Finding a Role for Woznica

David Woznica was anything but a model Hebrew school student. At Congregation Adat Ari El in North Hollywood, his exasperated teachers often made him sit alone on "the bench" as punishment for interrupting them with jokes and whispers.

Fast forward 35 years. On a recent Friday night, Rabbi David Woznica, the 48-year-old executive vice president for Jewish affairs at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, returned to Adat Ari El, for the first time in decades, to deliver a speech before a sold-out audience of 250 on how to feel the presence of God by living as a committed Jew. His voice rising, he admonished the crowd to invite a lonely Holocaust survivor over for dinner, to help those less fortunate and to pray for their children on Shabbat.

"You don’t need a Ph.D. in Judaism or even know an alef from a bet," Woznica said. "All you have to do is put your hands on their heads and touch their souls with yours. Think of that. Think of how easy that is, yet how meaningful it is. They will remember it forever."

With his days of Jewish rebellion long behind him, Woznica has won a legion of devotees with his passion for Judaism. Since returning to Southern California in mid-2001, Woznica has spent the past two years at The Federation putting together lectures and courses. With the fervor of a missionary, he sees his role as nothing less than to spread the word about the beauty of Judaism and to help Jews see their religion’s relevance to their daily lives.

From 1991 to 2001, Woznica served as director of the Bronfman Center for Jewish Life at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, where he oversaw thousands of hours of adult Jewish education and 35 high-profile lectures per year.

The rabbi’s work has taken him across the globe. Over the years, he has talked about God with former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Nobel Prize-winner Elie Wiesel, and moderated discussions with Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, Rabbi Harold Kushner and author Amos Oz, among others. He recently interviewed presidential candidate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and his wife, Hadassah, discussing politics, religion and social issues. C-SPAN aired the event.

"I like him as a person and as a rabbi to his students," Wiesel told The Journal. "Whatever he does, he does with all his heart and soul. He speaks well, understands well. He possesses all the qualities a good rabbi has."

Plaudits like those led Federation President John Fishel and former Chairman Todd Morgan to aggressively pursue Woznica, beginning in 2000, for a post at The Federation. The decision to hire him has earned kudos along with some criticism. Woznica’s ability to touch people has generated enthusiasm among many local Jews. However, a few observers wonder whether those talents are being put to satisfactory use. They question how Woznica — hired at a six-figure salary less than six months before the organization laid off several employees for budgetary reasons — has earned his keep, especially since he has worked under the radar of many Southland Jews, with the exception of donors and Federation employees.

"It is not apparent to me that The Federation, on any level, has a strategy for using him as a speaker, strategizer, educator, spiritual force or inspirer in any major, public way," said Gerald Bubis, a former Federation vice president and board member. "His talents are underutilized, and, as a result, I think the community is undeserved."

Indeed, The Federation has just put together a special committee to come up with ways to find "more opportunities for putting him in front of people," said Morgan, now a Federation board member.

Fishel said his organization had hoped to replicate the 92nd Street Y’s success when it brought Woznica on. Initially, The Federation had wanted to open a community center on a property adjacent to the now defunct Bay Cities Jewish Community Center (JCC). There, Woznica could have offered classes and sponsored high-profile talks as he did in New York, Fishel said. But the JCC’s financial problems and the soft economy forced The Federation to delay those plans indefinitely. Also, crises in Israel and Argentina demanded the organization’s attention, which meant Woznica "was a little slow to get traction at first," Fishel added.

Nonetheless, Fishel said that he thought Woznica is a valuable addition to The Federation, and plans to renew his contract. One idea bandied about is for the rabbi to hold events at the West Valley JCC in West Hills or the Westside JCC on Olympic Boulevard on a regular basis in the near future.

"I’d like to bring him to the masses in a thoughtful way, and am still jazzed about the prospect of having something parallel to what the 92nd Street Y does," Fishel said. "I think if you can get people to think Judaically and see Judaism in their lives, they’re going to see the importance of Federation and other Jewish organizations."

One benefit of such connections could be increased donations to The Federation, which raises money to fund 15 recipient organizations, including Jewish Vocational Service, Jewish Family Service and Jewish Big Brothers/Big Sisters. For the past decade, giving to The Federation’s Annual Campaign has been relatively flat, hovering around $40 million. Fishel and others hope that an offshoot of Woznica’s heightened visibility could spark a flow of dollars into the organization’s coffers from enthusiastic, re-engaged Jews.

It worked in New York. Daniel R. Kaplan, former president and chairman of the 92nd Street Y, said Woznica’s work helped attract new donors to the organization, where 1,200 people regularly attend the rabbi’s High Holiday services.

"David would travel and lecture everywhere, bringing joy and increasing the Y’s image," Kaplan said. "Fundraising is partly image, and David certainly enhanced our image. No question about that."

One common question among critics is why The Federation hired Woznica when it already employs Rabbi Mark Diamond, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. They ask: Why does the organization need two rabbis?

Fishel said both men make important — but different — contributions. Diamond helps with interfaith activities and works with area rabbis in rabbinical associations. Woznica infuses The Federation and the community with Jewish values.

To help boost The Federation’s profile, Woznica said he has worked tirelessly since coming on board. In one week in early May, he held a study session on the Ten Commandments with young attorneys and gave four speeches, including one at UCLA for Israel Independence Day. He has also given a series of lectures in the Conejo Valley about what makes Judaism beautiful and worth perpetuating; he has overseen a 10-week course on Jewish leaders, including Moses, and Jewish ethics for The Federation women’s lay leadership; and he held a dialogue with Weisel in February at a Federation dinner for large donors. "I want to reach Jews across the board," he said.

Woznica said he hoped to hold more high-profile dialogues here with major public figures, as he did in New York. He also wants to offer a course for newlyweds on Jewish insights on marriage, parenting and family.

"I feel so busy and torn in so many directions but in a good way," he said in an interview at his book-lined office. "I always feel I can do more, and I would hope I can make as significant a contribution to the L.A. Federation as I did to the 92nd Street Y."

Woznica grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Grant High School in 1973. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA. It was around this time that future author and radio talk show host Dennis Prager entered his life, exposing the future rabbi to the power and pleasure of Judaism, Woznica said.

Prager, then director of the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in Simi Valley, challenged him to think about the religion, its mission and its responses to contemporary moral and spiritual questions. Inspired by Prager and others, Judaism became an integral part of Woznica’s life, informing his decisions, actions and world view.

"I saw immediately in him this rare combination of conscientiousness, goodness and a fine mind," Prager said.

Woznica later enrolled in the rabbinical program at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. In 1987, he headed east to study at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York, which ordained him in 1990.

Woznica said his love of Judaism and desire to share its beauty led him to the rabbinate. As the son of a Holocaust survivor, though, he conceded other forces might have also played a role.

"Is the Shoah part of my motivation for being Jewish? Yes," he said. "Why? Because other people suffered so much for the principle I have the privilege of living."

In 1990, Woznica, fresh out of HUC-JIR, landed a coveted position running a Jewish outreach program at the 92nd Street Y. Kaplan said that his earnestness, decency and knowledge so impressed executives that they promoted him one year later to head the newly created Bronfman Center. Despite Woznica’s relative inexperience, he beat out 11 highly qualified candidates for the position, Kaplan added.

Under Woznica, Jewish education flourished at the 92nd Street Y and a cavalcade of major religious and political figures dropped by to give speeches. The rabbi, his wife, Beverly, and their two young sons were quite happy in New York. Woznica found the city’s intellectual environment stimulating and enjoyed his work. Beverly Woznica, a fundraiser, worked as director of the Wall Street division at UJA-Federation of New York. Under her directorship, the division grew from $20 million to $30 million in five years.

So when Fishel and Morgan began pursuing him, Woznica was in no hurry to leave the Big Apple. But after a year of wooing, he eventually took the job at The Federation. Woznica said he came to that decision, because he thought he could have a big impact. He also wanted his children to be close to their surviving grandparents.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean and founder of the Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said Woznica should successfully transplant some of that New York magic to the Southland.

"The Jewish community and the L.A. Federation are very lucky to have a person like him," said Hier, who spoke at the 92nd Street Y during Woznica’s tenure. "He reaches out to everyone in the community, and his agenda is to foster understanding and unity among Jews. He’s very effective at it."

Being Greene

Brian Greene thinks of himself as a product of the University of Judaism (UJ).

Since 1983, when he left his native Vancouver to pursue a UJ undergraduate degree, he has largely remained connected to the university, as a student first and then as a faculty member in the school of education. In 1994, he was named executive director of Camp Ramah in California, which operates under UJ auspices.

But his UJ days are now behind him. Greene has moved to Washington, D.C., where he’s taken over the reins of the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization (BBYO).

Founded in 1924, BBYO is America’s oldest and largest Jewish youth organization, offering social activities, summer camps and Israel trips to some 20,000 high school students from across the Jewish spectrum. It also has branches in England, France, Eastern Europe, Israel and Australia.

Though Greene admits that BBYO has lagged in popularity in recent years, he sees the group as poised for growth. His appointment comes as BBYO is in the process of gaining autonomy from B’nai Brith International, in the same way that Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League have separated from this same parent organization in recent years. As international director, Greene reports to a new governing board entirely focused on BBYO concerns.

Under Greene’s leadership, Camp Ramah has offered year-round programming, including retreats and specialty weekends. But the heart of the operation has always been Ramah’s summer camp. Closely affiliated with the Conservative movement, it accommodates close to 1,300 children each summer, along with a staff of 225, in an environment that combines outdoor fun with prayer and Jewish learning. Ramah veterans speak of the camp’s warm familial atmosphere, which encourages both campers and staff to return year after year.

Though well-aware of what he leaves behind, Greene said welcomes the challenge of working on the national and international level. He’s particularly intrigued by the fact that BBYO is committed to a nondenominational approach:

“It really is all about klal Yisrael [the unity of the people of Israel],” Greene said, noting that “almost 50 percent of Jewish teenagers today have no Jewish connection in their lives. BBYO is a very welcoming organization for a Jewish teenager who has very little knowledge or background.”

It has long served a particularly vital role in parts of the country where the Jewish population is small. Greene would like to increase its appeal in cities where denominational youth groups offer stiff competition.

Given that he considers himself a Jewish educator, as well as an administrative expert, Greene hopes to bolster the Judaic content in BBYO social activities. At the same time, he plans to continue the BBYO mandate of providing “a chance for Jewish teens to build networks, connect to each other and develop Jewish leadership skills.” Youth-led activities have always been a BBYO tradition, and many of today’s Jewish leaders first discovered their calling while planning BBYO events.

Jake Farber, chairman of the board at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, headed the Camp Ramah board during Greene’s tenure. Farber praises Greene’s organizational skills, which have helped him handle both a major Ramah construction project, and the recent huge surge in Ramah’s popularity. This past fall, only a week after applications were sent out for summer 2002, nearly every slot was filled.

“It’s a great loss for us, but a great opportunity for him,” Farber said.

What’s the Jewish Stake in LAUSD?

Helen Burnstein, the former president of the United Teachers of Los Angles, used to argue, “Teachers want what students need.” Many Jewish educators and parents feel the same way about Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). “Jews want what LAUSD needs.” Educational excellence, higher standards, and more enrichment activities have become the mantras of educational reformers.

But de facto segregation seems to have returned to LAUSD despite court- ordered busing, and the Belmont and South Gate fiscal disasters have done little to alleviate the widespread perception that the opaque complexity of LAUSD’s bureaucratic structures are wasteful, counter-productive, and scandalous.

Board of Education members Valerie Fields and David Tokofsky, along with other board members, have been shaking up LAUSD, hiring a new interim superintendent, announcing bold programs and discussing splitting LAUSD into 11 subdistricts.

Amidst the chaos and numerous educational disappointments inside LAUSD, an awkward question has re-emerged. “What’s the Jewish stake in LAUSD?”

LAUSD, established in 1855, remains the second largest school district in the nation, serving over 680,000 students and employing approximately 36,521 certificated personnel as regular kindergarten through 12th grade teachers. In addition, the district employs 27,728 non-teaching personnel, totaling more than 64,249 regular employees. The $7.5 billion dollar educational institution also stretches over 708 sq. miles.

“The monster is too big,” says Jayne Murphy Shapiro, a candidate for 41st Assembly seat and founder of KIDS SAFE, representing the conventional wisdom of many Jewish residents in the San Fernando Valley. “Smaller is better.” Shapiro, a 23 year Valley resident, has made educational reform and breaking LAUSD into smaller, more manageable districts a cornerstone of her candidacy.

But a breakup of LAUSD could be seen as another suburban gesture of noncommitment to Los Angeles inner-city residents. Whether by accident or design, the sharp social and geographical separations seem likely to increase. Educational and social concerns seem to be gaining the upper hand over civic pride in a strong urban school district.

Over the last 40 years, LAUSD has experienced a huge demographic shift. The latest figures show that only 10 percent of LAUSD students are white. Further, approximately 65 percent of students are Hispanic and 20 percent of students do not speak English in their home.

If Los Angeles County has become the “new Ellis Island,” then LAUSD has become the major force for introducing immigrants to American society. The focus on a multicultural curriculum and bilingual education, often grounded in racial classifications, might have increased the alienation of some Jewish families, say observers

“People don’t understand the classroom situation,” sighed a Jewish high school social studies teacher with 14 years experience with LAUSD school in a poor neighborhood. “We’ve got 15-year-old kids who come here speaking no English from rural Mexico who haven’t gone to school in years. Juan might read at the third-grade level by his senior year, but that’s up from zero. We’ve helped Juan — and yes, he’s below the national grade level. Shock, shock.”

A Teacher’s Guide to Parents

What do Jewish educators think about Jewishparents? To get the inside scoop, I turned to “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” It’s a recent co-venture by Joel Grishaver and Dr.Ron Wolfson, both veteran teachers and observers of the Jewisheducational scene. The irrepressible Grishaver, who publisheshundreds of books through his Torah Aura Productions, has designed achatty little volume that made me feel I was eavesdropping onconversations in the faculty lounge. Though most of the text is byGrishaver with contributions by Wolfson, the book is chockful ofinput (lesson plans, suggestions, e-mailed quibbles) from scores ofteachers nationwide who’ve played a part in its development.

The starting point is the assumption thateducators and parents need to join forces to achieve their mutualgoal of imparting Jewish knowledge to the younger generation. AsGrishaver tells his readers, “You may not be Mr. Chips, the world’smost beloved teacher. They may not be Tevye and Golda, quintessentialauthentic parents, oozing Judaism with every step. But, you need eachother. This book is a guide to finding that cooperation andunderstanding.”

Grishaver makes clear that good parent-teachercollaboration does not come about automatically. In fact, manyreligious school and day school teachers dread their encounters withthe parents of their pupils. In an opening chapter entitled “ParentsAre Not the Enemy,” Grishaver carefully explains why Jewish parentscan be so prickly in one-on-one sessions with their child’s teacher.Their attitude stems largely from their own ambivalence about thevalue of Jewish education.

On the one hand, parents demand a lot from theirchild’s Jewish studies. In an increasingly complicated world, they’relooking to Judaism to provide what Grishaver calls “a shared bond, afamily process — A RITUAL — which against all the odds, can holdtheir family together and give their children the stability neededtobuild a good life.” On the other hand, parents themselves are oftenproducts of a hit-or-miss Jewish education that stopped abruptly atage 13. (“When it comes totheir Jewishness, most Jewish adults arestill teenagers — and just barely teenagers at that.”) Thisexperience has left them with memories of dreary classrooms, and hasinstilled in them a bitter sense of their own religious inadequacies.Parents want their children to be proudly Jewish, and they hope thatJudaism will magically help their kids steer clear of life’spitfalls. But these adults — so frequently overachievers in theirprofessional lives — remain defensive about their own lack ofsuccess as educated Jews.

Still, even the most ambivalent parent who sendshis or her child to religious school has made a commitment that ahuge number of Jewish parents no longer choose to make. (Someresearchers believe that less than 50 percent of today’s Jewish kidsreceive any substantive Jewish education at all.) Grishaver andcompany argue that the trick is to involve the parent in the child’seducation in a positive, unthreatening way that increases theparent’s own body of Jewish knowledge. The book’s epigraph comes fromMordecai Kaplan: “To educate the child without educating andinvolving the parents and the entire family can be compared toheating a house while leaving the window open.”

But teachers who try reaching out to parentsthrough family education days and family homework assignments shouldrecognize there are pitfalls that must be avoided. It’s never safe toassume that a child’s mom and dad are married to one another, northat both partners in a marriage are Jewish. Parents may not readHebrew; they may be in the dark about even the most commonplaceJewish rituals. Though there’s much to be gained by bringing parentsand children together for a special learning experience, it’s wise toavoid educational games that are highly competitive in nature. One ofGrishaver’s collaborators, educator Sharon Halper, bluntly warnsteachers to “be careful with competition. Parents do not needdemonstrations of what they do not know!”

Given all this, it’s remarkable that more teachersdon’t throw in the towel. Yet some of the best minds in Jewishcommunities across the nation have dedicated themselves to makingJewish education work. This book is filled with innovative ideasabout how to go beyond “shabbat-in-a-sack” and the standardmodel-seder where the kids perform and the parents watch. It’s clearthat the educators cited by Grishaver feel deeply about theimportance of what they’re doing. The extent to which they care andthe energy they put into developing new approaches may come as asurprise to parents, who tend to regard religious school instructorsas well-meaning but basically ill-equipped amateurs.

Ron Wolfson tells me this little book has been abest seller among educators. He and Grishaver are discussing acompanion volume, a work intended for Jewish parents that gives thelowdown on Jewish teachers. The theme? How to get the best out ofyour child’s Jewish education. Until that book sees print, parentswho seek a better understanding of their children’s teachers — andof themselves — will find much to ponder in “Jewish Parents: ATeacher’s Guide.” If nothing else, it will help them regard Jewisheducators with new respect.

Since I began writing this column, I have beenimpressed with the number of experimental programs being launched inour local Jewish classrooms. The Journal would like to spotlight someof these exciting new programs. Schools that are moving beyondbusiness-as-usual are welcome to contact me with news of theirspecial events. Mailings should be sent to me in care of the Journal;I can also be reached via e-mail at

Beverly Gray writes about education from SantaMonica.

All rights reserved by author.

Families, Then and Now

Joel Grishaver.

The Bible is rich in stories of passion, plagues, miracles and betrayals, but what about good parenting?

“In truth, there is no good fathering in the Bible,” said author and Jewish educator Joel Grishaver.

Grishaver, who was asked by the Skirball Cultural Center to create a Father’s Day workshop centered around the topic, said that in the Bible, “the focus is much more on husbands and wives, or the relationships among brothers. Childhood is not the focus. People go from birth to adulthood in one sentence.”

So, instead, Grishaver, the creative director of Torah Aura Productions and a popular speaker on the family-education circuit, has created “Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages.” The June 15 workshop will be a lively and provocative mix of role-playing, art, debate, discussion of Jewish texts and, ultimately, an exploration of family issues closer to home.

Grishaver is an accessible and witty storyteller, adept at weaving traditional Jewish sources into contemporary discussions. In conversation, he illustrates points with references to everything from Rashi to Rod Serling, Moses to Robert Mapplethorpe. His facility with pop culture, combined with an unflagging enthusiasm for Torah study, makes him a provocative discussion leader for second-graders and seniors alike.

One segment of his Skirball workshop will be a “paper-tear midrash,” a concept first developed by Jo Milgrom. Grishaver presents a story, a midrash that may deal with anger and forgiveness, for example. After discussing any parallels to their own experience, family members then create their own visual midrash, using torn paper as the medium.

“Tearing the paper is a way to free people from the constraints of worrying about whether they can draw or not,” Grishaver said.

Another segment will be devoted to what he calls “biblio-drama,” a form of role-playing first developed by Peter Pitzele. To spark discussion, Grishaver will present several stories that highlight the emotions, ethical conflicts and risks faced by biblical parents. Moses’ parents, Amram and Yocheved, for example, had to wrestle with the decision of whether or not to place their endangered male infant in a basket hidden among the reeds in order to save him. Later, an adult Moses faced the dilemma of whether to bring his family to Egypt or to send them home. Jethro was charged with the task of taking care of his own daughter as well as his grandchildren — Moses’ offspring.

“With biblio-drama, people voice the feelings of these characters in sort of a self-created midrash, and, obviously, several layers of thought and feeling emerge during discussion,” Grishaver said.

Another session of the two-hour workshop is “family beit din,” a sort of mock court in which family members are separated and placed into two or three groups that serve as tribunals for cases presented to them by Grishaver. The scenarios are thoroughly modern. The sources he cites are from centuries ago. The essential conflicts are timeless.

A case in point: Mom and Dad are divorced but have good custody arrangements. Both, however, want the child for an upcoming vacation that each is planning, respectively. The child is asked to choose between them. What to do?

A similar scenario was pondered by Jewish sages ages ago, Grishaver explained, in the form of this question: Mom and Dad both ask for a glass of water. Who should the child serve first?

“In the Talmud,” Grishaver said, “the conclusion is drawn that the child should serve Dad, since, anyway, it’s Mom’s obligation to serve Dad too. These were, after all, pre-feminist times.

“In the ‘Shulchan Aruch,’ it’s decided that the child should serve whomever s/he chooses. It’s the 16th-century commentator Marashal who comes up with a pretty enlightened response. The child should put the glass of water on the table and let the parents work it out between them. In essence, Marashal concludes that it’s an unfair question to ask kids. It’s the parents who should decide.”

The Father’s Day workshop dovetails with the publication of Grishaver’s most recent book, “The Bonding of Isaac,” a collection of short fiction and essays about gender’s connection to spirituality. He described the book’s central theme as an exploration “of the dysfunctional myth of the functional family.” Using Torah as his framework, he makes the case that conflict is organic to family units, not some aberrant sign of failure.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Me — Fathering Through the Ages will be held from 2 to 4 p.m., on Sunday, June 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center. It’s free with museum admission and designed for participants 7 and up. Space is limited to 50 people. Advance registration is recommended. Call (310) 440-4647.

“The Bonding of Isaac” (Alef Design Group, $21.95) may be ordered by calling (800) 845-0662.