Epsilon Pi is an international Jewish fraternity. The Allston fraternity house was its Boston University branch, though the chapter is not officially sanctioned by the school or its Interfraternity Council.

The fraternity house was known for hosting wild parties.

B.U. officials said that those responsible for the hazing could face suspension or expulsion.

AEPi’s national headquarters condemned the hazing at the 30-member house.

“Alpha Epsilon Pi does not—in any way—condone hazing of any type,” the fraternity said. “We have been a leader for many years on this subject and expend considerable effort each year to educate our chapter leaders and members as to the proper new member education programs.”

The fraternity said that it has now closed its B.U. chapter.

“Any members found responsible for participating in any actions contrary to our risk management guidelines will be expelled,” the statement said. “We also intend to fully cooperate with all authorities and investigations.”

New York City police tighten security at Jewish sites

New York police ramped up security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions on Monday following the deadly attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse, France.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said tightened surveillance and increased patrols at more than 40 locations citywide came in response to the Toulouse attack and not in response to a specific threat against New York City.

“We know that we’re the top of the terrorist target list, so we’re concerned about the so-called copy-cat syndrome where someone might see the events unfolding in Toulouse and take it upon themselves to act out,” Kelly told reporters.

He said the additional coverage includes some undercover officers “but it’s largely increased uniformed presence at houses of worship and other locations.”

A gunman on a motorbike shot dead three children and a teacher at a Jewish school in Toulouse on Monday, just days after apparently killing three soldiers nearby.

New York City, home to more than 1.4 million Jews, has the largest Jewish population of any metropolitan area outside of Israel, said Levi Fishman, spokesman UJA-Federation of New York.

Following attacks abroad, the department typically reinforces security at corresponding targeted locations in New York such as hotels or the mass transit system.

Reporting By Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Philip Barbara

Online program aids learning for Jewish special-needs kids

Daniel Ozer-Ross studies hard. He does his homework. And it’s not enough.

A freshman at New Community Jewish High School, the 14-year-old has, since preschool, battled visual-processing challenges that have impaired his short-term memory and made it difficult to remember what he sees.

Even his high school’s accommodations — permission to use a note-taker and computer in class and extended time to take tests — haven’t been enough to compensate.

“The school’s been amazingly supportive, but with the current curriculum, he’s really been struggling academically,” said the teen’s mother, Laura Ozer of Calabasas.

That could be about to change. This coming fall, Ozer-Ross will be part of the Online Jewish Academy (OJA), a program that is partnering with a handful of area Jewish day schools to help them better meet the challenge of teaching students with special needs.

“He could really benefit from a more modified curriculum,” his mother said. “By going online, he can go at his own pace. He can repeat things that he needs to repeat.”

The academy, which is funded over three years by a $240,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, will create online courses that are designed around the needs of students, while allowing participants to remain part of Jewish day schools, according to Hyim Brandes, OJA’s co-founder and executive director.

OJA will work with teachers and students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), Shalhevet School and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA).

The goal is to fill a void that exists in too many private schools where resources for children with learning differences are inadequate, said Sari Brandes, OJA’s co-founder and director of student services and Hyim’s sister.

“Up until now, [private schools] have been underserving or not serving this population,” she said. “The Jewish community is based on education and supporting our students and being inclusive. For us to not include a student just because they can’t read at grade level would be a shandah [shame].”

Sari’s passion for the subject comes from personal experience. Diagnosed with dyslexia growing up, she was told by a high school guidance counselor that she shouldn’t bother applying for college. She ended up attending community college, where she had to be part of a special program.

“I was furious,” she said. “I wanted to be like everybody else. All these kids just want an opportunity to be like everybody else.”

What she realized eventually is that everyone learns differently. Once a student discovers how he or she learns best, anything is possible. In Sari’s case, she discovered that her preferred means of learning is auditory rather than visual. The Sherman Oaks woman went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from Harvard. Now the 37-year-old does educational consulting, coaching and educational therapy.

OJA, which is fiscally sponsored by BJE — Builders of Jewish Education, will target children with mild to moderate learning disabilities, including dyslexia, auditory and visual processing disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. Initially, the academy will offer help in Judaic and general studies to about 12 students — mostly ninth-graders — and expand to higher grade levels in future years.

The program is being designed to reach the students where they are rather than forcing them to adapt to a specific style of teaching, according to Hyim, a resident of West Hills. To that end, teachers are modifying and remediating existing courses to be used in the initiative; lectures are being videotaped and adapted for online use and multiple learning styles.

“It’s a tool that allows the curricula to be tailored to each student,” said Hyim, who has worked for a number of schools as a technology consultant. “If all a student needs to be successful is to have the [material] presented in a different font or to have something spoken to them or any of these small accommodations, it’s really possible now. The digital technology exists.”

OJA students will be jointly enrolled in one of the participating day schools and take part in some of the same classes and activities as everyone else there. Only in those areas that are necessary will they will take courses online, for which there is no additional cost. Hyim said the program also calls for the students to have access to teacher mentors, tutors and weekly meetings with an educational or occupational therapist.

“This expands our options and makes our overall ability to provide educational services to these children even better,” said Josh Horwatt, education support coordinator at Shalhevet. “Having a class that can move at their own pace, that is more independent, where they are free from distraction could be very advantageous for the right students.”

That’s important for college preparatory schools like Shalhevet, where instructors are expected to teach at a level that readies students for college and where course modification for any reason has traditionally been a sticky issue.

Up until now, Ellen Howard, principal of NCJHS, said the school has been able to make minor accommodations to help students with learning differences, and it’s been upfront about what it can and cannot offer. What’s important about OJA, she said, is that it will allow more students with special needs to have a Jewish education.

“There are some very good special needs independent schools, but they don’t provide a Jewish education,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that the Jewish community is embracing a chance to do this.”

Of course, OJA isn’t the answer for all students with special needs. As Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE’s associate director, said: “It’s one model. Is it the answer to all of the issues for all of the kids? No. We need as many different models as there are different diagnoses.”

But it’s an important start.

“OJA’s groundbreaking and creative program could influence the way Jewish education is provided for special-needs students,” said Amelia Xann, vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. “OJA has the potential to make a significant difference with this population. We look forward to watching this program as it launches over the next three years.”

While Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, head of school at YULA Girls High School, acknowledged past challenges in this area for day schools in California — due, he said, to a lack of resources from the state — he hopes the new academy can help change that.

“I hope it falls in place,” he said. “The idea is a great idea.”

Hyim’s wish is even bigger. He’d like to see these methods eventually find a wider audience.

“My hope,” he said, “is that the teachers that are involved in the program will be applying those sorts of techniques with the regular classrooms as well.”

Preschool combines Jewish curriculum, Montessori method

At a table in the corner of Olam Jewish Montessori’s oversized classroom, a flour-covered 4-year-old chats nonstop as he mixes dough for challah. In another part of the room, a 3-year-old boy counts colorful Chanukah candles in Hebrew as he slowly places them in a menorah. A teacher is showing a third child a map of Paris while he toys with a model Eiffel Tower in his hands.

In the background, a beaming Robyn Farber can hardly believe what she sees.

“I’m still in a state of shock, it’s almost a surreal experience, said Farber, who founded the school for children ages 2 to 5 in September 2011. “When I walk through the doors and see the kids in the classroom, I pretty much come to tears.”

Her only regret is that her own children, ages 9 and 5, missed out on this unique Jewish learning experience.

Housed in Irvine’s Beth Jacob Congregation, Olam is Orange County’s newest Jewish preschool and the only one in the county that marries a traditional Judaic studies curriculum with the teaching methods of the famed Italian educator Maria Montessori. Pre-reading, math and number skills, science and social studies are intertwined with studies of the Bible, Jewish laws, and culture and holiday celebrations, all in keeping with Beth Jacob’s Modern Orthodox philosophy. A unit on the animal kingdom is combined with the story of Noah’s ark. Students recently celebrated Tu B’Shevat by planting flowers and herbs.

Although Montessori designed her child-centered method for teaching secular studies, educators at more than 30 Jewish preschools throughout North America have adopted her approach over the past 15 years as an alternative to developmental-style teaching. Farber said Montessori’s emphasis on respect, independence and nurturing a child’s innate desire for discovery make it the perfect medium through which to deliver Jewish education.

“To give children the independence about how they learn is parallel with Jewish education,” she said. “Torah lishma, learning for the sake of learning, is integral to both Jewish and Montessori teaching. Montessori education gives honor to the child when he learns for learning’s sake and not for rewards or grades or overpraising.”

Love for Israel and the Hebrew language are also integral to Olam’s curriculum, with students learning pre-reading skills in Hebrew as they do in English. Each of the multisensory language learning tools for which the Montessori method is known, like sandpaper letters and phonetic boxes that hold objects with single-syllable names, have their English and Hebrew equivalents in the multi-age classroom. Director Isabelle Harris, who taught children in Israel before moving to California, speaks to students in Hebrew only.

Olam Jewish Montessori is the culmination of a five-year quest by Beth Jacob parents for a preschool of their own.

With enrollment full at the local Jewish preschools, frustrated Beth Jacob parents found their children relegated to wait lists; many reluctantly sent their children to secular preschools.

Farber chose a Montessori school in Dana Point for her daughter. The experience was eye-opening.

“It was the most Jewish-like environment of any preschool I had seen, even though the school was not Jewish,” she said. “The kids were learning for the sake of learning. There was a real energy in the classroom.”

Farber was so impressed that she invited other Beth Jacob parents to observe the class. They liked the method but agreed that it would need a strong Jewish component if it were to be incorporated into a curriculum for their longed-for Jewish preschool.

The stars finally aligned for the would-be school when the building adjacent to Beth Jacob went on the market last year. With a shared parking lot between them to accommodate additional traffic, enough outdoor play space to meet California’s childcare facility regulations, and growing demand for services at the burgeoning synagogue, the building seemed to offer the solution congregants were looking for.

Anticipating the launch of the new school, its three teachers-in-waiting became credentialed in the Montessori method. Meanwhile, several Beth Jacob members donated the cash to purchase the building, which today houses the preschool, a Sephardic minyan and a community mikveh.

Additional funding for the school came from the Jewish Community Foundation; Jewish Federation & Family Services, Orange County; and the Bronfman Youth Fellowships.

Prospective parents often have a lot of questions about the Montessori method, and Farber said there is a lot of misinformation about with the approach is and isn’t. She welcomes parents to see what Olam offers and how it differs from other Jewish programs in the community. She hopes the school, which began with 11 students, will hit its capacity of 68 by September 2012.

“There has been a lot of excitement about the program,” she said. “Overall, people see it as something that has been missing from the community.”

For more information, call (949) 786-5230, ext. 201, or For more information, call (949) 786-5230 ext. 201 or visit

Berkeley’s Jewish student union says ‘no’ to J Street U

U.C. Berkeley’s Jewish Student Union includes groups such as Challah for Hunger, Bears for Israel and the Jewish Business Association.

J Street U will not be joining them.

At a Nov. 16 general meeting, the union voted to deny membership to the Berkeley chapter of J Street U, the college division of the left-leaning and often controversial Israel lobby. The final tally: nine for, 10 against, two abstentions.

It takes a two-thirds majority to approve membership. Representatives from each JSU member organization, as well as select individual members, have a vote.

Jacob Lewis, co-president of the pro-Israel student group Tikvah and one of those casting a “no” vote, said, “J Street is not pro-Israel but an anti-Israel organization that, as part of the mainstream Jewish community, I could not support.”

Now two years old, J Street U has chapters on 32 campuses across the country and a presence on many others. This is the first time a chapter has been denied membership in a Jewish student union, according to national director Daniel May.

The Berkeley chapter of J Street U has 11 members and has been active for more than a year, staging events and bringing guest speakers to campus. Israeli-born member Alon Mazor said he had been excited about “having a voice on campus and especially being part of the Jewish community. The obvious way was becoming a member organization of the JSU.”

He knew it would be no cakewalk. Mazor, 21, expected resistance from some within the JSU, which is why he and fellow J Street U member Simone Zimmerman prepared their case at the meeting.

“We presented our group, the mission and why we wanted to be part [of JSU],” he said. “There was a silence in the room. Then the discussion got more heated. A lot of people had prepared statements and quotations. It became a very charged atmosphere.”

Zimmerman, 21, also expected resistance but said she hoped to “appeal to students through framing it in the lens of J Street adding to the conversation. It’s OK to disagree with our political views, but we want you to recognize that we’re part of this community, and we have a right to have these conversations.”

Lewis, 20, said he had been suspicious of the group ever since attending a J Street U event last year. The guest speaker was Assaf Sharon of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement in Israel, which aligns with east Jerusalem Arabs who claim Israel is encroaching on their neighborhoods.

Lewis remembered Sharon saying Jerusalem “is a symbol of violence, and that anything beyond the Green Line is a settlement. It was a virulently hateful event about Israel.

According to the J Street U website, the group supports “Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, a democratic state, and a sovereign nation with the right to defend itself against external threats.”

Lewis stressed that it was not only his group, Tikvah, that opposed admitting J Street U, but rather a majority of voting members and representatives from JSU member groups.

“It demonstrates that this is pretty much a main view of the Jewish community,” he added.

Although the Jewish Student Union is an independent group within Berkeley’s Associated Students of the University of California, it is also affiliated with Hillel of Berkeley and derives some funding from that organization.

Hillel of Berkeley executive director Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman did not attend the Nov. 16 meeting, but he said Hillel has no say in how the Jewish Student Union runs its affairs.

“As any [Hillel-affiliated] group, they do have to follow our kashrut, Israel and spending guidelines,” he said, “but they are an ASUC group we support and fund. What their criteria are for adding groups, I can’t speak to.”

Though he wouldn’t comment directly on the vote, Naftalin-Kelman did say that “We have to be very careful in how we talk about Israel and how we define our tent, because the stability and strength of Israel’s future is dependent on the strength of our Jewish community, and by that I mean every facet of our community. We always have to be careful about who we include and exclude.”

When the vote was announced at the meeting, J Street U’s Mazor wasn’t surprised.

“We were ready for it,” he said. “But it was very emotional because of the things that were said, like ‘We can’t trust you.’ To exclude people from the conversation doesn’t seem to be productive.”

Added Zimmerman, “It was hard listening to a group of people who don’t want us to be part of this community. We are going to continue … but I think it is a pretty serious blow that we were rejected from being part of the established community.”

Lewis said the vote does not deny individual J Street U members from participating in JSU activities or Jewish life on campus. He said, however, that Berkeley’s umbrella Jewish student group has a right to establish guidelines that “conform to a basic idea of being pro-Israel.”

“There’s a lot of room for criticism of [Israeli] policy,” Lewis said. “That’s a good thing. People will have a wide variety of criticisms. But it’s a matter of how and why you criticize.”


I have a Jewish daughter in 12th grade, which means one thing: college applications. The fact that she is applying is a given; my husband and I have followed the long-standing Jewish tradition of brainwashing our children into believing that college is nothing more than grades 13 though 16. But what is a little shocking is that hours of searching Web sites like, reading the tome Fiske Guide to Colleges and meeting with college counselors has arrived when it seems like just yesterday I was picking stale Cheerios out of her car seat.

Something else is surprising as well. At no time during our many discussions about many different schools has the question arisen of whether any given college on her wish list is particularly, well, Jewish.

I think this would be strange regardless of where she attended high school, but it is particularly odd because she is happily attending New Community Jewish High School. Her college counselor asked her during her junior year whether attending a college with a large Jewish student body was important to her, and she replied, “Not really.”

Now that the ticking of the biological clock has been replaced by the ticking of the Daughter Leaving for College Clock, the question of whether the college she ultimately chooses has a decent-size Jewish population and/or some center for Jewish involvement on campus has become more significant, at least to me.

I believe, rightly or wrongly, that sending a Jewish kid to a school with a bunch of other Jewish kids will make the awkward new-friend-making process easier. I picture my daughter employing her highly honed Jewdar,  approaching another Jewish girl and saying sweetly, “Hi, I’m from Los Angeles, and I don’t know a soul at this school.” To which the other girl (who will ultimately be her backpack-through-Europe companion, her study partner and her maid of honor at her wedding) will respond, “I’m a Jewish girl from Westchester County, N.Y. Let me introduce you to a bunch of other menschie Jewish kids from my dorm and we can hang out, and then we can all call our mothers.”

I’m far from the first parent to think that sending her kid to a college with a decent-size Jewish population might be a good idea. Last week, I received my quarterly Reform Judaism magazine and it had a section called “Insider’s Guide to College Life.” Inside was a carefully tabulated list of 60 private and public universities ranked in order of their overall Jewish student populations in terms of absolute numbers and student body percentages.

In addition to the statistical breakdown of Jewish student bodies, the magazine contained several general articles about choosing a college. An article titled “Getting In: What the Experts Say” had a Q-and-A with admissions experts. One of the questions, which I suspect was “written” by a fictionalized student reader of Reform Judaism magazine, was: What is the secret to finding the right school for me? And how can I determine if the student body and faculty will be welcoming to me as a Jew, in general?

Wendy Kahn, of Wendy Kahn College Consulting, responded: “To find out if a school has a strong Jewish community, visit the Hillel or another Jewish student organization and talk with student leaders and professional staff. Ask about what matters to you. Here are a few suggestions: How many Jewish undergrads are there? Some Jewish community professionals say that a 10 percent Jewish campus population is about the beginning point of viability for a Jewish student to find ‘community.’ How many students are active at Hillel? What programs does Hillel have? Are there Jewish fraternities and/or sororities?”

I decided to discuss my theory that a Jewish kid would have an easier time acclimating to college if there was a significant Jewish presence on campus with someone who has experience in the matter: Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills.

Every year, Rabbi Vogel takes a college tour to connect with students whose families are temple members. “Some kids will naturally direct themselves toward Jewish involvement,” he said, “but the ones who won’t are the ones you need to worry about. Jewish organizations become important just in case those kids decide at some point that they want to get involved.” College, he noted, is “a natural time for exploration.”

Rabbi Vogel raised another good point. He explained that many of the kids who grew up in the heavily Jewish West Valley don’t understand the importance yet of their Jewish friendships. Yet, he has observed that once Jewish kids arrive on large college campuses, many of them gravitate toward Jewish fraternities and sororities that have a “Jewish soul” and create a Jewish friendship circle.

This confirms what my friends who have already sent their children off to college have observed. One noted, “My daughter has only been in school (University of Wisconsin, Jewish student population 13 percent) for a month, but she already has been to two Shabbat dinners through Hillel. Ironically, she would never go to a Shabbat service or attend a synagogue Shabbat dinner when she lived at home. I think it has been her way to make connections.”

Another friend noted that her daughter, a Calabasas High alum and now a junior at the University of Michigan (Jewish student population 18 percent) joined a Jewish sorority and now rents a house with a bunch of other Jewish girls.

“Coming out of a predominantly Jewish area, these kids are very at ease with being Jewish,” my friend said, “and being Jewish has been made very easy — public schools are closed on the High Holy Days, and all of their friends went to religious school.

“So when they go to college, one of the hardest things, and the thing that causes the most stress, is wondering, ‘Where am I going to fit in?’ When there is a Jewish community at the college, you know there will be a place that you are going to fit it. It is an immediate niche for you.”

After gathering this much evidence to support my argument that my daughter should take note of whether a particular school has a few other Jewish students before applying, I revisited the issue with her. We were driving home from dinner and I asked her and her Calabasas High friend if they would be interested in going to a college where there were hardly any other Jewish students.

Her friend responded that she would definitely want to go to a college where there were lots of Jewish kids because she thought that would make her feel more comfortable.

My daughter?

“I think that if I had a group of 15 friends and two or three were Jewish, that would be great,” she said.

Hmmm … three out of 15? That’s 20 percent. More than viable.

In summer, Jewish studies flowers in Eastern Europe

In Austria and Poland recently, I couldn’t seem to get away from students, scholars and just plain interested folks who were taking or teaching summer programs in Jewish studies.

I myself spoke at a three-day “summer academy” in Vienna where more than 100 members of the general public turned up for lectures by international experts on Eastern European Jewish history.

In both Vienna and Krakow, I met informally with some of the 71 teachers from Jewish and public schools in North America and Israel attending a nine-day summer academy of lectures, travel and workshops organized by the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation.

The programs reflected the remarkable resurgence of both Jewish informal learning and academic studies that has taken place in Europe since the fall of communism. This process has opened up opportunities and fields of scholarship to new generations of students and researchers. It also has gone some way toward repairing the damage wrought by the Holocaust.

About 750 institutions of European Jewish learning were “lost forever” in the war, according to the European Association of Jewish Studies, with many cities experiencing a “near total devastation of their Jewish studies resources.” In postwar communist Europe, teaching and research in Jewish and Holocaust studies was virtually taboo.

The pace of reconstruction has varied from country to country. But today the European Association of Jewish Studies lists nearly 450 academic institutions and universities in two dozen European countries where Jewish studies courses or classes are taught. Many other programs are associated with non-academic bodies.

Summer programs have a special place in this scheme, as they often are geared specifically to visiting foreign participants. Some of them, such as the 5-year-old Leo Baeck Summer University at Humboldt Unviersity in Berlin, are organized in partnership with North American or Israeli institutions.

The benefits of study abroad programs are well known: exposure to other cultures and languages, contact with new ideas, the opportunity to forge international connections.

Looking back, my own days on a university study abroad program in Europe set the course of my life. I spent the first semester of my senior year studying art and art history on an American university program in Rome. I returned to the States to complete my degree and graduate, but within a few months I had moved back to Europe. I have lived here ever since.

So it was revealing to meet people who had chosen to spend part of their vacations this summer delving into Jewish history or Holocaust studies—and to hear about the often-unexpected impact of such on-site experience. That was the case especially in Poland, the prewar Jewish heartland that turned into the main Nazi killing ground.

“These are seriously motivated people,” Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a professor at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, told me about the more than 20 students from the United States, Latin America, Israel and elsewhere who had enrolled in the first international Summer Academy organized by the memorial museum at the former Auschwitz death camp.

Held in July, it focused on Auschwitz and the Holocaust as well as on postwar history, Polish-German relations during the war and the educational challenges facing the Auschwitz Museum.

“You can imagine that it is physically and geographically and psychologically not easy to decide to take courses that will not only take up weekends and holiday time, but will actually be held at Auschwitz,” said Orla-Bukowska, who has taught Jewish and Holocaust courses in several summer programs in Poland.

Hailey Dilman, a Jewish studies graduate student at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was one of 10 U.S. and Canadian students who took part in the annual fellows program for graduate students offered by the Auschwitz Jewish Center. The center is an independent institution affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York and is located in Oswiecim, the town where the Auschwitz camp is sited.

The three-week fellowship combined travel to Holocaust and Jewish heritage sites with courses and archival work on Polish Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life.

Though much of the focus of her graduate and undergraduate work had been on the Holocaust, Dilman had never visited Poland or the Nazi death camps. She said that studying the impact of the Holocaust where it actually took place had been a revelation.

“It was amazing for me to learn that even though the Jews basically disappeared from Poland, they left such a strong imprint on Polish society that is still felt today,” said Dilman, who is from Toronto. “Before the trip, I theoretically knew this was so, but I had to experience it to actually learn of it.”

Elizabeth Bryant, a doctoral candidate at Florida State University, also was an Auschwitz Jewish Center fellow. Her master’s degree had focused on Auschwitz—but like Dilman, she had never visited the camp.

“Trips like this serve as a reminder that life is not always in black and white—something that is sometimes difficult to remember when studying the Holocaust,” she said. “The complexities of Polish culture serve to eradicate the notion that Poland can only be defined by its past, whether through communism or World War II.”

Bryant called her fellowship experience “life changing.”

“I do not say this lightly,” she told me. “This program impacted me more deeply than I ever could have imagined.”

And that, indeed, may have been the point.

(Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe,” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at

Education is key in a changing U.S. Jews-Israel relationship

The relationship between American and Israeli Jews is changing. For most of Israel’s history, the American Jewish community was larger, wealthier and more powerful than its “poor cousin” in the Middle East, but now the differences between the two communities have greatly narrowed. More Jews are living in Greater Tel Aviv than in Greater New York, and Israel, like the United States, is one of the world’s most developed nations.

In addition, funds from Israel now strengthen the American Jewish community through programs like Taglit-Birthright Israel. Charitable funds no longer flow exclusively in the other direction.

The political relationship between the two communities is likewise changing. Gone are the days when major American Jewish organizations, and the bulk of their members, took their cue from the government of Israel and supported its policies reflexively. Thanks to the Internet, American Jews now hear a full range of voices from Israel. As a result, the spectrum of American Jewish opinion concerning Israel increasingly mirrors the spectrum of opinion within Israel itself.

Given these and other changes, the relationship between the world’s two major Jewish communities is in need of recalibration. To this end, much attention has been paid over the past few years to improving American Jews’ understanding of Israel. In 2008-09, according to a recent Brandeis University study, some 548 courses on campuses across the United States focused on Israel, seeking to improve students’ knowledge of the subject. Centers for Israel studies on American campuses also have proliferated.

By contrast, Israelis learn almost nothing about American Jewry. Not one significant academic center for the study of American Jewish life exists in the State of Israel, and university-based courses on the American Jewish community are few and far between. At the high school level, the study of American Jewish life is equally neglected.

As a result, the understanding of American Jewish life on the part of Israelis is quite limited. They know next to nothing about the deepest issues upon which Israelis and American Jews agree and disagree. They cannot comprehend what church-state separation means and how pluralism operates in the American context. Many fail to understand their American cousins at all.

All Israelis, political leaders in particular, would benefit from knowing more about American Jewish life. The more American Jews and Israelis learn about one another, the better their future relationship will be.

Israelis, including members of Knesset, too often only look inward at Israeli society when legislating and voting on matters that ultimately impact upon American Jewry. Even if their first responsibility is to the citizens they represent and the sovereign state they serve, they would do well to consider how the American Jewish community, too, is affected by their choices.

If every measure considered by the Knesset carried a “Diaspora impact statement” (analogous to our environmental impact statements), consciousness of how Israel’s actions impact upon world Jewry would be heightened.

Six Israeli Knesset members are visiting Boston and New York as part of a program organized by Brandeis University and the Ruderman Foundation to help Israeli leaders gain new perspectives on American Jewish life and on the changing relationship between their country and the American Jewish community. They are meeting with religious figures, community leaders and private citizens.

By learning more about the American Jewish community, we hope they will come to better appreciate how their actions—such as Knesset efforts to legally define Jewishness for the purposes of marriage or aliyah, Israel’s military actions and how the Foreign Ministry reacts to democratic uprisings in the Arab world—impact upon American Jews and Jews worldwide.

Educating Israel’s political leaders about the American Jewish community should be the start of a larger effort aimed at teaching Israelis as much about American Jews as the latter learn about them.

A new day is dawning in the relationship between American Jews and Israel. The image of wealthy American Jews providing charity to their struggling Israeli cousins is fading fast. More than ever, each community now needs to understand how its interests are bound up with that of the other.

Just as American Jews are becoming better educated about Israel, the time has come for Israelis to learn more about the American Jewish community and their inextricable relationship to it.

(Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and chief historian of the National Museum of American Jewish History. Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which has offices in Boston and Rehovot, Israel.)

Jewish education event in Paris is overbooked

Some 6,000 young Jewish leaders applied for slightly more than 1,000 spots at a European education and youth assembly to be held in Paris.

Those who lost reserved spots at next week’s conference will be the first invited to the next event of the European Council of Jewish Communities, according to a statement by the organization.

The participants from across Europe will converge on Disneyland Paris April 3-4 for the ECJC’s inaugural Jewish Education and Youth General Assembly.

Overbooking led to the cancellation of three filled buses and the withdrawal of invitations to several communities.

“The demand for the GA was unbelievably high,” Tomer Orni, ECJC’s executive vice president, told JTA in a telephone interview. This “reflects the indubitable thirst of communities and individuals in Europe to connect and engage with exciting content, and gear up their structures and activities.”

The broad-ranging general assembly will tackle such issues as European Jewish identity, the role of social media, Jews and the environment, and how to stand up to anti-Zionism.

The fee of 50 euro, or $71, for transportation, accommodations and kosher food was very attractive, according to a young Jewish leader in Italy who was asked to recruit 50 participants. Before he could, the offer was withdrawn due to overbooking, he told JTA. Jews from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Hungary reported cancellations of paid registrations. Though rooms were later found for them, they were informed that they would have to arrange their own transportation.

The ECJC website says those who lost their places at the GA would be the first in line to attend the next event.

Drop charges against 'Irvine 11,' Jewish faculty urges

Thirty University of California Jewish studies faculty members asked the Orange County district attorney to drop criminal charges against 11 Muslim students.

The faculty members, from seven University of California campuses, are the second Jewish group to come out in support of the students, who have been charged with disrupting a February 2010 speech by Israeli U.S. Ambassador Michael Oren at the University of California, Irvine. The Jewish Voice for Peace organization also supports dropping charges against the students.

The Simon Wiesenthal Center and the Zionist Organization of America are among the Jewish groups supporting prosecution of the nine UC Irvine and two UC Riverside students.

In a March 3 letter, the 30 members of Jewish studies departments said they disagreed with the students’ actions, but do not believe “such peaceful protest” should be criminally prosecuted. They also noted that the students and the Muslim Student Union already have been punished by the University of California, Irvine, and called those sanctions “sufficient.”

Those who signed the letter include David Biale, Jewish history professor at UC Davis; Daniel Boyarin, Talmud professor at UC Berkeley; Deborah Hertz, history professor at UC San Diego; and David Myers, history department chair at UCLA.

During Oren’s Feb. 8, 2010 speech, the 11 defendants stood one by one and shouted at the ambassador, calling him a “mass murderer” and a “war criminal,” among other insults. The disruptions, organized to protest Israeli actions in Gaza, prompted Oren to walk off the stage twice.

Arraignment is set for March 11 in Santa Ana, Calif.